Bringing back street kids

Just spent some time with a friend. He lives in a safe neighborhood, so I asked if there were any kids for his kids (they’re young) to play with. Apparently not really.

In this country today we have problems with racial and wealth inequality. There are huge debates about how we address these issues. And they don’t seem like they are going away any time soon.

But huge numbers of Americans adults grew up on the mean streets of the 1980s. We know there is a solution to childhood social isolation, because many of us grew up playing on streets, rather than being shepherded on ‘play dates.’ This is also an issue which most people agree on as a problem. We can solve this.

The past was not PG

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.

Over the long term civilization matters

In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.

These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.

Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.

These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.

As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.

The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.

This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.

We need more housing for the upper upper middle class

$1.5 million dollar house in Palo Alto

When people talk about real estate affordability and gentrification often the focus is on housing for the poor. Myself, I don’t think this is the issue. People with means wouldn’t move into poor neighborhoods if there was housing they could afford elsewhere.

Most of the “multi-million dollar” houses in Palo Alto are not mansions. Many are not really worth that much because of the house; it’s just the land. These are modest homes which really are appropriate for middle class buyers. In fact they were often built with middle class buyers in mind.

But in places like Palo Alto they are now for two types of people: long-term residents (who also likely don’t pay much property tax), and those with very high incomes and/or wealth due to selling companies.

From an article published last year:

The average price of the Palo Alto homes that went on the market today is just over $3 million. With a 20 percent down payment and the state’s average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 3.77 percent, the average monthly payment on those homes would be a little over $14,000, two-thirds of the monthly income for a quarter-million dollar household.

It’s hard to imagine that two married Google engineers in their twenties could afford a house in Palo Alto. It’s beyond their means. But these homes are not luxurious in and of themselves. They’re all that the upper upper middle class have access to nearby.

In Silicon Valley they love to reimagine stuff. But only some people like the demi-god Elon Musk are focusing on concrete things, like cars and rockets. They need to re-imagine housing. There’s no reason the people coding the future should live in post-war ranch homes.

American cities need to grow up to solve the housing crisis

Martin Jacques observes in When China Rules the World that East Asian cities don’t have the organically evolved feel of European urban areas. He chalks this up to the rapid economic development of the “Asian Tigers” and Japan over the past few decades. Buildings were built, buildings were torn down. The rate of change didn’t allow for the accumulation of historical authenticity. There’s also another reason: many East Asian societies have built buildings out of perishable materials like wood and so not prized historicity of structures.

The oldest free standing timber building in China dates to 782. The Songyue Pagoda dates to 523, but it’s made of brick. In contrast great public buildings made of marble still exist in the Western world that date back to antiquity. The Pantheon became a church and so is preserved in nearly its full glory. Public buildings and historical architecture are great. But the valorization of the principle can come at a price.

Willamette Week has an article up on the attempt to “maintain historic character,” and how it prevents the emergence of affordable housing. Portland’s Laurelhurst Neighborhood Fights to Keep the Housing Crisis Out:

At the end of last month, residents of Laurelhurst turned out in record numbers to vote in their neighborhood association election for one reason: to get protection from developers.

The winning candidates pledged to bypass City Hall and ask the National Park Service to declare much of the 425-acre eastside neighborhood a historic site.

By being labeled “historic” the residents can block development, and preserve the state of their neighborhood the way they like it. They are very explicit about what they want to do:

By seeking to make the neighborhood a historic district, Laurelhurst residents are taking aim at what they see as the neighborhood’s greatest enemy: a real estate developer with a backhoe, bent on tearing down 100-year-old houses to replace them with apartments, a duplex or a huge new house.

“The whole street—it will look like Beaverton by the time they’re done,” says John Deodato, a longtime Laurelhurst homeowner who says he gets 20 letters a month from developers seeking to buy his home. “The city won’t do anything about it unless we do.”

Beaverton is a suburb of Portland. Though the analogy is imperfect, if Portland is West LA, Beaverton is Irvine. The connotation of this insult is clear to any Oregonian. It’s a sneer at those without refined sophistication and breeding.

