Category: History

The sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s *My Struggle*

Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”?  Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks.  It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling.  But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.

Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades.  “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter.  I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all.  Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.

Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout.  There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick.  For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.

The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5.  But it will try your patience.

As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:

Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other.  They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek.  Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…

I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me.  With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.

You can pre-order it here, or if you were in a rush as I was, order from the UK.

How dangerous was the Mexican-American War for American soldiers?

The Mexican War of 1846-1848, largely forgotten today, was the second costliest war in American history in terms of the p ercentage of soldiers who died.  Of the 78, 718 American soldiers who served, 13, 283 died, constituting a casualty rate of 16.87 percent.  By comparison, the casualty rate was 2.5 percent in World War I and World War II, 0.1 percent in Korea and Vietnam [TC: you’ll find better but still lower estimates here], and 21 percent for the Civil War.

That is from American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White, a good book by the way.  I had not known that a possible U.S. takeover of “Santo Domingo” (today’s D.R.) was such a big issue during Grant’s administration.

That was then, this is now

Four decades ago Venezuelans could fly in and out of Caracas’s Maiquetía airport on Concorde. These days they are leaving the country on foot — walking over the border into Colombia, traipsing down the Andes to Ecuador and Peru or trudging through the Amazon basin to Brazil. As the economy collapses, the Venezuelan exodus “is building to a crisis moment”, the UN has warned. Drawing comparisons with the desperate journeys of Syrians and Africans through the Mediterranean in recent years, it says 2.3m people — 7 per cent of the population — have left Venezuela since 2015. On Monday, President Nicolás Maduro put the figure at just 600,000, and his vice-president Delcy Rodríguez said the outflow was “normal”. Outcry over the exodus, she said, was “designed by the Pentagon to justify intervention in Venezuela”.

That is from Gideon Long in the FT.

Indonesia fact of the day

Even though Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population of any nation, it witnessed, in marked contrast to Egypt, a steady growth in the size of the Christian community in the course of the twentieth century.  The Roman Catholic community grew from only 26,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in 1940, and to 6 million in 2003.  The number of indigenous Protestants rose from 285,000 in 1900 to 1.7 million in 1940, and to perhaps 16 million in 2003.  What is more, it is estimated that 1 million of the new Christians converted in the course of the century were of a Muslim rather than a traditional religious background.

That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, published by Princeton University Press.

Don’t blame the fake news, it’s the truth that is the problem

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The world of the internet – fundamentally a world of information – is reporting on the failures of the elites 24/7. And while pretty much every opinion is available, some have more resonance than others. Is it not the case that, post-2008, most people really are skeptical of the ability of American elites to prevent the next financial crisis? Going even further back, I recall the optimism surrounding the Mideast peace talks of the 1970s or the Oslo accords of the 1990s. Hardly anyone honest has the same positive feelings about today’s efforts at peace talks.

Again, these impressions are based on actual information. An informed populace, however, can also be a cynical populace, and a cynical populace is willing to tolerate or maybe even support cynical leaders. The world might be better off with more of that naïve “moonshot” optimism of the 1960s.

…Instead of today’s swamp of negativism, do you not instead long for a few rousing hymns, a teary rom-com happy ending, a non-ironic exhibit of wonderful American landscape paintings? Yet all these cultural forms are largely on the wane. It’s no accident that the hugely successful romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” is set in Singapore.

Homer > Socrates!

That was then, this is now, Hubert Humphrey edition

Is this only slightly corrupt, or very corrupt?  It is not obvious to me:

The financial assistance wealthy friends provided, in an era when ties between politicians and businessmen were not scrutinized, was indicative of Humphrey’s longer-term dependence on such people. His three sons…attended Shattuck Military Academy…courtesy of scholarships provided to the school by Minneapolis-born William Benton, who had made a fortune in advertising before becoming Humphrey’s Senate colleague from Connecticut during 1950-52…Eventually, Ewald [a wealthy Minnesotan dairyman] also helped.

Later, when Humphrey became vice president, he would turn over his modest stock holdings to Dwayne Andreas, the multimillionaire agribusinessman who transformed the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company into a multinational powerhouse, to be put into a blind trust.  Andreas commingled Humphrey’s funds with his own in his mutual income fund that invested heavily in ADM stock.  Andreas never mentioned this arrangement to Humphrey, who never inquired.  By the time of his death in 1978, Humphrey’s share of the mutual income fund was about half a million dollars…

That is all from Arnold A. Offner’s Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of a Country.

