- The moral economists and the critique of capitalism Katrina Navickas, London Review of Books
- Can you step in the same river twice? David Egan, Aeon
- Don’t forget about the indigenous populations Vincent Geloso, NOL
- Anthropology and the problem of the archives Morgan Greeen, JHIBlog
- Eastern Europe’s Orthodox Christians are now loathe to condemn communism Bruce Clark, Erasmus
- Claude Lévi-Strauss and the French aversion to ethnographic fieldwork Patrick Wilckin, Times Literary Supplement
- Sainthood in the Buddhist and Hindu realms of yesteryear John Butler, Asian Review of Books
- The crisis in American public education Rafi Eis, National Affairs
- The extraterrestrial next door Adam Hadhazy, Space.com
- Reporting reports: colonial medical institutions Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals
- The best way to defeat totalitarianism? Treat it as a joke Anna Aslanyan, Spectator
- Bureaucrats in the Defense Department: An ethnography Jonathan Wong, War on the Rocks
I just spent another two weeks in Mexico, in Puerto Vallarta to be specific, a town pretty much invented by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. (See the movie “Night of the Iguana.”) The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I like Mexicans. I may have to repeat myself here.
Mexican cities are clean because people sweep in front of the their doors every morning without being told. Everybody there works or is seeking hard to work. Everybody is polite and friendly. One exception: an older taxi driver showed some discrete ill humor with me. I had mistakenly given him 15 cents (American) for a tip. That’s it. Every other interaction I had was gracious or better. (It’s true that my Spanish is good and that I was accompanied most of the time by my adorable 8 year-old granddaughter modeling a broad-brim straw hat.)
Every time I am in Mexico, I notice something new. This time, I was there during the summer vacation period and Mexicans from the US were numerous and very visible. They come to Mexico to kiss old grandpa and grandma, in one case, to get married, and to a large extent, for a vacation, like everyone else. They tend to be loud and better dressed than the locals. They are brisk consumers who buy their children the best beach equipment and all the tours available, like new consumers often do. Many are garrulous and strike up a conversation with strangers easily. They know their place in the sun. I may be dreaming but I think there is something distinctively American about them.
I also bumped into a surprisingly large number of “returnees for good,” including several who got stuck on the southern side of the southern border. Many more lived in the US (legally or not, we don’t often talked about that), made their pile, and took their savings and deliberately started life anew in the old country. One bought two taxis, several built houses, another acquired a ranch where some of his less urbanized relatives live and make a living. He mentioned cows, of course, but also horses. There is a whole program of upward mobility in the simple word “horses.” Unless you have a dude ranch (unknown in Mexico, I think), horses are only for recreation. Manuel, back from short-order cooking in Los Angeles, can even afford to have his children ride. All those brief Mexican acquaintances speak well of the US; they are proud of their stay in this country but they are happy to be back in Mexico for good. In 2009, my co-author Sergey Nikiforov and I had already stated about Mexican immigrants that Mexicans, by and large, would rather live in Mexico. (“If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely.” [pdf])
Returnees play all kinds of bridge roles where their American experience is useful. The main “client relations specialist” in my hotel was a 23 year-old guy who had been brought up (illegally) in Colorado. Of course, his English is perfect. Soon, he will open his own business, I think.
I don’t want to give the impression that the returnees’ fate is merely to serve the needs of American tourists and visitors. It seems to me that, like many bilingual people who have lived in more than one country, they are naturally cosmopolitan types who are useful in many non-domestic business situations. (I have modest qualifications to pass judgment here because I taught international business at an elementary level for 25 years. I also worked as a consultant in that field for several years.)
The average literate Mexican is an avid student of Americana. With the help of returnee relatives, he may actually excel there. Everyone below 30 in Mexico is studying English. I have said it before: in a few years, we will be begging them to come back.
Surprisingly little talk about “the wall.” Mexicans have a sense of humor. Of course, I, myself, believe that Pres. Trump will succeed. He will build a solar electricity-producing wall, sell the electricity to Mexicans at low cost (thus making them pay for the wall) and they will thank him!
I was on that free diving and fishing trip through Algeria I have written about before. The French, who had seemingly deeply colonized the country, had been gone for a few years. They had left behind their language and many buildings in the big cities and in some other, fertile parts of Algeria. In remote areas though, it was almost as if they had never been there. I was in one of those areas with my then-future-ex-wife (“TFEW”) in our VW camping bus.
It was in the east, in Kabylia, in a small town squeezed between the mountains and the sea. There was a tiny harbor protected by a tiny breakwater that sheltered four or five boats. There was also a café a hundred yards away. A big rock with steep sides emerged within swimming distance of the harbor. The town was a spear fisherman’s dream as well as a vacationer’s dream. It was the kind of place that travel agencies use to arouse you on TV in the winter and never, never deliver.
When we arrived, in the middle of a hot afternoon, there was no human being in sight; even the café was empty. I was an instinctive believer in the adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission even before I heard it spoken. So, we parked at the harbor and had our cheese, bread, and figs lunch. I prepared instant coffee on the stove. I thought I was giving whatever authorities might exist in the town ample time to chase us off if they wished. Nobody came.
Toward evening, I walked to the café where four or five men were sitting and talking quietly. I said Hello in French and they replied in the same language. I could read the curiosity in their eyes but they were too polite to inquire. So, I ordered some tea and explained briefly what I was doing in Algeria. This interested them. Being a fisherman works everywhere as an introduction. Everyone knows what fishing is (unlike “touring,” for example). Every man either is a fisherman or wishes he were. Or has a brother-in-law who is a fisherman. One of the men volunteered that the café served wine. I ordered a glass for myself and offered to treat the men. Only one accepted.
My companion and I has a small dinner under the light of an oil lamp and went to sleep in the back of the bus. In the morning, I quickly located a bakery by smell. There was hot fresh bread. (Good bread is an undeniable gift of French colonialism.) After breakfast; I cinched on a light weight belt and grabbed my speargun; I put on my mask and snorkel and my flippers. I entered the clear water of the harbor and swam to the offshore rock. The sea was bountiful. There were groupers there that did not even know I was a predator and various edible fish that seemed to only have Arabic names. (If you don’t believe me, I have a picture.)