Laurelhurst has a 14 to 1 Democrat to Repubican ratio, and median home value is $750,000. The median household income for the greater Portland area is $65,000. The median home value in Beaverton is about $360,000. I looked at Zillow and found an $800,000 home in Laurelhurst. You can see that it has appreciated nicely over the last 10 years.

The recent neighborhood association seats were contested. The outcomes were clear:

More than 800 people voted in the election—a record for the neighborhood, and more than 10 times the number of voters in the previous election. The vote went overwhelmingly for the historic district candidates. Pratt, the pro-historic district candidate for president, won just under 80 percent of the vote.

It is no surprise that the people who live in Laurelhurst are voting to protect their interests. Their implicit gated community, with its high property values. They may be progressive in their avowed values, but when their self-interest is at state, they make sure to take care of their self-interest and conserve what they have the way they like it.

There are of opponents to this trend of gentrified Portland neighborhoods. They profile an alliance between a developer and the head of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit which favors density over sprawl. Below is some of their rationale, along with what someone in Laurelhurst has to say about these men:

“The reasons we are involved with this bill has nothing to do with whether the home builders are involved with it,” says McCurdy. “The bill increases housing opportunities—diverse housing opportunities and affordable housing opportunities—all of those inside our towns and cities, which is part of the land-use deal that we as Oregonians have had in place for 40 years.”

McCurdy believes what’s happening in Laurelhurst is a “misuse of historic district designation to prevent change.”

Critics of the bill call 1000 Friends’ and the home builders’ support an unholy alliance.

“Gov. McCall would be spinning in his grave to see his beloved 1000 Friends of Oregon organization working side-by-side with the Home Builders Association, buying into the alt-right, fake-news theory of demolition as the cure for affordability,” wrote Tracy Prince, vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, in a May 17 letter to legislators.

In the early 2000s anything and anyone that self-styled progressives did not like was “neocon.” Today it is “alt-right.” Somehow this woman believes that allowing for development which would allow for an increase in the local housing supply and destroy some of the quaint town-like character of East Portland streets is “alt-right.” If she lived in the 1950s I wonder if she would accuse her enemies of being “Communists.”

The article has a definite slant against the Laurelhurst neighborhood association. The author of the piece lives in Northeast Portland, so she’s able to see through the pleading for the “special character” of Laurelhurst (in fact, records indicate that she is a recent transplant to the city from New York City, so her sympathies are likely not with the old-timers). At one point the author interviews a man who is living out of his pickup truck in Laurelhurst. He’s making $12 an hour, and couldn’t afford a place elsewhere in Portland, let alone Laurelhurst. She notes that “A Craigslist ad posted last week shows a restored attic in this neighborhood renting for $1,000 a month” in the neighborhood.

The piece concludes:

Pratt, the neighborhood association president, knows plenty about homelessness. A couple years ago, he served on the board of social services agency JOIN, which coordinates shelter beds.

Pratt acknowledges Portland needs to build more housing. But not too much of it in Laurelhurst.

“Everybody says the solution to homelessness is housing,” he says. “I don’t think the solution is that every neighborhood looks the same, and every neighborhood has everything, and your neighborhood [has] no uniqueness anymore.”

People have interests. But they don’t want to admit those interests in public. The Laurelhurst neighborhood association’s attempt to gain historic designation is regulatory arbitrage. They want to preserve their neighborhood and property values, and not let in the riff-raff have any space. Earlier in the piece there is a quote from the association president: “Pratt warns that if Laurelhurst isn’t allowed to decide what gets developed within its boundaries, the neighborhood will indeed become cheaper eventually—because it will become hideous.

Beauty is important. It has value. But if we need to sacrifice beauty for affordability, at some point the latter does have to overrule the former.

