Recently, I’ve been curating the books I read even more strictly than normal.
Previously, I was content to read books recommended to me either someone in my WoT or by the author of another book I’d enjoyed. While this might seem narrow, clearly precluding all the “latest, greatest” works of non-fiction,i it was working rather well.
Still, even this fine-grained filter was letting some rather rubbish reads through the cracks. So as an additional barrier to entry, I recently added a publication date criterion: the original publishing date had to be before I was born.ii
The intention is simple: balance the distortion of having been born in North American in the late 20th century. For the last six months or so, all has been well, but in the last few weeks I’ve been sucked into not one but two contemporary vortices.
Even if both of these books were approached with the noblest of intentions, it didn’t take long for me to affirm the wisdom of my plan for historical balance. Cracking the binding of Fragile by Designiii for my book club and The Dictator’s Handbookiv on the recommendation of a cynical commenter was, as they say, a huge tiny mistake.
After only half-a-year away from such “fresh” material, both of these publications tasted all the more distinctly as being from the 21st century. And I mean that in the worst possible way. It was like tasting fruit for the first time in the spring, after a long cold winter of eating nothing but pickled cabbage. Except the exact opposite in terms of pleasurability.
Despite their references to the successes of King Louis XIVv, both of these books are still yoked by the exact same horse-blindering Churchillian reverence for all that is broad-franchise democracy, and in particular it’s always-in-tow little brothers, socialism and inflation. While Bueno de Mesquita is far clearer and more convincing in his assessment of political incentives and power, even he’s too “progressive” and too apologetic.vi
Reading these two books, or as much of them as I could physically bear, it was readily apparent that over the past few decades authors have become increasingly disposed to the idealistic belief that the toil, sacrifice, and self-interested gumption of our forefathers was “bad and unnecessary.” They pretend as if human history could be otherwise, or that future determinants of power and success will perhaps be otherwise than they were in the past. All of which is, to borrow a term, plain old fatlogic.
The hair of the Kaffir, whether it belong to male or female, never becomes long, but envelopes the head in a close covering of crisp, woolly curls, very similar to the hair of the true negro. The lips are always large, the mouth wide, and the nose has very wide nostrils. These peculiarities the Kaffir has in common with the negro, and it now and then happens that an individual has these three features so strongly marked that he might be mistaken for a negro at first sight. A more careful view, however, would at once detect the lofty intellectual forehead, the prominence of the nose,viii and the high cheek-bones, together with a nameless but decided cast of countenance, which marks them out from all the other dark-skinned natives of Africa. The high-cheek-bones form a very prominent feature in the countenances of the Hottentots and Bosjesmans, but the Kaffir cannot for a moment be mistaken for either one or the other, any more than a lion could be mistaken for a puma.
The expression of the Kaffir face, especially when young, is rather pleasing; and as a general rule, is notable when in repose for a slight plaintiveness, this expression being marked most strongly in the young, of both sexes. The dark eyes are lively and full of intellect, and a kind of cheerful good humor pervades the features. As a people they are devoid of care. The three great causes of care in more civilized lands have little influence on the Kaffir. The clothes which he absolutely needs are of the most trifling description, and in our sense of the word cannot be recognized as clothing at all. The slight hut which enacts the part of a house is constructed of materials that can be bought for about a shilling, and to the native cost nothing but the labor of cutting and carrying. His food, which constitutes his only real anxiety, is obtained far more easily than among civilized nations, for game-preserving is unknown in Southern Africa, an any bird or beast becomes the property of any one who chooses to take the trouble of capturing it. One of the missionary clergy was much struck by this utter want of care, when he was explaining the Scripturesix to some dusky hearers. The advice “to take no thought of the morrow” had not the least effect on them. They never had taken any thought for the morrow, and never would do so, and rather wondered that any one could have been foolish enough to give them such needless advice.
There is another cause for this heedless enjoyment of the present moment; namely, an instinctive fatalism, arising from the peculiar nature of their government. The power of life and death with which the Kaffir rulers are invested is exercised in so arbitrary a manner, that no Kaffir feels the least security for his life.x He knows perfectly well that the king may require his life at any moment, and he therefore never troubles himself about a future which may have no existence for him.
