My drive for synthesis reaches new heights

Friends say I am good at synthesizing disparate elements. I am better at that than at analyzing, but before synthesizing must come analysis. At times, my synthesizing reaches bizarre levels of effort. Earlier I posted on three books I am reading: The Slave Trade, The Case Against Sugar, and The Wise Men. I added Hidden Figures and Language and National Identify in Greece, 1766-1976. Believe it or not, I think I’ve found a way to link them.
First I will give the theme of each book and then I will suss out the feature of the book with which I find correspondences in the other books.
The Slave Trade deals with the precursors to and eventual flourishing and end of the Atlantic slave trade.
The Case Against Sugar deals with the introduction of sugar into our diets – the diets of various countries – and the promotion of sugar as a dietary necessity along with the effects of sugar on us.
The Wise Men treats of the six men who were instrumental in constructing a world order out of the chaos of WW II and the emerging hegemony of the U.S. as it battled the Soviet Union.
Hidden Figures tells the up-close story of several women who entered the production research teams at Langley in Virginia just before WW II and the subsequent breath-taking expansion of not just production but of technology which led eventually to putting a man on the moon. The book concentrates on the lives and careers of several Black women and the Civil Rights movement parallels their struggles.
Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976 charts the course of the development of Greek identity via its religion, nationality, and heritage but mostly its language. A battle arose over the line drawn between the spoken, colloquial language spoken by Greeks and an artificial language knocked together from a hodge-podge of poorly understood earlier forms supposedly more reflective of the language of the classical period. Issues of ethnic and national identity intrude as we watch Greek self-awareness grow and get linked to language.

That gives you an idea of what they cover. What I found intriguing was the way all these books detailed the growth, expansion, and replication of the institutions without which domination cannot occur. The term command and control pops into my mind. How did people command the resources necessary to supply slave labor to the New World, enabling the vast domination of the world by Europe? How did people command the research, the media, and the markets to make sugar a dominant force in our diets in spite of early warnings of its pernicious effects? How did these six men rise from the worlds of U.S. banking, business, diplomacy and academia to shape the sliding, shifting forces driving the rebuilding effort after WW II? What combination of factors dragged aeronautical engineering into the highest technological achievements within a few years and went on to link up with computers to give us the Final Frontier? And how did Manolis Triantafyllides and other Greek activists, artists, writers, poets and scholars pull a language freighted with history into the 20th century, cultivating it to the point that even in the diaspora, Greeks held high the lamp of language as they did in classical times?

A superficial glance at these books’ themes might suggest the following links:
The slave trade brought sugar to the table, sugar enriched Europe and led to rivalries and imperialism that exploded in two world wars in Europe that broke up the alliances and agreements that allowed trade to flourish and the six men cobbled together a more stable world order promoting trade and maintaining that order as two great powers tried to assert their hegemony, while the aeronautics and space programs of both those powers set up part of the technological command and control allowing all this to function on an international scale. And Greece offers a microcosm of the forces operating in each region and country to pull everything apart and reconstitute the parts into a whole that can be controlled. As Greece offers a microcosm on the world stage, language offers a microcosm of the many issues confronting any attempt to establish order. The Greek language issue is obviously an appendage, but that’s not the weakest part of this forced, contrived, labored strained interaction. (Forced analogy is a very useful and fun-filled method of generating ideas. The idea is to compare the problem with something else that has little or nothing in common and gaining new insights as a result. This technique’s name is new to me but I’ve always done this automatically in my thinking; I just didn’t know it had a name) It is all superficial. No causal features of civilization that would make the slave trade enrich Europe, nothing about sugar that could not be replicated by another substance, no reason the six American players needed to build an international order rather than reinforce American dominance, and nothing inevitable about the technology of the space race that would lead to its application to world-wide control. Greece and its language could have sunk into the linguistic oblivion suffered by so many marginal peoples and their languages. What was it that I sensed lay at bottom of these disparate phenomena?
Something else nagged at me.
It was, as one would expect, pretty basic: organization. We might want to say that sugar tastes good and that is why it is popular but many cuisines do without it to a large extent. The rush to develop faster, safer, more maneuverable fighters was dictated by a need, but Germany and Japan had greater need but could not combat the myriad dots in the sky that appeared over their countries. The Europeans in the New World exploited Native Americans for labor but needed far more and other Europeans learned quickly to avoid the fields and mines of The Americas. In order to meet the labor needs – and this is attested in reports, letters, books, and sermons of the period – some way had to be found to pull workers from elsewhere. The diplomats of the post-war world had pooled their resources before, after WW I, to no avail. What was it about this time, post-WW II, that brought order to chaos when such had not happened before, at the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars, at Versailles after WW I? Perhaps we can argue that those agreements did bring about a long period of peace by saying that the peace between WW I and WW II was just a break in the fighting. Vienna and other peace treaties are not my forte, so I go by what I read about the world order created after WW II and it seems to have lasted……. up until now. The deepest prejudice is about language, that it somehow inheres in a people and is a kind of natural order, like two parent families. The reality is entirely different and this skewed perception about how language communities come about is due to 19th century nationalistic theories of blood and soil.
All of us, growing up, had an Uncle Harry who would hold forth on world issues and assure us the Poles would always be this and the Catholic Church would never do that and so on. A lot of it was nonsense b/c Uncle Harry didn’t read much, wasn’t well educated, but was full of prejudices. As we looked at the world around us, we began to realize that some people in high places seemed to think like Uncle harry and that blindered thinking is not unusual. We learned to combat what we called prejudice, to object to lumping people into groups defined by generalizations and false equivalencies, to point out the limits of arm chair anthropologizing, and so on. As the decades wore on, we felt we had turned the corner and could feel comfortable that our policies would be guided by informed and clear-headed thinking.
Then Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations? (the question mark is part of the title)
As juicy as a thick steak of premium quality, the grand, sweeping comparison of civilizations attracts everybody’s attention, from cab driver to all-encompassing theorist. Kipling enshrined it in his “never the twain shall meet” poem addressing the clash between the the ancient civilization of India and the upstart British Empire. Indicative of the world view promulgated in the West during the 19th century is the fact that these lines, immediately contradicted in the next two, are all that is ever quoted from the poem.

