Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Feathered Serpent

Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec, Kukulkan to the Maya, one of the main gods of several central American pantheons. He was variously the god of wind, wisdom, fertility-giving rain, the planet Venus, dawn, skilled craftsmen, merchants. And in my favorite version, the policer of the boundary between earth and sky.


More here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Health Care Fiasco

Round one of the Obamacare repeal fight goes to the Democrats, and both Trump and Paul Ryan are saying they won't even bother to keep trying. Opinions differ as to why, but part of it has to be that both men hate this issue and just want it to go away. They tried to make it go away by passing a bill, but if they can make it go away by not passing a bill they will settle for that.

I have some thoughts about this. One is that during the 2012 election, Romney kept saying that electing him was the only chance Republicans would get to repeal the Affordable Care Act. By 2016, he said, people getting coverage under the law would be used to it, and it would be impossible to take it away from them. Maybe he had a point.

Another is that governing is difficult. American populists seem to believe that governing is a moral problem, and all we need to set the government right is to elect tough, wise, folksy men of the people who will do the right thing. But governing a country is hard, and without decades of experience it is almost impossible to get anything significant done in Washington or any other capital city.

A third thought is that for all the corruption and sausage-making and interest group pressure and what all, enacting big changes is much easier when you are working toward principles that you really believe in. Reagan got a lot done partly because he passionately believed that lower taxes. a bigger military, and less regulation were what the country needed. Obama got his health care bill because he and other Democrats passionately believed that health care is a right. The latest Republican health care proposal was remarkable for its complete lack of ideological motivation. Was there, anywhere in the world, a single person who was passionate about this bill? Without passion, people are not motivated to keep working for something month after month and year after year, and they end up shrugging and walking away after one setback.

Trump Catches Russian Spy?

Something to ponder: what is this story doing on the cover of the very Trump-friendly National Enquirer:

On the one hand it makes Trump out to be a sort of hero; but on the other, this is the man he picked to advise his campaign and then serve as National Security Adviser. Is this supposed to help Trump with the whole Russian connection thing by pinning it all on Flynn? Seems to me that might well backfire, adding "Trump is pals with Russian agents" to the rest of his problems. Plus as we saw with Hillary's emails a scandal can come to be framed in a single word – in this case "Russia" – and repeating that word, even in the context of refuting the allegations, can just reinforce in everyone's mind that there is a big scandal going on.

Very odd.

The Hunger Games, the College Games

Mark Shiffman  has some interesting thoughts about why The Hunger Games has been such a huge hit with young Americans. The Hunger Games, in case you have completely lost touch with adolescent culture, is set in a dystopian future where the dictatorship seems to particularly hate young people. In this world adults train randomly selected teenagers to fight each other to the death in a great annual contest; the prize for the winner is extra food for his or her whole community. As Shiffman sees it, this is much like the way we train our young people for equally fierce educational competition, the winners finding a measure of security in an increasingly uncertain world:
More than a decade ago, David Brooks described a generation of America’s elite university students as “organization kids.” Their lives were obsessively scheduled around achievements designed to provide them with competitive advantages. Formed by a childhood crammed with cognitive enhancement and programmed activities, accustomed throughout high school to relentlessly grooming their résumés for selective college admissions, kept on track through it all with mood-stabilizing drugs, these organization kids seemed incapable of pausing to reflect on what gave any meaning to their efforts. Nor were they encouraged to do so. Success—defined as admission to elite universities and graduate programs, followed by plum internships and jobs—had become an end in itself.

I teach Brooks to my honors students in their first week of college. They recognize themselves in his account. But they also see an important difference. Unlike the students in the article, they no longer see ­themselves sailing through their lives of ­advancement with sunny confidence that they’ll land the dream job. They worry their achievements won’t be enough.

Given this worry, it’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is the novel of their generation.  Its dark emptiness resonates with students’ latent unease and dissatisfaction with their educational regimen, as well as with their worry that they’re all honed up with no place to go. Afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage, they rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.

