30 September, 2015

Shakespeare in American Politics

I was delighted to receive Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All in the mail this morning. Garber's book is a thousand page review of everything Shakespeare ever wrote, with each play claiming its own chapter length analysis. The introduction of Shakespeare After All is a fascinating tour of Shakespeare's reputation though the centuries, describing how Shakespeare's poetry has been perceived in the days since his plays were originally performed, which of his works were most popular during various eras, and how their presentation on the page and performance on the stage has changed with time. In Shakespeare's lifetime Pericles was the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King John and Henry VIII, much neglected today, were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America's "pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors." [1]

I am reminded of Tocqueville's observation that every settler's hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it. [2] Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mothers' knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?

Garber also discusses the role Shakespearean rhetoric has played in American political culture since the founding. Quotes from Shakespeare have always been ubiquitous in American politics. They were used in the earliest days of the American republic. They are used with equal frequency today. However, the manner in which they are used has shifted  with time. This diversity may seem a small thing, but the different ways Shakespeare's rhymes have been used through time reveal a great deal about broader and more important shifts in American political culture. This will become apparent as I describe these changes.

A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. At that time there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new federal land surveys to be postponed until all of the existing land already surveyed was sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay.

 In those days American politics was a sectional affair. Political outcomes often turned on forging an alliance between one region of the country and another to push through policies that might benefit both at the cost of the rest. Hayne, a South Carolina man, saw in this debate a chance to place a wedge between New England, whose delegates opposed free homesteading, and the frontier states of the West. A "coalition" (as he would call it) between Westerners and New Englanders had delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams just a few years before. That coalition was formed in unusual circumstances, and thus was condemned in Southern circles as a "corrupt bargain" that threatened American liberties. Adam's side denied these charges with greatest vigor, but all of the vigor in the world could not slow the democratic tide sweeping over American society. Andrew Jackson would ride this tide into the white house. Jackson, champion of mass democracy, reconfigured the landscape of American politics. His new coalition--which united men of the West, South, and the urban centers of the North--would dominate American politics for the next two decades. But Hayne and Webster had their debate only two years into this new era. It wasn't clear that the revolution had been won; no one knew if Jackson's coalition would prove transient or permanent. Any chance to drive New England further into the backwaters of national politics must be seized, and Hayne was eager to do the seizing.

Webster was a quintessential New Englander. He was also one of the cleverest men ever elected to the Senate. For Webster, Hayne's speechifying offered a choice opportunity. By responding to Hayne instead of the Westerners, he transformed a dispute over land sales into a debate over more fundamental questions about the nature of the constitution, the relationship of state and federal governments, and the South's attempts to defy the rest of the Union.

Hayne was indignant to be so attacked, and his reply to Webster was harsh:
The gentleman from Missouri, it is true, had charged upon the Eastern States an early and continued hostility towards the West, and referred to a number of historical facts and documents in support of that charge. Now, sir, how have these different arguments been met? The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts [Webster], after deliberating a whole night upon his course, comes into this chamber to vindicate New England, and; instead of making up his issue with the gentleman from Missouri, on the charges which he had preferred, chooses to consider me as the author of those charges; and, losing sight entirely of that gentleman, selects me as his adversary, and pours out all the vials of his mighty wrath upon my devoted head. Nor is he willing to stop there. He goes on to assail the institutions and policy of the South, and calls in question the principles and conduct of the State which I have the honor to represent.
When I find a gentleman of mature age and experience, of acknowledged talents and profound sagacity, pursuing a course like this, declining the contest offered from the West, and making war upon the unoffending South, I must believe, I am bound to believe, he has some object in view that he has not ventured to disclose. Why is this? Has the gentleman discovered in former controversies with the gentleman from Missouri, that he is overmatched by that Senator? And does he hope for an easy victory over a more feeble adversary? Has the gentleman’s distempered fancy been disturbed by gloomy forebodings of “new alliances to be formed,” at which he hinted? Has the ghost of the murdered Coalition come back, like the ghost of Banquo, to “sear the eye-balls” of the gentleman, and will it not “down at his bidding?” Are dark visions of broken hopes, and honors lost forever, still floating before his heated imagination? (Emphasis added) [3]
Hayne's charge was that Webster was not attacking the South because he actually disagreed with their policies as a matter of principle, but because he hoped to resurrect the dead coalition of West and East by tearing apart the alliance of West and South. This was a devilish fantasy in Hayne's eyes, a point he emphasized by alluding to the most devilish of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth.  

