The rise of the west and the changing sociopolitical landscape

Aeon this weekend highlighted a 2017 article by Joel Mokyr looking at how Europe became the richest part of the world (or at least one of the richest).  Historically, there have been many theories, ranging from racist rationals, cultural ones, to it merely being Europe and the overall west’s turn to be on top.

That last one shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.  1000 years ago, the Muslim societies in the Middle East were the pinnacle of civilization.  Europe at that time was a poor backwater.  Arguably, the Middle Eastern societies benefited at the time from being situated at the center of Asia (and thus the center of the known world), putting them at the intersection of long range trade routes, making them an international economic hub.  The rise of Europe seemed to coincide with trade shifting from overland routes to the seas, giving the sea powers (Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain) the advantages.

Still, the question could be, why did Europe produce those sea powers and not other regions?  The answer Mokyr explores is one that’s been posited many times: competition.  Europe never had one central government, but numerous squabbling states competing with each other.  That competition ensured that the Age of Discovery, among other things, would continue, unlike in China, whose own age of discovery was abruptly cut short by the whims of imperial decree.

But Mokyr notes that competition is only half of the story.  The other half is the rise of science and technology, and an intellectual class.  Unlike in regions dominated by a central authority, where a conservative ruling class threatened by developing ideas could simply suppress them, any attempt to do so in Europe simply led to other powers making use of those ideas.

Mokyr describes a “society of letters” which existed between intellectuals across international borders.  That and the printing press allowed ideas to permeate throughout European cultures.  So when Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church, and his ideas banned in Italy, they simply resurfaced in other countries, and continued to be built upon.

I’ve often noted that the printing press was the disrupting technology of the second millennium.  Its development in the 15th century led to ideas spreading much more rapidly, and enabled collaborations that previously had only happened across generations.  No one in 1440 could have predicted the effects it would eventually have: the Scientific Revolution, Reformation, Counter-reformation, religious wars, and many other developments.

So Europe’s rise could be a factor of competition and a technology and culture that allowed ideas to permeate throughout the competitors.  Thinking about this makes me wonder about the rise of the internet.  On the one hand, it could be seen as a continuation of mass media, which itself can be seen as a continuation of the printing revolution.

But the internet has always felt different.  The fact that I’m writing and publishing this post, without having to convince a publisher, broadcaster, or anyone else with resources to make it available, and that people throughout the world will be able to read it, seems like something new.  Something whose long term effects we’re just beginning to feel.

Some of the effects, of course, have been predicted from the beginning.  Even in the 1990s, I remember seeing predictions that it would lead to far more globalization than existed at the time, and that this would have consequences for many people in society.  That’s largely come to pass.

What was less predicted is the backlash that we’re now seeing in many countries.  In the English speaking world, that’s manifested as Brexit in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump in my own country.  Although in retrospect, looking back at history, it should have been obvious that something like this would happen.  The waves of industrialization of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries all came with their associated backlashes.  The rise of socialism and communism can actually be viewed as giant backlashes against those waves.

This morning, Taegan Goddard, on his Political Wire blog (highly recommended BTW), noted that the Democratic party has now been hijacked (warning: paywall), similar to the way the Republican party was four years ago.  The front runner for the Democratic nomination is a candidate who, until a few years ago, didn’t identify as a Democrat.  And the strongest alternative may end up being a billionaire who also only recently started identifying as a Democrat.  It’s worth remembering that Trump spent most of his life not identifying as a Republican.

For most of US history, political parties chose their nominees in smoked filled rooms, the choice made by party insiders.  That started to change in the 1970s with the switch to primary elections.  But even with that switch, party insiders: major donors, elected officials, and political professionals, still largely determined who the primary candidates would be, through the infamous “money primary.”

Goddard recalls that he wrote in 2016 that Trump’s rise in the Republican party “broke political science”.  With the rise of Bernie Sanders, we seem to be seeing a similar dynamic in the Democratic party.  The days of party insiders pre-winnowing the candidates appears to be over.

But what’s leading to that change?  Goddard focuses on the rise of social networks: Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest, in other words, the internet.  Another unforeseen consequence of the rise of the internet, is the weakening of elites in both parties to be able to constrain the choices.  Candidates now have the ability to interact directly with their constituencies and bypass party elites, the media, and other gatekeepers.

Some are saying that this means that parties are now irrelevant.  I think that’s wishful thinking.  The dynamics of how governing works in the US haven’t changed.  Given the structure of the US government, a president still needs allies in the legislative and judicial branches to get things done, and given the nature of separate but overlapping incumbencies, those alliances still need to be long term.  In other words, parties aren’t irrelevant yet.

And the fact is that this is happening within the parties, not outside of them.  But it is changing the nature of politics in the US, in ways I’m not sure anyone would have predicted a decade ago.

Bringing this back to the original thesis, the rise of Europe and the west may well have been based on competition, a competition enhanced and informed by a framework that allowed new ideas to proliferate.  It’s manifesting in new ways today, and happening across a much wider backdrop, with other world regions increasingly becoming major players.

The question, as always, is what happens next?

Don’t teach Congress about science and technology; teach the voters

M. Anthony Mills has a short piece at Politico advocating the return of the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment), which was defunded in the 1990s as a budget cutting measure.  The argument is that congress needs to know more about science and technology, that maybe if they knew more, they’d make better decisions.

Except, politics doesn’t work that way.  Individual senators and representatives in Congress make decisions largely based on what their constituents demand from them, or at least what those constituents will tolerate.  Of course, the demands of major donors also come into the picture, which is often the real reason anti-science decisions happen.

The solution to this problem isn’t to educate those senators or representatives.  Even if they sit still long enough to receive that education, it won’t work, since the sentiment of their constituents and major donors will win out.

What will work is educating those constituents, that is, the voting public.  That’s admittedly harder since the public is far larger, and getting them to sit still for education is just as difficult.  Yet, in a democracy, there really is no other path.  Getting movement on climate change and other areas will only happen when voters overwhelmingly demand it, with enough force to override the influence of major donors.

Incidentally, this applies to just about any other policy area anyone wants to see progress on.  Progress on gay and lesbian acceptance only happened once it was clear that the voting public was on board.  (The show Will & Grace did more to bring it about than any direct lobbying of politicians.)  Likewise for movement on sexual harassment issues.  This fits the historical pattern, where civil rights only happened once the public demanded it.

Politicians don’t lead, they represent, and representatives, if they want to keep their job, recognize swings in voter sentiment.  To see change, don’t focus on the politician.  Focus on the voter.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

Politics is about self interest

I’ve read a lot of history, including American history of the 18th and 19th centuries.  It’s interesting to read about the politics of these periods.  From a distance across generations and centuries, you can see the distinction between the self interested stances people took and the rhetoric that was used to justify those stances.