The political Left on the national level is at least waking up to the problem. Recently Mother Jones wrote Berkeley Says It’s Standing Up to Trump, But It’s Actually Busy Arguing About Zucchini. The title comes from this passage:

At Tuesday night’s city council meeting, which touched on a number of housing issues, this dissonance was on display in a resident’s complaint about a proposed new building that would cast shadows on her zucchini plants. The project was returned to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. The zukes live another day.

“Delaying or denying housing approvals suggests to Berkeley neighbors that their stalling tactics will work, and invites more of them in the future,” web developer Kevin Burke wrote in a letter to the council after the meeting, expressing his disappointment with the decision. “I would also much rather have a zucchini garden crisis than a housing crisis.”

The gut-punch is that an anti-development mayor has been elected in Berkeley. How “radical.” In San Francisco and San Mateo counties $105,000 a year for a household of four is low income. The average household income in San Francisco happens to be $105,000 per year.

Yesterday and today on Twitter there was a discussion about post-doc salaries. To a great extent this is a stage in academic life when the salary range is compressed because there are broad national guidelines and expectations. The median post-doc makes $46,000. The 10th percentile is $37,000, and the 90th percentile is $65,000.

So let’s compare some universities and their locales. In US News Stanford has the #2 genetics graduate program and Washington University in St. Louis the #5 program.

According to a cost of living calculator a “salary of $50,000 in St. Louis, Missouri should increase to $304,167 in Palo Alto, California.” This is because housing is 24 times more expensive in Palo Alto. So a hypothetical post-doc at Stanford that is paid $100,000 is equivalent to $16,000 in St. Louis. You might object that Palo Alto to St. Louis is apples to oranges, but the housing expense in the greater Bay Area means that you can’t just escape Palo Alto for relief. A Zillow check of Washington University vs. Stanford shows that houses within walking distance of the latter university are about 15 times more expensive than the former. The average assistant professor at Washington University has a salary in the low $100,000 range. At Stanford it is in the mid-$100,000 range. Basically a Stanford assistant professor makes about 1.5 times more in salary than a Washington University assistant professor, even though cost of living is going to be 6 times greater in Palo Alto.

At this point I could go into tangents about university housing for post-docs and faculty in the Bay Area (one of my friends is doing a post-doc at UCSF and had to have a subsidized apartment for obvious reasons). And obviously opportunities for consulting are more available in the Bay Area. But the point is not about academics and their careers. Rather, I’m using an illustration of the circumstances in which “winners” in American society, people with lot of higher education, can find themselves in financial stress.

There are genuine benefits of starting a career in the Bay Area. For an academic you have access to world-class institutions, with the Stanford, UCSF and Berkeley triangle, and UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz just beyond the horizon, and other institutions like San Francisco State to fill out the landscape. For a techie you know where the “action” is. If you are a single person, a $125,000 salary at Google won’t allow to you live luxuriously, but you can survive. Hopefully you’ll be able to make connections that help you later on, when you inevitably have to ask for a transfer because you want a house and a family.

This is the cycle of life now. But not for everyone. I lived in California for almost ten years, and there are those to the Golden State born whose families bought homes decades ago. The property tax regulations California are Byzantine, but there are plenty of cases where individuals are “grandfathered in” and pay very little tax on a very valuable property. And, these benefits can pass on to children. In other words you may have millennials paying tax rates on million dollar homes that date back to assessments in the 1970s, when their parents owned the house.

We can debate the merits of this system. One can make a case for giving those with deep lineage in an area privileges over newcomers. I lived in a house in Berkeley where the property owner told me once that he paid on the order of 15 times less tax than his neighbor, because the house had been in the family for 60 years. It was purchased by his grandparents, and owned by his mother, and it had passed on to him. His profession was as a part-time photographer and musician. Because his tax bills were so modest he could rent out rooms in the house and and survive in Berkeley even though his non-property income was irregular and not particularly high (when I lived in his house he would complain that he didn’t want to purchase health insurance due to the cost).