Webster was not going to let Hayne get away with abusing the Bard like this. His reply was masterful:
"But, sir, the Coalition! The Coalition! Aye, “the murdered Coalition!” The gentleman asks, if I were led or frighted into this debate by the spectre of the Coalition—“was it the ghost of the murdered Coalition,” he exclaims, “which haunted the member from Massachusetts; and which, like the ghost of Banquo, would never down?” “The murdered Coalition!” Sir, this charge of a coalition, in reference to the late Administration, is not original with the honorable member. It did not spring up in the Senate. Whether as a fact, as an argument, or as an embellishment, it is all borrowed. He adopts it, indeed, from a very low origin, and a still lower present condition. It is one of the thousand calumnies with which the press teemed, during an excited political canvass. It was a charge, of which there was not only no proof or probability, but which was, in itself, wholly impossible to be true. No man of common information ever believed a syllable of it......
But, sir, the honorable member was not, for other reasons, entirely happy in his allusion to the story of Banquo’s murder, and Banquo’s ghost. It was not, I think, the friends, but the enemies of the murdered Banquo, at whose bidding his spirit would not down. The honorable gentleman is fresh in his reading of the English classics, and can put me right, if I am wrong; but, according to my poor recollection, it was at those who had begun with caresses, and ended with foul and treacherous murder, that the gory locks were shaken! The ghost of Banquo, like that of Hamlet, was an honest ghost. It disturbed no innocent man. It knew where its appearance would strike terror, and who would cry out, a ghost! It made itself visible in the right quarter, and compelled the guilty, and the conscience-smitten, and none others, to start, with,
  • “Pr’ythee, see there! behold!—look! lo
  • “If I stand here, I saw him!”
Their eye balls were seared (was it not so, sir?) who had thought to shield themselves, by concealing their own hand, and laying the imputation of the crime on a low and hireling agency in wickedness; who had vainly attempted to stifle the workings of their own coward consciences, by ejaculating, through white lips and chattering teeth, “thou canst not say I did it!” I have misread the great poet, if it was those who had no way partaken in the deed of the death, who either found that they were, or feared that they should be, pushed from their stools by the ghost of the slain, or who exclaimed, to a spectre created by their own fears, and their own remorse, “avaunt! and quit our sight!”
There is another particular, sir, in which the honorable member’s quick perception of resemblances might, I should think, have seen something in the story of Banquo, making it not altogether a subject of the most pleasant contemplation. Those who murdered Banquo, what did they win by it? Substantial good? Permanent power? Or disappointment, rather, and sore mortification;—dust and ashes—the common fate of vaulting ambition, overleaping itself? Did not even-handed justice ere long commend the poisoned chalice to their own lips? Did they not soon find that for another they had “filed their mind?” that their ambition, though apparently for the moment successful, had but put a barren sceptre in their grasp? Aye, Sir,
“A barren sceptre in their gripe,
Thence to be wrenched by an unlineal hand,
No son of their’s succeeding.
Sir, I need pursue the allusion no farther. I leave the honorable gentleman to run it out at his leisure, and to derive from it all the gratification it is calculated to administer. If he finds himself pleased with the associations, and prepared to be quite satisfied, though the parallel should be entirely completed, I had almost said, I am satisfied also—but that I shall think of. Yes, sir, I will think of that." (emphasis added) [4]
Webster's response was twofold: his first point was that all talk of "coalitions" is nonsense: the "corrupt bargain" that gave Adams the presidency was a phantasm created by a tabloid press searching for controversy. Sober men could not believe in this sort of conspiracy. Adams won his election fairly, and it is irresponsible for Hayne to say otherwise. This is all well and good. Anyone on Webster's side of the debate would have said the same thing—it was the party line. But then in a stroke of rhetorical brilliance Webster turns Hayne's own allusion against him. Webster reminds his audience that in Macbeth it was only those who murdered Banquo who were haunted by his sight. The implication is clear: the scattered remnants that survived the death of the old coalition do not fear its ghost. The only people who could be haunted by its visage are those who stand to lose from its return--that is, those who labored for its destruction. Thus the devilish fantasy belonged not to Webster, but to Hayne. It was Hayne, Webster says, who built his politics upon an outlandish vision of alliance between New England and the West. The ambiguity of Macbeth's ghostly scenes (in the play it is not clear if Banquo is a hallucination of Macbeth or a true demon returned to haunt him) here becomes the perfect metaphor for Hayne's conspiratorial report of Webster's aims. Hayne's choice to invoke Banquo's ghosts reveals more about Hayne's irrational insecurities than Webster's true intentions.

Hayne: 0, Webster: 1.

These allusions to Shakespeare only occupy a normal portion of the two men's debate--no more than a few paragraphs out of ninety or so pages of text. Nevertheless, the use of Macbeth's script in the debate is telling. Neither Webster nor Hayne thought it was a waste of their time to debate the finer points of Shakespeare's plays in the halls of the Senate. The reader senses that Webster, in particular, did so in a positively gleeful fashion. Significantly, the play is not just used a source of pithy wisdom or quotable poetry. Webster discusses elements of its plot at length to drive home his meaning.

These speeches were given to a full standing audience. They were later printed and distributed in newspapers and periodicals across the nation. Webster and Hayne assumed, therefore, that the average reader of their words would understand the allusions made. You would be hard pressed to find an equal number of Americans today who would understand any talk of Banquo's ghost.

Webster and Hayne were not alone in their use of Shakespeare. Garber does not reference their debate in her essay, but she does discuss a whole host of American politicians from the antebellum period to the early 1960s who used Shakespeare in a similar way. It is at this point she detects a change in the way politicians at the Capitol use the bard. She provides several examples from the last decade or so:
  •  “William Shakespeare once wrote. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.‘ Hundreds of years before the death tax was even conceived. Shakespeare captured the worries felt by thousands of Americans.”
  • “In sum, to paraphrase Shakespeare. which is not done very often on the Senate floor. adoption of the amendments will rob California of that which cannot enrich the northwest generators and yet will make California poor indeed.”
  •  “In Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, the soothsayer warned Caesar to 'beware the Ides of March.’ Caesar did not listen and Caesar perished. Today. on this Ides of March. I bring my colleagues fair warning. If we do not pass the Colombia aid package soon. our friends in Colombia could suffer the same fate as Caesar and our own children could be next."
  •  “Shakespeare wrote. ‘What‘s past is prologue.’ And I believe no other phrase can quite describe both the achievements of the Republican Congress and its vision for America's future.“
  • “The words of William Shakespeare‘s King Lear are ringing loudly in the ears of many Americans: 'Fool me not to bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger.’ The old trusting king had just been grossly betrayed by two of his daughters. Collectively this nation has reason for an anger comparable to that of King Lear. In America the democratic process has just been mugged by the Supreme Court." [5]
Garber comments on these statements:
In each of these cases Shakespeare plays the role of enforcer or up-lifter. The other lawmakers gathered in the chamber. and the constituents at home, are not asked to call to mind the specific circumstances of Hamlet: Iago; the Soothsayet in Julius Caesar; Antonio. the usurping Duke of Milan in The Tempest; or Lear's reproof to his daughters about their stripping him of attendant knights—to give, in sequence, the sources of these quotations. Instead, Shakespeare is evoked, and invoked, as an eloquent coiner of eloquent phrases. The phrases, floating free of their immediate context, have become “Shakespeare.” [6]

She further adds that in the "21st Century... citing Shakespeare gives weight and heft to a political statement." This is true; Shakespeare had a knack for saying things the best way they could be said. I can fault no one for using the Bard's words in place of their own. But this way of using Shakespeare is not without its ironies: readers familiar with Shakespeare's plays know that when the quotes above are placed in context, they mean something very different—even completely opposite—than what they are taken to mean at Capitol Hill. One suspects that if Daniel Webster were a senator today he would have a lot of fun responding to these speeches.

