What I’ve been reading

1. Robert Trivers, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.  A wild memoir, full of tales of bipolar, murders in Jamaica, study at Harvard, marijuana, knee symmetry as a key variable in sprinting success, and the Black Panthers.  It has sentences like “Best way to put it, nobody fucked with Ernst Mayr.”  From one of the leading evolutionary biologists, recommended if you are up for the offbeat and the exotic and not obsessed with coherence.  Burial instructions are included.

2. R.W. Johnson, How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis.  A stunning yet deeply pessimistic book about why the country is doing so badly.  The rot seeps more badly than I had realized.  The corruption, collapse of the legal system, and dismantling of the use of the government public to spend on public goods all are out of control and getting worse.  Recommended.  A bit idiosyncratic, but conceptual and original throughout.

3. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary.  Many people consider this the best book on cricket ever written.  I cannot judge that, but it is a stellar sports book, colonialism book, and most of all a Caribbean Bildungsroman (Trinidad), definitely recommended to anyone with interests in those areas.  Beautifully written, I read this one to prepare for Kareem.

4. Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back.  I don’t usually read books with “the Hitler gimmick,” but this recently translated German novel caught my eye in a London bookstore.  Imagine that Hitler comes back (an unexplained plot twist), no one believes it is “the real Hitler,” and he is given his own TV show as a kind of crank celebrity imitator.  It’s an interesting meditation on the commercial trivialization of evil, and how the modern world can process virtually any kind of message.  Relevant for American politics today, I even laughed at some parts and I don’t usually find novels funny.

5. Amiri Baraka, SOS Poems 1961-2013.  Is he actually one of America’s better poets?  Imagine a mix of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and the Black Panthers.  Truly original and full of energy, here is his NYT obituary.

6. James Baldwin, Collected Essays.  My favorite Baldwin, not the novels.  The biggest surprise in here is his film criticism, most of all the short essay on Bergman, or on Porgy and Bess.  Here is an Atlantic piece appreciating Baldwin as a movie critic.  Or how about this sentence?: “He [Langston Hughes] is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable.”


Sadly, South Africa was a mess even before the Mandela and the ANC.

They had few options.

Since when did the word 'sociobiologist' get second billing, as Trivers is certainly one.

Or is this a case like being a believer in racism, but deciding that human biodiversity is a better label to help obscure one's racism? Though obviously, the relationship between sociobiology and evolutionary biology is complex - or simple, as sociobiology remains interested in an agenda that evolutionary biology isn't. Much like how social Darwinism has an agenda that those interested in exploring and extending Darwin's insights generally consider irrelevant to science.

There is no such thing a Social Darwinism. Just Darwinism. The term social Darwinism was invented by the Left so they can pretend to support what Darwin said without having to reject the science. But Darwin was, of course, a social Darwinist. And hence he considered those insights that you think irrelevant to science, highly relevant to science.

This is probably why scientists who sit very uncomfortably with the Left, such as Trivers, are much more interesting and productive than scientists who are Right On and approved of by the Left, like Stephen Jay Gould.

No. The scientific theory is descriptive, while Social Darwinism is prescriptive.

The theory of evolution just states that the fittest survive. Social Darwinism draws from that a moral imperative for the fittest to be favored in order to create an optimal humanity. This is neither contained within the original theory nor a necessary conclusion following on from it.

Everyone is a racist in some meaning of that word.

The second tragedy of racism is that it is a completely unproductive endeavor.

I mean, if you get over the first, that it is wrong, unfair, and usually evil, it still leads nowhere good.

Both Zimbabwe and South Africa were doing better under "racist" governments. Israel is overtly ethno-nationalist and enjoys high living standards and functional democratic government.

The city of Cologne is proudly anti-racist and its women are sexually assaulted.

From the book in question:

On another occasion, Bill and I were discussing racial prejudice and the possible biological components thereof, and he said to me, “Bob, once you've learned to think of a herring gull as an equal, the rest is easy.” What a welcome approach to the problem, especially from within biology. Bill was down to the level he taught me to be at. We are all living organisms – make discriminatory comments about others at your own risk. In Bill's view, it was always better to try to see the world from the view of the other creature.

Other than that, I have no idea what you are talking about.

