Mafia, You-Fia, We’re All Fia!

Years ago, reading a book wherein was described how Things Got Done during the Roman Empire (this book, here) it dawned on me – I’m slow on the uptake, sometimes – that traditional social structures are more often like the Mafia than anything else.

No, really. See:

– power resides in a pater/don/prince who acts as judge and enforcer;

– us peons must appeal to the pater/don/prince if we want anything done;

– interactions between unequals are characterized by elaborate obsequiousness;

– there are no police (i.e., people employed by the government empowered to use force to bring about compliance with laws with no regard to persons). Sometimes, there are people wearing police uniforms, but they’re not police so much as private troops;

– the pater/don/prince retains his power through a combination of political maneuvering, the granting or withholding of favors, the calling in of debts incurred through the acceptance of favors, threats and, if all else fails, violence;

– since his power largely devolves to his ability to grant or withhold favors, he is very jealous of this power – anyone who gets anything done on his turf without going through him becomes by that fact alone his enemy, someone to be put back in line or crushed;

– a corollary: the pater/don/prince cannot allow anyone to imagine for a moment that they can do with out him. That’s the most dangerous idea of all. The most they can be allowed to imagine is replacing one don with another – dangerous, sure, but still within the model, so to speak;

– under a Mafia-style government, turf wars will be almost constant – with neighboring dons, with uppity locals

– it is almost unheard of for a Mafia-style government to describe itself in those terms. Even actual Mafias tend toward the ‘it’s just business’, ‘we’re doing what is necessary to maintain order for everybody’s benefit’, ‘tragically, violence was unavoidable’ type of self-description.

So, see what I mean? The scary part is that, not only are there lots of Mafia-style governments out there (Saudi Arabia, almost all African countries, Mexico, and on and on) but tired democracies (as Chesterton points out) tend to slouch towards the expediency of a strong man.

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Grand Sweep of History, part II

4) Look at the rocks and junk. People, especially the over-educated, have a weird tendency to overlook the facts on the ground. But about the only undisputed historical evidence we have is the physical stuff prior ages left lying around.

Examples: Old churches in Europe. They’re all over the place. Big ones, little ones, in every city, little town and village.  We can conclude 2 things: first, that really motivated people built them – can you imagine what it was like to haul and carefully stack huge rocks until you’ve got a cathedral? Without power tools, trucks, cranes and so on? Second, the people must have really loved these buildings. How do we know that? Because, stone buildings take some serious maintenance work every century or so to keep up, an in places where people have built things that are not loved, they strongly tend to get ‘mined’ for materials by subsequent generations. You can see what’s left of ruins of buildings that were not loved everywhere – typically, not much.  (the Pyramids are so massive that a couple millennia of re-purposing has so far mostly just stripped off the nice smooth surfacing. That, and the population hasn’t been motivated to build giant stuff in the desert lately. The locals have not consistently loved them.)

There’s lots to argue about European history. But the facts on the ground say: those Europeans really loved their churches.

Another: Aztec ruins. Here, again, people must have been very motivated to build those pyramids. They’re still around because modern people have decided they’re interesting – charge admission, can’t climb on them anymore or chip off souvenirs.  But they’re effectively deserted – the locals don’t use them for their intended purposes any more. They’re nothing like the churches, which are still maintained and used for their intended purpose by the people in the neighborhood.

So, we can safely conclude, based on the facts on the ground, that, for the most part,  local people loved and still love their churches in Europe, but Mexicans don’t love their pyramids in the same way. It seems churches and Aztec pyramids are different, and people feel differently about them.

It may seem that this is too obvious to point out, but it bears keeping in mind, as people seem to routinely get confused about this when arguing about the evils of the Church and what a pity it is that the Aztecs were snuffed out. The rocks on the ground don’t support that thesis.

A silly little thing called ‘Democracy’

Few days back, posted the following on the Discuss Sudbury Model list on Google lists, in response to what I saw as an attempt to characterize Democracy as desperately needing a degree of benevolent nudging (or ham-fisted collectivist thought control, take your pick) in order to prevent the powerful few from dominating the disinterested many. Of course, it wasn’t put that way – that’s me trying to be funny. You should see my haircut.

Anyway,  thought it might be of interest to all those people out there not reading this blog:

You raise real issues that have gotten a lot of thought. Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others is applicable here as well, but:

The problems you describe have been apparent since the inception of democracy – surely, the Athenians were well aware of them, as were the founding fathers, as are the people involved with Sudbury schools. In more general terms, it’s a question of balancing the interests of the few against interests of the many (or, as your examples, the interests of another few). The counterbalances are also pretty well understood (my opinions here – there’s no magesterium for the Sudbury world, I’m sure other disagree):

1) natural, unaliable rights. There are certain things the democracy shall not do. Period. No voting on it.