What has happened here? How have we gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments? The answers to this question tell us much about the American body politic:

1) The decline of public speaking as a vital part of American culture. Oratory is something of a lost art in modern America. It is hard to imagine just how vital it was to public life for most of America's history. In Webster's day public speaking was a central part of entertainment, education, civic life, and religious practice. He was elected in the midst of the 2nd Great Awakening, when American religious life was dominated by camp meetings  and church members were expected to preach and testify one to another. It was a time when every township had a lyceum at its center, and intellectual life was dominated by those who traveled the lyceum circuit. Collections of speeches like The Columbian Orator were the most common type of schoolbook in the antebellum era, while most American men actively participated in town assemblies and party caucuses. The mastery of proper political rhetoric was an essential social skill.

Add all this together and you are left with a population that found immense pleasure in listening to, reenacting, and reading the speeches of others. It was a prized art, and when masters like Webster or Lincoln displayed their talents, people flocked together to listen to them. There was thus a great deal of patience for the sort of rhetorical flourish inherit in the long discussions of Shakespeare seen above. Today's Americans will not sit still and listen to a political speech for longer than ten minutes. The medium through which politicians communicate to the masses really doesn't let them. Radio shows and news channels rely on the soundbite. If a politician's message cannot be squeezed into a seven second slot it will not be heard.

2) The American people have less cultural literacy than they did in the past. The distinction we make between "high brow" and "low brow" entertainment was much fuzzier in America's past than it is in America's present. This was especially true for literary works. In Webster's day, poets like Edgar Allen Poe were famous among both the elite and the masses. Few "average Americans" will be seen reciting lines from "The Raven" today! This mix of high and low culture was still true even in the 1950s:
"In 1955, 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million. As the sociologist David White has noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Sir Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White also went on to note that on March 16, I956, a Sunday chosen at random, the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times Toulouse-Lauflec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillieh, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew." [7]

A paradox of the last fifty or so years of American history is that as the number of Americans with a university education has increased, the percentage of Americans who can claim any sort of familiarity with the poetry, verse, and literature past generations knew by heart has decreased. Explanations for why this happened are many, and none are simple. For the purposes of this discussion it is enough to say that since the baby boomers came of age, the strong voice of poetry and classic literature once heard in American pop culture has waned. There are a few exceptions to this--Jane Austen's excellent novels come to mind--but very few.

3) American leaders no longer have a literary world view. This is true not only for American leaders, but for Anglophone leaders generally. Again, it can be difficult for people born in the last forty to fifty years to grasp just how a big a part classical literature, philosophy, and poetry played in the daily lives of past generations, especially those privileged enough to receive a liberal education. Privilege was a big part of this; men and women were driven to memorize and quote from the classics because in the eyes of their contemporaries this set them apart as a superior sort of individual. The man who knew his Milton, Pope, and Wordsworth was a civilized being. But this is only a partial explanation. You do not need dig far into the biographies of the leaders of that age to realize how thoroughly their understanding of the world was built around literature. Winston Churchill is a sterling example of the type. Books and poems defined how he talked about, and more importantly, how he thought about, the problems he faced. His thoughts were filtered through Shakespeare.

In the case of Webster and Hayne it is easy to dismiss their public displays of Shakespearean rhetoric as just that: public displays of learned affectation. It is harder to explain away the role Shakespearean verse played in more intimate settings. Garber narrows in on the love Abraham Lincoln had for the works of Shakespeare. He would often memorize long passages to recite to friends searching for consolation or amusement. Lincoln was a man who believed in the power of words. He sought them out. When he came across words beautiful or profound he treasured them up in his mind and his heart so that he could use them in a day of need. 

I cannot imagine any of the men or women running for president today sitting at a table with friends in need of counsel and reciting for them one of Shakespeare's monologues. That simply isn't the world we live in anymore. Ours is an age that has lost faith in words. We don't value them—not as Americans once valued them. In such times what reason is there for our leaders to quote Shakespeare?

Edited (1 October 2015) to  correct several grammar and spelling errors.


[1] Majorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 35

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Other Writings, Trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 544. See also the diary entry he excerpts on p. 869:
We went into the log house; the inside is not at all like the cottages of peasants in Europe; it contains more of what is not necessary and less of what is.

There is only one window over which a muslin curtain hangs; in the hearth of beaten earth crackles a huge fire which lights everything within the building; above the hearth thee is a fine rifle, a deerskin, and some eagle feathers; to the right of the mantelpiece a map of the United States is spread out which the wind catches and ruffles through the gaps in the wall; nearby, on a shelf made from a roughly hewn plank, there are a few volumes of books; I notice the Bible, Milton’s first six books, and two plays of Shakespeare; along the walls there are trunks instead of cupboards; in the center there is a crudely made table, the feet of which, being made from green wood has not been stripped of its bark, look as hough they are growing out of the soul upon which they stand.

[3] Herman Belz, ed. The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Constitution: Selected Documents (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p. 36

[4] ibid., p. 85-87

[5] Garber, Shakespeare After All, pg. 39 

[6] ibid

[7] Bruce Brendan, On the Origin of Spin: Or how Hollywood, the Ad Men and the World Wide Web became the Fifth Estate and created our images of power (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013); 249.