An example from the 18th century was the controversy about the new federal government assuming the Revolutionary War debt from the states.  Both sides of the controversy had philosophical reasons for their position, such as concern about federal power versus the benefits of establishing faith and credit for the United States.  But in general, the states that favored the idea (called “assumption”) still had a lot of war debt, while the states that were against it had paid most or all of their debt already.

This also holds for what was the most controversial issue in early America: slavery.  People’s stance on this issue seemed to be heavily influenced by the economy of their state.  In northern industrial states, slavery was becoming less economically viable and dying out, and was therefore seen as barbaric.  However, in the largely agricultural southern states, slavery remained a major part of the economic system, and was therefore seen as a vital institution.

It’s much more difficult for us to separate the stories we tell ourselves today from the self interested realities.  This is probably why some political scientists argue that people aren’t motivated by self interest when they vote.  But that idea simply isn’t backed by history or psychology.

In their book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban argue self interest figures heavily into our political positions.

This isn’t something we generally do consciously.  Citing psychology research that shows we often don’t understand our own motivations, they argue that our unconscious mind settles on stances that reflect our inclusive personal interests, with “inclusive” meaning that it includes the interests of our friends and family.

We tell ourselves a high minded story, one that we consciously believe, but like the public relations spokesperson for a large corporation, our consciousness is often uninformed on the actual reasons why the Board of Directors of our mind adopt a stance.  In other words, our self interested positions feel like the morally right ones to have, and people opposed to our positions seem evil or stupid.

Working from this premise, and using data from the United States GSS (General Social Survey), Weeden and Kurzban proceed to show correlations between political positions and various demographic, lifestyle, and financial income factors.  They also periodically glance at broader international data and, although the specific issues and populations vary, find that the general principle holds.

They identify some broad factors that have large effects on our political positions, including things such as sexual lifestyle, membership in traditionally dominant or subordinate groups (religion, race, sexual orientation, etc), the amount of human capital we have, and financial income.

The first factor, sexual lifestyle, generally affects your attitude on a number of social issues such as abortion, birth control, pornography, and marijuana legalization.  Weeden and Kurzban break people into two broad groups: Ring-bearers and Freewheelers.

Ring-bearers tend to have fewer sexual partners across their life, generally making a commitment to one partner, marrying them, and having a family with a higher number of children.  They often strongly value their commitments (which is why they’re called “Ring-bearers”).  A major concern for Ring-bearers is the possibility of being tempted away from those commitments, having their spouse be tempted away, or their kids being tempted away from leading a similar lifestyle.

This concern often makes them want to reduce the prevalence of lifestyles that lead to such temptation, such as sexual promiscuity.  As a result, Ring-bearers tend to favor policies that make promiscuous lifestyles more costly.  Which is why they’re generally pro-life, oppose birth control and sexual education, and oppose things like marijuana legalization, which is perceived as facilitating promiscuity.

Of course the reasons they put forward for their stances (and consciously believe) don’t reflect this.  For the abortion stance, they’ll often argue that they’re most concerned about protecting unborn children.  But the fact that they’re usually willing to make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s sexual lifestyle usually isn’t a causal factor, shows their true hand.

On the other side are the Freewheelers.  Freewheelers generally lead a more active sexual lifestyle, or aspire to, or want to keep their options open for that lifestyle.  They’re less likely to marry, more likely to divorce if they do, and generally have fewer kids.

Freewheelers generally don’t want their life style options curtailed, and don’t want to experience moral condemnation for it.  This generally makes them pro-choice, in favor of birth control and family planning, and in favor of things like marijuana legalization.

Like Ringbearers, Freewheelers usually don’t admit to themselves that preserving their lifestyle options is the motivating factor for their social stances.  Again, focusing on abortion, Freewheelers usually say and believe that their stance is motivated to protect women’s reproductive freedom.  But the fact that pro-choice people are often comfortable with other laws that restrict personal freedoms, such as seat belt laws or mandatory health insurance, shows that personal freedom isn’t the real issue.

Freewheelers also often don’t have the private support networks that Ringbearers typically enjoy, such as church communities, which Weeden and Kurzban largely characterize as child rearing Ringbearer support groups.  This makes Freewheelers tend to be more supportive of public social safety net programs than Ringbearers.

The next factor is membership in traditionally dominant or subservient groups.  “Groups” here refers to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc.  In the US, traditionally dominant groups include whites, Christians, males, heterosexuals, and citizens, while traditionally subservient groups include blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, females, gays, transsexuals, and immigrants.  It’s not necessarily surprising that which group you fall in affects your views on the fairness of group barriers (discrimination) or set-asides (such as affirmative action).

But there’s a complicating factor, and that is the amount of human capital you have.  Human capital is the amount of education you’ve attained and/or how good you are at taking tests.  Having high human capital makes you more competitive, reducing the probability that increased competition will negatively affect you.  People with high levels of human capital are more likely to favor a meritocracy.  On the other hand, having low human capital tends to make getting particular jobs or getting into desirable schools more uncertain, so increased competition from any source tends to be against your interests.

For people with high human capital and in a dominant group, group barriers mean little, so people in this category tend to be about evenly split on the fairness of those barriers.  But people with low human capital and in a dominant group tend to be more effected by increased competition when group barriers are reduced, making them more likely to be in favor of retaining those barriers.

People in subservient groups tend to be opposed to any group barriers, or at least barriers affecting their particular group.  People in subservient groups and with high human capital, once barriers have been removed, tend to favor a meritocracy and to be less supportive of specific group set asides.  But people in subservient groups and with low human capital tend to be in favor of the set-asides.

All of which is to say, more educated people tend to be less affected by group dynamics unless they’re being discriminated against, but less educated people are more affected by those dynamics.  Less educated people discriminate more, not because they’re uneducated, but because their interests are more directly impacted by the presence or absence of that discrimination.

And finally, Weeden and Kurzban look at financial income.  It probably won’t surprise anyone that people with higher incomes are less supportive of social safety net programs, which essentially redistribute income from higher income populations to lower income ones, but that people with lower incomes are usually in favor of these programs.

Most people fall in some complex combination of these groups.  Weeden and Kurzban recognize at least 31 unique combinations in the book.  Which particular combination a person is in will define their political perspective.

For example, I’m a Freewheeler (relatively speaking), mostly in dominant groups except in terms of religion, where I’m in a subservient group (a nonbeliever), have moderately high human capital (a Master’s degree), and above average income.  Weeden and Kurzban predict that these factors would tend to make me socially liberal, modestly supportive of social safety nets, opposed to religious discrimination, in favor of meritocracy, and economically centrist.  This isn’t completely on the mark, but it’s uncomfortably close.

