Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review of Rousseau's Confessions

Les Confessions (Confessions) by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, 1765 - 1770. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10.

Rousseau's Confessions give a pretty good idea of the kind of person he was: a grumpy, wimpy nerd who enjoyed being humiliated. So why did I finish this book? At a far enough remove almost any work becomes mostly about its time, and I find history interesting. Les Confessions can give a modern reader an intuitive feel for relations between Protestants and Catholics, intellectuals and their benefactors, hookers and johns, Frenchmen and Italians and many other kinds of persons of its time.

For example, I was fascinated by the extent to which Rousseau, a French-speaking citizen of the city-state of Geneva, considered himself non-French. Whenever he wrote that the French had a way of making him feel this or that, I wanted to shout at him, Elaine Benes-like, "YOU'RE French!" While describing his sojourns in the Venetian Republic and in the southern portion of the Kingdom of Savoy he had no problem calling the locals Italians. This must have been partly because distance increases our desire to generalize, but also because the existence of a state called France made the popular 18th-century understanding of Frenchness more legalistic and bureaucratic than the popular understanding of Germanness or Italianness.

Unlike the bulk of the French, the Genevans of that time were Protestants. The Reformation arose as a Germanic reaction to typically Mediterranean political corruption and inequality. Scandinavia, the most Germanic region of all, accepted Luther's ideas so enthusiastically that hardly anyone there was killed over them. The most culturally Mediterranean regions of the West (Italy and Iberia) rejected these do-gooder reforms with no less zeal. Most of the violence occurred in the middle of the Med-Nord continuum, in the areas that could have conceivably gone either way. And it makes perfect sense that there was more enthusiasm for the Reformation among the Czechs than among the Poles - the Czechs are genetically and emotionally more like Germans than the Poles are.

With all of that in mind I expected Genevans, pillars of French-speaking protestantism, to sound somewhat Germanic. But Rousseau didn't. There was a typically French sensuality in his tendency to analyze the minutia of feeling. And he displayed the generally Mediterranean liking for hyperbole, invariably telling the reader that no one had ever felt as thankful, betrayed, lonely, in love, etc. as he did during whatever episode he happened to be describing at the moment.

The early portions of this book feature a lot of regret over missed chances with women. Why do men obsess over those much more than we do about missed chances to get rich or professionally successful, which, if realized, would have naturally led to, among other things, increased popularity with women? I guess men, even rich ones, don't like to admit to themselves how important money and power are in the romantic sphere. We'd rather be loved for ourselves than for our status or possessions.

The most aberrant feature of Rousseau's sexuality and of his psychological makeup in general was his need to be humiliated by women. He was normally too embarrassed to flat-out ask them to spank him, so that particular fetish of his was only satisfied by a couple of females early on in his life. In adulthood the usual outlets for his pathology were inviting women to boss him around and constantly asking them for forgiveness for various slights. He admitted that these were poor strategies for attracting female attention, but was simply unable to change himself.

There's no doubt in my mind that both the nature of this book (confessing to poor behavior is humiliating) and the wimpiness of Rousseau's philosophy had their roots in this aspect of his personality, which already began to express itself in his childhood.

He was't latently gay though:

"She was very thin, very fair and with a chest as flat as my hand. That defect alone would have been enough to freeze me; for neither my heart nor my sense have ever been able to think of one without breasts as a woman."

And he was utterly disgusted as well as morally outraged by the few homosexual advances he received in his youth. Two of those happened in Lyon, contributing to his judgement that that city was subject to "the most dreadful corruption in all of Europe". I wonder how true this actually was.

In general it's a lot of fun to quote giants of the Enlightenment being epically illiberal by modern standards. With regard to an organization that only accepted aristocrats ("gentilhommes") and doctors of the Sorbonne as members Rousseau wrote that "If there is one justifiable source of pride besides personal merit, it's that which is derived from birth." I fully agree.

Much of the pleasure of reading a book like this comes from things said in passing which only started to sound remarkable with time. For example at one point, while surreptitiously drinking his employer's wine, Rousseau realizes that it would probably go down a little better with food.

"But how could a fine gentleman with a sword at his side go to a baker's to buy a hunk of bread?"

Think about THAT next time you go to the store. And he was working as a tutor then, practically a domestic. And was a son of a watchmaker.

