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A counterpoint in buildings, statues, ideas

Monday, June 26th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylann Roof’s trial, the New Yorker, and the scorable music of opposing voices ]

On the way to taking us Inside the Trial of Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb makes an observation that interests me, describing the architectural features surrounding the trial asa point-counter-point in ideas:

Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, traces its roots to 1816. It was a center of clandestine anti-slavery activity and, in 1822, when city officials discovered that congregants were planning a slave revolt, they burned the church to the ground. The current building was erected in 1891, on Calhoun Street, named for Vice-President John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of secession. The Calhoun monument, a column eighty feet high, topped by a statue of the statesman, is half a block away. The monument and the church, which came to play a central role in the Southern civil-rights movement, stand like a statement and its rebuttal.

Counterpooint — the musical technique whereby two or more melodies are juxtaposed, now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their melodic integrity uncompromised — is a technique which I believe has application beyond music, in verbal thought.


Different voices, offering different opinions and perspectives — now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their conceptual integrity uncompromised — are precisely what we find at the heart of all debate, from town hall meetings and parliamentary procedues to maritalspats and the conversations of genius — the letters of Max Born and Albert Einstein come to mind, as does the film My Dinner with Andre.

My gambit, borrowing from the brilliant game that lies at the heart of Hermann Hesse‘s novel The Glass Bead Game, is to suggest that we take Johann Sebastian Bach‘s use of melodic counterpoint and adapt it to its conceptual equivalent — thus opening the way to (a) thinking many contrasting thoughts as a single conceptual music, and (b) developing fresh means to score such a polyphony — or multitude of voices.

Essentially, the ability to think in counterpoint is the ability to hold in mind another voice beside one’s own — the capacity, if you will, to listen as well as to think. Seen thus, it is the basic skill necessary for us to make progress away from the terrible divisiveness of our times, and into a more convivial and ecumenical future.


I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world.

This sentence, uttered by the other of one of Roof’s victims, gains power from its closely observed parallelism between birth and death, womb and tomb.


Forgiveness as a consequence iof counterpoint:

The Civil War began in Charleston. The Ordinance of Secession was signed in Institute Hall, on Meeting Street, in December, 1860; the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, in the harbor, a few months later. The reaction of many Charlestonians to the extraordinary moment, at a bond hearing the day after Roof’s arrest, when, one by one, family members stood and forgave him, was an outgrowth of the city’s relationship to that past. Forgiveness was not just an example of how to metabolize hatred directed at you, or just a demonstration of Christian faith, though it was both of those things. It stood for a broader redemption, an exoneration from history itself.


A counterpoint in statuary:

Herb Frazier, a black journalist who grew up in the city and has attended Emanuel since childhood, told me that black Charlestonians have always hated the Calhoun monument. “He looks down with this scowl on his face,” he said. Then, in 1999, Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial was erected just fifty feet from the base of Calhoun’s column. That proximity suggests either a wishful denial of Calhoun’s legacy or a level of irony not typically found among municipal planners.


A counterpoint of races and ethical stances:

Those moral calculations, as with everything else associated with the case, were refracted through the lens of race. In a statewide poll, two-thirds of African-Americans favored sentencing Roof to life in prison, while sixty-four per cent of whites believed that the death penalty was warranted. That result mirrored the general division between blacks and whites on the issue of capital punishment, which is driven, at least in part, by the fact that it has disproportionately been used against black defendants.


A counterpoint in colors and sentences:

For David Bruck, Roof’s case represented another chance to address the unjust imposition of the death penalty. At certain moments in the trial, though, his belief that he could diminish a racist practice by saving the life of a white supremacist appeared idealistic to a fault. During his cross-examination of Joseph Hamski, the F.B.I.’s lead investigator in the case, Bruck asked, “What became of Denmark Vesey?” Vesey, a slave who had bought his freedom and become a carpenter, was the lead plotter of the 1822 revolt at the church. “He was hung,” Hamski replied. Bruck was suggesting that the death penalty is irrevocably tainted by racism, but he had seemed to equate Vesey, a man who was prepared to kill for the cause of black freedom, with Roof, a man who had killed because he thought that blacks were too free. The families murmured uneasily at the comparison.


Black and white, crime and punishment, death penalty and life sentence, good and evil, forgiveness and justice, even Union and Confederacy — these binaries rise in counterpoint in the trial and sentencing of Dylann Roof.. offering us a mappable display of cognitions past and present, normative and extreme.

The Executive and the [unacknowledged] Legislator

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — PB Shelley ]

President Trump reads the lyrics of a song about a snake:

Trump is arguing the dangers of immigration and the necessity of a wall…

My response:

Poet Robert Frost reads a poem about a wall:


There’s irony aplenty in the Frost poem, and the voice of the narrator is generally not taken to be that of Frost himself. Worth pondering, thugh, are these lines:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Frost’s poem, though, is contrapuntal, with its two key statements clashing:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,


Good fences make good neighbours.

Frost, it seems, leans more to the latter position — and Trump might have done himself a different favor, and quoted Frost.

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?

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