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Our Long Lasting Relatives

Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.

Cafe Neandertal cover imageThis is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade.

The writer begins her account by saying, “Seven bodies lay scattered across the cave floor like leaves in the wind. Some were missing limbs or parts of their torsos or craniums. One’s detached head had rolled a few feet away.” And she continues:

Even though this was a cold case, one that I was reconstructing from black-and-white photos while the actual bodies were now in a lab in Paris, it was hard not to feel the visceral presence of these seven. I immediately connected to their humanity through what I imagined were their emotions in their last moments of life. My thoughts burned with a single question. What had happened to them?

No one who reads the title of the book or glances at the flyleaf will be taken in by the pretense that this is a contemporary crime. What’s important here is that Beebe Bahrami feels the visceral presence of these long-gone Neandertals and she connects to their humanity. Early in this work she confesses to carrying a flame for these pre-historic people. “My love affair with Neandertals,” as she calls it, flows through her writing, a constant in this shape-shifting narrative.

In 2014 — I think it was 2014; it’s sometimes as difficult to date events in this memoir as it is to date Neandertal sites — she joined a team of scientists at a dig in La Ferrassie, in Dordogne in southwestern France. Her participation began by a fleeting glance as she was shopping for shallots at the market in the nearby medieval town, Sarlat-la-Canéda, in May of 2010. Bahrami had been drawn to that area two winters prior when she was exploring spiritual experiences and sacred roots. She had eventually landed in Sarlat and “found it had a pull on me like no region I’d ever I inhabited.” As she explained later, “I actually felt as if I had come home.”

And there, while shopping for shallots, she caught, out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of a familiar figure who “sped past garden stands, olive sellers, foie gras tables, jarred black truffles, and walnut liqueurs,” hurrying along with a companion, another man. After paying for the shallots, Beebe Bahrami was unable to find that familiar figure in the market. She thought it must have been Harold Dibble, a name the reader had come across in the book’s first chapter, a paleolithic archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Now he emerged in the narrative as a mentor and friend -–“no one else had that figure, an archaeologist-foodie’s figure of a man unafraid of cooking with butter, cream, bacon and duck fat, all in the same dish. Harold was famous for hosting digs where he cooked for everyone and the wine flowed as if at the Wedding of Cana.”

The change of scene and especially the difference in tone, the brief sketching of Harold Dibble’s character and the increased richness of language, suggest that this book is actually a memoir with characters as fully developed as figures in a novel. But that doesn’t quite happen, and this alteration in tone is merely the first of many such shifts and turns that Beebe Bahrami takes in this work.

Beebe Bahrami author image

Beebe Bahrami deep in a dig.

I began reading Café Neandertal because I was interested in these early human inhabitants of our planet. As the book unfolded I went with Beebe Bahrami’s story of the bodies at La Ferrassie, the paleolithic archaeologists Harold Dibble and his colleague Dennis Sandgathe, and –-briefly — filmmaker Sophie Cattoire in her “low-cut dark blue spaghetti-strap top,” and “her long, flaming red hair atop her head, accentuated further by the cherry-toned lipstick that she pulled off with the easy elegance so common among French women.” And I took in the plain, well-written information about Neandertals that surfaced now and again from the broadening narrative stream.

Neandertals lived in the Dordogne for a very, very long time before the arrival of the Cro-Magnons, our closer ancestors, the people who did those beautiful Lascaux cave paintings. The Neandertals emerged around 430,000 years ago and lasted until, say, 35,000 years ago. So they were around for about 400,000 years. The early modern humans turned up around 38,000 years ago. We know from genetic evidence that they not only overlapped with Neandertals for a few thousands of years, they also had sexual encounters with them. We who are now the sole human inheritors of the planet were preceded by a people who died away 35,000 years ago, at which time they had lived here ten times longer than we have.