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Clearly, Kipling was uniting the human race, not dividing it. The need for an Other dominates politics. Politicians find willing subjects who will follow them if only they can define an Other to protect us from, to unite us against, to define us against. “We are us, not them!” Scapegoats, suspects, foreigners, strangers, dirty smelly immigrants, infidels, all are grist for the politician’s mill. This plague has roots too deep to explore here, it’s above my pay-grade. We can, however, identify the weaknesses of the argument against the Other, we can note the introduction of an Other as an indicator of weakness on the part of him who advances such an argument.

As anyone reading my blog knows, I found Francis Fukuyama’s The Origin of Political Order and the follow-up, Political Order and Political Decay, a wonderful guide to the evolution of order in societies. It inspired me to pull my old anthro books off my shelf and delve into them one after the other. However, Fukuyama was a protégé of Samuel P. Huntington and for that reason, I just read the seminal article by Huntington, The Clash of Civilization? in Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1993. I found in it all the weaknesses of grand theories, the contradictions and inconsistencies, the failure to set features of civilizations in context, a failure to see civilizations as systems, in a word, a clash ending in chaos. I hope I can unravel all of this and show what we must do to produce a coherent but dynamic view of how societies develop and interact. Tall order.

Huntington declares that visions of the next unfolding of the world order will not be the end of history – the title of one of his student’s, Fukuyama’s, books – or a return to nation state rivalries but conflicts based on culture embodied in civilizations. Nations grew out of institutional processes like the military, the bureaucracy, mercantilism, and so forth, but he does not address the origin of these institutions and it is my contention that we must look at such origins to grasp the complexity of elements in any evolutionary process.

The twentieth century saw the conflicts in the world rise along ideological lines whose great wars produced the outcome with the bipolar world and now just the U.S. as Russia struggles to reassert itself. And it is this apparent stasis he says will break up along cultural lines, with each culture ensconced in a civilization. Economics and nationalism will no longer be in the driver’s seat for global conflict but rather these large units labeled civilizations. For the individual, this comes down to individual identity. What civilization do I belong to, do I identify with – note this is my formulation, Huntington does not address this at an individual level. If one’s civilization confers identity, we should then be able to retrofit this and see how the current clash – ideological – forms the identities of individuals and how the earlier nationalism formed the individual’s identity.

But what should pop up right away is the observation that most people don’t go around thinking of themselves as Muslim, French, Communist, middle-class, etc. As Chris Matthews fondly quotes Tip O’Neill, all politics is local. Huntington was responding to Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which Fukuyama sees the triumph of liberal democracy over all other contenders. Huntington says, no, these cultural clashes will drive the world order now.

Huntington defines a civilization this way: “…. a cultural entity. Villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups….” As these combine and recombine at various levels regionally, we are yet left with a distinction between the largest units. Even though a northern Italian village can be distinguished from a southern Italian village, and both of those can be distinguished from German villages, we eventually reach the macro level where Chinese and European and Arab entities, civilizations, can find no higher level. These are the units he is talking about, where the fault lines will occur. They are the broadest unit of cultural identity available to humans. But then Huntington goes on the refine this using ‘common objective elements’ like religion, language, history, customs, institutions, and by subjective self-identification. Circumstantially, he says people do redefine their identity and thus boundaries and composition change. Pay close attention to this b/c this is where the slippage in his argument appears. Just who am I? And am I even aware of who I am? And do I have any choice in the matter? Those are my questions.