16 September, 2015

Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.(1929 - 1968) stands in front of a bus at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott.   
Montgomery, Alabama December 26, 1956

Image Source

Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist who penned The Righteous Mind, wrote an important blog post a few days ago responding to a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning titled "Micro-aggression and Moral Cultures." Manning and Campell's goal is to understand why "calling out" micro-aggression has become a prominent part of U.S. culture, especially on university campuses. Their focus is not on the prevalence of micro-aggression itself; inasmuch as micro-aggression is a real phenomena, it is an exceedingly old one. "Calling out" micro-aggression, however, is a novel practice, and by no means widespread. In a few environments (like university newspapers or Tumblr threads) it is ubiquitous. In others (say, the rural Western town from which I write this post) it is unknown. This demands explanation.

The explanation Campbell and Manning offer is a structural one. Call-out culture, as they see it, is a manifestation of a much broader shift in the way Americans perceive and resolve social conflicts. This shift is a natural and predictable response to the changing distribution of power within American society. They argue that this isn't the first time such a shift has happened. The emerging moral matrix which gives birth to trigger warnings and call-outs is the third system of its type.  Campbell and Manning describe it as a "Culture of Victimhood." They name the moral system that preceded it  a "Culture of Dignity." Filling out the trinity is the "Culture of Honor." Honor is the oldest conflict-resolution device of the three, and a fitting place to begin our discussion. Here is their description of honor culture dynamics:

NOTE: Campbell and Manning's study is locked behind a pay-gate, so I cannot provide exact page numbers for the excerpts. All quotations from Campbell and Manning that follow are taken from the Jonathan Haidt's post, which quotes them extensively. Haidt's comments are in [brackets]. All bold emphasis is my own.

A) A Culture of Honor 
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129). [1] (Emphasis added).
 This will be familiar to anyone who has read The Iliad, Mahabharata, The Zuo Zhuan, The Tale of Burnt Njal, or any other piece epic literature of great antiquity. All these tales hail from aristocratic worlds where kings were feeble and governments barely existent.  Understandably, it is quite common to describe cults of honor as the province of the stateless and ungoverned. Honor cultures have been described this way for centuries;  perhaps the most beautiful description of Campbell and Manning's "Culture of Honor" was written millennia ago to make just this point:
"Justice turns the wheel
Word for word, curse for curse
'Be born now,' Justice thunders
Hungry for retribution,
'stroke for blood, stroke be paid'
The one who acts must suffer."

The words are those of Aeschylus, sung by the chorus in The Libation Bearers. But Libation Bearers was the second in a trilogy; the concluding piece sees Athena stop the endless blood-feud justice demands by providing a citizen's court to judge cases of right and wrong. To the jury she gave  "from the heights, terror and reverence, [so that] my people's kindred powers will hold them from injustice through the day," forever replacing the anarchy of vendetta with order imposed by the state. [3]   That is how the story usually goes, and this is largely how Campbell and Manning describe the transition away from honor. As law grew honor diminished, allowing men to resolve their disputes without recourse to violence or reputation. This story is also wrong--or perhaps more charitably, incomplete. 

The study of honor has had something of a renaissance among classicists and historians of Ancient Greece and Rome, with folks like J.E. Lendon and Susan Mattern demonstrating conclusively that a culture of honor and reputation were the driving forces behind Roman and Greek government, warfare, and inter-personal relations, despite the might of their rulers or the force of their laws. The pattern is repeated elsewhere: as early as 200 BC Chinese thinkers like Shang Yang and Han Fei discerned that feats of valor and private vendettas pursued for reputation and honor undermined state power. They, and the many dynasties that succeeded them in the centuries to come, tried with all their power to stamp out bloody honor feuds. They failed. Despite the efforts of thousands of thinkers and statesmen, archetypes like the vengeance driven son or the swordsman  who cared more for his reputation than his life continued on as stock heroes throughout late imperial times, recognizable to all and cheered on in popular plays and novels like The Orphan of Zhao or Outlaws of the Marsh. Efforts by literati to lift conflict resolution to a more refined plane barely made a dent on popular Chinese attitudes, which remained consumed with ideas of honor and face into the early years of the 20th century.

The growth in the size or power of government that came along with modernity was less important for the end of honor culture than the slow death of extended family systems ("clans"). "Honor" is always a corporate possession. As anyone who lives in a contemporary honor culture can tell you, disgrace for one in the family is disgrace for all. The clan is the weapon through which blood feud is waged. There were practical reasons for this: if no one has family to retaliate for wrongs done to their kinsmen, then the simplest solution to perceived slight is to kill the offender and end all chance of future retaliation then and there. Absent a clan committed to upholding the family honor, honor is all but impossible to maintain. This is quite apparent in the famous honor feuds of American history. Sagas like that of the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like hold-overs from an earlier era quite out of their time--until you realize the critical element in the feud of the two families was not the reach of America's Leviathan, but the fact that there were two extended families capable of carrying out the feud in the first place.

The transition away from honor culture and its constant feuding took centuries, for it took centuries for new family models to develop and displace older networks of extended clans.The process went furthest with the Dutch, Welsh, English, and Scandinavians, who by the early modern period were living in "absolute nuclear families," which have few connections to extended relatives of any type. People in these societies had to develop a new model of conflict resolution. It was from this milieu the "Culture of Dignity" would arise. We return again to Campbell and Manning:  
B) A Culture of Dignity
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem (Aslani et al. 2012). Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike the honorable, the dignified approve of appeals to third parties and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.” For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries…. The ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible. The growth of law, order, and commerce in the modern world facilitated the rise of the culture of dignity, which largely supplanted the culture of honor among the middle and upper classes of the West…. [4]
This should be more familiar to most Americans, as it was the dominant 'moral culture' for most of our history. Dignity is the preferred conflict resolution device for those who identify as members of a community instead of as a clan. Modern conceptions of citizenship are built upon this moral code. But the conflict resolution mechanisms built into this order and the one now emerging on university campuses differ sharply:
C) A Culture of Victimhood
Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all. Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.

