2022-04-08

Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s one of the more disturbing results of the Covid pandemic and it’s real. Too many western democracies have been in bad enough shape before the pandemic and the need to roll back the power of global corporations has been pressing enough but Covid has catalyzed a new threat: a new level of anti-government and anti-establishment conspiracy thinking that can only weaken democratic institutions as well as undermine confidence in sound scientific processes that are aimed at general health and well-being.

A survey report commissioned by the New South Wales government has been released by Macquarie University, Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, to help us understand and counter the rise of this growing extremist outlook. The major threat that it singles out is the ability of far-right extremists to mainstream their narrative with the broader community and so increase their audience scope and potential support for anti-social actions.

In this post I single out just one item in one of the sources the report cites:

  • Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/oct/26/why-people-believe-covid-conspiracy-theories-could-folklore-hold-the-answer. [Check the waybackmachine archive.org link if the above does not work]
Prof. Tim Tangherlini

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them. . . . .

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships. . . . 

Gates is a persistent figure in the anti-vaccine stories. “He’s a great villain,” says the folklorist Prof Timothy Tangherlini who collaborated with Roychowdhury on the research. It’s Gates’ world-spanning influence in tech and then health that lodges him at the heart of a lot of conspiracies. . . . 

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

(bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I’m sure that not all anti-vaxxers are interested in Bill Gates, especially in Australia. But the conspiratorial responses concerning elites taking over our governments and threatening our freedoms are the same. A “covid-sceptic” might hear a story about Bill Gates but adjust it to what fits his or her version of the conspiracy. To quote from Tangherlini in the article once more:

In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.

From The Copenhagen Post

The Guardian article’s conclusion is worth quoting, too:

Why do people believe things that seem so wrong?

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

In 16th and 17th century Denmark, catastrophic events from floods to poisonous algae mixed with the massive change brought by industrialisation. For those isolated on small farms, access to trusted, consistent information was scarce and stories about witches start to take hold.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago – a lack of trusted information.

This is where conspiratorial storytelling comes in and these stories start to get created. Then, as now, stories are a powerful way of talking about what we fear.

In my other posts about propaganda I have attempted to underscore the point that a glut of information can have the same effect as too little information. Most of us don’t have the time to take in all the information available, let alone analyse or check it all. It can be too easy to not bother even trying to sift wheat from chaff and fall back on simplistic narratives that offer easy to understand answers.

To quote one section from the report with which I opened this post, pp 38-39:

Conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers to complex problems such as the current global health crisis, and present experts and traditional systems of authority and government as malevolent and untrustworthy. Belief in a conspiracy theory is not a reliable indicator of an acceptance of far right extremism, but conspiratorial thinking is prevalent within far right extremist (and many other extremist) movements, and may provide a vulnerability for pathways into these.

While conspiratorial thinking is detrimental and corrosive to liberal democracy, in sum there are three qualities of conspiratorial thinking that make it particularly concerning for social cohesion:

First, conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 present a global narrative that can be linked to a host of diverse local issues and grievances. This allows far right extremists to exploit local tensions for their broader political agenda by connecting their narratives with world affairs.

Second, conspiracy theories form an alternative reality. This alternative reality serves as a framework under which multiple fringe movements, ideologies, and concerns can be mobilised. This allows far right extremists to mobilise among new social groups not traditionally receptive to their narratives or aims.

Third, by presenting the crisis as caused or exacerbated by the actions of a sinister and malevolent out-group, conspiracy theories justify an implicit solution in neutering or removing the out-group. This can present pathways towards anti-establishment civic dissent and violence.

A positive response to this growing threat to our societies that the report advises is to respect and engage productively with all those with concerns about covid, medical and vaccine advice, and government policies and to be careful not to label them with the far-right extremists who espouse the same views. To fail to do so risks driving them towards those extremists.

 


Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021

Waldek, Lise, Droogan, Julian, and Ballsun-Stanton, Brian. “Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Government report for Department of Communities and Justice, NSW. Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University, March 22, 2022. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5732611.



2022-01-31

If you are worried about “Russian expansion”, read this….

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by Neil Godfrey

Press stunned as Ukraine leader points finger at west

The underlying issue is this: NATO promised not to expand eastwards. It has done so repeatedly. It is never called out for this.

The link is to a report by Nury Vittachi on the Pearls and Irritations site.

Every time I listen to someone who is a specialist in Russian affairs — and one who is not employed as a political mouthpiece for a Western power I am informed of the clear evidence that there are no signs of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet still, the mainstream media appear by and large to have fallen in line with “merely reporting” the “news” as they are “informed” by their anti-Russian, pro-expansionist vested interests in the West.

