Friday, January 20, 2017

The Lycurgus Cup

The Lycurgus Cup is a piece of Roman glass made around 300 CE. Its name comes from the carving, which shows the mythical King Lycurgus. Lycurgus tried to kill Ambrosia, a follower of the god Dionysus, but in response to her prayers she was transformed into a vine that twined around the king and strangled him. When the cup is not lit from the back, so that all you see is reflected light, it is green.

But when light shines through it, the color changes dramatically.

The color change is caused by tiny particles of gold and silver in the glass. Nobody knows how this was done or if the makers even understood very well what they were doing; most so-called "dichroic" Roman glass has the property very unevenly. But they sure got it right this time.

Pieter van der Borcht the Elder

The Difficulty of Ruling over a Diverse Nation, 1578

The Afterlife of Envious Casca's Table

One of the thousands of fascinating objects found in Pompeii was this stone table base.

It is inscribed P CASCA LONG on each of the three points where the wooden top would have rested on the base. The standard interpretation is that this represents Publius Servilius Casca Longinus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar and the one who struck the first blow. "See what a rent the envious Casca made," says Shakespeare's Antony. So how did the table of that famous Roman end up in Pompeii 123 years later?

After the assassination, Casca and the other assassins fled Rome and joined the "Liberators' Revolt" led by Brutus and Cassius. They lost, defeated by Antony and Octavian, and Casca is thought to have committed suicide after the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. As an enemy of the state – since the so-called Second Triumvirate held power in Rome – his property would have bee seized and sold at auction. So some Roman likely bought this table at that auction. And then it was passed down through the family or sold to other buyers, bearing the name of Caesar's assassin in a place not usually visible but easy enough to reveal. Was this a sort of silent protest against the imperial regime, or just more of a conversation starter? And note that by 79 CE it might have served in that role even if it was actually carved for some other Casca, since more than a century later those more obscure Cascas would have been forgotten and the name would have only meant the assassin.

I was just reminded of this theory by Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (2008), a pretty good popular book on Pompeii.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Jaskologist's Theory of Magic

Jaskologist, a commenter at Slate Star Codex, has a theory about magic. It starts from a weird video that shows some guy using glitches in Super Mario Brothers 3 to warp to the end. He goes on:
This is magic, and evidence that we live in a simulation.

SMB3 is a completely deterministic world, with easily discovered rules. And yet, it still contains these little pieces that act completely outside of the normally observable rules. What that guy is doing in that video is magic. There’s no substantial difference between “jump on the turtles when they have these facial expressions in this order” and “gather the tears of a virgin during a full moon.”

So, if we are in a simulation, we would expect there to be bugs in our universe, which might be exploited with just the right series of normally-unremarkable actions. In-universe, we call that magic.

“But Jaksologist,” you object, “we’ve investigated magic rather thoroughly and found that it does not work! Doesn’t this cut against your theory?”

On the contrary, you are missing a very important difference between our world and SMB3. SMB3 was released and done with; our world is still being maintained. So what we would expect to see in our world are bugs/magics that work for a while, but then stop once the god/grad student who maintains our code patches the bug.

Looking back in history, we might even be so lucky as to see the people who were around taking note of the dying of magic. . . .

Two Ancient Necklaces

Both of these were sold by Gorny und Mosch in December. They are said to come from Central Asia and to date to 2500 - 1500 B.C.E. They are made of etched carnelian and gold beads; the one below also has a banded agate at its center.

What do Do about Public Schools

The fury surrounding Trump's nomination of  Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is a good opportunity for me to say that I don't participate much in these debates because I don't have a clue.

I do not have a very high opinion of public education in the United States, and my two older sons hated it with a passion. I gather it is the liberal position to oppose charter schools and such experiments because we are supposed to value community schools that educate everyone, but I have noticed that my acquaintances who live in big cities fight like crazy to get their kids into charters or schools for the arts or some other sort of alternative to the local school. Neither the Clintons nor the Obamas sent their kids to DC public schools.

On the other hand I am suspicious of "reformers" who seem to think that everything will magically improve if we can just get rid of teachers' unions and other liberal impediments to entrepreneurship. Nothing makes me value community schools more than flint-eyed millionaires with plans to sow chaos and thrive on it. All of these schemes seem to rest at some level on paying teachers less and working them harder, and that I will not support.

