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Time Well Spent - 11/11/2023
Turkeys & Troubles Edition
Your time is finite. Your phone and the internet stand ready to help you squander it. Here are my latest picks for spending it well instead. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Books, what else?
Over the last month since October 7th and the explosion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Hamas’ mass ambush and Israel’s subsequent bombing and invasion of Gaza, vast numbers of my fellow Americans have begun debating the ethnography of the region. Are Jews or Palestinians indigenous? Are Jews white and Palestinians people of color? Many of these debates are inane and say more about Americans and our myopic fixations than about anything in the Middle East and its deep-rooted or current troubles, but they illustrate the superficiality of any general understanding of Israel’s ethnography. The Jewish state is in actuality one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world; founded by Ashkenazim from Northern Europe, and now home to Middle Eastern Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen and those from even further afield like the Bene Israel of India and the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.
It’s a shame that more Americans don’t avail themselves of the numerous outstanding books exploring the relationship between nationality, ethnicity, history and politics. In some cases, the correspondences are obviously quite simple. South Korea is a nation of Koreans. Switzerland is a coalition of French, German, Italian and Romansch-speaking cantons. But in the case of a nation-state like Israel, newly founded and fused from what were theretofore very distinct ethnicities, a deeper dive is warranted.
Today Joel Kotkin is known as a commentator on urban planning and an evangelist for the 20th-century suburban lifestyle. But in the 1990’s he wrote a very influential book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy. Tribes was published in 1994, on the eve of the turn-of-the-century rush to globalization, and it anticipated the role of ethnicity, “Chimerica”’s emergence and the Pacific Rim’s rise to prominence. Putting the focus on international and often market-dominant minorities like Jews, Chinese and Indians, Kotkin argues that trends in economic growth and interconnection will be facilitated by these diaspora communities, whether that be Israelis in the US founding tech-firms or overseas Chinese in Thailand trading with the PRC. Tribes has proven prophetic about the intervening three decades.
In the same decade that Kotkin wrote Tribes, the economist Thomas Sowell published a three-volume series on global race and ethnicity. Race and Culture: A World View, Migrations and Cultures: A World View and Conquests and Cultures: An International History, take as a given the American viewpoint, but apply an American lens in totally unexpected contexts to illuminate dynamics that might deliver more general insights. Sowell is a skeptic of the salutary effect of affirmative action, but rather than just dissecting the American case, his trilogy discusses how the system operates in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, two nations where the ethnic majorities have enacted preferential frameworks to advantage themselves against the higher-performing minorities (Chinese and Tamils). Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures and Conquests and Cultures are not theoretical, but empirical, bringing together numerous examples to illustrate how multiethnic societies have existed worldwide, whether they flourished or not.
Sowell’s trilogy is clearly fundamentally optimistic, he believes looking at the past and present can help us formulate better policies to ameliorate ethnic tension in the future. Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 is a retrospective of a failed attempt at accommodation, integration and assimilation. Beginning with the entrance of Moses Mendelssohn in the world of German philosophy in the mid-18th century, The Pity of It All traces the 19th-century rise of German Jews in the Western world (Karl Marx, the 19th century’s foremost political philospoher, the poet Heinrich Heine, one of the most significant poets of the Romantic era, and Mendelssohn’s prominent composer grandson, Felix Mendelssohn) down to their cultural apogee in the 20th century’s first third. Though the German Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries were themselves ultimately overwhelmingly descended from the Ostjuden (“Jews of the East”) of what had been Poland-Lithuania, The Pity of It All illustrates how they reinvented themselves as the interface of Jewish culture and Western civilization, producing luminaries like Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka, but also serving as facilitators and role models for the assimilation of Eastern European Jews into the gentile world.
If the saga of European Jewry was a mostly failed experiment in multiculturalism (necessitating Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel), North America’s multicultural storyline has thus far been a successful one. That success is attested by the reality that books like Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America are seen as in any way revelatory. Obviously, most readers will understand that Quebec or Texas’s Rio Grande Valley have unique cultures, but less well known for example are the extremely old divisions between the upper and lower North of the US, the two bands above the Mason-Dixon line that begin respectively in New England and the Mid-Atlantic (between New York City and Philadelphia), and then stretch ever westward to bisect states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. While Michigan and Upper Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, were founded by New Englanders in the early 19th century, and their cultures still reflect homogeneous Yankee communal values, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois have seen nearly two centuries of political conflict between their Yankee-settled northern regions, and their southern portions, settled from the Mid-Atlantic or the Border States like Kentucky and Virginia. Woodward updates the narrative David Hacket Fischer outlined in Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America for the 21st century, offering a framework to understand the subterranean divisions beyond visible race that fracture America on an ethnic-regional basis.
John T. McGreevy's Catholicism and American Freedom: A History, is fundamentally about assimilating Roman Catholics into a political nation that was implicitly Protestant. McGreevy begins the book with the religious riots of 1834, where, reacting to rumors of abuse, Protestant mobs in Sommerville, Massachusetts burned down an Ursuline convent. Catholicism and American Freedom documents the separatist strain among Roman Catholic elites in the 19th century, in the wake of the Irish migration, and separatism’s slow defeat by assimilationists. The 20th century saw the eventual integration of Catholicism into the American religious landscape by World War II. But McGreevy's narrative also highlights the tensions among Roman Catholics, in particular, between the highly organized and clerically ascendant Irish, and the cohesive but culturally separatist Germans. Catholicism and American Freedom illustrates the nested nature of many ethnic tensions, with a Catholic religious minority facing off against a Protestant majority, but itself internally riven by numerous factions with distinct national allegiances.