According to Amazon, the most highlighted passage in all books read on Kindle—highlighted almost twice as often as any other passage—is from the second volume of The Hunger Games: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves. They clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties—of the job market, of course, but also deeper uncertainties about their status, their identities, their self-worth. Disciplines that have (or appear to have) a technical character and a clear arc of accumulated knowledge and skills leading toward a foreseeable career goal reinforce the feeling that they are working steadily, assignment by assignment, toward gaining more control over an uncertain future.
One of my sons is a particular fan of The Hunger Games, and I think he sees our educational system in exactly these terms. As he sees it, adults are always pressuring him to compete for prizes (grades, degrees, prestige, money) that interest him not at all, while paying no attention to him, his soul, his real desires. The harder anyone presses him to succeed, the more he thinks that they are thinking, not about him, but about themselves. Shiffman:
Students, when they enter the system of higher education or early in their experience of it, learn to distrust the system that is shaping them. Very likely this distrust has been taking shape during high school, consciously or not. This is a dimension of the appeal of The Hunger Games that had not entered my thoughts when I wrote about it in my article. The young people being trained for meaningless competition don’t know whether they can trust any of the adults mentoring them, whose motives are tainted by the underlying moral squalor of the whole system.
I have never had any useful response to my son because I never saw school like this. I studied because I liked it and competed because I liked coming out on top. Nobody ever had to tell me that school was important; I simply felt this in my bones. But my sons have other priorities, and whenever anyone tries to change their minds they instinctively rebel. From what I read, they are doing what thousands of their peers wish they were doing: saying so long to the career ladder and wandering off in search of some more authentic life. I wish them well, but I don't think our world is really the Hunger Games, or that the revolution of youthful authenticity the books posit is about to come to pass.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cherry Blossoms

At least some of the Japanese cherries in Washington have made it through the alternating warm spells and frosts. Taken today in Rose Park.

Studying Skeletons from the Late Roman Frontier

Interesting study in the news this week based on 200 skeletons from five sites in 5th century Pannonia, a frontier province of the Roman Empire now in Hungary. Cambridge archaeologist Susanne Hakenbeck and her colleagues studied the trace elements in the bones, which provide clues as to where people grew up and what they ate. They found great diversity in their sample. Some of the people seemed to have eaten a meat-heavy nomad diet, others a peasant, cereal-based diet. A majority had elemental signatures matching the place they were buried, but others had very different signatures suggesting that they grew up far away. In terms of grave goods and burial style, the graves were much more consistent and much more in keeping with local habits.

Their conclusion is that this was a population in flux, with many people moving around and some entering the population from far away. They chose to focus on Pannonia both because ancient written sources suggest it was an area of intense conflict and much population change, and because the Hungarian plain is ecologically suitable for both agriculture and pastoralism, which have at times existed side-by-side there. It seems that they probably did so in the fifth century.

New stories about this find are playing up a weird "Huns were not barbarians" angle that I don't really understand. Just because different kinds of people coexisted doesn't mean they did so peacefully; in fact the written history and other archaeological evidence (e.g., the many buried treasures) both show that they experienced very high levels of violence. Still, they did coexist.

I am personally a bit skeptical about all this elemental analysis, because I don't think we have a really good baseline showing how much variation there is in these numbers within and between populations. But there is other evidence of mixed populations in this area, for example skulls distorted in the nomad way like this one from the Hungarian National Museum. Across western Europe these "Hunnish" skulls have been recovered from cemeteries containing mostly ordinary-looking Roman skeletons. The written record also makes clear that there was a large amount of mixing going on, leading to the formation of new pseudo-ethnicities like "Visigoth."

So I would say that this bone chemistry is another piece of evidence that the fifth century really was a "time of wandering" as the old historians had it, with many thousands of people in motion across thousands of miles. All that movement and mixing had effects in many small, ordinary places, where suddenly your neighbors might be members of a strange barbarian tribe, burying their own dead in the same cemeteries where your grandparents lay.

The Aliseda Treasure

The Aliseda Treasure is a collection of precious object found in 1920 near the village of Aliseda in central Spain. It was discovered by two peasants who tried to sell the pieces secretly, but they were found out and arrested and the treasure was seized by the state. The finders never gave up the details of the discovery, and to this day archaeologists dispute whether this was a buried treasure trove or the contents of one or two royal burials. All of the objects are now in the national archaeological museum in Madrid.

