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“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”*…

The late David Graeber (with his co-author David Wengrow), left one last book; William Deresiewicz gives us an early look…

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.

And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring…

A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change: “Human History Gets a Rewrite,” @WDeresiewicz introduces the newest– and last?– book from @davidgraeber and @davidwengrow. Eminently worth reading in full.

* James Baldwin

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As we reinterpret, we might spare a thought for Vic Allen; he died on this date in 1914. A British human rights activist, political prisoner, sociologist, historian, economist and professor at the University of Leeds, he worked closely with British trade unions, and was considered a key player in the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. He spent much of his life supporting the South African National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and was a key mentor to British trade union leader Arthur Scargill, In 2010 Allen was awarded the Kgao ya Bahale award, the highest honor afforded by the South African Union of Miners. After his death he was widely commended by his fellow academics and activists for his lifelong commitment to worker’s rights and racial equality.

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“I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day”*…

The social centrality of sweets…

Each country finds its own way to get its sugar fix. The crackly burnished sugar on top of a pot of crème brûlée in France. The grainy buttery sugar of a slab of Scottish tablet. The caramelised, milky sugar of dulce de leche, slathered on toast or pancakes. The intensely processed sugar of the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the chocolate drizzle, ice cream and brownie chunks of an American sundae.

A taste for sweetness makes sense in evolutionary terms: sugary foods are a quick and easy source of energy. But despite its universal appeal, says Anissa Helou, a Lebanese-Syrian author and chef (whose surname means “sweet”), Middle Easterners seem to be particularly enamoured by sugar. Five of the top 20 countries that consume the most sugar per person are in the Middle East.

Why is the region so enchanted by sweet stuff? Sugar was widely available in the Middle East long before that was true in the West. Helou also points to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, which in other countries is used as a celebratory treat, luxury or distraction (though the ban on drinking is observed to varying degrees across the Muslim world). If you can’t do shots in Dubai, you can belly up to the milkshake bar and get a high from guzzling a chocolatey ice cream concoction. After dinner, sweetened tea takes the place of an aperitif. Juice and sugar-cane stalls replace pubs and bars on street corners.

Across the Middle East and Turkey, bakery shelves heave with a variety of syrup-soaked pastries. You can find diamonds of basbousa (which in Arabic sweetly translates as “just a kiss”), a cake made from semolina and drenched with syrup scented with rose or orange blossom. Coils of m’hanncha, an almond-packed roll of pastry, curled to look like a sleeping snake. Kunafa, shredded pastry filled with a creamy cheese or nuts and doused in yet more floral syrup. Znoud el-sit, which literally means “women’s upper arms”, crunchy, plump little cigars of filo pastry, stuffed with cream, fried and steeped in syrup or honey. But the best known by far, at least in the rest of the world, are sheets of fine filo pastry filled with nuts and bathed in syrup and butter: baklava.

Versions of layered, nutty pastries may have been made as early as the eighth century BC by the Assyrians, but it was the Ottomans who perfected the sticky glory of baklava. The imperial kitchens of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul were said to have turned out trays of the stuff in the 15th century. Most notably, on the 15th day of Ramadan, when the sultan would visit the hirka-i-serif (a relic believed to be part of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad), baklava was given to his janissaries, an elite group of soldiers. It was a food of occasion, so much so that even today there’s a common saying in Turkey: “I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day.” (Boxes of baklava regularly feature as carry-on luggage at airports in Turkey, especially around the holidays, both religious and secular.)

In 2013 the European Commission bestowed a “protected designation-of-origin” status on baklava from Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city – the first Turkish product to be recognised in this way. Bakers across Greece, the Middle East and beyond may challenge the Turks’ claims on baklava, but whether their versions pre-date the reach of the Ottomans or are the result of their expansion, baklava pops up everywhere from Morocco to Iran. The shapes differ, the nuts vary and the spices change but the syrupy richness does not.

Even without the sultans and their acolytes, baklava still evokes a sense of ceremony. Feast days, religious or otherwise, to celebrate both the living and the dead, are occasions for baklava. So, too, are visits by friends. Claudia Roden, a grandee of Middle Eastern cooking born to an Egyptian-Jewish family, writes that baklava (along with other sweets) is associated, for her, with “feelings of well-being, warmth and welcome, of giving and receiving, of crowds of people smiling, kissing, hugging and showering hospitality”. Whereas Christians often forgo foodstuffs such as sugar during the 40 days of Lent, Ramadan brings a nightly feast in which sweets play an important role. In Turkey, Eid al-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, is known as Seker Bayrami, the feast of sweets…

In the absence of alcohol, sweet treats unite the Middle East: “Go nuts: the multilayered history of baklava,” from Josie Delap (@josiedelap) in @1843mag— with a recipe!

* traditional Turkish saying

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As we lick our lips (and our fingers), we might spare a thought for Chapin Aaron Harris; he died on this date in 1860. Trained as a physician, he specialized in matters of the mouth. He helped found the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), the first national dental organization in the U.S., and founded the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (now the University of Maryland School of Dentistry), the first dental college in the U.S. (and, it’s believed, the world).