The location was so idyllic that we lingered on. In truth, we didn’t even have anyplace to go in a hurry anyway. We ate fresh fish at every meal, with fresh bread and tomatoes, plus some fruits. There were no authorities. Only the village kids came to visit. They were sweet and full of good questions. We gave them fish. I had become almost an old-timer at the café. One of the guys there told me his name was Pierre. He was the same guy who had accepted a glass of wine the first day; I should have known. I never got the story of why he had stayed behind after all the other French left. Maybe, there was a woman involved. Or, he had no relatives in France. Asking would have been pushy
One morning, early, two older children with solemn expressions came by with a message. There was going to be a wedding the next day and we were invited. We were both flattered and intrigued. The TFEW immediately went into a flurry of activity looking for a suitable present for the bride. It was no easy task because we were camping, with minimalist baggage. Eventually, she found a small silk kerchief that she thought might do because, frankly, the locals seemed so poor. She (and I too) was thinking in terms of what we knew about: American and French weddings, pretty much variations on the same basic model: The bride is the queen and she gets presents, the bride’s mother is the dictator, the groom is a little drunk, so are many of the guests, including children. There is dancing. Most unmarried women are a little or much turned on; single guys try their luck.
On the wedding day, we cleaned up as well as we could, birdbath manner. My companion even washed her hair in cold water. Fortunately, she was wearing it in a very short afro, almost a buzz cut. She put on a light cotton mumu that looked almost ironed. It was a decent, loose garment but with discreet curves in the right areas. I thought she looked more than presentable. I don’t know about myself. I had on clean jeans and my only shirt with a collar. The kids had been vague about time. Around noon, we walked up the steep street with the same children guiding us.
A whole other street, a flat one, had been blocked off and long tables, benches and chairs lined up on the sidewalks. It appeared that our being invited had not been such an extraordinary honor after all. We guessed the whole village was invited and it would have been unseemly to leave the tourists out. (But wait….) However, we saw only male human beings on the street, from boys in short pants to bent old geezers. A band played somewhere close-by but we couldn’t see it and there were no dancers in sight. The action took place behind bed sheets hung from a rope that stretched across the street. We were instructed with smiles to sit down. After a few minutes, young men came bearing enamel basins of food. They placed a piece of mutton next to us on the table oilcloth and a bowl of semolina (grits, more or less) with two spoons. Another boy set a recently rinsed glass full of limonade in front of each of us. We noticed that other guests were waiting for our seats.
We were going to hurry off the table but a tall, handsome man in a dark suit – the only suit in sight – came by. He was the groom and he had taken it to heart to greet us personally, which he did graciously, in perfect French. We were told later that he was a fighter pilot back from training in the Soviet Union who had returned to his native town just to get married. The man was elegant and he had a great deal of presence. He would not have been out of place in an upscale bar in Palo Alto, California where we lived most of the time. I told him that my wife had a small gift she would like to give to the bride in person. He said not to move, that he would send us someone quickly.
After a short time, an older man came to tell my companion to follow him. He took her a few feet away behind a low wall where I could still see her. There, he handed her over to two old crones. One of them had red dyed hair that would not have fooled a blind man ten feet away. The three women walked away through an unlit area but in the direction of a brightly lighted structure where I lost sight of them.
About ten minutes later, the TFEW came back by herself steaming. (I was a grown man; I felt the vibes; I knew the signs.) So, I asked, did you meet the bride and did you give her the present? She said she had and she had and the bride, sitting all made up and coiffed in a gilded armchair, surrounded by her handmaidens, seemed touched. But, she said, you won’t believe what happened before that. Just as we reached the bridal pavilion, one of the two old women held me by the shoulders while the other lunged for my crotch and tried for a grab.
What do you think? Would I make this up? Do I have the talent, the imagination?
Several things. First, yes, of course, this is intended to be a pop-sociological story. It’s a commentary on something. Your guess.
Second, it should be obvious that I liked everyone I met during that stay and in that episode, every single person. That’s more than I can say for the people with whom I cross paths daily in California, for example. And, don’t get me started on the French! (Many of whom are holes in the ice as my decorous granddaughter would say.) Now, I know why I liked them but it’s hard to tell why they were so likable. Everyone in the small town was courteous and generous if he had a chance to be, even if only by offering a glass of hot tea after my long stay underwater. Again, I can’t tell why they were so gracious. Perhaps small towns are like that. Perhaps people used to be generally like that when they live in places small enough to be real communities. I can’t really believe this though because I have read too many stories (beginning with Maupassant’s), seen too many movies, where small town people behave in a completely beastly manner.
In the absence of perfect sampling, I tend to put some faith in cultural redundancy: If blondes keep treating me shabbily, I begin suspecting that there is something wrong with blondes (or about blondes and me). So, I have been treated courteously by Muslims and by people who appeared to be Muslims whenever I spend time in Muslim surroundings, even thousands of miles apart. So, until proven otherwise, I think it’s their culture that makes them friendly. Yet, naturally, I find the crotch grabbing incident and what I take to be its many implications repulsive. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere in the formerly Christian West.
The gesture and its sexual implications have a historical association with Islam, I believe. (See how carefully I chose my words.) Yet, there is almost certainly nowhere in the Islamic Scripture that mandates, commands, or even condones such behavior. Contrary to many Muslim apologists I hear on TV and on radio, that’s not the end of the story, as far as I am concerned, however. You are responsible for the baggage your religion carries. So, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian Scriptures ordering that theological deviants be burned alive. And yet, it happened in Christian lands, over and over again. Historically, it’s a sort of Christian specialty although Christ would not have applauded the practice, I am pretty sure. If you are a Christian, it’s disingenuous to say that burning people alive has nothing to do with you. It’s as much part of your heritage as are the glorious Gothic cathedrals.
And, yes, you are right; I loaded the dice by entitling this story “A Muslim Wedding.” I could have called it equally well: “An Algerian Wedding,” or “A Kabyle Wedding” (for the area), or “An Amazigh Wedding” (after the local people’s ethnicity), even “A Village Wedding.” Was I wrong? You decide.
Here is another short story. (I don’t have the talent to compose characters so, most of my stories are autobiographical by default.)