For those of us without those privileges if we want to live in the urban areas where our specialized skills return the greatest income and also where we can network and grow our career the best, we need to make sacrifices. For many people that means putting off getting married, putting off having children. Anyone who makes less than $100,000 a year will probably have to hustle in Silicon Valley. There are flophouses from San Francisco down to San Jose where young people of more modest means live together in a communal fashion in dormitories.

How did we get here? I think I’ve outlined a major part of how we got here. Many places people want to live are extremely expensive because supply of housing is constrained.

Houston has a great food scene, but quaint and charming is not something anyone would say about it. But it is very affordable. And, the fourth largest city in this country. It lacks zoning. In contrast San Francisco is beautiful. There is something special about it, from the feces on the sidewalks in the Tenderloin to the beauty of the Golden Gate bridge. Something would be lost if one allowed it to develop vertically. But do we want the city to become a playground for the wealthy and those born into old families of the city? Because that’s what’s happening with the choices we’re making in this country.

Our vision for the future used to be optimistic. We would live better. We would be space age humans. Much of it has come to pass. Our “phones” are amazing things. Electric driverless cars will transform our cities within the next generation. But the way we do housing in this country has not moved much beyond the middle of the 20th century. We need changes in culture, changes in technology, to make things better for future generations, rather than constraining them with the paltry opportunities of the present.

St. Augustine knew of the Buddha!

St. Augustine is a very influential figure in Western Christianity. Partly this is surely due to the fact that the Latin Church favored a doctor who was of their own cultural persuasion, schooled in their mores and folkways, as opposed to the ‘logic-choppers’ of the Greek world. In the intellectual Protestant tradition his influence on Martin Luther and John Calvin is well known.

But it was only recently that I realized St. Augustine may have been moderately familiar with the Dharmic tradition. If you recall, he was a Manichaean for some years in his youth. This religion of Persian provenance is relatively well known has having an expansive geographic reach. The last self-conscious Manichaeans probably lived in China in the years around 1500 AD. But in Late Antiquity Manichaeanism apparently had a presence in the Western Roman Empire.

In any case, though notionally a dualistic religion, Manichaeanism acknowledged a strong influence from the Dharmic tradition, in particular Buddhism. Buddha is explicitly mentioned in Manichaean texts, and noted as a one of the prophets. This is not surprising, as the religion emerged in a diverse and pluralistic Late Antique Persian Empire which ruled over many Buddhist and Hindu peoples on its northern and eastern fringes.

I am not claiming that Buddhism had any direct impact on St. Augustine. But simply putting this into the record to remind ourselves that the extent of what we know about the ancients is pretty limited.

The servitude I saw

Many people are talking about the late Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Much of the piece was as disturbing for me as it was for most Americans. But some of it was shockingly familiar. I’ll get to that.

First, Tizon died unexpectedly before the article was published. We won’t be able to ask him about how we can judge the veracity of his own role and culpability. Though the narrative is laced with guilt and admissions of fault on his part, ultimately he does come off as somewhat the soft-hearted hero in comparison to his parents.

Since he is the source of all of this it is hard to not assume that he cast himself in a more flattering light than reality might warrant. The obituary he helped inform in 2011 was entirely deceptive, and apparently the slavery did not feature in his memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

On the one hand writing such an article exposed himself to critique. On the other hand this piece would surely have been an incredible capstone to his career; his has wife admitted as much. Ultimately truth would really only have been served if “Lola,” the slave in question, had been allowed to speak for herself. I’m sure she would have had very different perceptions from Tizon.

But overall I suspect his guilt was genuine.

This is not how it always works out. About ten years ago there was an infamous Long Island case where a wealthy Indian American family had had two Indonesian slaves. There were incidents recounted in the media and testimony which made it clear that their American born children were entirely complicit and cooperative with their parents in the enslavement of these women.

As many of you know it is not uncommon in many societies across the world to have household help. It was even the case in the United States up until relatively recently for young women to go through a stint of menial labor in a more affluent family’s home. My own wife’s grandmother did this when she was a young woman in the 1920s.

