Power and Persuasion

Francis: What is on your mind? You seem troubled.

Paco: I’ve been reading a lot lately about this country’s many military adventures abroad, from drone bombings to funding various factions in other nations’ politics, to boots on the ground and air support in the sky.

Francis: That will put anyone in a sour state of mind. What has driven you to this morbid line of research?

Paco: I just wonder if there is such a thing as civilization, or if it is just a sham, a part we play while others engage in barbarism on our behalf.

Francis: Is there any point to talking in such categories these days? The whole dichotomy of primitive and civilized seems so…offensive.

Continue reading “Power and Persuasion”

The Englishness of Ice Hockey

An Enquiry

Everyone knows that hockey is Canada’s sport. Not everyone knows that hockey was invented by the English. There are some peculiarities to the play of the game that seem quaintly English, but I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. Particularly in the penalty phases of the game there are Englishnesses, but from what philosophical tradition do they come? To wit:

  • Penalties in general: result in the offending player being sent off the ice for a designated period of time, during which his team must play with fewer players than their opponents.
  • Minor penalties: for minor infractions of game play, mostly involving “bad form,” as it were, putting the stick in the wrong place, clutching with the hands, crashing into an opposing player while he is in a vulnerable position, and the like, there is a two-minute penalty.
  • Double Minor penalties: for the same infractions as “bad form”, except involving an added carelessness, there is a four-minute penalty.

Okay, one can perceive some sort of sensibility at work here. However, another class of penalties highlights the peculiarities of the culture of ice hockey. I’m curious: do they illustrate a relationship to the culture which flourished on Great Britain until the middle of the Victorian Era? As follows:

  • Major penalties: for crimes of passion and premeditation, such as outright fighting with the fists, the offending players are sent off the ice for five minutes, but the offending players’ teams are not further penalized by having to play with fewer players; instead, play continues normally.
  • Misconduct penalties: for particularly egregious crimes of passion and premeditation, where, in the judgment of the game officials the player is out-of-control, there is a ten minute penalty. But, again, the offending player’s team continues to play normally.
  • Game Misconduct penalties: most oddly, for completely uncivilized game play, such as using the hockey stick as a weapon, a player will not only be sent off the ice, but out of the immediate playing area, being exiled, as it were, from the environs of hockey. What’s particularly odd about this penalty is that, like exile, the player may return to the ice after an extended period of time!
  • Match penalties: the player is deemed unfit for civil society and is ejected, never to return, also without further penalty to his team. What provokes such a penalty? Premeditated intent to injure or harm his opponent.

So (the layperson may reason) why is fighting not considered a premeditated intent to injure or harm? Well, I don’t rightly know, but I understand. If you will: a hockey fight is, in general, a gentleman’s agreement that the parties involved have some bad blood between them, stemming from some ancestry or another, perhaps not even of immediate provenance, but of ancient yore (e.g., an incident by completely different players from several games ago), and a fist fight will leech some of that bad blood. A match penalty, on the other hand, is a judgment made by the game officials that there is no gentleman’s agreement, that the barbarian has been unleashed. And that, my friends, will never do.

Mark Fraser, Cody McCormick

Aside from boxing, no other sport even tolerates fighting, much less develops a complex arrangement of unspoken agreements and concomitant delineated penalties.

Where does this come from?

The Stories We Tell

Welcome to Sweet Talk, Will. Willcome if you will. In your excellent inaugural post, you channel Shelley adroitly.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shangri-la, El Dorado (not to be confused with my good pal Eli Dourado or his twitterbot), Atlantis… there’s no shortage of myths surrounding lost cities, lost civilizations. Imagine trotting your goats around the plains of Tell el-Muqayyar and stumbling over the lost ruin of the great city-state of Ur for the first time. The past is an alien land, readily populated by the monsters of our imaginations. Even the canniest hypotheses of why this or that human settlement flourished or failed are difficult to defend against alternative stories, even with abundant archaeological evidence.

Swan’s classic account (1956, sorry, can’t find a non-gated copy) of capital accumulation is the standard economic story of boy-accumulates-capital-stock, boy-uses-capital-to-build-more-capital, boy-creates-economic-growth that fits very nicely with neoclassical econ, the Austrian business cycle story, even New Keynesian models. Heck, even Marx-flavored theories of economic development acknowledge that for groups of humans larger than a clan to thrive, you need the implements of capital. You need specialized buildings, specialized tools, and of course, specialized skills to work these tools, to fill these buildings with the glad hum of industry.

But for the neolithic mega-village, this capital accumulation was stunted. Will suggests that the failure can be traced to the rhetoric carried forth from folks’ forager heritage. The bookbound economist would pin the failure on a lack capital accumulation and specialization. The linguist would probably say that it was the development of writing ~6kya in Sumer that clinched it.

Of course, these three stories are not at all mutually exclusive. It seems eminently reasonable that capital accumulation cannot reliably emerge without a system of accounts supported by writing. Recall that the large bulk of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and other early writing is the equivalent of the modern spreadsheet: accounts receivable, loans due, that sort of thing. Without a written record of trade, collecting on the seed corn forwarded for a capital expansion project is, in Coasean terms, prohibitively expensive. No capital accumulation, no specialization, no trade, no economies of scale, no proper cities, no gradual shift in the rhetoric of citizens to dignify the merchant, the weaver, or the bricklayer.

Of course, the past is a foreign land, so my suggestion that proper cities are coeval with that single defining characteristic of civilization, writing, is just another difficult-to-reject hypothesis. Even if archaeologists found evidence of accounting practices in a failed mega-village, I’m sure I could hem and haw my way through a shabby defense of my proposition, but the point isn’t necessarily to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that it’s important to give proper shrift to the keepers of the written word, that they execute their duties faithfully and with honor. To respect the long legacy of those that came before them, the unsung men and women who painstakingly transcribed grain warehouse figures onto clay tablets. To continue, unbroken, the heritage of scribes, scriveners, scholars, and typesetters that came before them. To preserve our frail civilization against the wolves that lurk in the outer darkness. It’s about honor. It’s about duty.

And above all, it’s about ethics. It’s about ethics in journalism.