10 December, 2019

The Aussies Who Doubt Us

Pew published a thought provoking piece of research this week.[1] Included in the report were the two graphics below:

You can read the full report on the Pew website. There are many interesting threads to pull at here (for example: what country is missing from South Koreans' perceived sense of threat?), but what caught my attention are the opinions of the Australian public. There are five countries on this list that America has signed some sort of mutual defense treaty with; of the five, none are less confident in the Americans than the Australians. Australian doubts should not be too surprising: America's ability to fulfill its defense guarantees in the West Pacific is a actively debated topic in both the Australian press and the Australian think tank world. Arguments that Australia needs to prepare now to go it alone, that Americans would be unreliable in event of war, that American military capabilities are incapable of defending Australia (or America's own forward operating bases) against Chinese aggression, and that so-called Chinese 'aggression' is mostly an American plot anyway are easy to find.

Some of these claims are stronger than others, but given how common these sentiments are it is not surprising to see them leak down into general public opinion surveys. My question is not "why do the Australians doubt us?" but "why is everybody else so much more confident than they are?" Why are the Filipinos so confident in their American alliance when by any measure you might choose—American troops stationed in the country, shared military experience, cooperation between the armed forces or security services and the Americans, the strength of the bilateral relationship as a whole, the American public's fondness for the country in question—the Aussies have it so much better, yet still doubt? What assurances do the Canadians, Japanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, and Israelis (who are not even party to a mutual defense pact) have that the Australians do not?

I do not have an answer to this question, but I am interested in finding one. If you have a good hypothesis to explain what makes Australia different, sound off in the comments below.

If you found these observations on international affairs worth reading, you might also find the posts "Chinese Are Partisan Too," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism over Military Power" or "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?," of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Laura Silver, "U.S. is seen as a top ally in many countries – but others view it as a threat," Pew Research Center (5 December 2019).

08 December, 2019

Fissures in the Facade

Alessandro Rizzi, "Man in Xidan Shopping District," Getty Images (Source)
There are many aspects of Chinese society that I understand poorly. For example: the peasantry. I know the Chinese peasantry—as opposed to their close kin, the migrant workers—entirely in the abstract. I have spent no time in rural Chinese villages. I have watched documentaries about the people who live there, poured over statistical summaries, perused long-read investigative pieces, and even read entire books about these places. But I know a lot less about that world than say the 500 million or so Chinese that who actually live in it.[1]  All of my knowledge of that world comes second hand.

The China I know most intimately is the China of a different strata. This is the China of the strivers and the climbers, the China of the people who flock to Beijing or Shenzhen determined to build their own empire—and the China of the people who will settle for something far less than that a year or two in. This is the China of the the respectable classes: the students, the intellectuals, the artists, the lawyers, the scientists, the salesmen, the entrepreneurs, the investors, the civil servants, and the party hacks. China's urban middle class, China's urban upper class, and China's multi-multi-millionaries. For the young this is the China of sang tea and the 2nd dimension; for the old this is the China of soup-for-the-soul and masculinity boot camps (or for a different sort of old, this the China that produces an endless stream of satirical attacks on the soup-for-the-soulers and countless sniffs about the "low suzhi" of modern China).

A recent news item captures the anxieties of this wide swathe of people in a way that most outside coverage of China does not.

Here is the story as reported by the New York Times:
On the first anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.

She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about “numerous” Chinese online users who expressed their trust. Her letter, posted on Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Ms. Meng is known — in a term meant to be endearing — as “princess” because she is a daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.

n the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter. They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country’s top universities in a program code-named 985, worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract wasn’t renewed.

His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China’s censors at work.

The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week, and that was when the hit to Huawei’s reputation began....

“One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen,” Jiang Feng, a psychologist, commented on the Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu....

The anger on social media was also indicative of new insecurity among members of China’s middle class, who have never experienced an economic downturn and have always thought they had more protections than lower-paid migrant workers. People said they could see themselves in Mr. Li.

“Many middle-class Chinese used to believe that if they went to good schools, worked hard and cared little about the current affairs they would be able to realize their Chinese dreams,” a blogger wrote on Weibo. “Now their dreams are in tatters.”

Mr. Li, a Huawei employee for 12 years, negotiated a $48,000 severance package in March 2018, according to interviews he gave to Chinese media outlets. But he didn’t get an end-of-the-year bonus that he said had been promised to him. He sued Huawei in November last year.

A month later, he was detained in Shenzhen and accused of leaking commercial secrets. He was officially arrested in January on an extortion accusation. But he was released in August with no charges. He did not respond to interview requests.....

In a sign that many middle-class professionals are worried that what happened to Mr. Li could happen to them, online users circulated articles about jail life, especially in the Longgang detention center in Shenzhen, where Mr. Li spent more than eight months. Huawei is based in Shenzhen’s Longgang district.

Some online users are circulating a three-part blog post by a programmer who spent over a year in the detention center for working on gaming and gambling software. Gambling is illegal in China. The blogger wrote in detail what it was like to live in a 355-square-foot cell with 55 people in tropical weather — what they ate, wore and did every day....

Many Chinese are especially outraged by the degree to which news coverage and online responses have been censored. They say they feel helpless because they can’t criticize the government. Now they feel they are also not able to criticize a giant corporation.

One of the Weibo posts of Ms. Meng’s letter received 1,400 comments. Many simply said 251, the number of days Mr. Li was detained. Fewer than 10 comments, sympathetic ones, are still visible to the public.

“A company that’s too big to criticize is even scarier than a company that’s too big to fail,” Nie Huihua, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the news site Jiemian on Tuesday.

Jiemian’s interview with Mr. Li, published on Monday, was deleted.[1]
A bit more information from Quartz:
The episode comes during a particularly strained time in relations between Chinese tech workers and employers. The trade war with the US has led to a number of layoffs, and there are mounting grievances at the long hours of work in China’s tech sector. The online protest against the work hours is known as “996,” which refers to the 9 am to 9 pm, six-days-a-week work schedule that is common in Chinese tech companies. 
In response to Huawei’s charm offensive in support of Meng, Chinese users on social network Weibo have been posting under hashtags such as ”Huawei’s former employee” (link in Chinese). Many of the comments expressed sympathy for Li and accused Huawei of treating him poorly. Others posted the numbers “996” and “251,” referring to the number of days Li is said to have been detained. Other numbers cited by users are “985” and “404”, referring to Li’s graduation from one of China’s top 985 universities and the error message displayed when a website page has been deleted, hinting at Chinese censorship of the topic online. 
“We’ll never become Meng Wanzhou, but we could become the next Li Hongyuan,” read one comment (link in Chinese). “We firmly support the Canadian authorities to extradite the ‘princess’ to the US,” said another. Patriotism, a motivation often cited by Chinese consumers for buying Huawei phones, has not eased the online storm of criticism of the company. “I love China, but I don’t love Huawei,” wrote one social media user. Another said Huawei has been “presented as a chariot tied up with patriotism,” but the company has betrayed “business norms and restraints.” [3]
What these stories are really reporting on is a deeper social fissure in China. I believe it is one of the most important divides for understanding the strengths and weakness of the current regime. The same fissure was graphically illustrated to me by a political cartoon a friend in Beijing sent me to several years ago. Her intent was to show me what she thought about her place in China's future. I have not been able to find the cartoon through Baidu searching but I can describe its basic content: a bullet train, rushing ahead at full speed, its flanks emblazoned with the word NATIONAL ECONOMY. Dragged behind the train is a man. He is holding on to the last car with by his fingertips. If he loosens his grip he will fly away and fall onto the tracks. On his shirt are the words MIDDLE CLASS.