He does a preemptive clarification on p. 24 where he declares that despite variations within civilizations, they are nonetheless meaningful entities whose demarcating lines may not be sharp but they are real. The ‘nonetheless’ say a lot. Huntington does commit to listing several of these civilizations: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African. This is no doubt fun, a kind of parlor game, but what do these civilizations look like on the ground? The last one, qualified as it is by possibly, falls apart quickly. The U.S., continental variety, fits inside African 3 times, so that’s a pretty large area to contain only one civilization. But, given Africa’s marginal role on the world stage, we should give the idea a look. Huntington must be aware of the old term ‘culture area’, and anthropologists long ago devised a map of culture areas of Africa. Looking at the characteristics of these area, you begin to realize the difficulty of deciding whether these areas together could form a macroarea, a civilization, or do not share enough to do so. Or….. could it be that these culture areas belong to other culture areas so that one area links to another outside the continent and another to another, etc. We might want to link the Sahel to North Africa or the East Coast to the Indian Ocean culture area. As we get into the details, which is just my point in this entire essay – that reading books like these five plunge into the details – we see that the cultures of Africa have been shifting and separating and coalescing the whole time. A Hausa in northern Nigeria surely sees himself as belonging to an entity distinct from that of an Ibo in southeastern Nigeria; whether that identity is based on religion, region, language, or political affiliation would have to be worked out on the basis of intimate knowledge of the people in the region. At no time before 1400 did an African living on the West Coast think of himself as part of the North Atlantic world or culture area, but after that he sure did. He was a major feature of life in the North Atlantic culture area, even though an Irishman also in that culture area would not think of the two of them as having much in common.

And when we look at the features Huntington lists, like religion, we have to ask ourselves if a Christian in Zimbabwe has much in common with a Christian in Norway. So then just what defines the Norwegian as Western and the Wescosman as African? I’m waiting.

Fukuyama stresses organizational competence and integrity as the mechanics of successful societies. He also emphasizes the soft element of dignity, to which we will return. But an example that always struck me as so powerful came to me reading about the battle of Balaclava. The British cavalry in their red coats were observed to attack a mass of Russian cavalry in green. This tiny squadron of red coats dived directly into the Russian mass. The observer gasped as the red was almost swallowed by the green. But the green mass began to heave and buckle and shift and rupture until eventually it blew up and the Russians flew off in every direction, totally disintegrated and the British squadron wheeled off, job done. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the British didn’t even suffer any casualties. What it was, of course, was the organizational integrity of the British against the amorphous, leaderless mass of Russians. It would be interesting to read the military cavalry manuals of the time for each nation’s army, available in the archives of their respective military academies, no doubt, to see what was emphasized. This superior organization permitted British advances in the face of much more numerous foes.

Before finding this organizational competence in the other cases, let’s look at examples of powerful forces with little organizational integrity or competence. The Mongols come to mind, slashing out of the steppes and founding empires that lasted about five minutes. The Aztecs controlled millions and sat down and cried when confronted with a handful of conquistadores for hard-scrabble Spain. What they have in common is the basis of their social organization: never maturing out of a clan-based system, they could only add on conquered peoples, not absorb or assimilate them. Adjunct social units, like adjunct faculty, do not adhere well to the body politic. In the case of the Mongols, there was no interest in running an empire, they just wanted to exploit and go home. And they did, leaving the detritus of their invasions to deal with but also some opportunities on which great empires were built, in China, India, and elsewhere.They just weren’t a part of it. My point here is that just to be an irresistible force doesn’t imply staying power, like the traveling salesman who slices through the town’s ladies but never finds a wife. Fukuyama spends some time on showing how tribes can expand and contract to meet needs but do not found stable and large social units.

Huntington gives us a list of relationships that are framed differently among various cultures: relations between man and god, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife plus the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. Those must be explored and I can show that within my own civilization, I differ from my cocivilizationists (?) as much as I do from those of other civilizations. However, when he lists how civilizations are differentiated, the list is poverty-stricken: history, language, culture, tradition, and religion (the most important to Huntington). To me, history, tradition, and culture are almost interchangeable; language is irrelevant, i.e. Arabic could carry any of these civilizations. So we are left with religion. But religion itself is a distillation of history, culture and tradition, so how do we pry religion away from culture?

Without more attention to the crucial issue of what makes up a civilization, Huntington decides a smaller world makes for exacerbation of differences but leaves out the possibility that this phenomenon might lead to less friction.

4/8/17 Somehow he states that the most prolonged and violent conflicts have as their basis in civilizational conflicts. The only thing that recalls to me is a statement by Karen Armstrong I heard in a lecture of hers where she stated that the most violent conflicts take place where there is a sense of loss if identity. This is being referred to currently as an existential crisis and is applied even to rural, working-class Whites in the U.S. How we measure this is unknown to me. Nevertheless, it is worth considering, esp in terms of how it links up to Huntington’s thesis. Where Huntington talks about the relationships in a society and how they differ (on what axes?) from those relationships in other societies stems from culture, in my understanding. So how do we address these, as differences in relationships or differences in culture overall? If the former, then we are examining the workings of each society; if the latter, then we are doing broad, overarching comparisons replete with gross generalizations and I can’t see how that leads to anything useful.