I am on the same free-diving and spear fishing expedition I mentioned in another story. We are driving and living in a VW bus I equipped myself for the purpose. This time, my then future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I are stopped in a small town in coastal western Algeria. We just arrived and it’s a sunny quiet morning. We are enjoying a rare cup of real coffee at the also rare terrace of a small café. I will never forget that insignificant non-event, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby camel came ambling down the street. The charming animal walked straight up to me and began browsing my hair. (Go ahead, don’t believe me; I have a picture!)
So, we are just lingering when a handsome teenage boy stops by to make conversation (in French, of course): Where are you from? What are you doing here? What kind of fishing, again? How do you like Algeria?
We invite him to sit down and have coffee with us but he insists he is in a hurry. He wishes us a good vacation and walks away. Then, suddenly, he wheels around to tell us he would like to invite us to his house for couscous. He is too young to be married and to have his own house. I ask him how his mother would respond to sudden unannounced guests. He replies that she would love it, that she misses her old French bosses; that she likes to speak French with real French people. I am beginning to feel peckish. Against my better judgment, we follow him around the corner.
We drive through a metal gate he closes behind us. The young man stops at the door to the house and calls out with several sentences in Arabic. A woman’s voice responds and the door opens immediately. A woman in her early forties stands smiling at us. Her dark shiny hair is partially covered. She has beautiful apricot skin and dancing black eyes. Under other circumstances, in spite of a fifteen-year age difference, I might have fallen in love with her on the spot. I must have been fairly obvious because the TFEW secretly yanked hard on the back of my shirt.
We sit down on cushions in the living room. There is an opening into the kitchen so we can communicate with the mother while she works. Actually, I am pretty much the only one doing the communicating because the TFEW is not a native French speaker and she is a little hesitant on that account. The thought crosses my mind that the mother is flirting with me verbally a little from the kitchen where I cannot see her face. The charming son soon serves us tea and two quiet teenage girls dart in and out on what I think is a mission to keep us company although they do not say anything. I am not sure whether they were shy or if they did not know French. There is no man in sight and no mention of any adult male.
After quite a long time bantering back and forth without the help of an adult beverage precisely, the steaming couscous garni appears on the rug in front of our knees. (Tech note: “couscous” is the grits-like grain; it’s “garni” when it is accompanied by a vegetable stew including chickpeas, and meat, usually boiled mutton, sometimes chicken.) Everyone is starving by that time and the family sits around and next to us each holding a bowl into which the mother dishes out couscous topped with veggies and mutton. One of the girls has thoughtfully placed a spoon in front of us, the visitors, which we make a point of honor to ignore, of course because we want to appear cool.
The mother tells us gaily how she had worked for fifteen years for a French family, as a servant with broad responsibilities, including the care of small children and the kitchen. She says she loved the lady of the house and the lady of the house loved her “like a niece.” I guess that’s how she has learned her grammatically perfect and lively French. After the French left, suddenly, feeling threatened (and probably with good reason) there was no work for a woman with her skills. Nothing is said, again in this story, about a husband. There is no explanation about how the family sustains itself.
It’s often difficult to say how poor people are following a revolution. Those don’t look poor. They are all well though simply dressed. The house in which they live is consequential and Western-style. (I mean that I would have moved into it in a minute.) As far as I know, it is her beloved lady boss’s house they are all occupying. Perhaps, the lady boss has slipped her the title before fleeing. I am told there was a lot of that that went on. I am also told the new Algerian government, its hands full of pressing matters, was happy to let sleeping dogs lie on this issue. I can’t judge what the family’s everyday food is like but none of them look skinny and the couscous was well garnished and ample. (But then again, the latter is not a good indicator of anything in North Africa where a feast is a feast however meagre the fare on ordinary days.)
If you eat enough food and it’s tasty enough, at the end of the meal, you will feel a little like drunk. Those who talk after dinner, including the Mom, talk louder. The pleasant son tells me of his wish to go work in France and of his modest ambitions in general. Even the young girls smile more broadly. Perhaps seeing their mother happy makes them feel happy. I am asked to explain for the tenth time in Algeria what I am doing there. I explain my quest for big fish and spiny lobster (and also for slipper lobster, a grotesque looking but delicious creature). I describe how I go under water holding my breath to shoot them in the face with a rubber spear gun. The family seems a little incredulous but they are visibly charmed by the concept. They have already made themselves believe that the TFEW and I really sleep in the VW bus as we travel from place to place. (The bus was parked out of view in their courtyard while we ate.)
Then, out of nowhere, the mother says something astounding: I envy you – she says to spend so much time looking at the sea. I love the sea and I haven’t seen it for so long. Say this again, I request. Isn’t this house, your house, about four or five blocks from the sea cliff? It is, she said but I can’t go there (“Je ne peux pas y aller.”) French does not not distinguish between physical impossibility and moral interdiction. So, I am a little confused but not for long. I guess quickly what’s on her mind.
I have an idea, I say. I tell you what: Tomorrow morning at five when the sun is up but everyone is still asleep, you will put on your hijab and wear a shawl around your shoulders that you can raise to hide your face if necessary. Your son will open the gate to let my bus out and then, he will sit next to me in front where everyone can see him. You will be in the back next to my wife with the curtains drawn. Your son will direct me to a suitable point on the cliff where I will park. There, you will raise the curtain as much as you want to and look at the sea as long as you wish. She agrees and her face is filled with anticipation.
Early the next morning, the son wake us up with cups of hot coffee. There is a defeated look on his face. He tells us that his mother has changed her mind and that she will not take up my proposal after all; that she says thank you and good-bye. He adds she is too embarrassed to get up and wish us a good trip face-to-face. We shake hands and leave with much sadness in our hearts.
Is this a story about religion? All Algerians were Muslims, if nothing else, by default; so was our pleasant hostess, no doubt Yet Muslim intellectuals will point out that there is no part of the Islamic sacred scriptures that enjoins women to hide at home. There is certainly nothing in the same scriptures that says they can’t enjoy contemplating the sea, one of God’s first creations, in Islamic as well as in Jewish and Christian tradition.
Personally, I disagree. I think this is a story about religion although indirectly. If the woman had been a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or a Mormon, she would have had her fill of the sea before I met her. I can even imagine a Hindu woman being somewhat self-cloistered but not one fluent in a foreign language, not one with a long history of happy interaction with Westerners.