How the Right Won—and Lost—Muslims. This is a pretty thorough dive into what you already can intuit: the shift to foreign affairs reforges Muslim’s tactical alliance with the Left. If the Israel-Palestine conflict ever resolves, I would expect the salience of domestic policy to pull away Muslims as a voting bloc from the Left again.
Silicon Valley’s Big, Bold Sci-Fi Bet on the Device That Comes After the Smartphone - Humane, a company started by two former Apple employees, says its new artificial intelligence pin can stop all the scrolling. Can it live up to the hype? Most of the media seems to be skeptical. But I think that’s just a good null assumption; most new tech doesn’t take off. That being said, look at how even Steve Jobs viewed the iPhone when it came out: he thought it would be a phone with some extra features. Instead, it transformed our culture, and became a vehicle for a computing revolution. There’s going to be one hit out of 100, but that hit is what matters, so perhaps this new “wearable” will be it (probably not).
The Benefits of Being a Young Mom - Every time I peek at the mommy chat rooms, I wonder: What is making them so anxious? And whatever happened to the time-honored tradition of winging it? The author had her baby at 25, which is really not that young in the US. The key is the audience who might read a piece like this. Almost 43% of women with bachelor’s degrees or higher had their first child in their 30’s (as opposed to 9% of women with a high school diploma as their highest educational level). So in that context, the author is on the young side for the women who might read a piece like this as part of their “media diet.”
Generation Z and the Transformation of American Adolescence: How Gen Z’s Formative Experiences Shape Its Politics, Priorities, and Future. Born between 1995 and 2010, this generation is much less promiscuous, much less religious and much more politically polarized between the genders (Gen Z men are more conservative than Millennial men and Gen Z women are more liberal than Millennial women).
A Brief History of a Problematic Appetizer. Basically, squid is a vehicle for fried bread. And apparently, calamari dates to the 1970s, with the term invented in 1974 to make squid more exotic. Marketing in everything consumable…
My grand theory of the left - There isn't one! But anything can be taken too far. Matt Yglesias points out that racial-justice über alles applies…until it doesn’t (for example, with schools reopening during COVID, where teachers’ unions and their allies in public health just selectively ignored the equity angle without any consequence).
Eurasian back-migration into Northeast Africa was a complex and multifaceted process and Modelling the demographic history of human North African genomes points to a recent soft split divergence between populations. These two related papers highlight the ethnogenesis of the peoples of the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, respectively. While the former region seems to exhibit a deep history of local population structure (most of the variation dates to the period between 10 and 20 thousand years ago), the latter region is characterized by lots of activity in the period between 1000 BC and 1000 AD. If the first paper is correct, then the Horn of Africa was extremely different during Greco-Roman antiquity, with much of the crystallization of current ethnographic patterns dating to the fall of Sudan’s Christian Makuria kingdom in the 13th century AD.
Assessing the impact of 20th century internal migrations on the genetic structure of Estonia. As in England, smart people move to urban areas, producing structure in the distribution of genes correlated with higher educational attainment.
Genetic Influences on Educational Attainment Through the Lens of the Evolving Swedish Welfare State: A cross-level gene-environment interaction study based on polygenic indices and longitudinal register data. The paper reports that social background was more important before the welfare state than during it. In other words, when the state provides resources widely, parental social status and means matter less (while genes continue to matter a great deal).
Convergent evolution of complex adaptive traits enabled human life at high altitudes. Comparing populations in the Andes and those in the Himalayas. High altitude adaptation seems to have happened three times in human history; in the Himalayas, the Andes and in Ethiopia. There has been less investigation of the last, perhaps because the adaptations are more subtle, having had more time to ‘perfect’ themselves given the region’s long modern human occupation.
The maintenance of genetic polymorphism in sexually antagonistic traits. Seems like theoretically it’s hard: “we suggest that sexual antagonism is most likely to maintain genetic variation when traits are determined by a single large effect locus where genetic constraints lead to a limited range of possible alleles.”
My Two Cents
There’s still no free lunch, free subscribers; my most in-depth pieces for this Substack remain beyond the paywall. Since the last “Time Well Spent” I’ve released this longer piece:
Dating back to Boule’s simian depictions from over a century ago, Neanderthals have been seen as an evolutionary dead-end, a low-hanging branch that never reached for the canopy of cultural creativity claimed by our own lineage. Today we know that to some extent the Neanderthal lineage is our own, we are their legacy, continuing a genetic story that reaches back nearly 750,000 years, converging back to our common African ancestors. In their own turn, they were also our legacy, insofar as the last Neanderthals had already absorbed earlier waves of Africans. The human story, the narrative that rolls across the millennia, was never one of populations repeatedly diverging across the globe, never to meet again, but the slow and organic development of a dense, tangled bush turning in on itself, with gnarled trunk and grafted branches. Neanderthals, along with Denisovans long authored the Eurasian narrative, partitioning Earth’s largest continent between them. Ancient DNA from Spain dating to 450,000 years ago now shows that Neanderthal ancestors were already a distinct lineage from Denisovans and modern African humans by then, meaning that our cousins occupied the earth for at least ten times as long as the span that has elapsed since their parallel extinctions and absorption into our own genetic pool.
If you want to browse my more geographically focused pieces, Dry.io has created an interactive map of them. We’ll keep adding to that page over time. Also, Dry.io set up a nice skin for my pinboard bookmarks and a page for reader-submitted links.
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Over to you
Comments are open to all for this post, so if you have more reading/listening suggestions or tips on who I should be talking to or what you wish I would cover, lay it on us.