Saturday, February 23, 2013

Riding into the dawn of history, with the Indo-Europeans

Review of David Anthony's "The horse, the wheel, and language."

The nineteenth century experienced a rush of excitement about the linguistic consanguinity among the Indo-European languages and thus the cultures of India, Iran, and Europe. The most exotic cultures were joined through an invisible history that was at last re-bridging their farthest-flung representatives through the English colonial project.

By the next century, this connection curdled into the Aryan theory of racial distinction from the semitic and other "races", buttressing with pseudoscience the already virulent antisemitism of Christian Europe.

Anthony's book brings the whole story up to date, covering vast grounds of archeology and linguistics that give us more information about the Indo-Europeans, resolving many of the big questions about them, principally where and when they originated.

The first thing to say is that whatever the Aryans were at the outset, they soon lost themselves (genetically speaking) in the vast bodies of humanity they collided with. Their dominance, based on the military advantages of horse-riding, chariot-fighting, and outstanding metalwork, gave their language a privileged status. But they practiced a client-patron form of rule, and accepted into their culture whoever conformed to the cult (best represented in the Rig Veda (~3500 ybp, or years before present), but also reflected strongly in the Roman culture), so by the time of the Nazis, there was no such thing as an Aryan.
"The Rig Veda (of India) and the Avesta (of Iran) agreed that the essence of their shared parental Indo-Iranian identity was linguistic and ritual, not racial. If a person sacrificed to the right gods in the right way using the correct forms of the traditional hyms and poems, that person was a Aryan. Otherwise, the individual was a Dasyu, again not a racial or ethnic label but a ritual and linguistic one- a person who interrupted the cycle of giving between gods and humans, and therefore a person who threatened cosmic order, r'ta (Rig Veda) or asa (Avesta)."

One of the most interesting observations from the linguistics is the inexorable change languages undergo. The English of only 1,000 years ago is unrecognizable to us. So not only can one make conclusions of common origin based on linguistic similarities, one can make negative conclusions from a lack of similarity and also rough timing conclusions about when branches split off from each other.

For instance, the Indo-European languages have a lot in common- many root terms and core concepts, like horses, gods, wheels, wool, carts, portable wealth, dogs, milk, and much else. They have such a strong core that they can not have diverged more than 5 or 6 thousand years ago. This core must have functioned as a coherent cultural language for a group that couldn't have occupied a terribly large territory originally, given the technologies of the time, or persisted for a very long time in that early state, yet which subsequently spread like wildfire to all corners of the western ancient world, and may have significatly influenced the rise of Chinese culture as well.

The linguistics point to some key innovations- the domestication of horses (estimated about 7000 ybp), horseback riding (~6200 ybp), the invention of the wheel (estimated at ~5700 ybp), and the use of wheels on light, one- or two-person war chariots (estimated at ~4000 ybp). There is also the adoption of long-haired (mutant) sheep for wool production, and entry into the bronze age proper, developing arsenic and tin alloys with copper into a regular industry. All these steps were evidently first taken in the Pontic steppes, the regions North of and around the Black and Caspian seas.

Why? Well, the first reason is that this is one of the few regions horses remained in the wild. People in this area had already domesticated pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle. But horses are another kettle of fish! All domestic horses trace their ancestry on the male side to a single male progenitor, indicating the difficulty of establishing a domestic herd. Horses were hunted commonly for food, one of those "pre-adaptations" one hears about so often in the evolutionary stories. So it would naturally be in this region as well that horses were first domesticated for food, then ridden for better managment, and lastly ridden and harnessed for many other purposes.

While Anthony's expertise generally leads to grievous over-writing on the archeological issues he is most familiar with, his work on bit wear is quite significant, finally figuring out how to tell whether horse remains show signs of riding, by way of the slight damage done by bits placed before the molars by horses chewing on them. This is how he roughly dates the advent of horse riding to about 6200 ybp in the Kazak to Caucasas area. One can only imagine how daunting the prospect of riding the first horse must have been, and how bizarre one's first sight of another human on horseback.