I was born in Bangladesh. I moved to the United States right before my schooling began. So though my formative years are operationally all in the United States, I retain memories of Bangladesh. Additionally, I have visited twice since I left (due to the recent spate of killings of secularists I do not plan on visiting again until the nation joins the civilized world). When I was a young child I had a beloved nanny. Additionally, before we left for the United States there were two families who were resident with us in our large apartment. They helped my mother keep the house.

These were not simply capitalist transactions. My nanny was from the same village as my paternal grandfather. Many of the people who served in my family’s household in Dhaka were from the same district we had come from, and had had prior associations with my family in the 19th century (for reasons I’m not aware of, they were all from my mother’s side of the family). Obviously my nanny couldn’t come to the United States. She was relatively elderly*, so she retired to my maternal grandfather’s home village, and the last time I saw her in 1989  she was living in one of the houses he owned, which had an indoor flush toilet (a luxury at the time).

The first time we visited Bangladesh my mother made sure to visit the families who had once lived with us and worked for us before we left for the United States. In some ways it was like reacquainting with distant relatives. But obviously there was the distance of class. These were people whose families had been subsistence peasants only a generation earlier. My own family on both sides were not subsistence peasants. They either collected rents from the peasants in question, or operated businesses which generated revenue (e.g., jute farms or milk production operations), or were professionals (e.g., my maternal grandfather was a doctor, my paternal grandfather was an ulem, though he supplemented his income with rents).

Some of the things that I heard my family say about the families who had once had a servile relationship with them were the very definition of patronizing. That being said, both sides of my family are relatively religious, and took some pride in the humane character of their relationship with the people who they employed. Additionally, these were not impersonal relationships. My mother never behaved as the “boss.” Rather, I recall she maintained at least the artifice of a genuine friendship with the women close to her age who worked in our household. The ties between our families went back generations. I would not be surprised if in some sense they were relatives in some fashion.

All this is to frame a searing incident (or series of incidents) that I recall from 1989. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had married into a family which hailed from the city of Chittagong. This brother was arguably my mother’s favorite, so we went to visit him inChittagong. Most of the time though he was away on a merchant marine vessel on which he was an engineer, so we were left to spend time with my uncle’s in-laws. Overall they were lovely people.

But there was an exception to their behavior. They had a household domestic. She must have been about fifteen or so. She was very quiet, and I was never formally introduced to her, though a few times I tried to talk to her, to the irritation of others. Like an automaton she operated silently in the background, cleaning and cooking. One day I was in the kitchen talking about something with my cousin-in-law, and my uncle’s mother-in-law began yelling at the young woman. My cousin-in-law broke off our conversation, turned to the domestic, and began yelling at her too. Next thing I knew all the women in the house had come into the kitchen and were screaming at the domestic.

I was very disturbed and left the scene of the incident. Something similar happened at least two other times the week we were there. When I asked one of my cousin-in-law’s about this young woman and why they yelled at her she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and said she was stupid, useless, and didn’t know her place. I asked my mother about this treatment, and she didn’t seem to want to speak of it, though she did say something to the effect that not all families treat their domestics the way she was raised to treat them. My mother did not approve, but her disapproval did not rise to the level of causing her to begin a controversy with her brother’s in-laws.

This behavior seems very similar to what Tizon recounts about his parents using their slave as a emotional and verbal punching bag. And it was not a total aberration, the second time I went to Bangladesh we stayed with one of my mother’s brothers who had become rather wealthy. He married a woman who was 20 years younger than him. She was in fact one year younger than me (this is my mother’s youngest brother). This woman was nice enough, but she seemed a bit dull and I was to understand she wasn’t particularly educated (i.e., she hadn’t gone to university of any sort).

My uncle’s household had a domestic. She was a young woman, probably in her early teens. One day I saw my aunt-in-law scream at her in exactly the same way that I had seen years earlier with my other uncle’s in-laws. When my aunt was irritable about something, she would invariably begin to verbally abuse the domestic, who was probably about 13.