2) subsidiarity. As Wikipedia puts it: an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

An example that sprang to mind while reading your posts: US sugar producers, a tiny percentage of the population, have historically gotten laws passed which have the effect of imposing a sugar tax on everybody else, to the benefit of the US sugar producers. Absent these laws, we’d all pay a lot less for sugar (we’d import it all), and many if not all US based sugar producers would go out of business.

So, the questions become: are rights being violated? Is this decision being made at the appropriate level?

In the first case, I’d say yes, rights are being violated – effectively, one group of people is seizing the property of another group for their own benefit. In the second – since when is it a national level issue whether some local companies go out of business or not? Are we really going to agree that sugar production is some sort of national security issue?

Of course, there are counter arguments. But it’s telling that issues such as these are currently settled by weighing the wallets of the political contributors involved without any reference to principles at all.

In Sudbury schools, there are generally only three levels of Democracy – individuals, with their rights, groups with their goals and plans, and the school as a whole. The students, in the JC, school meeting and just in the rough and tumble of life, learn through doing that, in order for the school to run properly or even survive 1) everybody has rights which must be respected; 2) things work better if the ‘national’ level democracy (school meeting) leaves as much of the details as possible to the local level democracy (corporations and groups); 3) there are some ‘national’ level issues, such as adherence to the general laws of the land, that must be dealt with on a ‘national’ level.

So, I’d argue that, from a practical perspective, Sudbury students get far better training in the proper deployment of Democracy than any other students anywhere. They don’t get that weirdly abstract and rosy view of government I recall from ‘civics’ classes, a newsreel-like ‘progress marches on’ view of government fundamentally antithetical to functioning democracy. Instead, having experienced the work involved in a real democracy, they are less likely to mistake what goes on in America, at least at a national level, for any kind of real democracy.

This is a good thing, in my opinion.

Plato and that crowd…

This happens regularly: Somebody with a fleeting or better acquaintance with Plato or Socrates will mention how crazy they were about something, and that, while maybe paying lip-service to the ongoing need not to neglect history, will say that, really, we’ve got it all a lot better figured out now-a-days.

Don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.

Couple examples: One gentleman on a discussion group I’m in is just positive than Plato via Socrates is a deceitful apologist for the Athenian elites, using his wiles to seduce people into trying to behave virtuously in some pure, abstract sense that happens to play into the hands of the people who have power. His proof-text is the Republic. He also thinks the Socratic Method is a fraud, because Socrates always leads his interlocutors by the nose wherever he wants to go.

Another: today’s NYT has an opinion piece dragging Socrates into the current fray over censoring excessively graphic and violent video games in California. Socrates, again in the Republic, speaks in favor of heavy censorship of – of all people – Homer, for the harmful way the Iliad and the Odyssey portray heroes and gods. The comments section contains a whole bunch of Plato-bashing, or worse, Plato-dismissing. (You bash somebody who’s views you care about at least on some level, granting them in the process some degree of respect; you dismiss inferiors.)

The text of the Republic reveals, in that mysterious way the written word has of conveying information, that it’s not as simple as all that. Read a bunch of Socratic Dialogues (I’ve read them all at least once), and it gets more curious – that Socrates guy is not above pulling somebody’s leg, or even toying with people who imagine they’re in his league, but aren’t. His major goal, when he has one, is to leave people not so sure about what they were sure about before they spoke with him. As far as imparting a coherent philosophy to his talk-buddies, that doesn’t seem real high on his to-do list. The overall impression is: this is a really, really smart guy who is picking his spots – he’s  way too smart to read some rote summary of his views to all comers. regardless of where they’re coming from. He uses whatever it is that his interlocutor is interested in as a means to – what? Getting them to think a little, maybe?

Further, while I loathe the whole ‘deconstruction’ thing with every fiber of my being (see: Sokal Affair), it doesn’t hurt to ask: what was going on in Athens when Socrates wrote this stuff? A little context can often shed a whole different light on things.  Surely it is not a coincidence that he describes an ‘ideal’ city in the Republic that is a purified and glorified reflection of Sparta, which happened to be occupying Athens at the time this dialogue is set? Every Athenian child took in with his mother’s milk that Athens was glorious, free and brave, inhabited by the most god-like men yet to walk the earth – and here it is, under the heel of Sparta, always caricatured by the Athenians as a bunch of thick-headed rubes whose only claim to fame was success in war.