Anthony describes an interesting process where the productivity of the steppes was transformed by the horse and wheeled carts, from a wasteland where herders could visit only on brief forays from the river valleys, into a perpetually productive zone where they could nomadically herd as far afield as they pleased. A bit like how the iron plow transformed the farming (and destruction) of the steppe / prairies in later times. This economic change also introduced the possibility of vast accumulation (and vast differences) in wealth, stored on the hoof as livestock. Which then fostered a cultural transformation towards much more differentiated status hierarchy / patriarchy, where the rich were buried in very labor-intensive monuments.

It obviously also knitted together large regions not previously in contact, between these steppe areas and the more urban areas to their south, and across the steppes even over to China. Again, this is more than a little like the later rise of the Mongols, who ranged even more widely using the same technology of horse-based nomadism to make of Central Asia a highway of conquest and trade- the silk road. Anthony highlights a large amount of Russian archeology from the last forty years that has not been very accessible or appreciatedd to the West, and focuses particularly on one culture at the southern end of the Urals, the Sintashta, which seems to embody the ur-Indo-European culture.

Sintashta grave, with metalwork, horse remains, and chariot remains. At lower right are horse bit cheek pieces, whose knobs are believed to have been placed inward against the horse's lips, giving the driver/rider even more control with a very light touch.

These people (about ~4000 ybp) built compact, strongly palisaded encampments, filled with bronze workshops. They buried a small proportion of their population in kurgan graves, which were a steppe specialty of a large circular built-up mound with a central grave, often structurally supported with wooden bulwarks. These particular graves contained a good deal of bronze, and war chariots. Most interestingly, they contained horse-intensive sacrifices eerily similar to the central horse sacrifice ritual described in the Rig Veda, with heads and feet arranged artistically around an overturned pot. (The rest of the animals were served in the feast; unfortunately, I can not offer an image of such a grave that does it justice).
"Similarities between the ritual excavated at Sintashta and Arkaim and those described later in the Rig Veda have solved, for many, the problem of Indo-Iranian origins."

So there we have it, the origin in time and space of the Indo-Europeans, more or less. What they brought to the rest of the world, in addition to their language, continues to ring down the ages. Roman culture was a typical example. The patron-client system was honed to perfection in Rome, making of the paterfamilias practically a god, to be revived periodically via the public parade of his death mask. Women were of vanishingly little account, on the other hand. This culture was starkly patriachial. When the Romans invaded Britain, they were astonished to see war chariots being driven about- something the Romans had only heard about in the Greek epics of a by-gone age, despite their own carefully tended "sporting" rituals of chariot racing and other manly feats of brutality and human sacrifice.

In our own day, we remain inheritors of many of these traditions, struggling still to overcome patriarchalism, colonialist tendencies, a large cast of sky-gods, and our love of speedy chariots. Perhaps our love of technological innovation will start to solve some of these problems, rather than feeding greed and powerlust as it has so often in the past.

Wotan takes leave of Brunhilde, Konrad Dielitz, 1892.

  • A contrary view of the origins. The Anatolian branch is accepted by both sides as particularly early, but whether it was the immediate precursor to most of the rest of the Indo-European family is in question.
  • Excel and the London Whale.
  • Martin Wolf gets MMT religion.
  • "The Economist"- another right wing rag.
  • What's so bad about corruption?
  • Chromium- another study in corruption.
  • The triple pane way to climate control.
  • The postal way to simple banking.
  • "As the door revolves" ...
  • Gay blackmail in the Vatican? I wouldn't want to be pope either.
  • No wonder we watch Downton Abbey- we are now a class-ridden, immobile society.
  • Economic quote of the week:
"... high unemployment we know depresses wage growth throughout the wage scale, but more so for the bottom than the middle and the middle than the top."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eisenhower: hidden hand, or itchy trigger finger?

