“It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.” — George Orwell
This bodes ill for us little people, since warfare-level weapons are getting less and less accessible. On the other hand, cyber power (AKA hacking) is pretty damn democratic.
Venkatesh Rao wrote a very long personal reflection called “King Ruinous and the City of Darkness”, which sprawls over both ancient and modern stretches of Indian history. The text is difficult to summarize in a couple of sentences, because it’s an expansive overview of how Rao came to think in the way that he does. But here are two quotes that jumped out at me:
“There are no real reasons and motivations in Indian politics. As with the rest of the world, politics in India is the art and science of the possible. You do what you can do. You spin the story whichever way you can spin it. The perception problem and the action problem need have no relation to each other, so long as you have solutions to both.”
“One does not simply exit the caste system, but one can sure as hell scramble it beyond recognition and render it unusable by having software and urban modernity eat it. This, incidentally, has been the single most positive development I’ve witnessed in my life. If software can eat the Indian caste system, it can eat anything.”
“To the hunter-gatherer tools and sometimes warm clothes were necessary for survival. Many of the items were highly valued collectibles that insured against starvation, purchased mates, and could substitute for massacre or starvation in event of war and defeat. The ability to transfer the capital of survival to one’s descendants was another advantage homo sapiens sapiens had over previous animals. Furthermore, the skilled tribesman or clan could accumulate a surplus of wealth from the occasional, but cumulative over a lifetime, trade of surplus consumables for durable wealth, especially collectibles. A temporary fitness advantage could be translated into a more durable fitness advantage for one’s descendants. […]
Flints were quite likely the first collectibles, preceding special-purpose collectibles like jewelry. Indeed, the first flint collectibles would have been made for their cutting utility. Their added value as a medium of wealth transfer was a fortuitous side effect that enabled the institutions described in this article to blossom. These institutions, in turn, would have motivated the manufacture of special-purpose collectibles, at first flints that need have no actual use as cutting tools, then the wide variety of other kinds of collectibles that were developed by homo sapiens sapiens.”
I recently finished two quintessentially American books. I had been working on Blood and Thunder since I got back from hiking in Desolation Wilderness with my father. After closing that historical epic, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy, planning to just read a chapter or two. Well, I ended up tearing through the book and didn’t get to sleep until after 3am.
Blood and Thunder uses the life of famous frontiersman Kit Carson to track “the Conquest of the American West” (so declares the subtitle). Author Hampton Sides describes the role that Carson played in various quasi-scientific mapping expeditions, the United States’ wars with Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Southwest — especially the Navajo — and the general aftermath of white settlers claiming land previously occupied by indigenous tribes. The book is well-researched but not academic, so it’s both edifying and gripping.
The sub-topic I found most fascinating was the mutually fraught relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers (both Mexican and migratory American), which focused on the New Mexico Territory. Plenty of racism was involved, but before the army came west the white residents of New Mexico were not holding their own against the Diné (the Navajo’s word for themselves), the Utes, or other local ethnic groups. Native American raiders stole scores of sheep from the settlers, and slave expeditions went back and forth between the New Mexicans and the tribes.
This is not to say that fiat United States aggression against the Native Americans was justified — it was a continuation of European Americans’ protracted genocide of indigenous people. Kit Carson himself, though he had personally killed many Native Americans, attributed their worsening plight to white violence. However, the escalating atrocities were mutual, even after the Navajo Long Walk, which I didn’t know. It goes to show that the situation on the ground is always more complex than the neat narrative that comes out of it.
I stayed up late reading Hillbilly Elegy all in one go and now I'm pretty restless. Can't stop contemplating personal responsibility.
In keeping with the theme of moral complexity, Hillbilly Elegy is fundamentally about how poor Appalachian whites bear some responsibility — ultimate responsibility, author JD Vance might argue — for their own demographic’s sorry state. The book is 75% memoir interspersed with 25% social analysis. I bought this after reading an interview with Vance and seeing Hillbilly Elegypraised by Nils Gilman. Vance’s story and commentary were very, very good.
Vance uses his own life as an example and a lens. He describes the loving chaos of his extended family, punctuated by mutual abuse among the adults, and the recurring trauma of his immediate home life. Vance attributes his later success as a Marine, college student, lawyer, and husband to the constant, fiercely loyal, and raucously affectionate presence of his grandparents. He describes the importance of being taught to believe that his choices could matter, that he could influence his fate by working hard and being diligent.
“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.” — JD Vance
I am more liberal than Vance, but I agree that we’re each responsible for how our own lives turn out. There’s politics and then there’s reality — I belong to myself, and you belong to yourself. We must strive for survival and success. Especially since the systemic change comes slowly.
But hey, another thing we should strive for is making the government serve its people more than the opposite arrangement!
Vance’s answers to Dreher’s questions prompted me to buy the book. Here are some choice quotes from their conversation:
“By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”
“[W]hen you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”
“The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. […] But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”
“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.”
I want Scott Alexander to review this book (after I’ve read it, that is). Also, isn’t Hillbilly Elegy an evocative title, regardless of anything else?