The treasure contains several pieces that were either made in Phoenicia or copied from Phoenician work, which allows it to be dated to between 650 and 550 BCE.

This was not, however, in Phoenician territory, but part of the inland kingdom of Tartessos. At least the aristocratic elite of Tartessos was very much under Phoenician influence and it is hard to tell their finery from the Phoenician version; for the peasants, it seems, life went on very much as it had in the Bronze Age.

The closest significant site of that period is La Ayuela, which was recently excavated as part of an effort to understand the "socioterritorial context" of the find. The project web site doesn't say what this is, but it looks like it might be a small palace.

Love this not-very-subtle necklace.

Detail of the most spectacular item, the gold belt.



"Gold diadem of the Iberian type," or so the sources all say.

Ring with carved stone.

And a glass pitcher. This treasure is another reminder of the strong connections between the Middle East and Western Europe in the Iron Age.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jane Austen and Contemporary Politics

A certain sort of literature professor – mostly women, mostly American – can't resist claiming Jane Austen for feminism and progressive politics. I've never been able to see it, and neither have lots of others. Edward Said, to name just one, accused Austen of defending colonialism and slavery. Certainly during her lifetime nobody noticed that Austen had any politics different from the moderate Toryism of her family. But for some people, Austen was a great radical and her novels are brilliant critiques of her patriarchal world.

I was moved to write about this by the coincidence of two articles. The first was a short piece noting that some Janeites reacted with horror to an article claiming that Austen has many fans on the alt-right:
But it has prompted the most sustained chatter among Austen scholars, a more reliably liberal bunch who emphatically reject white nationalist readings of her novels.

“No one who reads Jane Austen’s words with any attention and reflection can possibly be alt-right,” Elaine Bander, a retired professor and a former officer of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said in an email.

“All the Janeites I know,” she added, “are rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people.”
Got that? If you even once read Jane Austen with attention, it is "impossible" for you be an alt-right troll.

Second is a TLS review by Devoney Looser that covers half a dozen books by or about Austen (Jan. 20). These run the gamut from the silly to the scholarly, but all agree that if you "read between the lines" Austen's books "are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine wrote." Mansfield Park, one writes, "is about slavery." (And she didn't mean it the way Edward Said did.)

Even these writers admit that to see Austen's politics you have to "read between the lines" or "look properly." They admit Austen's "power to frustrate," that is, her refusal to baldly state the opinions they are sure she held. Austen's books feature mostly members of the upper class doing very predictable class-bound things: courting, getting married, having each other to tea. I have always found the books remarkable for all the things they ignore: not just the contentious politics of the time but also the equally contentious religious scene, the raging debates about science, medicine and history, the scandalous lives of Byron, Shelley, and other radicals, and so on. In fact, they ignore pretty much everything except the tribulations of upper class family life. If they are radical, it is in how Austen described these ordinary domestic scenes and acts. It does sometimes seem that Austen feels deeply the unfairness of life for women and the cramped worlds to which they were limited, as well as the excessive emphasis on money. But is that radical politics? Or is it an older sort of criticism, a moral attack on people who are selfish, greedy and mean? People who don't live up to the standards of their class?

According to one of these authors, the heroine of Mansfield Park offers "shrewd analyses of the power politics of domestic life." That, I would say, is true; Austen was one of the best writers ever on family dynamics. Since the families she wrote about were patriarchal, it follows that she was very attuned to how such families work and how power in them might be misused. But was that, as the same author wrote, "a radical critique of bourgeois patriarchy, its norms, and values of behavior"? I don't think so. I suppose the question is whether Austen's many insightful little critiques of bad people and bad families add up to a more fundamental critique of the whole system. I don't think they do. To me the attacks on particular people are based on a tacit understanding of how people ought to act, and the way they ought to act is perhaps kinder and fairer but still very much of that time and place and class. Consider the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which turns on the refusal of a weak man with a greedy wife to share his large inheritance with his genteel but impoverished cousins; nobody suggests that maybe he should give his whole fortune to the poor and go join the Greek or Haitian revolution.