There are Neandertal remains scattered from the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, eastward and northward across Iran and deep into Asia, and northward and westward into Europe, and down again to the shores of the Mediterranean. There are far more Neandertal sites – way more – than there are sites of early modern humans. The Dordogne has attracted visitor for thousands of years and, in that sense, is one of Europe’s most ancient places. Indeed, there are farms in that region where the endless annual heaving of the soil by frost and thaw, plus the seasonal plowing by farmers, leaves Neandertal stone tools lying here and there and seemingly everywhere on the surface.

But despite the Neandertals amazingly long tenure on earth we know remarkably little about them. They left their stone tools, the hacked bones of animals, and their own Neanderthal skeletons or, more precisely, their skeleton parts — sometimes an almost complete set of bones, sometimes only a few scattered pieces, a molar or the end bone of a finger. It’s hard to know how they behaved in an ordinary day, hard to make an informed guess as to whether they talked or whether they had a culture, a way of living and doing things that they shared among whatever groups they formed.

Beebe Bahrami conducts a campaign throughout this book to see the Neandertal as a different kind of human, not an inferior kind and not a twin whose humanity is so much like ours. And she tells an interesting story to illustrate her point.

In 1905 in La Chappelle-aux-Saints, in the rural foothills of the Massif Central, two Catholic priests, Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, who were brothers and also amateur prehistorians, unearthed a complete Neandertal skeleton in a small cave. The skeleton was in a fetal-like position in a shallow pit and was surrounded and covered by stone tools. When the two country priests announced their discovery, they also reported that the internment, the position of the body and the tools left with the body in the grave – all these showed it was an intentional burial, a ritual that implied a belief in an afterlife. In other words, in the view of the Bouyssonie brothers, the Neandertals were not half-animal predecessors to us humans, they were very much like us. But when the sophisticated Parisian paleontologist Pierre-Marcellin Boule analyzed the bones, he took the skeleton’s arthritic deformity as the Neandertal’s usual stooped stance and constructed an ape-like figure.

Bahrami points out that the Bouyssonie brothers on one side, and Pierre-Marcelllin Boule on the other, were viewing the evidence through the lens of their own biases. Viewed objectively, Neandertals did not have an ape-like stoop, the so-called grave was a natural declivity covered by dirt accumulated over thousands of years, and the stone tools found scattered around the cave floor were typical of Neandertal sites which were used by different groups, sometimes separated by thousands of years, over a 400,000 year period.

Beebe Bahrami rightly dismisses the notion of Neandertals as stupid “cave men,” and goes much further, saying that to call someone a Neandertal “is known as wrong and inaccurate – indeed, racist.” Racist? On some occasions she wants to avoid our thinking of Neandertals as “others” and sub-human, and other times she wants us to view them as other, but without making them less than human. More than once she asks, “Why do they have to be like us to be smart?” She recurs again and again to the idea that Neandertals were good at adapting to nature, whereas in her view we change nature and adapt it to ourselves. Neandertals figured things out afresh when facing a problem – which is presumably good – whereas we have invented a set of rules that we follow to figure things out – which isn’t so good. Neandertals are impressive in that they were the dominant human species for 400,000 years, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they appear to have lived the same way without improving their lives much during that time.

A little more than half way through the book there’s a chapter, “Piper at the Gates if Dawn” that begins in the early morning when fog had settled into the valley and was still low, covering the ground and trees. Beebe’s friend, Didier, picks her up and they drive to a farmer’s field on a plateau outside of town. It’s a lovely passage. The field had recently been plowed and Didier shows her how, if she looks closely, she’ll be able to find stone tools that had been brought to the surface. In the soft morning light they walk the fields, picking up and placing back, stone tools from the Neolithic, Mesolithic and Upper Paleolithic. Both Beebe and Didier have the same sense of kinship with the Neandertals, they toss aside the stone tools of early modern Homo sapiens – maybe 38,000 years old – with the same indifference they feel when they came across a cigarette lighter. It’s one of many magical passages that occur in this work, story-like passages which are interrupted to introduce information on the same subject, but which have their own story that takes place elsewhere in France or at a different time.