Two main points. First, every follower of a religion is not a scriptural expert. What people think is their religion often differs a great deal from what theologians say is true religion. I addressed this issue in an article in Liberty Unbound. (“Religious Bric-a-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad.”) Second, religions are vehicles for all kinds of cultural practices that are not religious or only in a distorted manner. Thus, Catholicism, besides its rich history of burning people alive for their opinions, is largely responsible for the consumption of fish among inland Catholics. It probably even had a lot to do with the establishment of the long lasting Newfoundland cod fishery. (Ask me.) It’s fair to judge religions for the cultural baggage they carry and that they could put down if they really wanted to. Passive assent is a form of complicity.
That’s the title of this short piece by yours truly. Please take a look and leave me some feedback. I am turning it into a longer essay that I hope to shop around once it’s complete.
Now, the city council in the People’s Socialist Green Republic of Santa Cruz where I live does not do everything wrong, just many things, like making sleeping illegal. Many more of its decisions are just goofy, like red parking meters to donate to the homeless or declaring the city a “nuclear free zone.” Sometimes, however, it takes intelligent initiatives such as replacing much “ornamental” city -owned shrubbery with real plants including various kinds of attractive cabbage, artichokes and odoriferous, low maintenance plants such as lavender.
There is a restaurant downtown that offers “Mediterranean ” fare. I don’t know exactly what it is but I like the sound of it. The other day, I am in my car and I have to stop because I see a man in a white cook’s jacket behaving strangely. He is bent over what appears to be the sidewalk, intent on some task or other. Quickly, I park my car and approach to spy on him. It turns out he is foraging in one of the city’s mini-plantations, between two files of traffic, cutting lavender with small scissors. He is working twenty yards from the Mediterranean restaurant. Thanks to this inventive lawbreaker soon, someone is going to enjoy sherbet flavored with fresh lavender.
California is in a bad drought. The city leads by example. It has practically stopped watering its shrubbery, especially the plants located in ill-favored, non-touristy areas. Two days after catching the lavender thief in the act, I am driving by a large hardware store. Outside a crowd of day laborers – mostly Mexican, 100% illegals, I would guess – gather every day in the hope of scoring some work. Again, I see a man bent over the sidewalk. I slow down enough to also catch him in the act. He looks like a Mexican laborer. He is holding a water bottle in his hand. He uses it to water a single, tiny, unrecognizable plant in what used to be a city sidewalk lawn. He and the survivor plant may have become acquainted during the long hours of fruitless wait for a job.
I wish thousands of my fellow Republicans on automatic trigger about illegal aliens had seen the guy. It would have reminded them of their shared humanity. It might have helped some recognize that yes, you are right and they have no right to be here but sometimes, you are just wrong to be right.
Little individual acts of harmless rebellion like these two give me hope.
“A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies.” Check it out (pdf). Yours truly makes an appearance at the end of the journal, if you’re interested (I critique the student libertarian movement using an informal ethnographic method).
Here is the rest of the line-up:
Symposium: Christine Vitrano’s The Nature and Value of Happiness
Human Happiness and Virtue: Are They Related and, If So, How? —John Kleinig
Happiness, Pleasure, and Satisfaction —Christopher Rice
Response to My Critics —Christine Vitrano
Consent-Based Permission to Kill People and Break Their Things —Stephen Kershnar
Catastrophic Events versus Infectious Disease Outbreak: Distinct Challenges for Emergency Planning —Thomas May et al.
Happiness or Life, or Both: Reply to Ole Martin Moen —David Kelley
Reply to Danny Frederick’s “Review Essay: Mark D. Friedman’s Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense” —Mark D. Friedman
Reply to Mark Friedman —Danny Frederick
Fetuses Are Like Rapists: A Judith-Jarvis-Thomson-Inspired Argument on Abortion —Stephen Kershnar
The Scope of Attorney Confidentiality —Clifton Perry
Portraits of Egoism in Classic Cinema II: Negative Portrayals —Gary James Jason
Don’t Be an Ass: Rational Choice and Its Limits —Marc Champagne
Review Essay: Philip Booth’s . . . and the Pursuit of Happiness: Wellbeing and the Role of Government —Gary James Jason
Robert Audi’s Moral Perception —Danny Frederick
Paul Blackledge’s Marxism and Ethics —Dan Swain
Gerhard Böwering et al.’s The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought —Adam Walker
The Symbolic Clash of Whiplash —Robert Begley
In Search of Student Radicalism: YAL, SFL, and the GOP —Brandon Christensen
Be sure to check out the easy-to-navigate archives, too. Browsing through these issues is well-worth your time. Here (pdf), for example, is an issue with an excellent symposium on Sari Nusseibeh’s What Is a Palestinian State Worth?
Note: this is my statement of purpose (SOP) for a graduate program in anthropology at Emory University. I am also going to apply to Stanford, New Mexico, and Chicago. This is only a rough draft. I have given myself plenty of time to make these perfect, so I am posting this here in order to get harsh feedback and also in case anybody ever finds himself in my position (looking online for examples). The application process consists of five parts: grades, GRE score, Letters of Recommendation, SOP, and resume. My big weaknesses are the SOP and Letters of Recommendation. Any help I could get on my SOP would be great! UPDATE (4/14): Dr Khawaja has kindly provided a forum for my other weakness, the Letters of Recommendation, over at Policy of Truth and I have been learning a lot.
I am interested in land contestations, property rights in stateless regimes, and state formation. There are two main reasons for this. First, I spent three months in the Ghanaian village of Wiamoase, a remote outpost in the Ashanti region, with a medical anthropologist who was then doing graduate work on placebo effects and shamanism at Boston University. Ghana was on the threshold of a third consecutive, coup-free presidential and parliamentary election cycle and I was able to observe how these elections were interpreted by rural Ghanaians. Two major factions figured prominently in the electoral calculations of Ghanaians: the aid-lending Global North and rival, ethnic-based domestic factions. These calculations reminded of the work done by the historian Charles Tilly on the slow rise of democracy in France and the role played in this contestation by the landowning aristocracy. I then decided to conduct an informal survey where I asked villagers whether they had more trust in the politicians of Accra or in the land-holding chiefs who leased out farmland. The unanimous response to my unscientific survey was that the trust of the villagers was in the land-holding chiefs.