( BTW, the Athenians had been winning the war with Sparta they had just lost for years before they overreached (hey, just like in those Greek Tragedies!) and screwed it up with hubris. Maybe, you know, this whole ‘is Sparta really better than Athens?’ question was on everybody’s mind.)

So Socrates, in keeping with his behavior in *virtually every other freakin’ dialogue* uses what’s on everybody’s mind to get the thinking going – he premises his arguments on *Sparta’s* premises, purified so as to appeal to his audience. He then takes his buds through the long path to where those premises lead. Where they lead is NO FUN AT ALL. No Homer. No families. No freedom. Nuthin’

And leaves it at that. Because, again, he’s a really smart guy.

Grand Sweep of History, part 1

Ever since I graduated, I’ve been frustrated by my lack of a grasp of history. Yet I get kidded (I think good-naturedly) about being the History Professor, since I tend to leap into some conversation or other with some story from history. This says way more about the general lack of historical perspective than it does about my level of historical erudition.

Anyway, barring a (not totally out of the question) return to academia, here’s my approach to history. Use it wisely, to dazzle your friends and baffle your enemies:

1) Get the big stories right. This could also be titled: Look at the Map, or even look at the pictures in a travel guide.

Examples: Chinese culture is really widespread. Not only are there 1.3 billion Chinese, but Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and parts of many other cultures are offspring of Chinese culture, and Chinese influence continues to push outwards at the boarders. China is really, really big and important.

Islam is really widespread and – here’s the kicker – Islam has had effectively no positive influence on the lives of the people where it has held sway. Very politically incorrect, but also utterly historically undeniable. You can easily see this by the ridiculous lengths people go to to try to credit achievements to Islam. For comparison: vastly more useful, beautiful, and culturally positive things were produced by the about 50,000 5th century B.C. Athenians or the about 50,000 15th century Florentines  than have been produced by the millions upon millions of Muslims over the 14 centuries Islam has existed. All you have to do is look to see this.

There are really big mountains between India and China, but if you are willing to ford some rivers, you could walk from the Levant to Mumbai.

2) Get the big movements right. Mostly talking about where people are from and where they went.

Example: Americans tend to think that the native Americans have been almost eliminated. That’s somewhat true in the US, but almost completely untrue outside of some of the Caribbean islands. The blood of Native Americans runs strong in the populations of most of Latin America.

The Germanic tribes settled both France and Germany. The French and Germans are descended from the same peoples. The French Germans (so to speak) sort of learned Latin (“French is the most degenerate Romance language” – some professor or other), while the Germans Germans didn’t.

3) Atrocities are as common as dirt. Many peoples, when given the opportunity, have not hesitated to exterminate their enemies as far as possible – it’s not something only crazed dictators do (they just do it more efficiently) it is something regular people do. This adds needed perspective – what we should learn from  the Nazis is not that they were particularly monstrous, but that they were a lot like us. We should not be looking outward, but inward, if we wish to avoid more atrocities.

More later. Ciao.

The Lamest Arguments of All

…are those which, if true, would make argument impossible. If there were to be a litmus test for a functioning mind, this would be it: if you make an argument which, if valid, proves that argument is impossible, FAIL!

Examples are alarmingly common. Short and sweet:

There is no truth. I am all that is.

Slightly longer:

Free will does not exist (in the words of Lucy, then why are you telling me?).  Truth is unknowable. We can’t know if we are sleeping or awake.

Most of the more long-winded self-eradicating arguments are really based on nothing more sophisticated than these. Often, there’s an implied nod and a wink in there as well – oh, sure, I know that if I claim their is no truth (in however roundabout a way that claim is made), there’s no point to this (or any other) argument, but, hey, we really know that what I mean is that there’s no point to THEIR arguments, you know, the ones that are mean and would lead one to conclude that MY world view is, well, STUPID.

It’s vanishingly rare to see that level of clarity*.

So, we hereby declare: if your argument either leads to or is premised on the impossibility or meaninglessness of argument, then – shut up. Go home. Rethink your decision-making paradigm.

* I’ve heard 2nd hand that the recently deceased (2007) philosopher Richard Rorty comes around eventually to the concept of ‘irony’ as the label for the state one reaches when one rejects all analytical (truth-based?) metaphysics yet still feels compelled (by what?) to care about stuff. This sounds indistinguishable from some blend of despair and fantasy (I will disavow knowledge & truth, but assert nonetheless a deep concern for people and society, even though I recognize that they don’t even exist in any coherent manner), but, hey, haven’t read the dude (yet).

Stack of books on the floor is now well into double digits, and the need to read a lot more history is greater than the need to digest yet one more ‘philosopher’, sooo – I’ll comment on Rorty in a year or two.