Many things have changed in Bangladesh in the period my parents have lived in the United States. This includes the language; both of my parents speech exhibits archaisms which contemporary Bangladeshis find amusing. But something substantive has been economic development. My parents in the 1970s were at best upper middle class. But they had numerous servants. My uncle in contrast was, and is, genuinely wealthy, even by American standards. He is literally part of the capitalist class.

Yet it was difficult for him to find a competent domestic. He had to drive 50 miles into the country into obscure villages to find a family who had a young woman who was willing to work in his household. The families who had traditionally worked for my own family were now in a different economic situation. Some number had lived long enough in the city that their children had gained enough education that there were now opportunities besides menial labor or domestic work for them. Others were now sending their young daughters to textile factories, and not the homes of the middle or upper classes.

Why? I can’t speak from inside knowledge, above I made it clear that in our own telling my family is that they were benevolent patrons. But even if we were benevolent patrons, I assume that the families which customarily had to treat us with deference would have preferred to live in a world where our legal equality in the modern world matched social equality.

Going to work in a dark and hot factory for low ages is horrible I assume (I wouldn’t know except for a short stint at a Christmas break job when I was 20). But it may be better than the alternative of being subjected to abuse by one’s “betters” for a pittance.

To end on a positive note, sometimes my parents complain about how much Bangladesh has changed. Much of the rural area has been swallowed by the conurbation that is Dhaka. But many things have gotten better. Both my parents come from large families. But though my maternal grandmother was married to a doctor of some means, several of her children died as infants. This was not a tragedy, but just a part of life. The mortality of children under five has decreased 7-fold in what is now Bangladesh since my parents were young!

* People who live a difficult life tend to age quickly. I want to say that my nanny was in her late 50s when I last saw her, but I would not be surprised if she was younger. She was illiterate, and when I was a child in elementary school I recall my parents discussing the best way to send her some money when they found out that she was subsisting on plain rice and salt.

The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

The return of the civilian

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them”
-Niccolò Machiavelli

The sentiments expressed above are typical of Renaissance men, prone to archaisms and love of ancient learning. As all stylized facts are, the dichotomy between a dark Middle Ages and a flourishing Renaissance are clearly overwrought, and an artifact in some ways of the reality that the victors write history. A passionate intellectual such as Abelard is clearly a familiar figure despite the reality that he flourished in the early part of the High Middle Ages. And the period described in Aristotle’s Children was not lacking in brilliance on the whole.

But generalizations also have a basis. Henry the VIII reputedly wrote Defence of the Seven Sacraments as a rebuke to the assaults from the nascent Protestant tradition. For his services the Pope gave the king the title Defender of the Faith. It is no surprise that Thomas More “aided” in the composition, but the point is that a Renaissance monarch was expected to be a cultured individual for whom writing a theological treatise was not ludicrous.

Though one should not take the analogy too far, in some ways the polities of the medieval period in Western Europe exhibited a social structure not unlike that of the Bronze Age. Literacy was one of the hallmarks of Romanitas, and later of Christian civilization. But literacy was not broad-based in Western Europe, but rather concentrated in a particular caste, that of the priests. In the Bronze Age literacy was also defined by its caste association, that of the scribes. In contrast, kings fought. Their rule was by divine right, whether as living gods on earth, or as vice-reagents of the national deity. Similarly, monarchs during the medieval period ruled as representatives of the God on high.

During the Iron Age the antipodes of Eurasia were dominated by polities and civilizations which were predicated on military rule, but at whose peak civilian norms reigned supreme. Even as militaristic a figure as Julius Caesar was a cultural patron who also wrote The Gallic Wars. Similarly the Chinese emperors were manifestly civilian figures, who often also had personal skills in the arts which they cultivated. It wasn’t until the reign of the emperor Justin in the year 518 that Rome first had an illiterate ruler (and this is implausible enough that some historians attribute this claim as one intended to be scurrilous toward Justin and his successor and nephew, Justinian).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ended this civilian ascendancy, which in any case was being eroded by the necessary rise of military emperors to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. Once the German tribes, Roman allies or not, took the reins of power there were deep fundamental transformations of the order of society. Though great rulers such as Charlemagne were patrons of learning and Roman civilization, he himself remained very much a barbarian warlord.

