Friday, March 17, 2017

Slavery and the Continuum and Continuity of Cruelty


I'll start with a disclaimer of sorts.

            The word "presentism" apparently has technical uses in philosophy and for literary and historical analysis, but I found an almost colloquial usage more immediately useful. In this sense, "presentism" is the dumb-ass cousin of a belief in progress and is shown when people too literally think, "In every day / In every way," people have grown "better and better and better," and believe the way we live today is, across-the-board, the norm. If that's the case, then — given where we are today — our ancestors must have been pretty damn stupid and unsophisticated.

            I ran into this attitude when some of my 18-20-something students made clear they thought pretty ignorant and unsophisticated such folk as noble and royal politicians in the courts of Richard II and Elizabeth I, or London theater fans ca. 1600. There are a lot of things you can say about rulers and courtiers in the late medieval and early modern periods —words like "criminal" and "immoral" are frequently apt — but, as a rule, unsophisticated they were not. King Richard II had some weird weaknesses of character, but he wasn't stupid, and when it came to running the family business (England and such), the Tudor Queen Elizabeth was very, very, very bright, sophisticated, and good at her job. And, of course, London audiences ca. 1600 supported a good deal of crap, but they also saw, heard, and apparently appreciated some of the best drama ever produced.

            It is useful to avoid "presentism" in this sense when doing literary criticism so you don't find yourself thinking that the writing of Chaucer and Shakespeare and such couldn't be as sophisticated as your instructors have suggested because Chaucer and Shakespeare and their audiences couldn't have been that sophisticated. Now one or more of your instructors may have been overly ingenious or, well, even just full of shit with a reading or two  — but not because an idea we can have was necessarily too clever for the likes of our ancestors.

            If useful to avoid presentism in this sense in LitCrit, it is actually important to avoid it when doing politics — nothing in LitCrit is truly important — it is important to avoid presentism in talking politics since we shouldn't often change current practices on the assumption that our ancestors were idiots when they came up with them. (For example, after the 2008 financial crises, the "Glass-Steagall" Banking Act of 1933 looks like a really good idea after all.)

            Sometimes our ancestors were stupid, of course; see above on professors sometimes being stupid and apply the rule broadly: even bright humans, even bright humans acting where we're experts say dumb things and do even dumber. But not all that often: Usually our predecessors knew what they were doing, thank you, and the conservatives are correct in the traditional conservative belief that we shouldn't muck around changing things unless we have strong reasons to change things.

            So, our ancestors weren't stupid, or incompetent.

            Having said that, however, I want get to what is, as I write and update, a newly-released movie I have not seen (and may not) and to the serious implications of the idea a character in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness summed up in his reference to his "criminal ancestors": i.e., us and those predecessors I've been defending.

            The movie I want to take off from is 12 Years a Slave (2013) and the inevitable viewer reactions to the cruelty of nineteenth-century Black slavery in the southern United States. The reactions are better nowadays than with Roots in 1977, when I heard and read from some of my fellow Americans — adults, and people who could read — "Why didn't they tell us?!" i.e., why weren't we told that slavery was so bad. Well, indeed they didn't tell us as much as they should have, but the basic information was there. People are told more nowadays and at least quieter about being shocked ("Shocked!") that cruelty was going on, but I want now to point out that in many ways, important ways, things were worse in the past than most of us assume.

            Sorry gang, but you need to know this — and the upshot will be rather hopeful.

            In Origin of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Hannah Arendt makes clear that people won't understand the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews if they think of it as the Holocaust and don't put the Shoah in its historical context, including a tradition of massacres. Furthermore, those of us who talk of the eleven million victims of the Hitlerian Holocaust, and not just the five to six million murdered Jews, sometimes have the prudent political motivation of reminding people who are not Jews that they have more at stake here than sentimental sympathy for victims. The "First they came for …" litany has become a cliché, but it remains one of the most practical bits of wisdom that history can teach. "The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem" was central to the Nazis systematic slaughter, but the machinery of exterminations found a variety of victims and had roots in soils in addition to anti-Semitism.

