Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class — January 31, 2018

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

One of your classic nameless Dover book covers that looks like nothing so much as Victorian wallpaper
The essential premise of this book is quite brief, so I’ll try to be brief in my treatment of it.

In brief, Veblen says that people do a lot of things purely as a way of demonstrating that they have wealth. In communities of a small enough size, you spend lots of time around your neighbors, so you can demonstrate your wealth through the conspicuous display of wasted time: you’re so wealthy that you can spend much time doing nothing. Beyond a certain level of wealth you can take this to the next remove: now you can hire servants whose role in life is to do nothing. So now you’re so wealthy that both you, and those you pay, can do nothing.

One next step from there is to develop behaviors that you could only have learned if you had ample time to waste. Hence table manners. Hence the learning of dead languages. Hence the observance of a certain formality in writing, as opposed to the use of a vernacular that keeps up with modern usage. All of these, to Veblen’s eyes, are mere conspicuous demonstrations of wealth.

In a larger society where you have less time to associate with more people, you demonstrate your wealth through the possession of useless goods rather than by publicly wasting time. Hence cars, fancy homes, fancy clothes, etc. Hence heavy, expensive silverware, when cheap aluminum stuff would do just as well. The belief that the expensive stuff is fundamentally better, says Veblen, is baked into society’s most basic norms, which result from the more fundamental belief that that which makes you appear wealthy is better.

The norms start from the top and radiate down through the servant class; Veblen was writing in 1899, when presumably servants were part of the picture. Recall that Julia Child felt it necessary to explain that her book from the early 1960s was for the “servantless American cook”. Nowadays I don’t think the qualifier would be necessary. But the story can still be saved: were Veblen writing today, I imagine he’d say that the norms percolate down from the highest income classes. Somewhere in Theory of the Leisure Class, he writes that you have to reach the class that’s living at the bare subsistence level before you find people who truly do nothing to demonstrate their wealth. In all other classes, at least some fraction of our assets is dedicated to conspicuously proving our wealth.

With that observation in mind, Veblen really does make you question a lot of the way you perceive the world. Take this, on religious ceremony:

whoever comes into the presence should come cleansed of all profane industrial features in his apparel or person, and should come clad in garments of more than everyday expensiveness; that on holidays set apart in honour of or for communion with the divinity no work that is of human use should be performed by any one.

The point here is that we are required to dress before the Lord in clothing that is markedly different from the sort of grubby clothing we’d wear if we were doing work. But why? As a non-religious person, I would assume the answer is something vague like “to demonstrate respect.” This just knocks the question down a level: why is it considered respectful to wear our best clothes? To Veblen the answer is that the Christian God has been adapted to fit our norms: just as our most powerful men are our best-dressed, and their servants are required to be well-dressed as a public display of their master’s wealth, so we are required to stand in a relation of servitude toward Him. And the priest is required to wear clothes that are egregiously over-decorated, to perform services in a building with a lot of extra ornamentation. Why? Again, na├»vely, I would say something about how all this ornamentation is some kind of an offering before God. Veblen would say that it’s just another manifestation of conspicuous consumption. And it’s hard to think of a reason that doesn’t sound like a disguised form of conspicuous consumption. Why, for instance, isn’t a humble church with a humble pastor wearing simple clothes allowed?

Really, I think the answer is that it is allowed. I’m thinking of Karl Malden’s character from On The Waterfront, or of any number of famously humble little churches in any number of famously adorable American small towns. Or are those, rather, proof of Veblen’s contention that a community will spend a significant fraction of its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth? The smaller the community, the smaller the margin, and the correspondingly smaller the church. But the church will never be allowed to be as shabby as the least among us.

As a good Popperian, I look for cases by which Veblen can be proven wrong, rather than ones by which he can be proven right. I think refutations would have to come from a place like this: a place where a community could choose to spend its margin above subsistence on conspicuous displays of wealth, but doesn’t. Or it would have to come from challenging what he perceives as a conspicuous display of wealth, but we’d perceive as something which is valuable in its own right. To Veblen’s eyes, much of what we perceive as the beautiful or the intellectual is just the disguised display of wealth. One needs to argue against Veblen that the study of some things is just beautiful in itself—mathematics, for instance, or poetry, or sculpture. These are not just disguised wealth. They may result when society is able to climb above mere subsistence, but that doesn’t mean they’re tantamount to a display of that margin above subsistence.