Of course these traits of character belong only to the Kaffir in their normal condition; for, when these splendid savages have placed themselves under the protection of Europeans, the newly-felt security of life produces its natural results, and they will display forethought which would do no discredit to a white man. A lad, for example, will gives faithful service for a year, in order to obtain a cow at the end of that time. Had he been engaged while under the rule of his own kind, he would have insisted on prepayment., and would have honorably fulfilled his task provided that the king did not have him executed. Their fatalism is, in face, owing to the peculiarly logical turn of a Kaffir’s mind, and his determination to follow an argument to its conclusion. He accepts the acknowledged fact that his life is at the mercy of the king’s caprice, and draws therefrom the inevitable conclusion that he can calculate nothing beyond the present moment.xi
In through the nose, out through the mouth…
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- I don’t read much fiction. Verne’s Autour de la Lune is the only one I have on the go at the moment. [↩]
- This is an exercise of the Lindy effect as much as anything. [↩]
- Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by published February 23, 2014 by Princeton University Press.
From which, a telling quote:
“Under continuing deflationary pressure, in September 1931, Britain departed from the gold standard, which permitted an expansion of their money supply. The bank rate was reduced to 2%, the pound fell substantially against the dollar, and the British economy and banking system were spared the deflationary consequences that had been driving economic decline and a contraction in the supply of lending by banks. The lending contraction reflected not only the shrinking supply of bank deposits as the result of monetary contraction, but also, banks’ needs to reduce their asset risk during the recession, which encouraged the to accumulate cash and government securities. In September 1931, devaluation spared the British economy and banks from the worst consequences of the great depression.
Holy sweet mother of revisionist history! The mere suggestion that leaving the gold standard and having an unhindered money supply is was what made the Depression not so bad is just so much state-sponsored braindamage. Deflation bad, inflation good! Sound money bad, central banks good!!1
Because it’s not like loose monetary policy is the root of all evil or anything. [↩]
- The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, published September 27, 2011 by PublicAffairs. [↩]
- Yes, they both discuss him! I knew that Le Roi Soleil was responsible for classical ballet as we know it today, known then as le ballet de cour, but did you know this title of his followed his role as Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit when he was only 15 years old? [↩]
- Using the pronoun “she” instead of “their,” or God forbid “he,” is in no way reparations for all the misgivings of humanity’s bloody past.
Over-compensatory pronoun equality denies history its fair reading and merely serves to paint over any meaningful discussion of the way people are and how we came to be. The same exact mistake is baked into the most common question that unsuccessful people ask successful people: “What would you have told a younger version of yourself so that life would be easier?” As is clear enough to see, this question is just so much nonsense that it’s hard not to troll the beggar with an answer like “off yourself before it’s too late.”
Where people get the notion that human beings are capable of such wonder without such contrasting horror is beyond me. [↩]
- Quotes from: The Uncivilized Races of Men in All Countries of The World; Being A Comprehensive Account of their Manners and Customs, and of their Physical, Social, Mental, Moral, and Religious Characteristics, by Rev. J. G. Wood, M.A., F.L.S., published in Hartford in 1872 by J. B. Burr and Hyde, Publishers. [↩]
- Who are these guys with their big schnozes and pumped-up foreheads, the eleventh lost tribe of Israel? [↩]
- The latter-day equivalent of trying to explain Bitcoin to a stranger, be it a group of students at a college or a group of bankers at Davos. [↩]
- The reader will note that this is much the same as Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and that the types of government under which these eastern philosophies flourished was not unlike that of the Kaffir.
While the general effects of a globalised economy and the open information routes of the Internet can probably take some credit for the increased prevalence of eastern philosophies in western nations over the past ~50 years, an increasing arbitrariness in the rule of law within the same western nations, demonstrated quite completely in cases of parental imprisonment for “child endangerment,” perhaps explains the rest of their appeal.
It makes sense to be fixated on the moment when your government is fickle and corrupt. It also makes sense that those who would steal our productive capacity by asking that we pay an ever-increasing “fair share” also think only for the moment. [↩]
- Today, this fear of the capricious king is manifest as fear of apocalyptic global warming, artificial intelligence, or overpopulation. Those afflicted with this disease are understandably disheartened and therefore equally unproductive. At which point, Africa jumps the Mediterranean, then the Atlantic… [↩]