We all make excuses for people we love. Bahrami defends the apparently gray unchanging life of Neandertals and suggests that they may have been innovative, but that they may have been bound by a conservative culture that suppressed innovation whenever it appeared, or that individual Neandertals did use symbolic thinking, symbolic acts and art, but that others refused to go along with such novel endeavors. She cites with approval the remark by an anthropologist who asked, rhetorically, “How many of us, honestly, could invent the iPhone?” A question which has no relevance whatsoever to a discussion on the unchanging life of Neandertals. “Les Homo sapiens, ils sont jamais contents,”says Didier. He goes on to say that we know very little about Neandertals and probably will never know much more:

“We have their stones,” he set the one in his hand back on the earth, “and every now and then we find a skeleton. And that’s it.” He shrugged, looked at me, and smiled gently again, and together we walked in contented silence deeper into the morning fog.

One of the curious facts that have been uncovered about Neandertals is that although they did have fires, examination of their fire pits shows that the fires occurred only in summer. Presumably, summer lightening strikes started the fires which Neandertals were able to control and maintain for a while, but they weren’t able to carry fire forward into winter. Neandertals, stocky in stature, were built with less surface area to mass than modern humans, so were able to stand frigid weather better than we can, but – face it – it would have been a step forward to have fires in winter. The Neandertal skeleton, when properly put together, shows no reason to believe they had no speech. That’s not the same as saying they had a language; so far as we know, they had the possibility of speech, but we have no way of knowing whether of not they did speak.

Ever since the discovery of Neandertal bones and artifacts in the 19th century, archeologists and paleoanthropologists have debated how Neandertals and modern humans are related. Scientists unraveled our human genome in 2003 and the sequencing of the Neandertal genome was completed in 2010. Since then we’ve learned that we share 99.7 percent of our DNA with Neandertals. On the other hand, we share 99 percent with chimpanzees, and we’re really quite different from chimps. By the way, we share 70 percent with oak trees and 50 percent with bananas. Genetics is as complex as quantum mechanics and the sheer percentage that we share with any other living thing is only the beginning of the story.

The 99.7 that we share with Neandertals is our common ancestral stock. We split from the Neandertals thousands upon thousands of years ago, and when we met again 30 or 40 thousand years ago we had evolved differently and that difference is .3 percent. It turns out that – so far as we know – we’re more closely related to Neandertals than to, say, Denisovans or any other hominids that we know about. Our early modern human ancestors not only met Neandertals, they interbred with them and each of us today has, in that .3 percent difference, inherited between 1.5 to 2.1 percent from our Neandertal ancestors. The particular Neandertal DNA in us can vary from person to person, and if you were to gather all the bits and pieces available, you’d have about 40 percent of a complete Neandertal.

There’s no way to know how many readers of Café Neandertal will feel the same kinship and love for Neandertals that Beebe Bahrami expresses. She doesn’t gloss over those early humans; she tells us about those cut marks on many Neandertal bones that indicate a stone cutting tool was used to slice away the flesh. Maybe they removed flesh as part of a funeral ritual – anthropologists know that other tribes have done so – or, as Bahrami says, they cut the flesh the better to eat it. Readers will certainly know a lot about those vanished people and, thanks to the way the author has written this book, they’ll also have a good sense of what it was like to participate in the dig at La Ferrassie.

Even the most attentive reader will have difficulty keeping the book’s calendar straight. Bahrami shifts from one year to another and yet another, then back again in order to round up pertinent information. Furthermore, as she does this she reports who gave her the information and often tells us the locale where her conversation with that person occurred, whether she’s in a café in the Dordogne or in New Jersey talking to someone by Skype. This is admirable in in a scholar, but the people talking are often mere names and such citations would be less distracting in an endnote. Unfortunately, because this book has no index, it’s virtually impossible to revisit certain passages once the page is turned.

