Category: The Arts
Chernobyl, HBO’s taut 5-part mini-series, is excellent and it sticks close to the facts (although one female character played by Emily Watson is clearly made up). By all accounts, the series accurately represents life in the former Soviet Union and through a variety of means from color palette to casting and dialogue it does a remarkable job at capturing the political economy. One thing I learned (so far, it hasn’t all appeared yet) is that it could have been much, much worse but the Russians avoided the worst scenario with a combination of bravery, smarts and luck.
The number of cancer deaths from Chernobyl appears to be quite low. The WHO estimated an additional 9,335 deaths with about half of those coming from workers and nearby residents and other half more distant impacts, other estimates are higher. More recent analysis, however, suggests that Chernobyl and its aftermath had relatively small but significant effects across a large number of people. Here are two recent papers:
Chernobyl’s Subclinical Legacy: Prenatal Exposure to Radioactive Fallout and School Outcomes in Sweden by Almond, Edlund and Palme.
Abstract: We use prenatal exposure to Chernobyl fallout in Sweden as a natural experiment inducing variation in cognitive ability. Students born in regions of Sweden with higher fallout performed worse in secondary school, in mathematics in particular. Damage is accentuated within families (i.e., siblings comparison) and among children born to parents with low education. In contrast, we detect no corresponding damage to health outcomes. To the extent that parents responded to the cognitive endowment, we infer that parental investments reinforced the initial Chernobyl damage. From a public health perspective, our findings suggest that cognitive ability is compromised at radiation doses currently considered harmless.
and The long-run consequences of Chernobyl: Evidence on subjective well-being, mental health and welfare by Danzer and Danzer.
Abstract: This paper assesses the long-run toll taken by a large-scale technological disaster on welfare, well-being and mental health. We estimate the causal effect of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe after 20 years by linking geographic variation in radioactive fallout to respondents of a nationally representative survey in Ukraine according to their place of residence in 1986. We exclude individuals who were exposed to high levels of radiation—about 4% of the population. Instead, we focus on the remaining majority of Ukrainians who received subclinical radiation doses; we find large and persistent psychological effects of this nuclear disaster. Affected individuals exhibit poorer subjective well-being, higher depression rates and lower subjective survival probabilities; they rely more on governmental transfers as source of subsistence. We estimate the aggregate annual welfare loss at 2–6% of Ukraine’s GDP highlighting previously ignored externalities of large-scale catastrophes.
Hat tip: Jennifer Doleac and Wojtek Kopczuk.
The Persistence of Chaos is an Airgapped Samsung 10.2-Inch Blue Netbook (2008) that is running Windows XP SP3 and 6 pieces of malware that collectively caused some $95 billion in damages. One of the worms trapped on the computer, for example, is:
SoBig was a worm and trojan that circulated through emails as viral spam. This piece of malware could copy files, email itself to others, and could damage computer software/hardware. This piece of malware caused $37B in damages and affected hundreds of thousands of PCs.
The terms of sale include the following:
The sale of malware for operational purposes is illegal in the United States. As a buyer you recognize that this work represents a potential security hazard. By submitting a bid you agree and acknowledge that you’re purchasing this work as a piece of art or for academic reasons, and have no intention of disseminating any malware. Upon the conclusion of this auction and before the artwork is shipped, the computer’s internet capabilities and available ports will be functionally disabled.
The current high bid is over $1,200,750.
Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.
That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene. I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything. Except make observations of that nature. Excerpt:
In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes. Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.
I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.
A rose painted by another name would cost more. In a new paper*, four academics show that art made by women sells for lower prices at auction than men’s, and suggest that this discount has nothing to do with talent or thematic choices. It is solely because the artists are female.
The authors used a sample of 1.9m transactions in art auctions across 49 countries in the period from 1970 to 2016. They found that art made by women sold at an average discount of 42% compared with works by men. However, auction prices can be distorted by a few famous artists whose output is perceived as extremely valuable. If transactions above $1m are excluded, then the discount falls to 19%.
…the researchers used a computer programme to generate paintings and randomly assign the results to artists with male or female names. They then asked participants to rate the paintings and ascribe a value. The experiment found that affluent individuals (those most likely to bid at auctions) attributed a lower value to works which the programme assigned to a woman. Clearly, this gap was unrelated to the artistic merit of the picture.