A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.

The culture of victimhood is currently most entrenched on college campuses, where microaggression complaints are most prevalent. Other ways of campaigning for support from third parties and emphasizing one’s own oppression – from protest demonstrations to the invented victimization of hate-crime hoaxes – are prevalent in this setting as well. That victimhood culture is so evident among campus activists might lead the reader to believe this is entirely a phenomenon of the political left, and indeed, the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to the leftist worldview (Haidt 2012:296; Kling 2013; Smith 2003:82). But insofar as they share a social environment, the same conditions that lead the aggrieved to use a tactic against their adversaries encourage their adversaries to use that tactic as well. For instance, hate crime hoaxes do not all come from the left. [gives examples] … Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. [4]
Comparing the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with contemporary black activism may help us grasp the scope of this transformation.  "Dignity" was the byword of the civil rights movement, and talk of dignified deeds, indignities born,  and the dignity inherent in all men was the bread and butter of its civic sermons. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a fine example of this in the opening words of his final address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
"For more than twelve months now, we, the Negro citizens of Montgomery have been engaged in a non-violent protest against injustices and indignities experienced on city buses. We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of injustice had been crushed by the battering rams of surging justice." [5]
This talk of dignity was more than just empty rhetoric. A central, driving goal of the movement was to reaffirm the dignity of black Americans--both to whites, and perhaps more importantly, to themselves. Fellow activist Bayard Rustin recognized that one of the greatest boons of the boycotts had been that it "won... the Negroe’s self-respect" as well as "the respect of their enemy." He continued:
The fellowship, the ideals, the joy of sacrifice for others and other varied features of the movement have given people something to belong to which had the inspiring power of the Minute Men, the Sons of Liberty, and other organized forms which were products of an earlier American era of fundamental change. [6]
One does not need to delve deep into the history or the rhetoric of this movement to realize that one of its central goals was convincing black Americans that if they acted with unity and purpose then they would have the power to "crush the sagging walls of injustice." Destiny was theirs to make. This is a remarkable thing to tell a people oppressed and downtrodden. It was a direct assault on all that the racist elements of America had ever tried to teach the black man--namely, that he and his people were incapable of self-government, and that it was their sorry fate to depend on white America for moral and political advancement. Both the words civil rights activists spoke and the protests they organized were designed to prove this a lie. This was not their only purpose. Martin Luther King, Baynard Rustin, Diane Nash, the other civil rights strategists knew that they were bargaining with political actors intensely hostile to their vision. They were acutely aware that they needed the support of white America to attain their ultimate goals, and constantly assessed how their words and deeds would affect white public opinion. However, their victories on the bargaining table cannot be separated from the sense of solidarity and moral power that made their campaigns possible in the first place. The source of this power was the radical idea that black men and women could be the masters of their fate.

This fits in neatly with the "Culture of Dignity" pattern that Campbell and Manning describe; it also diverges sharply from current practice. Ta-Nehesi Coates, America's most prominent black intellectual--possibly the country's most prominent public intellectual, period--captures the zeitgeist of our times well. Benjamin Wallace Wells described Coates' views in a recent essay for New York Magazine:
Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

“That’s the thing that linked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Coates said. “People say Malcolm was a pessimist. He was a pessimist about America. But he was actually very optimistic. Malcolm very much believed in the dream of nationalism. He believed we could do it. And Martin believed in the dream of integration. He believed that black people could be successful if they did x, y, and z.” Coates did not share that optimism: African-Americans are a minority in America, and he sees limits to what they can control. “I suspect they were both wrong. I suspect that it’s not up to us.” [7].
Coates does not believe black Americans can be masters their fate. They are the victims of structural oppression, and describing them as anything else is in his view intellectually dishonest. There is a sad irony here: the most prominent black intellectual of 21st century America advances the same narrative outline used by white supremacists of America's past. They knew that you wouldn't need the white man to force you down if you've convinced yourself you will never be able stand up in the first place.

 In a moral "Culture of Victimhood" this sort of pessimistic declaration of powerlessness makes Coates a moral paragon. But it is a virtue gained by surrendering the power to organize, mobilize, and bargain for change. One can take this charge too far: Coates is an intellectual, not an activist. It is unfair to fault him for writing op-eds instead of organizing a resistance movement. But much of what he says is simply a eloquent expression of widely shared assumptions. For our purposes the most important of these is his assumption that meaningful change can only occur if the powers that be allow it. Coates is very pessimistic that they ever will. Most full time activists are more optimistic. Yet the assumption remains. As much as groups like #BlackLivesMatter might talk about "struggle in the streets led by the people," [8] this does not describe the most successful campaigns of the hashtag era. Those have revolved around drawing mass media attention to specific incidents of institutional racism in hope that enraged public opinion will pressure leaders to remove racist underlings (or more rarely, end their organization's racist policies). The Ferguson protests and its attendant media coverage--whose most immediate accomplishment was Governor Nixon's decision to end the St. Louis County P.D.'s control of policing in the area--are an example of this strategy on the broadest scale; the firing of Justine Sacco over a racist tweet is an example of it on the smallest. Both ends fit Campbell and Manning's description of victim culture dynamics perfectly. Activists seeking change emphasize their own state of victimhood (or oppression, offense, etc.). This allows them to draw the attention of the masses, and then direct this attention towards whatever power supervises the offender in question. Contemporary protests are best understood as petitions to the powers that be. 