But since people fall into all kinds of different combinations, their views often don’t fall cleanly on the conservative-liberal political spectrum.  Why then do politics in the US fall into two major parties?  I covered that in another post last year, but it has to do with the way our government is structured.  The TL;DR is that the checks and balances in our system force broad long lasting coalitions in order to get things done, which tend to coalesce into an in-power coalition and an opposition one.

In other words, the Republican and Democratic parties are not philosophical schools of thought, but messy constantly shifting coalitions of interests.  Republicans are currently a coalition of Ringbearers, traditionally dominant groups, and high income people.  Democrats are a coalition of Freewheelers, traditionally subservient groups, and low income people.  There may be a realignment underway between people with low human capital in dominant groups (white working class) and those with high human capital, but it’s too early to tell yet how durable it will be.

But it’s also worth remembering that 38% of the US population struggles to consistently align with either party.  A low income Freewheeler in traditionally dominant groups, or a high income Ringbearer in a traditionally subservient group, might struggle with the overall platform of either party.

So what does all this mean?  First, there’s a lot of nuance and detail I’m glossing over in this post (which is already too long).

Weeden and Kurzban admit that their framework isn’t fully determinant of people’s positions and doesn’t work for all issues.  For example, they admit that people’s stances on military spending and environmental issues don’t seem to track closely with identifiable interests, except for small slices of the population in closely related industries.

The authors’ final takeaway is pretty dark, that political persuasion is mostly futile.  The best anyone can hope to do is sway people on the margins.  The political operatives are right, electoral victory is all about turning out your own partisans, not convincing people from the other side, at least unless you’re prepared to change your own position to cater to their interests.

My own takeaway is a little less stark.  Yes, the above may be true, but to me, when we understand the real reasons for people’s positions, finding compromise seems more achievable if we’re flexible and creative.  For instance, as a Freewheeler, the idea of content ratings and restricting nightclubs to red light districts suddenly seem like decent compromises, ones that don’t significantly curtail my freedom but assuage Ringholder concerns of being able to keep those influences away from them and their family.

And understanding that the attitude of low human capital Americans toward illegal immigrants is shaped by concern for their own livelihood, rather than just simple bigotry, makes me look at that issue a bit differently.  I still think Trump is a nightmare and his proposed solutions asinine, but this puts his supporters in a new light.  Most politicians tend to be high human capital people and probably fail to adequately grasp the concerns of low human capital voters.  In the age of globalization, should we be surprised that this group has a long simmering anger toward the establishment?

In the end, I think it’s good that we mostly vote our self interest.  We typically understand our own interests, but generally don’t understand the interests of others as well as we might think.  This is probably particularly true when we assume people voting differently than us are acting against their own interests.

Everyone voting their own interests forces at least some portion of the political class to take those interests into account.  And that’s the whole point of democracy.  Admittedly, it’s very hard to remember that when elections don’t go the way you hoped they would.

Having productive internet conversations

Anyone who’s frequented this blog knows I love having discussions, and can pontificate all day on subjects I’m interested in.  I’ve actually been participating in online discussions, on and off, for decades.

My earliest conversations were on dial up bulletin boards.  Those were usually tightly focused discussions about technology and gaming.  With the rise of services like CompuServe, AOL, and eventually the web, the conversations broadened to include other topics.

BBS signon screen. Image credit: massacre via Wikipedia

A lot has changed since the old bulletin board chat rooms, but much of the interpersonal dynamics haven’t.  There have always been a mix of different types of people: those looking for cogent conversation, others wanting to sell an agenda of some sort (technical, political, religious, etc), or trolls simply looking to rile everyone up under the cover of anonymity.

Debates have always been there.  The earliest I recall were about which programming languages were the best.  (Anyone remember 8088 assembler, BASIC, Pascal, Pilot?)  Or about which computing platform was superior (think Apple II vs Atari vs Commodore).  It’s interesting how often time renders old debates moot.

One thing I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, is that you can virtually never change anyone’s mind about anything during a debate.  I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen it happen, and in that small number of cases, it was always someone who wasn’t particularly committed to the point of view they started the conversation with.

That’s not to say that I haven’t seen people change their mind on even the most dug in subject, but it’s almost always been over a period of weeks, months, or years.  If a conversation I participated in contributed to that change, I generally only heard about it long after the change had happened, and then only if the conversation ended on cordial terms.

Why then participate in these conversations?  For me personally, a big part of the draw is testing my own ideas by seeing what faults others can find in them.  It’s one of the things that brought me back to online discussions, including blogging, after a break of several years.

But I’ll admit persuasion remains part of the motivation, although I’ve known for a long time that persuasion is by necessity a long term game.  The best we can hope to do in any one conversation is to lay the seeds of change.  Whether those seeds take root is completely up to the recipient.  Of course, to have any hope of changing someone else’s mind, they have to get the sense that we’re at least open to changing our own.

All of which is why I generally try to avoid getting into acrimonious debates, at least in recent years.  (Not that I always succeed.)  In my view, Dale Carnegie was right, you can’t win an argument.  Trying to win only causes people to dig in deeper and, if the argument goes on too long, causes hard feelings and wounded relationships.  Even if your argument is unassailable, people won’t recognize it in their urge to save face.

This is why my approach is usually to lay out a position, explain the reasons for that position, and then address any questions someone may ask.  If someone lays out their position, I try to ask for their reasons (if they haven’t already given them), and if I disagree, lay out my reasons for disagreeing.  As long as that’s happening in the conversation, an exchange of viewpoints and the reasons for them, I think it’s a productive one, one that I, the other person, or maybe some third party reader might learn from.

One of the things I try to watch out for is when points previously made start getting repeated.  This is easy to miss when a discussion has been going on for days or weeks.  But when we reach that point, the discussion is in danger of, or has already morphed into an argument.  Long experience has taught me that continuing the conversation further is unlikely to be productive.  (There are exceptions, but they’re rare ones.)

For a long time, I tended to end the conversation by announcing we were starting to loop and that I thought it was time to stop.  This seemed like the polite thing to do.  But just in the last year or so, I’ve concluded something many of you already knew, that the last announcement message is also counter-productive, particularly if the debate has become intense.  It’s far better to let the other person have the last word and move on.

This raises an important point, one that also took me a long time to learn and internalize.  Just because someone says something, I’m not necessarily obligated to respond.  This is particularly true if the other person is being nasty.  I always have the option of just moving on.