On some third hand, everyone whose childhood was blighted by a grouchy old adder with unimpeachable seniority, or whose children suffered through one, can sympathize with the idea that we might start our improvement plan by firing the worst teachers. My youngest son had such a teacher in the third grade and I think that rather than progressing he regressed a year.

My basic positions are 1) education is hard; and 2) we in the United States simply don't value it enough to get very good results. Cultures get good at what they value; food in France really is better. Because we don't care as much about K-12 education as the Koreans or the Finns, our schools are worse.

What we can do about that, I have no idea. But some of the rigid thinking and ugly shouting I see in the news about DeVos turns my stomach, as does all such ideological wrangling. Isn't there a better way to debate something we all claim to value?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Talking Inequality at Davos

Everyone at the Davos summit is talking about inequality and what to do about it. But according to Peter Goodman, the conversation skips over obvious remedies like stronger unions or higher taxes on the rich in favor of this sort of thing:
The answers from the corporate executives who comprised a panel could be crudely boiled down to this: The people who have not benefited from globalization need to try harder to emulate those who have succeeded.

Abidali Neemuchwala, the chief executive officer of Wipro, the global information technology and consulting company that hosted the event along with The Financial Times — and who last year earned some $1.8 million plus stock grants worth an additional $2 million or so — said working people would have to pursue training for the jobs of the future.

“People have to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis,” he said.

. . . . Ray Dalio, founder of the American investment firm Bridgewater Associates — who took home $1.4 billion in compensation in 2015 — suggested the key to reinvigorating the middle class was to “create a favorable environment for making money.” He touted in particular the “animal spirits” unleashed by stripping away regulations.
More animal spirits! Why didn't I think of that?

Better get back to work on my continuous upgrade. . . .

American Culture

I just walked past a poster that blares:
Mastering the Art of Advocating for Yourself
And I thought, somehow that sums up America in the 21st century. The text describes an upcoming talk by a
leadership coach and facilitator who has dedicated her career to supporting people to be the best version of themselves. . . . she has worked to support entrepreneurs, executives, aspiring entrepreneurs, and career professionals to achieve their goals.
And if you're not in one of those categories, why not?

Ancient Art from Recent Auctions

Attic black-figure kyathos of the Caylus Painter. 500 - 480 B.C. That must be Herakles with the bow and lion skin; not sure who the other fellow is.

GorgoMedusa, c. 500 BCE.

Magical amulet carved in redblack jasper. The front side shows the Middle Eastern divinity Abraxas. The back is inscribed IAW, possibly intended to be the Hebrew name of God. From the Roman Empire in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. There seem to be scratches across the image; could that have been a hurried attempt to damage its power?

Mosaic round panel of a boar, chiseled out of some larger composition with "possible small restorations." Diameter 36 cm, or 14 inches.

Marble head of Hermes, c. 170 C.E.

Golden ring with a gemstone made of red cornelian depicting the helmeted Fortuna Panthea, 2nd or 3rd century C.E.

Terracotta votive head, 400 to 200 BCE.

Hellenistic Earrings.

Lekythos from Greek Italy, 325-300 BCE.

Etruscan bronze figurine of Herakles, c. 500 BCE

Silver Skyphos, c. 200-100 BCE. All from Gorny und Mosch.

The Denunciation

In 1900, Congressman Edmund Driggs was part of the committee that investigated a hazing scandal at West Point in which a cadet died. He called the incident
atrocious, base, detestable, disgraceful, dishonourable, disreputable, heinous, ignominious, ill-famed, nefarious, odious, outrageous, perfidious, scandalous, shameful, shameless, villainous, and wicked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Lansdowne Throne of Apollo

This famous marble throne was excavated in Italy in the eighteenth century and purchased in 1798 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, the first Marquess of Lansdowne. It remained in his noble family until 1930, when his reduced descendants sold off their whole collection of classical art. They buyer of this piece was William Randolph Hearst, who then gave it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it still resides. Unfortunately you can't see it; for unexplained reasons it is "not on display."

There is now no information about exactly where this came from, some everything about its history is speculation. It is dated on stylistic grounds to between 50 and 100 CE. Most experts agree that it was never intended to be sat on, and therefore that it comes from a temple or other ritual context. The detail of the carving on the seat and the back is still in good shape, so it is certain that it never was sat on very much. It is carved with symbols of Apollo – his bow and quiver and a serpent that probably connects to the Python and thus to his temple at Delphi. Indeed some historians think it may be a copy of a Delphic throne.