You said racism is completely unproductive. It is demonstrably not. I'm admittedly assuming your definition of "racism" is broad enough to encompass the Afrikaaner, Rhodesian and Israeli governments

From the quoted excerpt, I don't know whether Bob is making fun of Bill. Only a creature with highly evolved cognition can "learn to think of a herring gull as an equal." Which he doesn't, in fact, which is why he doesn't try to breed with one, or maybe he has. More pertinently, the herring gull does not consider Bill his equal, other than applying the same threat/non-threat analysis which the gull applies to other creatures.

Your "successful racists" are short on happy endings.

Isn't it the other way around? The anti-racist democratic majority won in South Africa and Zimbabwe and now everybody's doing worse. Germany decided to burnish its anti-racist credentials and now Germans are being chased out of their own public spaces. Israel, by contrast, seems to be doing very well by overtly maintaining Jewish majority rule.

Your argument is that if they could have just kept hooking car batteries to testicles they could have preserved their polite society. Brilliant.

And necklacings are more humane? Look, I don't approve of torture but your thesis that "racism" is "completely unproductive" is a sloppy, emotional statement.

Stop and think about it. Your best examples for racism were counties that forcibly subdued a majority. They ultimately shattered because violent subjugation is not a very stable state. If you get over the first obection, that this is wrong, unfair, and evil, it still leads nowhere good.

Compare and contrast to the founding American ideal:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Now it has been a long road to pursue that principle, but it has been the right aspirational goal. We have lasted better and prospered more than those with more evil foundations.

Meh, racist South Africa did better than psuedo-socialist South Africa, but that's not so much a praise of racism as it is a condemnation of Marxist governing abilities.

Your original comment was that "racism is completely unproductive", which is obviously not true for the dominant group, at least in the short term. Is a racist government less stable? Perhaps, but now you are moving the goal posts.

Apartheid South Africa was a nuclear power and a top 20 GDP country. Apartheid was wrong, but South Africa didn't just succeed compared to bad alternatives.

Yet plainly no men are created equal. So they must have meant something different? Equal in the eyes of the law?

Very funny that anon moves the bar to "short term." Yes you can run a brutally oppressive regime in the short term! What a win for you.


There is no way your solution (the "American" solution) could have stopped at South Africa's borders. How stable would the United States be today if their borders had been fixed at the western boundaries of the original thirteen colonies. The white settlers would have had to spread up north throughout sub-Saharan Africa, exterminating local populations as they spread. Given Europeans' vulnerability to tropical diseases, sufficient numbers of settlers could never have been mustered to carry out this "project", and that's what happened. It was not benevolence that prevented southern Africa from looking like North America.

Segregation is the humane solution to a dire problem.

No doubt it's one solution, but it requires a buy-in from all the segregated parts. And that buy-in will come only if the division of resources, duties, and responsibilities, is seen as fair by everyone. In India, such a compact lasted thousands of years (no doubt with a good amount of browbeating and coercion too, but that was never going to be sufficient.) In the US, it lasted for about a century.

Amalgamation is another solution, and is almost certainly a more humane solution than segregation.

If, say, Israel took over West Virginia and ethnically cleansed or dominated and controlled the population there, they could raise living standards in West Virginia. Would you support that or consider it a positive outcome? I thought you were some sort of non-interference, nativist type, rather than a technocratic supremacist.

Rhodesia, yes. South Africa, not really. Arabs in Israel are a minority, have full formal citizenship, and are not living in Bantustans, so I cannot figure why you lump them together.

All three governments are or were explicitly ethno-nationalist. Israelis will never let Arabs become a democratic majority within their borders. Looking at the state of their neighbors, I'd say that's very prudent.

"Since when did the word ‘sociobiologist’ get second billing, as Trivers is certainly one."

Who do you suppose chose the title of the book?

South Africa was never going to build a nation-state with their demographics and history. I'd wager 50 years from now Zimbabwe will be better off than SA for having cleansed its demons, albeit distastefully. The Nationalists and Mandela just kept kicking the can down the road, but there will be blood and possibly new borders before South Africa settles down.

Bracketing out natural resource rents, South Africa's per capita product exceeds that of Zimbabwe by about 8-fold. South Africa's political life is also more congenial. I doubt Zimbabwe's catching up any time soon.