And yet many smart people insist otherwise, and they publish book after book making the case for Austen's radicalism. I think they just love Austen's books, admire her shrewd insights into the limits on her heroines' lives, and assume that she must have understood these things the way they do. Or maybe some of them just care more about Jane Austen and progressive politics than anything else and want their two favorite causes to be somehow united. But Austen was not a modern feminist, and I don't think we can know her innermost thoughts. What we can see is that in her books she scrupulously avoided politics and anything else controversial; she gives us plenty of annoying parsons but not one who espouses Unitarianism. Perhaps we should accept that this was her own choice, not one forced on her by circumstance. Isn't it rather an insult to her to think that she buried her own deepest beliefs out of fear of scandal? After all she did not live in a quiet time, but in a revolutionary era when thousands of upper class people, including many women, threw themselves into radicalism of a hundred sorts.

Of course modern people are always projecting their own political concerns into the past. We used to have a whole school of ancient historians determined to see the conflict between Athens and Sparta as a preview of the Cold War: the contrast between the dynamic commercial democracy of Athens and the grim military aristocracy of Sparta was a perfect trap for their anachronistic political vision. Jane Austen's novels present a similarly perfect trap for modern feminists, especially those whose main slogan has been "the personal is the political." For these feminists the most important issues are found in the dynamics of families and the ways men and women relate to each other. I actually agree with this, and I would say that the most important achievement of modern feminism has been the creation of a new family ideal based on equality between husbands and wives. Since these are exactly the issues Austen wrote about so precisely, with such a clear and sometimes cold vision, it makes her books an irresistible target for feminist interpretation. Whether that would have made any sense to Austen is another question.

Charles Spurgeon's London Street Traders

Minister Charles Spurgeon took these pictures in London between 1884 and 1887; Spitalfields Life has many more. Above, knife grinder.

 Selling ginger biscuits.

 Kentish herb woman.

Rabbit seller.

And of course the muffin man.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Albertus Pictor: Taby Church

Albertus Pictor is what art historians call a painter of church walls and ceilings who was active in central Sweden between about 1460 and 1509. There are many pictures of his work online because of a big 500th anniversary retrospective staged in Sweden in 2009.

These were not big cathedrals, but ordinary parish churches in an ordinary, agricultural region. This post focuses on one of those churches, in the village of Taby.

Overall view of the altar.

The ceiling. I like these paintings, but what I love about this is the ordinariness of it. These paintings were done by an obscure man and a crew of even more obscure assistants, for the pleasure and edification of perfectly ordinary medieval people. This is what they saw in church; these are the stories they knew; this is how they imagined the Biblical world.

Albert is mentioned in a handful of contemporary contracts and accounts as "Albrekt målare" (Albert the painter) or "Albrekt pärlstickare" (Albert the pearl-stitcher), because he apparently did fancy embroidery as well. He left several signatures in the churches he painted, usually "Albertus Pictor" but occasionally "Albertus Ymmenhusen", which is why some people think he came from Immenhausen in Hesse, Germany.

Two views of Jonas and the whale, going in and coming out.

Joseph cast into the well.

Mary's Death.

Dancing around the Golden Calf.

Solomon and Bathsheba.

Prophets. Many of these photos come from this wonderful Swedish site, which I think was tied to the 500th anniversary celebration.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dawson's Bees Explain Everything

Courtesy of BBC Life, I just learned about a wonderful organism called the Dawson's bee, which lives in the Australian desert.

If you stumbled on these ground-dwelling bees during most of their life-cycle, you would think they were peaceful and rather sweet. But that's because most of the time the only adults around are females. The females are happily laying eggs in their burrows and storing up food for their babies.

But if you chanced upon them at the right time, you would witness a massacre. The male bees hatch first, and just hang around waiting for the females to emerge from the ground. As soon as one does she is swarmed by males, who fight each other so viciously for the right to mate with her that they sometimes tear her to pieces along with each other. The colony becomes one huge brawl as more females emerge and dozens of males battle to the death.

Once the mating is over and the males are all dead, peaceful life resumes.