As do many people, Huntington likes to say that our identities get subsumed within larger identities, e.g. an Owerri Ibo and a Onitsha Ibo become just Ibos when they move to Lagos. Does that relieve them of their respective identities? To themselves? To others? To others who don’t know the difference it may, but I’ll give a funny example. I was reading in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish about the rivalry between Galitzianer Polish Jews and Litvak Polish Jews. As usual, Rosten illustrated this with a joke that I thought was very funny. A lady I worked with was Jewish from back East and spoke Yiddish, so I brought the subject up with her, thinking to expose the petty prejudices of people and so on. Instead, at the mention of Litvak, she went nuts, spewing out all of the ridiculous stereotypes that were part of the joke. SHE certainly had no trouble maintaining the distinction. So in whose mind do these distinction remain and in whose mind do they count? It appears to depend on how much you know, whether or not that knowledge is accurate. According to Huntington, animosities between civilizations are raised to consciousness by interactions and self-awareness and identification with a particular civilization is heightened by such interactions. So the African immigrant who comes from an Ibo-speaking community in Nigeria has his awareness of the civilizational differences between him and a person of Chinese heritage also living and working in Houston. That begins to lose me.

Deracination, secularization, and alienation supposedly lead to the Ibo or Chinese identity being subsumed into something large and religion steps in to provide that identity as shown by the growth in fundamentalist religious groups which provide a basis for identity and commitment. But the Chinese guy and the Ibo guy may both find a home in a Christian megachurch unconnected to African or Asian culture. Now what?

Huntington notes that elites are divesting themselves of Western culture as the masses embrace American pop culture. However, an Azeri cannot become Armenians nor Russians Estonians (Azeris are Muslim Turks and Armenians are Christians but I’m not sure what his point is).The question, says Huntington, becomes not “What side are you on” but “Who are you?” i.e. ideology vs identity, ethnic identity or religious identity. But why are these not simply local divisions fed by economic and demographic dislocation? That agitators use “ancient battle cries” to rally the troops doesn’t mean that those ancient battle cries meant anything to anyone until “reminded” of it via propaganda. And those cries can be relabeled: Confederate soldiers were not emitting the rebel yell in the name of White Supremacy but in the name of hearth and home, not even states’ right; it was in the 1950s post-Brown v Board of Education that the rebel yell came repackaged as the war cry of unavenged and unemployed White Southern youth.

Citing Japan as a nation whose culture is so unique [just plain ‘unique’ will do] that no regional economic cooperation is possible is just nonsense. Rigid certainly describes Japanese culture but rigidity can be loosened up. It’s the same problem in thinking we saw in Tucker Carlson when he declared just before the 2016 election that with Texas demographics exploding with Hispanics, there will be no point in holding elections – the state will inevitably turn blue. As if nothing will transpire in the Hispanic population of Texas to cause some to turn to the GOP. All those taco trunks on every corner might be driven by entrepreneurial Mexicans ripe for GOP pickings.

4/9/17 The shift from ideologically defined states of Eastern Europe to ones based on ethnicity, language, religion, etc. has occurred, according to Huntington. But I would ask if these states were not based originally on just those factors that Huntington cites as coming to the fore now. If divisions between Catholics and Orthodox can be glossed over for a moment, don’t the many nations of Eastern Europe, incl. those of the Balkans, have a history of constantly shifting demographics of culture, religion, language, ethnicity, etc.? Just survey for a moment Czechoslovakia, once Bohemia and Moravia, nest of heretical religious movements, and Slovakia, and then think about Ukraine, Moldava, Poland, Russia, and Latvia or Lithuania….. are you on uncertain ground yet? I mentioned Moldava in a post to a listserv recently in a joking way, as if no one would really know what geographic entity I was referring to, when a member posted me back, delighted that I had mentioned Moldova, her grandmother’s homeland. These areas are so overlapping that I read that in Macedonia and similar places in the Balkans, you are safe on one side of the road and vulnerable to attack on the other, the defended neighborhoods are so tightly defined even in rural areas. In Greece, whole villages removed themselves to the cities, carrying with them the structure and baggage of the home place, making them ideal recruits for politicians who know how to play the ethnic card.