Despite my churlish quarrels with it, Café Neandertal is a unique and important contribution to the growing literature about these forerunners of our species. Yes, this book is confusing, but only because it strives to present a multidimensional dynamic picture of the actual coming together of us and them, of the paleoanthropologists and the Neandertals in the stratified dirt of the caves, of the scientists from the United States joining those from Europe, along with the farmers and ordinary citizenry of Sarlat-la-Canéda and La Ferrassie, and the ancient landscape of Dordogne – all of these, including the mystic sensibility of the author, mixing and interacting at the same time. Beebe Bahrami is a cultural anthropologist, but as a popular writer she’s probably best known for her books on travel, and I fear that this volume will be overlooked and not seen for the remarkable work it is.

Café Neandertal is, among other things, a memoir, and though Beebe Bahrami is everywhere present in this work, she’s nowhere knowable. Of course, this book is not about Beebe Bahrami. Agreed. But in a story where the narrator takes such pleasure in the people of the Dordogne, in food, in wine, in conviviality, in working in the dirt, in handling stone tools and bone fragments, in the sound of ice cubes rattling against a whiskey glass, in certain caves, in the Dordogne – in such a book it’s simply frustrating not to know who this woman is. At one point in discussing origin stories, she mentions her Iranian mother or grandmother (I can’t find the passage) and again, near the end of the work, she alludes to the lands of her Iranian childhood. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And without being nosey, we’d like to know a little more – just a few sentences on how her life moved from Iran to the United States and to a love of Neandertals.

Fortunately, there are some winning lines in the three full pages of happy acknowledgements. I especially liked, “Thank you Birch Miles, my husband, who supported all this research even though it took me away from modern Homo sapiens and him (and even when he claimed with exaggeration to possess 5 percent Neandertal DNA to entice me to stay). She also provides a way to listen to the song Birch Miles wrote, “Neandertal Blues” which was “cut in one take in the studio with his fellow musician friends.” Bravo for that!

Future of the Republic

So, Donald John Trump became president after all. He won the election and was inaugurated and now he works in the Oval Office and lives in the White House. I’m still surprised. I occasionally read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but I get most of my news from TV. It turned out that the authoritative news analysts on NBC and ABC and CBS and CNN and MSNBC and PBS and NPR didn’t know what they were talking about.

President Donald J. Trump

President Donald J. Trump

They had been observing the political scene, day in and day out, for the two-year runup to the election, and they had got it wrong.

But the analysts weren’t daunted. The day after the election they sprang up on television again, as knowledgeable as ever, telling us about the voters in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, explaining why so many of those folks had voted for Donald Trump. And the analysts continued their journalistic probing of president-elect Trump. During the campaign, Donald Trump had been a bullying nationalistic, “America first!” demagogue, attacking the media elite, sewing fear among our minorities, insulting and scaring our allies, delighting in his followers as they chanted “Lock her up!” about his opponent, and claiming if he were defeated, it would show the election had been rigged. But the political commentators, most of them, assured us that Trump would reveal his benign and civil presidential self now that he had won the election.

The commentators were somewhat uneasy and defensive as they ventured that prediction, because it was the same forecast they made when Trump had defeated his last primary opponent. But Donald Trump hadn’t turned presidential. He was still displaying indifference toward the norms of political discourse and a hostility toward what he called “political correctness,” which in his vocabulary meant ordinary politeness. And he lied a lot.

Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015. During the endless primary period he demolished each of his Republican rivals, crushing them with scorn, mockery, half-truths and lies. The billionaire won the Republican nomination on July 19, 2016. Without pausing to become presidential, he turned his attention to Hillary Clinton and, using the same low demagogic tactics he had developed in the primaries, he rolled through the sanctified electoral college and handily won the presidency. That was on November 8, 2016. He didn’t reveal a presidential self the next day nor on any of the days that followed to his inauguration.

Donald John Trump’s inaugural speech, much of which was shouted, included an insulting passage about the three presidents seated a few feet from him, conjured up a depressing and bogus picture of our nation’s economy and social state and, with a few notable exceptions, radiated a vague hostility toward other nations of the world. Donald John Trump is our president and is the same Trump we’ve seen for the past year and a half, the same bombastic billionaire we’ve seen for years on The Apprentice TV series and for decades prior to that. He’s not been in disguise. He’s not going to reveal a better self. He has no better self.

