Thursday, February 28, 2013

From the heart of darkness

As regular readers know, I stopped most political commentary on this blog a while ago because I'd said everything I thought worth saying many times over and it no longer matters. The U.S. is now a one-party (Republicrat) state like the Soviet Union or North Korea: of the government, by the government, for the government.

This kind of borders on politics, though. It's purely anecdotal but interesting.

A man in the investment discussion group I attend fairly regularly announced his retirement after 40 years with a federal government agency. He has mentioned many times in our meetings his concern about the investment world becoming decoupled from the "real" world. What is good for companies and stockholders (including those of us with enough of a stake in the system to make the group worth our time), he said, is no use to people living paycheck-to-paycheck, credit-card-payment-to-credit-card payment.

I guess I'd assumed this was simply the standard liberal line that you adopt when you take Uncle Sam's shilling and sign up for the bureaucrat army. But he surprised me.

After the meeting I chatted with him briefly, the usual "congratulations on making it to the finish line" and "what are you going to do with your new spare time?" kind of banter. The last thing I intended was to bring down the moment by injecting politics into it.

But he opened up the subject. He had, on the whole, enjoyed his time working in the government. His colleagues included many decent people, he said. "But I can completely understand why so many people out there [pointing: any direction you point in Arlington, Virginia is toward "outside the Beltway"] are outraged," he said. "When you're in the federal government, you're in an artificial environment, a womb that keeps you protected and nourished.

"The agency becomes synonymous with the world. At least if you work in Washington as a Fed, the rest of the country becomes out of sight, out of mind. It's not that administrators are callous -- in a one-on-one situation, they'd be sympathetic enough -- but their daily constituency isn't the people outside the Beltway they're supposed to be working for, but the people they're really working for: the higher-level managers and the politicians."

I think he gets it. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The long view

This is a sort of pendant to the previous posting about Artemidorus. I would have included it there but that would have made a fairly long post into a longer one, and given the esoteric subject I felt it might discourage readership.

"The smartest men and women of antiquity were no stupider than we are," I said. 

We underestimate the cultural achievements of the past because so much of the evidence for them has been destroyed through war, vandalism, and the deterioration inflicted by time.

Rendering of the interior of the ancient library of Alexandria

Andrew Tomas summarizes what we have reason to believe about the losses -- and this is only what history tells us of; there is doubtless much more that we don't even know we don't know:
The famous collection of Pisistratus in Athens (sixth century B.C.) was ravaged. ... The papyri of the library of the temple of Ptah in Memphis were totally destroyed. The same fate befell the library of Pergamus in Asia Minor containing 200,000 volumes. The city of Carthage, razed to the ground by the Romans in a seventeen-day fire in 146 B.C., was said to possess a library with half a million volumes. 

But the greatest blow to history was the burning of the Alexandrian library in the Egyptian campaign of Julius Caesar during which 700,000 priceless scrolls were irretrievably lost. The Bruchion contained 400,000 books and the Serapeum 300,000. There was a complete catalogue of authors in 120 volumes with a brief biography of each author.
These figures may be exaggerated -- the ancients were impressed by big numbers almost as much as today's journalists. But the cultural devastation was almost certainly immense.
The Roman conqueror was also responsible for the loss of thousands of scrolls in the Bibracte druid college at what is now Autun, France. Numerous treatises on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and other sciences perished there.

The fate of libraries was no better in Asia, as Emperor Tsin Shi Hwang-ti issued an edict whereby innumerable books were burned in China in 213 B.C. Leo Isaurus was another archenemy of culture as 300,000 books went to the incendiary in Constantinople in the eighth century.
And all this is only from the relatively recent past, archeologically speaking. What knowledge did mankind possess in far more ancient ages?

 Library of Alexandria reconstruction image

Everyone has heard of the story told by Plato about Solon, the Greek statesman who had lived about two centuries earlier. Solon supposedly went to Egypt where he learned from the priests about the island of Atlantis, said to have been destroyed around 9600 B.C. But even that was comparatively a short while ago in the prehistory of the human race.

