The Folly of Humankind as Macro-Organism

The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamFor some reason, I found myself reading Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. It’s an odd book to read at this time, because it is primarily an effort to explain the Vietnam War. But even more, I found myself wondering why she was making such a big deal out of the folly of humans. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Humans are awful, even though individual humans are mostly all right. It is the way we work as a system — which has been critical to our success or macro-organism — that allows us to be far more stupid and less humane together than apart.

She starts by asking, “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?” Unfortunately, she really does not discuss the Trojan War. Instead, she provides a short chapter about why the Trojans brought the wooden horse inside the city. If anything were fanciful in Homer, it is that. The real question is why the Greeks started that war. So Menelaus could get his wife Helen back? The women he plans to kill once the Trojans are defeated? Not that I’m suggesting that this is any more true than the wooden horse. But Homer presents the Trojan War as a tragedy for Greeks as well as the Trojans.

I was watching Bettany Hughes’ documentary, The Minotaur’s Island, which is about the Minoans. At one archaeological dig, a human sacrifice seems to have been caught in action. An earthquake destroyed the temple, killing the priest and entombing him with his two victims. It makes me wonder if the temple’s collapse wasn’t the result of an aftershock, and that the human sacrifice wasn’t a reaction to the original earthquake. I’ll admit, I love the irony of that. But regardless, priests didn’t do sacrifices of any kind just to be mean. They did them for a purpose — whether that was to assure a good harvest or calm the earthquakes.

But here is where I think folly is well on display. I’m sure that in various places for short periods of times, priests actually thought that human sacrifices were a really great way to get the gods to give you what you wanted. But I can’t imagine that they didn’t quickly notice that, actually, the human sacrifices were irrelevant. But a priest who realizes this is in a bind for a couple of reasons. First, it would seriously damage his reputation. But second, and I think more important, is the social expectation of the sacrifices.

A leader is every bit as much a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” as is some guy sleeping in the drunk tank in the local jail.

Imagine the priest goes to the people and says, “You know, these sacrifices are not what the gods want.” And then there is a bad harvest or an earthquake. If the priest had done the sacrifice? Well, at least he tried. We all know the gods are fickle. But he didn’t even try! He just made up this story about human sacrifices being unnecessary, and now look at us? We’re starving! That priest is almost certainly going to die very painfully, very soon.

I think most forms of individual human power are illusory. I’ve noted this a lot about the speakership of John Boehner. He had power, but only if he didn’t use it. In the end, he swapped his appearance of power (he lost his speakership) for exercising the tiny bit of the real power he actually had. And that is human social interaction in a broader sense. We are involved in a kind of huge negotiation. A leader is every bit as much a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” as is some guy sleeping in the drunk tank in the local jail.

And I know that some will saw, “Yeah, but the leader does get some measure of power.” But I don’t think that’s true. Leaders become so at the pleasure of the masses. Just like Peter Jennings would never have been allowed to anchor World News Tonight if he didn’t instinctively know what would get him fired, leaders instinctively know what will make the masses literally tear them apart limb by limb. We, as a macro-organism, get the leaders we want. And when they do supremely stupid things, it’s because we are at very least, okay with it — and more likely cheering it on. Because “we” are far more stupid and inhumane than you and I ever will be.

Dean Baker on Out of Touch Reporters

Dean BakerI don’t know how many times people have given me the stock market [argument]. Well, that’s great if you own a lot of stock. But that’s almost no one. Invariably, when I say that, reporters are really taken aback, “What do you mean?! I own stock! My friends own stock!” I go, “Yeah! Like I said: almost no one.” You have a lot people who are writing on economic issues that are incredibly out of touch with what the economy is for most of the country.