I don’t quite think that shows (non-statistical) discrimination, perhaps more convincing is this:
The average discount applied to the work of a given female artist was lowest in countries where women were more equal. (There are some exceptions to the rule, such as Brazil, where women’s art was highly rated.)
The good news is that the female discount has fallen over time. For transactions under $1m, the study calculated, the discount has dropped from 33% in the 1970s to 8% after 2010.
If you not wealthy and wish to collect art, buy textiles, they are much cheaper and very often the creators are women rather than men. They are not as a whole less aesthetically valuable than paintings, except perhaps for paintings at the very very highest levels. But within painting, prices for Gwen John vs. Augustus John have been in parity for some while now, same with Frida Kahlo and her male contemporaries, or Natalia Goncharova vs. her peers, the latter I check on a regular basis in fact I was just perusing them today.
Here is The Economist source piece. Here is the original research., “Is gender in the eye of the beholder? Identifying cultural attitudes with art auction prices”, by Renée Adams, Roman Kräussl, Marco Navone and Patrick Verwijmeren.
I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, if you need it here is some background information. So what should I ask?
Do note the latter part of the last sentence, but the entire thesis is interesting:
This paper utilises a unique, purpose-built panel dataset on prominent authors in the UK and Ireland born 1700–1925 to estimate the productivity gains associated with agglomeration of an industry with few capital requirements and no apparent need to cluster geographically. I find the average author experiences productivity gains of 11.94% per annum when residing in London, the only major literary cluster – a gain not associated with living in any of the minor literary clusters. I find evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity, indicating the results are not driven by the self-selection of highly productive authors to London. I find heterogeneity of returns to living in London by birth cohort and Impact Index quartile (a measure of author quality) and that the cohorts who receive the greatest gains from locating in London are those for which there is the strongest evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity.
That is by Sara Mitchell in the Journal of Urban Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.
That is the new Medium essay by Anna Gát, it is the best attempt I know of to formulate a “new ideology” of sorts, or maybe a new manifesto, but also a post-political one. Here are a few scattered bits:
Let’s imagine the I.I. [Inter-Intellect] as a loose-knit on/offline niche of people with similar mental energy: we seem to have roughly the same companion + kindness + information needs, activity levels and communication preferences…
We seem to prioritize open discussion and collaboration across differences, and establishing projects that can address real-world questions better…
We believe individuals are capable of acting virtuously without external intervention and judging the consequences of their own actions, and that open discussion of our life plans, decisions or progress can inspire others.
“Example over slogans” is the tldr…
Being conscious of this, the I.I. is age-agnostic and instead problem/progress focused.
Or so I hear, and Google doesn’t bring it up either, not even the shut down version.
I worry about deplatforming much less than many of you do. I remember the “good old days,” when even an anodyne blog such as Marginal Revolution, had it existed, had no platform whatsoever. All of a sudden millions of new niches were available, and many of us moved into those spaces.
In recent times, a number of the major tech companies have dumped some contributors, due to a mix of customer and employee protest. So we have gained say 99 instead of say 100, and of course I am personally happy to see many of the deplatformed sites go, or move to other carriers. Most of the deplatformed sites, of course, I am not familiar with at all, but that is endogenous. I would say don’t overreact to the endowment effect of having, for a while, felt one had literally everything. You never did. You still have way, way more than you did in the recent past.
You might be worried that, because of deplatforming, the remaining sites and writers and YouTube posters have to “walk the line” more than ideally would be the case. That to me is a genuine concern, but still let’s be comparative. Did you ever try to crack the New York publishing scene in the 1990s, or submit an Op-Ed to the New York Times before the internet was “a thing”? Now that was deplatforming, and most of it was due to the size of the slush pile rather than to evil intentions, though undoubtedly there was bias in both settings.
Another “deplatforming” came with the shift to mobile, which vastly favored some websites (e.g., Facebook) over many of the more idiosyncratic competitors, including many blogs (MR has done just fine, I should add).
Developments such as VR, AR, 5G — or whatever — will reshuffle the deck further yet. There will be big winners, many of which are not yet on the scene, and some considerable carnage on the downside. Maybe you won’t be forced off, but many of you will find it worthwhile to quit rather than adapt.
There still has never, ever been a better time to be a writer. What bugs people about deplatforming is the explicitness and potential unfairness of the decision. It’s like prom selection time, where there is no escaping the fact that the observed choices, at least once they get past the algorithms and are reviewed by the companies, reflect very conscious decisions to bestow and to take away. We have painful intuitions about such rank orderings…still, we are better served by the objective facts about today’s diversity and opportunity compared to that of the past.