I’m thinking here of a friend’s gloss on Aristotle from some years ago (which, if I weren’t lazy at the moment, I would chase down to an actual Aristotle citation): if I do thing X in order to achieve thing Y, then Y is the more important thing. (This is my gloss on my old memory of my friend’s gloss, and my friend was working on a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy, so any errors here are quite likely mine.) So if I study Newtonian mechanics in order to put planes in the air, the flight is the more important thing; the mechanics is a tool rather than an end in itself. And why do I fly? To travel and see other countries. So perhaps the travel is the higher good. But why travel? To learn new cultures. So perhaps learning about cultures is the higher good. And so we travel upward, until we reach some activity which is the final end, which is not used as a tool in the service of anything else. Those activities which serve no end but themselves are the highest. This might be the tradition from which Godfrey Hardy was drawing when he wrote approvingly, in A Mathematician’s Apology, that no one would ever be able to find a use for the number theory to which Hardy devoted his life. And he must have been quite miffed when cryptography turned up a use for number theory a few decades later.

All of which is to say both that I think we need to take Veblen seriously, and that there’s a danger that he’ll venerate only those things which are in some sense obviously useful, because only those things which are obviously useful have any grounds to call themselves “actually” beautiful; the rest are figments of our wealth-obsessed imaginations.

Veblen’s book does come at the world from an economic perspective that tries to build a world fit for industrial production, whence I conclude that this sort of utilitarian focus on the useful might actually be Veblen’s goal. One problem with the leisure class, says Veblen, is that they’re insulated enough from economic forces, and (practically by the definition of the class) from the need to do useful work, that they’re not required to change with the times. So the leisure class is almost necessarily the conservative class. Their manners, and their understanding of the good, will necessarily be somewhat stuck in the past. They hold back the economy from its full dynamism.

In particular, the leisure-class display of wealth is a holdover from an earlier—Veblen calls it “predatory”—era in human history when the prominent display of one’s wealth was the way by which society advanced. Cultures have moved on and grown denser, and nations have industrialized, and we’re now in an era when collective activity will move society ahead. The predatory habits are a drag which the conservative leisure class carried with them into modern life.

The leisure class’s conservative norms then percolate to the rest of society, because the wealthy are the models for what what the lower classes view as right behavior. So these predatory habits, ill-fitted as they are for modern life, make their way into the rest of society.

Leisure-class conservatism harms the rest of us in another way, says Veblen: by sucking wealth from the lower classes, such that they don’t have the time to do anything more than earn a subsistence living. To quote Veblen: “The accumulation of wealth at the upper end of the pecuniary scale implies privation at the lower end of the scale.”

This is unclear along a few dimensions. First, we should immediately reject a zero-sum model of the economy, which seems to be what Veblen implies here. Second, it’s not clear that the poor are so unable to fight against the predations of the upper classes; if I got anything from E.P. Thompson, it’s that those in the real flesh-and-blood working class can understand the class structure and their place in it more than theorists often give them credit for.

Veblen’s argument can withstand these objections. It can also survive the deletion of his rather eye-roll-inducing argument from evolution (something about ethnicities, in which the phrase “dolichoblond” turns up for the first time in my reading life), which I’d prefer to just pass over in silence.

Veblen’s argument ends with this, which I swear is self-referential:

English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensable to a blameless scholastic life.

That is, the most prominent day-to-day proof of our good breeding, hence our wealth, hence our ability to waste time on truly useless pursuits, is adherence to the canons of proper English grammar. The ultimate such proof would be a rather archaic grammar that carries out-of-date norms forward into modern use … Veblen must realize that he himself is the ultimate exemplar of this conservatism. This is the man who writes that

the classics have scarcely lost in absolute value as a voucher of scholastic respectability, since for this purpose it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognised as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use. Indeed, there can be little doubt that it is their utility as evidence of wasted time and effort, and hence of the pecuniary strength necessary in order to afford this waste, that has secured to the classics their position of prerogative in the scheme of the higher learning, and has led to their being esteemed the most honorific of all learning.

Or maybe this is just what everyone in 1899 sounded like. I, instead, prefer to imagine that Veblen, while making a serious point about the structure of human society, decided to have some fun and take the piss out of conservatives, sportsmen (nothing is more conspicuously useless than riding a horse), religious figures and, finally, himself.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities — December 16, 2017

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Just the title in stark white text on a black background -- see, this is HOPEFUL, and the background is DARK I was directed to this book because, well, Trump. It was written in the depths of the Bush years, after that terrible president had been reelected in 2004 and many of us spent the day crying. (I remember exactly where I was when I heard: on a train back from New Hampshire. My friend, who lived in Ireland at the time, texted me to tell me that Kerry had conceded. I found it striking that someone in Ireland knew about this before I did.)