Why did Prohibition end?

While most accounts trace prohibition’s demise to widespread noncompliance and the graft it generated, we argue that elite congressional support for prohibition gave way when civil service reforms removed federal prohibition agents as patronage resources. We also argue that by giving states control of designing state conventions, and thereby risking state malapportionment of conventions, Democrats succeeded in overcoming the traditional fissures that divided their southern and northern wings.

That is from a new paper by Aaron J. Ley and Cornell W. Clayton.  Maybe I got this from somewhere on Twitter?

Hysteria Was Not Treated With Vibrators

You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators? It’s little more than an urban legend albeit one transmitted through academic books and articles. Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the authors of a shocking new paper, A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm, don’t quite use the word fraud but they come close.

Since its publication in 1999, The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines has become one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology (Maines, 1999). This slim book covers a lot of ground, but Maines’ core argument is quite simple. She argues that Victorian physicians routinely treated female hysteria patients by stimulating them to orgasm using electromechanical vibrators. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. She states that physicians did not perceive either the vibrator or manual massage as sexual, because neither method involved vaginal penetration.

This argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more. A few scholars have challenged various parts of the book. Yet no scholars have contested her central argument, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. Her argument even spread to popular culture, appearing in a Broadway play, a feature-length film, several documentaries, and many mainstream books and articles. This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.

But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.

… the 19-year success of Technology of Orgasm points to a fundamental failure of academic quality control. This failure occurred at every stage, starting with the assessment of the work at the Johns Hopkins University Press. But most glaring is the fact that not a single scholarly publication has pointed out the empirical flaws in the book’s core claims in the 19 years since its release.

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Chris Martin on twitter.

Why did witch trials dwindle?

In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

Here is the full story from The Economist.

My Conversation with Claire Lehmann of Quillette

Here is the transcript and audio, definitely recommended.  Here is part of the summary:

She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?

LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.

COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.

LEHMANN: Yeah. That’s when Camille Paglia was talking about PC, and Robert Hughes had a book, The Culture of Complaint.

I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.

That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.

Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.

I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.

COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.

LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.

COWEN: True or false?

LEHMANN: Probably true.

COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?

And:

COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?

LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.

A question from me:

COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?

We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.

Immigration, smiling, and laughter

Do not infer causality, but here is what the data yield:

Recent findings demonstrate that heterogeneity of long-history migration predicts present-day emotion behaviors and norms. Residents of countries characterized by high ancestral diversity display emotion expressions that are easier to decode by observers, endorse norms of higher emotion expressivity, and smile more in response to certain stimuli than residents of countries that lack ancestral diversity. We build on the extant findings and investigate historical heterogeneity as a predictor of daily smiling, laughter, and positive emotion across the world’s countries and the states of the United States. Study 1 finds that historical heterogeneity is positively associated with self-reports of smiling, laughter, and positive emotions in the Gallup World Poll when controlling for GDP and present-day population diversity. Study 2 extends the findings to effects of long-history migration within the United States. We estimated the average percentage of foreign-born citizens in each state between 1850 and 2010 based on US Census information as an indicator of historical heterogeneity. Consistent with the world findings of Study 1, historical heterogeneity predicted smiling, laughter, and positive, but not negative, emotion. The relationships remained significant when controlling for per capita income and present-day population diversity of each state. Together, the findings further demonstrate the important role of long-history migration in shaping emotion cultures of countries and states, which persist beyond the original socio-ecological conditions, and open promising avenues for cross-cultural research.

That is from Paula N Niedenthal, et. al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Global Middle Class

Wash Post: The world is on the brink of a historic milestone: By 2020, more than half of the world’s population will be “middle class,” according to Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas.

Kharas defines the middle class as people who have enough money to cover basics needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, and still have enough left over for a few luxuries, such as fancy food, a television, a motorbike, home improvements or higher education.

It’s a critical juncture: After thousands of years of most people on the planet living as serfs, as slaves or in other destitute scenarios, half the population now has the financial means to be able to do more than just try to survive.