I wondered if it might be fake, which would explain why it is no longer on display, but if there are theories to that effect the internet doesn't seem to know about them. So, an amazing object, a fascinating and mysterious survival of Roman religion.

Some Historical Wagnerians

Emile Fischer as Wotan, 1889.

Luise Jaide as Waltraute, 1876. Possibly a favorite of the guys who drew Bugs Bunny.

Clarence Whitehill as the Wanderer, the guise in which Wotan meets and instructs Siegfried, 1907

David Bispham as Alberich, c. 1900.

Fritz Feinhals as Wotan, 1903.

Edyth Walker as Brunnhilde, c. 1900

If you want an introduction to the Ring cycle you can watch all of Das Rheingold here with English subtitles. The conductor is Pierre Boulez and the staging is by Patrice Chéreau; this production is visually fine and sounds ok, too. There are better sound recordings but opera is drama, not just music, and I have trouble listening without seeing.

Obama as a Disciplined Reader

Interesting article by Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani about President Obama as a reader. As with everything else about his life, the striking thing about his reading is the discipline with which he pursues it:
In his searching 1995 book Dreams From My Father, Mr. Obama recalls how reading was a crucial tool in sorting out what he believed, dating back to his teenage years, when he immersed himself in works by Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois and Malcolm X in an effort “to raise myself to be a black man in America.” Later, during his last two years in college, he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.
As a community organizer in Chicago Obama not only read every day but also wrote stories, which he described as "reflective and melancholy."

In the White House Obama has tried to read for at least an hour every night. Among the books he seems to have read over the past eight years are Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad; Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow; Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction; and Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem; Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies; Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. He recently invited five of his favorite novelists to lunch: Whitehead, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz and Barbara Kingsolver, and in 2015 he traveled to Iowa to interview Marilynne Robinson in her home. Other writers he mentions include Hemingway, V.S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Doris Lessing, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, M.L. King, Nelson Mandela, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and he says he has read a lot of presidential biographies.

Quite likely he is the greatest reader we have had as president since the nineteenth century.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Most Important Unanswered Question in Social Science

Let’s say you are in Germany. People engage in rule-following behavior, and they become quite emotionally stressed if you suggest you might break the rules in especially inappropriate ways.

Alternatively, in Naples there is more garbage in the streets, and flexibility and rigidity across a very different set of social variables. I call that a difference in “culture,” and I am ready to accept culture as an ill-defined, question-begging term.

Now, how do differences of culture — however defined — interact with traditional economic mechanisms involving prices, incomes, and simple comparative statics? Are those competing explanations, namely cultural vs. economic? Ought they to dovetail nicely in some kind of broader explanation? Or might the cultural factors in some manner be “reduced” to questions of more traditional economics? Some combination of the above? Something else altogether? And, from among these and other options, what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem?
My version:
How much does culture matter to how we experience life? In particular, how important are differences in culture compared to differences between people in the same culture?

Is it really true that you can never understand someone from another culture? If so, how close can we get, and how? Does literature help, or music, or living in their cities or villages? Does this apply only to "big" cultures, like say, contemporary American vs. Amazon Indian? Or does it also apply (or how much does it apply) to white vs. black Americans, or men vs. women?

What about people with a different personality type – can we understand them?

How well do we really understand any other person? 
I take "understanding" other people to mean being able to predict what they feel in common or important situations and knowing in our bones what that feels like. But I think these questions apply with any definition.

Perks of Office

President Obama:
One of the great treats of being president is, in the Lincoln Bedroom, there’s a copy of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by him, one of five copies he did for charity. And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.

Stefan Johannson

Stefan Johannson (1876-1955) was a Swedish watercolor painter from Värmland, a very rural district in the hilly western part of the country. He is difficult to research on the web because he was not very famous and shares his name with a very famous race car driver; even if you search for "Stefan Johannson artist" you mainly get posts about the race car driver's artistry. Above is the image that drew me to him, Two Lights, 1928.

I managed to learn that Johannson moved to Stockholm in the 1890s and studied at the art academy there; he lived in the city until 1931. Like many other moderns he later denied that his training had any impact on him:
Johansson disliked the art academy and insisted that his academic training in Stockholm had not had any positive influence on his artistic development. Much more formative, in his view, were the journeys he made between 1909 and 1913 to Germany and especially to Italy, where he had engaged with the painting of the Renaissance and with contemporary Italian art.
Above, Shadow in the Bedroom Corner, 1944.

