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Meta’s Threads Is More of the Same Social Networking

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Much of what’s on the new social network is the kind of banal celebrity and brand self-promotion that users have tried to avoid on Twitter.
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cjmcnamara
370 days ago
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long live the blurblogs
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Herodotus

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For some time now, Herodotus’ Histories, in the Aubrey de Sélincourt translation, has been my bedside book, and I just got to the end; this is my second time through the Histories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I visit it again. I think there’s lots in here for just about everybody, but anyone who cares about history in the large would I think be mesmerised. I’ll describe the book briefly and outline some of the reasons I like it so much. Also I’ll trace a line of descent into some excellent contemporary fantasy writing, and wonder about parallels with the current Middle East imbroglio. [Reposted for your amusement on its 20th anniversary.]

Herodotus had something of a mini-revival in the nineties, in large part due to Michael Ondaatje’s excellent book The English Patient, which was made into a nice movie; the book was full of references to him.

The Book

The Histories claim right in the first paragraph to be about the two invasions of Greece by the Persian empire, the first led by Darius and the second by his son Xerxes; these wars included the famous battles of Marathon (490 BCE), Thermopylae (480), and Salamis (479).

However, Herodotus has some serious fun with this; he starts at the beginning, explaining how the Persian Empire came to be, with pretty substantial tours through the history, customs, and legends of all the lands and peoples that went into it; and that’s a lot of lands and peoples.

Herodotus claims to have visited many of these places, and while later historians have cast doubt on some of these claims, it does seem likely that he did see something of Egypt and the lands around the Black Sea. He’s careful in distinguishing the things he saw himself from the things others told him, and is free with his opinions as to how much or little he believes.

Later classic historians, starting with Thucydides (also worth reading), are pretty tough on Herodotus, dubbing him “father of lies”, but more recent authors have tended to be kinder.

The style, in de Sélincourt’s translation, is chatty and rambling, which is appropriate according to commentary I’ve read from those familiar with the old-Greek originals; the English is uninflected mid-Twentieth-century standard. It’s very easy reading, although one can grow weary of hearing about the religous, farming, and sexual practices of yet another of the peoples of Upper East Central Cilicia.

The Person

There is a “Biographical Tradition” concerning Herodotus but remarkably little is known firmly, outside of what one can learn by reading him. He was probably born during the progress of the war he describes; he mentions events that took place as late as 430. He came from Helicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia (now Eastern Turkey); obviously he was well-off, it is reasonable to suspect that some of his travels were on business.

Every time I open the pages, I get a little thrill at the thought that I’m reading words written two and a half millenia ago. Herodotus’ life was hugely different from mine in almost every aspect; but at another level, he’s just this guy who wrote good stuff and whom I feel I know, as a person, rather well; I’ll never have the chance to sit down and share a cup of wine with him, but if I did, I bet we’d hit it right off.

The Tourism

Many complain about Herodotus’ endless travel-guide side-trips, and maybe they have a point, but some of them are awfully compelling. Here is his description of “A labyrinth a little above Lake Moeris, near the place called the City of Crocodiles”; this is in Egypt.

I have seen this building, and it is beyond my power to describe; it must have cost more in labour and money than all the walls and public works of the Greeks put together - though no one would deny that the temples at Ephesus and Samos are remarkable buildings. The pyramids, too, are astonishing structures, each one them equal to many of the most ambitious works of Greece; but the labyrinth surpasses them. It has twelve covered courts - six in a row facing north, six south - the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were and endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade. Near the corner where the labyrinth ends there is a pyramid, two hundred and forty feet in height, with great carved figures of animals on it and an underground passage by which it can be entered. Marvellous as the labyrinth is the so-called Lake of Moeris beside which it stands is perhaps even more astonishing ... this immense basin is obviously artificial, for nearly in the middle of it are two pyramids, standing three hundred feet out of the water (with their bases an equal depth below the surface) and each surmounted by the stone image of a man sitting on a throne.