The meaning is fairly obvious. In the space of two generations China's professional classes went from nothing to a great deal of something. Publicly they attribute their success to talent and hard work. Privately they admit that they must share this credit with good luck.[4] But will the good luck hold? In a China dramatically dividing, a world cleft ever more clearly between haves and have-nots, will they be able to stay on the side of the haves? The problem is made all the more nerve-racking when they realize that this is not just their problem: it is their kid's problem too. 

It is hard to ride the tiger; harder still to ride it while teaching your child how to hold the reins. This paranoia about the capabilities and prospects of the next generation casts an omnipresent gloom. It grips the hearts of parents from the lowest tier of the Chinese middle class all the way up to the families of billionaires. I know this through personal experience. I was disturbed by the first Chinese multi-millionaire who expressed this fear to me. "Why should he worry?" I wondered. Why should someone with all of this wealth be so stressed and worried about his children's intellectual training? Why does he worry about them not having an education good enough for "the challenges of the future?" Surely, given the wealth they will inherit, they will be ok?

Surely so.... unless you are not so sure your children will be in a position to inherit anything.

I learned a lot about the way Chinese people—especially those born in the 60s, 70s,  and early 80s, who remember clearly what it means to live in want—think about their regime and its future on that day. The lesson has been taught to me a great many times since. I won't delve into more stories here:  it is enough to say that the Chinese upper crust are not buying houses in Vancouver and Hokkaido and Honolulu simply because they expect a good return on their capital.

But what about the Chinese professional who doesn't have the money to buy a plum house in Canberra? If my friend the Beijing multi-millionaire is antsy about his future, what about the millions of Chinese white-collar workers with no hope of earning even their first million?

Earlier this year I had a bar-side conversation with a very successful digital-security type, a specialist in Chinese cyber-ops. The discussion had turned to the success of Russian interference operations and the likelihood that these operations on the Russian style would soon be copied by security services across the world. "Well if that is the future," said I, "when do we arm up ourselves? How long will we play only defense? What is to stop the United States from doing to the Chinese what we just saw the Russians do to us?"

My interlocutor argued against the proposal: the risks of trying to destabilize Chinese society outweighed the benefits. Besides, there were three very practical challenges that would make any interference campaign on the mainland  impossible. The first, though easiest to surmount, is technical: the Chinese internet is separated from the rest of the world by the great firewall, WeChat and Weibo are harder to sneak bots and operators into, and so forth. A much more difficult problem is America's human capital deficit. The U.S. intelligence community simply does not have the people you would need to run this campaign. They do not have specialists who understand Chinese subcultures, internet norms, and the ground level texture of Chinese society well enough to make potential interference look and feel organic. America has those people. But almost all of them are very recent immigrants—not the sort federal agencies hand out security clearances to. Thus even if you found the one message custom-made to divide the Chinese nation, the signal would die in the voice of the sender. A perfectly honest critique of Party tyranny delivered by Mike Pompeo would only inoculate average Chinese against the truths he speaks. It would only work if delivered in the idiom of China's own disaffected.

That led directly to his third objection: The field is not fallow. The Russians had success in America precisely because American society is already in shambles. The Russians could fake Texas secession and Black Lives Matters accounts because significant numbers of Texan and black Americans have already endorsed radical attacks on America's existing body politic. The Russians did not create American political hysteria; they simply exploited divisions and conflicts two decades in the making.  It is for very similar reasons the PRC interference campaign in Taiwan has a good chance of working out: Taiwan, like America, is a society divided against itself. But is China? Where are the social fissures in which you could drive this wedge? He saw none.

He saw none—but I do. There is a fissure in the facade. The fissure that matters in today's China is the gulf between the worlds of Meng Wanzhou and Li Hongyuan. It is the breach between those who have spent their lives jumping through hoops in chase of a chimera, and those whose only worry is that their family might come down on the wrong side of the next anti-corruption campaign. It is the gap between those who ache for some guarantee that their children will have a place in the race, and those Red few who do not have to bother with running their children in it at all. Understand: the gap I speak of is not that between the haves and the have-nots, though that is related. It is the void that separates those the Communist system is designed to save from those who it will blindly, indifferently sacrifice.

What is the most dangerous thought in modern China? Is it that the Party has jailed a million Uyghurs? That the Party has launched war on religion, speech, and a hundred other liberties? No, most Chinese do not care about these things; polling doesn't exist, but it would surprise me to learn that the majority of Chinese do not support the Party's policies fully in all of this. Anybody who has asked run-of-the-mill Chinese on the street what they think about Islam or minorities or  conditions that lead towards "luan" will understand this. Is it then that the Party has a history of violence and terror that left more Chinese dead than China's foreign enemies ever managed? That disconcerts Chinese who learn about it, though in my experience the shock is more at being lied to about their history than it is about actual death tolls. The regime can survive whispered conversations about Changchun and June 4th. The most subversive, explosive message you tell the Chinese people is something different. It goes like this:

The Party is a racket.  The guys at the top are not any different from the ones you deal with at the bottom. The Party exists to make sure their kids have a spot at the front of the line no matter how much more your kids deserve it. You are not forced to call Xi all these fancy titles because it will help him restore China to its ancestral glory: you are forced to do all of that so Xi Jinping's daughter gets into Harvard and his family racks up homes in Hong Kong. All of the taxes, the censorship, the ridiculous rules and regulations, the blustering about war, the hero-worship and the propaganda, the detention centers and the cameras—it is all a racket. You live a slave so that someone else's children can get ahead.

That is the fissure in the facade. It is whispered of. It is wondered at. Sooner or later, it will explode.

If you found these observations on Chinese society useful, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers" or "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Perhaps better said, the 500 million government statisticians declare live there—if they are calculating that number by means of hukou registration then a great chunk of that 500 million are rural dwellers in absentia

[2] Li Yuan, "How Huawei Lost the Heart of the Chinese Public," New York Times, 4 December 2019.

[3] Jane Li, "Huawei’s toughest PR battle isn’t overseas, it’s at home," Quartz, 3 December 2019.

[4] I have never heard, in private or public, a Chinese person attribute their personal wealth to the Communist Party of China. Support for the Party stems from other sources.