Like so many other times, it is a bizarre, even surreal, experience listening to and watching Western media “at work” after having stepped aside for a moment to ascertain some facts.

 

 

 

 


2021-12-18

On Charity and Tyrants

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by Neil Godfrey

When reading about Herod the Great recently I was reminded at one point of my recent post about The Dawn of Everything. Herod prided himself on showering the poor with free food — following the “bread and circuses” custom of aspiring and established political leaders in Rome.

https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/images/potlatch-ceremony.jpg

Northwest Coast societies, in contrast, became notorious among outside observers for the delight they took in displays of excess. They were best known to European ethnologists for the festivals called potlatch, usually held by aristocrats acceding to some new noble title (nobles would often accumulate many of these over the course of a lifetime). In these feasts they sought to display their grandeur and contempt for ordinary worldly possessions by performing magnificent feats of generosity, overwhelming their rivals with gallons of candlefish oil, berries and quantities of fatty and greasy fish. Such feasts were scenes of dramatic contests, sometimes culminating in the ostentatious destruction of heirloom copper shields and other treasures, just as in the early period of colonial contact, around the turn of the nineteenth century, they sometimes culminated in the sacrificial killing of slaves. Each treasure was unique; there was nothing that resembled money. Potlatch was an occasion for gluttony and indulgence, ‘grease feasts’ designed to leave the body shiny and fat. Nobles often compared themselves to mountains, with the gifts they bestowed rolling off them like boulders, to flatten and crush their rivals.

So far so good. The authors towards the end of the book describe the archaeological evidence of the first Mesopotamian city, Uruk, and the evidence for the temple complex there accommodating the poor:

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

One wonders, of course, about the possibility that these people were slaves. Graeber and Wengrow note,

There is a possibility some were already slaves or war captives at this time (Englund 2009), and as we’ll see, this becomes much more commonplace later; indeed, it is possible that what was originally a charitable organization gradually transformed as captives were added to the mix.

From here, we move on to the question of how authoritarian societies arose and to quote a portion of what I covered in an earlier post,

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work . . . focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). . .

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases . . .  Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question . . . : if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with?

You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity. In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals.

Bread and circuses, charity . . . and the rise of tyrants. The message to me is the importance of allowing everyone to participate in the distribution of their needs.


Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.



2021-12-09

Where none shall hunger

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are a few extracts reminding us that humanity does at times embrace the value of caring for the basic needs of one’s fellows. One political view current in Western societies is that the public purse must dole out less than the poor need to survive lest they become dependent and fail to seek a job and care for themselves. Other societies have had a different perspective. Different ways humans have organized themselves and treated others are addressed in The Dawn of Everything. Below are some extracts from that book as well as others:

Dampier also remarked on other key aspects of Aboriginal life—small-scale societies, close communal living and the habit of sharing all procured food:

They have no houses but lie in the open air without any covering . . . they live in companies of twenty or thirty men, women and children together. Their only food is a small sort of fish, which they get by making wares [weirs or traps] of stone across little coves . . . Every tide brings in the small fish . . . at low-water they seek cockles, mussels and periwinkles. There are very few of these shellfish . . . At their places of abode . . . the old people . . . and tender infants await their return; and what providence has bestowed on them they presently broil on the coals and eat it in common . . . Whether they get little or much, every one has his part . . . 

Two societies could hardly have differed more than Georgian England and Aboriginal Australia. English society was based on the Christian work ethic and the sanctity of private property, whereas Aborigines saw no value in work except the food quest and believed in the sanctity of communal property. Each society tried to make the other change. Aborigines expected Europeans to share their food and other goods; Europeans tried to instil principles of private ownership and regular work into Aborigines. Instead of mingling, they lived uneasily side by side . . . .

Wrasse was the most abundant species in Tasmanian prehistoric deposits until 3500 years ago, when fishing abruptly ceased. Toxic fish are often confined to a small area and toxicity varies seasonally, but it seems that 3500 years ago Tasmanian fishermen suffered such severe poisoning that no Aboriginal Tasmanian ever risked eating fish again. The Aboriginal custom of sharing all food means that a single meal could wipe out a whole band. News of such a calamity would have spread quickly, leading to the universal taboo.

Flood, Josephine. Original Australians. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin, 2006. pp 5, 57, 72

 

His people were very generous and, hospitable. . . . The value of sharing was impressed upon the missionaries wherever they travelled in south-east Queensland. Gift giving and sharing valued possessions was essential to cement relationships. ‘The worst character they are able to give of a man,’ Reverend Christopher Eipper noted, ‘is that he does bail give it’ meaning ‘he will not share’.

