Category Archives: History

How Trump could cause a 21st Century witch hunt


Way back when esnl was an undergrad majoring in anthropology, one of our professors relentlessly hammered in one point: People are territorial group animals just like chimpanzees, our closest primate cousins [the bonobo hadn’t be recognized yet as a separate species even closer to us than chimps].

We also know that violence breaks out among chimps when resources are scarce and groups come into conflict.

We’ve also learned that humans who see themselves and their groups under threat can respond in those same primal ways.

And history teaches us that demagogues with dark agendas can exploit those same instincts to enhance their own positions of power by targeting popular anger towards the weak and those readily distinguishable from our own groups.

Some of our first television memories, after we got one of the first sets in town when we were six years old, was of the Army/McCarthy hearings, when a right wing demagogue in the Senate who had built a career out of whipping up fear of communists finally past the point of no return.

And now, with Donald Trump in the Whoite House the stage may be set for another witch hunt, writes Peter Neal Peregrine, Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at Lawrence University in this essay for The Conversation, an open-source academic journal written in everyday English:

As an anthropologist, I know that all groups of people use informal practices of social control in day-to-day interactions. Controlling disruptive behavior is necessary for maintaining social order, but the forms of control vary.

How will President Donald Trump control behavior he finds disruptive?

The question came to me when Trump called the investigation of Russian interference in the election “a total witch hunt.” More on that later.

Ridicule and shunning

A common form of social control is ridicule. The disruptive person is ridiculed for his or her behavior, and ridicule is often enough to make the disruptive behavior stop.

Another common form of social control is shunning, or segregating a disruptive individual from society. With the individual pushed out of social interactions – by sitting in a timeout, for example – his or her behavior can no longer cause trouble.

Ridicule, shunning and other informal practices of social control usually work well to control disruptive behavior, and we see examples every day in the office, on the playground and even in the White House.

Controlling the critics

Donald Trump routinely uses ridicule and shunning to control what he sees as disruptive behavior. The most obvious examples are aimed at the press. For example, he refers to The New York Times as “failing” as a way of demeaning its employees. He infamously mocked a disabled reporter who critiqued him.

On the other side, the press has also used ridicule, calling the president incompetent, mentally ill and even making fun of the size of his hands.

Trump has shunned the press as well, pulling press credentials from news agencies that critique him. Press Secretary Sean Spicer used shunning against a group of reporters critical of the administration by blocking them from attending his daily briefing. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shook off the State Department press corps and headed off to Asia with just one reporter invited along.

Again, the practice cuts both ways. The media has also started asking themselves if they should shun Trump’s surrogates – such as Kellyanne Connway – in interviews or refuse to send staff reporters to the White House briefing room.

Accusations of witchcraft

Witches persecuted in Colonial era. Library of Congress.

But what happens when informal means of control don’t work?

Societies with weak or nonexistent judicial systems may control persistent disruptive behavior by accusing the disruptive person of being a witch.

In an anthropological sense, witches are people who cannot control their evil behavior – it is a part of their being. A witch’s very thoughts compel supernatural powers to cause social disruption. If a witch gets angry, jealous or envious, the supernatural may take action, whether the witch wants it to or not. In other words: Witches are disruptive by their very presence.

When people are threatened with an accusation of witchcraft, they will generally heed the warning to curb their behavior. Those who don’t are often those who are already marginalized. Their behavior – perhaps caused by mental disease or injury – is something they cannot easily control. By failing to prove they aren’t a “witch” – something that’s not easy to do – they give society a legitimate reason to get rid of them.

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Quote of the day: The secret of his success


From Corey Robin, professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writing in Jacobin about real parallel between Adolf Hitler and President Pussygrabber:

I’ve been reading David Cay Johnston’s excellent book The Making of Donald Trump. And without mentioning or even alluding to Hitler or fascism, the book raises an interesting — if unexpected — parallel about Trump’s and Hitler’s rise to power.

One of the themes in a lot of the historical scholarship about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s is how Hitler and the Nazis were able to take advantage of the systemic weaknesses of Weimar: the cracks in the political structure, the division among elites, the fissures in the parties, the holes in the Constitution, and so on. What Johnston narrates, in almost nauseating detail, is how Trump’s ascension to wealth and fame and power — long before he makes his 2016 run for the presidency — is dependent not on the weaknesses of the political system but on the systemic corruption of a rentier economy.