            And even as you have to have some feeling for the history of massacres to understand the Hitlerian Holocaust, even so you need to know the continuity of the cruelty of slavery, and you need to know that slavery was at the extreme end and a logical extension of a continuum of cruelty that lasted into modern times, and came back for a season of hell in the 20th century.

            Since my form in these blogs is the meditation or personal essay, I'll start with a personal observation from my PhD candidacy in the late 1960s, when, in theory, I learned to read Latin.

            I was using for homework The New Collegiate Latin & English Dictionary (1966) and one day noticed how often on the way to looking up something else — we were mostly reading Aesop's Fables, for God's sake! — how often I saw Latin words referring to things military, violent, and/or violent in relationship to managing slaves. Slavery was woven into the fabric of the Latin language, as was the idea that slaves had to be kept in line, fairly often through terror: beatings, blindings (altero oculo captus 'to blind in one eye'), breaking bones, branding, … well, a series of horrors up to and including crucifixion. Educated and valuable slaves might be treated well; however "Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short." Legal testimony from slaves was admissible only after slaves had been tortured.

            Roman slaves gained rights as time went on, but there was continuity, with some slavery in the European Middle Ages, moving more toward serfdom, which got into full gear in parts of Russia in the 17th century and lasted until fairly recently: 1861. Literal slavery in Russia got a significant boost from the medieval Mongol and Tatar invasions and lasted until 1723.

            There was also continuity of slavery in areas in more constant contact with western Europe than most of Russia: The Mideast slave trade lasted from the 7th century C.E. through the 19th, and it ranks #8 on Matthew White's list of "The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" in human history, accounting for some 18.5 million deaths, to say nothing of families torn apart and lives reduced (by definition) to slavery.

            So slavery was known in Europe from their neighbors, and when the Reformation and Renaissance got into full swing, such knowledge was increased by reminders that slavery had been regulated but accepted in the now much-translated and much-read Bible and had been accepted and defended by the now born again, so to speak, classics: the revitalized and revitalizing admiration of ancient Greece and Rome and their cultures (renaissance). If the Hebrews practiced, and the noble Greeks and Romans accepted, practiced, and, as we used to say in academe, theorized slavery — how bad could it be?

            In his "General Introduction" to The Norton Shakespeare (2000), Stephen Greenblatt has a beautiful little quotation attributed to Elizabeth I referring to Her Majesty's Loyal Pirate, John Hawkins and his first slaving voyage, where he transported "some three hundred blacks from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola." She "is reported to have said of this venture that it was 'detestable and would call down the Vengeance of Heaven upon the Undertakers.'" As I said, Elizabeth was bright and sophisticated, and as Head of the Church of England she knew a wicked act when she learned of one. However, Hawkins's venture grossed £10,000 — a huge sum during the period — and so "she invested in Hawkins's subsequent voyages and lent him ships" (23); business is business.

            And business for some was most excellent in the early part of early modern times as the voyages of exploration and discovery discovered silver mines in the New World and empires loaded with gold to plunder and new marketing opportunities with sugar and then tobacco and rum (making fortunes through drug-dealing is old news in the Americas).

            There was money to be made, and if some of the methods were "detestable," well …. Well, by the late 17th century, racism would theorize why a little detestable slavery was OK for Black people, and there was the tradition of slavery from the Holy and semi-holy scripture of the Bible and the classics. Say what you will about the Romans, they were equal-opportunity oppressors. If they could enslave the two known races of White and Black, plus every ethnicity they could conquer, surely Europeans could enslave Africans, who could be presented, in a Christian variation on Aristotle, as by nature servile and, indeed, who could profit infinitely from contact with Europeans, and getting Christianized (although that Christianizing bit got problematic with conservative or proto-liberal Christians — depending on how you saw them — who disapproved of enslaving other Christians).