The ruling elite of medieval Europe were manifestly a military elite. The feudal system demanded that they provide service in the armies of their lords, and that service entailed outfitting themselves and a retinue. Martial skills were a necessity. The legacy of this physical aspect to being part of the ruling elite persists down to the present day. Both of the two young princes in the House of Windsor have had military careers, while hunting remained a major part of every nobleman’s life down to the early modern period (apparently Louis XVI’s diaries are filled with days which simply state “went hunting”).

The gun and the printing press

Events such as the Battle of Crecy, the rise of the Swiss infantry, and the ubiquity of the gun, heralded the end of the military elite as a necessity. Gentility of birth became a matter of mores and manners, and the reemergence of an almost classical model of education and cultivation took hold.

Along with the the rise of the gun, there was the printing press. The existence of ancient graffiti in Egypt and Rome tells us that we should be cautious about assuming that literacy was rare in antiquity, but we should also admit that it was not quite common (when men of the lower classes were allowed in the legions in the late republic there were accommodations made for the fact that many would be illiterate).

The printing press was a technology that made production of printed works much easier. And so Europe was indudated with pamphlets and books. This was not always due to the literate content, as illustrations were quite influential. But it is hard to deny that this spread of information technology probably triggered a blooming of the “republic of letters” not out of chance, but necessity. The intellectuals of the medieval period were by and large clerics, but now they were joined by newly emerged urban professionals and the leisured nobility.

The Age of the Princes and their Liberal Critic

As medieval Western Christendom entered into the final stages of putrefaction something new was ripening within it. I do not believe it is coincidental that the Iberian powers were pushing forward and exploring the world beyond Europe in the decades before Martin Luther, and during the same period new learning was overturning the long reigning scholasticism.

At the center of much of the cultural religious ferment was Desiderius Erasmus. Born in 1466, he was the illegitimate son of a priest, and became a priest himself. After a fashion he was man of the later medieval period, born of a cleric who violated his vows of chastity, in the decades after the papacy was riven between different claimants, and conciliarism attempted to throw the Western Church back to a more antiquated style of governance. This was the age of the Borgia and Medici popes.

Erasmus’ accomplishments are legion in the field of humanities. Today he would be a stellar public intellectual, as well as a productive research scholar. He was the prince of the republic of letters of his day.

Like many Catholic reformers Erasmus aimed to sweep the superstition from his faith, and mocked and criticized the corruptions that he saw in the Church. With his pen he attempted to reform Christian civilization in his own image, sincere of faith and theologically orthodox, shorn of the idolatrous excesses of the medieval Catholicism, with its cult of saints and Marian devotions, as well as contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the clerical class as a whole (though still reverential of its role in performing the sacraments).

Erasmus was instrumental in the rebirth of the liberal arts in Europe in his day. But it seems clear that Erasmus was also fundamentally a liberal person in his attitude toward deviation from what he himself thought was true and right. And, events at the end of his life also suggest that he was much more accepting of the imperfections of the institutions which he critiqued throughout his whole life than others would be.

The Age of the Zealot

The last 19 years of Erasmus’ life overlapped with the Reformation. At the peak of his fame and influence men such as Luther reached out to him, but Erasmus did not return their enthusiasm in kind. The Reformation unleashed atavistic passions, and much of the world Erasmus had known, that he had critiqued and chided, collapsed before him.

Where Erasmus inveighed against the corruption of the Catholic Church, zealous new converts to the Protestant cause destroyed church property and relics, and expelled priests from their territory. When the Jews did not convert to Luther’s form of Christianity, he attacked them. When the peasants rose up against their lords, analogizing their rebellion to that of Luther and his colleagues, he justified their slaughter. When Erasmus temporized Luther attacked him.