I’m saddened that I’ll never get to visit. His descriptions of things that still stand, for example the Pyramids, is vivid too; they were a lot prettier 2,400 years ago.

The War

I am not a historian and have been telling myself for years that I really ought to get a good competent modern scholarly history of this war and see what I learn - I did study it in college but that’s a long time ago, so my take is heavily influenced by Herodotus’.

The Persian empire was a fairly recent arrival at this time; it grew astonishingly fast, and the Persians were the superpower of their time as America is of ours. Thus, their failure to overrun Greece is surprising. The numbers that Herodotus bandies about - in excess of 2½; million in Xerxes’ invasion force - are hard to believe, but pretty clearly it was a big army.

The conventional wisdom is that the Greeks - in particular the Athenians - had dramatically superior maritime/naval skills, and that in close combat the more heavily armed and amored Greek phalanx could handle substantially larger numbers of the more lightly-armed Persians. The Greek generalship seems to have been good at the battle of Marathon and the less-known but crucial battle of Plataea, but doesn’t seem to have been that much of a factor elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that a substantial proportion of the Greek city-states had (some voluntarily) signed up with the Persians, so there were Greeks on both sides in these battles.

Herodotus’ take seems pretty fair - while he is pro-Greek, he quick to praise particularly brave, wise, or honourable Persians. Likewise, he is ruthless in his description of the backbiting, bribery, and treachery that dominated the relationships between the Greek cities; so much so as to increase one’s wonder that they managed to win this war. One is left far from impressed with some of the famous Greek personages whom you may remember from your history books.

On the other hand, the Greeks are consistent in pointing out that they are fighting for freedom and (a then-new idea) democracy, and against a foreign invader; these are all advantages.

Herodotus had a hometown-boy penchant for talking up the achievements of the Halicarnassians; this is pleasant in that we get the spotlight on one Artimesia, their queen, fighting for the Persians at Salamis, the only female commander (says Herodotus) there, and by his account a dashing figure. Pursued by a larger Greek ship, she adopted the strategy of ramming and sinking the nearest Persian ship; the Greek decided she must be a friend and abandoned the pursuit, while Xerxes, sitting on the hillside watching the battle, exclaimed “Today my men turn to women and my women to men!”;

And, Herodotus remarks conversationally, “She was lucky in every way - not least in the fact that there were no survivors from the Calyndian ship [that she rammed] to accuse her.”; Hmm.

Of course the most famous of all these battles was at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans held up the entire Persian army for days by defending a narrow defile and being perfectly willing to die rather than be moved.

After the war the Greeks erected a monument, now gone, with an inscription that de Sélincourt translates:

Go tell the Spartans, you who read
We took their orders, and are dead.

But there are other translations; I like

Go stranger, and to Sparta tell:
Here, faithful to its law, we fell.

Parallels With Current Events?

It is tempting to draw a parallel between the events of BCE 479 and those of 2003; after all, here we have the world’s pre-eminent power engaging in two wars against a much smaller one, the first led by a father and the second by a son, at an interval of about ten years.

But I don’t think there’s any mileage there; nobody thinks the Iraqis have superior military technology, and nobody is expecting the equivalent of a Thermopylae.

On the other hand, Herodotus’ account of the treacherous butchery by which Darius came to occupy the throne of Persia and pass it on to his son Xerxes is quite reminiscent of Republican party politics.

And there’s a lesson to be learned from Leonidas: when you have a smart and determined enemy who’s willing to die to hurt you, you’re usually going to get hurt. For a contemporary example consider 9/11.

Gene Wolfe Takes up Herodotus’ Torch

Gene Wolfe, for my money the greatest living writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and lots of other stuff too, published two books in the Eighties, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, the first dedicated to Herodotus and both set in the period immediately following the failure of Xerxes’ invasion. They feature many of the personages who appear in Herodotus’ narrative, and are gripping, deep, and magical. Furthermore Wolfe, unlike me, is a serious student both of military history and of archaic theology, and you’ll learn a whole bunch about the realities of life and war in the Classical period.