I thank a loyal MR reader for the initial pointer.
Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of my favorite Conversations. Here is the CWTeam summary:
Knausgård’s literary freedom paves the way for this conversation with Tyler, which starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.
Here is one excerpt:
KNAUSGÅRD: You have this almost archetypical artist putting his art before his children, before his family, before everything. You have also Doris Lessing who did the same — abandoned her children to move to London to write.
I’ve been kind of confronted with that as a writer, and I think everyone does because writing is so time consuming and so demanding. When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, try to write in complete . . . be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that was an obstruction for my writing, I thought.
But it wasn’t. It was the other way around. I’ve never written as much as I have after I got the children, after I started to write at home, after I kind of established writing in the middle of life. It was crawling with life everywhere. And what happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary. It became less religious or less sacred.
It became something ordinary, and that was incredibly important for me because that was eventually where I wanted to go — into the ordinary and mundane, even, and try to connect to what was going on in life. Life isn’t sacred. Life isn’t uplifted. It is ordinary and boring and all the things, we know.
COWEN: So many great Norwegian writers — Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun — there’s nationalism in their work. Yet today, liberals tend to think of nationalism as an unspeakable evil of sorts. How do we square this with the evolution of Norwegian writing?
And if one thinks of your own career, arguably it’s your extreme popularity in Norway at first that drove your later fame. What’s the connection of your own work to Norwegian nationalism? Are you the first non-nationalist great Norwegian writer? Is that plausible? Or is there some deeper connection?
KNAUSGÅRD: I think so much writing is done out of a feeling of not belonging. If you read Knut Hamsun, he was a Nazi. I mean, he was a full-blooded Nazi. We have to be honest about that.
COWEN: His best book might be his Nazi book, right? He wrote it when he was what, 90?
COWEN: On Overgrown Paths?
COWEN: To me, it’s much more interesting than the novels, which are a kind of artifice that hasn’t aged so well.
COWEN: But you read On Overgrown Paths, you feel like you’re there. It’s about self-deception.
KNAUSGÅRD: It’s true, it’s a wonderful book. But I think Hamsun’s theme, his subject, is rootlessness. In a very rooted society, in a rural society, in a family-orientated society like Norway has been — a small society — he was a very rootless, very urban writer.
He went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.
He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde.
COWEN: Growth of the Soil.
COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?
I told you we ask different questions.
KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.
Knausgaard showed up for the taping carrying a package of black bread, which he forgot to take with him when leaving. So for the rest of the day, I enjoyed his black bread…
She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read. Here is the audio and transcript. Here is the opening:
COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.
COWEN: How so?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.
ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.
COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”
COWEN: You think that’s still true?
ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.
The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —
COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.
ATWOOD: You think?
COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.
ATWOOD: Did it?
COWEN: Center of manufacturing.
ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?
COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —
And from her:
ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”
And a question from me:
COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?
In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.
COWEN: You’ve trained in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and neuroscience, correct?
BOYDEN: Yeah, I started college at 14, and I focused on chemistry for two years, and then I transferred to MIT, where then I switched into physics and electrical engineering, and that’s when I worked on quantum computing.
COWEN: Five areas, actually. Maybe more.
BOYDEN: Guess so.
COWEN: Should more people do that? Not the median student, but more people?
BOYDEN: It’s a good question.
COWEN: Are we less creative if all the parts of our mind become allies? Maybe I’m afraid this will happen to me, that I have rebellious parts of my mind, and they force me to do more interesting things, or they introduce randomness or variety into my life.
BOYDEN: This is a question that I think is going to become more and more urgent as neurotechnology advances. Already there are questions about attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall. Maybe they make people more focused, but are you sacrificing some of the wandering and creativity that might exist in the brain and be very important for not only personal productivity but the future of humanity?
I think what we’re realizing is that when you intervene with the brain, even with brain stimulation, you can cause unpredictable side effects. For example, there’s a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s actually an FDA-approved site for stimulation with noninvasive magnetic pulses to treat depression. But patients, when they’re stimulated here . . . People have done studies. It can also change things like trust. It can change things like driving ability.
There’s only so many brain regions, but there’s millions of things we do. Of course, intervening with one region might change many things.
COWEN: What kind of students are you likely to hire that your peers would not hire?