It is important to recognize that this shift is not limited to black activism, though the stakes are probably higher there than anywhere else. The same pattern reappears in every social movement that has rallied widespread support over the last decade. "Awareness" is the buzzword of the hour, and it has become an explicit goal of every activist campaign of any fame. Why is this? Why has awareness replaced action as the aim of so many organizations? The answer is that raising awareness is a rational activist strategy  when disputes are resolved by gaining the support of powerful third parties who can institute your vision, be they university administrators or the federal government.

This point is worth exploring. There is a temptation to see call outs, micro-aggressions, and awareness activism as the product of university indoctrination or millennial immaturity. But this is the wrong way to look at it. In Campbell and Manning's terms, "the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization." [9] The transition from honor to dignity reflected a deeper shift in the basic building blocks of society. Had Western Europeans not shifted away from clan based to citizen based communities, there would not have been any Culture of Dignity. The shift from dignity to victimhood reflects a similar change in the societal distribution of power. Campbell and Manning offer the following explanation for this transformation:
Several social trends encourage the growth of these forms of social control, particularly in the United States. Since the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, racial, sexual, and other forms of intercollective inequality have declined, resulting in a more egalitarian society in which members are much more sensitive to those inequalities that remain. The last few decades have seen the continued growth of legal and administrative authority, including growth in the size and scope of university administrations and in the salaries of top administrators and the creation of specialized agencies of social control, such as offices whose sole purpose to increase “social justice” by combatting racial, ethnic, or other intercollective offenses (Lukianoff 2012:69–73). Social atomization has increased, undermining the solidary networks that once encouraged confrontational modes of social control and provided individuals with strong partisans, while at the same time modern technology has allowed for mass communication to a virtual sea of weak partisans. This last trend has been especially dramatic during the past decade, with the result that aggrieved individuals can potentially appeal to millions of third parties. [10]
Haidt puts a lot of stock in the first of these factors--increasing equality between diverse groups, which makes small slights seem large. This goes a long way towards explaining the paradox of the university campus, which is simultaneously one of the most equal, least offensive spaces in America, and the place most prone to baseless claims of victimhood. It does a much poorer job of explaining the broader trend in American political culture, where disputes are usually of far greater consequence. This is part of the reason I  contrast black activism in the '60s and black activism now: unlike campus micro-aggressions, the issues facing urban black communities are not frivolous. Claims that increasing equality and opportunity are at the root of their activist strategies simply aren't tenable.

Campbell and Manning hint at a more important factor when they highlight the growing power of university administration and the weakening of social ties among students. Here the college campus is a microcosm of social changes happening at every level of American society. Not every American must deal with an ever distant university administration, but all are further and further removed from the levers of power. This story is a well known one: over the last five decades American social capital has fallen apart. Americans are less likely to volunteer, participate in local political parties or caucuses, join civic, religious, or self improvement associations, attend church, have group hobbies, vote, read local newspapers, organize neighborhood gatherings, play cards, spend time on social visits, or have as many friends now as they did in 1960. 

At the same time many organizations which once gave average men and women the chance to work together or serve in local leadership roles disappeared--or have been consolidated to heights far beyond the reach of the average citizen. There are fewer school boards and municipal governments now than there in the 1950s, despite the doubling of America's population since then. National charities are more likely to ask their members for money than time; lobbying has replaced supporting local chapters as the main activity of most national activists. The federal government assumes powers traditionally reserved to local and state governments. Local businesses have been pushed out of existence by international conglomerates. [11] The businesses, associations, congregations, and clubs that once made up American society are gone. America has been atomized; her citizens live alone, connected but weakly one to another. Arrayed against each is a set of vast, impersonal bureaucracies that cannot be controlled, only appealed to. 

A "Culture of Victimhood" is a perfectly natural response to this shift in the distribution of power. Remember that the central purpose of moral cultures is to help resolve or deter disputes. Dignity cultures provide a moral code to regulate disputes among equals from the same community. They also help individuals in a community--citizens--organize to protect their joint interests. 21st century America has lost this ability to organize and solve problems at the local level. The most effective way to resolve disputes is appeal to the powerful third parties: corporations, the federal government, or the great mass of people weakly connected by social media. The easiest way to earn the sympathy of these powers is to be the unambiguous victim in the dispute.

Victim culture is here to stay. It's success cannot be blamed on the ideologue or the propagandist, but on deeper changes in the structure of American society. That the values of this culture would eventually arise was inevitable once American these changes occured. This was understood more than two centuries ago. Alexis de Tocqueville speculated on what American society would look like when its elements had been atomized and equalized. His description sounds remarkably like that of Campbell and Manning:
In times of equality no one is obliged to lend his assistance to his fellow men and no one has the right to expect any great support from them, [so] each man is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must not be viewed either separately or connected together, give the citizens of democracies very contradictory urges. Independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals while his vulnerability occasionally makes him feel the need for outside support, which he cannot expect from one of his own people since they are all powerless and unsympathetic. In such extreme circumstances he naturally turns his gaze towards this huge authority rising about the general impotence. His needs and, above all, his desires, constantly bring him back to that authority which he end ups regarding as the sole and necessary support for his weakness as an individual....
The loathing men feel for privilege increases as these privileges become rarer and less important, so that democratic passions would seem to burn the brighter in those very times when they have the least fuel. No inequality, however great, strikes the eye in a time of general social inequality, whereas the slightest disparity appears shocking amid universal uniformity; the more complete this uniformity, the more intolerable it looks. Therefore it is natural that love of equality should thrive constantly with equality itself. To foster it is to see it grow.
This ever burning and endless loathing which democratic nations feel for the slightest privilege has an unusual effect upon the gradual concentration of every political right in the hands of a single representative of the state. Since the sovereign authority stands necessarily and indubitably above all citizens, it does not arouse their envy and each citizen thinks that he is depriving all his fellow men of those powers that he grants to the crown. The man living in democratic ages is always extremely reluctant to obey his neighbor who is his equal.... he distrusts his form of justice and looks enviously upon his power; he both fears and despises him; he likes to  bring home to him the whole time they are both equally dependent upon the same master.... Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands central power is placed but they always retain their affection for the power itself. (emphasis added) [12]
An insight that pervades all of Tocqueville's writing is that moral culture and political culture are two sides of the same coin. Campbell and Manning define the three moral culture in terms of moral authority, but one could just as easily define them in political terms. The first is the culture of the clansman. The second is the culture of the citizen. The third is the culture of the isolated individual--or as Tocqueville would call him, the subject.