While describing his stint as a junior tax official he mentions in a very matter-of-fact way that he was working 8-hour days. Was that normal for office workers at the time? If so, where and in what period did that practice originate? When 19th-century industrial workers fought for an 8-hour day, were they simply demanding to be treated like bureaucrats?

I found it interesting that Rousseau called an acquaintance who was born in Surinam an "Américain". He also talked about an uncle of his who left Geneva for Carolina ("Caroline") to help build Charlestown, for which he drew up a plan. And given my background I can't resist mentioning Rousseau's passing reference to a Genevan of his acquaintance who had once been employed by Peter the Great ("Pierre le Grand") "at the court of Russia."

The number of clergy in ancien régime France was simply stunning. When Rousseau strikes up a conversation with a random stranger, half the time it turns out be a priest or an abbé. The proportion of clerics among his neighbors, another mostly random category, seems scarcely lower. Yet the society described wasn't exactly prudish. Adultery and prostitution flourished.

The most shocking to modern Western sensibilities episode involves the purchase by Rousseau and a friend of an 11 or 12-year-old girl from her mother. This happened in Venice. The two men planned to raise the girl for future use as their exclusive disease-free concubine. In the age of syphilis prostitution carried enormous risks, and this was one strategy for avoiding them. Rousseau left Venice before the plan produced results.

By the time he started working on his autobiography Rousseau's writings and music had already made him an international celebrity. Wealthy, aristocratic people competed with each other to become his benefactors. Yet Complaints would have been a much more apt title for this volume than Confessions. Sure, his books were occasionally burned and he was exiled from a few places. But that seems to have only raised his reputation in others. And you've got to expect some conflict if you're going to write about politics.

He described an endless stream of eye-glazingly boring squabbles and grudges in the most excruciating detail while regularly repeating that he was the most uncomplaining man who had ever lived and that he was constitutionally unable to remember any wrongs that anyone had ever done him.

The end feels sad. I don't think old age necessarily has to be a swamp of defeat, depression, and extreme irritability, but if you suspect that it does, it would probably be a good idea to skip this book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The War in the Ukraine

For the last few months I've been spending at least a couple of hours a day following events in the Ukraine. I'll start this post with a summary of the players and their motivations.

Putin is very much not a Russian nationalist. He started his political life as a Soviet patriot. It's easy to see why such a person would have been attracted to the KGB. He now governs as a patriot of the multiethnic Russian state. In comparison Western presidents and prime ministers are neither ethnonationalists nor patriots of their multiethnic states. The ideology now reigning in the West condemns both of those things.

The February coup in Kiev threatened the interests of both the Russian ethnos and of the Russian state. Predictably, Putin only reacted to the latter set of threats. The Russian ethnos was threatened with further Ukrainiazation. It was clear that the new government would redouble its efforts to reeducate ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine into identifying as Ukrainians, speaking Ukrainian, accepting West Ukrainian cultural heroes and hating Russians. Not being an ethnonationalist, Putin was not particularly concerned by that.

The military and therefore political clout of the Russian state was threatened by the possibility of the eviction of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea and by the possibility of the entry of all of the Ukraine into NATO. Putin quickly sprung into action on the first of those fronts. He annexed the Crimea, saving the fleet. And he will do his best to prevent the Ukraine's entry into NATO.

The neocons hate Russians and Ukrainians equally, but they are supporting Ukrainians, more specifically West Ukrainian nationalists, in this fight. This is because both the Ukrainian ethnos and the Ukrainian state are smaller and weaker than their Russian counterparts. If you're aligned against many opponents, you'd rather see them fight each other than unite with each other to fight you. And if you're playing divide and rule, you have to support the weaker enemy against the stronger one. If the stronger one wins, the internecine fighting will stop. The neocons don't want that.

West Ukrainian nationalists would like to continue their Ukrainization campaign. Hitler famously wanted to change the human hardware in the Ukraine, i.e. the people themselves. Ukrainian nationalists mostly just want to change the software. Unlike Hitler, they consider Russians to be suitable raw material for their nationalist project. They just want to brainwash them into identifying as Ukrainians. This item on the West Ukrainian nationalist wishlist is quite compatible with the neocon program of divide and rule. Ukrainization decreases the size of the larger of the two ethni whom the neocons want to fight each other. Ceteris paribus a less lopsided fight can be expected to produce more fighting than a more lopsided one.

