Monthly Archives: January 2012
I’m reading Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of The Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. Burrough quotes a 1962 Nation article about Texas oil millionaires meddling in politics:
He believes his riches were in no way the result of luck but of his own foresight, courage, and initiative–all made possible by the American Way of Life. […]
Although he may never have got as far as high school, he is an authority on textbooks, the tariff and winning football formations, the Constitution, geophysics, currency inflation, and how to get rid of warts.
He is fond of writing letters to office-holders and potential office-holders advising and/or threatening them about the course they should follow. Given half a chance, he will, out of his accumulated wisdom, drop homilies, maxims, aphorisms, texts, proverbs and parables for the benefit of his fellowman, whom he professes to love dearly.
Fifty years later, it’s still true about businessmen, and an increasingly accurate description of politicians themselves.
I just finished Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It’s basically an attempt to construct a narrative of how human beings went from talking chimpanzees to hunter-gatherers to tribesmen to farmers to workers to us.
It’s surprising to me how little thought I’ve thought about this before. Here’s what I learned from the book:
- The overall arc of human development turns out to be a battle between bureaucratic efficiency and human vice. Humans are driven by our natures to favor our kin, hoard our wealth and protect our security at the expense of others. The most successful early societies, just like the most successful societies now, are the ones that put rules in place to keep people from gaming the system to benefit themselves and their families.
- The earliest manifestation of this principle is ancient China. Being constantly at war with their neighbors forced each little territory to come up with education and military training based on talent rather than family connections. Like March Madness, the best-organized armies defeated the others, consolidated their territory and challenged larger opponents. After about a thousand years of this, China went from being 10,000 small principalities to one totalitarian empire.
- This same process was never able to happen in India, Fukuyama says, because it got religion. At just the time when it could have consolidated, Brahmanism took over and introduced the caste system.
- Since it was basically impossible for people to rise from lower to upper castes, Indian elites never devised a way to promote people through talent or grit. Under Brahmanism, you only rise or fall in caste after you die and are born again. Not only is it unlawful to reach a higher caste in your lifetime, it’s a sin. India never got efficient bureaucracy because the upper castes only drew talent from their own ranks, and based status on birth, not merit.
- In Europe, efficient states developed about 1,500 years after China, and only by imitating the administrative structures of the Catholic Church.
- Priest celibacy, which was only introduced in the 11th century AD, ensured that priests had no children or families to favor with wealth or appointments. So the church had no way of promoting people other than merit. This drove the Catholics to develop sophisticated structures to administer all their tithe-collecting and heaven-selling.
- Since the Catholic Church was basically the world’s first international institution, states started imitating its practices as a way of efficiently collecting taxes and ending disputes between citizens.
- It’s basically an accident that Britain ended up as the first ‘modern’ society, meaning it had a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. The parliament was just a leftover institution for the feudal lords to protect their property, but since it was already there, it became a vehicle for the lower gentry and eventually commoners to represent their interests.
- I especially geeked out over the section about Denmark. Fukuyama says Denmark’s highly efficient state is a result of historical accident too. After the Reformation, Denmark was one of the only countries in which Lutheran priests were given the duty of teaching all the commoners to read and write. Smart little villages became efficient little towns, which became a progressive little country.
- We like to think of political development as gradual progress toward a goal like peace or wealth or stability, but what really stands out from the book is how many societies reached high levels of sophistication and development, only to squander them by backsliding into their old habits
- China, for example, after getting all efficient by 200 BC, let nepotism creep back in once the empire was unified and basically sat development out for 1,000 years.
- In the Middle Ages, the Hungarians apparently had their own Magna Carta (Called ‘The Golden Bull’ whuuut) that made their king accountable to his subjects. Great, right? Well, it turns out it gave so much accountability that king had to convince the nobles and gentry to protect the country against outside invaders, and eventually it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Ottomans.
- The level of corruption in early societies is monumental. The French and the Spanish governments in the 1700s basically operated like organized crime families. They literally sold noblemen the right to collect taxes. So each nobleman got an army together and bayoneted whatever taxes he wanted out of the peasants, while completely avoiding paying taxes himself. One of the reason the British Navy was able to dominate Spanish and French was simply because they had a centralized state that collected taxes, rather than a bunch of Pierre Sopranos.
I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of long-term, comparative history lately, and I’m constantly struck by the degree to which every generation thinks that the world as they found it has always been that way. Societies in the Middle Ages died defending status quos that were sometimes just 30 years old. In our own lifetimes, we constantly forget that the entire concept of a nation-state is less than 200 years old, and the borders of most existing countries have been significantly edited just in the last century.
Sometimes, in the midst of a culture obsessed with where we’re going, it’s nice to look back at where we’ve been.
The gym has been packed this week.
‘Is this the effect of everybody making New Year’s Resolutions?’ I asked my friend the avid gymmer
‘Yep, happens every January,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone by Groundhog Day.’