[1] Jonathan Haidt, "Where Microagressions Really Come From: A Sociological Account," The Righteous Mind Blog (7 September 2015).

[2] Aeschylus, The Libation-Bearers, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones (Raleigh: Hayes Barton Press, 1970). v. 315-21.

[3] Ibid., v.704

[4] Quoted in Haidt, "Where Microagressions,"

[5] Marthin Luther King Jr., "Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott," (20 Dec 1956) in King Encyclopedia [http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html], accessed Sep 2015

[6] Bayard Rustin to Martin Luther King Jr., memo dated 23 December 1953, in   King Encyclopedia [http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html], accessed Sep 2015

[7] Benjamin Wallace Wells, "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Magazine (12 July 2015).

[8] Black Lives Matter Network, "Statement in response to the Democratic National Committee" Facebook profile post (30 August 2015).

[9] Quoted in Haidt, "Where Microagressions,"

[10] Ibid.

[11] A great deal of research has been done on each of these topics. For a general introduction see Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999); Robert Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman."Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth", Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (8 August 2012); Theda Skopal, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Charles Murray,  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); 2012 U.S. Census of Governments

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Other Writings, Trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books), 781-783.

03 September, 2015

Notes From All Over (3/09/15): Chinese Media, Ancient War, and Strategic Theory

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


"Down With the Nihilists!" and "Love Thy Country"
"T.J. Ma." Chublic Opinion. (31 & 6 August 2015).

I was led to this blog by the recommendation of Kaiser Kuo and instantly knew that it needed to be on the blog roll. "T.J. Ma" writes a weekly report on issues of public debate and controversy in China, especially as argued on the internet. Mr. Ma has a remarkably good handle on the currents of Chinese public opinion, the ins and outs of China's national media, and the country's many political subcultures. The first of the two articles I highlight here--though I could have recommended many more--focuses on changing perceptions of the CPC and KMT's role in Second World War; the second is a deep dive into China's warring nationalist internet forums and their real world spillover.

"Old School Europeans Were Old School Thugs"
Razib Khan. Gene Expression. (19 August 2015).
The Jewish people have been critical in the development of a universal ethical monotheism in the West, part of the broader evolution away from the supernatural systems of the Bronze Age that occurred across the Axial Age. But the Hebrew Bible preserves within it a world far removed from the divine Logos, a God of law and morality. The angry and jealous sky god of the Hebrews also enjoins upon them genocide of other tribes. Though the Hebrew Bible is pregnant with the possibilities of religious ethical universalism, the voice of the prophets’ righteous indignation raw with rage alive in our age, and channeled through the gentler voices of Hillel and Jesus, it also is a record of a parochial and peculiar people, who wash their hands of their atrocity by attributing it to the capricious and vindictive will of their god. If Moses and Joshua did exist, they almost certainly would have more in common with the war-chiefs of early Neolithic Europe, 4,000 years before their time, than men such as Constantine, who 1,300 years later promulgated a universal religion for a universal empire.....

But as per Fisher’s model, mutants with deleterious consequences invite their own response. They are tamed and civilized by a scaffold of modifiers. The brutal gods which were but reflections of human vice and caprice were drafted in the service of primal human psychological impulses forged during the Paleolithic, reciprocity and egalitarianism arose against the background of brutality beyond imagining unleashed by the social dislocation that was a consequence of agricultural society. The men and women shaped by the Hebrew prophets and Christian Church Fathers, the rishis of the Upanishads and the Chinese sages, they are all closer to us 2,000 years later, then they were to their own forebears only a few hundred years earlier in their own past....

See Also: Christian Meyer, Christian Lohr, Detlef Gronenborn, and Kurt W. Alt, " The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe", PNAS (July 2015).

Azar Gat, "Proving communal warfare among hunter-gatherers: The quasi-rousseauan error," Evolutionary Anthropology 24, iss. 3 (2015)

"Roadblocks to Computational Modeling and Theory Development in Strategy — and a Potential Way Forward"

Adam Elkus. Strategies of the Artificial. (2 September 2013).

Adam has assigned himself the daunting task of building computational models that perform strategic calculations similar to those Clausewitz wrote about. This means integrating a vast array of fields: classical strategic theory,  IR bargaining and game theoretic models, cognitive science and AI research, software engineering, organizational theory, and lots of mathematics. All together it is an impressive bit of research. This post--mostly a statement of the problems he wants to solve--shows how has managed how to integrate it all into one cohesive whole.

It is also a convincing explanation for why standard bargaining models are not enough to answer the most interesting questions in strategic theory. I strongly recommend it to readers interested in formal modeling of social systems.


"The Coddling of the American Mind."
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The Atlantic. (September 2015).

See also: Kevin Carey, "The Fundamental Way Universities Are An Illusion,"The New York Times (23 July 2015).

"Aggregation and the New Regulation."
Ben Thompson. Stratechery. (19 August 2015). 

"@Hillary Clinton: How Does Your Student Debt Make You Feel? Tell Us in 3 Emojis or Less" 
Nathan Tankus. Naked Capitalism. (14 August 2015). 
...In other words, what matters is the emotions you or your children feel being educated, not concretely what they do for you. Notice that she says “America should be a place where those achievements are possible,” not that everyone should be guaranteed an education. In our current neoliberal order I guess it is hopelessly idealistic to think everyone should have a good education, it shouldn’t merely be “possible.”