Like all nationalists, the West Ukrainian kind would like to improve the standard of living of their people. And again, like all nationalists, they favor cultural conservatism for their own. This is sharply at variance with the neocon program for the Ukraine. The economy will not improve while oligarchs continue to loot the country. The neocons want the oligarchs to have even more power. And of course the neocons are extremely inimical to social conservatism for anyone but themselves. Since West Ukrainian nationalists are weaker than the neocons, the things which they want but which the neocons do not want are not being achieved. In summary, West Ukrainian nationalists are a junior partner in the alliance, little more than dumb tools.

Russian ethnonationalists (as opposed to the patriots of the Russian multiethnic state) see Ukrainization as a major threat. Millions of their people are being reeducated into becoming their bitter enemies. A major goal of Russian nationalism is the gathering of all the lands which are primarily populated by ethnic Russians (a category into which they include Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Belorussians) into the Russian state. I think that Strelkov, the commander of the most prominent group of armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, is primarily motivated by that goal.

Putin doesn't share that goal. On top of that he is actively hostile to Russian nationalists. He has jailed large numbers of them over the years because he thinks that they threaten interethnic peace in Russia. Nationalists have hated him for a long time because he has not stopped the influx of Muslim migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus into Russian cities, especially Moscow. They now also hate him for his relative lack of support for Russian Spring, the ongoing revolt in Eastern Ukraine.

His material support has so far been either non-existent or very tepid. I would not be surprised if it turned out that Strelkov's group came to Slavyansk on its own, without an authorization from anyone in the Russian government. It seems that their strategy was to start a fight and then wait for public opinion in Russia to force Putin to support them against Russophobe West Ukrainians and their oligarch and neocon sponsors.

How can this conflict develop and how would this affect the major players in it?

Scenario 1: A seemingly interminable, multi-year war in Eastern Ukraine. This will surely send a very large number of refugees into Russia. Perhaps millions. They will have to be housed and fed and they will be angry at Putin for not having defended their homes in Eastern Ukraine by intervening the way he did in the Crimea. So this is not a desirable direction for him. It is for the neocons though. Divide and rule, enemies fighting each other. West Ukrainian nationalists would lose some of the people whose children they were trying to convert into being enthusiastic Ukrainians, and the land itself would still be in dispute. So they wouldn't be happy with a prolonged war.

Scenario 2: A military defeat of the Novorossian insurgents. This will probably produce more corpses than the first scenario. There have been reports of organized massacres, mostly of adult men, in the couple of small towns that were taken by the Ukrainian side so far. It's scary to extrapolate that to the entire Donbass region. Plus there will be a very large number of refugees flowing into Russia.

A lot of people in Russia will blame Putin's lack of support for the massive death toll and for the indignity of defeat. The neocons have tried to organize a color revolution in Moscow before and they'll definitely try it again. If Novorossia is bloodily defeated, many Russians (a number exceeding that of conscious ethnonanationalists) will not see much difference between Putin and a neocon-sponsored alternative. I think Putin would still be better, but many, including people in uniform (I'm talking about the rank and file) would become indifferent to his fate. Without public support he could be overthrown like Yanukovich. So this is probably a very bad scenario for Putin.

Due to the violence perpetrated by the most hot-headed in their ranks and due to refugee flows West Urainian nationalists would lose some raw material for making new West Ukrainians. But they will have victory. That's always worth a lot. The neocons and the oligarchs will gloat from the owner's box.

Scenario 3: With a lot of help from Putin the insurgents throw the Ukrainian army out of the Donbass. The refugees would go back. Putin would escape the stench of defeat. Russian ethnonationalists would be emboldened by the victory to go further into southeastern Ukraine, to start a reunification-with-Russia movement in Belarus and to kick Central Asians and Caucasus natives out of Moscow and other historically-Russian cities. As I said before, in spite of being ethnically Russian Putin has always been hostile to Russian nationalists. So there are negatives for him in this scenario. Of course he could change. Stalin made a turn in the nationalist direction and he wasn't even Russian.

Obvioulsy, scenario 3 would be quite bad for the neocons and especially for Ukrainian nationalists.

Scenario 4: A full-scale Russian intervention. Maybe I'm biased, but I think that this choice would produce the fewest deaths of all. The Ukrainian army would offer only token resistance. Many units will surrender. If the Russian army does not go into Western or Central Ukraine (and it shouldn't), there will be no lengthy terrorist campaign afterwards. Those need support from the population. Who would want to hide Right Sector guys in Donetsk or Kharkov? NATO wouldn't fight Russian troops directly because it's afraid of MAD. The Russian economy will be hurt by new sanctions, but public mood will shoot up to the stratosphere anyway due to victory. Europe will simply be hurt by sanctions, and it's already in bad shape. Some Euro governments might even flip to the Russian side due to economic unrest.

