Friday, June 23, 2017

Random Summer Flowers

Bottom photo from my garden, the few daylilies that the deer missed on their catastrophic flower-eating raid Tuesday night. The rest were taken within a block or two of my office.

Racism, Liberalism, and avoiding Civil War

Scott Alexander is frustrated with liberals who keep trying to end political debates by crying "racism". So he wrote a long, long post that begins with an extended discussion of what the word "racism" means, and proceeds to a discussion of what the word "murderism" would mean, takes up the difficulty of understanding people from other cultures, and concludes with a plea that we need to try harder "because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war." An extract:
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?

You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?

You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?

You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?

You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?

You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?

The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. . . . Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.

But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody. . . .

And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I think we're a long way from civil war, but as I keep saying it is the logical end point of our politics.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Self-Branding for Experts

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand made it into the news this week by promising to recover, before the end of the year, the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990. Which was a great publicity stunt in itself, but that is only the beginning of his public relations genius. In the course of reading half a dozen stories about him, I have found him described as a "vigilante art hunter," a "super sleuth," and "the Indiana Jones of the art world." Impressive, Mr. Brand. Now find the paintings.

Stonehenge Backwards

Everybody knows that Stonehenge points toward the midsummer sunrise. Which it does, viewed from a certain angle. In the computer rendering above, the midsummer sunrise is along the line extending toward the upper right.

But what if the monument actually pointed in the other direction? Because if you follow the line that extends toward the lower left, that points toward the midwinter sunset. (Isn't astronomy cool? No wonder people used to be so obsessed with it.) This photograph of a model shows how impressive it might have been to watch that sunset through the tallest trilithon.

There is other evidence that Stonehenge was mainly a midwinter temple. Deposits of sheep and cow bones from feasting have been found nearby, and they seem to have been butchered in winter, not summer. The other grand neolithic monuments of the region (e.g., Newgrange in Ireland) are generally focused on midwinter astronomy.

Plus, the European tradition as a whole just puts a lot more emphasis on the midwinter solstice than midsummer; compare Christmas to St. John's Day or July 4th to get the general idea.

Obviously we don't know and may never, and anyway the monument could equally well serve both functions. But sometimes I find it fascinating  to turn  things around and look at them from the opposite direction.

Let's Get Back to Quilting

The BBC reports on political turmoil in the online quilting community:
It started with political chat and ended up with abusive messages, calls for boycotts and an online civil war between liberals and conservatives. A familiar story, perhaps - only this time it happened in the world of quilting.

The traditional American hobby has - like knitting, baking and other skills - been given a new lease of life by social media, through Reddit discussions, online commerce and the ease of spreading tips and knowledge via digital videos.

But in recent weeks, online communities and bloggers have been discussing a series of screenshots which appear to show socially conservative quilters organising campaigns and hurling insults about other enthusiasts who don't share their political beliefs.
Ok, "Conservative with a Common Interest" is a secret Facebook group, so if they want to mock liberals in a closed forum that's their business, right? But then this:
Members organised a drive to send complaints to an exhibition which had put out a call for quilts protesting against the Trump presidency. They contacted the sponsors of one liberal quilter to suggest that she should be dropped because of her opposition to Trump.

They sent homophobic messages to gay artists and contacted quilting trade shows, asking organisers to cancel classes run by quilters they thought were too liberal.

And they suggested boycotting certain quilters, or reporting them to the IRS - the American tax authorities - so that they would be tied up in tax investigations. Targets were chosen because of their support for things like Planned Parenthood and and women's rights, among other liberal causes.
Quilting has long been a political art in America, as projects like the AIDS quilt or the anti-Trump quilt show, but really. Trying to get the IRS after liberal quilters?

But I was pleased to read that after quilting blogger Eric Suszynski exposed this group, the most common response he got was,
Let's not talk about it, let's move past it. Let's ignore this problem and get back to quilting.