It’s hard to dispute the thesis of this book: that history moves in ways you absolutely could not predict, that progressive causes have made strides that would have been unthinkable decades ago, that entire categories of liberation for which we didn’t even have words in the 1970s (think “transgender”) are now almost considered inevitable, and that — to put it very simply — what else are you going to do in times of desperation apart from fight? What option do you have other than to be hopeful that your actions can make the world a better place? In short: you have reason for hope, and you have no choice but to use that hope to fight to improve the world. Written in the depths of despair, I imagine this book lifted some spirits.

I think it would be better as a blog post, honestly. As a book read twelve-plus years after the fact, it feels dated, and it calls to mind the observation that the Democratic Party is less a unified ideological front than a loosely joined coalition. The book’s examples center on the reaction to global capitalism, embodied in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, and she repeatedly quotes the Zapatistas’ Subcommandante Marcos. That’s fine if that’s what you’re into, and maybe I should be into it, but these feel like lefty shibboleths. A certain class of lefty during a certain era was supposed to be enraged by NAFTA, and Solnit speaks to that class. Should I be a member of that class? Should I join hands with the Zapatistas in a rebellion against global capitalism? I don’t know … maybe? In 1999 this sort of belief was the price of admission to American liberalism. Today it looks like a bunch of unrelated things thrown together in the pot. Does anything really join the Zapatistas with opposition to the WTO?

For a time I know that people were concerned about supranational trade agreements that would, we worried, allow corporations to sue governments whenever any public policy led to reduced profits. (In the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I believe the term is “investor dispute settlement”.) Solnit singles out the Methanex suit, which I looked up and which appears to have gone nowhere. Maybe all our fears were for nought? Or maybe, instead, this exactly proves Solnit’s point that activists’ vast accomplishments have been unsung — that part of how we have to measure our accomplishments is by how much worse it could have been. That’s certainly true: people have a very hard time with counterfactuals.

I wonder how Solnit would update this book for 2017. I know a lot of people who are watching the Trump administration warily, wondering when it’s time to flee the United States; Charlottesville was not reassuring to American Jews (or, presumably, to Muslims, or to any number of other non-white non-Christians). Solnit’s book seems largely focused on the sort of political activism by which my actions altruistically help those whom I may never meet; how would she update it when the question on many people’s minds is whether they and their families are safe in Trump’s America? The darkness out of which Solnit wants to pull us has grown darker. What would Solnit have said to Jews in 1930s Germany? Is there hope in the dark for them, too?

Her book actually feels quaint now. We’ve gone from wondering how we can save Mexico from the ravages of NAFTA to wondering how we’ll protect Muslims in our own country. At one level the answer is the same as it was when Solnit wrote Hope In The Dark: keep fighting, keep hoping, and know that history unfolds in unpredictable ways. At another level, though, maybe there comes a time when you need to stop fighting and seek shelter. Maybe we’re there, maybe we’re not, but Solnit’s book is not necessarily prepared for that possibility.

So I can hold to the general message of staying hopeful, continuing to fight so long as you’re able, and remembering how far we’ve come. And maybe I should just leave it there. Maybe all the rest is flexible detail.

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time — November 19, 2017

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

A pocket watch made to look transparent. Behind it is the raging ocean. Book's title is in blue above the watch. Author's name is in greenish-yellow beneath it. 'Foreword by Neil Armstrong' is in blue beneath the author's name. There's a quote at the top of the cover from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

This is a delightful little gem for what it is. It’s the story of one man’s obsessive development of accurate timekeeping devices over decades, with the goal of properly measuring longitude from ships at sea. Recall that measuring latitude (position north/south) is relatively easy: find the north star and … um … do a bunch of things with it that I imagine mariners already know but I do not. Measuring longitude, on the other hand, requires accurately measuring time: leave London (for instance) with two clocks synchronized — one on shore and one on the boat. When you’re off at sea, register the moment when the sun is directly overhead; that’s noon. Your clock says that it’s 3pm back in London. So London is three hours ahead. So you’re 3/24ths of the way around the globe. The problem, then, reduces to accurately computing the time, in the presence of varying temperature, salt water, and rolling seas.