Connors, Libby. Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015. p. 10, citing Colonial Observer, 23 July 1842, p. 347.

 

Moreover, it is really honour which forms the mainspring of their actions. I wish no other proof of it than what this same honour makes them do in a case of extreme necessity, at the hunting season when they are so often exposed to hunger that there is almost no year that someone does not starve to death. Then, if a cabin of hungry people meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same danger of perishing as those whom they help at their own expense so humanely and with such greatness of soul. In Europe, we should find few [people] disposed, in like cases, to a liberality so noble and magnificent.

Latifau, Joseph François. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, Volume II. Edited by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. Vol. 49. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1977 [1724]

 

Although the dialogue of Lahonton with a certain native spokesman have in the past been considered fanciful, more recent scholarly study has come to a different view: that they do indeed reflect the arguments of the Americans Indians.
Sioui, Georges. 1972. ‘A la réflexion des Blancs d’Amérique du Nord et autres étrangers.’ Recherches amérindiennes au Quebec 2 (4–5): 65–8.
—. 1992. For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
—. 1999. Huron-Wendat. The Heritage of the Circle. Vancouver: British Columbia University Press.”
Steckley, John. 1981 ‘Kandiaronk: a man called Rat.’ In J. Steckley, Untold Tales: Four Seventeenth-Century Hurons. Toronto: Associated Heritage Publishing, pp. 41–52.
—. 2014. The Eighteenth-Century Wyandot: A Clan-Based Study. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.”
Mann, Barbara Alice. “ —. 2001. ‘Are you delusional? Kandiaronk on Christianity.’ In B. A. Mann (ed.), Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands: Selected Speeches and Critical Analysis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 35–82.”

Lahontan on the other hand urges Adario to become a European, to which Adario says, “How could I watch the Needy suffer, without giving them all I have? . . . “

Brandon, William. New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800. Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press, 1986. http://archive.org/details/newworldsforoldr0000bran. p. 91

With all these vices, they are exceedingly vainglorious: they think they are better, more valiant and more ingenious than the French; and, what is difficult to believe, richer than we are. They consider themselves, I say, braver than we are, boasting that they have killed Basques and Malouins, and that they do a great deal of harm to the ships, and that no one has ever resented it, insinuating that it was from a lack of courage. They consider themselves better than the French ; ‘ ‘ For, ’ ’ they say, ‘ ‘ you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; [32] you are thieves and deceivers ; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind ; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor. ’ ’

Letter from Father Biard, to Reverend Father Christopher Baltazar, Provincial of France, at Paris, In The Jesuit relations and allied documents : travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. https://archive.org/details/cihm_07535/page/n7/mode/2up

Much like Biard’s Mi’kmaq, the Wendat were particularly offended by the French lack of generosity to one another: ‘They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being any indigent beggar in their towns and villages; and they considered it a very bad thing when they heard it said that there were in France a great many of these needy beggars, and thought that this was for lack of charity in us, and blamed us for it severely.

. . .

Do you seriously imagine, he says, that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris, to take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make-up, to bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happened to have been born with an inheritance? Do you really imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry. . . .”

. . .

Wealthy men – and it should be noted that all these societies were decidedly patriarchal – were typically seen as providers for poorer dependants, improvident folk and foolish drifters, by virtue of their own self-discipline and labour and that of their wives.

. . .

There are a number of things worth noting here. One is that it makes clear that some people were indeed considered wealthy. Wendat society was not ‘economically egalitarian’ in that sense. However, there was a difference between what we’d consider economic resources – like land, which was owned by families, worked by women, and whose products were largely disposed of by women’s collectives – and the kind of ‘wealth’ being referred to here, such as wampum (a word applied to strings and belts of beads, manufactured from the shells of Long Island’s quahog clam) or other treasures, which largely existed for political purposes. Wealthy Wendat men hoarded such precious things largely to be able to give them away on dramatic occasions like these.

Excerpts From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.

.

.

The first Mesopotamian City:

Uruk: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/3D-Visualisation-of-the-city-of-Uruk-3000-BC_fig1_280134491

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

Excerpt From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.


2021-12-06

The Big Question We Should Be Asking of Human History

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is an extract from The Dawn of Everything (see previous post) that I feel at liberty to quote in full since Youtube programs of public discussions (see below) of the book show co-author David Wengrow reading this section in full to his audiences:

If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the ‘origins of social inequality’), is it precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?