Second, at Cabrillo College – a community college in central California – I did Honors research on Javanese political strategies and the Dutch colonial practices that those strategies induced. I was particularly intrigued by the narrative of condescension that dominated Western scholarship up until the 1960s, when the Javanese finally began to be depicted by (some) historians as active, willing participants in the new relationships that were formed by the arrival of European settlers. I presented the results of this research at Stanford University in 2011 as part of a Bay Area Honors consortium, where challenging feedback from professors and participants allowed me to show how this research is relevant to understanding today’s examples of both large-scale organized violence and economic development (or lack thereof).
This research was also featured, in modified form, at RealClearHistory in February of 2014. RealClearHistory is part of the RealClear online series that features work from academics, policymakers, and journalists from around the world on issues ranging from science to history to international relations. RCH also featured my articles on the limits of Japanese imperial ambitions during the Shōwa era and on the European Union’s potential for avoiding the nationalisms of the 20th century by providing inclusive outlets for separatist aspirations. The research done for these features, coupled with my electoral experience in Ghana, produced two notions of democracy in my mind: democracy as a colonial project, and democracy as a power-sharing institution; both of these notions feature prominently in Somalia, my main area of interest, today.
Building upon the work of Peter Little, states are generally taken to be a necessity because of the benefits they provide in regards to public goods. In the postcolonial context, however, states are often wielded as a bludgeon and used as an ATM machine by those who attain its levers of power. When a faction – usually ethnic- or geography-based – wins out in a postcolonial state, the other factions lose power (this is in contrast to long-established, more-or-less democratic states, where “losers” still have institutional representation in a number of ways).
Given this situation, I am interested in both the process of state formation in the postcolonial context, and in the idea of taking seriously notions of informal sovereignty – as exemplified by non-state (indigenous) cooperation at the regional and local levels of borderlands – within current internationally-sanctioned boundaries. In the course of writing my article on nationalisms and the EU, for example, I discovered that three distinct cultural cores of the world – South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka), the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti), and the European Union – have similar geographic spaces, ranging in size from 4.31 million km² to 4.482 million km². Yet within these similar geographies, the comparative number of states is stark: both the Horn of Africa and South Asia are comprised of six states each, while the European Union has nearly five times as many (twenty-eight since 2013). The GDP (PPP) per capita – a leading measurement tool used to gauge the economic health of a country – of these regions (based on 2012 IMF estimates) provides another stark insight: the EU’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at $31,018, whereas South Asia’s stands at $3,805 and the Horn of Africa’s is $1,679. These are simple but profound economic and geographic quantitative rifts that have yet to be fully explained, especially in the context of the contestation over defining democracy. Can these macro-level data, in turn, be complemented by looking at informal, cross-border market cooperation, comparative interethnic & intraethnic trading strategies, and power-sharing political institutions? More theoretically: Do these informal economies form the basis of viable states?
The pastoralists in southern Somalia offer an avenue of exploration into these questions, especially the cross-border trade between pastoralists and cattle traders in Somalia and Kenya. I am unaware of research being done on how property rights are agreed upon by the parties involved in this sector of the economy, but the quasi-corporate organizational structure of the actors in the cattle supply chain identified by Dr. Little have ample potential. While much work has been done on the destination of Somali cattle products, and on the traders who act as intermediaries between herders, sellers, and producers, the perspective of Somali herders on the regional informal economy has not been studied in depth. How does both land – as an economic factor of production – and conceptions of property rights affect pastoralists’ economic decisions and political acumen? Ethnographic accounts of herder perspectives on informal economies in general and on the supply chain of their cattle in particular can also build upon the foundations necessary for understanding larger-scale social phenomena such as state formation and neocolonial institutions.
I spent most of my time at UCLA living in an outdoor track-and-field stadium and hauling around a cardboard box with all of my belongings in it, which taught me to be determined and I only mention this because it’s good evidence that I have the perseverance necessary to pursue a doctoral degree from your program. My experience in homelessness is not limited to my time at UCLA. I was born in the cultural center of the Mormon world and, when I left that world at a relatively young age, was exposed to the sometimes harsh realities of poverty in the United States. I mention this experience because it has taught me who to pay attention to depending on what I need and what I want. The work of Peter Little on the formal and informal economies of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa has, in particular, attracted my attention, and I hope to be able to learn directly from him. David Nugent’s work on comparative state formation methods is also an area of research I would learn much from, as is the work of Michael Peletz on Islamic law and its relationship with state formation in Southeast Asia.
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian from the early Roman Empire. Some details of his life are oddly evasive given his high status in the Roman system and his fame as a writer. It is not known what his first name was (Romans had three names), but Gaius and Publius are the most widely accepted hypotheses. It is not clear where he was born except that it was some distance from the city of Rome. Southern France (or Gaul) or northern Italy are the most widely accepted hypotheses. His exact dates of birth and death are not known, but he lived from about 56 to 117CE.
Tacitus was one of the great antique historians and prose stylists. He deserves to be read by liberty enthusiasts for the record he provides of ideas of liberty in Rome, as well as for reasons of literary appreciation and general historical knowledge. His historical work includes the Annals and the Histories, which are a major source of information about the history of the early Roman empire, as well as of the political attitudes of the traditional Roman ruling class at that time.
There is some overlap between the Histories and the Annals, and the texts under discussion in the present post, which are On Agricola and On Germany, but the first two texts will be covered in a later post. I have already had a lot to say about the republicanism of the Athenians and the Romans, so it is time to consider how the ancients conceived of liberty in the ‘barbarian’ nations, those nations lacking the cities, literary, and unified legal-political systems known to Greek and Roman writers.
Another topic to be considered later is how the ancient republicans understood good rule in a monarchy (the Cyropaedia of Xenophon from ancient Athens is the most obvious example), and deals with the education of the Persian king Cyrus. There is some overlap between the topics of wise monarchy and barbarian liberty, particularly if we look at how these ideas evolve over time, something that will be explained at the end of this post.