An alternative is to use detailed astronomical measurements. If you can discern patterns, say, in the relative movement of astronomical bodies — e.g., “on July 3rd at 8:35pm, the moon is 3 degrees from Venus in London, and every degree of longitude changes that relative position by a tenth of a degree” — you can write these down in astronomical tables, which sailors can carry with them around the globe. This method has obvious downsides, including mathematical complexity and the fact that clouds exist. It seems obvious, from this vantage point a couple hundred years on, that measuring time with a simple clock would solve both problems. At the time, though, decades of research had gone into the stargazing method of measuring longitude, and the British government’s longitude-measuring prize was granted by a committee that included men whose careers were based on the stargazing method. This is a conflict of interest, we’d say today.

The book is a nice 30,000-foot view of the varying approaches to measuring longitude, but it rarely dips below that altitude. We learn, for instance, that one of our hero clockmaker’s innovations was the bimetallic strip that lives on in modern thermostats. One of the metals expands when the ambient temperature rises; another of the metals contracts. The overall change in the metal is either zero, or consistent enough that its effects can be controlled in the rest of the device.

But what exactly is this strip doing? And how, fundamentally, does a clock work? I understand that there’s a spring somewhere. I understand that when you wind a clock, you build up tension in the spring, and that over time the tension is released into energy that drives the clock. And I understand that one of the fundamental pieces of a clock is responsible for controlling the orderly release of energy, so that the clock isn’t fast right after winding and slow hours later. How exactly does that piece of the device work?

What I would love is a book that starts with a very basic clock and works its way up. This would be the clockmaking equivalent of the Los Alamos Primer, say. (To make a very basic atomic bomb, take two subcritical masses of uranium and slap them together into one supercritical mass. To make a better atomic bomb, do rather more.) If this book I’m imagining took the technical apparatus and adjoined it to engrossing history and biography, it would start to look like the clockmaking equivalent of Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun — two of the three or four books that every human needs to read.

But that would be an altogether different book from Sobel’s, so I don’t fault her for this. If anything, her Longitude is an apéritif which wets the appetite for other, more technical books on timekeeping. Her bibliography, for instance, points to Landes’s Revolution in Time, which looks if nothing else like a great place to start.

A few quick recent reads — November 18, 2017

A few quick recent reads

  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Red background. Black text overlaid on yellow ribbons. At the top of the page is an upside-down rooster's head, presumably separated forcibly from the body of the chicken.

Really exceptional candy, genus “chefs talk about how difficult it is to be a chef.” It sounds really, really difficult to be a chef. And Hamilton’s background is part of why I figure I’m not cut out to be a chef: my sense of the industry is that everyone is heavily tattooed, is used to routinely going to sleep at 3am, drinks a lot after work, does a lot of cocaine, and basically had to start as a dishwasher in their teens to get the right attitude.

Hamilton’s youth sounds atypical even within the world of the chef. Her parents divorced and more or less left their kids to raise themselves — in their crazy home in the woods — when Hamilton was 13. In the years preceding that, her French mother had taught her to cook like a civilized human rather than like an American child raised on hot dogs and Little Debbie Snack Cakes. They held fabulous parties in the woods, where they roasted pigs on a spit and fed hundreds of the Broadway people her father had met in his work designing scenery for the stage.

It’s rare for Blood, Bones, and Butter to descend into the standard tropes of the genre. And then the final section is a complete left turn even within the world of the book: it becomes clear that Hamilton is writing about the dissolution of her marriage. There can be no question, by the time you reach the end, that she is going to get divorced. No normal human being could tolerate the abuse she metes out onto her now-ex-husband. I suppose it’s just possible that their therapy has been so successful, and they’ve so learned the tricks of intra-couple honesty, that she can say all these things on the page without leaving any hurt feelings. The text itself argues against it: Hamilton is a self-described fiery fighter, which sounds like the opposite of her ex. And if I were her husband, I would have a hard time seeing, written down on the page,

he has never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything important to me.

So yes, she’s divorced. You know it even without Googling for it; Googling confirms it.

  • Susan Landau, Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age

The words 'Listening In, and the subtitle, are made to look like a sound wave emerging from a point source on the left side of the page. The background looks like grey bricks. So it's sort of a mashup of sound waves and graffiti on a brick wall.

Very solid work digging into both the details of privacy-enhancing technologies, and the details of how law enforcement conducts investigations in the presence of encryption. Landau’s thesis — with which I think nearly all security experts would agree — is that encryption helps the good guys just as much as it helps the bad guys. We want to keep Hillary Clinton’s emails secure so that the Russians can’t get into them; if widespread encryption means that the police have to do more work to get into the bad guys’ computers, that’s a tradeoff worth making. Landau goes into great and enjoyable detail on exactly how the police can still do their jobs.

One small critique: Landau uses widespread surveillance cameras (as in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing) and pen-register data (which allow the police to see who called whom and when, if not what exactly what was said during the call) as evidence that the police don’t need access to encrypted communications. A natural response there is that civil libertarians, such as me, would prefer a society with fewer surveillance cameras and tighter control over pen-register data. If I were her editor, I would have asked her to argue the stronger case: could police still get what they wanted, even if civil libertarians got everything they wanted?

This is not an unanswerable objection. One underlying premise of Landau’s civil libertarianism is that the police don’t have a right to walk through your door easily. They have a right to walk through your door, given a warrant that’s been granted to them after they’ve demonstrated to a neutral magistrate that they have a good reason to walk through that door. On one side of the debate, we have police who insist that omnipresent strong encryption is creating a world of doors that can’t be opened no matter how hard we hit them with the battering ram. On the other side — Landau’s side — we have a lot of evidence that police still have many tools in their arsenal, and that police have been sounding the alarm about impossible-to-open doors for more than two decades. There’s still no reason to believe them; and besides: the benefits to our society from universal high-grade security are immense.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Red background. Set on the background is a weathered sheet of paper. On the sheet of paper is written the title, subtitle, and author's name. I assume the piece of paper is supposed to look like an old-timey advertisement for a slave auction.

Worth reading if only as a study in how Coates’s thought evolved over the eight years of the Obama presidency. His career essentially began around 2008, when he was writing about Bill Cosby and the politics of black respectability; back then Cosby was barnstorming the country telling black men to clean up, take care of the children they fathered, and so forth. The Obamas were, in essence, the apotheosis of black-respectability politics; they were African-Americans’ best picture of themselves.

Eight years taught Coates that it doesn’t matter: black people have to be twice as good to get half the respect. White people cannot stomach the idea of a black man on top. Whiteness is defined, in Coates’s completely convincing telling, by white supremacy. Blackness is, by definition, inferior. And so we ended up with the first white-supremacist president, as white people recoiled against the thought of ever being beneath a black man.

In one of the stops on his book tour, when Ezra Klein interviewed him, Klein asks Coates when he would know that the age of white supremacy had ended; Coates’s response was that the black-white wealth gap would have to disappear. (ObBook, in queue: Black Wealth / White Wealth.) This flows somewhat naturally from Coates’s Case for Reparations, which is included within We Were Eight Years in Power. The argument in that essay, and within the collection, is wholly convincing and wholly dispiriting.

After reading Coates and hearing him speak, I always find myself desperate to ask what I can do. What am I doing, as a white man, that makes the problem of white supremacy worse? The nearest answer that’s ready to hand is that white people make the school system worse when they — wholly rationally — send their kids to private schools or move to wealthy suburbs, leaving urban school systems underfunded and filled with black students in poverty.

Which of course points out that the problem of white supremacy is systemic, not individual. I can make a hero (or a martyr, if you’d like) out of my kid by sending him to an underfunded public school, but those with the means can and do, largely, leave underperforming urban school systems if they have the choice. A collective-action problem does not have an individual solution. I can work my ass off to improve my neighborhood school, like gentrifiers tried to do in the 70s in Boston. Is that the solution? I don’t know. I always leave Coates’s books looking desperately for answers. His role isn’t to provide them. His role, like that of his hero James Baldwin (please go read this astonishing collection), is to stare honestly at the society he’s part of and methodically tear off Band-Aids.

Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic — November 11, 2017

Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic

I was a late adopter of Kindles. I love me some physical books, but eventually the ability to travel thousands of miles without lugging a stack of books — or even to download new books while sitting in a chair in the sky — became unanswerable.

I found Kindles distractingly hard to read until they started hyphenating their lines; until then you’d end up with enormous chunks of blank space on each line between words. (They recently added ragged-right margins as an option, which would have been another way to handle this problem. I don’t know why it took them so long to use a public-domain hyphenation algorithm, and why ragged-right margins took even longer, but whatever.)

Once we got over those hurdles, the reading was mostly great. It’s nice to be able to continue reading in bed, with the light off, after my wife has gone to sleep.

The trouble, for me, is that I read a lot of not-especially-popular and often long-out-of-print books. Sometimes Kindles pull their weight here: the Kindle edition of The Making of the English Working Class is actually very good. And it’s a good thing that it is, since I highlighted a ton of passages in it; the ability to search your highlights is one of the big advantages of Kindles.

Often, though, if a book was born in the pre-Kindle era, it feels as though the book has been hastily photocopied and OCRed, then only lightly copyedited, to make the transition to Kindle-land. Maybe they hope that crowdsourcing will solve this problem: I used to tap all the time on the “Report Content Error” link while selecting a block of text, and over time I’ve had to do that less; it does feel like the aggregate number of typos has gone down.