Franz Steiner

Perhaps the scholar who most closely approached this question in the last century was an anthropologist and poet named Franz Steiner, who died in 1952. Steiner led a fascinating if tragic life. A brilliant polymath born to a Jewish family in Bohemia, he later lived with an Arab family in Jerusalem until expelled by the British authorities, conducted fieldwork in the Carpathians and was twice forced by the Nazis to flee the continent, ending his career – ironically enough – in the south of England. Most of his immediate family were killed at Birkenau. Legend has it that he completed 800 pages of a monumental doctoral dissertation on the comparative sociology of slavery, only to have the suitcase containing his drafts and research notes stolen on a train. He was friends with, and a romantic rival to, Elias Canetti, another Jewish exile at Oxford and a successful suitor to the novelist Iris Murdoch – although two days after she’d accepted his proposal of marriage, Steiner died of a heart attack. He was forty-three.

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work, which does survive, focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). It also leads us back to a point we made earlier about the progressive division of the human social universe into smaller and smaller units, beginning with the appearance of ‘culture areas’ (a fascination of ethnologists in the central European tradition, in which Steiner first trained).

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases ranging from the Amazonian Huitoto and East African Safwa to the Tibeto-Burman Lushai. Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question that had so puzzled Robert Lowie, and later Clastres: if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with? You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity.

In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals. To these were occasionally added war captives, especially children taken in raiding expeditions. Among the Safwa or Lushai, runaways, debtors, criminals or others needing protection held the same status as those who surrendered in battle. All became members of the chief’s retinue, and the younger males often took on the role of police-like enforcers. How much power the chief actually had over his retainers – Steiner uses the Roman Law term potestas, which denotes among other things a father’s power of arbitrary command over his dependants and their property – would vary, depending how easy it was for wards to run away and find refuge elsewhere, or to maintain at least some ties with relatives, clans or outsiders willing to stand up for them. How far such henchmen could be relied on to enforce the chief’s will also varied; but the sheer potential was important.

In all such cases, the process of giving refuge did generally lead to the transformation of basic domestic arrangements, especially as captured women were incorporated, further reinforcing the potestas of fathers. It is possible to detect something of this logic in almost all historically documented royal courts, which invariably attracted those considered freakish or detached. There seems to have been no region of the world, from China to the Andes, where courtly societies did not host such obviously distinctive individuals; and few monarchs who did not also claim to be the protectors of widows and orphans. One could easily imagine something along these lines was already happening in certain hunter gatherer communities during much earlier periods of history. The physically anomalous individuals accorded lavish burials in the last Ice Age must also have been the focus of much caring attention while alive. No doubt there are sequences of development linking such practices to later royal courts – we’ve caught glimpses of them, as in Predynastic Egypt – even if we are still unable to reconstruct most of the links.

Steiner may not have foregrounded the issue, but his observations are directly relevant to debates about the origins of patriarchy. Feminist anthropologists have long argued for a connection between external (largely male) violence and the transformation of women’s status in the home. In archaeological and historical terms, we are only just beginning to gather together enough material to begin understanding how that process actually worked.

Some online discussions:

British Library Event

(19 October 2021)

Brooklyn Public Library Event

(11 November 2021)

LSE Online Event

(16 October 2021)

 

 


2021-12-05

A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It

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by Neil Godfrey

Everything I read, learned and taught about the stone ages and beginnings of civilization was wrong. An anthropologist and an archaeologist have got together to update us all on the discoveries that have been appearing in the scholarly literature over the past sixty years. The findings give great encouragement to those of us who are concerned about humanity’s ability to change course in the interests of our long-term survival.

I once liked the idea of Rousseau: in our “native state” we are innocent, good; it is the chains that have come with civilization that have degraded us.

But over time I came to fear Hobbes might be more right than I wanted him to be: in our native state our life is “nasty, brutish and short”; it is the controls that civilization has imposed that have obliged us to live according to the “better angels of our nature”.

No. Neither Rousseau nor Hobbes had the right model. We know that people as a whole cannot be lumped under either of the simplistic labels of “good” and “bad”. We can be very, very good and we can be very, very bad. For those of us who see the need for change in the way we live if we are to get through the threats we are facing now of runaway climate change and nuclear war and god knows what else and are keen to join any organized action for a better future, we can take heart from David Graeber and David Wengrow who, in The Dawn of Everything, demonstrate that humanity has done things better in the past and humanity can change.

The Dawn of Everything is one of those books that really does change everything about the way we see ourselves as a species. Several Youtube programs of over an hour length are available for anyone wanting to see the authors’ scholarly peers discussing the book. By bringing together the findings of anthropology and archaeology from the last generation they really are giving the public promise of a new vision. They are not dogmatic about their findings: they simply present the evidence and raise the questions. The rest is up to us.