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“All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all”*…

To be sure the 1% deserves scrutiny, but there is another– much larger– kind of elite entrenched across the U.S…

American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination.

The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.

These elites’ wealth derives not from their salary—this is what separates them from even extremely prosperous members of the professional-managerial class, such as doctors and lawyers—but from their ownership of assets. Those assets vary depending on where in the country we’re talking about; they could be a bunch of McDonald’s franchises in Jackson, Mississippi; a beef-processing plant in Lubbock, Texas; a construction company in Billings, Montana; commercial properties in Portland, Maine; or a car dealership in western North Carolina. Even the less prosperous parts of the United States generate enough surplus to produce a class of wealthy people. Depending on the political culture and institutions of a locality or region, this elite class might wield more or less political power. In some places, it has an effective stranglehold over what gets done; in others, it’s important but not all-powerful.Wherever these elites live, their wealth and connections make them influential forces within local society. In the aggregate, through their political donations and positions within their localities and regions, they wield a great deal of political influence. They’re the local gentry of the United States.

These folks’ wealth extends into the millions and tens of millions rather than the billions we typically associate with the world-shaping clout of international oligarchs. There are, however, a lot more of them than the global elites who get all of the attention. They’re not the faces of instantly recognizable brands or the subjects of award-winning New York Times profiles; they own warehouses and Applebee’s franchises, concrete companies and movie-theater chains, hops fields and apartment complexes.

Because their wealth is rooted in the ownership of physical assets, they tend to be more rooted in their place of origin than the cosmopolitan professionals and entrepreneurs of the major metro areas are. Mobility among major metros, the characteristic jumping from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York to Austin that’s possible for younger lawyers, creatives, and tech folks, is foreign to them. They might really like heading to a vacation home in Bermuda or Maui. They might plan a relatively early retirement to a wealthy enclave in Palm Springs; Scottsdale, Arizona; or Central Florida. Ultimately, however, their money and importance comes from the businesses they own, and those belong in their locality.

Gentry classes have been a common feature of a great many social-economic-political regimes throughout history. Pretty much anywhere you have a hierarchical form of social organization and property ownership, an entrenched gentry class of some kind emerges. In the course of working on my doctorate in history and years of research for my podcast, Tides of History, I’ve come across many different gentries, each with its own ideas about its legitimacy, role in society, and relationship to those above and below on the social scale: the local civic elites of the Roman Empire, the landlords of late Han China, the numerous lower nobility of late medieval France, the thegns of Anglo-Saxon England, the Prussian Junkers, and the planter class of the antebellum South. The gentry are distinct from the highest levels of a regime’s political and economic elite: They’re usually not resident in the political center; they don’t hold major positions in the central administration of the state (whatever that might consist of); and they aren’t counted among the wealthiest people in their polity. New national or imperial elites might develop over time from a gentry class, even rulers—the boundaries between these groups can be more or less porous—but that’s not typically the case.

Gentry are, by definition, local elites. The extent to which they wield power in their locality, and how they do so, is dependent on the structure of their regime. In the early Roman Empire, for example, local civic elites were essential to the functioning of the state. They collected taxes in their home city, administered justice, and competed with one another for local political offices and seats on the city council. Their competition was a driving force behind the provision of benefits to the common folk, in the form of festivals, games, public buildings, and more basic support, a practice called civic euergetism.

When we talk about inequality, we skew our perspective by looking at the most visible manifestations of it: penthouses in New York, mansions in Beverly Hills, the lavish wastefulness of hedge-fund billionaires or a misbehaving celebrity. But that’s not who most of the United States’ wealthy elite really are. They own $2 million houses on golf courses outside Orlando, Florida, and a condo in the Bahamas, not an architecturally designed oceanfront villa in Miami. Those billionaires (and their excesses) exist, but they’re not nearly as common as a less exalted category of the rich that’s no less structurally formative to our economy and society.

An enormous number of organizations and institutions are dedicated to advancing the interests of this gentry class: chambers of commerce, exclusive country clubs and housing developments, the American Society of Concrete Contractors, and fruit growers’ associations, just to name a small cross section. Through these organizations and their intimate ties to local and state politics, the gentry class can and usually does wield significant power to shape society to its liking. It’s easy to focus on the massive political spending of a Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg; it’s harder, but no less important, to imagine what kind of deals about water rights or local zoning ordinances are being struck across the U.S. on the eighth green of the local country club.

Some people work their way into this property-holding gentry class by virtue of their blood, sweat, and sheer gumption. That’s one variant of the American dream: the belief that hard work and talent, and maybe a bit of luck, can take a person into the ranks of the elite. But far more members of the gentry class are born into it. They inherit assets, whether those are car dealerships, apple orchards, or construction companies, and manage to avoid screwing things up. Managers run their companies, lawyers look over their contracts, accountants oversee their finances, but they’re the owners, whether or not they’ve done a single thing of their own volition to accumulate those assets. This is broadly true of gentry classes: They’re hereditary. Large amounts of property of any kind form a durable base for generational wealth, whatever specific shape it might take. The American gentry class isn’t entirely closed to new blood, but it, too, is hereditary.