Tacitus’ general position on Roman politics was that of an aristocrat and enthusiast for the Republic, who despised many of the early emperors, but was at least willing to give credit to those emperors he believed were behaving with respect regarding the aristocracy and old republican values. In particular, Tacitus gives a negative view of the personality and means of rule used by the second emperor Tiberius, a far more scathing impression of the following emperor Caligula, and a generally horrified impression of Roman leaders and the culture of Rome until the time of Nerva and Nerva’s successor Trajan. Nerva and Trajan are the first two of the Five Good Emperors, also including Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
That sequence is conventionally regarded as the highpoint of the Roman Empire before a decline which ends in the fifth century fall of the West and the formation of Hellenic despotism in the East. That is not exactly a view universally accepted by historians now, and I do not refer to it to endorse it, but to refer to a very powerful story influencing the understanding of history and the fate of states over the centuries.
Anyway, Tactitus did much to form the earlier part of that time-honoured if now much criticised historical understanding. It seems to me that it is as least correct to see some substantial, if very variable, respect for republican forms and manners until the death of Marcus Aurelius, though supreme power had been premised on control of the military since Julius Caesar’s time. After Marcus Aurelius, maybe some republican legacy remains in that the Senate in Rome always has some influence, but that influence looks weak compared with that of the power of the military, which decided the name of the emperor in times of uncertainty or became the source of coups by would be emperors.
Tacitus’s republican-inspired criticisms of emperors who humiliated or ignored the Senate were not a wish for popular government; this was a distinctly aristocratic wish for liberty for those who deserved to exercise liberty, combined with nostalgia for a stern public morality of self-restraint and courage associated with the memory of the early Republic. Tacitus’ objections to unrestrained emperor rule were partly of mild behaviour towards slaves and the promotion of freedmen over free men.
The freedman had a particular legal status in Rome: as a slave emancipated from slavery, but still bound to render services to the master who freed him (I’m excluding women here as they do not enter into the politics of the time) and who could be taken back into slavery if he failed to recognise his obligations. So only the children of a freedman were truly free and they were still of socially low status, at least according to the old aristocratic families in the Senate.
Emperors were happy to give important jobs to freedmen who owed them particular loyalty, rather than aristocrats who might believe in their own rights independent of the emperor. So Tacitus, along with other senators, was very much in favour of a state, a kind of republic under an emperor, ruled by free men, on the understanding that only a very limited class of men deserved freedom, understood as the right to exercise political power as well as non-political legal rights.
One way in which Tacitus examines an alternative to the apparent decadence of Rome was with reference to the barbarian subjects or enemies of Rome. He was particularly concerned with two groups of barbarians, Britons and Germans. He discusses the Britons as part of his tribute to his father-in-law Agricola, the Roman governor of ‘Britannia’ (England, Wales and a very variable part of Scotland) who consolidated the conquest undertaken by the Emperor Claudius.
As Tacitus notes, Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britannia, so noting the limitation of the effective founder of the Emperor system, though its formal start is associated with the consolidation of powers and titles, new and old, by Caesar’s successor Augustus. Tacitus is also referring to the difficulties of conquering the Britons, who had a fierceness lacking in the Roman legions (disciplined and brave in battle as they were).
Tacitus’ praise for his father-in-law is enhanced by and feeds into recognition of the difficulties of subduing the fiercely independent people of this terribly cold, rainy, and foggy land at the edge of the Roman world. As Tacitus notes, resistance to Rome first came from a queen, Boudicca, occupying a role of political and military leadership closed to Roman women. Tacitus has little else to say about this situation, but at least has acknowledged a form of struggle for liberty under a woman beyond any episode of Roman history.
The biggest voice for British love of liberty is given to Calgacus leading opposition to Rome in the highlands of Britannia. Tacitus attributes a speech to him, which is likely to have much more to do with Tacitus’ own imagination and political sensibility than anything the historical Calgacus ever said. We will never be sure about this, but in any case Tacitus gives an important example of some deep ambiguities in Roman thinking about liberty and their own civilisation.
Calgacus condemns the greed for wealth of the Romans and portrays them as only exercising power through enslaved peoples rather than their own courage and merit. The reference to “enslaved peoples” is to people politically and militarily subdued by the Romans, with most remaining above slave status, rather than the enslavement in the strongest sense of every individual within a people.
The liberty the Britons are depending on comes from a simple moral struggle to defend family and immediate community from foreign domination, not from a wish to enslave others. Calgacus recognises the remoteness of Brittania from Rome and from Roman civilisation, making their struggle a struggle of wilderness, mountains, and places by the sea against a gigantic continental force, fighting with nothing to lose except the liberty of simple peoples with simple lives.
Tacitus is giving voice to a mentality he admires though coming from a people who deserved to be slaves because they failed to throw off Roman mastery. That is partly a matter of war, which Tacitus implies through Calgacus, the Britons lacked talent for over time as opposed to a capacity for isolated surprise victories. Tacitus both admires the courage of the barbarians and despises their lack of discipline. The real source of their slavery though is the luxury that Roman rule brings to Britannia (in practice this can only apply to a minority of urban dwellers and larger to a minority Romanised upper class within that category), so that the Britons forget liberty as they enjoy the fine living of Roman civilisations.
Tacitus himself enjoyed that fine living while continuing an idealisation of Britons as simple, hardy, brave people, which in early history even applied to aristocrats who were small property owners, farming their own land. Tacitus both wished to keep his privileged life and use the ideal of simple republican virtue against the emperors and those corrupted by emperors.
Tacitus wrote on the difficult to conquer but finally conquered Britons and also on the impossible to conquer Germans. The Germans again resisted Caesar, but unlike the Britons resisted a succession of Roman Emperors. Like the Britons, the Germans are portrayed as living at the edge of the liveable world, in this case surrounded by forests and swamps with no gold or metal and little in the way of farming. The lack of gold and silver marks the Germans as mere barbarians, but also makes them free of the corruption the Romans had suffered.
Tacitus discusses the political situation of the Germans as variable as they are divided between many tribes, but generally they have a strong monarchy or a monarch who appears to largely exist to lead in war rather than dominate the society. The latter kind of monarch tends to rule through freedmen according to Tacitus, so duplicating the tendency of Roman emperors to keep political power way from those who fit to exercise liberty and leave it to the slavish in nature.
The Germans are portrayed as brave but with reference to family and immediate community, who are all present in battle (including the women) rather than to the state, or ‘public thing’ (‘res publica’), which is how Romans understood their own state at any time, republican strictly speaking, or imperial in forms. Again Tacitus shows a mixture of contempt for the backwardness of it, and admiration for the so far uncorrupted bravery on behalf of the little world of everyday life. The emotional passion of the Germans is also admired, but regarded as inferior overall to the discipline and self-control of a proper Roman aristocrat like Agricola.