Luckily I did not know when I opened my electronic copy of the book (one of questionable legal status) that it was over 700 pages long. If I had known that I most likely would have put it aside until I found “the time” to read it. But in Rousseau-like ignorance I undertook my journey and read nothing else for the next two to three days.

Facts:

— Agriculture did not ruin us. We, humans, did not organize ourselves into cities and kings once we “discovered agriculture” and the need for all the land management that is necessary to make it work. Jared Diamond was wrong when he said in Guns, Germs and Steel that agriculture was humanity’s biggest mistake, leading to overcrowded cities and diseases, poverty and the rest.

— There is nothing inevitable about living in a hierarchical or bureaucratic society: people, the same people, have been known to switch on a seasonal basis between highly authoritarian rule and open, small-scale, democratic self-government.

— Big cities are not, by definition, bad: people have created large cities that are non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, and open to regional self-government and significant forms of equality. And no poverty.

— Poverty is not inevitable in any society, large or small. It is indeed possible — our experience as a species proves it — to live in a just society without judges, police, jails.

— Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature was flat wrong. The evidence does not support his view of a relatively violent “pre-civilization” past and a comparatively more peaceful present. In the past there were indeed periods of warfare but there were also very long periods of peace.

— Western civilization as understood according to its historical European base is not the bee’s knees of human accomplishment. We take it for granted that we must study, pass exams in degrees of literature, philosophy, whatever to enter the “public service”. We copied that from the Chinese. We take it for granted that our base-freedoms of liberty equality and fraternity were the products of the European Enlightenment. Rather, European philosophes were inspired — it almost feels like heresy to say it — by “savages” in the New and other worlds they conquered. (For evidence of this claim one can see another work more readily at hand on archive.org: New Worlds for Old : reports from the New World and their effect on the development of social thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (As I said at the beginning, Graeber and Wengrow are not writing a whole lot of new ideas: they are bringing to the public awareness the evidence that has been accumulating in scholarly publications now for the past fifty to sixty years.)

Graeber and Wengrow identify three freedoms that they suggest “make us human”, and three corresponding forms of control that are found in the evidence. They do not say that these are “THE” freedoms of humanity. They acknowledge there may well be others, but for a discussion starter these are the ones they identify: Continue reading “A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It”


2021-10-27

Update on Julian Assange

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by Neil Godfrey

Jen Robinson, a barrister on Julian Assange’s legal team, explains it well. I have summed up her responses to the following questions but you can listen for yourself to the interview in the link below. There are more questions addressed in the program, such as why he did not divulge details of his partner and children earlier; his health and mental state; future prospects of the ongoing “punishment by process”.

Why did Julian Assange break his bail conditions and seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy? — Important to recall that JA was seeking to cooperate with Swedish authorities but with condition that he would not be extradited to the United States. The Australian government did not step in and ask for assurance from Sweden that he would not be extradited. It was this failure to be assured of his security that led him to seek, as is his right, refuge in another country’s embassy. Sweden has since dropped their charges against him.

Was the release of documents a reckless dump of data that endangered lives? No. Before releasing any data Assange and his team scoured through the material meticulously to remove any information that could endanger lives. In all court hearings the US has not cited one instance of anyone being killed as a result of the release of the material.

Did Julian Assange assist Bradley/Chelsea Manning to hack the data from U.S. files? No. Assange was entirely the recipient.

Is Julian Assange a journalist? He has won prizes for journalism: the Walkley Award and the Martha Gellhorn Prize.

Link to listen to the program: https://abcmedia.akamaized.net/rn/podcast/2021/10/lrt_20211026.mp3

 


2021-10-25

Sad farewell to a pioneering colleague

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by Neil Godfrey

Cathy Bow

This is to say a very sad and shocked goodbye to Cathy Bow, a colleague I worked closely with a few years ago in creating a vital project for the preservation of aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory, Australia. In a former, distant, more enlightened age, the Australian government introduced bilingual education in remote aboriginal communities and as a result, for the first time in many cases, aboriginal languages were written down, in storybooks, for children to learn to read. These books were often the only written record of those languages in their full “as spoken” form. Then times changed and a new national government came along and decided that bilingual education was not acceptable and those books fell into disuse. Some were stacked away in cupboards to gather dust; some were even “stored” in refuse bins! Key persons in the Charles Darwin University in Darwin who noticed what a valuable resource was in decay and danger of being lost entirely and Cathy Bow was hired to go out into these communities to recover (in dialogue with the community elders) as many of the aboriginal languages books as possible.

As she brought them in to us, we set about digitizing them and working with a tech team to make them available publicly — for linguists internationally as a scholarly resource, but especially for the different aboriginal communities themselves. They would be able to interact with them online, adding their own responses to what they were now able to read. It was a vital project in helping preserve languages that were in danger of being lost.