Neocons and Ukrainian nationalists would be reduced to impotent rage. Georgians sided with the neocons in the 08/08/08 war and are widely seen to have lost. If West Ukrainians end up being seen by the international community in the same light, the supply of groups that are willing to side with the neocons against Russia, China, Iran or any of their other rivals will decrease.

So why hasn't Putin pursued scenario 4? I could be wrong about some of my assumptions here. Obviously, he has thousands of times more info than I do. He might be unwilling to embolden Russian nationalists. Or maybe he thinks that Scenario 4 is the only one in which any part of the Ukraine could be admitted to NATO. I'm not hearing any noises about NATO admission at the moment. Maybe that's because the neocons know that if they do it, Putin will definitely intervene, simply to take away from NATO as much of the Ukraine as he can, in other words as much of the Ukraine as Russia can take without creating a long-term terrorist problem for itself. But if he makes the first move (intervention), NATO will swallow up the west and center of the Ukraine in response. Which will weaken the position of the Russian state, the thing that Putin cares about most.

Of course there could be other reasons that I'm not seeing.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


I live in NYC and am curious about its ongoing gentrification. Here's a theory about its causes:

It's widely known that the national murder rate has gradually fallen from 9.8 per 100,000 living in 1991 to 4.7 in 2012. Some common explanations for this are the decrease in atmospheric lead level, the increase in the incarceration rate, the delayed effect of the legalization of abortion, advances in medical science, and fraudulent crime reporting. I don't believe the last two because robbery and assault rates have fallen by roughly as much as the murder rate, and crime statistics are gathered by thousands of local police departments, making widespread coordination of reporting fraud highly implausible.

So for whatever reason, crime started falling nationwide after 1991. Millions of upscale Americans had always dreamed of living in NYC and two or three other prestigious cities, but in the 1970s and 1980s crime prevented them from realizing such dreams. The 1990s fall in crime made their New York fantasy easier to achieve. This quickly translated into rising real estate prices in NYC, which pushed a lot of downscale people out of the city, which decreased the local crime rate even further, which attracted even more upscale people to New York, which priced out even more downscale New Yorkers. A virtuous (for New York) circle was created. The NYC murder rate ended up falling not in half, like the national rate, but from 30.9 in 1990 to 4.0 in 2013.

I'm not saying that this theory is correct, just that I can't think of any better ones. This post was prompted by my attempts to visualize the racial aspect of NYC's gentrification. The decennial censuses and annual Census Bureau estimates are notoriously inexact, so I decided to go with birth registration stats instead. Lots of people don't mail back their census forms, forcing the government to do some guessing, yet almost all children are still registered at birth. I found NYC vital statistics data at the site of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has the most Orwellian name of any organization I've ever seen in real life. After entering the raw numbers into a spreadsheet, I came up with this graph:

Some notes:

1). The percentage of kids born to Black mothers peaked in 1986 at 31.99%. It has fallen in every single year since then, reaching 20.09% in 2012. 

2). The percentage of kids born to Hispanic mothers peaked in 1995 at 33.29%. It was 29.73% in 2012, lower than in 1987. This is a huge country, so one could probably find some other cities in it where the Hispanic population is lower now than it was in 1987. Not many though.

The nature of the local Hispanic population has changed drastically. The number of kids born to Puerto Rican mothers fell by more than half (from 19,327 in  1990 to 8,988 in 2011), while the number born to Mexican mothers has more than doubled (from 3,045 in 1990 to 7,704 in 2011). Where did all those Puerto Ricans go? Orlando and the Poconos.  

3). The stability of the percentage of kids born to White mothers is deceptive. Lower middle and middle middle class Whites have left the city in huge numbers while upper middle and upper class Whites have moved in. The Hasidic population has skyrocketed by natural means.

4). The "sun people" (Blacks, Hispanics and others) reached a peak in 1991 at 63.76%. They're now at 51.1%. Their decline accelerated during the last few years. Why did I include others among the sun people, you ask? Because their childhood mortality rate, as shown by vital statistics reports, is closer to those of Blacks and Hispanics than to those of Whites and Asians.