Nasty, British, and Short

Here’s a fun article sent to me by a friend: Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World. The author argues that the one big mistake of economists is that they omit culture. We can talk of “rational” human beings making this or that decision, but what counts as rational—or fair—is determined by one’s social (and, before that, natural) environment. These cultural differences were manifested in the way that people of different backgrounds play an “ultimatum game,” similar to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma:

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

The last sentence in this quoted section reminds me of the conclusion Marx himself came to when analyzing socio-political worldviews of people from different cultures: consciousness is shaped by the economy (productive forces) and its bolstering structure (the State), not the other way around. Hence the old quip I’ve heard from several old Lefties about Hobbes, who had a famously dim view of human existence, being “nasty, British, and short”—a play on his line about life in the state of nature being “nasty, brutish, and short” and it being only applicable to people in capitalist England—as if to say, people who work in factories will have a different worldview than people who fish off a riverbank.

I absolutely love this section of the article:

A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

I remember the theme for the entire four years of my undergraduate study, a theme made overt with the subtitle of almost every guest lecture, symposium, and even some sporting events, was globalism, posed as a fake debate about the pros and cons of the “international marketplace.” Of course the pre-agreed-to idea was that globalism is good because everyone is either like Americans already or aspires to be so as soon as possible. And, of course, what’s the most fair way to solve a problem? A market. The goal, we were told (but not in these terms), was to understand and appreciate that deep down, no matter what people look like or how they sound or what they eat, they all believe, as “we” do, that markets = fairness.

It’s probably terrifying to imagine that people around the world are different in very meaningful ways. Didn’t we see this same explanation used (after all other explanations were exhausted) for the invasion of the Middle East? Weapons of mass destruction? No. Global hegemony over dwindling resources? No. We’ll be greeted as liberators? Yes! Because deep down, everyone yearns for a marketplace. Once people are “ready for Democracy,” they’ll see that American culture is universal—and universally good.

I don’t see a solution to this problem, except that the American corporate-military oligarchy won’t be able to import marketplaces—let alone run their own—when water runs out.

Could Man Be Drunk Forever

A poem by A.E. Housman:

Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down of nights.

But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.

I found this poem today shortly after reading this article about the history of newspapers. The author makes the argument that newspapers took a long time to develop—not because of gaps in technology, but because people didn’t trust the printed word. If you couldn’t be there to answer questions or argue your case, then your story was seen as suspect. Over time, however, people began to accept newspapers as a substitute for troubadours—but only because of the advent of the pamphlet, which looked like a small newspaper, but instead of having snippets in round-up fashion, had a coherent and compelling story. To this day, people trust and can better understand narratives than a barrage of seemingly unrelated updates. The Internet is great at supplying these updates 24/7, but is bad at weaving a comprehensive narrative.

The author also argues that the medieval mind was much more concerned with seasons, crops, and cyclical catastrophes than with which member of the nobility dined (or slept) with whom. Pamphlets were popular because they only came along at times of crisis: usually impending revolutions. In other words, the news contained in them was actually news, i.e. new information of great importance (cf. twitter).

In between these times of crisis, no news was good news:

This is not to deny that details of new laws and taxes, armies and their movements, or who was in or out of favour at court were eagerly sought. Travellers were closely questioned as to the news they brought. But it would have been perfectly normal and acceptable to say, as a BBC announcer did on Good Friday 1930 (to much subsequent mockery), “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight, so here is some music.”

Hence the connection to the Housman poem. To think too much is to become depressed, but it is necessary. I happen to think that newspapers are still very useful, because people can read them without announcing their identity, like logging on to a website, and people can read them on the bus.

A Hungry Dog Is An Angry Dog

In Here’s the Math that Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now, Brian Merchant cites research linking global unrest to rising food prices, and the graphs appear to accurately predict almost every uprising since at least 1994:

Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.

While I don’t think hunger is the only story (an opinion with which both the author and many commenters agree), it certainly makes sense that the failure to meet one of our basic needs would trigger drastic action; I don’t think people take to the streets unless it’s an act of desperation.

We’ve seen this kind of desperation before, without a doubt, in revolutions both great and small. As Simon Schama writes in Citzens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution:

On July 13, 1788, a hailstorm burst over a great part of central France from Rouen in Normandy as far south as Toulouse. The Scottish gardener Thomas Blaikie, who witnessed it, wrote of stones so monstrous that they killed hares and partridge and ripped branches from elm trees. …In the Ile-de-France south of Paris, where vegetable and fruit crops were wiped out as they were ripening, farmers wrote, ‘A countryside, erstwhile ravishing, has been reduced to an arid desert.’