30 November, 2019

Freud Did Not Discover the Unconscious

Image Source
Stanislas Dehaene's Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts is a compulsively readable summary of the "global neural workspace theory" of consciousness. Chapters 1-2 are an especially useful summary of the last two decades of research into unconscious perception. If you are unfamiliar with the idea that your memories and perception of the world around you—down to the shapes, colors, and items you see in the room you are sitting in—are an incomplete representation of reality, a representation that is equal parts a reflection of data taken in from the outside world by your senses and a series of guesses derived from statistical computations performed by unconsciously your brain, then you should buy and read the book (or at least the first hundred pages). Included in these first hundred pages is a lovely digression where Dehaene launches into harangue upon Sigmund Freud:
The discovery that a dramatic amount of mental processing occurs outside our awareness is generally credited to Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939). However, this is a myth, crafted in large part by Freud himself. As noted by the historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet, “When Freud declares, in substance, that prior to psychoanalysis the mind was systematically identified with consciousness, we have to declare this statement rigorously false.” 
In truth, the realization that many of our mental operations occur sub rosa, and that consciousness is only a thin veneer lying atop sundry unconscious processors, predates Freud by decades or even centuries.  In Roman antiquity, the physician Galen (ca. 129– 200) and the philosopher Plotinus (ca. 204– 270) had already noticed that some of the body’s operations, such as walking and breathing, occur without attention. Much of their medical knowledge was in fact inherited from Hippocrates (ca. 460– 377 BC), a keen observer of diseases whose name remains an emblem of the medical profession. Hippocrates wrote an entire treatise on epilepsy, called The Sacred Disease, in which he noted that the body suddenly misbehaves against its owner’s will. He concluded that the brain constantly controls us and covertly weaves the fabric of our mental life:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain alone, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, grieves and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant. 
During the Dark Ages, which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, Indian and Arab scholars preserved some of antiquity’s medical wisdom. In the eleventh century, the Arab scientist known as Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, 965– 1040) discovered the main principles of visual perception. Centuries before Descartes, he understood that the eye operates as a camera obscura, a receiver rather than an emitter of light, and he foresaw that various illusions could fool our conscious perception. Consciousness was not always in control, Alhazen concluded. He was the first to postulate an automatic process of unconscious inference: unknown to us, the brain jumps to conclusions beyond the available sense data, sometimes causing us to see things that are not there.

Eight centuries later the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, in his 1867 book, Physiological Optics, would use the very same term, unconscious inference, to describe how our vision automatically computes the best interpretation compatible with incoming sense data.

Beyond the issue of unconscious perception lay the greater issue of the origins of our deepest motives and desires. Centuries before Freud, many philosophers— including Augustine (354– 430), Thomas Aquinas (1225– 74), Descartes (1596– 1650), Spinoza (1632– 77), and Leibniz (1646– 1716)— noted that the course of human actions is driven by a broad array of mechanisms that are inaccessible to introspection, from sensorimotor reflexes to unaware motives and hidden desires. Spinoza cited a hodgepodge of unconscious drives:  a child’s desire for milk, an injured person’s will for revenge, a drunkard’s craving for the bottle, and a chatterbox’s uncontrollable speech.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the first neurologists discovered proof after proof of the omnipresence of unconscious circuits in the nervous system. Marshall Hall (1790– 1857) pioneered the concept of a “reflex arc,” linking specific sensory inputs to particular motor outputs, and he emphasized our lack of voluntary control over basic movements that originate in the spinal cord. Following in his footsteps, John Hughlings Jackson (1835– 1911) underscored the hierarchical organization of the nervous system, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex and from automatic operations to increasingly voluntary and conscious ones. In France, the psychologists and sociologists Théodule Ribot (1839– 1916), Gabriel Tarde (1843– 1904), and Pierre Janet (1859– 1947) stressed the broad range of human automatisms, from practical knowledge stored in our action memory (Ribot) to unconscious imitation (Tarde) and even to subconscious goals that date from early childhood and become defining facets of our personality (Janet). French scientists were so advanced that when the ambitious Freud published his first claims to fame, Janet protested that he owned the paternity of many of Freud’s ideas.

As early as 1868, the British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley (1835– 1918) had written that “the most important part of mental action, the essential process on which thinking depends, is unconscious mental activity.”  Another contemporary neurologist, Sigmund Exner, who was Freud’s colleague in Vienna, had stated in 1899: “We shouldn’t say ‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’ but rather ‘it thinks in me’ [es denkt in mir], ‘it feels in me’ [es fühlt in mir]”— a full twenty years prior to Freud’s reflections in The Ego and the Id (Das Ich und das Es), published in 1923. At the turn of the century, the ubiquity of unconscious processes was so well accepted that in his major treatise The Principles of Psychology (1890), the great American psychologist and philosopher William James could boldly state:

“All these facts, taken together, form unquestionably the beginning of an inquiry which is destined to throw a new light into the very abysses of our nature. . . . They prove one thing conclusively, namely, that we must never take a person’s testimony, however sincere, that he has felt nothing, as proof positive that no feeling has been there.”

Any human subject, he surmised, “will do all sorts of incongruous things of which he remains quite unaware.” Relative to this flurry of neurological and psychological observations, clearly demonstrating that unconscious mechanisms drive much of our lives, Freud’s own contribution appears speculative. It would not be a huge exaggeration to say that in his work, the ideas that are solid are not his own, while those that are his own are not solid.[1]
The interesting question then is this: if the unconscious nature of human perception and motivation had been so long known, why did Freud's restatement have such a large impact on his contemporaries?  In 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen was ready to credit "the Freudian gospel" with both the collapse of the pre-1920s system of sexual and gender norms and with the general sense of intellectual cynicism that prevailed in that decade. Why did Freud get credit for that instead of the dozens of physicians, philosophers, and psychologists that Dehaene mentions?

Allen's depiction of popular Freudianism may hold the clue. The cynicism of '20s intellectuals came from ideas like:
That we are residents of an insignificant satellite of a very average star obscurely placed in one of who-knows-how-many galaxies scattered through space; that our behavior depends largely upon chromosomes and ductless glands; that the Hottentot obeys impulses similar to those which activate the pastor of the First Baptist Church, and is probably already better adapted to his Hottentot environment than he would be if he followed the Baptist code; that sex is the most important thing in life, that inhibitions are not to be tolerated, that sin is an out-of-date term, that most untoward behavior is the result of complexes acquired at an early age, and that men and women are mere bundles of behavior-patterns, anyhow.[2]
Now not all of that came from Freud ("obscurely placed planet"), but the majority does, and falls under Allen's discussion of what he calls the "Freudian gospel." The key to Freud's success, I think, was not that he proposed human action was largely the product of unconscious perceptions, desires, and so forth. That was not new. What was new was Freud's argument that all of these perceptions, desires, and complexes were the product of the sex drive. Freud changed the intellectual world by boiling human behavior down to sex. The unconscious was just a way stop on that path. It was a tool needed to explain away the incredible variety of emotions and impulses that make up human life.