But is playing the ethnic card the same thing as the world now shifting to ethno-religious identification? Looking at the White Nationalism Trump dragged into the White House, we might see trends, but I just don’t see the powerful currents Huntington invokes. By stressing economic cooperation, we can sidestep ethnic identity and religious identity. Misha Glenny, in his The Fall of Yugoslavia, strenuously objects to the “war cries from ancient battle fields” characterization of the conflict, citing decades of coexistence upended by economic dislocation. It’s worth reading his argument b/c he so angrily snorts at those who would throw blanket characterizations of the ethno-nationalist sort over whole peoples and whole eras. Why were there no rebellions under Ottoman rule based on, say, Turks vs Arabs, or Christian vs Muslims; we have only the powerful narratives of the rebels, but just how many malcontents did they represent? Most people settled in under labels so strange to us: if you spoke Greek, it meant you were a merchant and if you were a merchant, it meant you spoke Greek, whether you actually spoke Greek or not. If you spoke Vlach, you were a shepherd and if you were a shepherd, you spoke Vlach. And so on. Poorly matching but a guide to the stratifications of a settled society where people tended to know where they stood. Keep that phrase in mind: know where you stand. I think it is a key to a lot of this.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 occasioned a strong reaction, but Kuwait had been an Iraqi province in the recent past. Just how did it break away? Is it possible people of Mexican heritage will turn out in California for a Calexit, claiming an irredentism motive? Again, taco trucks on every corner.

Huntington notes the growing anti-immigrant fever in Europe which has certainly continued to rise until we are confronted almost a quarter century after the article was written with forecasts of the collapse of the liberal-democratic order in Europe. At the moment of this writing, we are in day 79 of the Trump administration, a totally unexpected turn of events. While some of Trump’s victory has been attributed to ethno-religious forces, the more hard-headed view is one of economic populism, which is always fueled at the edges by ethno-religious and hypernationalistic fervor. So we might look at events in Europe: non-immigrant Europeans, pressed by automation and economic austerity, find a scapegoat, immigrants, which forces them to put sharp edges on their identification as non-immigrants. The immigrants react by filing their sharp edges, often ethno-religious identities, to circle the wagons b/c they have no intention of going back to countries they fled with good reason. Any such upheaval brings demand for order, which precludes broad social experimentation, and the government pulls in its horns, hoping everything just stays quiet. Any demagogue with good sense will paint dramatic pictures of great tides at work sweeping all before them to get people on board with their program, but level heads should continue to stabilize job markets and invest in education. Frank Rich’s No Sympathy For the Hillbilly was not a bridge too far but too short. We educated liberals sympathize with his frustration that our government has been taken over by rootless know-nothings, but dumping on the victims of Trump’s lies doesn’t elevate the discussion. Yet after 25 years, Huntington’s picture of conflict between Japan and the U.S. as more difficult to manage than those with Europe due to Japan’s cultural distance from us has little resonance now.

Disentangling the strands of geography, history, culture, religion and ethnicity should start with a origins: geographical, historical. The Muslim armies approached India from the northwest, therefore, the subcontinent is heavily Muslim in the north and not in the south. That has nothing to do with culture or even religion, it’s just where they came first due to the geography of the region. Where have we seen an invading force leap frog over a population to find a landing place deeper in-country? That’s why coastal areas are always more diverse and tuned into the world, that’s where the ships from other countries go. Trying to step over these basic facts in search of more esoteric causes like culture and religion does not work as far as I can see. For the most part, Muslims around the world had little contact or knowledge of Bosnian Muslims until a new world order of Islamists invoked brotherhood to get volunteers to go help the Bosnians. That was an epiphenomenon, not some world-wide, deep connection among Muslims. It was not a kin-rally but a call to action artificially conceived and acted on. To see some looming jihadi tidal wave coming at non-Muslims and non-compliant Muslims is to vastly overrate the claim of brotherhood on Muslims. I laughed when I read Huntington suggesting Turkey was helping its “brethren” in Azerbaijan when I recall the blinding wealth of my little exchange student from Azerbaijan whose family owned the oil there —- owned the oil there. Yeah, and she spoke Russian in the home, not Azeri. But note how Huntington exploits the emotional overtones of the old plural “brethren” to evoke religious bonds. Was that accidental or done for effect? The support for Bosnian Muslims may have been more to provide a training ground for future mujahideen than to assist the Bosnians in their struggle.

Further on Huntington shows us the low level of violence within the Slavo-orthodox peoples and we should expect less violence within the religious strands? The Slavs haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain and the Iranians and Turks aren’t showing too much brotherhood although they do remain stable pillars in the Islamic Middle East. Are they supposed to fight because one is Turkish and the other Persian or cooperate b/c both are Muslim?

Sticking to his division of eras as based on ideology or nationalism or economics, Huntington says that a liberal democrat and a Soviet Marxist could have a debate b/c their goals are the same: freedom, equality and prosperity, but neither could talk with a Russian traditionalist. The traditionalist is an essentialist: certain attributes make a Russian and those never change; you’re either a Russian or you’re not and it is not a matter of modifying your behavior to adapt. In the face of this, Huntington advocates measures in dealing with “the Rest” (from The West and The Rest), some of which sound to me hostile or at least condescending. These are the very measures that made us lose our initial post-war standing. But The Rest will continue to try to reconcile their traditions and cultures with those of The West while still getting the goodies of The West. Economic and military superiority is a must for The West. He states though that The West must understand the religious and philosophical assumptions of The Rest.