Truth and Trust

Tom Friedman called ethicist Dov Seligman to get his perspective on the current political situation in America:
“What we’re experiencing is an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy — the twin pillars of truth and trust,” Seidman responded. “What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union — and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’”

But when there is no “we” anymore, because “we” no longer share basic truths, Seidman argued, “then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
This is indeed the great danger, and the thing most to be feared. What to do about it is the great question, and I have heard no compelling answers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Yawns at CERN

Since the announcement of the Higgs Boson in 2012, no news from the frontiers of particle physics:
Some 5,000 physicists are back at work here at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, watching their computers sift the debris from primordial collisions in search of new particles and forces of nature, and plan to keep at it for at least the next 20 years.

Science is knocking on heaven’s door, as the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall put it in the title of her recent book about particle physics.

But what if nobody answers? What if there is nothing new to discover? That prospect is now a cloud hanging over the physics community.

It’s been five years and more than seven quadrillion collisions of protons since 2012, when the collider discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass. That achievement completed an edifice of equations called the Standard Model, ending one significant chapter in physics.

A 2015 bump in the collider data hinted at a new particle, inspiring a flood of theoretical papers before it disappeared into the background noise as just another fluke of nature.

But since then, the silence from the frontier has been ominous.

“The feeling in the field is at best one of confusion and at worst depression,” Adam Falkowski, a particle physicist at the Laboratoire de Physique Théorique d’Orsay in France, wrote recently in an article for the science journal Inference.

“These are difficult times for the theorists,” Gian Giudice, the head of CERN’s theory department, said. “Our hopes seem to have been shattered. We have not found what we wanted.”
The particular thing many physicists wanted was supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a theory that fixes some mathematical problems with the Standard Model by positing an entire suite of particles "symmetric" to the more familiar ones, but at much higher energies. Some versions of the theory posit that some of those particles should have showed up in the CERN data by now. They have not, leading to what one researcher called "a massacre of theories."

The physics we have provides all the knowledge we need to get on with high-tech civilization, but it doesn't explain the universe. The hope was that CERN's colliders would yield new data that would point toward new kinds of explanations. But that hasn't happened, and physicists don't know where else to turn for answers.

Emmanuel Macron and En Marche

France has a completely new government. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, is the nation's youngest leader since Napoleon. The parliament is dominated by the new party Macron created just last Fall, a "centrist" entity called En Marche! The ranks of its representatives include more than a hundred who have never before held public office, including a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who was adopted by a French couple and a mathematician who won the Fields Medal for his work on "proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium of the Boltzmann equation." In one sense this is rather remarkable: French politicians tend to hang around for decades, and many come from families that have been in politics for generations. For a party to go from creation to majority in six months must be some kind of record.

And yet.

Macron may be a new man, but so far as I can see he has no new ideas. He seems to me like a standard representative of the global elite, eerily like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, or maybe more like a white, uncool Barack Obama. His election manifesto is full of political biolerplate like, "What is our program? Bringing France into the 21st century." I spent fifteen minutes perusing the manifesto and I did not find a single plank that Obama and many other American Democrats would not have endorsed – in fact Obama did endorse Macron.

Some of this was strategy on Macron's part. His plan was to be the sane, professional, non-corrupt, pro-Europe, anti-racist, alternative to Le Pen, so there was a studied vagueness to much of what he said. More than most such documents, the En Marche! manifesto was designed not to lose any votes rather than to generate enthusiasm. The absence of a single interesting idea or controversial proposal was intentional. But that, to me, is rather chilling.

Macron does have a record in government, so we know something about what he is likely to do. He favors reducing some regulations on business to help create jobs, and he supported the controversial El Khomri law that made it easier for French companies to fire workers. He thinks the future of the French economy depends on making French companies more competitive through eased regulation and making French workers more competitive through better education and training. He supports a strong welfare state and comprehensive environmental protections, including a major effort to reduce CO2 emissions. He is strongly anti-racist and has opposed bans on head scarves but has tried to stake out a middle position on immigration, calling for both more aid to legal immigrants and tougher border control to keep out others. He is somewhat hawkish in foreign policy and has called for a UN backed military effort to remove Assad from power in Syria.