As with Freud so with many who have followed in his foot steps. You will be told that human behavior is all about 'X.' For some people, 'X' will be class or racial consciousness; for others it will be power, or social signaling, or some narrowly defined function of expected utility. There is something incredibly seductive in all such tales. It is hard not to be pulled in by the cynical claims of a theory that reduces the totality of human society to a single base impulse. Freud took advantage of this and became famous because of it.

If you found this post to your liking, you might also find the posts " Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s " and "Of Words and Weapons" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2014), 55-56.

[2] Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (Open Road Media, 2015; or. ed. 1931), kindle location 2812.

25 November, 2019

Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping

Readers may remember a post from a few months ago where I excerpted a few of the most interesting passages of François Bougon’s Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping for the sake of public reference. This week Foreign Policy published my review of the book as a whole. Here is how I start it off:
Xi Jinping is a Chinese renaissance man. Self-assured, self-possessed, and utterly unflappable, Xi is equally at home on the hearths of struggling farmers and in the greeting halls of foreign capitals. State media likes to juxtapose the years he spent in the caves of Shaanxi with the days he spent governing Shanghai’s glittering towers. Here is a man as men should be: a leader who can grasp both the plow and the bond market! So things go with Xi Jinping. 
Though Xi studied chemical engineering, he presents himself as a littérateur. In Russia, he peppers his speeches with Dostoevsky and Gogol; when in France, Molière and Maupassant. To better grasp the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea, Xi traveled to Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana. Xi has a hankering for historical sites like these, especially those associated with famous scenes from the stories of Chinese antiquity. He cultivates a reputation for taking history seriously; his speeches are filled with allusions to obscure sages and statesmen from China’s past. 
But Xi is also eager to present himself as a man of the future. He revels in touring laboratories and centers of scientific innovation. He dabbles in complexity science and has tried to integrate its findings into Chinese Communist Party policies. There is a certain flexibility to China’s leader: To financiers, he adopts the argot of debts and derivatives. To Davos revelers, he drifts easily into the trendy buzzwords of the global business class. To soldiers, he speaks in military idiom (on many occasions happily attired in army greens), and to party members, the jargon of Marxist theory. For the common people of China, he consciously models an ideal of patriotic service and loving family life. 
But what of the person behind the persona? Unearthing that man is the goal of François Bougon’s book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, translated from the original French into English in 2018. [1]
So what are Bougon's conclusions?

The first big take away from Bougan's book is the centrality of Mao to Xi Jinping's political project:
Xi’s driving need to rehabilitate Mao is partly born out of practical necessity.... But this political calculation is only half of the story. Added to it is a sincere emotional attachment to Mao and his era. This nostalgia for Maoism at first seems an incredible delusion. Why does Xi yearn for an era that saw his father, a prominent Communist Party leader, maligned, mother tortured, sister killed, and himself banished? Xi’s own answer to that question: Yanan. Xi’s associates New China not with the terrors his family experienced in Beijing but with the seven years he spent as a “sent-down youth” farming with the same peasants his father had governed 20 years earlier as a young revolutionary. More than a decade before Xi was elevated to dictatorship, he described his time farming the yellow loess of Yanan as “seven years of rural life [that] gave me something mysterious and sacred.” 
Xi came to Yanan as a bitter teenager unafraid to flout party rules. (He ran away once during his first year there and spent some time doing forced labor because of it.) He would leave Yanan a man so deeply committed to life in party service that he would apply for party membership 10 times. 
Bougon traces how these experiences with the peasants of Yanan formed the bedrock of later political positions: a withering distaste for conspicuous consumption, the belief that corruption among party cadres brings disaster, a idolization for the revolutionary heroes of his father’s generation, and the deep conviction that the party must present the Chinese people with larger ideals worth sacrificing for. “Even now,” Xi said in 2004, “many of the fundamental ideas and basic features that I have formed were formed in Yanan.” Two years earlier, he voiced a similar message: “Wherever I go, I will always be a son of that yellow earth.” 
Xi is deeply troubled that the same spirit of self-denial and sacrifice that was instilled in him at Yanan is missing from later generation of party members. (His own belief in his sacrifice has not prevented his family from accumulating immense wealth, both inside China and off-shore in foreign accounts; as with other leaders, Xi has particularly targeted any institution that reports on this.) This is one of the reasons Xi resurrected what Bougon labels the “national imaginary” of Communist China. 
Xi delights in the legendary heroes whom Maoist propagandists manufactured in Xi’s childhood: the selfless youth Lei Feng, the incorruptible cadres Jiao Yulu and Gu Wenchang, the martyred soldiers of Mount Langya, and so forth. He invokes their names and examples in speech after speech. The box office failure of three films about Lei Feng in 2013 seems to have been one of the spurs for a renewed insistence on patriotic movies. That their deeds are exaggerations or fabrications does not concern him much. Absent a personal history of sacrifice for the sake of revolutionary ideals, a spirit of consecration must be cultivated through myth. Xi believes he is the personnel caretaker of the national mythos that Chinese society needs to survive and thrive in an era of intense international competition.[2]
The second is Xi's perception of the cultural threat the West poses to China:
This self-conception helps explain Xi’s other great obsession: defeating the so-called hostile forces inside and outside of China that would weaken the people’s faith in the political and ideological system that Xi helms. The view that China is locked in an ideological struggle for survival predates the Xi era—Bougon traces it to the later years of Hu’s administration, but scholars like John Garver and Matthew Johnson have traced the origin of these ideas all the way back to the late 1980s—but it is essential to understanding Xi’s policies. Bougon highlights a speech given in 2009 as especially important statement of Xi’s beliefs: “There are certain well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point the finger. Yet, firstly, China is not the one exporting revolution.”

In numerous speeches, Xi has identified the Soviet Union as the most prominent victim of revolutionary export. The United States and allied hostile forces, he maintains, successfully destroyed the Soviet Communist Party through a strategy of cultural subversion. Xi is determined not to let the same fate befall the Chinese Communist Party. In Bougon’s words, Xi has becomes a “culture warrior.” This culture war is more deserving of that title than the political debates that are given that name in Western countries. It has led to the jailing of historians; crackdowns on internet personalities, human rights activists, feminists, and labor organizers; censorship in literary journals, newspapers, and Chinese social media; an all-out assault on Chinese Christianity; and the labyrinth of detention centers in Xinjiang. It is also, though Bougon does not mention them, the impulse behind the coercion and surveillance of activists, students, dissidents, former officials, and Chinese-language media outlets outside of China’s borders. Culture and ideology spill across borders. To fight his culture war, so must the iron hand of the Communist state.[3]
I encourage you to read the rest of the review yourself. I also encourage you to read and purchase the book. It is not long, but is well written. Currently it is the first book I give to people when they ask things like, "What should I read to understand why things are the way they are in modern China?" or "How does the Chinese Communist Party understand the world?" The second book I recommend is Jonathan Ward's China's Vision of Victory. But that recommendation comes with many caveats; this one does not.