Re #3, can anyone comment on why cricket has never taken off in the US *at all* even though other British sports like Soccer, Polo, and Rugby at least have some fans? I've met more Americans with an interest in Dressage than cricket, even though cricket is one of the biggest sports in the world. Maybe baseball just crowds it out?

cricket is one of the biggest sports in the world

How? It has virtually no following outside the British Commonwealth, and is not ubiquitous even within (Canada doesn't play it, and neither does Nigeria.) Because Indians are so passionate about it, you might say that a sizable fraction of the world population follows the game, but that still doesn't make it a world game.

One reason the game may not have spread to more peripheral English colonies and dominions may be that it acquired the connotation of being an upper class sport. So it would hardly attract the average American, given the history of the United States' break from the British Empire. Cricket was adopted wherever the local elite identified with (or admired) British culture and wanted to emulate it. This was true not just in Anglo countries but also in India. Talking about India, cricket only became the #1 sport in the 80s, after the Indian team started becoming very competitive (and after winning the World Cup in 1983). Before that time, field hockey (a much more plebeian game) had a strong claim to be the Indian sport (India won 8 Olympic Gold medals in it.) Soccer too has always been very popular, given it requires so little equipment and money to play. But the Indian team's competitiveness coupled with the newly deregulated cable TV service providers' decisions to put all their eggs in one basket in the 90s (covering one game in depth is easier and more lucrative than covering multiple sports) has resulted in a large cricket following in India.

By almost all measurements it is the second most followed sport in the world. So I think it's fair to say that it is one of the biggest sports in the world. All sports bar soccer are geographically concentrated and cricket to an extreme degree. This doesn't make that question illegitimate. American Football, baseball, table tennis are similarly concentrated.

One day I would like to read a book by a South African about the good parts of South African society. Since it seems to have improved as a society in the past thirty years, apparently in spite of the pessimism of every book ever written by South Africans about South Africa, it would prove a useful corrective.

There are a lot of good things about South Africa, especially compared to Zimbabwe which is a real mess. Botswana has done well by some measures, but with much lower population and a higher dependence on natural resources (so sustainability is questionable). They also have a much worse HIV problem than SA. Namibia has some merits but there just is a lot less going on than SA. SA is still the most culturally influential African country by a solid margin.

"South Africa: The Solution" , by Leon Louw & Francis Kendall (of the Free Market Foundation) ... split the 9 black tribes and 2 white tribes into Swiss style cantons.

This should have been done for Yugoslavia. And for Sudan (plus new South Sudan, also a tribal mess.) And for Iraq. And now for Syria. Even Nigeria.

Smaller tribal city-states will be more successful than post-colonial semi-imperial centralized government.

The problem, of course, is that many chunks of territory in these places and especially the cities can be very mixed. So then this policy only results in ethnically homogenous, contiguous states if it is accompanied by ethnic cleansing. Which, of course, was a component of South African appartheid and the activities of Milosevic in Yugoslavia (and where does South Africa's huge population of ethnic Indians and mixed race people fit into this scheme?). Also, as in Syria, post-colonial semi-imperial centralized governments often anticipate the demand the secession or self-determination and respond by deliberately altering the demographic map. Syria, for instance, actively encouraged non-Kurds to settle along the border with Turkey in what was traditionally a Kurdish region. This border area today is partly controlled by ISIS.

Total nonsense. Former President F.W. de Klerk was quite clear that two of the biggest factors that brought down appartheid were international sanctions and the total unreasonableness of white South Africans to monopolize as much of South African territory as they possibly could. He got the best deal he could for whites and Mandela defied almost all expectations at the time by preventing full-blown civil war. People don't seem to get that it isn't valid to compare South Africa to the U.S. or Canada and then complain about how South Africa comes up short. A much more meaningful comparison would be to Zimbabwe or even Syria.

Who's comparing SA to Canada?

No one.

They're comparing SA today to SA in the past, and it's dire. Africa's richest country with solid political institutions, modern industry and infrastructure, and democratic norms is being devoured from within by corruption and ignorance.

At the end of the day it always comes down to culture. An utterly destroyed Japan or Korea can modernise in a decade, while others start with modernity and end up with destruction..

Does it count as a democratic norm if you've only had democracy for less than a generation?