Though there were long periods of peace in the decades after Erasmus’ death, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became emblematic of an age. The period of the Reformation is also one of the age of Wars of Religion. The whole map of Europe transformed due to religious disputes, and between 25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War due to causes rooted in the war itself.

In Northern Europe they burned witches. In Southern Europe the inquisition was in full effect. In France Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, until the French monarchy gave the Protestants a choice of conversion or emigration.

Ideas With Consequences

In Erasmus’ life and work we see the shadow of the future. Some figures just subsequent to him, such as Montaigne, echoed his liberality of spirit. But they were marginalized for centuries by the intolerance of Luther, the controlling character of Calvin, and the machinations of the Jesuits. The power of monarchs grew, as they dispossessed the Catholic Church, or claimed that the Catholic Church gave them divine right to rule.

Charity toward those with whom one disagreed with, a plea of Erasmus in his later  years, disappeared. And what reason had the Catholics to be generous to the Protestants after the iconoclastic attacks on their sacred sites and objects? Protestants when they were expelled or forcibly converted by Catholics? Reformed when they were driven out of Lutheran and Catholic lands? Baptists when they were oppressed everywhere?

The decline of the centrality of fighting as the primary task of nobles, and the rise of humanist and cultured values among the aristocracy, was coincident with wars which tore the fabric of Europe apart for generations, over and over.

The Exhausted Return

Of course as I write today in 2017 the figure of Erasmus strikes many moderns, whatever our religious inclinations, as an admirable one. His emphasis on heart, and the fact that his heart was in the right place, are appealing. His liberality of spirit, his low tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption, but acceptance of genuine disagreement due to human fallibility, are characteristics many of us would wish we could cultivate more.

But it’s nearly 500 years since he died, and it took about two centuries after he died for the long road to enlightenment to put us where we are now. Erasmus shows us that a moderate position, taking the middle path, speaking in the language of intellectuals, has difficulties with the zealots who spew the argot of the street. John Calvin had a humanist education, as did many of the Reformers were humanists, but that did not prevent him from burning a heretic and giving voice to his inner totalitarian (though I do understand that Geneva was not totalitarian in a way we would understand it today). Humanism became a tool, part of one’s education, as opposed to the broad liberal minded spirit with Erasmus exemplified.

When learning is instrumentalized, when it is reduced purely to a tool in the service of society, that enslavement saps something out of its spirit. The idea of truth, the valorization of it above other things, likely does have broader cultural consequences. Without truth, I believe that our species reverts to zero-sum and negative-sum “games.” That was our past. I believe it could be our future.

 

Why A Song of Ice and Fire is more definitive than A Game of Thrones

Wired has a piece out George R. R. Martin Doesn’t Need to Finish Writing the Game of Thrones Books. The title is needlessly provocative, as there are many good points in the article (though I understand clickbait considerations). Over the years I’ve come to expect and accept that the “great fork” is here to stay, and the books and the the television shows are in some deep and fundamental ways going to be distinct narratives (though Martin and the producers of the television show assert that their conclusion will be congruent, which I actually think may not be optimal).

But the author dismisses an important point rather flippantly:

For the last few years being able to say “Sure, yes, but the books are better” has provided a nice little dopamine rush. But beyond that thrill, what Game of Thrones fans really want is more Game of Thrones. And right now, their best bet for getting that is on premium cable.

Earlier there are comparisons made to the books which inspired Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining, and Blade Runner. These are all cases where films overshadowed the literary works which preceded them.

But none of these works are on par with the world-building and richness of George R. R. Martin’s series (especially the first three books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords). Additionally, in the case of the Jaws and The Godfather I think most people agree that the films are far superior artistic productions to the books. And in relation to Blade Runner, most people know that Philip K Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was only tenuously connected to the movie adaptation.

I understand that writers are sometimes given tasks or make a really good pitch on the most general terms. But if the points wouldn’t pass muster wit your high school English teacher, should they pass muster with a national magazine? In the clickbait era, probably. But I’m still here to point out that Mrs. Barry would not have approved….