Is anti-racism plus neo-liberalism a solution to our problems? Or will it just keep the world idling along as it has been, with more and more inequality, economic and social alienation, permanent disability, terrorism, anxiety, and anger? Does it promise any hope for dealing with the bewildering future?

I know many educated French people feel that they dodged a bullet when Macron defeated Le Pen, but I have a nagging suspicion that they dodged the bullet by stepping into a bottomless mire.

Macron would probably say, and I know Obama would say, that the path we are on – globalization, diversity, the mixed economy, every-increasing pressure to study hard and work hard or else fall out of the middle class – is going to be a hard road, but it's the only road to a prosperous, democratic future. You may not like it, but there just is no other way.

There are no shortcuts to prosperity and stability, just unceasing effort.

And maybe that's right; I certainly don't have any other ideas.

I just have a bad feeling that unless something happens to change the political trajectory, the world's democracies are in for an upheaval that will make this year's Trump/Brexit explosion seem like spilled milk.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


As the arc of the sun reaches its peak, may it lift your spirits to their highest.

South Carolina Raises its Gas Tax

In South Carolina last month, the legislature overrode the governor's veto of a major increase in the gas tax. The current tax in 16.75 cents/gallon; under the new law the tax will raise 2 cents/gallon each year for the next six years, to a total for 28.75 cents. The money is all allocated to infrastructure spending, mainly major upgrades to existing highways and catching up on deferred highway maintenance. Sorry to be so far behind the news, but I just learned about this from a company-wide conference call in which our highway engineers in the southeast were excited about the business opportunity this presents; if this made any appearance in the national media, I missed it.

South Carolina is by some measures the most conservative state, with a rock-solid Republican majority. As in Kansas, it has turned out that cutting taxes and minimizing government have limits as a long-term strategy for running a state no matter how conservative the voters. As South Carolina's roads have deteriorated and its traffic has worsened, people have began to agitate, not for tax cuts, but for better service from the state government.

Helicopter Parenting and Authoritarianism

I've been wondering when somebody was going to make this argument, and here it is:
American childhood has taken an authoritarian turn. An array of trends in American society are conspiring to produce unprecedented levels of supervision and control over children’s lives. Tracing the effects of childrearing on broad social outcomes is an exercise in speculation. But if social scientists are correct to posit a connection between childrearing and long-term political outcomes, today’s restrictive childhood norms may portend a broader regression in our country’s democratic consensus.

Since the early 1980s, American childhood has been marked by a turn toward stringent adult control. Support for “free range” childhood has given way to a “flight to safety” characterized by unprecedented dictates over children’s routines.

More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instill in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.”
This author (Pratik Chougule) notes the various signs we have seen of a waning attachment to democracy, especially among the young, and wonders if childrearing is to blame:
Whether or not an authoritarian scenario unfolds in the United States could depend on childrearing trends. Indeed, social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.

Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller, a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded that dictatorships emerge when an entire generation of children is raised under authoritarian conditions replete with excessive forms of control and discipline. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity.
I have long wondered about this. On the one hand it seems that big changes in childrearing ought to have big effects on everything else in society, but on the other this is hard to document. I can believe that there was a lot of rigid parenting in early 20th-century Germany, but was it really worse than a hundred years earlier? Or than in Britain at the same time? Does anybody know how parenting changed or didn't in 20th-century China? In general I have found it hard to draw clear lines from parenting styles to anything else.

Plus I think this narrative exaggerates how much American parenting really changed. My children all spent a lot more time inside than I did, but that was in spite of my constantly nagging to go out rather than my trying to keep them in. I think cable television and video games have had more to do with increasing sedentism in children than rigid parenting.

And, I think the biggest threat to American democracy is angry partisanship, not risk aversion.

But as I said I have long pondered the broader impacts of changes in child-rearing, and I wonder what the political effects of  anxious parenting will be.

Altamura Cathedral

Altamura is a small city in southeastern Italy, in the district of Bari. It was refounded in 1232 by Emperor Frederick II, after being badly damaged and partially abandoned in some war or another.