            There is one other item to add to the hell-broth as we moved into the slavery inherited in the New World colonies that became the United States. The detestable cruelty of slavery in itself, the terrorism required to maintain people in slavery, was less obvious in its time, including in the years of the Atlantic Slave Trade, from 1452-1807 (#10 on Matthew White's list, with 16 million dead), until the end of slavery in the United States in 1865. Slavery was indeed opposed by an abolitionist movement that over time moved from the political fringe to the mainstream; but that movement took a long time, in part precisely because Black chattel slavery was the extreme end of a continuum of cruelty but definitely part of a continuum.

            In 2011, Steven Pinker published an impressive book on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which required him to come up with some strong hypotheses on Why Violence Has Declined but more so required for him to demonstrate that, indeed, violence has, in fact, declined.

            He was able to perform that demonstration for a reason crucial here: Violence in our time is less than in earlier times, even acknowledging the horrors of the "hemoclysm" (blood deluge) of the two world wars of the 20th century; but violence is less not because this generation is all that good but more because life for many people before quite recently was very, very bad. As Pinker summarizes much of his book: "Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals — all substantially down."

            Pinker has been critiqued, and figuratively attacked, for his conclusions, but they jibe with a Latin-English dictionary of decades earlier with no political agenda, and with such works as Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), and the fictional but very well researched BAROQUE CYCLE by Neal Stephenson (2003-4). They also go along with a side comment by the US Army colonel who taught my American military history course ca. 1961. In 1776, the Continental Congress increased the maximum number of lashes a court martial could order from the Biblical 39 to the decimal 100; as the colonel noted, it could have been worse, since the 100 limit "at least meant it was unlikely you'd be whipped to death," as could happen in the British tradition of having someone "whipped through the fleet" or receiving up to a deadly 200 lashes. And then there was reading Herman Melville's, White Jacket (1850), the book arguably most responsible for ending flogging in the US Navy. One memorable and undoubtedly effective — if problematic — sentence: "The chivalric Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke, declared, in his place in Congress, that on board the American man-of-war that carried him out Ambassador to Russia he had witnessed more flogging than had taken place on his own plantation of five hundred African slaves in ten years."

            In the words of an old joke, as H. Rap Brown (of the Black Panther Party) might've said of the chivalric slave-owner John Randolph, "damn White of him." Still, the point remains that sailors and soldiers, servants and prisoners were often treated with great cruelty. As Pinker stresses, it was part of everyday life to encounter brutality toward non-human animals, children, wives, and others in positions of weakness, people in culturally-sanctioned and enforced inferiority. And one definition of "liberty" included the liberty to practice such brutality without interference by the state in family matters or labor management or doing what the social superior thought right to do with "my own."

            Books like Pinker's Better Angels and essays like mine here are — or should be — unpleasant to read, but there is that hopeful upshot. Things really have gotten better, and there is hope for getting them actually pretty good for increasing numbers of people.

            As part of that improvement, it's necessary to remember that sympathy for the oppressed is nice as a form of altruism, but politically more effective when aspects of good character are reinforced by insightful self-interest.

            It wasn't just Jews caught up in the Nazi exterminations, and it was not just Blacks who suffered: these atrocities happened in worlds that kept up traditions of cruelty and fitted them to newfangled ideologies of racism and very old-fashioned sins of pride and greed. Jews and Blacks are strong contenders for the "Grimmy Award" for some areas of worst suffering, but there are many out there to join us.

            Americans in the 21st century are not particularly exceptional nor are we all that much smarter than our ancestors; and our current relative decency is a matter of culture, inheritance, and, in a sense, fashion. There was great continuity of slavery and other oppression, and bad old days can return. One way to prevent such a return is to be at least smart enough to do the arithmetic: slavery is a great way to live, for a rich slave-owner; an oppressive hierarchical society is great, if you're on the top. But that's not how the numbers work: If we return to worlds with a long continuum of cruelty, there's a good chance each of us will be receiving most of that cruelty, not dishing it out.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Pronatalism": Explaining Sex Rules and Getting Down to Nationalism's Biological Basics

"We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."
Steven King, (R-Iowa)

Then a new king […] came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said
to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.
Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become
even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join
our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, […]  
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied
and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites

            "Pronatalism" is a word we don't hear much any more, not for a generation or so, but it's an important word — increasingly important in a time of heightened nationalism — and needs to be recycled (recycled here from a couple of my essays from 2008 f.).