Johannson had a thing for light:
The light effects in the nocturnal pictures of Eugène Jansson and Karl Nordström had already grabbed his interest around the turn of the century, but it was not until the early 1920s that he began to paint atmospheric cityscapes and scenes of cities lit up at night. For Johansson, the emanation of light was a spiritual phenomenon in which God’s work was revealed: darkness versus enlightenment.
Above, Evening after Rain.

In 1931 the Swedish art market was wrecked by the Depression. Unable to afford Stockholm, Johannson moved to a small flat in Karlstad that he shared with his brother. This gave him a view of the Klarälven River, and for the rest of his life the river at night was one of his main subjects. May Night by Moon Light, 1942.

Johannson also did portraits, although I haven't been able to find very many. This is Paul Engdahl.

Bridge in the Fog, 1942. I notice that half the Johannson images on the internet seem to have been painted during World War II. Was he distracting himself from the conflagration, or did maybe the profits of neutral Sweden's metal industries pump up the art market along with the rest of the economy?

Lights along the Klarälven River, 1941.

Lantern in Moonlight, 1934.

Sugar and Hawaiian History

Hawaii's destiny was remade by sugar. It was sugar that turned a Polynesian kingdom into a polyglot outpost of the American empire, and then our most diverse state. Now sugar is dying out in the islands; the last mill just processed its last harvest. Lawrence Downes has a piece in the Times reflecting on this watershed. As Downes says, it was sugar that brought American businessmen to the islands, and it was to labor in the cane fields that they imported much of Hawaii's population. He quotes Gavan Daws and Ed Sheehan on how this happened:
It was understood that the Anglo-Saxon would never perspire for plantation wages, bent over in the hot sun with hoe or cane knife. If you wanted Europeans, they would have to be … ‘just low enough to make them contented with the lot of an isolated settler and its attendant privations.’

In practice this meant Portuguese, mostly from Madeira and the Azores. Otherwise it meant Orientals, peasants: two kinds of Chinese, the Punti and the Hakka; Japanese from Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Hiroshima prefectures; some Okinawans from the Ryukyus; a handful of Koreans; and four kinds of Filipinos – Tagalog, Ilocano, Visayan, Panganisan.
In Hawaii these people lived peacefully side-by-side, communicated in a pidgin argot, and soon intermarried.
Those who remember the plantations’ heyday are in their 80s and 90s now. Their deaths show up in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser every day: Theogenes (Porky) Magalso Behic, retired diesel mechanic, Ewa Plantation. Nobuko Urata Hashimura, payroll clerk, McBryde Plantation. Pedro Bonilla Resurreccion, Waialua Plantation. The obituary in August for Dorothy Leilani Ellis Zeffiro, Miss Hawaii 1953, noted that she was of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, English, Irish, Scottish and German descent, and that her late husband, Frank, had been a purchasing agent for Lihue Plantation.
It's a remarkable story to think about, tragic like most human history but also hopeful. Hawaii, after all, has ended up as a pretty nice place.

Hawaii's story is just one small peace of one of the great stories of the modern world, the way the plantation economy reshaped our planet. Beginning in 17th century with Barbados sugar cane and Virginia tobacco, the huge profits earned by these endeavors supercharged the global economy and led to a worldwide struggle for empire. To do the grim labor, whole kingdoms of people were uprooted and sold or otherwise moved across the globe: Africans to the New World, Indians to Trinidad and the Solomons, British convicts to Australia and North America. It is hard to imagine the 21st century without that great demographic upheaval.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Organic Farming and British Conservatism

A few days ago I stumbled onto an interview with British philosopher Roger Scruton, all done at his farm. He walks around talking about restoring the land, raising organic cows, monitoring the health of his fish pond, riding horses, joining his local church, and generally getting back to the roots of rural England. And then today I was reading the November 11 TLS, which features a long review of three recent books by other Englishmen obsessed with traditional farming and the lore and literature of the English countryside. These men scorn "rewilding" – "teen fantasies . . . of importing lynxes, bears and wolves" sniffs Nick Groom – in favor of the Wind in the Willows landscape of Victorian times. They love hedgerows, hares, corncrakes, wildflowers, little woods, and the sort of butterflies that lady naturalists used to chase around the chalk downs with their long, elegant nets. They enjoy words like "utching" and writers like Wordsworth and John Clare. "Parochial," writes John Lewis-Stempel, "has become pejorative, when it should have become exalted."