The project is The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL) and you can explore what it is all about from that link.

It contains nearly 4000 books in 50 languages from 40 communities available to read online or download freely. This is a living archive, with connections to the people and communities where the books were created. This will allow for collaborative research work with the Indigenous authorities and communities.

Cathy and I worked together to manage ways to enter different languages into the archive as well as the best ways to safeguard the material in a digital format. In the process, Cathy taught me much about the aboriginal cultures and I have followed up that learning with wider reading about the aboriginal peoples in different areas where I have lived since.

Since that time, Cathy built on this archive and extended her efforts in assisting with the preservation of indigenous languages: see Preserving the Kunwinjku language of West Arnhem Land

I was stunned to hear of her unexpected death earlier today. I know many others who also worked closely with Cathy at the Charles Darwin University, in particular on the LAAL project, will feel the same way. As will, I have no doubt, many of the aboriginal communities she visited on a regular basis over the years.


see also Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge


 


2021-10-15

A Few Memories from the visiting Met

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by Neil Godfrey

When a child and teenager I spent a good span of my time and pocket money painting with watercolours and sketching and collecting art books. So I was quite thrilled to be taken aback to see the originals of several artworks that many years ago I had lingered over and read about only in books so many times. Cezanne was a favourite and here in the Queensland Art Gallery, on loan from New York’s Met Gallery. This one of a few pieces of fruit must be one of the least interesting pieces to anyone not “into art” but I vividly recall studying and taking in both the innovative (at the time) techniques and effects from photos of this and similar works of his:

Everyone loves a Turner painting and this one of Venice actually gave me some belated encouragement. I learned that Turner had moved some of the buildings around to create a tighter effect to create this piece. So finally I could let go of my guilt over a charcoal sketch I had once done of our neighbourhood: I had always felt guilty slightly relocating some of the trees and houses to make my work more striking. Turner suddenly felt closer and my conscience felt lighter.

I don’t recall engaging with this Giovanni di Paolo from 1445. It is “Paradise”. How can a painting that old be still in such stunning condition! The vividness immediately drew me to it but then I did begin to feel perturbed. Everyone in Paradise appears to be from the very well-to-do classes and church orders. Maybe the lesson is that even peasants will dress and act like the rich and the reputable.

If that’s “Paradise”, I believe Jan Steen from 1670 captured the happiest scene in the exhibition: Continue reading “A Few Memories from the visiting Met”


2021-10-05

Be Optimistic — Or Doomed

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by Neil Godfrey

First, immerse every person in their own cyber-world where their environment identifies their interests and biases.

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

Second, feed every person with the news and data that reinforces their biases. Masses and masses of data that serve that purpose. Too much data to critically analyse. So much data that swamps each person with confirmation of their belief systems about the world. Result? Too often, paralysis.

And much of the information disseminated nowadays — research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses — eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener. They drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment — “The Russians are terrific!” and to on.

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them.

(Ellul, Propaganda, 87)

That was written in 1962!! How much frighteningly truer must it be today!

How to fight back in such a dystopian world?

If we believe that we keep ourselves well-informed enough to keep a level head, beware. There is a hidden trap.

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the events he is earned along in the current . . . .

We are more liable to fall into the trap if we think we can recognize or with little effort sift the lies from the truth. This confidence leads to two attitudes:

The first is: “Of course we shall not be victims of propaganda because we are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood.” Anyone holding that conviction Is extremely susceptible to propaganda, because when propaganda does tell the “truth,” he is then convinced that it is no longer propaganda, moreover, his self-confidence makes him all the more vulnerable to attacks of which he is unaware.

The second attitude is: “We believe nothing that the enemy says because everything he says is necessarily untrue.” But if the enemy can demonstrate that he has told the truth, a sudden turn in his favor will result. . . .

(Ellul, 46, 52)

Edward Snowden

Remember Popper and what he had to say about the necessity to seek to falsify what we think to be true. Edward Snowden a few months ago made the same point:

Here’s a better way to think: in an . . . information-glutted world where you can basically find evidence for any theory you want, where people inhabit separate online realities, we should focus on falsifiability (which can be tested for) over supportability (which cannot). ​​​​​​​

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Do we sense that events are out of control? That the government is an evil force and we are all helpless before it? That nuclear war with China is inevitable? That covid-19 is just the opening salvo of more serious epidemics? That the conditions that made human civilization possible are fast being ripped away from us through climate change? It’s easy to become overwhelmed into inaction.