Estimates for the advent of the Cro-Magnons, our closest biological ancestors, vary widely. Circa 50,000 years ago is a commonly cited date, but paleo-anthropology is an extremely inexact science. Even if we accept for the sake of discussion 50,000 years ago, does it make sense that for 40,000 years people with more or less our biology and brains lived in caves and clubbed animals, and only a few thousand years ago began to develop civilization?

But, you may say, that's silly. If there were long-ago civilizations, why doesn't the scientific record offer evidence of them? Well, consider the huge gaps in our knowledge of history in the past 4,000 years. It's only by dumb luck that Homer's poems survived. Sophocles wrote dozens of plays that are forever lost, barring some astonishing archeological find. Et cetera.

25,000 B.C.? Maybe

Time is the great destroyer of evidence. Even the continents change shape. It's not hard to believe that what we would call advanced civilizations might have been entirely erased. Imagine, 20,000 years from now, historians struggling to understand what we were all about. All our buildings and infrastructure gone without a trace. No paintings or paper books left. Digital media corrupted and unreadable.

Tomas again:
According to Simplicius (sixth century A.D.) ancient Egyptians kept records of astronomical observations for 630,000 years. The archives of Babylon were 470,000 years old, with a remark that he did not believe this claim. Hipparchus (c. 190-125 B.C.) mentioned Assyrian chronicles stretching back for 270,000 years.

The Egyptian priests told Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. that the sun had not always risen where it rose then. This implied that they had kept records of the precession of equinoxes, covering at least 26,000 years. ... The Byzantine historian George Syncellus said that the chronicles of the pharaohs had recorded all events for 36,525 years.
 ... And a good deal more in the same vein.

If these claims go beyond your belief threshold, I sympathize. They sound absurd. The numbers are very likely imprecise (which doesn't mean that they must be completely fictitious). Yet to return to where this posting began: humans in the distant past probably had the same proportion of wise men and fools that we do today. But they had a different knowledge base, and I wouldn't be quick to thoroughly dismiss it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The dream world of Artemidorus

[Artemidorus was surnamed Ephesius, from Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor, but was also called Daldianus, from his mother's native city, Daldis in Lycia.] 

Artemidorus  (flourished 3rd century ad, Ephesus, Roman Asia [now in Turkey]), soothsayer whose Oneirocritica (“Interpretation of Dreams”) affords valuable insight into ancient superstitions, myths, and religious rites. Mainly a compilation of the writings of earlier authors, the work’s first three books consider dreams and divination generally; a reply to critics and an appendix make up the fourth book. He was reputed to have written books on interpreting bird signs and palm reading, but they have been lost.
Encyclopaedia Britannica

"The work of Artemidorus Daldianus on the interpretation of dreams enjoys a well-deserved neglect."

Such was the view expressed by Russel Geer of Brown University in The Classical Journal for June 1927. Professor Geer added, concerning this "laborious, pseudo-scientific effort of the second Christian century":
It is based on the assumption that all dreams, except those which clearly reflect the regular occupations or physical condition of the dreamer, are sent by the gods and, if properly understood, are unfailing indications of some future event. 
Francis Barrett, who sympathized with the occult enough to write a lengthy book on "secret knowledge" titled The Magus (London, 1801), thought Artemidorus was too credulous:
We find in Artemidorus some of the most trifling incidents in dreams noted by him to presage very extraordinary things; such, as if any one dreams of his nose, or his teeth, or such like trifling subjects, such particular events they must denote.
Now, as we cannot attribute a true and significant dream to any other cause than the celestial intelligences, or an evil dæmon, or else to the soul itself (which possesses an inherent prophetic virtue, as we have fully treated of in our Second Book of Magic, where we have spoken of prophetic dreams), I say, from which of these causes a dream proceeds, we must ascribe but a very deficient portion of knowledge to either of them, if we do not allow them capable of giving better and plainer information respecting any calamity or change of fortune or circumstances, than by dreaming of one's nose itching, or a tooth falling out, and a hundred other toys like these ... [Long-winded, in the manner of Barrett's time, but reasonable and cleverly said.]
I've read a few scraps of Artemidorus's Oneirocritica -- just quotations -- and they strike me as nonsense on stilts. (Of course, it isn't fair to judge a huge body of work based on scraps.) But his theories seem no sillier than those of Freud or any other modern interpreter, including the sainted Jung. Full disclosure, I'm a dream interpretation conscientious objector.