Web Resources

The Perseus project has an astounding online edition of the Histories, with heavily annotated and hyperlinked texts available in English and Greek.

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cjmcnamara
476 days ago
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team herodotus
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Conservatives on campus

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There’s been a lot of grumpy commentary about this recent NYT op-ed by Adam S. Hoffman, a Princeton senior claiming that conservatives are being driven off campus. Its basic claims:

In the not-so-distant past, the Typical College Republican idolized Ronald Reagan, fretted about the national debt and read Edmund Burke. Political sophistication, to that person, implied belief in the status quo. … Today’s campus conservatives embrace a less moderate, complacent and institutional approach to politics. … many tend toward scorched-earth politics. But these changes aren’t solely the consequence of a fractured national politics.They’re also the result of puritanically progressive campuses that alienate conservative students from their liberal peers and college as a whole.

The story of this transformation, according to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, starts around 2014, when Gen Z arrived on campus. The new progressive students were less tolerant of heterodox ideas and individuals. …For those on the right, the experience is alienating. … And those who challenge liberal pieties can face real repercussions.

There is actual serious social science research that Amy Binder and her colleagues have done on this exact question. She and her colleagues come to very different conclusions than Hoffman.

I first came across Binder1 through her book with Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. That book came out back in 2013. It agrees with Hoffman on one important thing. There has been a shift in campus conservative activism, from “conservative campus organizations and actors [that] favor a more erudite style of political discussion” to ones “which are often very well funded” and “thrive on confrontation.” The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which focused on “seminars on moral and political philosophy” has found itself being outmaneuvered by more confrontational groups such as Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute (associated with the recently disgraced James O’Keefe and Turning Point USA.

However, as the book’s publication date suggests, this shift began to take hold years before the Great Awokening. And Binder and Wood provided persuasive evidence that the shift had far less to do with what was happening on college campuses than changes in the broader conservative movement. There was money – and lots of it – for organizations that were willing to take the culture war to America’s universities, creating an entire political economy.

The later consequences are described in The Channels of Student Activism, a more recent academic book, published by Binder and Jeff Kidder last year. While Binder and Kidder are moderately sympathetic to Haidt’s broad program of reform, they push back with evidence against his causal argument. People like George Lukianoff and Haidt “point fingers at the supposed shortcomings of Generation Z,” blaming the purported psychological frailty of an entire generation. Binder and Kidder find that the evidence points towards organizations as the key factors of change. Students “are channeled not coddled,” provided with incentives, identities and even entire career paths by political organizations.

Binder and Kidder identify very different organizational political economies for conservative and liberal/left students. Right leaning students are “encouraged by organizations external to their schools to adopt a discourse hostile to the academic enterprise,” “targeting a liberal campus culture, which plays into a larger Republican game plan.”

As they describe it (on the basis of interviews with students and figures within the relevant organizations):

Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.

The reason why so many campus controversies seem to follow the same script is … that they are following the same script. A conservative group invites a figure onto campus who seems guaranteed to provoke outrage, leading to protests, and likely headlines about campus illiberalism. This is not a reaction against purported wokism so much as a means of weaponizing it for the other side’s political purposes. As Binder and Kidder describe it

The answer to why supporting vile speech has become such a ubiquitous part of college-level conservatism is that student-led groups are operating within a larger outside channel of activism. Many national organizations on the right see the First Amendment as a valuable tool for disrupting liberal hegemony in higher education. Ultimately, it is the influence of outside players—such as the Leadership Institute, Turning Point, Young America’s Foundation, PragerU, and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as local donors helping to fund their preferred campus clubs—that make speech uniquely effective in reactionary mobilization. Some of these organizations, like the Leadership Institute and Turning Point, maintain a stable of speakers ready to headline events put on by student-led groups. .