Review of Evan Thomas's "Ike's Bluff"

I picked up, from my library's wonderful "new" rack, a biography of Dwight Eisenhower that focuses on his foreign policy as president. The H-bomb was created while he was in office, multiplying the conundrum (and unthinkability) of pulling the trigger. These bombs can be made to literally any scale desired, given enough materials.

The conundrum it presented Eisenhower was that he wanted to save money and reduce the size of the military by brandishing various nuclear threats, but he didn't actually want to use them. The author tries to make the case that Eisenhower was perhaps the only person respected and feared enough to pull off such a bluff persuasively, and to do so, he knew that he had to tell no one of his inmost decision, whether or not to drop the bomb. It was a lonely position.

So the country practiced its duck-and-cover drills, built its bomb shelters, and employed the "Bland" corporation to devise ever more esoteric, even shamanic, rationales for mutual assured destruction.

But this kind of bluffing that wears thin pretty fast. A few crises further along, (at least), it became clear that no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons under any non-existential circumstances, (or even then), so we went back to fighting wars the old-fashioned way, with guns and proxy fighters in far-away countries. The Korean war had already demonstrated all this, so the idea that anyone, including the Russians, took Eisenhower seriously when he dropped his various hints about using nuclear weapons is really a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas works valiantly to make Eisenhower look commanding and wise in his conduct of all these policies, heading an administration noted for its ostensible blandness while a happy and prosperous country took its cue from its chief and went golfing. Internationally as well, Eisenhower was mostly respected and even loved, as America was still the colossus, leading the way both morally and materially out of World War II.

Retrospectively, there are definitely high points, such as Eisenhower's brutal string-pulling to march the English and French out of their Suez adventure. It is not well remembered that less than a decade after Israel declared itself a country, it launched an unprovoked war on Egypt, after Egypt started buying arms from Russia and nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel's attack plan was hatched in secret with Britain and France, who were supposed to magnanimously broker a peace where the European powers would take back ownership of the canal- for the good of all, no doubt. The US was also playing for influence in the Mideast, and, with some lip service to anti-colonial principles, used its dominant financial position to destroy England's exchange rate and starve it for oil.

Another positive was the U2 spy plane program. Eisenhower was receptive to technological advances, and was intimately involved in the approval and running of this plane that flew at 70,000 feet, twice the height of today's commercial airliners, and (for a time), beyond the Soviet air defenses as well. The U2 gathered immensely useful photo reconnaissance, making it clear to Eisenhower that the Soviets were far behind the US in nuclear armaments. There was no bomber gap, and no missile gap.

But did Eisenhower tell his jittery countrymen? No. I find this very hard to understand. The rationale was that such announcements would betray the U2 program, so its findings needed to kept secret. But it was not as though we had no other capabilities, and couldn't just generally state that we had, through various means, a very good idea of Soviet capabilities. It would have been very positive for US leadership on all fronts to make it clear that we had no doubt of our overall position in this arms race, preventing the kind of domestic fears, divisive politics, and foreign adventurism that happened through this time.

Unfortunately, the blowup over the U2 after Gary Powers was shot down derailed the blossoming detente that Eisenhower was pursuing with Khruschchev, whose sight-seeing trip through the US had been so successful in thawing up the cold war. But it really wasn't Eisenhower's fault, in my view. The more information was available, the better, both for us and for the general stability of the world, as Eisenhower had earlier advocated with his "open skies" program. And which would later be implemented in various test ban and arms control agreements.

Eisenhower also refused to get involved in Vietnam, letting the French face anihilation (decolonialization?) at Dien Bien Phu. On the other hand, Eisenhower coined the fateful "domino" theory of communist expansion in Southeast Asia, and started US support for the disastrous Ngo Diem in Vietnam. Would he have gone back in later on, when the South came under mortal danger? It is doubtful that he would have done nothing, but, having extricated us from Korea, I think he would have been very reluctant to escalate into another quagmire on China's doorstep.