Nick Groom is launched into a tragic reverie by the brand names of herbicides:
Such herbicides have now been acculturated, and the chilling compounds of scientific names and numbers have been replaced by branded lines such as "Artist", "Regatta" and Lewis Stempel's favourite, "Othello". I prefer the more melancholy guise of the "Hamlet" herbicide, available from the Bayer Crop Science UK website. "Hamlet is the latest post-emergence herbicide from Bayer to control black-grass in winter wheat crops" – black-grass being slender meadow foxtail, a rush that was used as a staple of floor covering and on theatre stages in Shakespeare's time; it was one of the everyday smells of Merry England. Today, the exploitation of the land in increasing crop yields means that, as Lewis-Stempel puts it, "every time one buys the lie of cheap food a flower or a bird dies".
In America, we tend to think that anti-agribusiness activists will come from the left. But these men are Tories. Like Prince Charles, who was once the biggest organic farmer in Europe, they see modern farming as a threat to what they hold most dear: a world that is old, familiar, small, and thoroughly English. Surely they all voted to leave the EU.

Working in historic preservation, I have been made aware of how badly these questions fit into our left-right divides. The crowd that shows up to protest a planned development is likely to include eco-fanatics, Occupy veterans, old-money traditionalists whose ancestors led the local regiment in the Civil War, and just plain folks worried about traffic and pollution. There is no necessary connection between a love of old ways and the defense of capitalism or militarism. And this should remind us that all grand divisions like left and right do violence to our humanity, and to judge each other by such labels is a gross mistake.

Today's Weird Fact about Microbes

Viruses outnumber bacteria by 10 to 1 and it is estimated that they kill half the world's bacteria every two days.

Bronze Age Iberian Idol

Or so it is supposed to be, anyway. Fabulous if real. It's 31 cm or about 11 inches tall. Compare the larger idols here. From Phoenix Ancient Art.

Today's Irresistible Headline

I'm not sure I've ever seen a teaser link that beats this one, and it comes from Science:

Lasers turn mice into lethal hunters

It's part of the ongoing saga of manipulating mouse brains by stimulating neurons with lasers, which has previously been used to make them thirsty or afraid and even (maybe) to plant memories.
One moment, a mouse nonchalantly shares a cage with a cricket; the next, the rodent leaps on the insect and rips its head off—all because a scientist flipped a switch. For the first time, researchers have hacked into the part of the brain that makes animals hunt, using lasers to target specific neurons. What’s more, they’ve found this hunting center in a surprising place: the region of the brain responsible for fear. . . .
Fear in mammals is controlled by the amygdala. So it is quite striking that the right sort of stimulation in the amygdala triggers the whole hunting sequence: stalking, pouncing, biting, eating. Which started me wondering about humans and our complicated emotional relationship to the killing of other animals. In many societies, the killing of an animal has been the supreme religious act, and I have always thought that must mean it triggers a range of powerful emotions all at once.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reflections on January 2017

Lots of people are bemoaning 2016 as the worst year ever, which of course isn't true; it wasn't 1348 or 1864 or any year of World War I or II. It seems bad to people because we had lots of terrorism, a dismal refugee crisis – a record 5,000 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, up from 3,800 last year – and the ugliest Presidential election in recent US history, driven by a complete failure of the national media and an unprecedented surge of lying and fakery, leading to the election of the least qualified president in US history.

I've been wondering about our situation, trying to make sense of how we got to where we are. I do not think that our problems are unique or worse than those of other eras – after all, whatever is wrong in Europe and the US that leads people to support right-wing demagogues, people from Africa and the Middle East are drowning in their thousands trying to get here. I am just asking why we have these problems now.

So I've been trying to write an essay, as I do. It's how I sort out my thoughts. But I have been wrestling with this for about three weeks and it refuses to come together. So I am just going to post it as is and hope that discussion will sort some of this out.

The Spiritual Economy

I am going to start from this passage about our meritocracy by Victor Tan Chen, from a piece titled The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy:
The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth. . . .

The work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem. When I was talking to laid-off autoworkers in Michigan for my book about long-term unemployment, I met a black man in Detroit who told me his job at the plant had helped heal a wound—one going back to his parents’ choice, when he was a baby, to abandon him. (As is standard in sociological research, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) “My job was like my mother and father to me,” he said. “It’s all I had, you know?” Then the plant shut down. Now in his 50s, he was back on the job market, scrambling for one of the few good jobs left for someone without a college degree. In his moments of weakness, he berated himself. He should have prepared more. He should have gotten an education. “It’s all my fault,” he said—the company was just doing what made business sense.

For less educated workers (of all races) who have struggled for months or years to get another job, failure is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame. Without the right markers of merit—a diploma, marketable skills, a good job—they are “scrubs” who don’t deserve romantic partners, “takers” living parasitically off the government, “losers” who won’t amount to anything. Even those who consider themselves lucky to have jobs can feel a sense of despair, seeing how poorly they stand relative to others, or how much their communities have unraveled, or how dim their children’s future seems to be: Research shows that people judge how well they’re doing through constant comparisons, and by these personal metrics they are hurting, whatever the national unemployment rate may be.
We are witnessing in our time both increasing economic inequality and a narrowing of the kind of people who can join the elite. To join the charmed circle, you need either the kind of precise intelligence useful for computer and financial work, or the sort of self-promotional genius that creates celebrity. If you don't have either, you are in competition with similar people all around the world for your drink from a stagnant economic pool, and all of you are in competition with machines. You are increasingly unnecessary, and the world will make you feel it.

By one way of looking at our economy, we ought to all feel insanely rich. I mean, nobody who lived before 1950 had anything like the array of stuff we have. But obviously that isn't the whole story. As Chen says, we rely on our jobs for more than just survival. They provide, or used to provide, our identities. In America, "success" pretty much means career success. Without that we are not just poorer but psychologically battered.

These are generalizations, of course. There are people in America who don't care a fig for money or careers, and lots of people who are satisfied with an ordinary amount of both. But my impression is that Americans put a very high value on "getting ahead;" that our society is dominated by the values of a competitive marketplace, so much that it is hard to point to anything else nearly as important to us. This puts much about our fates in the hands of the market; whether we are happy with our lives depends very much on the economy, which is why we talk about it so much.

There is nothing new about social competition or inequality. Both are ancient, and it would be silly to pretend that we have some sort of unique economic crisis. But I do think that while are safe from famine, we are vulnerable to economic change in other ways.


Here's an interesting economic finding for you: for the median American male, real wages have not gone up at all since 1962. That may not be quite right, since it is hard to compare the things people bought in 1962 to the things we buy today to get a real inflation rate, and that median man may be something of a phantom creature. Other studies show wages rising until 1975 or so. But anyway the wages of ordinary men are not going much of anywhere and this has been true for most of my lifetime.

Much of the presidential campaign was about "jobs." Which is interesting because in America we have lots and lots of jobs, far more than ever before, thousands created every day. But these new jobs are not the same as the old jobs. Jobs in macho fields like lumbering, fishing, agriculture, and manufacturing are declining; most of the growing fields are in health care and other services. Which brings me to Claire Miller's NY Times piece about men who won't take jobs in traditionally female fields:
Take Tracy Dawson, 53, a welder in St. Clair, Mo. He lost several jobs, some because his employers took the work to China and Mexico and others because the workers were replaced by robots. He has heard the promises of fast-growing jobs in the health care field: His daughter trained to be a medical technician. But he never considered it.

“I ain’t gonna be a nurse; I don’t have the tolerance for people,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound bad, but I’ve always seen a woman in the position of a nurse or some kind of health care worker. I see it as more of a woman’s touch.”
And that takes us back to Tyler Cowen's piece from last spring, What the hell is going on?
The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.
Put these two things together: in America, we rely on our jobs to define who we are, to make us feel valuable, to tell us where we fit in our increasingly unequal world. Are we makers or takers? But for many men, the economy is not working. They are declining in status, losing their relevance, pushed to the margins. And they don't like it.

As machines take over ever more physical work, what happens to the men who used to do it? And will the same thing happen to all of us when AI starts doing more and more intellectual work as well?


In trying to explain why we find our economic situation so painful, Chen adds a further factor, the collapse of belief in collective effort:
When faced with these circumstances, members of the working class often turn inward. I witnessed this coping mechanism among the workers I got to know in Michigan. One of them, a white former autoworker, lost her home and had to move to a crime-infested neighborhood, where she had a front-row view of the nightly drug deals and fistfights. “I just am not used to that anymore,” said the woman, who grew up in poverty. “I want out of here so bad.” Interestingly, she dismissed any sort of collective solution to the economic misery that she and others like her now confront. For instance, she had no kind words to say about the union at her old plant, which she blamed for protecting lousy workers. She was also outraged by what she called the “black favoritism” at her Detroit plant, whose union leadership included many African Americans.

This go-it-alone mentality works against the ways that, historically, workers have improved their lot. It encourages workers to see unions and government as flawed institutions that coddle the undeserving, rather than as useful, if imperfect, means of raising the relative prospects of all workers.
On the left, people think racial antagonisms and animosity to government are stoked by billionaire class to keep workers from doing anything about their status. There may be something to that, but I think a more important factor is simply the intense individualism of our society. The most powerful social forces in our age remain those that fight against any limitations on our right to be whoever we want to be. A perfect example of what I mean surfaced this week at the Times, in their list of 11 Ways to be a Better Person in 2017:
  1. Live Like Bill. No one treasured his independence more than the late, great photographer Bill Cunningham. Live by his immortal words. “Once people own you,” he said, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”
In case you missed the salience of this advice in the minds of the Times staff, they go back to the same point in the last sentence of the article: "But mostly, stick with No. 1."

Is a society in which the first and last piece of advice is to "treasure your independence" ever going to mount a successful collective movement for anything? I think this is the main reason unions are failing; because however useful they may be, they only succeed when people take on the identity of union men and women and follow the union leadership through thick and thin, and Americans just aren't like that any more.

It may be that I am projecting my own feelings here, because I am an individualist to my core. The whole idea of belonging to a movement makes me queasy. I have been to a couple of demonstrations, but I didn't like it. I felt like a lost dogie in a cattle drive, listening to people make mediocre speeches, saying things I don't entirely agree with. Ugh. People talk about the power of feeling like you to belong to something bigger than yourself, and knowing that tens of thousands of others are on your side, and I am only puzzled. You like that? One of the irrational, emotional beliefs of my own that I have been working to shed is one best summed up in an old line from Mark Twain, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."


A few days ago I set aside speaking no evil of the dead to launch a salvo at British art critic John Berger. This was not a random act, but part of my wrestling with our contemporary condition. Berger and critics of his ilk judge art in political terms. He looks at a painting like Holbein's The Ambassadors and feels compelled to say that the globe "refers to incipient empire and so to racist violence." Of course much art is political, and when I teach history I show lots of slides, partly because I like pictures but partly because art can be a great way to get at social and political relations. So I don't see anything wrong with political analysis of art.

But is that all there is? This is a long-running debate about our academic world, in which it sometimes seems that all we have to offer is politics. You know, Shakespeare's plays taught as texts about power and gender and race and all that. Is there, maybe, something else to art?

Take another look at The Ambassadors. The two men are a secular lord and a churchman, and they are surrounded by symbols of science, scholarship, and art. The are perfect, thoroughly up-to-date avatars of worldly success. But all is not well in their world. The lute has a broken string, and across the foreground of the painting is a highly distorted image of a skull. The exact meanings here have been argued over for centuries, but at any rate Holbein has infused this portrait of two great men with an uneasy undercurrent. It was an unease felt by many people of that era, who worried that religious conflict, Turkish invasions and repeated bouts of plague and bad weather were signs of God's wrath, and possibly of the end of the world. Holbein knew both that his was an age of wonders, especially the discoveries symbolized by the globe, but also of spiritual difficulty.

It irks me to see art reduced to politics. And I think that is the right word: reduced. Politics is very important, and I care a great deal about it. But I do not believe it is the most important thing. The economy is also very important; but even taken together I do not think that the whole apparatus of our political and economic system is the most important thing. Holbein, I believe, was speaking about politics, and science, and religion, and humanity all at once, and a narrow political reading excludes most of that.

Another way I am typical of people of my sort – secular, educated, bourgeois, careful – is that I lack a vocabulary for expressing what I do think is most important. I can make lists: friendship, love, family, beauty, understanding, a calm state of mind, the panorama of the universe. But those are all bits and pieces of the spiritual wholeness I would write about if I knew how.