Was it Korea's democratic norms that helped it modernise and, if so, when?

I never read all of "Look Who’s Back" but during the parts I read I got the impression that Timur Vermes did not really understand Hitler and Nazism. The other problem I had with the book was that it was not funny. It tried to be funny in a very politically correct way which never works.

The movie is hilarious, at least for the first half. Mainly because of two factors - Oliver Masucci, the comedian who plays Hitler, does a surprisingly good job of playing him straight, while treating modern Germany as absurd, and the fact that the movie includes a number of non-actors interacting with Hitler. The second half, unsurprisingly enough, bogs down - Hitler denouncing the NPD in their headquarters is not that amusing, compared to the earlier reaction of normal people to Hitler drawing their portraits for 10 euros a pop in a public square.

The book generally did not get particularly favorable reviews in Germany, but the movie is worth watching, particularly the first part. Like Hitler saying something along the lines of 'The Greens are a party with principles I can support - environmental protection (Umweltschutz) is the same as homeland protection (Heimatschutz). Even if the Greens have silly ideas concerning weapons grade uranium, they have the right idea about keeping the homeland a good place to live.' Hilarious - even when one realizes that the Hitler character is not joking in the least about the desirability for Germany to have its own weapons grade uranium stockpile.

Baraka was a very gifted poet who supported many offensive and un-PC positions. There are many buildings named after him and I personally don't think his offensive opinions justify removing them. But I wonder if the people who support removing Woodrow Wilson's name from buildings for his views equally support removing Baraka's name for his own. I think both ideas are equally ridiculous.

Look all he said was that white women deserved to get raped and would probally enjoy the experience anyways. That's hardly controversial.

I am unaware of statements to that effect being attributed to Amiri Baraka. (I am familiar with Eldridge Cleaver making statements to that end in Soul On Ice.) The charges against Amiri Baraka are usually associated with anti-semitism in his early years, some would argue in his later years as well. He made valuable contributions to poetry and poetics and I, too, would not be in favor of removing his name from public places.

Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank.…The average ofay [white person] thinks of the black man as potentially raping every white lady in sight. Which is true, in the sense that the black man should want to rob the white man of everything he has. But for most whites the guilt of the robbery is the guilt of rape. That is, they know in their deepest hearts that they should be robbed, and the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously poppeD.

You are a sick man, Sam Haysom!

I am a late adopter of Kindle (app), but it has certainly spurred book buying after a good review.

Is Kareem really a cricket aficionado ?

If so, I'd strongly recommend Simon Lister's recent "Fire in Babylon", about the unsurpassable West Indian teams of the 1970s.
And then ask who his favourite bowler is: favourite batsman would be a wasted question, but the choice of bowler is more difficult.

And the documentary, which used to be available on Netflix.

Do you need much of an understanding of Cricket to enjoy Beyond a Boundary? I am a big sports fan, and not just of the American variety, but cricket is the only game I can't figure out. The score lines make absolutely no sense in the world to me. And people have tried to explain it, trust me. I think I'd need to watch in person with a dedicated tutor by my side and pen and paper handy to take notes.

The book looks fantastic though, right up my alley as a Naipaul fan.

No, you don't. It's a remarkable book even if your ignorance of cricket is absolute.
I'm just mildly puzzled by the direct relevance of a meditation on British colonialism to Kareem, who seems (to someone who knows little of basketball) a very American American.

As an avid sports fan, though, you owe it to yourself to understand cricket; test match cricket is perhaps the ultimate sporting contest.

Cool. If I ever get the chance to live in the UK someday it's going to be one of my goals to spend a summer watching live cricket.

Hoosier - Play it. It is not a physically demanding game at least at the lower levels.
You can be quite corpulent and still play at an international level. (less so these days)
There will be a local club near you - mostly South Asian / Caribbean expats.

Watching it takes forever to learn.

And watching Cricket in UK - pffttt.
Australia is where the action is. and the 'G ranks as the best - Lords is so run down.

One of the most famous quotes from the book is : "what do they know of cricket who only cricket know"; a variation on the England theme. You would thoroughly enjoy reading it in a wider context.

In a list of the best 50 sports books ever written (Guardian) The Sweet Science and Beyond a Boundary were top five (and my favorites on the list, along-with Boys of Summer). I would recommend The Art of Captaincy (by arguably the finest captain the game has known) if you enjoy Beyond a Boundary.