In much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709, when the red Bourdeaux was said to have frozen in Louis XIV’s goblet. …In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. ‘Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and that in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.’

The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours.

…The cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than mediocre. The four-pound loaf that formed the staple of three quarters of all French men and women and which, in normal times, consumed half their income, rose in price from eight sous in the summer of 1787 to twelve by October 1788 and fifteen by the first week of February. To feed a family of four required two of those loaves each day, while the average wage of a manual laborer was between twenty and thirty sous, of a journeyman man at most forty. The doubling of bread prices—and of firewood—spelled destitution.

Hopefully by now you can guess where I’m going next. As we poison the ground and the ground-water, as we rake the ocean floor, as we exacerbate both monsoon and drought, we’ll be less and less able to feed ourselves. As scarcity spreads, people will take all kinds of drastic measures to secure food stability. Some of those measures could be positive, like ripping up a parking lot to plant food. But we all know most of these measures will be negative, as the human capacity for group collaboration wears thin and neighbor turns on neighbor. As the adage goes, a hungry dog is an angry dog.

In the American Education System, Even Success Is Failure

I’ve always been fascinated by margins, both figurative and literal (or, dare I write, literally literal?); what an author scribbled in a fit of revelatory madness near the edge of the page is usually more insightful than the official type. And this fascination is quite convenient, as the margin is usually where I find myself. Take, for example, a big part of my job, which is working with and in schools, but not during the school day—in this realm of magic realism known as “out-of-school time” or “afterschool” (always one word), depending on your preferred jargon.

From this vantage, at the margin, the true quixotic absurdity and bankruptcy (again both figurative and literal) of the school system is most visibly laid bare. Behind the saccharine hallway displays, bordered always by some kind of frilly, ribbed paper, hastily stapled, and the corporate-buzz-word-heavy posters featuring, in alternating fashion, cartoon cats and less-than-chivalrous celebrities extolling the elixir that is factory-farmed milk, lies a dark and confusing place.

But for me, what’s even more fascinating than the mangled-car-on-the-side-of-the-road aspect of the whole enterprise is that it’s precisely here, at the crucible of overpopulation and underfunding, where most people expect miracles to happen. They expect kids to select and prepare for a college and career path—nay, one single vocation: a calling. They expect teachers to impart both the wisdom of the universe and the morality of the tribe, while being as officiously stern as a police officer and as patiently compassionate as a social worker simultaneously. They expect schools to “succeed”: to churn out graduates, grades, and game-winning touchdowns.

These miracles must be manufactured under artificial lighting, in prefab, faux-wood paneled units (the schools call them “portables,” which belies the fact that they’re big, barely air conditioned boxes that never go anywhere) with 20 desks for 25 students, and after a “meal” eaten in complete silence (in most schools there’s no talking allowed during lunch—lunch). And if you ask most adults, they’ll corroborate, but for completely different reasons, the near-consensus of the kids: school sucks.

Isn’t that strange? Here’s a place that everyone is familiar with, having gone to one before or working in one or having kids who attend one currently, but which almost nobody likes. Judging from the posture and tone and facial expressions of the teachers I see locking up their pens, er, classrooms after a hard day on the clock (which is just when I’m arriving at schools, already conducting an internalized bet about which flavor of pop-tarts the kids will have for snack), teachers don’t care for school much either.

Maybe it’s because to everyone on the outside—in minimum security, as the old anarchist joke goes—teachers are at the same time both miracle workers and pariahs: both caretakers of the future and the leeches of the present purse. If they can’t get every kid to do well, i.e. motivate and guide and inspire them, then teachers go from pillars of the community to lazy freeloaders, greedy crybabies (with union backing), or perverters of the truth—of the one true god. The truth, of course, is that teachers are just people.

I can’t think of an institution in America with more expectations heaped upon it, while at the same time having a lower approval rating. Even success is failure, since the main metric, standardized test scores, measure such a narrow skill-set—if we can call it that—that the fallout is several square pegs jammed through a few round holes: a sieved march towards the cubicle, which everyone pretty much also despises.

At least, that’s what it looks like from the margins.