There is also ample help to subsidize the costs of hosting such figures…. Perhaps most importantly, national organizations and wealthy benefactors set the tone for what types of activism are appropriate for club members, and they provide a ready-made and consistent script that right-leaning students use to defend their provocations.

Also, for succcessful agitators, there’s a career in it. Binder and Kidder quote a “faculty advisor to several conservative clubs,” who “explained the multiple components of the strategy, from initially causing a stir to eventually presenting a burnished résumé that looks good in the realm of right-leaning politics.

Press is always good. You always want that …[the clubs] want to get it on YouTube. … So, you pick speakers that [are] creating something that will be explosive…. There’s a conflict, and [students are] behaving in that field of conflict, and that helps to get press. … You go to your donors and it’s very easy to show them, “We’re on CNN. Give us more money.” …[Students are] also looking down the road … at internships…. These are the [students] that are going to end up in politics. [ . . . ] And they know that by doing these types of events, especially if there’s some visibility [it’s] all the better for them.

Things are very different for liberal/left students. They don’t have anything like the same ecosystem of supportive external groups. Instead, they have a hopelessly underfunded College Democrats program, a bunch of smaller organizations, and, well, PIRGs (Binder and Kidder touch on some of the controversies around PIRGs’ funding model, but they don’t get deeply embroiled). What they do have is the perception that many or most faculty and university officials are sort of on their side, and an infrastructure of intra-college institutions which provide a lot of inclusion policies and rhetoric, and some rather more modest forms of actual support.

Liberal and left students often feel at home on college campuses in ways that conservatives do not. They tend to overestimate the predominance of liberal views among their fellow students, and classroom discussion very often seems to privilege a loosely liberal set of values and concerns. Very often, they focus their political demands on their immediate surroundings. Binder and Kidder find that pressures for increased inclusion may come from a kind of tacit alliance between concerned students and employees in the relevant parts of the university.

The result is that while conservative groups leverage (and sometimes deliberately create) local incidents for national consumption, liberal and left students are more likely to focus internally. They are also likely to find themselves disappointed a lot of the time – especially those on the left. University officials are often happy to pay lip service, create diversity policies, and sometimes provide assistance and support. They are far less likely to be sympathetic to the more sweeping demands for changes to the underlying political economy of the university itself, which would likely upset constituencies they want to keep happy (elected politicians; boards of trustees).

That helps explain why liberal and left leaning students often end up being quite cynical. Nor are there the same kinds of career opportunities for liberal or left wing activists (whether moderate or radical) as there are for conservative bomb throwers. There just aren’t the same kinds of external institutions on the left, offering support, internships and future opportunities.

So if Binder and Kidder are right (and they have done a lot of interviews), there are three immediate implications about the NYT op-ed.

The first – most obviously – is that it is wrong. The big shift from the bespectacled bowtie model of campus conservatism to the frenzy of Turning Point USA and rampaging groypers wasn’t a reaction to Wokism-Out-of-Control, as Hoffman maintains. It was a product of a national level shift in the organizational political economy on the right, as national conservative groups perceived possible political advantage from stirring stuff up more on campus. This doesn’t mean that outraged reactions from left students aren’t part of the story. It means instead that they feed an independently existing organizational machine that wants them to be outraged, and will go to increasingly extreme lengths to make sure that they are outraged. Quoting Binder and Kidder:

provocations are often very much part of the design … Elliot Kaufman, a former conservative activist from Stanford University, for example, acknowledged in an op-ed for National Review that “The left-wing riots were not the price or the downside of inviting Yiannopoulos—they were the attraction.”