On the other hand, Eisenhower let the CIA run horribly amok, staging coups and other more or less amateur operations all over the world. Meddling freely without getting the US into a shooting war seems to have been the theme of the Eisenhower presidency. Coups in Iran and Guatamala, attempted coups in Indonesia and Syria. This theme continued through the cold war, with the Bay of Pigs and the overthrow of Allende in Chile by the Nixon administration. Our record of picking rulers for other countries, has been, to say the least, poor (cough... Karzai). And the eventual blowback from our meddling in Iran in particular has been epic in scale and duration.

So on the whole, I find the Eisenhower foreign policy to fall short of the model of far-seeing statesmanship. Notably unsuccessful in his own stated goal of reducing the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower did keep the US out of wars small, large, and apocalyptic. But then we were the most powerful nation by far, making that task a little less difficult. His enthusiasm for covert operations was not only damaging by its direct effects, but infected future administrations with misguided bravado and sullied the US's reputation into the present day.

  • Conversely, how has Hillary done?
  • Meanwhile, we are slipping into our own rogue policy problems.
  • Filibuster, still killing democracy and government.
  • Geithner, stabilizer of finance, blind to the long term.
  • Car of the future?
  • Bill Black continues on the toxic and ideological pusillanimity of our current elites.
  • A glorious anniversary- the income tax is 100 years old.
  • The university is so yesterday.
  • But Facebook is evil.
  • Austerity- cover for class war. And for pro-cyclical futility.
  • Dell deal is a tax dodge.
  • Why some people just aren't very good at lying, or even BS. (Or religion.)
  • Economic graph of the week- :

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Guns- a love story

The archetypal and psychological valence of guns.

It is pretty clear that our gun debate has little to do with reason. Even less with the consitution, militias, self-government, or self-protection. It is about psychology.

In this fallen age, when the old patriarchial verities are in decline, men marry other men, women run for president, bromances dot the cinema, and sources of virility are thin on the ground, guns stand forth as an undisputed fount of macho manliness, projecting potent globules far and wide.

Far more than a simple tool, guns are civilizationally transformative, and blatantly symbolic of male power. Owning a gun is deeply personal, conferring on the owner and the home the combined potency of fire and phallic symbologies. Can you say "pump action"? Not to mention the flirtation with killing and murder, the most potent act of all. One never forgets that a gun is in the house.

Therefore, taking guns away from people conjures up castration anxieties, prompting endless rationalizations of how many armed intruders one might have to battle with one's pleasingly long AR-15 with plenty of juice in its thirty or ninety-round clips, holsters, and bandoleers.

Unfortunately, once we are in this kind of twilight territory of the archetypes, the attraction of guns for unstable, embittered losers looms even larger than it does for the usual red-blooded male. Which then leads to the occasional complete breakdown, enacting a fantasy of glorious retribution for all the belittling, emasculating affronts that the world, and especially females, have heaped upon this frustrated male.

Obviously, then, the answer is to test each gun owner with a simple, if paradoxical, question: may I take your gun away? If the answer is no, then the gun really does need to be taken away. Can our social collective transcend this psychological difficulty? Can the superego rule the id, to continue with this Freudian line? We shall see.

  • What I am talking about..
  • Department of injustice.
  • Treasury gave $37 million to bankers bank accounts.
  • Is crony capitalism now hopelessly entrenched?
  • From the Atlantic- the most knowledgeable investors and analysts have no idea what lurks inside the banks.
  • Are things not getting worse all the time?
  • Reform, or serfdom for a select group of immigrants?
  • The coming storm in Afghanistan.
  • Who is running the show? Afghan conference of clerics to condemn suicide bombing... cancelled by the Taliban. Islam seems more than a little conflicted.
  • Cats kill billions of birds in the US each year. Feral cats need to die.
  • The wild and wooly world of atheism.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Bill Black:
"The liar’s loans “crisis” of 1990-1992 in Orange County, California was stopped in its tracks without any expensive failures because we (the OTS West Region) realized that such loans inherently would lead to endemic fraud and losses."
  • Bonus economic graph of the week: GDP has been dragged down by declining government spending, of all things.