If I do choose to respond, I’m also not obligated to respond to every point the other person made.  Maybe the point has already been addressed earlier in the thread, or it might be a subject matter I’m not particularly knowledgeable about, or responding to it might involve a lot of effort I don’t feel like putting in right then.  Sometimes it’s a point I’m simply not interested in discussing.

Discussions about science and philosophy have a special burden, because often the topic is difficult to describe, to put into language.  That means for the discussions to be productive, everyone has to exercise at least a degree of interpretational charity.  Just about every philosophical proposition can be interpreted in a strawman fashion, in a way that’s obviously wrong and easy to knock down.  Doing so is easy but it has a tendency to rush a discussion into the argument phase.   A rewarding philosophical or scientific discussion requires that both parties try to find the intelligent interpretation of the other person’s words, and respond to that rather than the strawman version.

When I’m in doubt about how to interpret someone’s statement, I usually either ask for clarification or restate what I think their thesis is before addressing it.  A lot of misunderstandings have been cleared up with those restatements.

If science and philosophy can be difficult, political discussions are often impossible, especially these days.  But again, I find value in stating a position and then laying out the reasons for it.  When people disagree, it again helps to have them explain why.  Often what we take to be a hopelessly uninformed or selfish outlook has more substantive grounds than we might want to admit.  Even when it doesn’t, treating the other person as though they’re immoral or an idiot is pretty much surrendering any chance of changing their mind.

Not that I’m a saint about any of this, as anyone who goes through the archive of this blog or my Twitter or Facebook feeds can attest.  Much of what I’ve described here is aspirational.  Still, since I’ve been striving to meet these standards, my online conversations have become much richer.

All that said, there are undeniably a lot of trolls out there who have no interest in having real conversation.  I think one important aspect of enjoying an online life is knowing how to block jerks.  Every major platform has mechanisms for doing this, and they’re well worth learning about.  I’ve personally never had to resort to these measures, but it’s  nice to know they’re there.

What do you think?  Is my way too mamby pamby?  Too unwilling to reap the benefits of gladiatorial discussion?   Or are there other techniques I’m missing that could make for better conversations?

Why the US two party system is so entrenched

The other day, I came across this Big Think explanation by historian Sean Wilentz on why the US always seems to gravitate to a two party system.

Unfortunately, while I think Wilentz touches on the main points, his explanation doesn’t seem as clear as it could be.

To start off, he refers to the US electoral practice of first past the post voting, or plurality voting, which is a fancy name for only having one winner of an election that goes to the candidate with the most votes.  It’s in contrast to a system that awards proportional representation to all parties that manage to get at least some defined minimal proportion of votes.

Most of the political systems that do some form of plurality voting, tend to have two major parties.  The systems that do proportional systems tend to have several parties.  The tendency of plurality voting systems to gravitate toward two parties is known in political science as Duverger’s law.

Although a more accurate name might have been “Duverger’s trend”, because while most political systems that do plurality voting have two party systems, it’s still possible for an occasional third party (or fourth) to get significant representation in them.  The UK has a plurality system, yet a few years ago it had a viable third party, the Liberal Democrats, who had enough representation to control the balance of power in Parliament.

But in the US system, third parties virtually never get much of a footing.  Occasionally a charismatic presidential candidate manages to get to get enough votes to sway the outcome of an election, but one has never actually won.

Perhaps the most successful third party presidential candidate in American history was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  Roosevelt was a popular ex-president who had only been out of office for four years.  (This was before the lifetime two term limit was in place.)  If there was ever a time when a third party candidate should have claimed victory, it would have been that year.  Yet, despite doing better than the Republican candidate, he only managed to split the Republican vote and throw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

With the exception of a couple of brief periods, the US has been a two party system for our entire history.  Initially the two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.  But this first two-party system had ended by 1820, after the collapse of the Federalists under allegations of treason during the War of 1812.

But by the 1830s, a new two party system had emerged: the Democrats and the Whigs.  The Whigs would later collapse in the 1850s, ripped apart by the slavery issue.  There were multiple parties 1850s and 1860s, mainly because of the convulsions the country was going through in the lead up to and carrying out of the American Civil War.

But within a few years after the Civil War, the two party system was back, now with Democrats and Republicans.  Those parties have remained ever since, although their stances and constituencies have varied tremendously over the decades.  In the 19th century, the Republicans tended to be the progressives and Democrats the conservatives, although the detailed issues were very different.

So, why does the US system so consistently gravitate back to two parties?  Part of it is Duverger’s law, but the utter absence of viable third parties in the US system is striking.  I think Wilentz had the right idea that it is embedded in the US constitution, although not just in the plurality voting aspects.

As all Americans learn in school, the US federal government has three separate branches: the executive (President), the legislative (Congress), and the judiciary.  The Constitution was designed to separate powers between the branches in such a way as to minimize the possibility of a tyranny developing.  This arrangement seems to have worked pretty well, so well in fact that it has generally been copied by the individual states.

However, as Richard Neustadt pointed out in his classic ‘Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents‘, executives and legislators in the US don’t so much have separate powers as shared powers.

What’s the difference between “separate” and “shared”?  In my home state of Louisiana, we have a number of statewide elected officials (treasurer, secretary of state, etc) who operate more or less independently of the state governor.  They’re able to (mostly) stay out of each other’s way.  Their powers are separate.  But that isn’t true between Presidents and Congress or most governors and their state legislators.  To accomplish substantive things, they must work together.  In other words, their powers are mostly shared.

Of course, as anyone paying attention can attest, working together often doesn’t happen.  But the highest probability of it happening is when allies control the different branches.  Without allies in Congress, a President can’t do much more than fairly narrow executive actions, and without an ally in the Presidency, Congress’s ability to pass laws is severely constrained, and both branches can have their initiatives killed by an unfriendly Supreme Court.

For this to work, the alliance needs to be a broad coalition, otherwise it won’t be strong enough or enduring enough.  Our bifurcated system of government requires the coordination from these alliances to function.  But any such successful coalition is going to make decisions that a lot of people don’t like.  The best chance the various opposing constituencies have of fighting the governing coalition is to form their own opposition coalition.

This is pretty clear if you look at the history of how the Democrats and Whigs developed.  President Andrew Jackson was the dominating political presence of his day.  He got things done with his allies in Congress, who eventually became the Democrats.  But a lot of people were passionately opposed to Jackson’s policies, and they eventually coalesced into the Whigs.

Our system of government rewards the largest coalitions, and it is to the advantage of each separate interest group to be in the largest coalition, or if that isn’t possible, to be in the second largest.  In other words, to be part of the two party system.

In our system, the coalitions are formed outside of government and change fairly slowly.  While this can be very stable, it can also lead to entrenched divided government, as it is right now.  It is an arrangement that, while unintentional, is a direct side effect of the way our government and constitution are structured.

Wilentz is right that the only real way to change this situation is to amend the constitution, perhaps radically, introducing proportional representation in Congress or collapsing the executive and legislative branches together.  This would take a two thirds vote of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of three quarters of the states.  In other words, don’t expect movement on this anytime soon.

But the two party system has collapsed twice in American history.  How do we know we’re not in that situation this year?  That one of the third parties isn’t perhaps ascendant?  When asking that question, consider that parties have never won the Presidency until they had a significant representation in Congress and in state legislatures.  Ask yourself how much representation the third party you’re considering has at those levels.  If the answer is minuscule or zilch, then this probably isn’t the year that party will come into power.

One popular reason to vote for a third party candidate is to make a protest vote.  Maybe the major party closest to your views isn’t addressing one or more issues that you care deeply about, and you want to send a message to them.  Protest voting can get the attention of the major parties and convince them to incorporate its views into their plank, but usually only after they have lost an election.  In other words, protest voters should be prepared to watch the candidate on the other end of the political spectrum go into power.


The relentless rain

It was a forecast that was all too common for south Louisiana.  We would have several days of rain.  It would start Thursday evening and continue through the weekend.  There was a possibility of flooding.  The people in flood zones, who lived near rivers and bayous, should prepare.  I don’t live in a flood zone so I largely ignored these warnings.  I pictured a weekend watching TV, reading on the internet, and maybe cranking out a blog post.

The rain did start Thursday evening.  It was quickly evident that this was going to be a deluge.  There were copious amounts of thunder and a dull roar as torrents of water hit the roof.  Again, this is normal for south Louisiana.  It happens.  I went to bed to the sound of that dull roar.

I woke up around midnight.  The deluge continued.  Had it continued since I’d fallen asleep?  No, that was unlikely.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  I woke up again around 3am.  The deluge was still in full force.  I started to get a little worried, but still managed to fall back asleep.

When I woke up in the morning, it was dark and the deluge was still going.  I got up, ate a protein bar for breakfast and got ready for work.  I was delayed leaving by one of the commodes backing up.  This is somewhat normal during heavy downpours, although it hadn’t happened in a long time.  I dealt with that, then prepared to leave, dreading having to drive into work in the downpour with all the associated traffic problems that would be out there.

I left my house, but when I reached the front of the neighborhood, the street was flooded.  I was contemplating how I’d navigate through it (I drive a 4Runner and thought it would be manageable) when my phone suddenly went off with a message from the emergency broadcast system warning of a flash flood alert for the area.  While reading that, I also received a text from the university stating that it was closed today and that everyone should stay home.

So I returned to my house.  While turning in to my driveway, I noticed that the ditch that runs in the front yard by the road was seriously overflowing, with the water taking up maybe a quarter of the space between the road and the house.  I got a little more nervous, but reassured myself that I don’t live in a flood zone.  All this time, the dense downpour continued.

I went inside and turned on the news.  The amount of rain we were receiving was record setting.  I don’t remember what the number was at that point, but the weather person warned that we should expect floods on a scale that we hadn’t seen since the infamous flood of ’83.  I settled down for a quiet day inside.

Around mid-morning, I looked outside and saw that the water had reach the halfway point between the road and the house.  The deluge continued.  As the morning wore on, the news people became increasingly more alarmed, their tone more ominous.  The amount of rainfall was not just going to set new records, it was going to blow well past them.

In Louisiana, we talk about 20 year flood events, meaning an event of a magnitude that happens around once every 20 years.  Many of us, when buying houses, look for land that is not on the 100 year flood zone, meaning that it hasn’t flooded in any event within the last 100 years.  It was becoming evident that the current event wasn’t a 20 year one, or even a 100 year one, but a 500 year one, meaning that no flood chart in existence would be able to mark its limits.

At noon, the water was approaching my front porch, and the deluge continued.  I wasn’t going to flood.  I was not in a flood zone.  The deluge continued.  The water got closer.  Around 1:00, with the water about a foot from the porch, I snapped out of my denial and realized that I needed to act.

I frantically started moving as many things off the floor as I could.  I was suddenly aware of just how many electronic items I had lying around, how much the cables and paraphernalia of the home entertainment system were near the floor .  Getting much of it off the floor meant wholesale disconnecting.  I moved as quickly as I could.  I have a lot of books that would be difficult to replace, many of which are on bottom shelves near the floor or in boxes in corners on the floor.  I couldn’t think where to put them, so I left them there.

The deluge continued.  By now the water had reached the porch and was starting to roll onto it.  I called my dad, who advised me to pack a bag and come to his house, but warned that roads were closing all over the place.  If I was going to come, it needed to be soon.  The problem was that his place is about a 50 minute drive away, and that’s on roads I knew would be flooded.  To get there, I’d likely have to take a circuitous route that would take even longer, possibly hours under current conditions.  And my city mayor (I live in the city of Central on the northeastern outskirts of Baton Rouge) had announced that a curfew would be in effect that evening.

The deluge continued.  I frantically packed.  What to take?  What would I need to live on for what might be an extended period?  I threw everything I could think of into the bag.  By this time, the water was on the porch and in the back carport.  It was maybe two or three inches deep.  In another inch or two, it would be in the house.  It now seemed inevitable.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be home when it happened.  The thought of watching the house flood was painful.

So I loaded up the car.  I had to wear rubber boots by this time.  The water in the carport was about 4 inches high.  By the time I finished, the water was a fraction of an inch from the door.  I killed power to the house and left.

And quickly discovered that I wasn’t going anywhere.

My street was flooded, to the extent that I couldn’t tell where it ended and where the ditches began.  I had thought the water might be foot or so high, but then I saw mailboxes almost completely submerged (they are about 4-5 feet tall).  And someone had left barricades indicating that the street should be considered closed.   I suddenly had no confidence that I could even get out of the neighborhood, much less make it to my dad’s house.  I realized I wasn’t even confident I could get back to my house.

I called my dad from the car and appraised him of the situation.  He stayed on the phone while I slowly drove my 4Runner through the water back to the house.  It looked like I was going to have to make my stand there.  Dad noted that I would probably only get a few inches of water.  It wouldn’t be a life threatening situation, just a nasty one.

I made it back to the house, turned the power back on, and returned to watching the news.  I also started checking the weather radar for my area about once every three minutes.  The deluge continued relentlessly.  I grew to hate the sound of the rain outside.  I talked with a neighbor who had just made it back home in his full sized truck.  He said that the water was very deep and that they had barely made it through.  And he was pretty sure the houses in the front of the neighborhood were already flooded.  The water was now millimeters from getting in both our houses.

I heard from friends whose houses had flooded and who were on the road trying to reach shelter.  One ended up having to park on the road at the highest ground she could find.  She sat there for several hours until a rescue truck brought her to a shelter.

I retreated into the house and waited.  Occasionally someone in a truck would drive by, creating waves of water that threatened to enter the house.  I had to rapidly close the door once or twice to make sure it didn’t.  At one point, what looked like a large rescue truck barreled down the street, apparently on its way to rescue someone in the back of the subdivision, creating large waves that I heard splash against the door.  I was resigned to the inevitable.

And then, the rain slackened.  It didn’t stop, but it’s intensity lowered.  The water outside did not go down, but at least it stopped getting higher.  This was in the late afternoon.  More waiting.  I had missed the opportunity to get sandbags, never dreaming I’d need them.  I put towels against the bottom inside of the door, hoping that if the waters only marginally started to top the door sill, that it might make a difference.  I racked my brain for anything else to do.

Slowly, imperceptibly, with the slackened rain, the water started to recede.  I noticed that it was maybe an inch away from the door now.  But then the deluge started up again and the water went back up.  Then it slackened again.  This cycle repeated well into the evening.  I went to bed fairly sure I’d wake up at some point in the night with water in my house.  That was Friday.

The water on Saturday morning, after it had receded substantially.
The water on Saturday morning, after it had receded substantially.

By Saturday morning, the rain was staying in a slackened, less intense state, although it still fell constantly.  The water had receded from my house a good five feet.  I started to feel much better.  The water was draining away.  I would turn out to be among the luckiest of the lucky.  But my good fortune turned out to be catastrophic for others.

A few miles from my house is the Amite river.  My water drained in that direction, and thousands of people were flooded during the day Saturday.  Then inexorably, the water started draining from their lands toward the south, creating a wave of destruction.  By Sunday, it had reached Baton Rouge proper, turning a major thoroughfare named O’Neal Lane into a river and the nearby neighborhoods into a lake.

Baton Rouge flood
Baton Rouge flood

By Monday, the wave of devastation reached communities to the south, threatening my cousin’s and my dad’s houses.  Similar to my story, the water went right up to their doors, but then receded.  We were fortunate.  Many of our friends weren’t.  My cousin in particular had to hike several miles through water to retrieve his in-laws after their house had flooded.

As I write this, the wave of destruction continues.  It will continue until the end of the rivers are reached.

Flooding is fact of life in Louisiana, but most of us know whether or not we live in a flood zone.  In this freak event, it didn’t matter.  I don’t know how many people lost their houses or cars in this event.  The estimate was at 60,000 last time I checked.  I suspect it will climb.  And thirteen people have died (again, the last time I checked).  Most of these people didn’t have flood insurance.  They didn’t think they needed it.

The city of Central, where I live, received over 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain in a 24 hour period.  This happened largely without warning.  At least with hurricanes we get a few days notice.  But with this, what should have been a mundane rain event turned into a life changing one for tens of thousands of people.

People are doing the nasty work of cleaning out their flooded houses.  In many cases, they’re having to gut the house.  Recovery will be slow and torturous.  As I finish this post, it is once again raining outside, although it’s the normal rain (I hope) that always comes in Louisiana.

The reliability hierarchy of expert opinion

There’s been a mild amount of angst on the internet in recent days over a couple of well known science communicators espousing nonsense on matters outside of their field.  The first was Bill Nye, who made comments about philosophy that most charitably could be described as uninformed.  The second was Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets about biology expressing problematic views about sex and celibacy.

(See the conversation responses to these tweets if you’re not sure why they’re wrong.)

I’m actually a big fan of both Nye and Tyson, but they’re both human, and so will occasionally have incorrect views.  I’ve noted before that when a scientist (or in Nye’s case, an engineer) starts giving their opinions on things, it pays to remember that when they’re speaking on subjects outside of their field, they’re basically just well educated lay people.

But thinking about this recent couple of kerfuffles reminds me of the many cases where scientists, or other experts, do put forth ideas, often in a much more serious manner than the offhand remarks here from Nye or Tyson.   This led me to ponder the hierarchy I use for evaluating such claims.  This is admittedly my own personal views as a skeptic, but I’ve found it to be a pretty reliable guide to evaluating claims.

  1. When an expert is discussing the consensus in their field, we should pay attention and heed what they say.  They’re most likely right.
  2. When an expert is putting forth a radical new theory in their field, they might be right, but they could also be wrong.  Indeed, the history of radical new theories is that most eventually turn out to be wrong.  Still, the chance of them being right is high enough to warrant listening to them.  (It helps to get information from multiple experts in these cases.)
  3. If, several years ago, an expert put forth a radical new theory that the majority of experts in their field have reviewed and rejected, but the expert continues to push it, they’re not only most likely wrong, they may be a quack.
  4. When an expert is describing the consensus in other fields, unless there are issues with their research or honesty, there’s no particular reason to think they’re wrong.
  5. When an expert is putting forth a radical new theory in another field that they are not an expert in, while it’s conceivable that they might be right, the probability is so low that it’s usually safe to assume they’re wrong.
  6. If, several years ago, an expert put forth a radical new theory in a field that they are not an expert in, which the majority of experts in that field don’t take seriously, but the expert continues to push it, they’re virtually certain to be wrong, and may well be a quack.

Are there examples that violate this hierarchy?  I don’t doubt it, although frankly, I’m hard pressed to come up with one.  Most of the examples that people reach for are typically in the early history of science (Galileo) or experts in the relevant field (Einstein).  Still, the history of science is vast and I’m sure there are examples.

But when someone with scientific or other credentials is in front of us espousing their views, it pays to remember that, except in cases 1 and 4, the statistics are against them.

Unless I’m missing something?  Are there any prominent counter-examples I’m overlooking?

The odd animosity toward ebooks

Someone called my attention to an Aeon article by Craig Mod describing his abandonment of digital books, returning to the traditional paper variety.

From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.

I found this opening odd.  Mod took up digital readings because of a “duty”?  This, to me, is the wrong reason right from the outset.  It makes sense to read things digitally, instead of via paperback or hardback, not because you’re supposed to do it, but because it’s more comfortable, convenient, or pragmatic, not because you feel any obligation to.

Anyway, after describing the way the Kindle enhanced his reading experience, he discusses how things changed for him.

But in the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books.

…As a consumer of digital books I feel delighted, but as a reader, I feel crestfallen. All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts).