Is this what we are stuck with? Earlier I stated that we must look at the origins of institutions to grasp the complexity of elements in any evolutionary process. Whether we look at cultures within a civilizational grouping as Huntington sees it or at entire civilizations, we can identify institutions and then understand them better by seeing where, how, when, and why they originated. For example, certain practices seemingly ancient in West African culture were elaborated in response to very early contacts with the West. What does that tell us about their adaptability and permanence? This offers a different choice from that of the essentialist who tells us that these practices, customs and mores make up what these people are….. and never the twain shall meet sort of thing. No doubt some patterns are very deep. One lady from Japan working here as an organist told me she stayed behind after her contracted playing time and listened to the sermon. “Oh my god, I had no idea how Shinto-Buddhist I was until I heard that!” That sort of experience can be enlightening but it doesn’t spell the end of assimilation or adaptation. Many studies have been done of why some groups successfully adapt to change while others, too rigid, fail to adapt. An out-of-work welder was quoted recently as saying he is a welder, that’s what he does, that’s all he does, and there’s no sense talking to him about work until a welding job comes along. That’s rigid. It did in a lot of the Plains Indians.

In order to work with people and advance those liberal-marxist goals of equality freedom and prosperity, we do need to recognize that a person embedded in a Buddhist culture may not make the same claims on life that someone raised in a competitive, entrepreneurial culture might. In Nigeria, the Ibos are very independent and entrepreneurial while the Yoruba are more hierarchical and authoritarian in their approach to organizing society, yet they are part of “African” civilization. Huntington’s formulation doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s look at how deep level organization moved forward certain enterprises and what all went into that.


Applying this to Hidden Figures is made easier by own familiarity with the world of the Black Middle Class of the 1950s and 60s. As a White working class kid without a strong religious background, I had little knowledge of Black religious life in my community (Phoenix, AZ). It was of great interest to me to see the gulf between the fervent evangelicalism of the Holiness churches I was being exposed to and the staid worship service of the AME church I went to with a friend, an African student, who had been invited. The student inviting him was Charlotte Flipper, a descendent of Henry Flipper, the first Black graduate of West Point. I had been studying West African religion and religions of the African Diaspora and so knew a little bit and my later acquaintance with Rev. Brooks of Southminster Presbyterian Church as a civil rights leader confirmed my grasp on the factor of class in the African-American community. Just a couple of days ago, I heard the figure of 4% as the quantity of Black churches involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Four percent! My wife and I knew it was low but not that low. But it fit with our own experiences. (As in exercise, see if you can figure out why working-class Black churches would be reluctant to participate in the movement).

In reading Hidden Figures, it therefore stood out to me that the computers, mathematicians, and engineers working at Langley were members and stalwart members of these middle class Black churches. If you know the meaning of “the talented tenth”, you see what I mean. These were the strivers – I think Malcolm X refers to a street called ‘strivers’ row’ in his early days – who got an education, took jobs with a future for a Black person in the segregated world of the 1930s and 40s and maintained highly structured lives. In the book, a few of the characters come from less rigorous backgrounds, but most had parents who, if domestics and laborers, insisted on good grades, church attendance, and keeping out of trouble. The latter caused some rifts among these people because getting involved in the Movement meant getting arrested, and getting arrested in the South was, for any Black person, a very risky affair. But for these Black Americans in the South, simply having an education and driving a decent car was provocation enough for the constant harassment and bullying by any White person and esp by the police, something we see continuing onto today. It was that willingness to persevere in the face of the demeaning restrictions we call second class citizenship that drove these heroes of this story to burnish their skills and their names so that one day, today, the country can recognize their contributions. That is the heart of what made them tick. If you listened to many others at the time, you would have heard a very different story of what African-Americans had to contribute.

The personal detail of these people’s lives portrayed in Hidden Figures allows the reader to construct a picture of the sort of people capable of striving in a field completely off limits to “girls” and to all Blacks: mathematician, scientist, engineer, computer. These were fields reserved for Whites. As recently as 1994, Charles Murray, an eminent scholar, suggested that Blacks should be treated differently in our society b/c there was no way they were going to be able to ride the shift to cognitive-based job skills. Murray would, of course, explain why John Glenn wanted “that girl” – meaning Katherine – to check the final figures for launch and if she OK’d them, he’d go, by simply saying she was an exception. Like Murray, Huntington will have to deal with a lot of exceptions to his characterizations of people in these various “civilizations.” Second class citizens often turn out to have first class attributes.


The Atlantic slave trade built on the ubiquitous slavery of the medieval world as far as the European-Middle Eastern-African connections are concerned. Eastern European slaves (the word ‘slave’ comes from the ethnonym “Slav” since so many slaves were of Slavic lands. In he same way, North African traders picked up slaves from their trips below the Sahara desert. The dividing line among slaves tended to be religion, many polities forbidding the enslavement of coreligionists. As Portugal moved down the coast of West Africa and founded trading empires, slaves did not dominate the trade but were a part of it. People of African descent were found throughout Europe in Roman times and thereafter, often as slaves but not always (a passage in the Germanic epic Parzival has knights in Scotland jousting for the hand of a lady “black but comely”, this around the early 13th century. Due to propinquity, Blacks were commonly found around the shores of the Mediterranean and for some reason African or Black slaves were often preferred. As Europeans began to deal directly with African kingdoms all the way down the coast, they were drawn into a trade in slaves, sometimes for no other reason than to round out the value of a transaction. Sometimes merchants possessing slaves in trade were not sure what to do with them.

Once Columbus sailed, that all changed. From the earliest days, the early 1500s, labor was in short supply in the Americas and a role for those African slaves was found. Quickly, colonists discovered African labor to be preferred and eventually absolutely required. The entire American enterprise might have foundered but for Black bodies. When we sweep away the veil of presentism and look coldly on the trade as an economic process, we can with profit examine the details that moved the largest migration in human history. It was never easy and the requirements of financing and technology were encumbered with religious scruples and legal questions. Slaves often had to be certified as taken and purchased according to the legal requirements of the country the ships sailed from and under whose princes the merchants operated. These were complex questions and even then, there were those who questioned the morality of the entire business. Here’s the kicker: that was true among Africans as well. An African ruler may have protected his own subjects but been willing to sell war captives. That led to wars initiated for the sole purpose of generating captives who could be enslaved and then eventually the whole charade was dropped and professional slave raids (razzas) took place. Seldom did Europeans participate in those.

In The Slave Trade, the author goes deep into the intertwined royal houses, financing institutions, banking families, merchant families, ship outfitters, fleet organizers, legal scholars, and moral arbiters who played their parts in jelling this whole enterprise. This book is not a beginner’s book and is more like a catalog of the steps leading to the massive transfer of labor. Yet by dogged mapping of all this, we can see the outlines of how organizational skills honed by merchants were applied. Hugh Thomas, the author, mentions over and over again that many of these slave merchants and slave trade financiers were Jewish or conversos, those Jews who had converted to avoid expulsion from Spain. At first I wondered if Thomas was slipping in a little of that Jewish money-lender/shylock stereotype even though he was merely pointing out their identity in that society where being non-Christian carried some risk. But after a while, I saw that while most of the slave trade was conducted by Christians, those with mercantile connections throughout the Mediterranean and Europe were often Jewish, affording them a level of trust which greased the interaction and transactions. Excluded from land ownership and guild membership, Jews were forced to live on commerce. Capitalism came along with its rational order and allowed Jews to capitalize – pardon the word play – on skills already developed (a similar thing happened on Wall Street where Jews were kept out of the white shoe firms and had to scrimp by on a narrow niche in the finance market where they honed their skills. Then in the 70s, that niche [sorry I can’t remember the name of the trading vehicle] opened up and guess who was in a position to take advantage of it with their expertise?). When I read in Kotkin that the Franco clan had two brothers in Italy, two in London, a fiftth in Amsterdam, with cousins in France and nephews in Turkey, it reminded me of my Desi friends who have a brother in Toronto, a sister in Amsterdam, another brother in Houston and parents in Buenos Aires. Through communication and know-how , these Jewish families were in a better position to pounce on opportunity. Many were marranos or crypto-Jews, one step ahead of the Inquisition, others were genuine converts and some retained their Judaism.

The Portuguese likewise exploited their position on the Atlantic to explore the African coast. Their fishing fleets had visited North America before Columbus. But the Vikings had been there earlier and yet it was the Portuguese who made the trade breakthrough. Both the Spaniards and the Portuguese were blessed with the Moorish conquest which poured skilled Muslim and Jewish artisans, rulers, scholars, traders and merchants, seamen and financiers into the Peninsula. Another group ready to dive in and who were the first in many ways was the Italians, drawing on their experience as middle-men in the trade with the Middle East and beyond. Marco Polo made it to China. Christopher Columbus sought China and found America. The people of the Mediterranean launched the age of exploration and commerce from this base and the northern Europeans picked it up.

The slave trade could easily have foundered without the technical skills of the Portuguese, the financial skills of the Jews, the scholarship of the Jews and the Arabs, the adventurousness of the Italians, and the highly organized empires of Africa, esp those of Congo and Angola. While we may vomit reading about the cruelties of the slave trade, there is no doubt that America could never have developed the way it did without African labor. Africans “donated” their skills in transhumance, rice cultivation, horticulture, and many other productive activities which built the new civilizations of the New World. “He who knows how to supply the slaves will share this wealth” heads a chapter in the book and it is the know-how that dominates the narrative, the know-how of organizing this trade to feed the maw of the Americas as the know-how of engineers and government planners fed the maw of WW II and the know-how of NAACP and church leaders turned the Constitution on the very people who had written it to keep them enslaved.

Added June 9, 2017 and segueing into immediately below: Thomas notes that as sugar poured into Europe from the Americas, the portraits of the aristocracy in Europe changed: the faces became swollen.

And, June 12, the key, stated as the first sentence of the new section, “A Filthy Voyage” on p. 291, “The Atlantic Slave Trade was, for much of its long life, a governmental enterprise in the countries concerned.” My point entirely.



The use of sugar has sky-rocketed. From 5 pounds a year to 100 pounds a year. It’s not important for this argument that there are various ways of defining ‘sugar’: naturally occurring, processed and refined, raw, added, HFCS, etc. The point is that since the Middle Ages Europeans and Americans i.e. dwellers in the New World have upped their consumption of sugar many fold. The book by Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar, suggests two reasons for this: sugar might be addictive and the sugar industry employed highly sophisticated techniques and legislative maneuvers to heighten the consumption. These trade organizations are a small, by comparison to the efforts made on behalf of airplane production in WW II and the slave trade across the Atlantic, manifestation of man’s ability to organize but what would sugar consumption be without the massive attack on animal fat as the root of our health problems and weight gain since sugar then replaced lots of foods. Sugar is an ingredient now in almost everything we ingest. It is unavoidable, which makes it impossible to investigate. Anyone who does not consume large amounts of sugar lives apart from the rest of us, either as hunter/gatherers or as kooks on the dietary fringes of society and so practice so many dietary habits off the beaten track it’s impossible to tell whether it’s sugar or something else that brings about different outcomes. We may never know the true effect of sugar but we will certainly keep eating it due to the highly coordinated assault on our taste via advertising, on our science due to research funding, on our food regulations due to decisive funding of pro-industry politicians, and on our medical profession via pressure groups diverting attention away from evidence as to the deleterious effects of sugar.


I’m going to go ahead and post this to my blog now (4/11/17) b/c I am not far enough into The Wise Men or Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976 to discern the contours of the forces leading to the foundation of the post-war order or the eventual triumph of Demotic Greek as the national standard of Greece.

But what I will do is a kind of wrap-up of why I thought it necessary to post on something so obvious as good organization drives success. It is simple. If you elicit from people the reasons for the success of these efforts viz. the slave trade, the expansion of aeronautics, the Civil Rights Movement, the establishment of a national standard language, the adoption of sugar as an essential ingredient in our diet, and the dominance of a post-war order in economics, trade, politics, and military authority, you will get a variety of answers which are unsatisfactory. For those efforts we approve of, we invoke heroic feats, great genius, fortitude, a Grand Cause, mystical divine intervention, and so on, none of it tethered to what actually happened on the ground. One huge misunderstanding, as an example, is that all the Black churches participated in the Civil Rights struggle. For the unequivocally condemned effort, the slave trade, we have an equal number of irrelevant explanations for its success, ranging from a mystical evil to a sort of passivity on the part of Africans who did not have the organizational basis to resist slavery when in fact they tightly controlled the slave trade and it took over 400 years for Europeans to penetrate the continent. By that time, the slave trade was over.

By expending so much energy on examining Huntington’s thesis, I hoped to show the fatuousness of overbroad theories and sweeping generalization unattached to the reality of people’s everyday lives. From hunter-gatherers encountering pastoralists to pastoralists encountering agriculturalists, the stratified organizational structure underlies the dominance of one over the other. I will add in the Greek language question and the post-war order when I have enough material from those books to work on.


April 30, 2017

I finished the book on Greek language and found 2 excellent quotes to back up my contention that by using government, a movement can promote itself very effectively. The second paragraph counting up from this one lays out the reason for my exploring such an obvious proposition. The work done by those championing the use of spoken Greek as the basis for the written language centered, for two centuries, on tying in with governmental figures who could help them.

Just to quickly explain the situation in Greece re language: in 1766 Voulgaris published Logic, in which he attacked people who wrote about subjects like philosophy in the colloquial or spoken Greek of the day. Eventually, the term “purifying” (katharevousa in Gk.) was applied to this movement. By the 1820s, literary works were being published in the colloquial language, the people’s language (demotiki in Gk.). While the demoticists were attacked on the grounds that Gk. dialects were too varied – an untrue statement since they were all mutually intelligible – it was katharevousa that was the true hodge-podge, with endings and words brought in from all ages of the Gk. language, often with little understanding of how to fit them all together. So, for example, a Gk. parliamentarian would present his bill in katharevousa, but as soon as debate broke out, everyone was using demotiki. The katharevousa proponents tended to be those holding high social status positions while the merchants and artists valued spreading literacy and knowledge via public schools using demotiki. Believe it or not, a Gk. child in school not only was taught Attic Gk., he was taught IN Attic Gk.

In fact, it was this emphasis among the Demoticists on education that led to the eventual triumph of Demotiki: “Triantafyllidis’ achievement in having his grammar officially commissioned by Metaxas as minister of education continued the educational demoticists’ successful strategy of courting government leaders in order to futher their cause.” (p. 302).

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