That feeling is akin to believing in all-powerful hidden forces behind the institutions that shape our lives and there is nothing we can do to change them. Here is where conspiracy theories enter the picture:

This what what the Austrian Jewish sociologist Karl Popper, refugee of the Holocaust in New Zealand and later England, laid out in his theory of science. Popper believed conspiracy theories are exactly what feeds a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany, playing on and playing up the public’s paranoia of The Other. And authoritarians get away with it precisely because their pseudoscientific claims, masquerading as sound research, are designed to be difficult to prove “false” in the heat of the moment, when data sets — not to mention a sense of the historical consequences — are necessarily incomplete.

By Popper’s lights—and, I’d argue, by the intuition of basic human decency—we shouldn’t consider these provisional theories “science” at all.

(Snowden, Apophenia. This is the second time I’m drawing upon the same Edward Snowden article.)

Of course, when we take some time to delve into how these institutions actually work (and we have addressed the institution of the media a few times here) we find that people in them too often find themselves spreading consequences they personally would not like, or that they make themselves believe are not so malign after all:

Popper’s a favorite in conspiracy theory studies, but I want to bring in an adjacent idea of his that I think is underemphasized in this context, which is that most human actions have unintended consequences. Instant advertising was supposed to yield informed consumers; the National Security Agency was supposed to protect “us” by exploiting “them.” These plans went horribly wrong. But once you wake up to the idea that the world has been patterned, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways you don’t agree with, you can begin to change it.

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Alone, we can do nothing significant, it is true. But we are social beings. Solitary confinement, as posted about recently, sends us insane.

It is in good faith that whistleblowers around the world bring these contradictions to public attention; they facilitate public epiphany, reminding us that we’re not quarantined in our private, paranoid “stages.” Thinking in public, together, allows us to stage a different performance entirely. We become more like Popper’s social theorists:

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Karl Popper

That’s it. Thinking in public. Being socially engaged. Understanding the world around us requires some effort to pull ourselves over to the bank to stop being carried along in the current that Ellul spoke of. Following is a passage from an essay by Popper.

It is the task of social theory to explain how the unintended consequences of our intentions and actions arise, and what kind of consequences arise if people do this that or the other in a certain social situation. And it is, especially, the task of the social sciences to analyse in this way the existence and the functioning of institutions (such as police forces or insurance companies or schools or governments) and of social collectives (such as states of nations or classes or other social groups). The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

(Popper, “Conspiracy Theory of Society”, 15. Snowden cites the last part of this same paragraph in Apophenia)

Is this naive optimism?

Maybe I’m the deluded one for finding reason for optimism in this idea—and not only because it saves me from letting the former Nazi Conrad have the last word. Popper’s thinking offers an escape hatch from our private worlds and back into the public sphere. The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control. 

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Noam Chomsky

As Noam Chomsky has said, there is no alternative to optimism. Pessimism leads to disengagement and disengagement guarantees the worst outcome.

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.

(Chomsky, On Choosing Optimism)


Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Vintage, 1973. https://archive.org/details/propagandaformat0000ellu

Popper, Karl. “The Conspiracy Theory of Society.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 13–15. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2006.

Snowden, Edward. “Apophenia.” Substack newsletter. Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden (blog), August 6, 2021. https://edwardsnowden.substack.com/p/conspiracy-pt2.

Sustainably Motivated. “Noam Chomsky On Choosing Optimism,” March 12, 2017. https://sustainablymotivated.com/2017/03/12/noam-chomsky-choosing-optimism/.



2021-10-01

Why We Stopped Flogging

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by Neil Godfrey

And I thought we were just getting nicer. Nope, the data seems to point to another reason.

Norfolk Island, flogging 1823, from State Library NSW

According to an article by Penelope Edmonds and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘The whip is a very contagious kind of thing’: flogging and humanitarian reform in penal Australia, the reasons for the declining use of flogging were complex but two factors do stand out as primary movers.

  1. A more effective method of behaviour control was found: solitary confinement in particular. It was so effective that it had the proven ability to send men mad, and shorten their life-spans. Prisoners feared solitary confinement more than they did whipping. Where flogging was prevalent such as in the chain gangs, the convicts were generally reluctant workers, doing the bare minimum to avoid being flayed. Where prisons had the resources to be able to build solitary confinement facilities there work productivity improved while fewer men had to be punished that way. The treadmill was another penalizing innovation that some prisons introduced with a similar effect.