That isn't to say dreams are meaningless. They, or at least some of them, probably are significant for the person who experiences them. I doubt any psychologist has a clue about a client's dreams. Only the individual holds the key to his own dreams, and most of us have misplaced our keys.

I bring up poor old Artemidorus not to defend his dream interpretation theories, but to defend him -- and by extension, many thinkers of the ancient world -- from our contemporary notion that they all (with a generous exception for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) were ignorant, unscientific, and superstitious.

Robin Lane Fox discusses Artemidorus in his remarkable book Pagans and Christians. Its depth of scholarship is astounding -- he even seems to have read the Oneirocritica in its entirety, something hardly anyone in our time has done -- but Lane Fox writes smooth, intelligible English, unlike so many of today's young academics.

One of the virtues of Pagans and Christians is that the author doesn't reduce the story of Christianity's growing hold on the Roman empire to political terms. He understands that it was a divergence and conflict between different ways of perceiving the world, centering not around dogma -- the pagans had none -- but around modes of consciousness.

For example, Lane Fox devotes quite a few pages to the long tradition, stretching back to Homer, of individuals seeing and hearing their favorite gods not just in dreams but while awake. He gives enough examples to be convincing that direct communion of gods was uncontroversial (except among Christians) and continued until the very twilight of paganism.

(My own thought on this, based on a limited understanding but considerable reading, is that non-corporeal spirits -- especially those of a higher type -- appear to those of us on the earth plane in a form we can understand or appreciate. Thus, Christians have visions of saints or Jesus himself; Romans and Greeks in their part of the empire saw and heard elevated spirits in terms of their favorite among the polytheistic committee. I don't believe visits by spirits are any less frequent now than in the early days. The difference between people in our time and those in the ancient world is that back then they could express the manifestations with no fear of scorn, while in our spiritually broken days, to describe such apparitions is to risk being taken for a nut.)

Wisely, he doesn't try to weigh the truth or meaning of such experiences. He simply takes a phenomenological view: this is what people said happened to them.

Anyway, Lane Fox goes to some trouble to counter the idea that Artemidorus was a crackpot. The ancient dream interpreter's methodology deserves to be called scientific. From Pagans and Christians:
Thanks to one author, we happen to know the dreams of the early Antonine age better than any before or after in antiquity. In five remarkable books, Aremodorus of Daldis explained his theory of dreams' significance, the meanings of their common types and how, in his experience, the accepted meanings had turned out to be true. His interest was in dreams' predictive power, not in their "analytical" relevance to diagnoses of a person's past or present.

He had spared no efforts to find out the truth. He had read his predecessors' books and developed theoretical distinctions of his own. He had associated with the despised "street diviners," with whom he had swapped experiences, and he had also visited the major games and festivals of "cities and islands" from Italy to the Greek East, where he had questioned the spectators and competitors, the athletes, rhetors and sophists who attached such interest to dreams of their personal prospects. ...
Artemidorus was not easily enlisted into the ranks of soothsayers with simplistic explanations.
Research and observation, he insisted, were essential to the dream interpreter's art. In each case, he had to consider local custom, the oppositions of custom and nature and the dreamer's previous thoughts and wishes.

Many dreams were not predictive, because they merely duplicated thoughts and wishes in the dreamer's own mind: sometimes, Artemidorus had had to discover details of his clients' sex life in order to predict the meaning of their dreams correctly. [Freud long before Freud!]
Lane Fox obviously admires Aretemidorus, but acknowledges that the ancient researcher could not quite avoid the assumptions of his time and place: "The dreams of athletes and performers from his own Asia, the curious local cults of Dionysus, the various types of bullfighting and bull-leaping, the small cult associations, or symbioseis, which we find in his own Lydia -- all this evidence he had to fit to his theories, and he shows the dogmatist's strong resentment of criticism and disbelievers' 'envy' as he struggles to make his theory fit."