Sometimes when the book is born in the Kindle era, it still leaves something to be desired, and here we land on the footnote problem. I may be one of the few Kindle users who diligently reads most footnotes, and I’m certainly one of the few Kindle users who reads math books on the device. Hence I end up with this:
A bunch of equations, one of which has a footnote. When you tap on the footnote, you're given footnote text that stops at the first equation.
That’s from the Kindle version of Computer-Age Statistical Inference, which is a delightful book. It would be more delightful on Kindle if the mathematical footnotes (of which there are many) didn’t cut out at the first equation. As someone at the publisher’s office wrote when I asked the authors about this:

Our digital production people don’t believe the problem is with the files we supplied. Because the Kindle can’t handle MathML, we must supply complex math as images. From what we can tell […] the Kindle stops images from being rendered in the inline footnotes; they are being rendered with no problem in the main text, hence our confidence in the files we’ve supplied. Because readers can view the notes in place at the chapter ends, they’re not missing information; so although it’s not ideal, we don’t think this limitation makes the Kindle version unacceptable.

It’s not unacceptable, in the sense that the book is still readable (and is very, very good). But the footnotes aren’t useful if you can’t read them until the end of the chapter; by the time you’ve gotten that far, you’ve forgotten the context to the footnote that you want to read. Amazon was thankfully quite willing to refund me for the Kindle book; I went ahead and bought a paper copy instead.

Footnotes behave inconsistently in other ways. For instance, one very handy feature of the main body of Kindle books is that you can select text and get a definition from a built-in dictionary, or look the words up on the Wikipedia if the dictionary doesn’t have anything to say about it. That feature just doesn’t work in footnotes, for some reason. And sometimes (as with the Kindle edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France) the footnotes themselves contain footnotes (e.g., one of Burke’s own footnotes contains Latin, to which the editor attaches an English translation in a footnote of his own); the second layer of footnotes just doesn’t work.

All of this probably sounds really minor, and in some sense it is: I still certainly feel as though I got a lot out of Burke’s book. But for an e-reader that is ten years old almost to the day, it still feels like it’s aiming for the middle 80% of the audience. It feels ideal for books that, in the paper-based world, would be published by Bantam: cheap, flimsy, poorly printed on low-quality paper, with ink that bleeds, meant to be consumed quickly and then thrown away. It’s not meant to present books as works of art. It’s meant to present “just the facts.” After ten years, I would expect them to be attending to the finer points of book publishing, but I just don’t expect that they’ll ever get there. That’s clearly not their business model. Their business model (and here I’m just guessing) is to put very cheap e-readers in people’s pockets, then sell them e-books whose marginal cost is nearly zero and whose price averages around $10. The books are pure profit, so they have no problem virtually giving away the devices.

It’s getting to the point, though, where it feels to me like an insult to the author — literally a pain that I feel viscerally — to read a great work of literature on a Kindle. When Kishlansky writes that

Standard editions of key political texts are Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. J. P. Sommerville (1991); John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (2nd edn, 1967); and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (1985).

, you can be sure that I’m going to look hard for and buy the Macpherson edition of Leviathan on paper, because I just can’t trust that it will have made its way to Kindle with all due care. Likewise with the great E.P. Thompson‘s Poverty of Theory. Likewise with Twelve Who Ruled.

Maybe it depends on the publisher? I see that Twelve Who Ruled is from Princeton University Press, with whom I’ve had very good experiences until now. I wish I didn’t have to think that hard about the reputation of each individual publisher; I wish any book that Amazon sold could be expected to be as good as any other, though perhaps that’s unreasonable. Even the world of physical academic books is getting rough: many years ago, when I read The Wealth of Networks on paper and found myself, by the end, scrawling my irritated all-caps annoyance in the margins at how bad the copyediting was, a friend pointed out that ‘especially [among] academic publishers, the author is actually now supposed to provide “camera-ready copy”, which is why you see so many modern math/physics/CS books that look like [LaTeX].’

If publishers put a little more work into it, they could make the footnote experience on a Kindle better than that on a physical book. In physical-book land, you write “ibid.” to indicate “the same thing as what I just wrote in the preceding footnote.” In e-book land, why do that? Why force your reader to jump back to a previous footnote, when doing so is harder than it would be in a paper book (where you’d just flip back a few pages)? Rather than writing “ibid.“, why not just include the full cite to the book you’re citing? You have effectively infinite space to play with, rather than the tight publishing constraints that physical books labor under. Likewise, you don’t need to write “A. Robertson (1984)”, which then requires your reader to go off to a bibliography to look up which Robinson you’re talking about; because you have infinite space, you can just directly link to Robinson and be done with it. If I were Amazon, I would go a step further and include a link that lets the reader buy the cited work with one tap. E-books open up lots of possibilities that publishers (and/or Amazon) just don’t exploit.

Maybe I just need to give it time. But it feels like real works of art still need to be appreciated on paper, if at all possible.

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype — November 9, 2017

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype

Just the author, the title, and the publisher (Hackett) on a boring grey background with white text The standard hype around this book, at least as I’ve consumed such hype, is that Burke is kind of the arch-conservative, ever on the lookout for ways to crush the rabble. After reading his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the worst I’m willing to say is that I need more information.

Burke was writing from the opposite side of the English Channel as the French Revolution was just warming up. The king’s head hadn’t yet been separated from the king’s body, but there were extremely alarming signs. From October 5 through 6 of 1789, the masses had force-marched the king from Versailles to Paris. The revolutionaries had seized church lands, and had constructed a new currency whose value derived from that of the seized lands. The French, it seemed, had begun an experiment in widespread social engineering (as we’d call it today) on the basis of what a few Enlightenment philosophers had taught. They had thrown out, at one go, much of what the French had learned about government over the previous centuries.

How was Burke supposed to perceive this? To my eye, the French Revolution seems to differ from English history in degree but not in type. A century and change before Burke wrote, the English had chopped off their king’s head and had spent time under the protectorship of Puritan extremists. They had been overtaken with, to my eye, anti-Catholic hysteria, which had led them to require that any future British monarch be protestant. This resulted in a German man taking the crown. That German man’s right to rule was so contested that the country had been under violent authoritarian censorship for a decade.

Maybe none of this was all that revolutionary or destructive, but of course that would have to be argued. Burke is not a fool, so he spends some time arguing that the British had not actually been all that revolutionary during the 17th century; much of Reflections is, in fact, an argument over the meaning of British history as much as it is over contemporary France. He’s at pains to argue throughout Reflections that French philosophical revolution is an entirely different beast than the (by stipulation) slow, methodical British method of revolution. Oddly, the American Revolution comes up not even once in Burke’s book. In any case, this part of the argument falls flat for me. I’m not convinced that there are so many differences between the British and French forms of revolution, or he looked the freshest example of revolution that was ready to hand (namely the American) square in the face.

If I were arguing, contra Burke, that the French Revolution had to happen as it did — that it couldn’t have happened in a slow, methodical way — I would want to have facts on hand about the French peasantry. The French king seemed like a lovely guy to Burke, but it certainly seems as though the Revolution was a people’s revolution. (Though I understand that there’s been some dispute about this over the last century or so. Perhaps it was a revolution of the bourgeois? I don’t know enough to adjudicate this dispute, which is my whole leitmotif here.) Was the French economy so backwards, and was medieval government so baked into the cake, that you couldn’t remove one piece without destroying the whole thing? This is a factual question, and I don’t know enough to weigh in. Burke certainly seems to think that there was nothing so badly rotten about French government that it couldn’t have been fixed in a piecemeal fashion. But then, his priors are pretty clearly anti-democratic to begin with, and it’s not clear to me that he had much of an idea of how the other 99% lived.

It seems likely that we care about Burke today because he’s been grafted into a story about the origins of conservatism. His ideas, as laid out in this book, fit nicely into a conservative hatred of social engineering, and specifically of the “unintended consequences” that conservatives like to wag their fingers at. Don’t sweep away all existing institutions en masse, says Burke; they encode more expertise than any of the particular philosophers who are tasked with rebuilding a republic from scratch. Institutions are greater than people, in other words, no matter the people. It wouldn’t be hard to align this with, say, Karl Popper, who advocates for continuous social experimentation at scales that make that scientific inference possible. As much as possible, change one variable (in your society), see what happens, revise your experiment, change, scale up, and continue. I see an even clearer connection with Joel Spolsky’s essay on the one mistake software developers should never, ever make, namely throwing out all their existing code and starting over from scratch. Your existing code, no matter how much you think it resembles spaghetti, encodes hard-won expertise from years of experimentation and of actually shipping software.

This all seems hard to object to. The idea that there’s a direct line of descent, however, connecting Burke to, say, National Review, is more far-fetched, and seems like opportunistic hindsight. J. G. A. Pocock’s excellent introduction to Burke’s book affirms as much.