BOYDEN: Well, I really try to get to know people at a deep level over a long period of time, and then to see how their unique background and interests might change the field for the better.
I have people in my group who are professional neurosurgeons, and then, as I mentioned, I have college dropouts, and I have people who . . . We recently published a paper where we ran the brain expansion process in reverse. So take the baby diaper polymer, add water to expand it, and then you can basically laser-print stuff inside of it, and then collapse it down, and you get a piece of nanotechnology.
The co–first author of that paper doesn’t have a scientific laboratory background. He was a professional photographer before he joined my group. But we started talking, and it turns out, if you’re a professional photographer, you know a lot of very practical chemistry. It turns out that our big demo — and why the paper got so much attention — was we made metal nanowires, and the way we did it was using a chemistry not unlike what you do in photography, which is a silver chemistry.
COWEN: Let’s say you had $10 billion or $20 billion a year, and you would control your own agency, and you were starting all over again, but current institutions stay in place. What would you do with it? How would you structure your grants? You’re in charge. You’re the board. You do it.
COWEN: If you’re designing architecture for science, what do you do? What do you change? What would you improve? Because presumably most of it is not designed for science. Maybe none of it is.
BOYDEN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, lately. There are different philosophies, like “We should have open offices so everybody can see and talk to each other.” Or “That’s wrong. You should have closed spaces so people can think and have quiet time.” What I think is actually quite interesting is this concept that maybe neither is the right approach. You might want to think about having sort of an ecosystem of environments.
My group — we’re partly over at the Media Lab, which has a lot of very open environments, and our other part of the group is in a classical sort of neuroscience laboratory with offices and small rooms where we park microscopes and stuff like that. I actually get a lot of productivity out of switching environments in a deliberate way.
There is much more of interest at the link.
The internet gives us the technological capability to transmit digital information seamlessly over any distance. The concept of culture is more complicated, but I mean the influences and inspirations we grow up with, such as the family norms and practices of a place, the street scenes, the local architecture and cuisine, and the slang. Culture comes from both nearby and more distant sources, but the emotional vividness of face-to-face interactions means that a big part of culture is intrinsically local.
Rapid Amazon delivery, or coffee shops that look alike all around the world, stem in part from the internet. The recommendations from the smart person who works in the local bookstore, or the local Sicilian recipe that cannot be reproduced elsewhere, are examples of culture.
Since the late 1990s, the internet has become far more potent. Yet the core techniques of culture have hardly become more productive at all, unless we are talking about through the internet. The particular aspects of culture which have done well are those easily translated to the digital world, such as songs on YouTube and streaming. When people are staring at their mobile devices for so many minutes or hours a day, that has to displace something. Those who rely on face-to-face relationships to transmit their influence and authority don’t have nearly the clout they once did.
The internet gaining on culture has made the last twenty years some of the most revolutionary in history, at least in terms of the ongoing fight for mindshare, even though the physical productivity of our economy has been mediocre. People are upset by the onset of populism in world politics, but the miracle is that so much stability has reigned, relative to the scope of the underlying intellectual and what you might call “methodological” disruptions.
The traditional French intellectual class, while retrograde in siding largely with culture, understands the ongoing clash fairly well. Consistently with their core loyalties, they do not mind if the influence of the internet is stifled or even destroyed, or if the large American tech companies are collateral damage.
Many Silicon Valley CEOs are in the opposite boat. Most of their formative experiences are with the internet and typically from young ages. The cultural perspective of the French intellectuals is alien to them, and so they repeatedly do not understand why their products are not more politically popular. They find it easier to see that the actual users love both their products and their companies. Of course, for the intellectuals and culture mandarins that popularity makes the entire revolution even harder to stomach.
Donald Trump ascended to the presidency because he mastered both worlds, namely he commands idiomatic American cultural expressions and attitudes, and also he has been brilliant in his political uses of Twitter. AOC has mastered social media only, and it remains to be seen whether Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have mastered either, but probably not.
Elizabeth Warren is now leading a campaign to split up the major tech companies, but unlike the Europeans she is not putting forward culture as an intellectual alternative. Her anti-tech campaign is better understood as an offset of some of the more hostility-producing properties of the internet itself. It is no accident that the big tech companies take such a regular pounding on social media, which is well-designed to communicate negative sentiment. In this regard, the American and European anti-tech movements are not nearly as close as they might at first seem.