Frederick also commissioned the church, which was built between 1232 and 1254. At first it was not a cathedral but only a royal chapel – Frederick and the Pope did not get along, and while the emperor could build all the chapels he wanted only the Pope could create a bishopric. But a later treaty between popes and emperors gave it episcopal status.

The church was restored after a fire in 1316, which we know because an inscription records that Robert of Anjou sent workers to help.

The north portal seems to date to that time.

In 1485 the church was elevated and status and various accounts state that it was enlarged, restored, or rebuilt. Historians used to imagine a major reconstruction in the early 16th century, and some said that it was realigned, the altar and entrance switching ends. However work done during the most recent restoration seems to have disproved that notion. This means that the wonderful entrance is back to being an original work of Frederick's artisans, still in its original location.

Details from the door; the bottom shows Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents.

The interior has obviously been much changed; the overall look may date to the 16th century but many pieces are more recent still. But the basic structure of the columns and arches is medieval.

Black and white photos were taken by Paolo Monti in 1970; via wikimedia commons.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Leaders and States

From the Vox review:
The most telling moment in The Putin Interviews, director Oliver Stone’s four-hour conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, recorded over the course of nearly two years, comes late in the second hour.

Stone is trying to get Putin to say whether he does or doesn’t like then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Putin demurs entirely, but offers up a theory of how power functions.

Should Sanders become president, Putin says, he would suddenly realize the vast weight of the American bureaucracy that existed underneath him. He might make some changes to the US on a domestic level, but he would ultimately be unable to change that much — the person at the head of the state matters less than the centuries of power the state has accumulated and will protect at all costs. People aren’t responsible for what happens; the vast structures surrounding them are. Look at Barack Obama, Putin suggests. He sincerely wanted to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and did he? No. You can’t fight the state.

This is telling for two reasons. The first is that it, if true, explains Putin’s motives in regards to the United States in the time since that interview was conducted in 2016. But the second reason is even more telling. This isn’t just how Putin sees [insert US president here]. It’s how he sees himself: as a conduit for the vast sweep of history, guided less by his own political beliefs and desires than by forces even he can barely understand.
I believe something like this, but for the "vast sweep of history" I would substitute "all the forces operating on the nation and its politics right now." Some of those forces have to do with the weight of history (race in America, for example) but others may be very new, such as the rise of tech monopolies. In any case the best the president can do is nudge things a tiny bit one way or the other; even with the help of a friendly Congress he can do very few things that will still seem important in a century.

The Onion Sums Up the Fall of Men

‘This Here Is Probably Our Bestselling Love Seat,’ Says Man Who Would Have Been Powerful, Revered Warrior 4,000 Years Ago

Silver God

Silver mask of a god, most likely Jupiter, 1 to 150 CE. 18 × 13 × 5 cm (7 × 5 × 2 in.). In the Getty.

Individualism Watch

Here's another item in my ongoing series explaining American politics through our obsessive individualism, this one from the Washington Post:
Call it the All About Me trip

“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself” is permission to travel alone.
Mind you I'm not objecting to this idea; I'm a citizen of this world, too, and I've taken many trips alone. I just note the emphasis in our age on giving to yourself. Which is why, I think, libertarians have suddenly sprouted up all around us, and why it is so difficult for us to carry out any sort of grand common project like national health care.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Today's Sentence

The outrage machine may be careening out of control.

–Emily Peck

Castle Sween

Castle Sween may be the oldest stone castle in the Scottish highlands, although its early history is as myth-mixed as all other knowledge of the medieval highlands.

It overlooks Loch Sween on the west coast, inland from the Isle of Jura, nearly due west from Glasgow.

