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Pro and Con, or squished?

Monday, February 20th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — counterpoint: giving all voices a fair hearing. even when conflicting ]

I try to avoid taking political sides in American politics, partly because I’m a guest here and it seems only polite and wise to leave such matters to my hosts, and partly because bridge-building is the therapeutic method of choice in times of division and conflict. Keeping to a middle path may be something of a high-wire act, though, and is seldom popular wit those on either side.


I went looking for a quote that expresses the idea that this kind of middle way can get you killed, and my friends offered me a variety of possible items including Jim Hightower saying:

There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

and Mr Miyagi:



The most cerebral near-miss was this one, from Adam Gopnik writing about and quoting Camus in the New Yorker a while back:

At the Liberation, he wrote (in Arthur Goldhammer’s translation):

Now that we have won the means to express ourselves, our responsibility to ourselves and to the country is paramount. . . . The task for each of us is to think carefully about what he wants to say and gradually to shape the spirit of his paper; it is to write carefully without ever losing sight of the urgent need to restore to the country its authoritative voice. If we see to it that that voice remains one of vigor, rather than hatred, of proud objectivity and not rhetoric, of humanity rather than mediocrity, then much will be saved from ruin.

Responsibility, care, gradualness, humanity—even at a time of jubilation, these are the typical words of Camus, and they were not the usual words of French political rhetoric. The enemy was not this side or that one; it was the abstraction of rhetoric itself. He wrote, “We have witnessed lying, humiliation, killing, deportation, and torture, and in each instance it was impossible to persuade the people who were doing these things not to do them, because they were sure of themselves, and because there is no way of persuading an abstraction.”

and the most scriptural from Scott McW, Revelation 3.14-16:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Michael Lotus supplied:

There’s even a film (h/t Barbara Hope) titled In Danger and Dire Distress the Middle of the Road Leads to Death — though I haven’t seen it.


John Messer catches the perspective I’m coming from when he comments:

One limitation perhaps is our framing of the challenge as a dichotomy rather than a 360 POV or perhaps a sphere of alternatives. In mediation one always looks for the unifying value that embraces all.

It seems harder and harder to present both sides of en ever-more-violently polarized situation without taking fire from each side — so I’d ask you to read what follows (and my posts on similar topics) as attempts at that unifying balance, rather than as statements of my own preferences.. which do exist, and no doubt can be glimpsed, but are not what I’m trying to propagate with my writings, at least thus far..


Consider these two opinions of Trump aide Sebastian Gorka — each the opinion of a valued friend:


It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Is there any room for a first-rate intelligence any more?


Or consider this juxtaposition as a DoubleQuote expression of a parallelism between Trump and Hitler:

Is that fair comment or not?

The two phrases are indeed close parallels –n but obviously the Nazi analogy is one that (a) members of the never Trump faction feel a strong urge to explore, and (b) which is liable to close the ears of the pro Trump faction to any logic it might possess.

How do we hear both sides of so fraught an issue?


How do we retain awareness of that superbly humble and nuanced insight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

That’s the perspective I cherish.

Please see also my follow-up post..

Turkey and Tienanmen, a Double Tanks Quote

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the power of images in which overwhelming humanity is juxtaposed with overwhelming force ]

The image of Ieshia Evans standing truth to power became an instant icon last week, as did an earlier photo of a man facing down a line of tanks at Tienanmen Square. Now, that photo of individual courage in the face of a tank has a cousin from Turkey, and Kenneth Roth has paired the two of them in what I term a DoubleQuote in the Wild:


Serenity in the eye of a camera has many battalions.

Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

Comments? Questions?

Contrapuntal video, fugal braiding

Friday, March 11th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — from Trumpery to Altman’s Nashville ]

Tufte’s illustration of the Kathasaritsagara or Ocean of the Streams of Story


Wired had a piece titled Never Mind Trump. The Internet Wants to Watch What’s Behind Him a couple of days ago, and it contained a sentence that caught my attention:

Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.


I’m always interested in non-musical forms of counterpoint, whether we’re talking Glenn Gould‘s radio dramas, Claude Levi-Strauss‘s structure for his Mytholoogiques, Tufte‘s Rushdie‘s Kathasaritsagara, or the various attempts to make Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game playable. Hesse himself invokes both fugue and counterpoint in the passage in which he describes actual moves in his game about as clearly as anywhere:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations. For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating ide by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously ombining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to
evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis.


I was accordingly interested to read this paragraph, ending as it does with the sentence I quoted above:

The Christie videos were just the latest installment in what might be the defining video format of this election. Call it marginal media, in which background activity overwhelms the intended subject. Most candidates have found themselves inadvertently sidelined at some point. Hillary Clinton was overshadowed by the surreal stylings of “Sticker Kid,” who mugged, jerked, and danced throughout her stump speech. Another short video treated Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of marijuana decriminalization as a preamble to an audience member’s startled reaction. Another Trump rally was undercut when a member of the crowd behind the lectern began reading a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The drama unfolded over the course of Trump’s speech, as the reader’s neighbors began to argue with her, then brought their neighbors into the fray. Soon, the tension made it impossible to pay attention to Trump at all. Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.


We need, it seems to me, to get used to thinking contrapuntally — and accordingly it is instructive to see just how many of the great artists of recent times have employed some measure of contrapuntal thinking in their work. From the same Wired piece:

The frames of Robert Altman’s Nashville are packed with overlapping dialogue and activity—it’s often hard to determine which storyline should dominate—granting his aspiring losers the same weight as the country-music superstars they idolize. Tom Stoppard applied the same lens to Hamlet when he made two lackeys — whose off-stage death was barely remarked upon in Shakespeare’s play — the heroes of his fan-fic spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Okay, I’m off to see Nashville if I can find it..

When the visuals don’t agree with the soundtrack

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — and Bach’s motto was Soli Deo Gloria, To God alone be Praise ]

I have commented before on the curious blend of Bach and bin Laden to be found on one YouTube channel. It now seems the same kind of cognitive dissonance is being used to parody IS nasheed videos: my own favorite example being this one:

Whether such parodies actually dissuade anyone who would otherwise have done so from joining IS I don’t know; that they are entertaining for those of us who are wary and perhaps weary of the videos they parody may be as much as we can hope.

They do, however, raise the question, again, of what exactly the intention of someone posting silent videos of OBL speaking from his cave along with the entire Bach B Minor Mass might be?

Support for OBL? Delight in Bach? Allahu Akbar? Soli Deo Gloria?


Getting away from jihad for a moment, the same YouTube account now features my nephew Daniel Harding‘s Don Giovanni from the Aix festival, with Disney‘s Frozen for visuals:


Hat tip: Hayes Brown, Buzzfeed.

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