Some analysts of the political scene are calling Trump a populist. Theodore Roosevelt was a populist, Robert LaFollette was a populist. Both espoused progressive policies. It doesn’t clarify anything to call Trump a populist; quite the contrary, it puts him in an American tradition where he doesn’t belong. Our President is a billionaire who has gathered to his side the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the United States.

Donald John Trump, our Trump, is a vulgar man. He’s a boastful and clownish billionaire, a mocker, a bully, a distorter of the truth, a fabricator of errors of fact, a liar and a demagogue — one third buffoon and two thirds menace. Through the folly and opportunism of the Republican Party, and the complacent venal delinquency of the Democratic Party, he now commands more power than any other mortal on earth. And we, the people, are the only hope we have.

Announcement: Rising Costs, Stagnant Wages

This poster came blowing by on the Web and we decided to put it up here. It doesn’t take up much space, but it says a lot. Apparently it originated at Occupy Democrats, but it isn’t so much a political opinion as it is an announcement of facts.

Poster about costs & wages from Occupy Democrats

David Brooks & Secularism

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York

David Brooks

David Brooks

times, recently wrote a provocative piece about secularists. Ordinarily, his

focus is politics; he’s well connected in Washington, he’s reasonable and he writes well. Brooks occasionally comments on society and culture, and there his conservative vision can lead him astray. His column on secularists sprang from his reading a book, Living the Secular Life, by the sociologist Phil Zuckerman. Brooks didn’t review the book, but used it as a jumping off point for his own views on “secular individuals” and “secular people.”

He makes a number of observations which we can agree with, or debate, or think are plain silly. Here they are in his own words:

•“Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”
•“Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”
•“Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.” It’s hard to believe but, yes, he’s serious here.
•“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. Religious people are motivated by their love of God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

As you can see, secular people have a very hard life, having to build their own philosophies, communities and rituals, having to make choices, needing to decide when to reflect on life, and having to create their own moral motivations. On the other hand, religious people have it, oh — so easy.

Brooks comes to the point of his piece, beginning with a couple of things that it is not:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

So that’s the point,  that life is really, really really hard for secular people, even if they don’t know it — like when they’re bored with their lives and aren’t even conscious of their boredom and go around thinking that they’re not bored.

In his conclusion, Brooks offers some suggestions to secular people.

“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Of course, secularism isn’t a religion and it doesn’t have a creed the way religions have creeds and one wonders how a religious person, like David Brooks, would respond to a secularist’s suggestions for ways to improve religion. Because Brooks is religious, he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks about a certain kind of spiritual inspiration and feeling. But he doesn’t understand the secular temperament and his his characterization of the secular person is a clownish caricature. And although his lines about Christianity and Judaism speak powerfully, he strangely portrays religious people as passive sheep.

Christianity and Judaism impose the same ethical “burden” on their faithful as is imposed on the secular person. Though religious and secular people may phrase the process differently, they both, at times, have  difficulty in distinguishing the right moral choice and both recognize their self-deception and folly.

Yes, being part of a religious group does give meaning to the lives of many people, but it’s witless to think it gives meaning to all of them. Furthermore, many secular minded people find meaning in their family, in their love for their husband or wife, their children, in their daily work for their daily bread, in their pursuit of justice and social good – there are numberless ways in which people find meaning in life  without being affiliated with a church.

Brooks concludes by saying “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

Only David Brooks knows what an “enchanted secularism” is. Maybe there is in each of us a spiritual urge, a drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification. But in the context of his essay those words have specific religious meanings and a secularist wouldn’t use those words that way. The secularism and the sanctification he’s been defining throughout his piece are clearly incompatible.