The name is the English form of the Gaelic Suibhne, said to be the name of the 12th-century builder. He was remember as Suibhne the Red, progenitor of the MacSweens. Knowledge of that dim period comes from much later sources, especially the Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne, the Book of the Sons of Sween. This is the traditional genealogy of Clan Sweeney, written in Ireland in the 16th century:
The Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne states that Suibhne was the son of Donnshléibhe, son of Aodh Aluinn, son of Anradhán. The account claims that Anradhan was the younger son of Aodh Athlamhan. When his brother succeeded their father, the two brothers quarreled with each other, and Anradhán sailed to Scotland. There he conquered half of the country before making peace with the King of Scots, by marrying his daughter. Suibhne is credited within the account to have built Castle Sween. His son is named as Maolmhuire an Sparáin ('Maolmhuire of the Purse').
Everything in that account that can be checked against other sources is wrong, so we're not dealing with an accurate record even by the loose standards of Celtic oral history. Some historians try to make sense of this, but so far as I can it might be pure imagination. Still, somebody built the castle a good while before 1300, and how cool to have a family history called the Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne.

In the 13th century the Scottish MacSweens were a powerful clan, controlling land ten miles to the north and south of the fortress. But toward the end of the century they lost out in an obscure struggle with the Stewart Earls of Menteith, who ended up in control of Castle Sween. So when Edward I of England began trying to subdue Scotland in what we now know as the Wars of Braveheart, the MacSweens supported Edward in the hope that they would get their lands and castle back. It worked, for a while, but after the great warrior Longshanks died in 1307, succeeded by a son who preferred music and boating to fighting, Robert Bruce began to win the war. In 1308 he took the castle after a brief siege and granted it to Angus Og, one of his lieutenants.

In 1310 the MacSweens were back, besieging the castle from land and sea with English help. This event was remembered in an Irish source called the Book of the Dean of Lismore as “a tryst of a fleet against Castle Sween”. The siege failed, however, and that branch of the MacSweens thereafter fades from Scottish history.

Somehow the castle ended up in the hands of the Scottish king, because in 1376 he granted it to John I, one of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles.They held it to 1490, when it was taken by the MacDonalds' great enemies, the Campbells, who made it part of their Earldom of Argyll.

The castle was fought over again in 1647, during the event that the English call their Civil War. That conflict is known elsewhere in Britain as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, since there was a lot more going on than just a fight between Charles I and Parliament. Castle Sween was attacked and burnt by Alasdair MacColla, a leader of Clan MacDonald who took the side of the Stuart king and the Irish Confederates against the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliament. (The Campbells, of course, took the side of the Covenanters. That's how things worked in the Highlands.) MacColla became notorious for a campaign he led across the highlands in 1644-1645. After joining forces with the King's Lieutenant, James Graham of Montrose, he fought and won seven battles, some against great odds. He had a policy of killing every Campbell man he met, and he was accused of murdering women and children as well. This included several families' worth he was accused of burning to death in what the Campbells still remember as the "Barn of Bones." But MacColla was killed late in 1647 at the Battle of Knocknanuss in Ireland, and in general the defeat of the Stuart cause was even more complete in Scotland than in England.

What happened to Castle Sween after 1647 I have not been able to determine. But sometime in the 20th century it acquired an interesting neighbor, the Castle Sween Caravan Park. So aerial photos of the castle are mostly full of campers. My wife pointed out that in olden times it would have been surrounded by huts, so maybe this is just modern feudalism.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Scanning what I've put up on my blog lately, I thought, it's really time for a post on a painter from the past. I thought about someone from the Renaissance but couldn't find anything that grabbed me; ditto the Baroque. I ended up back at the art closest to my heart: 19th-century academic painting. I've already done my favorites (Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, Sargent), but there are plenty of others. This painting in particular (Odalisque, 1878) grabbed my attention, so today we feature Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1912).

I would tell you about Lefebvre, but really there isn't much to tell. He had exactly the career you would expect for a 19th-century French academic painter: École des Beaux-Arts, then a prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship to study in Italy, professorship at the Académie Julian, three gold medals in the Salon, member of the Légion d'honneur. Besides having one of the most common French names of the period, he also looked exactly like you would expect. Lefebvre even died in 1912, the perfect year for a figure from Europe's great era to take his leave of earth. (Girl with a Mandolin).