If you found this post on China's political ideology useful, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "Xi Jinping Knows Who His Enemies Are," Foreign Policy (21 November 2019).

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

Blogs I Read, Researchers I Follow, and Podcasts I Listen To

I spent some time this weekend updating the blog roll and other side bars, which I had otherwise left untouched for a year or two. Hypothetically one could use Internet Archive to see how the blog roll has changed since this blog's inception twelve years ago. Many of the internet's best blogs simply do not exist any more. Other things have been added to or dropped from the list as my interests have changed.

To the blog roll category I have added a list of podcasts I listen to as well as a list of academic or institutional researchers/research centers I follow. These are not the only researchers whose work I try to keep up with, but they are the researchers who keep well maintained pages listing their most recent research. For the most part I have eliminated websites from the blog roll if they are not still actively producing content, but there were four exceptions: Xavier Marquez's Annotated Footnotes, Nibras Kazimi's Talisman's Gate, Pseudoerasmus' old blog, and Mike Duncan's History of Rome Podcast podcast. Marquez, Kazimi, and Pseudoerasmus have not posted in a year and Duncan officially completed his podcast a few years ago. However the content on all three sites is of such quality that they are worth wading through the backlogs.

The content linked to can split into six main categories: history, behavioral science, Asian politics and current affairs, strategic theory and war,  and general literary or cultural commentary. Not coincidentally, my own writing is focused on the same suite of topics.


Sententiae Antiquae and Far Outliers are both essentially commonplace books; the author of the first provides daily excerpts from the surviving corpus of ancient Latin and Greek works; the second's passages are drawn mostly from works of contemporary historians, and range across the span of human history.

Sean Manning is a specialist in ancient Persia; his blog Book and Sword provides an interesting if very in-the-weeds look at epigraphy, historical linguistics, archaeology,  historiography, and ancient historical sources. He also occasionally comments on contemporary politics or historical periods as the mood fits him. Will Buckner's Traditions of Conflict provides a fascinating look at the ethnography and archaeology of simple societies and the role that violence, ritual, and hierarchy played inside them. Xavier Marquez is a political scientist, and his writing at Abandoned Footnotes is very much grounded in theory of political science. However, his favorite subjects (authoritarianism and political cults) are rooted in 20th century political history and so I will put his work here. Razib Khan's Gene Expression is divided evenly between population genetics, social commentary, and history, but half of those genetics posts are on historical topics. He also co-hosts The Insight, which covers similar ground, sans the social commentary.

I follow several podcasts and book review sites that help me stay aware of new books and idea in historical work. I regularly listen to the New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Military History podcasts for this reason; Reviews in History, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and the book review sections for H-Net Asia and EH-Net fulfill a similar function. Economic history, 'big history,' and other attempt to apply the methodology of social sciences to the study of history has long been an interest and passion of mine, though I have not had the time to follow as closely as I once did. When it was still a live thing, Pseudoerasmus' blog was simply the best website around on this topic (now he seems mostly to use twitter). The GMU Economic History Group is one of the central groups doing active research on this topic; two academics associates with the group that I follow with particular interest are Mark Koyama and Melanie Xue. Stanford history professor Walter Schiedel has moved from a traditional classicist into a leading proponent of incorporating models and data from economics, climatology, etc. into historical research; Peter Turchin is another example of the same trend but from the other end: he began his career as an ecologist. He is the journal editor of Cliodynamics: A Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, which I peruse with interest.

Yuri Pines is one of the world's premier sinologists. He has helpfully uploaded a pdf copy of almost everything he has ever written on his site. Oriens Extremis is a flag ship journal in sinology; the other journal that I check up on a few times a year is the Journal of Chinese Military History.

Finishing this section off are the History of Rome and History of India podcasts, both of which are excellent chronological, narrative accounts of the the historical periods they cover.


I believe that Behavioral and Brain Sciences is simply the best journal in this field. It may be the best journal in any field; if all journals were to be obliterated tomorrow and I get to keep only one, Behavioral and Brain Sciences would be it. Edge and Aeon often cover similar topics but for a popular audience. I follow with particular interest developments in political psychology, cross-cultural psychology, social cognition, judgement and decision making, and the intersections of each of these with affective neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, cultural evolution, and philosophy of mind. Some of the researchers who I follow (and who keep their websites up to date) in these fields include: Luke Conway, Luke Glowacki, Joshua KertzerJospeh Henrich, Cecilia HeyesThomas Talhelm, Michele Gelfand, Paul Glimcher, Hannah Nam, Jennifer LernerPeter DeScioliCoren ApicellaHugo Mercier, Olivier Morin, and the various people involved at the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture. There are many others I would add to this list if they kept their websites updated.

Ginger Cambell's Brain Science Podcast is an excellent way to keep up with new research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The group blog Cognition and Culture, on the other hand, is an engaging series of jottings from the folks connected to the Paris school of cultural evolution.

Gwern Branwen and Scott Alexander are two prominent rationalist bloggers. Like a lot of rationalist content their writing straddles behavioral science, cultural commentary, and esoteric problems in technology or economics.


Currently the best site in this category is Andrew Batson's blog on Chinese politics, economics, and history. Ma Tianijie's Chublic Opinion is also very useful, though Ma has not posted new material in a distressing amount of time. Nathan Batto's blog Frozen Garlic is updated often, though its topic is narrow: Taiwanese electoral politics and polling. Those interested in Taiwanese politics will also want to follow the podcast/youtube show Current Affairs Taiwan. It is  criminally under-followed, despite being the single best thing in the English language on the topic.

The Jamestown Foundation's China Brief, Hoover's Chinese Leadership Monitor, and the Journal of Contemporary China tend to be written in mind-numbingly boring prose, but the research presented is important and useful.

Jaideep Prahbu's takes on various topics in international affairs is the sole Indian perspective represented on my blogroll. I would like to expand that category, but struggle to find writers who are both 1) Excellent, and 2) Collect all of their writing on one web-page.


Back in the days of the old Strategy Sphere this category made up the majority of my blog roll. Today all of those old blogs are dead; none of the blogs on the roll today fall in this category. Readers interested in the topic are better off following publications like War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, and Small Wars Journal on the shorter side, and Naval War College Review, Parameters, and Infinity Journal for longer, peer-reviewed materialI am always impressed with the Naval War College Review in particular; somehow they manage to present topics of importance without ever declining into brain-killing RANDspeak.

Speaking of RANDspeak, I also keep track of several think tanks that work on defense issues. Pound for pound the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment is the single best think tank in Washington. I will defend them to the death. Australia's Lowy Institute and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute also produce a lot of content that will interest readers of this blog. I find the work of the 2049 Institute and CNAS to be a bit less even, but when they produce a good report is is usually a very good report. Other institutions have stellar individual researchers I follow, but are usually not worth following as an institution.