Second – that media events like the NYT op-ed feed the phenomenon that they purport to describe. If your political economy is all about stirring up media attention and reaction to the problem of illiberalism on campus, then getting op-eds into major national newspapers is a win. Commentators have pointed out that Hoffman was involved in the conservative movement long before he wrote the op-ed. He is also more likely to be able to enjoy a career in professional conservatism, if that is what he wants, after having published it. That doesn’t imply that he is insincere in his claims or his politics. As Binder and Kidder make clear, people’s beliefs and their organizational attachments influence each other on the left as well as the right (they find that one one of the problems faced by campus liberalism and left organization is that there aren’t enough careerist opportunities for their rabblerousers). But the op-ed isn’t an explanation of the causal relationship underlying the shift. It is an example of it.

Finally – that there is another political economy that we need to know more about. One of the most intriguing arguments that Binder and Kidder make is that conservatives are pretty well united around a strong pro free-speech position (even if some of them don’t like the provocateurs that get invited on campus), while liberals tend to be conflicted. Binder and Kidder see this as an opportunity for national left-liberal groups to articulate a better understanding that can be propagated to students.

But there is another way of thinking about it. One reason that the model of conservative campus outrage politics works, is that it is easier to use speech issues to split people on the left half of the political spectrum than it is to split people on the right. And much of the art of politics consists in highlighting the issues that will divide your adversaries (it’s an important element of what William Riker dubbed “heresthetics”). The disagreements over free speech rack national political debate as much as politics within colleges – hence the conservative strategy of crossing the streams, to rally their own troops and create disarray in the ranks of their opponents.

That helps explain why national newspapers keep on publishing pieces on this. It gets fights going, and attracts attention. It also helps explain the careers of people like Jonathan Chait (if you are in the attention economy, and the pieces you get most attention for are the pieces that are most likely to divide your readers, then it is not difficult to do the math about how to maintain readership, and it would take an unusually high degree of moral probity to resist the implicit pressure). But the broader implication is that the political economy of conservative student organizations that Binder and Kidder describe aren’t just linked to right wing media, but to the incentive structures of liberal media too. The strategy would be much less successful, if it didn’t play into liberal-versus-left tensions and attention dynamics too.

1 Binder will become a colleague of mine at Johns Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute next year. My interest in her and her colleagues’ findings long pre-dates this, and I haven’t consulted her in writing this (any mistakes, exaggerations or misinterpretations are completely mine).

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cjmcnamara
494 days ago
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2023 Crocuses

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As is traditional, a few photos of the year’s first purple-and-yellow garden citizens; portents of approaching spring that are much appreciated while the days are still short and wet and grey.

First crocuses, 2023 First crocuses, 2023 First crocuses, 2023

The first half of February is on the early side, but not as early as last year when we saw them in January. I had a quarrel with our cat, who observed me lying down outside to get an angle on these guys and wanted, of course, to frolic in the foliage right where I was looking.

One picture is with my aging Pixel 4, the others with a “real” camera. Since my daughter has a Film-class project and has absconded with my favorite modern lenses, these are through an at-least-50-year-old Pentax 50mm F1.4; good for portraits of flowers and people both.

That failing Pixel is annoying me; its battery is hurting and USB-C socket becoming less reliable. I loathe that USB-C form factor more and more every passing year. Since nobody but Asus is making a good small Android and they’re not offering it in Canada, it looks like a Pixel 7 is in my future. I like things that still work fine fifty years later, but that’s not the world we live in.

That world is generally pretty fucked up what with climate and Covid and war and burgeoning fascism. One of these years has to turn out nice, right?

But anyhow, the flowers are coming up. Their slender stems punch effortlessly through last year’s dead leaves; I think there’s a lesson for us in that.

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cjmcnamara
517 days ago
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The Objectively Objectionable Grammatical Pet Peeve

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A semi-attentive investigation into a confounding sentence type.
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cjmcnamara
547 days ago
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*The Procession of the Months* (ca. 1889)

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Created sometime around 1889 by Beatrice and Walter Crane, this illustrated series of poems personifies the months of the year as women.

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cjmcnamara
556 days ago
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