…Take for example the multistep process of opening a well-made physical edition….The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

Contrast this with opening a Kindle book – there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. Wherein every step of opening The Conference of the Birds fills one with delight – delight at what one is seeing and what one anticipates to come – opening a Kindle book frustrates. Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything.

I can sort of see where Mod is coming from.  For decades, I often enjoyed the experience of opening and holding physical books, particularly ones that were well made.  Except that most of the physical books I actually read were trade paperbacks, where the experience was decidedly more pedestrian.  And, at least to me, all of that pales in comparison with the ease and convenience of digital reading.

Back in 2009, I started with the Kindle 2, and after a year or two of tentative experimentation, pretty much switched wholesale to reading electronically.  These days, most of my book reading is via the free Kindle app, which I use on an iPad when at home, or from my iPhone when out and about.  Sometimes, I use the Kindle cloud reader to read from a laptop or desktop computer.

What makes this super convenient is that my position in any book that I’m reading stays synchronized across all of these devices.  And, as Mod described, acquiring a book I’m interested in can now be done in seconds.  (Although I’ve found that it definitely pays to read the almost universally available preview chapters prior to actually shelling out money.)

It’s also extremely convenient to be able to look up the definition of any unfamiliar word or phrase, or to google details on a concept I come across in reading.  And if I’m looking for a particular passage in a book, full text searches save enormous time over the old and often incomplete indexes that were only occasionally available in nonfiction books, and never in fictional ones.

I’ve reached the point where virtually all of my reading is done digitally.  The only time it isn’t is when I want to read something that, for one reason or another, isn’t available electronically, then I might begrudgingly order a physical copy.  The idea of going back to physical books is, for me, like returning to reading scrolls.

Aside from personal convenience, digital publishing has largely created a new industry of indie published books.  Yes, a lot of what’s being put out there is junk, but a lot of it is competent well written stuff, and some of it is brilliant.  Just this week, I read three ebooks on writing, books that probably wouldn’t have existed without the Kindle platform, or if they did, would have been extremely difficult to find.

There are still plenty of people who thumb their noses at indie books, but then people used to thumb their noses at the 19th century penny dreadful novels and 20th century pulp magazines.  There was always a lot of dreck in the old pulps, but a lot of classics emerged from them.  And many genres today, such as fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, and hard boiled detective stories, largely developed in the pulps, with major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, and many others developing their craft in them.

Over the decades, these old magazines have largely disappeared, a victim of shifting markets as the proportion of the reading population declined, largely due to the rise of competing forms of entertainment such as television, video games, home video, cable channels, and the internet.  As the economics caused the outlets for published works to shrink and consolidate to a few large publishing houses, it became increasingly difficult for aspiring writers to get published.  Indeed, a few short years ago, getting published was about as likely as breaking into show business, requiring not only talent but also an enormous amount of luck.

Digital publishing has resurrected the pulp layer of writing, one that I think is much needed for a healthy publishing ecosystem.  Authors now have a new proving ground similar to the old magazines and penny dreadfuls, readers have access to a lot more writing, including more experimental works, and traditional large scale publishers can now assess a prospective author’s selling potential by looking at their actual sales history as an indie author.

There’s been a lot of press this year about ebook sales being in decline.  What that press appears to be missing is that it’s not ebook sales in general that are in decline, it’s the ebook sales of traditional publishers.  Given the high prices that traditional publishers want for their books, this shouldn’t be too surprising.  A lot of ebook readers are switching to lower cost indie books, which typically sell for under $5.

And publishing snobs should remember that the current hit novel and movie, ‘The Martian’, started as a self published book.  As did ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and many other hits from the last few years.  You might regard these books as hopelessly low grade entertainment, but I’d argue they’re no lower grade than a lot of stuff that got published traditionally.

All of which is to say, that I hope digital publishing and reading are here to stay.  For me, returning to the world of only paper books, with a handful of large publishing houses acting as the gatekeepers to what gets published, is a bleak and depressing proposition.

Yes, the new paradigm isn’t problem free.  I do occasionally worry about what happens to my book collection  (or increasingly my video collection) if Amazon tanks, and I wish they and other online retailers did a better job policing their customer ratings.   (A depressing number of the ratings are obviously purchased.  Amazon is making some highly publicized attempts to combat it, but it’s not clear how well it’s working.  Again though, previews are your friend.)

But to me, the solution to problems with the new paradigm is to find ways to improve it, not to retreat to forms we find comforting only because they are centuries old.  If our ancestors had done that, we’d still be reading clay tablets.

On ad blocking

Nilay Patel has a piece at the Verge on the availability of ad blocking plugins for the web browser in the new version of iOS.  She has an interesting theory of what motivated Apple to allow ad blocking, that it was essentially to attack Google’s revenue model.  But the overall piece seems to take the attitude that ad blocking will be the death of the web.

I currently run ad blocking on my desktop and laptop computers, and I plan to run it on my iPad and iPhone when it’s available there.  I don’t run ad blocking because I’m ideologically opposed to seeing ads.  On the contrary, I actually resisted doing it for a long time.  As a consumer of web content, I’m fully aware that a lot of it is expensive to either produce or host.  I have no trouble with web sites finding ways to make money, particularly when it allows me to read their stuff for free.  If I enjoy their content, seeing ads seems like a reasonable exchange.

The problem is that too many sites allow the ad producers to run rampant.  While I don’t mind seeing ads, I despise having them pop up randomly, hogging the display for a predetermined amount of time before I can move past them, taking up a large chunk of the screen real estate including sticking around as I scroll, autoplaying videos, and other invasive techniques.

None of these things make it any more likely that I’m going to buy the advertiser’s products or services.  What they do is piss me off at the advertising company and make the host site far less appealing.

While I know not all advertisers do these things, enough do that I finally felt it necessary to block ads.  I do periodically check and whitelist sites whose ads aren’t obnoxious.  For example, I have no problem with Google’s targeted text ads, as long as they’re marked appropriately.  And I firmly believe in rewarding a site that keeps its advertisers under control.

I suspect my attitudes on this aren’t that unusual.  For years, we all read magazines where half the pages were advertisements.  We usually passed over the ads unless one of them caught our eye, generally because they were advertising a product or service we might find interesting.  This paradigm worked for both readers and advertisers.  When it’s carried over to the web, I think it still works.  Until advertisers get greedy, and push people into blocking them.

So, will ad blocking destroy the web?  I don’t know.  It might make a lot of commercial sites economically untenable.  But it didn’t have to be so.  It still doesn’t have to be so.  If advertisers enforced some kind of reasonable standard that kept a lid on their invasiveness, and that standard was done in such a way that ad blocking packages could provide an option for users to whitelist those who adhered to it, it might be a win for everyone.

(There’d have to be a mechanism for reporting cheaters.  And, of course, some people are ideologically opposed to seeing ads, the economics be damned, but I’m not sure just how much of the population they make up.)

What I’m pretty sure won’t work is blaming ad blocking readers, as some sites occasionally do.  A better approach might be to appeal to them to try whitelisting their site, with a promise that they’ll keep advertisements under control.

Sex laws over the millenia

SexAndPunishmentCoverLast week I listened to an episode of Fresh Air on NPR, where Terry Gross interviewed Eric Berkowitz on his new book, ‘The Boundaries of Desire‘, about sex laws over the last century.  But what interested me more in the interview was the brief introductory discussion of sex laws in ancient societies, which led me to read the first half of Berkowitz’s earlier book, ‘Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire‘.

Berkowitz starts off looking at laws in bronze age societies such as Egypt, Assyria, the Hittite empire, and various Mesopotamian city states.  The first thing that struck me were that early sex laws were written completely with the interests of the husband in mind.  Women, even freeborn nobility, were basically property.  The wife was the husband’s vessel to produce his heirs, and daughters were assets to be sold through dowries.

The adultery laws seem designed to help men ensure paternity of any babies born to their wives.  Wives were forbidden from having sex with anyone other than their husbands, and the penalties for doing so were severe, often involving disfigurement, death, or demotion to a household slave.

Often, even if the wife were raped, she was blamed for allowing it to happen, and endured many of the penalties.  Some of the laws did make a distinction between women raped “on the road” versus being raped in their own household.  On the road was considered more outside of the women’s control, but if it happened in her household, she was often assumed to be complicit.

Husbands had much more freedom.  Aside from the fact that they could often have multiple wives, there was nothing prohibiting them from having sex with other women, as long as the woman wasn’t some other freeborn man’s wife, daughter, or slave.  Husbands were free to have sex with any slave they owned, with prostitutes, or anyone that wasn’t already attached to another man.  Regarding men, rape or adultery was handled as a type of theft, rather than an act of violence or treachery.  The idea of a husband raping a wife, no matter how violent, would have been an incomprehensible concept.

Bronze age societies didn’t seem to care much about any type of sex that didn’t threaten paternity problems.  Homosexual sex appears to have been largely ignored.  Bestiality might be a problem, depending on the species.  (For example, relations with a goat in Egyptian society was considered divine devotion, but in Hittite society, relations with cows, dogs, and sheep incurred the death penalty.)

On the homosexual front, things started to become a bit more restricted as we get to iron age societies like classical Greece or Rome, where the role of the male became important.  There was no issue with a male that took the active role in same sex relations, but anyone taking the passive role risked losing status.  As a result, the passive role was reserved for slaves, prostitutes, and other low status individuals.  Greek societies did have the concept of pederasty, of an erotic relationship between an older and younger male, but it was controversial and the Romans rejected it.

The oddballs in the ancient world were the Hebrews.  Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows their attitudes toward sex.  If it didn’t lead to procreation, it was evil.  Penalties were harsh.  Berkowitz speculates that the Hebrew attitudes might have been formed in a context of a low population people feeling besieged by enemies on all sides, with a desire to channel sexual energy as much as possible into procreation.

Whatever the reason, the Hebrew attitude largely formed the later Christian attitude, that of all sex being dirty and disgusting.  Reading about the stark differences between early Roman permissiveness on sexual matters and the much more restricted Christian ones, I’ve wondered how Christianity managed to succeed with those restrictions.

I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Christianity started largely in the lower strata of society.  Thinking about ancient sex laws, a lot of the ancient permissiveness toward sex disproportionately benefited upper class males.  Women, slaves, and lower class individuals were probably much more often the victims in these relationships.  For them, the strictures involved in the new faith might have been more perceived as additional protection rather than curtailment of freedoms.  In any case, women’s sex lives were heavily restricted both before and after the transition.

However it happened, Christianity radically changed societal attitudes toward sex.  Sex in all forms was bad, but since it was inevitable, it needed to channeled in marriage and even then, only done for procreation.  Married couples were heavily restricted in the types of sex they could have and when they could have it.  (For example, it was forbidden on certain days of the week and on the numerous holy days.)

In the early centuries, aside from a few periods of persecution, failure to follow these strictures was a personal failing, a matter between the sinner and God, with the penalty being various religious penances as prescribed in religious penitentials.  (Although the penances could be severe, such as having to live on bread and water for 15 years.)  But after about 1000 AD, spurred by fears from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, sexual deviancy, sodomy, became a public policy issue.  Penalties for having the wrong kind of sex became severe, often involving death by fire, castration, or many other gruesome alternatives.

Paradoxically, during this period, brothels were common, often actually run by the churches or local municipalities.  The idea was that they were necessary to prevent worse sin.  Of course, women continued to be heavily restricted.  The brothels were for men.  With the Protestant Reformation, brothels came under attack.  Official brothels run by churches or towns disappeared, with Catholics and Protestants seeming to be in competition for who could be more restrictive.

I’ve written before about the importance of the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  It probably accelerated the Renaissance and provided the mechanism for both the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.  Given the history of the internet, this makes sense, but one thing I had never thought much about, was that printing also enabled mass publication of obscenity and pornography.  What had previously only been available in isolated paintings and hand written manuscripts could now be widely published.  The churches reacted with restrictions and bans, and the long societal tension over this kind of entertainment began.

At this point, my reading of Berkowitz became a bit selective.  In this book, he covers the modern period up the beginning of the 20th century, but I had started reading to learn about ancient attitudes toward sex and wasn’t too interested in the modern period, already having a pretty good idea of what those attitudes were.

One later section I did read discussed the cultural clashes that took place as westerners colonized the world, encountering cultures whose attitudes toward sex were close to those old bronze age societies.  Of course, by this time, westerners were wholly conditioned to regard anything outside of prescribed boundaries to be not only disgusting, but dangerous, potentially bringing God’s wrath down on everyone.  The results were attempts to stamp out unapproved sexuality in native peoples, often with severe harshness.

Reading about all of this, I was reminded of two important historical facts.  The first is how much culture shapes our perceptions.  If an European from 500 BC somehow met one from 1500 AD, they would have found each other’s attitudes toward sex either disgusting or incomprehensible.

The second is how much laws reflect the interests of those with power.  Until very recently, sex laws were crafted by men, largely to the benefit of men.  Those who sometimes bemoan the state of modern society or get frustrated with the complexities of democracy and universal suffrage, should remember that the past was often far worse.