There are dozens of podcasts on these topics and I hate all of them. The only exception is the Midrats Radio Show, which manages to keep conversations real and grounded in a way almost nothing else in the eternally image conscious nat/sec world is. I strongly recommend it.

The Privacy, Security and OSINT Show is not really about defense issues, but if you work in that field you may find it interesting. The host is a former FBI cybercrimes investigator and currently runs a firm that helps celebrities, individuals threatened by stalkers, and privacy nerds disappear.  If this show does not make you paranoid nothing else will.


Evidence Anecdotal is another common-place book style blog. His entries are almost always lifted from the letters, diaries, and forgotten books of the luminaries of English literature. The podcast Canon Ball is an engaging attempt to read and discuss all of the authors included in Bloom's Western Canon. Their episodes are a bit hit-and-miss, but the hits (like their episode on Paradise Lost) are thought provoking in the extreme.

The Art of Manliness really surprised me. I thought the episodes would be as shallow as their episode descriptions make them out to be: but they are not! I am consistently impressed with the quality of the episodes and the guests that show up on the Art of Manliness podcast. For an example of an episode that completely surprised me with its quality, try listening to "Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialists World." It is marketed at the intellectual level of an Oprah episode, but give it a try and you will find it as good as any other podcast I have linked to here.

A podcast that does not market itself at the intellectual level of an Oprah episode is Manifesto! This podcast wanders all over 20th and 21st century intellectual history. It typically has a more literary and philosophical bent than most of the other stuff on my side bar. Along those lines, Tara Isabella Burton and Lauren Oyler are two contemporary essayists of a literary bent that I particularly enjoy. Ross Douthat likely needs no introduction; this is the category in which he belongs. This category, like that of the behavioral science researchers, would also be larger if essayists were in the habit of maintaining and updating their websites.

I am probably more exposed to commentators with a world view or educational background in the social sciences. Marginal Revolution is the most famous of this sort. Of similar style to Marginal Revolution but slightly different focus is Nathaniel Givens' Difficult Run and "Isegoria's" Isegoria. Givens' perspective is very much that of an economist with a dash of standard American Mormon sensibilities added in. On the other hand, I think Isegoria's background is in some field of engineering. Politically he would likely self-identify as a neoreactionary if you put the question to him, but he manages to avoid both the zaniness and racial hatred popular with that set. All three tend to operate by collecting very interesting news items and social science studies and offering to readers with a few comments attached.

I do not know who runs The Worthy House, but I do know he will be altogether too reactionary for many of my readers. This one is a little too eager to burn the world down. But in the meantime he reviews many interesting books and provides an equally interesting window into the worldview of a certain sort of rightist.

Ben Thompson's Stratechery belongs into an entirely different group. Thompson's main topic is consumer technology and business strategy, and he writes up his thoughts on the maneuverings of Facebook, Apple, et. al a few times a week. I put him in this category because his essays double as social and political commentary on the intersections between technology, economics, and cultural life. His observations here are smart and worth reflecting on.

Randall Collins is a retired sociologist who spends his retirement writing up small sociological analyses of random topics (the micro-sociology of the lives of figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Gandhi, and.... Jesus Christ, the sociology of American gun violence, education driven social stratification, etc). He posts these on his blog, Sociological Eye, a few times a year.

Adam Elkus' newest blog is what prompted me to go and retool the side bar in the first place. Elkus began his first blog back in the heyday of the old Strategy Sphere and has blogged on and off again since its collapse. While some of his new posts touch on defense topics, his interests have in large part shifted over the last decade to new frontiers: memetics, computational social science, artificial intelligence, and the dysfunctions of various epistemic communities, be they on twitter or in the halls of government.

Well that is everyone on the sidebar. Now that I have written out, I am curious: what are your favorite blogs, writers, or researchers? Feel free to post links to their content below.

If you like lists of things I like to read, you might also like the posts that talk about some of my favorite books. Try out "Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings," "Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List," and "A Study Guide for Understanding Human Society."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

20 November, 2019

A Note on "Historical Nihilism"

Image Sourc
"We should continuously upgrade our understanding of Marxism and maintain steadfast pursuit of the great ideal and goal.... We should earnestly study, understand and believe these theories, and put them to good use. We should not be conceived or impetuous when we have won success and not waver or give up in times of adversity. We should stand fast and hold onto the great ideas that promote the progress of human society and the realization of human ideals."
—Xi Jinping (July 2016) 
In the summer of 2013 Xi Jinping delivered a speech on the National Conference of Development Work. Included in the official version of his speech is the following paragraph:
How strong and invincible people can be if they have lofty aspirations! During China's revolution, development, and reform, innumerable Party members laid down their lives for the cause of the Party and the people. What supported them was the moral strength gained from the utmost importance they attached to their revolutionary ideals.[1]
This focus on aspirations and ideals pervades Xi's speeches; it is something of an obsession with him. He is deeply concerned that 21st century Chinese simply do not have have fortitude and sense of self sacrifice needed to make China great. This worries him greatly.

What interests me in this paragraph, however, is the second sentence:  During China's revolution, development, and reform, innumerable Party members laid down their lives for the cause of the Party and the people. Xi is saying something very interesting here. The history of the Communist Party of China is a history of glorious martyrdom—both during the revolution that brought the Party to power and after it.

Xi commonly divides the history of his Party into three sections. He does it in this speech I have just quoted. He would do so again a few years later, in a speech commemorating the Long March:
The victory of the Long March proved that Party leadership is a fundamental guarantee ensuring that the cause of the Party and the people will succeed. Mao Zedong once said, "Who brought the Long March to victory? The Communist Party. Without the Communist Party, a long march of this kind would have been inconceivable. The Communist Party of China, its leadership, and its cadres and its members fear no difficulties or hardships." Party leadership has guaranteed the success of China's revolution, socialist construction, and reform." [2]
Revolution. Socialist construction (or socialist development). Reform. This is the standard periodization of the Communist Party of China. We live in the reform era. "Reform and Opening Up" is the official name, and it has been going on since Deng Xiaoping decided to liberalize China's SOEs and transform China into a "socialist market economy."  Revolution refers to the period from the Party's founding through the Party's seizure of power in Nanjing and the retreat of the KMT across the Taiwan Strait. The Mao years make up the middle period. In this time the formula of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" had not yet been found. China just had socialism—or at least, attempts to "construct" and "develop" it.

The Party mythology is full of heroes who died valiantly for the cause of the Chinese people in the Party's early days. Chinese television is full of dramatizations of Communists fighting against the Japanese; less televised, but still celebrated, are those who died fighting the nationalists. These are the glorious dead of "revolution."

Who are the dead of development and reform?

I do not know the exact number of Communist Party members who died after the revolution ended. I do know the number must be massive. Remember that the Cultural Revolution began as an attack upon the Party. It ended as a civil war among China's youth, both sides claiming the mantle of Marxist revolutionaries. A great deal of 'red' blood was spilt in the reign of Mao Zedong.

