November 2011


Philip Jenkins’ “The Lost History of Christianity” is about the largely extinct Christian churches (principally the Jacobites and Nestorians) that ranged from Africa to China, and are regarded now by the surviving small-o orthodox as heretical sects that may even deserve their extinction due to their welcoming of conquering Muslims. That’s perhaps a caricature of the view Jenkins is arguing against, as he aims to show there was a genuine loss of something distinct, accomplished and important in an historical sense. The interesting bit to me (and for the most part, I don’t find the subject interesting) is how the extinction came about. One might expect it happened almost immediately after the Arab conquests, but that appears to only have been the case in north Africa (Egypt not included, the Coptic church has proved to be surprisingly durable). Alternatively there could have been a long gradual process of attrition as Christians converted to avoid things like the jizya and other demerits of dhimmitude. But instead Jenkins argues that it largely occurred in a couple centuries around the year 1300. There a number of factors that caused everything to fall apart. There were prolonged wars of Turkish conquest (in contrast to the quick Arab absorbtion of weakened Byzantine and Persian territories, largely leaving literate locals in charge and unmolested), a series of Crusades that made Muslim vs Christian conflict more salient, and eastern Christians pinning their hopes on the initially relatively Christian-favoring (and practically genocidal) Mongols only for their imagined saviors to themselves convert to Islam. But additionally Jenkins finds that things were going from bad to worse in Europe as well, with Jews being expelled from England & France (the latter of which had a crusade against the heretical Cathars) and the witch-hunts being launched. For the material determinists out there he offers the cooling of the planet, with ensuing crop failures and epidemic outbreaks as the reason for everything going wrong around the world. So perhaps global warming will help lead to more world peace.

Some quotes from that section of the first chapter:
“Even today, jihadi extremists look back to the hard-line Muslim scholars of this very era as their role models in challenging the infidel world.”*
“Anyone who believes that boundless aggression and ruthless tyranny over minorities are built into the DNA of Islam needs to explain the quite benevolent nature of Muslim rule during its first six centuries; but advocates of Islamic tolerance must work just as hard to account for the later years of the religion’s historical experience.
So extensive, indeed, were persecutions and reductions of minority groups, from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century, that it is astonishing how little they have registered in popular consciousness, or how readily the myth of Muslim tolerance has been accepted. One factor distorting memory has been the total oblivion into which the non-European Christian communities have fallen, and the assumption that the familiar realities of the present day must always have existed.”
*I would have assumed that Muhammad himself and the rightly-guided caliphs are the only ones your genuine fundamentalist should approve of. Islam totally sold out in its later years.

I’d also like to include this quote on the myth of suppressed gnostic Christianity.
“In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminist leanings.
The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. […] The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins.”

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I don’t know how long Arnold Kling has been talking about PSST (Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade). In all that time, he has never given any evidence of it. He always just says “This is the view I want to push”. In contrast, the evidence for downward rigidity in nominal wages is overwhelming. And now his co-blogger finally says that to him. Since Arnold seems to delight in persisting with self-described “wrong beliefs”, maybe that won’t make a lick of difference, but most of those he doesn’t talk about as much as he does PSST.

I favor a much lower time discount rate and more Donner Party austerity than Karl Smith, but ultimately I agree that nothing is sustainable. It’s eventually going to end, almost certainly not very well. We are just going to squeeze whatever juice we can while we can.

Robert Trivers has an interview at Salon about his somewhat redundantly titled book “The Folly of Fools”. One of the last questions from the (gay) interviewer is on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, since part of Trivers’ book is on the relationship between being closeted and using condoms. Trivers says ““Don’t ask, don’t tell” was an immunological disaster”. That sounded odd to me, because even if it caused things to be worse than otherwise I was not under the impression that the magnitude of HIV infection in the military was that large. I did some googling and found this page which says “In the United States, the rate of HIV infection is lower in the military than in the general population — one to two people per 10,000 compared with 10 to 20 per 10,000”. I don’t know what the HIV rate in the military was before DADT, my guess is that it did not change much in response.

A while back I wondered what Chris Coyne would say in response to Daron Acemoglu’s paper showing institutional improvement in areas the French Revolution spread to. Oddly enough, I found Yglesias citing the Austrian-anarchist’s essay on recent books from the more left-anarchist’s James Scott and applying those ideas to modern counter-insurgency. His paper (with Adam Pellillo, who I’ve never heard of before) has a footnote referencing Acemoglu’s paper. Since it’s short, I’ll just quote the whole thing here:
In a recent article, Acemoglu et al. (2009) argue against this position. They contend that the impact of the French Revolution on European institutions proves that good institutions can be imposed from outside. Specifically, after 1792, French forces invaded numerous countries and imposed a civil code while abolishing guilds and the remnants of feudalism. They argue that the countries invaded performed better economically than those that didn’t. This, however, misses the point. The use of the guillotine is a means of raising the cost of enforcement. Demand curves do indeed slope downward and if you raise the cost of certain behaviors high enough people will respond. Stated simply, if the gun is big enough outsiders can get insiders to behave differently. Putting aside the issue of ethics, this is an extremely costly means of changing behaviors.

So I guess Coyne would agree with Daniel Klein that drug prohibition reduces drug use and gun laws reduce gun possession.

His post at Big Think on the value orientation of the Tea Baggers versus the Flea Party upholds the truism that “liberals tend to explain both poverty and wealth in terms of luck and the influence of social forces while conservatives tend to explain poverty and wealth in terms of effort and individual initiative.” This is backed by extensive research in political psychology.

But this study from the University of Chicago has another take. It found that in some cases liberals were more apt than conservatives to attribute blame to individuals when a real life situation proffered by the study’s designers involved an outcome offensive to liberal sensibilities. The inverse too, with conservatives putting the onus on structural forces for blame when the individuals implicated indirectly threatened to tarnish a conservative sacred cow.  In the former case, a scenario involving cougars running loose being gunned down by police saw the liberals blame the police officers themselves, not the pressure on them to do something drastic lest a civilian get mauled. As for the conservatives, Marines in Iraq accused of killing civilians saw conservative respondents suggesting the fog of war made them do it, if they in fact did it. The authors conclude:  “These results suggest that the ideo-attribution effect-and attributions more generally-are shaped by whether people’s attributional conclusions are consistent or inconsistent with their salient values.”

If there’s a fog of war involved here it appears to be a Cultural one.

Unrelatedly, Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek bashes supposed Luddite thinking on the part of writer Adam Simpson in the Taipei Times, who’s critical of the pace of global automation and its effect on labor. But does Boudreaux misunderstand Luddism? Richard Conniff at the Smithsonian Magazine thinks so. According to him:

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

This doesn’t strike me as completely disconnected from their popular reputation, just perhaps adding a concern for the preservation of fine craftsmanship to fear of lost jobs. But if it’s true that the Luddites were “totally fine with machines,” you can add this to the history of misunderstood labor agitation, ala Upton Sinclair’s efforts to better the working conditions of factory hands being transformed into a plea for organic farming.