Literally Rome

To Repeat:

In actuality, the acquisition of the right to vote by those outside the city had little meaning to all but the wealthy. Membership in the Roman assemblies was not done by election – it was a direct democracy. Voting was done by tribes, and all citizens were assigned to a particular tribe (often based on wealth) where each tribe voted as one. However, to vote a person had to appear in person which was something only the wealthy could afford to do. But citizenship was not eternal. If necessary, an individual’s citizenship could be revoked; this latter condition was mostly reserved for criminals.

Every five years a citizen had to register himself at the Villa Publica for the census, declaring the name of his wife, the number of children, and all of his property and possessions (even his wife’s clothes and jewels were declared). Every Roman citizen believed the government had a right to know this information. All of this data was reviewed and evaluated by the city’s magistrates (censors) who could “promote or demote each citizen according to his worth.” Tom Holland wrote on the value of the census, “Classes, centuries, and tribes, everything that enabled a citizen to be placed by his fellows, were all defined by the census.”

Juxtaposed to discussions at the Supreme Court today:

Multiple times during Tuesday’s hearing on the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the census, Gorsuch returned to vague allusions to an unsuccessful 2016 Supreme Court case that dealt with that possibility.

Gorsuch’s lines of inquiry didn’t get too much traction at Tuesday’s arguments, which mostly focused on the technical considerations of Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to include the question. But, in a way, they were appropriate, given that overhauling how legislative districts are drawn — a massive voting rights change that would diminish the political power of urban and diverse communities — appears to be the endgame of the current push to add the question.

A Noteful Hope

At the outset of the newest year, with walls incoherently at the center of our discourse as we contemplate how best to keep people out rather how best to help them up, a bit of perspective provides a reminder that we might be mixed up about parts of the story:

For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

It’s from earlier this year in 2018, but read the whole, etc. There is no ‘them’ but there are assumptions and many of ours may be wrong or at least worth re-considering.

Banksy image from the original.

Reading 2018

I’d love to tell you want it all meant, but instead I’ll just share a partial [but unranked] list of the books I read this year.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Primeros Pobladores; Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier, by Frances Leon Quintana

God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey and Christena Beldsoe

Les Passions Intellectuelles by Elisabeth Badinter

Do well and be well in 2019.

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian

Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.

What does Eau de Nil mean?

Noted early twentieth century cultural signifier Eau de Nil wends it way from Flaubert in Egypt to Hitchcock to a fresh moment in the sun thanks to a cool president’s new portrait:

The term first entered our chromatic lexicon in the late nineteenth century, just as Egyptomania was hitting its peak. While in the British Isles talk of “the East” referred primarily to India, France had a particularly strong affinity for Egypt—due in part to Napoleon’s brief 1798 attempts at colonization and the influence of the savants. “If you were French,” Wall writes, “the east was Egypt, a place at the very limit of the European imagination … Egypt was the orient, a country of the mind, a grand theatre of sensuality, despotism, slavery, polygamy, cruelty, mystery and terror.” This Egypt of the mind had little reality outside the poetry of Keats and Shelley; the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emile Bernard, and André Duterte (whose painting of the ruined temple at Thebes may have been the basis for “Oxymandias”); and the oddly popular theories of the occultist Helena Blavatsky and her follower, the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. For the French, Egypt as a concept was far more exciting than Egypt as an actual place. (Though not to Flaubert; to him, Egypt was where he bedded nubile young women after watching them dance the popular striptease, “the bee.”)

Image: the great portrait by Kehinde Wiley

Steps in Rome


Not to say ‘toward’ or ‘from.’ No need to be so speculative at the top of a New Year.
The Cavour is a neighborhood just to the north of the Coliseum. Steps leading down to a small street from the large excavation of the Imperial fora, backing up from the Trajan forum specifically.
The name Cavour seems to relate to the ancient neighborhood, Suburra, which has become kind of hothouse stand-in for over-charged criminality with new film and TV depictions. I had heard it was kind of red-light district in earlier times. Colleen McCullough mentions it as a densely-populated neighborhood of working people and perhaps a dozen or more different ethnicities where Gaius Marius bought apartments for his wife Julia. The area is still home to a lot people and not a few chic new restaurant of at least a dozen ethnicities.
But before you descend the steps down to the those places, or toward the metro stop of the same name, from the Via Cavour you can look back over those large holes of ruins and see Victor Emannuele and the remains of the Republican Forum and the Palatine Hill.
It was just that, turning around for another look prior to descent, which occurs now. We look up as we go down, even in the Eternal City. Remembering the way, learning, forgetting again old acquaintances, seeing them through the lens of the new.
Whether steps are old and cracked or well cared for, lead us forward or back, down or higher – they deposit on the fringe of a new space. There for decisions to then be made about joining the madness, skirting the trouble, perusing the menus or busting in and asking for a table. Reservations? Sure, you may have them. But don’t let that stop you.
Excelsior. And step lively.

Image: Plan of Rome and the area in question, approx. 350 A.D.

Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?