            "Pronatalism" refers to social policies encouraging the production and successful raising of children. Often these policies have included conscious policies on population; more often, pronatalism has been incorporated into religious beliefs and from there into law and custom.

            It doesn't matter much where pronatalist practices come from. "Cultural evolution" is more than a figure of speech: customs that function to help cultures survive will tend to be retained the way useful genetic traits are retained--and pronatalism, by its nature, has been useful for survival.

            Until recently. Until humankind's population went into the billions, and the unchecked reproduction of humans became a threat to human species-survival. Until some cultures became somewhat democratic and individualistic, and the press of population put stresses on democratic principles and individuality. It has always been difficult to argue that any individual human is special; the argument becomes almost impossible when there are over seven billion other human individuals. "Freedom" has been defined informally as the right to swing your arms until you endanger someone else's nose; some place along the line, population density gets to where there's little room for figurative arm swinging.

            Alternatively, an individual human has the same right as any other animal to urinate in the local stream; the people of a small village probably have the right to put their excrement in the river; towns and cities, however, have no right to dump in the river untreated sewage, poisoning decreasing supplies of water.

            More of that later. For now keep in mind that surviving societies often have built in a strong degree of pronatalism.

            You need to know this if you're to understand the underpinning of the sex laws and "morēs" of the United States, including our rules on marriage and attitudes toward the wide range of sexual activities.

            Start with obvious questions: Why would people care about occasional or even frequent masturbation in private? Why were there ever laws against oral or anal sex, or just about anything done between or among two or more consenting adults in private? The short and most basic answer, one that underlies both religious and secular, official and popular-culture prohibitions, is "pronatalism."

            Humans are highly sexual animals, and across a significant population people will practice all sorts of sexuality. Cultures, though, can evolve ideologies and customs that tend to direct sexuality into practices that are reproductive and nurturing. Consciously or unconsciously, societies can try to limit sex to vaginal sexual intercourse between fertile couples who are likely to conceive, bear, and then raise babies.

            Cultures can try to limit sex to "making babies" by people who'll stick around to raise babies: for a very important example, limiting approved sex to married heterosexual couples who have conception as a goal--and, hence, don't try to prevent conception and who avoid sex when the woman is menstruating.

            Sound familiar? It should if you know the traditional rules for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews.

            Under a doctrine of pronatalism, such rules make sense, and pronatalism itself makes a lot of sense in military, nationalistic, and economic terms.

            Pronatalism becomes a bad idea when it's a game many societies play and the human population rises rapidly, when the standard of living rises enough among many of those societies that they strain the environment.

            Think of a billion or two Chinese and Indians starting to live like rich Americans.

            Pronatalism in our time makes sense for individual countries that want to maintain their eminence; pronatalism makes sense for older generations who want to retire and be supported by lots of young workers.

            For the human species, and for humans who like freedom, pronatalism is a problem.

            "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it" (Genesis 1.28) was good doctrine when humans were pretty powerless to master much, and it may be the one commandment we humans have fulfilled; but it is fulfilled now, and it's time to cut back.

            We--we humans generally--need to move rapidly toward zero growth in our population, which means rethinking the laws, policies, customs, and attitudes based in pronatalism.

            People are going to have sex, but it doesn't have to be reproductive sex; and contraception can be very low-tech, inexpensive, and almost as effective as abstinence in preventing sexually-transmitted diseases. To start, we need a campaign to "Wrap that Willy," making condoms readily available and condom-use a manly thing to do, and a womanly thing to demand.