Equating wealth, especially generational wealth, with virtue and ability is a deeply American pathology. This country loves to believe that people get what they deserve, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Nowhere is this more obviously untrue than with our gentry class.

The American gentry stands at the apex of the social order throughout huge swaths of the country. It shapes our economic and political world thanks to its resources and comparatively large numbers, yet it’s practically invisible to the popular eye.

Forget the skyscrapers and opulent country mansions, the elite family dynamics of Succession and the antics of the Kardashians and Kardashian-adjacent; look instead to the far more numerous multimillion-dollar planned golf-course communities and their controlling homeowners’ associations. Think about the informal property-development deals struck between sweating local grandees at the country-club bar in Odessa, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Power resides in gated communities and local philanthropic boards, in the ownership of staggering numbers of fast-food franchises, and in the smooth transmission of a large construction company’s assets to a new generation of small-yacht owners. Power can be found in group photos of half-soused, overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts, and in the millionaires ready and willing to fly their private jets to Washington, D.C., in support of a certain would-be authoritarian. The yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur: These were the people who, remembering or inventing their tradition of dominance over their towns and cities, flocked to Make America Great Again. As much as the United States loves to think of itself as an egalitarian paradise open to talent of any stripe, hierarchy and local power are no less the American way.

American Gentry“: the jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies. From the invaluable Patrick Wyman (@Patrick_Wyman) , author of The Verge, newsletter writer– both of which are eminently worthy of reading, as is the full article excerpted above.

* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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As we ponder privilege, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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“Teach Your Children”*…

Values around the world, graphed…

What’s more important for a child to be encouraged to learn: imagination, hard work or both?

And what do you value the most: family, work, friends, leisure, religion or politics?

These are questions asked by the World Values Survey, “a large non-commercial, cross-national, longitudinal investigation of human beliefs and values.” The comparative social survey polled 1,000-3,000 people in countries around the globe to get a consensus on where they stood on varying principles and ideals.

Anders Sundell, a political scientist at University of Gothenburg, scoured through the data and put the results on a line graph, with each country represented by a dot.

Many Nordic countries said they wanted to encourage children to learn imagination the most, with Sweden being the country to list hard work as the least important attribute. Guatemala and South Korea were the countries that overwhelmingly valued both imagination and hard work. Zimbabwe was the country that listed imagination as the least important quality.

Sundell also mapped the countries around the globe that valued family, work, friends, religion, leisure and politics the highest, e.g.:

Dive more deeply into the data at “The Countries That Value Family, Work, Friends, Leisure, Religion And Politics The Most, Visualized.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash (written by Graham Nash)

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As we compare cultures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old local real estate dealer, was alighting from a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car when an electric-powered taxicab (Automobile No. 43) struck him. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his head and chest. He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital; but upon arrival the house surgeon, Dr. Marny, said his injuries were too severe to survive, and Bliss died from his sustained injuries the next morning… becoming the first recorded instance of a person being killed in a motor vehicle collision in the U. S.

Bliss in 1873 [source]

“Culture is the name for what people are interested in”*…

Henry Nelson O’Neil; “The Last Hours of Mozart”

… but “culture” (that’s to say, “high culture”) has also been a form of authority, a kind of superego for society. These days, Adam Kirsh argues, not so much…

From the 1920s to the 1950s, from jazz and blues to rock and roll, tweaking the canon was part of the appeal of pop music—and a favorite device of lyricists. Ella Fitzgerald had a signature hit with Sam Coslow’s “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to “It’s a Simple Little System,” from the musical Bells Are Ringing, in which a bookie uses composers’ names as code to refer to racetracks: “Beethoven is Belmont Park/ Tchaikovsky is Churchill Downs.” Chuck Berry hit the same targets in “Roll Over Beethoven”: “My heart’s beating rhythm/ And my soul keeps singing the blues/ Roll over Beethoven/ Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

In recent decades, however, this type of indirect homage to the authority of classical music has completely disappeared from popular music. The last example may be “Rock Me, Amadeus,” a German pop hit from 1985 that was inspired less by Mozart himself than by the 1984 movie Amadeus, in which the composer is portrayed as, in the song’s words, “ein Punker” and “ein Rockidol.” Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience.

Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate…

And while that change has its costs, Kirsch explains, it also has its benefits : “Culture as counterculture.”

Walter Lippmann

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As we contemplate canons, we might recall that on this date in 2008 the #1 song in the U.S. was “Whatever You Like” by T.I. Jared W. Dillon of Sputnikmusic called the song a “more sophisticated take” on Lil Wayne‘s “Lollipop.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2021 at 1:00 am

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