Like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and numerous other painters of that period, he had a thing for lovely young women. If you google Lefebvre and go to the images tab, the first three dozen pictures are all lovely young women. Which is not truly representative of his work – he did mythological scenes and many portraits of men – but on the other hand it isn't entirely unfair, either. My elder daughter and I were just joking about Lefebvre's great range: reclining women, standing women, historical women, Biblical women, mythical women, women with clothes, women without clothes, women partially dressed. . . . (Mary Magdelene at the Cave, 1875)

Portrait of the Prince Imperial, Eugene-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1874. After his father Napoleon III was overthrown (in 1870), the Prince went to England, where he entered the army and ended up getting killed in the Zulu War, largely due to his own rashness. I've always found that quite perfect; I mean, what else was he going to do? And when you think in the big picture about European colonialism, some of it was driven by capitalists and strategic thinkers and other semi-rational people, but much of it was just young men whose violent energies drove them forth across the world looking for places unbound by the corset stays of 19th-century civilization, places of struggle and blood where they could cast aside their starched shirts and kill or die like men in stories. Never underrate this mad energy as a force in history.

Graziella, 1878. She was a character in a famous story by Alphonse de Lamartine, in which the protagonist falls in love with the daughter of a Neapolitan fisherman. (Note Vesuvius in the background). This was commissioned by a wealthy patroness, so in this case we can't blame the subject on Lefebvre's own obsessions.

Nymph with the Young Bacchus, 1866.

Morning Glory, 1879.

Portrait of M Fitzgerald, 1889.

Judith, 1892.

Young Woman with a Rose, 1901.

Yes, this one has a milquetoast look about her, but then she is supposed to be the Patient Griselda.

If I had to choose a time to live in before my own, I think it would the 19th-century Europe. At least I would be huge fan of the official art of my time, free from the alienation that grips me whenever I behold most 20th-century painting or architecture. Lefebvre and his colleagues had my idea of beauty, and of art. And I would choose to die in 1912, before the Great War turned the hopes of that world to dust.

The Waste Land



What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is a shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.


After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water . . .

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

–T.S. Eliot, 1922

Friday, June 16, 2017

Human Sacrifice in Shang Dynasty China

Yinxu in northern China is believed to be the site of Yin, the capital of the  Shang Dynasty between about 1300 and 1000 BCE. Discoveries there have included "oracle bones" that preserve the earliest examples of Chinese writing and a vast royal cemetery.

The best preserved elite tomb is that of Lady Fu Hao, above. This dates to around 1250 BCE.

Chariot from a tomb, preserved in the "Hall of Chariots" at the site.

The royal cemetery also includes numerous – hundreds, probably – of pits where obviously non-elite people were buried. Many of these were headless, mutilated corpses buried without any grave goods.
Prior worked revealed an extraordinary number of ritual human sacrifices were conducted during the Shang dynasty, which spanned from the 16th century B.C. to the 11th century B.C. It is the earliest dynasty in China for which archaeologists have evidence. For instance, sacrificial pits are common across the entire site of the last Shang capital, Yinxu, which researchers discovered in 1928 in central China's Henan Province. Scientists have estimated that over the course of about 200 years, more than 13,000 people were sacrificed in Yinxu, usually males ages 15 to 35, and that on average, each sacrificial ritual there likely claimed at least 50 human victims. The biggest sacrifice found so far killed at least 339 people.
Yinxu is in the news because the results of chemical analysis of the bones have been published, and they provide evidence for the theory that the victims were war captives. This type of study is usually done on teeth, because the chemical composition of tooth enamel is more or less permanent. That of other bones changes with time, as the calcium in the bones is swapped out. But since most of the sacrificial victims at Yinxu had no heads, using teeth was not an option. So other bones were studied. The results showed that the chemical composition of the major bones is different from that of local people, but that of some smaller bones is much more similar to the local pattern.

This suggests that the victims came from some distance away (the major bones) but had lived in Yinxu for some years, which led to gradual replacement of the minerals in their bones, changing the signature of the smaller ones. Most likely they were slaves for years until an occasion came along that required a massive sacrifice, at which point they were all beheaded and tossed into a pit.