At every step, Trump benefits, almost haplessly (it seems to require very little art), from the built-in advantages to wealth and the wealthy in our society: whether those advantages are in the tax system, the regulatory system, or the courts. (Trump actually spoke of this quite often during his campaign.) And in the same way that Hitler preyed upon his opponents’ cluelessness in the face of his political rise, so does Trump profit from his opponents’ cluelessness in the face of his economic rise.

At every moment when Trump might have been stopped, when he might have been forced into bankruptcy, had his credit denied, had his loans called in, his licenses revoked, at every juncture where he might have been convicted of a crime or sent to jail — and, again, this is well before he makes his successful bid for the White House — some unplanned and unintended conspiracy of economic reason and political lowlifery mobilizes to protect him. (And it really is unplanned and unintended. The genius of the American system is how the Invisible Hand works to produce systemic vice rather than incidental virtue.)

Whether it’s gaming regulators who don’t want to take him on because hotel values in Atlantic City might suffer, or an investigation-happy attorney general who suddenly gets a well-timed campaign contribution, or judges upon judges who preside over settlements where records are permanently sealed and vital public information concealed, or bank officials and industry magnates who decide he’s too big to fail — and Johnston makes a fascinating comparison between the way the banks were treated in 2008 and the way that Trump has been treated for decades — this man’s rise to power has been predicated on all the most basic institutions and features of our economy.

Mr. Fish: Put it Together, People!


From Clowncrack, his blog of artistic abscission [and click on the images to embiggen]:

His composition is an imaginative reworking of one of the most powerful artworks of the 20th Century, also depicting devastation inflicted upon Spanish-speaking people.

Mr. Fish has creatively disassembled Guernica, the massive oil painting created by Pablo Picasso to 26 April 1937 bombing by the German military’s Condor Legion of a the Spanish city during the Spanish Civil War, the dress rehearsal for World War II, when German and Italian forces joined with Spanish fascists to overthrow the short-lived Spanish Republic:

More on the painting here.

And yes, we also note that most of residents of Guernica were and are are Basque, folks who often regard Spanish as their second language.

If Trump’s a fascist, he’s a different sort


Mike Davis is one of our favorite authors, a self-described environmental Marxist, an activist, a MacArthur fellow, and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

We’ve read many if not most of his books, valuing them for his perceptive analysis of the modern condition.

In The Great God Trump and the White Working Class, an essay posted at Jacobin, he raises the question on many minds these days: Is Donald Trump a fascist?

In it he evokes a comparison with another American demagogue, the late Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long, The Kingfish, a populist of a very different sort than Agent Orange:

“Huey Long, had he lived,” wrote John Gunther in Inside U.S.A. in 1947, “might very well have brought Fascism to America.” Is Trump giving good ole’boy fascism a second chance?

Like Gunther’s Long, he’s also “an engaging monster,” as well as “a lying demagogue, a prodigious self-seeker, vulgar, loose a master of political abuse.” Likewise he has

made every promise to the underpossessed,” appearing “a savior, a disinterested messiah.

But the great Kingfish actually made good on most of his pledges to the plain folk of Louisiana. He did bring them “cargo” in the form of public services and entitlements. He built hospitals and public housing, abolished the poll tax, and made textbooks free. Trump and his billionaire cabinet, on the other hand, are more likely to reduce access to health care, increase voter suppression, and privatize public education. “Fascism,” if that’s our future lot, will not “come in disguised as socialism,” as Gunther predicted (and Sinclair Lewis before him), but as a neo-Roman orgy of greed.

Americans having less sex under austerity


Only singles are having the same number of couplings, while folks living together, with or without a marriage certificate, are marking the sign of the two-back beast a lot less than they did back in 1989.

And the rate of sex for married couples has dropped to below that of folks who are living together without the paperwork, a novel trend in demographic history.

Just why remains unclear, but there are suspicions.

There’s one interesting finding: Folks who watch pron do it more often than those who practice X-rated abstention.

The story, from Florida Atlantic University:

Across the board, Americans are less sexually active than ever with the sharpest decline among people in their 50s, people with a college degree, people with school-aged children, people in the South, and those who do not watch pornography.

Using data from the General Social Survey with a representative sample of 26,620 American adults from 1989-2014, researchers from Florida Atlantic University, San Diego State University and Widener University, published their results today in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior [$39.95 to read the article for non-subscribers]. Results showed a drop across gender, race, region, work status and education level. A surprising result from the study revealed that the “marriage advantage” no longer holds true as the steady fall in the rate of sexual activity was in those who are married or living with partners. This group went from having sex 73 times a year in 1990 to about 55 times in 2014 – even below the frequency of sexual activity for never-married people who have sex an average of 59 times a year.

Unsurprisingly, the study found a steady decline in frequency of sexual activity as people age, from more than 80 times a year for people in their 20s, to about 60 times a year by 45 and 20 times a year by 65. But controlling for age and time period, the group having sex most often were those born in the 1930s (Silent Generation), while those having sex the least often were born in the 1990s (Millennials and iGen).

“Overall, all American adults are having sex about nine times fewer per year since 1989-1994 and this is particularly driven by an increase in the percentage of unpartnered adults who have sex less often on average,” said Ryne Sherman, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “However, while the sexual frequency of unpartnered individuals remained unchanged albeit relatively low, the sexual frequency of partnered individuals has dropped the most, about 10 times less per year.”

The researchers also found that this decline was not associated with hours worked or pornography use. If anything, those working more and reported watching X-rated movies had higher sexual frequency.

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New Orleans evicts its Confederates monuments


We begin with a cartoon from the Baton Rouge Advocate, depicting the imminent removal of Robert E. Lee from his towering six-story marble pedestal in the heart of the Crescent City:

Walt Handelsman: Monumental change

Eviction of the military commanders who fought for slavery has been a long time coming.

The Confederate Flag has become the unofficial banner of the GOP, sported brazenly at so many Trump rallies.

As just as Robert E. Lee and his brothers in arms fought for the right of plantation owners to keep humans in chains, so the modern bearers of the Confederate battle flag are all about keep black folks down in today’s America, save for the occasional token like Ben Carson.

Lee Adelson of the Advocate reports on the removal of the last obstacle to the landmark [literally] move:

Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard will soon be decamping from their prominent pedestals in New Orleans, more than a year after the City Council declared their statues to be public nuisances that should be taken down.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously cleared the way Monday evening for the monuments to be removed, issuing an opinion that criticized groups seeking to keep the statues in place for arguments that “wholly lack legal viability or support.”

With what is likely the last legal hurdle the city faces removed, the statues are expected to come down quickly. Tyronne Walker, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said the city will start seeking bids Tuesday to remove the statues, and a contract will be awarded 25 days later.

The opinion by Judges Patrick Higginbotham, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Stephen Higginson lifted a temporary order they issued last year that had prevented the city from moving to take down the statues that have stood for many decades at Lee Circle, Jefferson Davis Parkway and the entrance to City Park.

Why are we fat? Republicans, Democrats disagree


If the recent elections have taught us anything, it’s that Democrats and Republicans are so deeply divided that one might reasonably argue that the system has broken down, with folks of great wealth fueling the divisions for their own ends.

So how deeply divided are the two parties?

Well, they can’t even agree on what makes folks fat.

It’s that old nature/nurture divide that lurks beneath so much of political divisiveness, with the Republicans arguing that Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination, rules at the bathroom scales, while Democrats argue that it’s something fueled by the environment.

From the University of Kansas:

People’s political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

“Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people,” Joslyn said. “The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated.”

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings [$36 to read] recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a “nanny state,” blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people’s opposition to certain practices.

“To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected,” Joslyn said.

Also, it’s likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Program notes

The genome dynamically interacts with the environment as chemical switches that regulate gene expression receive cues from stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors. Epigenetics is the study of these reactions and the factors that influence them.

So what’s it all about?

From Scientific American:

In a study published in late 2011 in Nature, Stanford University geneticist Anne Brunet and colleagues described a series of experiments that caused nematodes raised under the same environmental conditions to experience dramatically different lifespans. Some individuals were exceptionally long-lived, and their descendants, through three generations, also enjoyed long lives. Clearly, the longevity advantage was inherited. And yet, the worms, both short- and long-lived, were genetically identical.

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best. Their form is far from the elegant tendrils of DNA that make up genes, and they are fleeting, in a sense, erasable, very unlike genes, which have been passed down through generations for millions of years. But they do lurk, and silently, they exert their power, modifying DNA and controlling genes, influencing the chaos of nucleic and amino acids. And it is for this reason that many scientists consider the discovery of these entities in the late 20th century as a turning point in our understanding of heredity, as possibly one of the greatest revolutions in modern biology—the rise of epigenetics.

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