Xi Jinping is well aware of this. Xi was himself a target of the revolution. His sister died in it; he, his parents, and his other siblings were exiled, imprisoned, or tortured because of it. Through war and will, Xi's father had climbed the Communist hierarchy.  He knew the grand and bloody heights of Zhongnanhai. He brought his family to perch there with him. Though young, Xi would have personally known many of the country's most prominent Communist leaders when the tumult began. He would have attended school with their children. He would have watched as these 'heroes' were killed off by zealous Red Guards. He would have seen them thrown from their heights one by one until he was thrown down himself.

How does Chairman Xi make sense of these things? I often ponder this question. Xi Jinping is a man who watched the Communist Party cannibalize itself. He watched this up close. He suffered tremendous grief and pain because of it. And yet from the age of 17 forward he devoted his life to it. He has done more than defend Party: he has personally moved to punish historians and researchers who chronicle its past—a past he lived through. Those historians who research the atrocities of the Mao years are accused of "engaging in historical nihilism."

Much has been written on historical nihilism. But what does it mean? I do not think the pairing of those two words together was accidental.[4] The Party is accusing these historians of stripping history of its meaning. But what meaning? What meaning is being lost?

Xi Jinping has beliefs about meaning. He often articulates them. In his mind the Communist Party and its cause are suffused with it. He dreams of progress. "The system of Chinese socialism represents a fundamental institutional guarantee for progress," he says. This 'progress' is not for China only. The "Communist Party of China and the Chinese people," he declares, "are more than confident that we can offer a Chinese solution to human society, " a solution for those peoples who want "to explore a better social system." The Party's path is an advance in "human civilization."[3] These are the great ideals that China's martyrs and heroes died for.

We might ask: does that include the heroes and martyrs who died after the revolution ended?

 Xi Jinping will never say this explicitly. He cannot. But this is more or less how he talks about the Mao years: a time of both pain and glory, of socialist "construction" and "development," the necessary stepping stone of toil, tests, and tears that made the current regime possible. The wonder that is modern China, he implies, was built from the blood of those countless dead. Their deaths were terrible. Vicious. But they were not meaningless. They were the building blocks of progress.

The problem with the historical nihilists now can be seen in a different frame. Yes, by telling the truth about the Party's past the historians might make the Party's hold on the people of China's present less sure. I doubt it not. But I suspect there is something more personal involved here, something more deeply felt. The Party leadership remembers the bloodshed. They do not want the suffering of their fathers and their mothers to be stripped of its meaning. To have been for nothing. Far better if they suffered for something. Far better if it had been for the cause of national greatness and human progress. Then all of it might have been worth it.

Thus the 'nihilism' of the historians. I suspect that what most troubles Xi Jinping most of all is not that the historians write tales of faction, massacre, terror, famine, starvation, torture and destruction—but that in so writing, they suggest a reality China's leaders do not wish to face: it was all for nothing. 

If you found this post on China's political ideology useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Quoted in Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, vol I (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2014), p 463.

[2] Xi Jinping, Governance, vol II, p. 37

[3] Ibid, 53, 37.

[4] I should note here that the phrase itself is not a Xi era invention. It has had a renaissance under his rule, however. This is partly because of how much Xi himself likes the term.

08 November, 2019

Historians, Fear Not the Psychologists

This week Jonathan Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich had their big piece on WEIRD psychology and the Catholic Church published in Science. [1] Long term readers will remember that I wrote about this piece in the American Conservative when the pre-print was published last year, and then wrote a critique of the Schulz-Henrich research program as a whole on this blog shortly after.[2] I still feel like that critique is one of the better things I have written here; in a different world I would be a grad student trying to turn that critique into its own set of research papers.

My critique withstanding, I see the "Origins of WIERD Psychology" as a landmark paper in the fields of economics, psychology, anthropology, and history. It deserves that status precisely because it is one of the few attempts to use data and theory from all four fields in one place. This is how social science should be done—and increasingly, I believe, how it will be done. I was very happy to see a version of it published in Science. 

Not everybody was so happy. The paper was met with outcry on twitter. "This is a pile of hot-trash" declared one; "[none] of the authors even bothered to read a history book or talk to a historian" inveighed another. "It’s also almost unbelievably ethnocentric — what it says about Europe is wrong," we read, "and what it implies about the world beyond Europe is equally wrong." Discussion of the piece has been a crazed tumult of the contrived ("I am just very very tired. SIGHS IN ALL CAPS), the snarky ("Historians of the family are a whole field. With books. And classes that you can take. And experts and everything"), the crusaders ("its time for a heavyweight institutional response"), and the righteously enraged ("holy shit am I angry").

Most of the outcry came from historians or those who would fancy themselves such. Strip away the emotional bombast and we are left with one essential critique: Schulz and company did not do their proper research. Their historical knowledge is too thin to support their claims. If they had read more books on the history of medieval Europe then of course they would recognize that the chasm between the letter of Catholic marriage laws and the reality was too large to support their thesis.

This notion that Schulz and company do not take history seriously is silly. The Science paper splits the references up between the main paper and the supplements (which none of the critics seem to have read!). Instead of bouncing between those two documents, I am going to refer to the pre-print instead, which keeps everything in one neat 174 page mega-paper. At the bottom of the pre-print we find 242 sources. By my informal count, 43 of these were written by historians. I might I have misjudged one or two of these. But I am talking about books with titles like Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany, The Transformation of a Religious Landscape: Medieval Southern Italy 850-1150, Marriage, Family, and Law in Medieval Europe and From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. To these sources are another 20 or so works by historical economists ("Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period,"  Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons From Medieval Trade, etc), and a slightly smaller number by anthropologists of a historical or comparative bent (The Evolution Of Human Societies: From Foraging Group To Agrarian State, Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social System, etc.). Rounding us out are a few "big think" titles by people like Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, and Michael Mann.  The remaining 140~ sources are devoted to research in cross cultural psychology,  development economics, demography, and evolutionary anthropology.

Sweeping big history books celebrated in the discipline (think the style of William McNiell) will deal with topics like these peripherally, and do so in three or four pages citing six or seven sources. Most article-length treatments in historical journals have less than 40 sources. Schulz et. al. have met that standard. Their study includes regional surveys of medieval society in every part of Europe, a dozen Europe-wide surveys of the history of European marriage, sex, and law, and even a few primary sources. No, they have not dived into the archives for this project; none of them began their career with a 300 page dissertation on marriage records in a single Welsh parish. But historians do not demand that standard even from other historians who set out to write trans-regional surveys. Their bibliography is as good as you would expect to find in any work of comparative history—which in a way, this is.

More importantly, those finer grained historical arguments already exist. The underlying thesis of the paper (Western individualism—"WEIRDness"—was an outgrowth of changes in the medieval family) was developed by a medievalist!  That theory was set forth by historian Michael Mitterauer in various journal articles a decade and a half ago.[3] Mitterauer expanded on these ideas his 2010 book Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path? To Mitterauer's work we could add books by anthropologists Emmanuel Todd and Alan MacFarlane, neither of whom were strangers to archives; their books also argued that family structure was key to understanding the individualist orientations of Western Europeans.[4]

Thus none of the underlying ideas here are novel. Schulz and company are not advancing some bold new thesis: they are testing an old one. The worst they have done is take an already existing theory in the field and asked, "How could we test this with statistical methods and experimental data? Does the Mitterauer-Todd-MacFarlane thesis predict actual cross cultural psychological variation today? If so, how would we know?" Their solution to this problem is clever and worth reading in full (including the supplements!).

That is all Schultz et. al. have done. They have tested and refined an existing thesis with new methods (and show how their findings accord with theories in economics and psychology). But why then, all this outcry?  Why the histrionics?

I have a charitable hypothesis for the historians' behavior and a less charitable one.

The charitable hypothesis is that many historians are reacting this way because of the paper's venue. This has been published in Science. Like most work in Science it stuffs all the caveats and sourcing into the supplements; the smaller summary brims with all the confidence of numbers and empirical fact. Mitterauer's theory was bold but contested. His work has thirty contenders in the "great divergence" literature. Among medievalists, his take on medieval family life has not attained general consensus. But here we see it proclaimed as SCIENCE. Perish the day one stray and contested medievalist theory becomes enshrined as scientific fact!

This reaction is understandable. We live in an age when 16 year old girls wield phrases like "unite behind the science" as a rhetorical bludgeon. In our world, "the science" has immense cultural authority. However, being published in Science is not the same thing as being a part of "the science." Tally up the number of studies in a newly emerging field (say, historical population genetics) that were published in Science only to have their interpretations of the data overturned a few years later. There are a lot!

The same is true for the work of our authors. Take the career of a prolific social scientist like Joseph Henrich (who is one of the co-authors of this paper). Lay out his publications out in one place, and you will see titles like Science, Nature, Behavioral and Brain Science, and Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. But if you are familiar with the topics he researches you quickly realize that almost everything he has ever published has been at the center of some scholarly tussle. How universal are psychological experiments first tested on American university students? Can Darwinian models of change and inheritance be used to understand learned culture? When did  organized religion emerge, and has it had "pro-social" effects on the societies that adopted it? After two decades of fighting, Henrich has more or less won the battle on the first topic. But the other two topics are still very much live debates. And where do the people who disagree with Henrich and his fellows publish their critiques? They are published in.... Science, Nature, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and so forth. Using statistics and being published in Science is not the same thing as being enshrined as part of THE SCIENCE. The advance of science is a story of model building, empirical challenge, debate, more data brought to bear on the question, and yet more model building until a consensus has been arrived at. We are in the beginning stages of this process: If other studies martial evidence or put together models that puts the Mitterauer thesis to doubt then this one will eventually fade away.

So there is no need for the upset. Unless the upset is about something else—which it might be. My less charitable hypothesis goes like this: When Mitterauer or another historian advances a historical thesis it is simply "one more contribution" to an argument. When a coalition of psychologists, economists, and evolutionary anthropologists advance a historical argument it is a threat.

It is jokingly said that too many proud physicists parachute out of their own discipline into others, convinced that all who research lesser subjects have lesser brains. I understand hostility towards the economist or evolutionary psychologist version of the same problem. Many of the social scientists who do this know nothing about the history they reduce to an equation. They deserve all of the hostility and ridicule that they get. It is frustrating to watch arrogant scholars try to colonize a field they have no knowledge of, especially when you have spent decades mastering its intricacies.

Yet historians who expect their field to remain un-colonized are blind. One of the most remarkable academic developments of the last twenty years is the slow blurring of what were once much tighter academic distinctions. I regularly see scholarly debates that draw in participants and ideas from the worlds of micro-economics, ethnology, neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science, sociology, genetics, computational social science, and psychology.  On a different scale I also see work that mixes freely from epidemiology, archeology, historical linguistics, climate science, biological anthropology, and population genetics, and network science. These fields have all 'colonized' each other. "Multi disciplinary" is often a gimmick. These emerging fields have achieved much more than that. [6] 

The work of historians is and will remain an important part of these debates. I do not know if the same thing can be said for the historians themselves. The essential problem was stated well by the pseudo-anonymous economic history blogger Pseudo-erasmus a few years back:
Cultural-social historians are ill-equipped for the age of “Big Data” that Guldi drones on about, but not because they are intellectually incapable. They can get trained in quantitative techniques and actually understand the various interdisciplinary debates that are mostly impenetrable to them right now. But such training would actually change who they are. It’s the historians’ hermeneutical and subjectivist instincts that alienate them from the big empirical debates amongst economists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, climatologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists, etc. So the problem with historians is less any microhistorical preference, than an epistemological bias against positivism.[7]
Schultz and company are threatening because they use methods impenetrable to most historians and embody a positivist attitude uncongenial to these historians' broader beliefs. To receive Schultz et. al's work as a legitimate entry in the debate—as historians regularly do with the work of colleagues that they disagree with—would mean conceding that the methods psychologists and economists use to understand the world may be just as  useful for understanding medieval times as a trip to the archives. It would be mean recognizing the  importance of statistical literacy, and more terrifying still, accepting that the "subjectivist instincts" which rule so much of the history profession may be inadequate for answering the kind of questions social scientists may ask of them.

But the truth is that an economist and a psychologist do have methods that may be useful for understanding the medieval world. Medievalists should welcome the contributions of social scientists with the same warmness that Schulz and company embraced the research of historians. A past generation of empirical psychologists and economists would not have read 40 tomes on Medieval European society to inform their research. But they have—and created a worthy advance in the literature by doing so. They are not afraid of allowing historians into their debates. There is no reason for the historians to fear the reverse.

This post discusses both history and behavioral science. If you liked it for the history, you might be interested in some of the popular things I have written on that topic: "History is Written by the Losers," "Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program," "Making Sense of Chinese History," or "A Study Guide For Understanding Human Society." On the other hand, I have also written about psychology: see "Public Opinion in Authoritarian States," "Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously," "So Why Did They Publish Them?", and "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Jonathan Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henric, "The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation,"Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6466 (2019).

[2] Tanner Greer, “How the Catholic Church Created Our Liberal World,The American Conservative (17 December 2018); "Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously," The Scholar's Stage (21 Dec 2018).

[3] Michael Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of its Special Path, trans. Gerald Chapple (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[4]Emmnauel Todd, The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems (Blackwell Publishers, 1989); Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: Family Property and Social Transition (Hobeken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991).

[6] To make this more concrete: think of the research programs of Joseph Henrich, Walter Scheidal, Peter Turchin, and Ara Norenzayan. There are many more scholars I could add to this list, but I this is sufficient for the argument.  

[7] Pseudoerasmus, "La Long Duree Puree," Pseudoerasmus (11 November 2014)