What of her concrete proposals? They are as milquetoast as this ending summary implies. For existing student debt she thinks that the existing loans should be refinanced at current rates. In the future she says that the government shouldn’t profit from student loans. At first glance this is very appealing, but what does this mean in practical terms? In practice it means tying the interest rate on student loans to the interest rate on government bonds.

Since this rises and falls with federal reserve policy, such a policy would directly vary the affordability of college based on Fed decisions. This is lunacy from a public policy perspective. A major federal initiative that is profoundly changed by what unelected supposedly independent bureaucrats do is at best a bad one.


"Bill Bishop: The Exodus."
Kaiser Kuo, David Moeser, and Bill Bishop. Sinica. (1 September 2015). 

Bill Bishop's Sinocism Newsletter is universally regarded as the best China watching site on the internet. He is moving from Beijing to the States this month, and the folks at Sinica invited Mr. Bishop for one last discussion about China and China watchers. Bishop's pessimistic take on the future of Chinese-American relations is very close to my own view of the situation. 

"If We Don't Understand Both Sides of China's Balance Sheet, We Understand Neither" and "Do Market Forces Determine the Value of the RMB?"  
Michael Pettis. Chinese Financial Markets. (1 September & 18 August 2015).

"A Guide to Chinese Intelligence Operations."
Peter Mattis. War on the Rocks. (18 August 2015).

"Welcome to maternity Hotel California."
Benjamin Carlson. Rolling Stone. (19 August 2015).

Read Paper Republic
We at Paper Republic are a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Our new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water.

Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.

The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu). 
Translation by Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

The Shang Shu or Shu Jing, usually translated as Book of Documents, is one of the Confucian "Five Classics," the central curriculum for Confucian thought during its first thousand years. It is also contains the few extant sources we have from the early Zhou period of Chinese history. I did not become aware of this translation of the Documents until this week; the last translation was done by James Legge in the 1890s. It is very exciting to see a newer version! 

"Oldest Koran Fragments Found at Birmingham University."
Sean Koughlan. BBC News. (22 July 2015).

"Biased samples yield biased results: What historical heights can teach us about past living standards"
Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy W. Guinnane, Thomas Mroz. VoxEU. (22 July 2015).

"The Hollow States of Islam."
"Lorenzo." Thinking Out Loud. (8 August 2015).
....Islam remained dominated by ruler-and-agents states where political processes and decision making were essentially entirely interior to the state apparatus.
Hence, until the late C19th, Islam never moved (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire, of which more below) beyond the fluid warlord states analogous to those of Christian Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For example, there was continuously a state in Egypt; the FatimidAyyubid and Mamluk states from the Fatimid conquest in 969 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517. But the ruling dynasties, their soldiers and warriors were all overwhelmingly (and continually) foreign. There was a state in Egypt, but there was no Egyptian state.


"Scientists Replicated 100 Psychology Studies, and Fewer Than Half Got the Same Results."
Brian Handwerk.  Smithsonian. (27 August 2015).

"Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?"
William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche, and Justin Garcia. American Anthropologist. (6 July 2015).


"Is This The End of Christianity in the Middle East?"
Eliza Griswold. New York Times Magazine. (22 July 2015).

This is a very compelling--heart rending even--account of Christianity's travails in the Near East.

"The Mystery of ISIS."
Anonymous. New York Review of Books. (13 August 2013).
The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.

See also: Natasha Bertand, "Western leader: Links Between Turkey and ISIS Now Undeniable," Business Insider (28 July 2015).

Patrick Cockburn. "Turkey Duped the U.S., and ISIS Reaps the Rewards." The Telegraph. (30 August 2015).

Jacob Poushter, "The Turkish People Don't Look Favorably Upon The U.S., or Any Other Country Really," Pew Research Center: Fact Tank (31 October 2014).

"Pakistan's Strategic Shift is Pure Fiction."
Christine Fair. War on the Rocks. (13 August 2015).


"Thucydides on Policy, Strategy, and War Termination."
Karl Walling. Naval War Review 66, no. 4 (2013).

"Manea Interviews Galeotti on Hybrid War at SWJ."
Mark Safranski. Zenpundit (23 August 2015).

"Interview: Thinking About ISIS in Strategic Terms."
Robert C. Ford. Small Wars Journal (9 August 2015).
I specifically do not say “state” as a system of governance can be as small as a family or as large as a nation, with many variations, formal and informal, foreign and domestic. In fact, it is not inaccurate to look at the US policy of global leadership in the post-cold war era as the largest example of a “system of governance.” I find Clausewitz’s social trinity of “Government-Army-People” as a helpful simple model of a system. So long as one has leadership, enforcement, an affected population and some defined space where that leadership and enforcement is applied, one has a system of governance. So, I think we do not error when we apply our Clausewitzian instincts when we deal with political conflict between two or more such systems – but that doing so to a political conflict within a single system has proven to be a huge error over and over again, and counterproductive to resolving the root drivers of instability...


"How Complex Systems Fail."
Richard I Cook. Cognitive Technologies Laboratory (2000).

"The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis"
 David Miller and Jonathan Wai. Frontiers in Psychology 6, iss. 27. (2015)


"Down the Rabbit Hole."
Scott Weingart. Scottbott. (12 July 2015).

On why you should never, ever, ever trust infographics passed around on Twitter... or included in national media publications. 

"Depends on What You Want" a review of The Masnavi, Book I
Abi-Ru Shirzan. Amazon.com. (9 August 2009).

This is my candidate for 'best review ever written for Amazon.com."

"This Video Proves That Every JPRG Has Exactly the Same Plot."
College Humor. (5 August 2015).