“There was almost no middle class before the Industrial Revolution began in the 1830s,” Kharas said. “It was just royalty and peasants. Now we are about to have a majority middle-class world.”

(Kharas’s definition of middle class takes into account differences in prices across countries.)

It’s interesting that middle class values are also expanding, especially in Asia, even as they may be declining in the United States:

According to the World Values Survey (2015), people in countries with burgeoning middle classes do not feel that governments are responsible for their
success, but rather that it is thrift, hard work, determination, and perseverance that count.

The Most Momentous Place?

The old city of Jerusalem is astonishingly small for a city with so many momentous places. One can walk from Christianity’s holiest site to the holiest site of Judaism, pausing to look at one of the holiest sites of Islam, in less time than it takes to walk from my office on the campus of George Mason University to the campus Starbucks. Jerusalem is actually smaller than the GMU campus. GMU has had a few big events to its credit–two Nobel Prizes, several presidential speeches and so forth–but few people come here on pilgrimage. GMU doesn’t compete with Jerusalem.

Is there another parcel of land of similar size to the old city of Jerusalem that can lay claim to being similarly momentous? The signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia was pretty important but not much has happened there since. Cape Canaveral gets a nod but doesn’t span multiple fields of endeavor. Rome was important for a long time but its momentous events have faded compared to those that occurred in Jerusalem.

My best guess for a momentous parcel of land of similar size to old Jerusalem would be Cambridge University in the UK. Cambridge can lay claim to being the place of Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Babbage, Turing, Oppenheimer, and Crick and Watson and many others in the fields of politics, literature and the social sciences including economists such as Keynes, Marshall and Sen. Overall, Cambridge gives Jerusalem a run for its money. Jerusalem had its momentous period between say the building of the first temple in 957 BCE and Muhammad’s night journey around 621 CE, a period of roughly 1600 years, while Cambridge has had only an 800 year run since being built in 1231 so controlling for a time a case can be made that Cambridge beats Jerusalem. Perhaps you disagree but then Cambridge is still racking up momentous events while Jerusalem hasn’t had much in the past 1400 years so Cambridge is certainly catching up. Of course, one big event could put Jerusalem back on top.

Aside from Cambridge, cases can be made for other universities such as Oxford, Harvard and even newcomer Chicago. But it’s interesting that universities come to mind as perhaps the only places in real competition with Jerusalem. Are there others?

Would a multi-planet humanity be freer?

Kevin P. emails me:

Suppose humanity becomes a multi-planet species. Does the percentage of people living in autocratic societies decrease or increase relative to what we see on our planet today? How do the time and resources required to travel between inhabited planets affect this?

Do some people on “free” planets work to help the non-free? More or less than such countries today? Is there some scale that is reached so a free Federation comes to guaranty freedom everywhere? Or maybe a tyrant or tyrants, once they have a couple wealthy planets under their belt are unstoppable because of cooperation difficulties of the individual free planets?

When I think of settling other planets, my base case is one of extreme scarcity and fragility, at least at first and possibly for a long time.  Those are not the conditions that breed liberty, whether it is “the private sector” or “the public sector” in charge.

Maybe corporations will settle space for some economic reason.  Then you might expect space living to have the liberties of an oil platform in the sea, or perhaps a cruise ship.  Except there would be more of a “we are in this all together” attitude, which I think would favor a kind of corporate autocracy.

Another scenario involves a military settling space, possibly for military reasons, and that too is not much of a liberal or democratic scenario.

You might also have religiously-motivated settlements, which presumably would be governed by the laws and principles of the religion.  Over time, however, this scenario might give the greatest chance for subsequent liberalization.

America developed to be as free as it did (at least for some people) mostly there was so much free land.  Living standards were relatively high, and moving further westward was always an option.  It is hard for me to think of an interplanetary version of the same condition.  Easy exit and free resources don’t seem to go well together with the concept of space settlement.

Space stations and settlement will give the power to those who control the infrastructure, a bit like Wittvogel’s Oriental Despotism hypothesis, except with both air and water being scarce.

I thus expect that interplanetary settlements, whatever their other virtues, will not do much for liberalism or liberty.  Here is my earlier post on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.