In the internet vs. culture debate, the internet is at some decided disadvantages. For instance, despite its losses of mindshare, culture still holds many of the traditional measures of status. Many intellectuals thus are afraid to voice the view that a lot of culture is a waste of time and we might be better off with more time spent on the internet. Furthermore, many of the responses to the tech critics focus on narrower questions of economics or the law, without realizing that what is at stake are two different visions of how human beings should think and indeed live. When that is the case, policymakers will tend to resort to their own value judgments, rather than listening to experts. For better or worse, the internet-loving generations do not yet hold most positions of political power (recall Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress).
The internet also is good at spreading glorified but inaccurate pictures of the virtues of local culture, such as when Trump tweets about making America great again, or when nationalist populism becomes an internet-based, globalized phenomenon.
The paradox is that only those with a deep background in culture have the true capacity to defend the internet and also to understand its critics, but they are exactly the people least likely to take up that battle.
She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript. Here is part of the CWT summary:
She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?
WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.
COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?
WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.
And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.
COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?
WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.
COWEN: Great idea?
WILSON: Yes, yeah.
COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?
WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.
COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?
WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.
Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.
COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?
You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.
In a word, no. They shut the place down for five years and spent $84 million, to redesign the displays, and what they reopened still looks and feels incredibly colonial. That’s not an architectural complaint, only that the museum cannot escape what it has been for well over a century. Most of the 180,000 art objects there were either stolen or bought under terms of implicit coercion. There is an Africa Gallery covering the crimes of King Leopold in the Congo, but it is easy enough to be transfixed by the art and not really take it in. How about a full room near the entrance devoted to the anti-imperialist E.D. Morel? And while there are now more art works from the post-colonial period, there is no room devoted to the often very impressive art worlds of Central Africa today. Having more African people talk on screens was nice, but it doesn’t do the trick. The colonial still seems glorious, and the post-colonial mediocre.
Despite DRC demands, I do understand that the repatriation of the objects themselves would not be wise, given the current state of the DRC. In 1976-1982, 114 objects were in fact restituted, but most of them ended up stolen (NYT). For me preserving the art comes first, and furthermore the current DRC government is hardly a legitimate spokesperson for the historic civilizations of the region. But might the museum at least have presented the issue in some morally conscious manner?
Before you walk into the museum proper, there is a room devoted to all the sculptures and displays now considered too colonial or too racist for the current museum. Of course this draws more attention to them, and furthermore the dividing lines are by no means always clear. That said, there is a double irony, namely that some of the items in this room are sufficiently obnoxious that their display represents a better apology than any part of what is intended as apology.
This is still all much better than the past, when at one time a human zoo of 267 enslaved Congolese was put on display here, in fact that was the inaugural exhibit in 1897. At least there is now a memorial to those of the enslaved who died of influenza. And the plaque “Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo” has been taken down. Yet this:
The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.
Oh, and there are colonial statues built into the walls:
One was of black children clinging to a white missionary. Another was of a topless African woman dancing.
They cannot be removed because of cultural heritage laws in Belgium.
The animal displays also no longer seem of our time, more about size and stuffing and the conquest of nature rather than with much of a notion of environmental or biodiversity or animal welfare awareness.
It is nonetheless a spectacular museum, the best chronicle anywhere for the Central African artistic achievement by an order of magnitude, and one of the best and most interesting places in Europe right now. It is worth the rather convoluted one hour trip you must take from Brussels, or if you are visiting Waterloo it isn’t far away at all. For all its flaws (or in part because of them?), go if you can.
The art aside, the other lesson is imperialism and colonialism cast a longer shadow than you might at first think. The realities of cultural constipation remain underrated.
Ghent is one of the loveliest small- to mid-sized cities in Europe, perhaps lucky to have never received UNESCO World Heritage status, unlike Bruges. Ghent was one of the earliest seats of the continental Industrial Revolution, through textiles, and the city core has splendid architecture from late medieval times up through the early 20th century. It is what Amsterdam should be, but no longer is.
The center is full of interesting, quirky small shops, along the lines of the cliche you do not expect to actually find. Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English. Most of the tourists in the hotel seemed to be Chinese.
Walk around, don’t miss Graffiti Street, and the Ensors and the Roualt in the Fine Arts museum complement the more famous items there. The Industrie Museum has numerous textile machines from the 18th century onwards; I found it striking how different the 1770 machine was from the 1730 vintage, but how little by 1950 the machines had advanced .
Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.