David Brooks isn’t a dummy. Liberals read Brooks and generally can follow his reasoning even when they disagree with views.  So it may be that a newspaper column isn’t large enough to allow a well reasoned exploration of secularism and religion.  But one thing’s sure, on this subject his writing — though serious and well intended — is a confused and confusing muddle.

Taking Down the Christmas Tree – revisited

A couple of years ago we published a post about taking down the  Christmas tree. Whereas it is now a lazy New Year’s Day, and whereas we haven’t finished straightening up the house from our Christmas feast and our jolly guests, and whereas we celebrated the arrival of the New Year late last night, probably too late last night, we’re simply going to republish our old post:

Christmas tree trashedTaking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.

There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!

Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes.  Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.

The Language Hoax

Language Hoax 235Some theories just feel right and true. They appeal to our common sense so strongly that we believe in them as soon as we hear them. And if the theory is about language, the language we speak and write, we feel pretty certain that we’re familiar enough with the way it works to assess whether some theory about it is true. Now, here’s a theory about language:

• Language channels the way we think and view the world.

That theory became popular among certain linguists in the 1930s and still circulate among many, perhaps most, educated people today.

One thing we know for certain, languages vary widely. One language may have only a single word for eating and drinking, still another makes uniquely fine discriminations between different shades of a color, yet another has no articles such as the or a.

Native American Hopi have no tense markers to indicate time and no words like later. And that led Benjamin Lee Whorf to propose that since the Hopi language has no way indicate past, present or future, they view time differently from English speakers and, further, the cyclical Hopi cosmology reflects this difference.

Whorf was not a professional linguist, but his ideas looked right to his mentor, the linguist Edward Sapir, and soon the theory — called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — spread among linguists, academics and the general public. However, no examination of people speaking one language or another has found evidence to support the theory. It’s generally conceded now that such linguistic differences as Whorf had in mind don’t actually channel thought or create a particular view of the world.

And now we have John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter is a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, an excellent book that is both scholarly and readable. He’s the author of many other books on language, as well as works on race and cultural issues, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among other publications.

The Language Hoax is a short book. The pages are small, only about 5 by 7 inches, and there are about 168 pages, excluding the introduction, notes and index. Even so — as an admirer of John McWhorter’s work I hate to say this — it’s too long.

McWhorter demonstrates again and again the inability of the neo-Whorfians to come up with credible evidence to support their theory. His examples of wild differences over a spectrum of languages are interesting and often amusing. But after a while even the most indulgent reader will wonder why McWhorter bothered to write this book if, as he says repeatedly and credibly, there’s no support for the theory he’s attacking.

He has been careful to acknowledge and praise academic work that does show how the workings of language can have a tiny, marginal effect on thought, and he’s shown the difference between those studies and the general notion held by some people that such differences in language guide thought and shape culture. McWhorter writes in a readable and engaging style — he’s a good writer — but his passion for bashing this moribund theory is hard to understand. And there is certainly no hoax involved in whatever misunderstanding the lay public may have about languages.

Languages change and develop in the most amazing ways, and the variety of ways that languages differ is wonderful. McWhorter believes linguistic changes come about spontaneously. They just bubble up, he says. How those bubble are made and where they come from — well, that would make a very interesting book.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels of Our Nature cover image 235While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.

There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.

In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.

The Golden Age of Porn Movies

Barbara Nitke - Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack's

Barbara Nitke – Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack’s

Did you know there was a Golden Age of Porn? OK, probably you never gave it a thought. A Golden Age is a time of prosperity, achievement and happiness, and for the porn industry that period extended from around the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. It certainly was a time of achievement and prosperity for porn movies — happiness for the actors, not so much.

One of the most beautiful visual records of that time is Barbara Nitke’s un-sentimental collection of evocative photographs gathered in her book, American Ecstasy. (Critical Pages posted about American Ecstasy some time ago.) Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age was coming to an end. To be protected by the US Constitution, the porn movies had to claim a socially redeeming value — in other words, they had to pass as artistic expression, which meant they had to have characters and a plot, not just bodies doing it. That was the achievement and that’s what brought about porn prosperity and the Golden Age.