I know I shouldn’t take micro-phenomena and turn them into metaphors, but I’m finding it difficult not to see something poignant and sad and human in a mass of people simultaneously signing up for the gym and then, three weeks later, simultaneously abandoning it. We all want to leave our current habits for sunnier, healthier ones, but we inevitably get pulled back home.
In a related story, I skipped German class this week on account of not-feeling-like it. I may even have eaten something I’m allergic to on purpose, just so I’d have an excuse to go home and sink into the couch. I’m sure foreign-language teachers are sitting in a break room somewhere, having the same conversation.
I wonder if we’d all be nicer if we remembered that everyone we meet is trying really hard to be a better version of themselves.
One of my favorite activities when I lived in Denmark was doing gymnastics. The high bar, the rings, the floor, it was a blast.
Since I moved to Berlin, I haven’t been able to find a place with proper gymnastics equipment. Instead I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week–the power of homosexuality compels you!–but it feels like an obligation, not a hobby.
I finally found a weekly gymnastics team here in Berlin, so tonight I attended for the first time by to see what kind of shape I’m in after trading in my unitard for trackpants seven months ago.
Apocalypse. I can’t do any of the shit I used to love doing, including handsprings and front flips, which were basically the only thing I achieved in my 20s. During my downtime every moving part of my body seems to have become a coal-fired little pain factory.
The surprising thing is, despite how monotonous and horrifying it is, I’ve actually been pretty diligent about going to the gym since I moved here. It’s literally next to my work, and lifting iron bars up and down, it turns out, is a pretty decent way to de-spreadsheet on your lunch break.
I thought at least some of my new gym muscles would come in handy when I started doing gymnastics again. Weight, motion, it’s all the same thing, right?
No, punk, my body replies in aches and weakness. You’re gonna start from the scratch I give you.
This just confirms everything I hated about the gym in the first place. Working out doesn’t make you good at anything, it just makes you better at working out. If sports were kitchen utensils, the gym would be an apple corer. It performs precisely one function–one for which other utensils easily suffice, I might add–and it doesn’t take skill or finess to use, only force.
I realize this is a preference, not a principle. In a society where no one ever forces us to get up and move around, all exercise is equally arbitrary. In my experience, the gym is the only kind that feels that way.
Yeah I’m not gonna bother reading anything about Rick Santorum. I’m sure he has unacceptable opinions on any number of important policy issues. I’m sure that the media will reveal hypocrisy between these opinions and his personal conduct. I’m sure there are skeletons in his closet waiting to be illuminated by the reporters and paraded on a stick by the bloggers.
But really, what’s the fucking point? He’s not going to win the nomination, nor the presidency. It’s only been five weeks since Herman Cain quit the primaries, and I’m already thinking that all those minutes I spent gathering news and opinion about him could have been spent reading a short story, or learning German, or shitting into my cupped hand and throwing it at my neighbors.
Looking back on this election in five years, whatever its outcome, I don’t see myself saying ‘Drat, I wish I had spent more time gathering information about the personality, achievements and thoughts of Richard John Santorum.’ Maybe I don’t have better things to do, but I do have other things to do.
I reorganized my bookmarks today. Four years of promiscuous ctrl+d-ing has left me with an disheveled list of names and urls, most of which I seldom read anymore or don’t remember ever liking.
As I sorted them into categories, I found the experience a bit depressing. Every publication, website and blog is a source of information. When you’re deleting them, you’re essentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to hear what they want to tell me.’
Even more depressing is confronting what you actually use each of your bookmarks for. The internet has an essentially unlimited capacity to tell you the same thing over and over. News blogs recapitulate the same information. Entertainment blogs ‘analyse’ the same press releases.
Looking at your history and curating a list of your favorite information sources is essentially a blueprint for the kind of person you are. Do you want a brief, snarky take on American politics? Feminist analysis of celebrity gossip? Gay album reviews?
Lately I’ve been feeling like unlimited reading options has turned literature into music. If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I want to listen to Low Roar or Portishead. If I’m about to go out dancing, I want to listen to Rye Rye or The Avalanches.
In the same way, early in the morning I want to read a website that gives me sober, straightforward news, something Reutersy. At work I want something I can read, digest and forget in about 15 minutes. On weeknights I want a site that tells me something I didn’t know before or shows me something I knew in a new way.
This concept isn’t anything new, obviously. The written word, from newspapers to magazines to novels, have always set a particular tone, and we always choose to read something that reflect ourselves back at us.
What I’ve been struck by lately, though, is that I also have moods for content. I want to read an article about how stupid libertarians are. Or I want a minority to tell me that they’re empowered. Or I want to read a blog where someone tells me that my favorite TV shows are their favorites too.
The internet allows us to cultivate not only the facts we get and the conclusions we draw, but our emotional reactions too. What ever I feel like feeling–confirmation, outrage, optimism, apocalypse–I can access it instantly.
In the end, I just sorted my favorites into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. The sites contained in both of them give me information. But one group plays me something I haven’t heard before, and the other just repeats the same old melody.