The decline in flogging in Van Diemen’s Land appears to have had more deep-seated causes than top-down reform powered by humanitarian advocacy. Our analysis suggests that it occurred in inverse proportion to the capacity of penal stations to punish convicts. This is an important finding. It suggests that the colonial state deployed different forms of terror at different times and for different purposes. As the array of punishments available to it expanded, less use was made of public displays of violence, whether through execution or flogging. Such an approach is consistent with Foucault’s famous observation about the decline in the use of judicial terror in Western Europe. [Discipline and Punish, 293-308. My bolding in both quotations]

  1. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, it is said, but there was one way convicts could “fight back”:

Many reformers were particularly concerned about the manner in which convicts turned the performance of flogging into counter-theatre. The prisoner who resisted the violent will of the state by refusing to scream was lauded, while the man who broke down was shamed. Flogging became a battle of wills—a form of blood sport fought out across the frame of the prisoner.

.

Two implications come to mind:

What does it mean for our interest to combat the practice of the public displays of terror in states like Saudi Arabia?

What of humanity’s future if we fail to meet the challenge of climate change or if for some other reason our societies revert to a major decline in resources and a breakdown in central authority?

There are other significant questions, too, that are raised by Michel Foucault in Disciple and Punish.


Edmonds, Penelope, and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. “‘The Whip Is a Very Contagious Kind of Thing’: Flogging and Humanitarian Reform in Penal Australia.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 17, no. 1 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1353/cch.2016.0006.



2021-09-30

Still the Same after 162 years: Our attitude towards other races looking to us for refuge

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by Neil Godfrey

I so often find a real fascination in reading old newspapers. How refreshing it is to read editorials, articles and letters using cheeky tones to address the most serious political and social issues of their day. If only more news and social media could be more like those days! Is it my imagination or has something in our national mood seriously shifted in a darker direction since the nineteenth century?

Anyway, here’s the point of this post. Read how alike are the thoughts expressed here in a letter to the colonial newspaper that we find expressed and discussed today — our confidence that we are not racists being compared with our attitude towards immigrants of a different race fleeing horrendous conditions in their own country and seeking refuge with us.

Englishmen are great admirers of abstract philanthropy. They delight in all those exhibitions of human rights which awaken the profoundest emotions. They can weep over the pain and suffering endured by men of colour, and they warm towards all the inferior races who groan under the power of tyrants. But when these forms of misery and wretchedness come within their own vicinity, and present themselves in the aspect of some barbarian Chinaman, driven from the home of his fathers by an internecine war, and seeking the shadow of institutions said to be founded on the common benefit, all their philanthropy vanishes.

— , 13 June 1859, 4.

That was written not long after the Opium Wars and an earlier part of the same letter made mention of a sense of national “war guilt” for imposing reparations on the Chinese for daring to resist the British right to sell opium to their citizens. Reference is also made to the horrific wars in China at that time. That would be the Taiping Rebellion. The same letter acknowledged “backward” customs of the Chinese but concluded by reminding readers of “their veneration of parents, their love of knowledge, and their quiet and tolerant spirit.”

 

 

 

 


2021-08-17

Propaganda Time (Again)

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s as if the Project for the New American Century never existed. The reason that the U.S. ever “entered” Afghanistan in the first place was that they were stunned at what happened on 9/11 and, quite understandably, like a dazed and confused giant, felt compelled to wage war on Al Qaeda and the tactic of “terrorism” based in Afghanistan. Of course, they did everything by the book and first asked the Afghan government to hand over Bin Laden for trial. The Taliban government, “as we all know”, flatly refused to do so. So the inevitable happened. No choice. And while they were at it, what could be better than restoring democracy and human rights to all the Afghan people!

But I recall so well the prominence at the time given to the manipulations and pressure of key political leaders to take the opportunity to implement the program of the New American Century. And I even recall that brief moment in the news when it was reported that the Afghan government (also doing everything by the book) asked the U.S. for the evidence that Bin Laden was the key suspect behind 9/11 so they could follow the normal practices of extradition. Maybe they were lying. But why would they want to give the U.S. an excuse to “enter” their country? And we’ll never know because we were told that they were “refusing” to hand over Bin Laden and therefore war had to be declared “immediately”.

So many of us shook our heads and thought, Sheesh, that is going to be a disaster! How can the U.S. succeed where no other power has managed to do so! Woe to Afghanistan. Another Vietnam.

And now we’re being told not to believe the online video clips and that Kabul is not at all like Saigon 1975.

 

 


2021-08-06

Apophenia — perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and more

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by Neil Godfrey

 

Klaus Conrad (1905-1961)

The German psychologist Klaus Conrad called this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich.

Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.

. . . leading us to….

The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

. . . . The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.

Edward Snowden, from Conspiracy Part 2

We talk about conspiracy theories in order to avoid talking about conspiracy practices, which are often too daunting, too threatening, too total. — Conspiracy Part 1