According to Green Cine’s Sex in the Movies Guide, “between 1972 and 1983, porn — not sexy Hollywood fare, not racy sexploitation, not European art films, but pure, unabashed porn — chalked up 16 percent of total box office returns in the US.” Eventually, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the showing of large scale porn movies in movie houses. The Golden Age was over.

But not forgotten. Photographs from Barbara Nitke’s American Ecstasy volume have been enlarged and beginning on April 4th they’ll be exhibited in Great Britain at One Eyed Jack’s gallery in Brighton. Social historians, admirers of E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits and anyone interested in fine photography should take a look at these astonishing photographs.

Eighty-five very, very rich people…

Eighty-five very, very rich people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom  half of the entire population of the world.

In the United States, the 400 richest have more wealth than the 150 million citizens who comprise the poorest half of the population.

Maybe you’re wondering if these crazy statistics were produced by a wild-eyed radical group intending to overthrow the capitalistic system No, these facts come from a briefing paper, “Working for the Few,” prepared by Oxfam International.

Just to be on the safe side, let’s take a closer look at that organization. Oxfam was founded in 1942 in Oxford, England, as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It was organized by a group of Quakers, Oxford academics, and social activists. Over the years it has spread and now has many affiliates around the globe. Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam International, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of – to quote them – “a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.” Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization, and gifts are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the law. Definitely not radical. You can make a donation without worry.

Here are some of the other interesting statistics from the Oxfam briefing paper:

• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

I’m sure there’s a way of looking at this data and believing that we can’t do anything about it. Capitalism is the dominant economic system around the globe — in some places it’s more regulated than others, but it’s still capitalism. And some people believe that capitalism is a “natural” system of economics, that it simply comes into being all by itself, naturally.  But none of that is true. Capitalism is an economic structure created by people, not by nature nor by God and angels. Like legislative or judicial systems, it’s devised and brought into being by people. For a long time, monarchy was considered the natural system of governance, part of the divine order of things created by God. It wasn’t and neither is capitalism. We can change it. We can make it better, fairer, more broadly productive.

Somebody Up There Hates You

Somebody Up There Hates You coverCritical Pages has never taken notice of fiction in the Young Adult category. One reason is that we’re not Young Adults ourselves. Another reason is that when we were Young Adults — and that was a long, long, long time ago — young adult fiction was mostly books like the Rover Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. And no, we’re not kidding. We were more or less aware that things had changed, especially when we read the Judy Blume novels that our kids left around the house. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we’re astonished by Hollis Seamon’s young adult novel, Somebody Up There Hates You.

 It begins this way:

 I shit you not. Hey, I’m totally reliable, sweartogod. I, Richard Casey – aka the Incredible Dying Boy — actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I’m going to tell you about. Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.

 This wild, touching but hard-edged story is about two teenage kids, Richard and his girlfriend Sylvie, who are in a hospice unit, dying and behaving pretty much the outrageous way teenage kids behave, or certainly might behave, knowing that their time is limited.

 The narrator’s voice is one of the many marvels of this short, incandescent novel. Another marvel is the antic spirit that enlivens scene after scene amid the stark reality of hospice. The tone is not sentimental; Richard is dying and when you close the book you know he’s not going to get a reprieve.

 The book’s flyleaf tells us that Hollis Seamon spent years visiting a children’s hospital, fascinated and touched by the young people she met there, while she was caring for her young son.  Seamon’s web site shows that prior to Somebody Up There Hates You Seamon had published a collection of short stories, Body Work, plus a mystery, Flesh, and the recent Corporeality, a second short story collection — all for adult readers. No matter your age, Somebody Up There Hates You is a tough book to read but worth it all the way.


More Notes

Plenty of opinions here on Critical Pages, plus a lot of facts, but no alternative facts. Please don't misunderstand, we do like alternative facts -- after all, we're all writers here -- but we prefer the word fiction. It's shorter and everyone understands what we mean when say we're writing fiction.