Art, as I understand it, is a way of communicating about such things, and about other things that can't be explained in simple prose. Or just a different way of speaking, a way that has nothing to do with politics. Turn a work of art into a position statement and you have destroyed something valuable. In our society we have a deep habit of doing exactly that. We are constantly taking beautiful, meaning things and dragging them down into our partisan wrangling, or offering interpretations that are correct but still miss the point. To me this is a symptom of a deep problem: we politicize everything because we don't know what else to do with it. We have no better way of speaking about deep things. And since politics is a partial, flawed way of thinking about life, we lack the words for speaking our lives.

I do know that this can be seen as a conservative position, and that people who really want to change society think it is important to attack old art along with everything else about the sick world they reject. I disagree. It seems to me that many of the most effective revolutionaries, from Benjamin Franklin to FDR to Nelson Mandela, have been very respectful of what came before, and felt no need to go around ruining people's love for beautiful things.

Spiritual Politics

Democratic politics is a hybrid beast, like a chimera or a griffon, that mixes up the practical business of governing with a way of speaking about our lives. Voter behavior is often baffling to rationalists like me, because I think politics is about choosing managers for the state. Other people think it is a way to say something. What many people want from politics is to be heard, and what they want in a leader is someone who understands them. They long for this because, for reasons particular to our society, or particular to some parts of it, or general to all of humanity, they feel hurt and lonely and unheard.

Which is not a way of defending how people vote. Some people want to be heard saying awful things. But you cannot understand politics until you reflect that many people feel wounded and slighted by the world and want more than anything else for someone to hear their cries of pain. Don't bother trying to tell me that (for example) Trump voters don't really have anything to complain about, because everybody suffers. It's easy to laugh at the sufferings of rich people, or even at the sufferings of middle class white people, but it is still a mistake. Plenty of middle class white people commit suicide, or drug themselves into oblivion with alcohol and opiates.

There is in America an ongoing discourse about attention. You see it everywhere: "Why aren't we talking about X?" Actually somebody probably is talking about X, even several thousand somebodies, but that isn't enough for some people. They want to know why certain things make the news but not others; why television shows focus on certain kinds of people and not their kind. They want to feel that other people care about what they care about, or even that the nation as a whole cares about what they care about. Some of these people are frankly crazy, as in, "Why aren't we talking about chemtrails?" But others are not so crazy. The culture really is focused on the doings of extraordinary people in New York and LA, rather than ordinary folks in suburban Milwaukee. Other than during national elections, when does the nightly news ever focus on asking ordinary people in boring places what they want? So when some people hear a politician who talks about what they care about in words that resonate with them, the response is overwhelming gratitude and loyalty. They will forgive such a leader almost anything, because they crave that sense of being known and understood and cared about.

They have those holes because of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of our society.

As to why our lives are so unsatisfactory, well, maybe that's just our lot. Maybe nobody is really that happy. I have spent very much of my life studying Medieval Europe, and I absolutely do not have the sense that they were spiritually better off than we are. Besides, for most people these voids I am speaking of are small or at least manageable; most of us do fine. But we have certain, particular problems that are to some extent new: our isolation and loneliness, our dependence on economic success to prove our worth, our lack of firm group identities. Compared to people in the past we are much more free, but much more alone, without the firm moral support a traditional society gives to people living by its rules. We no longer have tribes, but we still have strong tribal feelings; one way to think about the rancor of national elections is to see them as our version of the tribal wars that used to help people define themselves and their enemies.

There are pitfalls here for a nation. First, when we define ourselves primarily against each other rather than against outsiders, we step onto a long slope with Civil War at the bottom. How slippery is that slope? Second is that who becomes president actually matters, and choosing the candidate who seems most your kind of person is not necessarily the best way to guide the country. Millions vote in our elections without any idea what their candidate actually plans to do in office; in this regard Trump voters are little different from others. Is it a good idea by a nation to be led by those who best fill our psychological holes?

So that is my analysis. We have screwed up politics because we use politics in a clumsy way to fill the voids left in our hearts by our social, economic, and spiritual situation. We pour raw feeling into politics because we don't know what else to do with those feelings. We look to political leaders to understand us because we feel wounded and ignored; to speak for us because we feel that we have no voice; to validate us, because we have no system of community values to enfold us and tell us that we are doing right. We are free, but nervous about our freedom and unsure where we fit in the world. We rely on politics to give us a sense of being in the right, because otherwise we don't know what right is.