If there’s any line of descent connecting them, it may be the thread that Corey Robin pulls on in The Reactionary Mind: that conservatism has always defined itself as the negation of something else, and in particular that it has always been about stopping the “lowest orders” from gaining power.

I’m willing to believe this about conservatism as it’s practiced today. In the specific case of Burke, I’d need more information. I don’t really believe that Burke opposed the French Revolution because he believed that the poor deserve to remain in their station, and that the hereditary monarchy should remain in power until the sun goes dark. The French Revolution feels like a genuine moral quandary. The British 17th century, also, feels like a genuine moral quandary. Neither of these things can be judged by how they eventually turned out, so it doesn’t much matter how I perceive the French or British revolutions two-hundred-plus years later. What matters, to my mind, is how an ordinary Frenchman would have — or should have — felt about it in 1789. And I need to read more before I can make up my mind on that.

Next up on the reading list: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Somewhere further along in the list: Lefebvre, Twelve Who Ruled, and Carlyle’s thing which I could even begin to penetrate the last time I tried. The goal is to understand the world as Burke, Paine, and co. might have.

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act — October 29, 2017

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act

Men in knight attire with their dogs. Maybe they're law enforcement?
This is another magic trick by the author of the magisterial Making of the English Working Class. The book plays itself out to the reader as a little historical mystery: why did the English government care enough about the theft of deer to make it, in the early decades of the 1700s, a crime punishable by death?

The book opens with explorations of individual cases in minute detail, and in the hands of a lesser author this might be exhaustingly tedious. To his credit, Thompson is both too good an author to let this happen, and aware enough of what ordinary readers are like to understand that we might feel that way. The cases are dealt with briskly and dramatically; Thompson is an excellent storyteller. The stories are mined for as much ore as they’ll offer up, because the data on the Black Act are apparently sparse: early-18th-century England was heavily censored, seemingly in part as a way to enforce stability after the Hanoverian succession. So few people wanted to come out and say that the Black Act was impossibly Draconian.

The Act wanted to label those accused of ‘blacking’ (i.e., dressing up in disguise, painting their faces black, and hiding off in the woods at night) members of what we today would call ‘gangs’ or ‘terrorist cells’. If they were tarred as a group, and their actions were perceived as a criminal conspiracy, it was easier to throw the book at them. In this way the parallels to the modern ‘terrorist’ label are fairly striking. The “blacks” did, in fact, act as small groups in many cases: attacking a landlord’s house at night, firing into his windows, and stealing deer as a group. But they don’t seem to have been a widespread movement with any actual leadership, apart from a perhaps mythical figure named “King John”. Instead, they were sporadically organized deer thieves across a couple counties in England.

So why, again, were Walpole and others so concerned to suppress the blacks up to the point of sentencing them to death? In the second half of Whigs and Hunters, Thompson throws back the curtain on the era and on the story of the blacks. In his description, the first decades of the 1700s in England sound a lot like the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapacious capitalists had rushed in and were siphoning off public funds into their private bank accounts. Georgian England, in particular, was in the middle of the enclosure movement, whereby land that had been owned in common since before the memory of man was now given over to the highest bidder. In the grand arc of history, maybe this was better in the long run, but in the meantime it was depriving peasants of their livelihoods.

On that score, Thompson’s book begins with a detailed exploration of what forests are used for. Again, just as in Making of the English Working Class, he pulls off this feat of being as richly detailed as necessary, while never taking his eye off the larger story. Today a forest seems like, basically, a nice place to spend a few contemplative hours where the air is nice. To early-18th-century England, it was a source of food in the form of deer, a source of heat in the form of wood, and the scene on which community life played out. Now, under George I, all this was being torn from beneath the people who’d lived there for centuries, all so that Walpole and his cronies could get wealthy at the public trough.

It’s Thompson’s great magic trick to acknowledge the scantiness of the data on the specific case of the blacks, while embedding that case within a broader history of the 1700s by which the blacks suddenly make perfect sense.

His peroration — which Jeet Heer mentioned thusly:

— is what led me to read this book. It’s a plea to recognize that the law isn’t, as a certain strain of Marxists would say, a mere fig leaf over ruling-class interest. While Walpole and others may have profited off the common wealth, and while they may have crafted laws that punished the lower classes, it’s important to note that they felt the need to do this through the vehicle of the law. Their power was not unbounded: there’s a difference between the unlimited power of the totalitarian and the limited power of a ruler within a society of laws. Thompson’s defense of the rule of law is timeless, beautiful, and in the context of the larger work, rather surprising.