@Nigel: TMC is not what it used to be. Shortening attention spans, aided by T20, mean the art of the patient buildup is a thing of yore. That, and no Richie Benaud.

"Imagine that Hitler comes back (an unexplained plot twist), no one believes it is “the real Hitler,” and he is given his own TV show as a kind of crank celebrity imitator. It’s an interesting meditation on the commercial trivialization of evil, and how the modern world can process virtually any kind of message."

This old "Bob the Angryflower"-cartoon instantly comes to mind.

#2. who could possibly have predicted that? except for evil racists...

How well did the 1953 Bantu Education Act prepare the nation for full democracy?

History is path dependent.

Benjaminl's post was a little inflammatory, but yours is seriously reaching.

Most nations in the area are kleptocracies it was very likely that SA would follow. Some held out hope that given the large endowment of the SA economy circa 1994, not to mention the resource boom of the 2000's that things would turn out differently. It seems that they have not.

There has been considerable evolution in modes of governance in Africa since 1960 as well as in the loci of the main problems. It's the sort of thing that doesn't interest biological determinists.

Oh? Has this been merely as difference in degree or a difference in kind? Is there a summary paper somewhere?

I think about a quarter of African heads of state were either military or partisan commanders. Formal military or partisan regimes are almost absent. The 'one-party state' which was the mode in Africa from about 1963 to 1990 has largely (though not entirely) disappeared. Mostly what you have are political machines with considerable pluralism and some competitive political orders (e.g. Senegal's). Abattoir regimes like that of Macias or Amin are absent except the Northern Sudan. The most severe problems concern failed states (the Congo, the Central African Republic, the Sudan, Somalia). There is one particular province of Nigeria which is suffering severely and from whence the violence has spread to some neighboring provinces.

I certainly stand by "path dependency."

It is not that surprising that one bad thing followed another, especially if the majority was systematically oppressed, including by stunted an intentionally limited educational opportunities.

Do you think Apartheid South Africa taught The Enlightenment to blacks?

Seriously, read on the 1953 act, and the resulting closure of more complete missionary schools.

I do not think the data bear out his thesis, but we can re-check.

I didn't realize how large South Africa is. 54 million people

I didn't know LeRoi Jones changed his name. Any guy who can get a state to eliminate their position of poet laureate deserves profound respect.

This line from Jones's Wikipedia page is delightfully subtle- "Baraka’s career spanned nearly 50 years, and his themes range from Black liberation to White racism."


1. Is the homicide rate in South Africa higher or lower than it was in 1994?

2. Was the growth rate in per capita GDP vis a vis that of the United States higher during the period running from 1929 to 1994 than it has been since 1994, or lower?

It has been some time since I checked, but unless I am mistaken the answers are (1) "lower" and (2) "lower", which would be inconsistent with his thesis that everything is falling apart in South Africa. The place is troubled. It has been for generations.

IDK if the US is the appropriate benchmark. The 2000s were defined by the resource boom. Perhaps a country like Brazil is a more fair benchmark?

I suppose you could also argue countries like Canada and Australia are reasonably fair comparisons. While they both compare favorably to SA the comparison is unfair to both Canada and Australia since they were both starting from a very high base while SA had a pathetic GDP/capita in 1994.

By almost any measure it has done badly economically.

The crime metrics in SA are questionable.

My point was that South Africa lost ground in income levels vis a vis the world's anchor economy during the period running from 1929 to 1994 and its income levels have mostly grown pari passu with the United States since then. If their crime metrics are unreliable, they were unreliable 20 years ago as well; that's not evidence for ass-pulls.

The question at hand is whether the pigmentocratic regime performed better than the political machine which has run South Africa since 1994. We can review the metrics, but I do not think they bear out his thesis. In assessing that question, a comparison with Canada or Australia would be irrelevant.

Is he actually one of America’s better poets?

John Derbyshire in assessing his work some years ago pronounced him an 'illiterate moron'. YMMV.


I think these are two very good poems by Baraka.

#1...One of my favorite books...Mayr, Ernst (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge (Mass.): Belknap P. of Harvard U.P.

I can certainly recommend #2.

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