Of course, no modern psychologist or scientist of any stripe can be equally accused.


The smartest men and women of antiquity were no stupider than we are. Of course they lacked our technology, or in some cases any practical development of it. But they were alive to facts of existence that our so-called public intellectuals won't lower themselves to take seriously: the ancients of the Western world (not to mention those of other cultures) were in touch with levels of reality our scientific-materialist cognoscenti are blind and deaf to. We live far more comfortably, and I'm the last to put that down. But many of them lived more deeply.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The television Van der Valk gets a new lease on life

It's amazing what turns up on DVD and in the Netflix inventory. I would have thought it unlikely that episodes from the early '70s of the (I supposed) long-forgotten TV series Van der Valk, based very loosely on the character created by Nicolas Freeling, would be resurrected.

Admirers of the literary Commisaris Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police will recognize little in the TV version beyond the names of the detective and his wife, Arlette. Freeling was, to my mind, the greatest writer of psychological crime novels. The TV Van der Valk lacks most of the introspection Freeling endowed his inspector with. The dialogue doesn't match the offbeat shades and rhythms of Freeling's. And Freeling's character wasn't the boozehound we see here.

The program has even given Van der Valk a detective partner named Kroon, who doesn't exist in the books. 

It's understandable: a screenwriter can't convey thoughts except through the clumsy device of voice-overs, so like Aeschylus, he has to introduce a second character for dialogue. Unfortunately, the actor playing Kroon (like that playing Arlette, a complex and interesting woman in the books) makes little impression.

Another oddity: The exterior shots of Amsterdam were recorded on film (in these early episodes, now corrupted and grainy) but the interiors were taped (and for the most part look sharp). Given that there is little control over lighting outdoors, it made sense to use film for its better subtlety and resolution, but it would have been less jarring to use it as well for the sound stage sets, pubs, hotel lobbies and so on. Budget, mes amis, budget.

Why am I bothering to write about this series at all? The main reason is that it stars Barry Foster, a first-rate actor who makes his Van der Valk -- while hardly resembling Freeling's -- memorable.

Foster's line readings, body language, gestures are a constant treat.When the script gives him an occasional Dutch word, it sounds to me like he pronounces it the way a Dutch person would. The same when he speaks his character's name -- something like "Fon dair Falk." His normal voice is classical English that suggests a touch of "good breeding."

He brings a certain impatience and grumpiness to the role, but unlike John Thaw in the Inspector Morse series, he doesn't let it degenerate into a tiresome routine.

Foster had a long and respectable career on stage, screen and TV, but never became the top-rank star his abilities should have led to. I suspect part of the reason is that his one role in a big budget film was in Hitchcock's creepy Frenzy, where he played a serial killer of women. The movie revolted a lot of people, myself included, and I suspect some of the distaste rubbed off on Foster.

But see him in the TV series Smiley's People and in the under-appreciated film The Whistle Blower (which also includes a typically superb performance by Michael Caine). Foster died in 2002.

The series ran for more episodes in the '70s, then was briefly revived in the late '90s. I hope it will gather enough new fans to make it worth someone's while put the rest of Van der Valk on DVD.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The precariat

The other day a panelist on a BBC Radio 4 program used a term I'd never heard before: "the precariat." He was the author of a book by that title about a new and, he says, dangerous social class.

[Side note: The Radio 4 web site makes some of its programs available for downloading. Lately I've taken to burning those that sound interesting onto CDs and listening in my car while commuting. In spite of the BBC's loathsome politics, many of their serious discussion programs are streets ahead of anything you can hear on NPR, let alone U.S. commercial broadcasting.]

The author, Guy Standing, believes that the modern economic system has created a large, permanent group of workers whom corporations treat as parts to be plugged in and tossed aside as needed. The workers have no job security, can't plan, and have no stake in the organization's esprit de corps (assuming any exists).

I haven't read The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, but this is not a book review, only talking about some of the ideas he raises based on the publisher's blurb and the reviews. Of course these may not accurately represent Standing's points.

From the publisher:
Neo-liberal policies and institutional changes have produced a huge and growing number of people with sufficiently common experiences to be called an emerging class. In this book Guy Standing introduces what he calls the Precariat - a growing number of people across the world living and working precariously, usually in a series of short-term jobs, without recourse to stable occupational identities, stable social protection or protective regulations relevant to them. They include migrant workers, but also locals. 
I don't have the shadow of a notion what "neo-liberal policies" are, but there is no doubt that the kind of people he describes have become numerous enough to constitute a social class -- maybe larger than the traditional notion of blue- or white-collar workers. Until about 10 years ago, I myself belonged to the precariat. Partly it was down to naive decisions on my part, such as choosing to live in the economic dead zones of Santa Fe and Tucson. Nobody had any serious complaint about the work I did, and they were generous with pats on the back, but it was a struggle to keep body and soul together. Precarious indeed.
Standing argues that this class of people could produce new instabilities in society. They are increasingly frustrated and dangerous because they have no voice, and hence they are vulnerable to the siren calls of extreme political parties. He outlines a new kind of good society, with more people actively involved in civil society and the precariat re-engaged. He goes on to consider one way to a new better society -- an unconditional basic wage for everyone, contributed by the state, which could be topped up through employment. 
The precariat is frustrated right enough, but unlikely to be dangerous. It doesn't have enough security or even time to be dangerous. Revolutions stem from the growing power of a class, such as the middle class in 18th century France and a well-to-do merchant class in the American colonies.

Then we get to the essence of the matter, re-integrating the precariat so that its members have more pride and feel that society values them. Would "an unconditional basis wage for everyone, contributed by the state, which could be topped up through employment" help?

Most economic conservatives would instantly dismiss such an idea, but it's worth considering.

Let's be honest: We already have a permanent welfare class that gets that sort of deal from society. The difference between the welfare class and the precariat is that most of the former lack ambition or job skills, while most of the latter would prefer to better themselves and play a role in the economy. Why should society subsidize the one but not the other?

There are those who oppose any form of state support, except for people who are physically or mentally unable to work. I can't agree. Unless modern technology and automation completely break down because of lack of resources or some other reason -- and God help us if so -- modern economies just plain don't need long-term careerists except at top management levels. For good or ill, the era of the employee who tightens bolts or shuffles papers for 40 years at one firm is gone, baby, gone.

I suppose there will always be routine jobs, but from the organization's viewpoint it doesn't matter whether they are filled at any given time by Joe, Jack, or Jill. And barring an economic cataclysm that wrecks the technological grid, there will never be enough such jobs for everyone. It doesn't matter how productive an economy is; arguably, needing fewer employees is one key to productivity in the modern world.

A guaranteed annual income with no strings attached -- paltry but enough to survive on -- could reduce the financial and psychological insecurity of those who inhabit Temp World.

You object to the state doling out money to individuals? Okay, it goes against the grain. But government transfer payments permeate our way of life. Besides its commitment to welfare, the state subsidizes (directly or indirectly) the defense industry, the infrastructure industry, the tax accounting industry, the social work establishment, law enforcement, and countless others. Why draw the line at giving the precariat a hand?

The main trouble I foresee with such a policy has to do with our balkanized, racially and ethnically fractured society. Today no government program can be free from the demands of competing identity groups to be more equal than others.

An reviewer called Diziet ("being alive is just so amazing I really don't see why anyone needs a religion," in the words of his or her bio note) writes:
This 'labour flexibility' has meant that the precariat is increasingly made up of women and older people. Both women and older people are cheaper - pushing down the real value of wages. Young people have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers. Faced with shortages of meaningful employment, many may stay in education - but here the process of commodification means not only that education is increasingly expensive but also that the range of courses on offer is dictated more by marketing and the need to attract fee paying customers than any desire to develop human potential.

Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants. The inclusion of this group illustrates the difficulty, not of defining the group, but of the class identifying itself as a class. So often migrants are used as scapegoats, accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist ...
Hold on. If the precariat has no bargaining rights as a whole, why is it "increasingly made up of women and older people"? Why are they cheaper than anyone else? If the precariat consists mainly of women and older people, why do young people "have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers"?

"Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants," says Diziet. Migrants meaning the constituents of the mass immigration Western governments have forced on their unwilling citizens -- population replacement. To people like Diziet, you simply can't talk about a disadvantaged class that consists of a country's indigenous inhabitants. You must include the Left's pets. "Precariat grows: Women, minorities hardest hit."

I do not understand what is meant by migrants "accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist ... ." He or she then quotes Standing:
Capital welcomes migration because it brings low cost malleable labour. The groups most vehemently opposed to migration are the old (white) working and lower middle class, squeezed by globalisation and falling into the precariat. 
So it seems that someone (who?) uses "migrants" as an "excuse" for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist; but Standing identifies the "old (white) working and lower middle class" as "vehemently opposed to migration," that is, racist by definition in the diversity cult.

Thus, under the Leftist Establishment, one step toward ameliorating the plight of the precariat must be followed by one step back, adding millions more "migrants" to the overstock of low-cost malleable labor.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A visit to the Imperial City

Although I live in the Virginia 'burbs a 30-minute drive (rush hour, add one hour) from the madness that is our national capital, I avoid going there as much as humanly possible. Maybe once a year on average, and that only for concerts at the Kennedy Center. I normally have no reason to go downtown, into the heart of The Beast.

But yesterday my wife and I had an appointment with a health insurance broker, whose office happened to be on K Street, ground zero in the Washington power game. 

The grandiose changes in the city weren't far from shocking. Perhaps they should have been expected. I often read in the media about how the District of Columbia and environs are now basking in prosperity while half the country it rules -- yes! I said it! rules -- is on some kind of federal feeding tube.

Indulge me as we take a little time trip. Washington's streets were paved with mud when Thomas Jefferson trod them. I have a few memories of the capital city as it was in the early 1960s. Outside of the pillared government and institutional buildings and the areas around the monuments, quite a bit of it was shabby. 

I'm not talking just about the residential slums. Before Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the White House, was tarted up (I think for the '76 Bicentennial), along its length were cheap luncheonettes and "news vendors" that sold dirty books in the back. The present FBI Bunker stands on the site of some of them.

In 1991, I sold out principle and decency, hoping to make some money after years of poverty in Santa Fe, and moved to Washington. Even then quite a bit of the central city was downmarket, with a biker's bar right on K Street and lots of tired office buildings and dingy old tourist restaurants.

And now? Well, mix New York's Madison Avenue, Las Vegas, Boca Raton, and throw in a little Jermyn Street from London and there's your up-to-date nation's throne room.

Glitz like you wouldn't believe. Haut couture. Gentlemen's pink shirts from the finest Piccadilly shops. Exotic dining temples for the sheik trade. 

And those formerly dilapidated old buildings? Blitzed to build marbled office palaces for lawyers, corporations, and corporation lawyers. Or gutted and refurbished into posh hotels for jet-setting grandees and diamond-sparkled charity balls.

Animated fashion models, formerly known as people. And drink. Lord, every kind of booze-up station, from cute to punk to oh-my-dear-how-elegant.

Drop by the Imperial City next time you're in the neighborhood. And when later you hear a hip-hop star lip-synching the National Anthem, recall what you saw. This was yours once, albeit a sleepy and ill-kempt southern city. Now it belongs to the federal remora class -- politicians, their suck-ups, NGO officials, lobbyists, tuxedoed waiters, law firm sultans, regulators, and barely visible in the shadows the legions of bureaucratic paper shufflers.