Significantly, Tacitus thinks the kind of Stoic self-control and extreme rationality, discussed from the political point of view in an earlier post on Seneca, is going too far. Despite the influence of Stoic thinking on the Roman upper class and Seneca’s association with resistance to evil emperors, Tacitus wants some passion leftover from the barbarian mentality, as part of the makeup of the Roman ruling class. Their liberty requires passion as well as self-restraint.
As indicated at the beginning of this piece, over time there is some convergence between Tacitus’ respect for barbarian liberty and Xenophon’s interest in good kingship in a ‘barbarian’ (as in non-Greek, though not as in backward) state, that is the Persian Empire.
This is the outcome of the Medieval dominance of monarchy as a political form in western and central Europe, combined with increasing knowledge of ancient republican ideals as knowledge of Latin increases in the Middle Ages, followed by increasing knowledge of Greek in the Renaissance.
The social and political structure of Medieval states, in which there are still some city republics, where monarchies allow self-government to city merchants, and find it necessary to consult estates, or assemblies, of nobles, clergy, and merchants, the cult of aristocratic-knightly prowess in war, and independence of barons from kings, all suggest ways in which European monarchs, aristocrats, and intellectuals pick up on republican ideas and apply them to a monarchy.
Enlightenment ideas of liberty themselves dealt with the tension and combination of Roman order and barbarian spirit. The most sustained attempt to turn this into a philosophy of history, state, and law, can be found in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which emphasises that the Roman Empire in the west was overwhelmed by Germanic tribes and succeeded by Germanic kings, with particular emphasis on France.
Early Frankish-German kings and aristocrats brought Germanic laws and customs to Roman Gaul, but some elements of Roman law survived particularly in the church. The Roman law was fully revived in the thirteenth century in a process strongly established with the growing power of the French monarchy and the emergence of a French nation. So for Montesquieu, the French monarchy of his time rested on a mix of Germanic liberty, which was primitive republican in origin, given the limited role of early German kings, under a monarchy and aristocracy that was Germanic and origin, and in which Roman law provided an ordered structure for liberty.
The Roman component, like the Germanic component, was republican in origin. Montesquieu himself is taken in both republican and monarchist ways, and he was looking at how the two come together in complex interactions in European history to create liberty with increasing commerce and moral sensitivity, under law, as he knew it. Adam Smith was also very sensitive to this historical complexity of law and liberty, looking back to both the Graeco-Roman and barbarian republics with various mixtures of admiration and concern. He was certainly aware of the Tacitus style of neo-republican contempt for those supposed unworthy of liberty and feared that modern republics might engage in the same polarisation between full citizens and the excluded.
Like nearly everyone in the world, I don’t have the training to judge directly the pronouncements of organizations that affirm that there is:
a) Serious temperature rise on a global scale (“global warming”).
b) That it is caused by human activity (such as burning fossil fuels or keeping too many belching cattle).
c) That human beings must quickly reverse manufacturing growth and driving (and growth in cattle) or suffer devastating consequences.
Instead, I have to rely on indirect evidence to judge the claims of specialists and to decide what the appropriate action would be (including deliberate inaction). This is not a new situation. We all do this all the time. So, I am unable to assess the talent of the surgeon who is going to open up my chest but I can sure smell the booze on his breath and make the logical jump that it’s not good news. Similarly, I know little about the care of automobile engines but when I see a car mechanic banging on an engine with the back of a screwdriver, I am alerted.
The quality of specialists is not the only way indirectly to gauge the quality of a viewpoint. It’s also legitimate to infer the seriousness of a claim by assessing the quality of its believers. Thus, I am leery of so-called “alternative medicine” and other “informal” health perspectives because many of their proponents seem to live in la-la Land in matters other than health. And if marathon runners kept falling dead at 39, I would have good reason to wonder if running is that good for you. (I said “if.”) If the proponents of Chinese traditional medicine turned out to be sick all the time, I would have to think twice (thrice) about its merits. (I know, there is a causation issue in this sentence. It’s not a solution; it’s part of the problem.)
The quality of its followers say something about the credibility of a creed, I believe.
Here is an anecdote about the credibility of climate change proponents, “ccprops.” It’s only an anecdote. It may be isolated. It may represent no one but those involved. Or, it may sound familiar. Think!
I live in the Green People’s Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz. My wife and I may be the only residents with anti-Obama bumper stickers. (There is a good chance we only get away with it because leftists can’t spell: “Obamination,” mine says.) Those residents who are not greenies or leftists of some kind tend to observe a discreet silence. The voice of rationalists like me who oppose big government and the myths that support it is muffled to the point of being mostly inaudible. I am not saying that I am a victim; I am suggesting a minor degree of heroism.
One ordinary day, I am peacefully drinking coffee at my downtown coffee shop. My daughter and my five-year old grand-daughter are with me. There is a demonstration on the other side of the street, yards away, of about 200 people, most young, a few of retirement age. They have placards and they sing slogans against pipelines, all pipelines, against global warming, for the environment. I notice that some of them wear what I think is a fairly witty t-shirt sign: “Don’t frack your mother.” The usual collection of Mother-Earth loving catastroph-tropic semi-educated Santa Cruz crowd, I think.
When the demonstration disperses because of rain (the environment does not cooperate), a group of five demonstrators comes to sit under an umbrella of my coffee shop. After a while, they start making ingratiating noises toward my attractive, impossibly cute grand-daughter. I tell them in a calm voice that they may not talk to the child because I think they carry a bad, morally objectionable message.
I am just tired of letting my enemies go unchallenged. I believe they have enough influence collectively to sap what’s left of the economic life of California. They are precisely endangering my grand-daughter’s future with their anti-economic mindless message. There is no reason to waste an opportunity to show some unkindness here.
They are stupefied. This is Santa Cruz, California, after all. It’s one of the world centers of foo-foo-headedness. By locals standards, these people are 100% virtuous. More importantly, in their parochial minds, they are 100% right. They have never encountered hostility before, not even opposition. No one has ever treated them that way. They did not know anyone actually could, even legally. They kind of believe that the First Amendment protects them against criticism. They don’t know that it only enjoins the government. (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”) They don’t know that the First does not guarantee against a private person making you cry with unkind comments. Nowhere does the First say or suggest: “Dr D shall not say hurtful things to silly Luddite greenies.”
Many young people are in the same state of ignorance nowadays. It may be because they don’t read much. It may be because they believe wrongly that they already know the Constitution. It’s the result of many years of left liberal education that is both biased and lazy. Even a friend of mine accuses me of “starting a fight.” I did no such thing. I was peacefully drinking my coffee while reading the WSJ. A bunch of strangers began yelling empty and offensive slogans near my face and I replied very moderately. “But they have a right….” Of course, they have a right; I did not say otherwise. I only instructed them to not speak to the child for whom I am responsible. I told them why in a brief and moderate way.
Immediately, the demonstrators start using religious-sounding language: You are “deniers” they say. Boy, that hurts! Boy, I am glad there is not much firewood handy! (I am not that stupid. I know well that they are trying to compare me to with theory of evolution “deniers.”)
A frumpy woman in her forties presents herself as an expert because she is making a documentary on climate change, she says. This leaves me cold. Santa Cruz is full of self-declared, self-admiring artists. (I know this for sure, I am one.) I am thinking that if I worked on a movie about human female sexuality it would be no evidence that I know anything on the topic. Am I right?
For some mysterious reason, the film-making housewife insists on treating me as if I were a born-again Christian. Again, I have no idea what she would have done that. I don’t look the part in any way. I am sure I don’t act Christian, whatever that may be. I am absolutely certain I did not say anything leading to that kind of identification. I am an atheist of the calm, non-militant kind. Religion is not at the forefront of my preoccupations except sometimes, the silly Earth worshiping of her gang, precisely. As I said, the madness is close to the surface. The woman appears a little strange, a little twisted.
Temperatures have already risen by 1.4 degrees – the woman experts asserts in a loud voice.
Centigrade or Fahrenheit – I ask?
Yes – she says.
I ask again.
I don’t know – she brushes off my question.
In how long – I ask viciously – in what period?
I don’t know, she says with disarming honesty.
I am under the impression that her ignorance about the things she, herself, chose to evoke does not trouble her a bit.
Are you smarter than the 95.5% of scientists who believe in climate change – she challenges me with finality?
I refrain from answering out of humility. (Could well be that I am; I wouldn’t be that surprised; depends what you call a scientist; I have been reading for more than a half century; I read well; I retain better than most – not better than most at Harvard, better than most in the street. I went to an excellent or maybe just good graduate school, etc.) Also, I was seized like an overworked engine by this affirmation. I have encountered it for years with some variations in digits. I will just make again the obvious point the statement calls for:
If it were true that 95.5 % of scientists believed that there was man-made global warming that will have disastrous consequences, if it were true in reality, how in the world would anyone know this? Has there been a worldwide poll with strict definitions of who is a “scientist”? Was it conducted according to all the known intricate rules of polling including careful, neutral wording? What qualified pollster organization accomplished such a big difficult task? Why isn’t the pollster bragging about it? 95.5% is obviously a bogus number some one made up years ago and that keeps being repeated by believers. Its precision itself cries out, “Phony.” People who assert it are asserting that they don’t know what they are talking about, that they lack ordinary criticality. They are asking to not be believed.
The woman is joined by two younger people who appear to be her children. (Craziness might be hereditary.) A young man of about twenty is using the F word loudly five feet from my grand-daughter they all thought so cute three minutes ago. I am not a prude; I am not especially clean talking but there is no chance, zero chance that I would use such language in the presence of a small child. These people are insane. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean literally. I mean that if they showed the same loud zeal in connection with say, parking, or house painting, they would risk being institutionalized.
In addition to factual waywardness and bad logic ccprops demonstrate their moral blindness in small ways as well as in big ones. They insist on their right to kill birds, for instance, including the legally protected bald eagle, in order to continue installing wind mills that contribute essentially nothing to the resolution of the imaginary problem of global warming (WSJ 10/11/13 “Fighting Climate Change by killing Eagles,” Robert Bryce.)
I listen to them calling the local talk shows. (I used to have a local talk show radio program myself.) They sound insane even if they are right. Most callers of talk shows are perfectly reasonable. Left-oriented ccprops are of a feather with rightists Bildeberg conspirators. Why do both kinds of callers sound regretful that it’s not yet technically feasible to murder over the airways?
Notice what I am not doing: They can go on demonstrating their irrationality, their lack of trustworthiness, their ignorance. It’s protected by the First Amendment. I will continue to try to make them cry every chance I get. It’s protected too.
Je suis desole pour le manque d’accents et de cedilles. Avec mon logiciel de traitement de texte americain ils sont simplement trop difficiles a former.
Fin Mars 2012, un homme denomme Zimmerman tuait d’un cou de feu un adolescent de dix-sept ans nomme Martin. Je decris le debut de cette affaire dans un rapport intitule: “Un adolescent noir assassine….”
Le treize Juillet 2013, Zimmerman etait acquitte. Je brosse ci-dessous ls principaux faits de la suite de cette affaire. Je mele a cette description mes commentaires et mes opinions, en caracteres gras.
Ce n’etait pas le jeune garçon joufflu que TV5 – la chaine francophone internationale – a eu l’outrecuidance (ou la betise) de montrer mais un adolescent de dix-sept ans, plutot grand, bine bati. Il aurait pu facilement faire du mal a l’inculpe. (Je ne sais pas s’il l’a fait, bien sur mais il en etait capable, physiquement), un homme un peu courtaud. La main-courante de son ecole indique que Martin etait un petit deliquant, un voleur pour etre precis. Il n’etait pas particulierement pauvre. Lors de sa rencontre fatidique avec l’inculpe il rendait visite a son pere divorce dans un quartier residentiel economiquement un peu superieur a la moyenne.
Lors d’une breve conversation telephonique avec une de ses amies le soir de sa mort, la victime a brievement employe un terme raciste anti-Blanc (“Cracka”).
Absents du dossier: Tous les antecedents judiciaires de la victime s’il y en a . Je ne sais pas s’il y en a. Possible usage de drogue induisant la rage. Continue reading