            For other things to do, look at the pronatalists aspects of human cultures, and try to figure out practical ways to encourage contraception and reproductive restraint.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Holy Alliance/Unholy Conflict: America as a White Christian Nation Joined with or vs. Orthodox Mother Russia

      Some 24 minutes into "Week in the News" on NPR's On Point Friday, 13 Jan. 2017, Elaine from Wisconsin praised Donald Trump (and Jesse Ventura) for friendship with Vladimir Putin as the strong leader who has overseen the re-Christianizing of Russia and making it (therefore?) a free country. So let us consider the possibility that some groups of voters who'd been pretty reliably anti-USSR could lately become pro-Russia, now that Russia is free of godless Communism and helping Christendom become great again.

      I grew up with the image of Alexis de Tocqueville in the middle-ish 19th century looking at a map and predicting the competition for global influence in the 20th century would be between the Russian Empire and the USA; and I figured that's what was happening, with the godless Communism v. Capitalist free-market freedom schtick largely propaganda. I knew that some "old China hands" took the "godless" bit very seriously, but .... But I underestimated how seriously many of my fellow Americans saw us as "one nation under God" and not in Great-Power competition with the Russians but a Manichean, Apocalyptic, John-of-Revelation struggle against godless Evil.

      Now that Czar Vladimir, The Shirtless, has come to Jesus and dragged a lot of Russian culture with him, hey, he's okay.

      Uh, no. Not exactly.

      The Russians are still competitors with us for influence and power, and those competitions can get very rough without major ideological issues: Europe's Wars of Religion were major horror shows in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but World War I was sufficiently nasty, thank you — plus there's also the possibility of the USA as a secular Republic v. Holy Mother Russia, the Third Rome and Protector of the Orthodox Faith (and traditional reactionary empire).

      We need to cooperate with the Russians on Syria and the "Levant" more generally, plus issues of nuclear overkill and proliferation plus climate change plus anti-terrorism plus ... well et bloody cetera. However, the competition and conflicts are there and serious and a bunch of Americans enthralled with Putin the Pious would be "useful idiots" for him, reinforcing what may turn out to be the US "Idiot in Chief" (if Trump isn't a political genius, fooling enemies, such as I into underestimating him).

      The problem with literal Manichean views is that they're more figuratively Manichean, dividing the world into neat categories and allowing people to zip over from hating the USSR and its godless Communism to enrapture with a new Russia basking in freedom (for the Church).

      Buckle up, buckeroos, and be sure the airbags are working; it's going to be a rough ride through minefields in the era of Donald of Orange and Vladimir the Revanchist and and other strong men of an ancient, and deadly, tradition.

Gun Deaths / Compassionate Death: Ventura County, California, 2000-2016

            Some points on gun deaths and their implications for — "self termination"? —  in my area, Ventura County, California, 2000-2016, relevant points, I think for elsewhere in the USA:
                        • One reason guns are used in suicides is that guns are an effective lethal device available with minimal risk of getting caught up in the apparatus of the State as would happen if one tried to obtain poisons or pain-killers in sufficient strength and quantity to be lethal.
                        • Our local paper, The Ventura County Star reports "Nearly 900 people died from gunfire in Ventura County over the past 16 years," the majority by suicide. That's fewer than 9 deaths per 100,000 per year, as opposed to the number one killer in the USA, heart disease, at 193 deaths per 100,000. Suicide is #10 on the list of the 15 leading causes of death in the US in 2013; homicide does not make that list.
            One reason homicides are rare among us — contrasted with earlier times and other places — is that most Americans depend upon law and government for resolving conflicts, rather than duels and vendettas. People attacking government legitimacy and its ability to protect us, people encouraging arming ourselves for self- and "tribal" defense, are moving in the wrong direction. And media coverage that makes mostly safe, middle-class Americans feel threatened by street violence pushes us further in that wrong direction.
            To reduce the rate of gun deaths, we need better options for people at risk of shooting themselves: including getting objective advice and practical help with problems — a decent job, for example, decent insurance — and access to more elegant ways for old guys like me to off ourselves than blowing out our brains. Preferably, though, more practical help living: When suicide seems like a rational solution for the problems of a fair number of Americans, American society has issues.


Non-Linked Source: Ian Morris, War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014).

            Richard D. Erlich, "Limiting Gun Deaths: A Direct and Humane Approach (23 Jan. 2013)" <>.