—Dean Baker
Quoted on The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow

Erick Erickson: as Vile and Stupid as Ever

Erick EricksonThis tweet came to my attention via the great Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns & Money, The Environment in Which Trump Can Thrive. I don’t follow Erick Erickson, because he is not only a vile man, he’s also an idiot. He’s the sort of guy who would never have a writing job if he were liberal. He’s the poster-child of conservative affirmative action. The last time I wrote about him was all the way back in 2013, when he was saying if only the Republicans had kept the government shutdown going another day, week, month, year, then they would win!

But this tweet is a level vileness and stupidity that, while not exactly shocking coming from Erickson, is at least notable:

There are two issues here. The first took me a moment to see, because it is so part of the conservative ethos that it tends to be invisible. It’s racism. This has nothing to do with World War II or “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.” It is just throwing together a huge group of people and blaming them for Pearl Harbor. The fact that Erickson’s parents would feel this way is understandable, I suppose. What is only explicable because Erickson is a vile and stupid man, is why he would proudly repeat this bit of bigotry.

It’s also worth noting that Erickson was born in 1975. So his parents are almost certainly not from the Silent Generation, but from the Baby Boomers. If Erickson’s mother was 30 when she had him, she would have been born just in time for the end of the World War II. If that is a child of World War II, then we are all children of World War II. (And to some extent, we are; that makes Erickson’s claim all the more silly.) In addition, this has to be in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s a real grudge to hold.

But the second issue is the real reason I’m writing this. It was Japan that attacked on on this date 74 years ago, not “Asia.” In fact, China was an ally and was savagely abused by Japan — costing the lives of 14 million Chinese people during the war. Now maybe Erickson means “Japanese food.” After all, he seems to have come from a somewhat affluent family (they moved to Dubai when he was five). But as Lemieux noted, “I would bet dollars to beef and broccoli lunch specials that the ‘Asian food’ the Ericksons were abstaining from was Chinese food.”

Right. You know: food that kinda sorta comes from the country that was our ally in the war that Erickson’s parents were children of. This reminds me of the way that bigots during that time equated Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and so on. And now they equate Arabs, Persians, Indians, and so on. But it is amazing that someone so important in the conservative movement would make this kind of mistake. You may remember that the conservative movement used to have people like William Buckley.


As I write this, Wikipedia has already integrated this tweet into his bio. It sounds to me like it was done by someone ridiculing him. But it could instead have been added by someone who simply has no idea about narrative flow:

Erickson was born in Jackson in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates when he was five, and returned to Jackson when he was fifteen. Erickson’s parents refused to let his family eat Asian food on December 7th, the anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy. Erickson attended the American School of Dubai, previously known as the Jumeirah American School.

It’s kind of like: “Eric was born in Louisiana. He had a turtle named ‘Prigsby’! He went to school in Dubai.”

Anniversary Post: The Blue Marble

The Blue MarbleWell, as every American school child knows, this day in 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy.” Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Two quick things. First, I’m sure FDR was thrilled, because he had been itching for a reason to get into the war because our UK allies were involved in it. Second, what we did to the Japanese in the following years decreases “infamy” to something more like “rudeness.” And don’t bother me about it. Just because modern warfare is accepted by much of the world does not mean that I have to accept it. Was the Pearl Harbor attack on civilians? No. Okay, on to more pleasant subjects.

On this day in 1972, one of the most famous pictures in the history of humanity was taken: The Blue Marble. It was shot by the crew of the Apollo 17 — the same day that the mission was launched. It was the last time that we went to the Moon. We had gotten really good at going to the Moon, so Americans didn’t care. On the other hand, when we were fighting a pointless war in Vietnam, you have to wonder if they weren’t right.

Regardless, the picture is spectacular. It makes Africa look kind of small. But more than that, it makes humanity look small and fragile. It makes me wonder about everything we fight over. There are currently 27 armed conflicts ongoing on in Africa. That’s half as many as there are countries in Africa. It’s just sad. It makes me wonder if this is why we die relatively young. Who could suffer the pain of watching humanity for hundreds of years?

But at least the image makes me think of a beautiful song: