Saturday, March 31, 2018


Crane dancing, Hokkaido; Stefan Senft

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.

~ Allen Ginsberg, opening of “America”

This was written in 1956 and remains wonderfully “now.” This is the mysterious power of poetry — it’s “the news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound put it. And it’s not that poets and writers are seers who can foretell the future. It’s rather that they acutely see the present.

I’ve always loved the opening lines of this poem:

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.

Another part of the mysterious power of poetry is that it feels personally true — at least those lines that really “hit.” I can’t explain why, but “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” does feel true for me (call me irrational — as I said, I can’t explain it). Likewise with the line that follows, which I can explain even less. Both lines are magical, and the figure of two dollars and twenty-seven cents is exactly right — no other sum would do.

It’s the fourth line that starts the more serious lamentation, but it’s the mix of seriousness and humor that captures the insanity and contradictions better than a straight-faced text would.

This caricature came with the brief description of Ginsberg's chanting Ohmmm in a Chicago courtroom (“He's trying to calm us down,” his lawyer said — “us” included the judge.)
Allen Ginsberg by David Levine, New York Review of Books


~ “As director of the newly-minted Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, Dmitry Belyaev was curious as to how dogs first became domesticated. (In the late 1950s), he decided that to fully understand the process, he must attempt to replicate the early days of domestication. He picked foxes for the experiment because of their close family ties with dogs (both are canids). His research team visited fur farms across the Soviet Union and purchased the tamest foxes on hand. They figured using the most docile of the wild foxes for their breeding program would hasten the pace of domestication, relative to the thousands of years it took to breed dogs.

a wild silver fox
Unfortunately, Belyaev died before seeing the final results. But today, 58 years after the start of the program, there is now a large, sustainable population of domesticated foxes. These animals have no fear of humans, and actively seek out human companionship. The most friendly are known as “elite” foxes.

“By the tenth generation, 18 percent of fox pups were elite; by the 20th, the figure had reached 35 percent,” Lyudmilla Trut, one of the lead researchers at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, wrote in a paper describing the experiment in 1999. “Today elite foxes make up 70 to 80 percent of our experimentally selected population.”

One of the lab’s most interesting findings is that the friendly foxes exhibit physical traits not seen in the wild, such as spots in their fur and curled tails. Their ears show weird traits, too.

Like puppies, young foxes have floppy ears. But the ears of domesticated foxes stay floppier for a longer time after birth, said Jennifer Johnson, a biologist who has worked with Kukekova since the early 2000s.

a domesticated silver fox

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the domesticated fox experiment fell on hard times as public funding for the project evaporated. The researchers realized quickly that keeping more than 300 foxes is an expensive enterprise. In the 1990s, the lab switched to selling some of the foxes as fur pelts to sustain the breeding program.

“The current situation is not catastrophic, but not stable at the same time,” Institute of Cytology and Genetics research assistant Anastasiya Kharlamova told BBC Earth last year. Now, the lab’s primary source of revenue is selling the foxes to people and organizations across the globe.

One customer is the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center, located near San Diego. The center keeps six foxes — five of which are domesticated — as ambassadors for their species, so that people can get an up-close-and-personal view of the animals.

“We have a fox whose name is Boris, and as soon as someone walks in, he’ll run up to them like a dog will,” said David Bassett, president of the Conservation Center. “He wants to be scratched and if you don’t scratch him he’ll make you.”

While domesticated foxes are friendlier than those in the wild, they can still be unpredictable.

“[You can be] sitting there drinking your cup of coffee and turning your head for a second, and then taking a swig and realizing, ‘Yeah, Boris came up here and peed in my coffee cup,’” said Amy Bassett, the Canid Conservation Center’s founder. “You can easily train and manage behavioral problems in dogs, but there are a lot of behaviors in foxes, regardless of if they’re Russian or U.S., that you will never be able to manage.”


There’s been a further discovery linking domestication (i.e. the kind of friendly temperament that would be unusual in wild animals), spotty fur, shorter faces, floppy ears (at least in young animals) and curly tails.


~ “In 1868, the same year that Darwin published an entire monograph on domestication, Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His, Sr (1831-1904) described what became known as the embryonic neural crest.

Vertebrate embryos at an early stage of development consist of three “germ layers”. He described a strip of cells in the outer layer (ectoderm), between the part that produces skin and the part that produces the central nervous system. It’s now called the neural crest.

Wilkins and colleagues now propose a hypothesis that links the development of the neural crest with the body changes that accompany domestication.

The neural crest produces not only facial skeletal and connective tissues, teeth and external ears but also pigment cells, nerves and adrenal glands, which mediate the “fight or flight” response.

Neural crest cells are also important for stimulating the development of parts of the forebrain and for several hormonal glands.

The researchers argue that the domestication process selects for pre-existing variants in a 

number of genes that affect neural crest development. This causes a modest reduction in neural crest cell number or activity. This in turn affects the broad range of structures derived from the neural crest, giving rise to domestication syndrome.

Interestingly, deleterious alterations in genes controlling neural crest development cause wide-ranging syndromes called neurocristopathies in humans and in animals. The researchers suggest that the domestication syndrome resembles a mild multi-gene neurocristopathy.” ~


Wolves too can be tamed. Norway has a national park where you can pet the wolves.

You may be wondering about humans. Did humans in essence domesticate themselves? Did they selectively breed for more friendly, pro-social behavior? I suspect most people would say that the success has been partial at best. Still, scientists point out to clues such as differences between human and Neanderthal skulls. The human skulls show features association with domestication: for instance, our faces are shorter, and the faces of men and women are relatively similar — an important part of the DOMESTICATION SYNDROME.


~ “Tameness, says evolutionary biologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, may boil down to a reduction in reactive aggression — the fly-off-the-handle temperament that makes an animal bare its teeth at the slightest challenge. In this sense, he says, humans are fairly tame. We might show great capacity for premeditated aggression, but we don’t attack every stranger we encounter.

Sometime in the last 200,000 years, humans began weeding out people with an overdose of reactive aggression, Wrangham suggests. Increasingly complex social skills would have allowed early humans to gang up against bullies, he proposes, pointing out that hunter-gatherers today have been known to do the same. Those who got along, got ahead.

Once humans began to self-­domesticate, changes to neural crest cells could have nudged us toward a highly communicative species. Something similar happens in songbirds: Domesticated birds have more complex songs than their wild counterparts. What’s more, self-domestication may be more common than once thought. Bonobos, Wrangham notes, live in peaceful groups compared with closely related, but more violent, chimpanzees. If humans took steps to domesticate themselves, perhaps they weren’t the only ones.” ~


I think the self-domestication of humans is still ongoing . . .  And cats are only partly domesticated, scientists agree.

By the way, it’s important to note the difference between tameness and domestication. A wild animal can be tamed, i.e. become non-fearful and non-aggressive around humans — but it doesn’t pass on that tameness to its offspring. That takes generations of selective breeding for less aggression and what might be called “friendliness.” 

While people assume that domestication means mainly lower testosterone levels, testosterone is not the critical hormone here. Rather, we see lower levels of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) — some scientists even speak of “hypoadrenia” of domesticated animals. Darwin assumed that the lesser fear response stemmed from “gentler living conditions.” But, again, it takes many generations of selective breeding to produce less fearful animals. 


I remember seeing the story of the Russian experiment with domesticating foxes in a documentary about our relationship with dogs. So much is interesting about this experiment — perhaps most intriguing is that the changes seen in the “domesticated” animals occurred fairly rapidly, after a couple dozen generations, which challenges our sense that evolution is a long, slow process — apparently, under pressure, whether from environmental factors or human interference,  evolutionary changes can occur fairly rapidly. We can watch it happen, and not only in microscopic organisms that spin through generations in minutes or hours, but in complex, long lived mammals, like foxes and dogs. It is interesting to note that the “domesticated” silver fox looks a lot like a puppy. These domesticated animals, like humans, retain “infantile” features, like the floppy ears and short snout . . . “babyish” features that we find irresistibly cute and endearing.

So, domestication becomes not the simple taming of an animal, but the development of a mutual relationship between two species. The dog/human relationship is unique. They are the only animals that look us in the eye, that seek out that intimacy of the gaze, that do not find it disturbing. They are attuned to our moods and expressions in an active way, not only to follow commands and be rewarded, but because they seem to want and enjoy the connection. In the beginning of this interspecies relationship there was a situation of mutual advantage--dogs benefited from the shared food, humans benefited from the dog's protection and warnings, each benefited from co operation in the hunt. Recent theory seems to feel this relationship was one of co-evolution, we changed each other in tandem, humans not only may have domesticated themselves by selecting for co operation over aggression, the two companion species domesticated each other in ways that changed and benefited both.

As you note there is an essential difference between “tamed” and "domesticated." You may tame a lion, or a wolf, but don't imagine it loves you. I think of an instance where a woman kept  and bred wolves, and even sold them to fools who wanted one rather than a dog. One day her wolves tore her to pieces. Although there were no witnesses, I am sure it occurred simply because to a wolf you are always more a potential meal than a potential ally.


You are right about the persistence of  "juvenile" traits in domesticated animals. The domesticated foxes show an extended puppyhood: they remain curious and playful, roll over for belly rubs, and otherwise treat a human as "mother."

And yet even with certain large-size dog breeds, the closeness to the wolf remains; fatal attacks on a human, though rare, have happened. Parents are warned not to leave a baby alone with a dog large and strong enough to kill it, no matter how sweet and laid-back the animal usually is. 

The woman killed by her “tame” wolves is a story to heed, not the strange myths about being raised by wolves. As far as I know, no animal likes human babies, which have a strong smell that canines especially dislike. And a baby’s screaming, hard enough on humans, must be painful to dogs’ sensitive ears. Sooner the sirens (I love it when dogs howl to sirens — I sing with them).

Also, when a human merely tames a wild animal, e.g. by taking care of that animal during sickness, providing food and petting, the reciprocal affection — if it happens — will be directed toward that  specific human (who better keep up daily feeding and petting, making sure the petting is the kind that is truly pleasant to the animal). The merely tame rather than truly domesticated animal may still attack another human who unwittingly “corners” or otherwise threatens the animal, sometimes by mere detail of appearance (e.g. dogs allegedly dislike certain kinds of clothing). 

This fox became tame because her caretaker saved her life and nursed her back to health.

I suspect that the woman’s wolves weren’t really hungry, but she might have inadvertently done something that triggered their fear/attack response. They probably didn’t see her as a meal, but all of a sudden they saw her as a threat. From all I’ve read, one statement really stays engraved in my mind: if you come too close to a wild animal, it will bare its teeth. What we perceive as aggression is actually fear.

Of course we are not talking about cocker spaniels here. And I wonder if ears that remain permanently floppy are a sign of a deeper domestication, which essentially signals hypoadrenia — such an animals is physiologically pretty incapable of becoming enraged.

If humans control the breeding, then domestication can indeed progress rapidly. I remember reading another recent article about the foxes where a scientist is quoted as saying, “What a difference just fifteen years can make! Now all the foxes here are “elite” — i.e. they show no fear of humans and come over to be petted.

Though domestication produces many changes, some of them merely incidental, I suspect a mild hypoadrenia is the most essential of those. Truly domesticated animals have hypoactive adrenals and don’t produce the levels of the fight-or-flight stress hormones that their wild equivalents do. Fear and aggression are highly related; affection toward a human, the acceptance of that human as a protective “mother” rather than a threat, can happen in a wild animal under certain unusual circumstances, but it will not be passed on to its offspring. That takes selective breeding.

When it comes to humans, it’s been pointed out that women don’t really control reproduction to the degree it would take to breed out the bullies out of gene pool — but social means other than sexual selection by women exist, and I think have operated throughout thousands of years to reduce the levels of violence. As women become more empowered, the process can accelerate.

As a thought experiment, imagine if only the most affectionate individuals had children. But with humans everything is more complicated because of the huge influence of culture. Still, genetic factors can be very powerful, and our experience with breeding dogs tells us humans too could be bred for size, or intelligence, longevity, cancer resistance, or any other trait. But we also know about the law of unintended consequences (you change one thing, and you simultaneously change a gazillion other things), and are wisely afraid to tamper.

Did dogs domesticate us? We did indeed breed dogs mainly for affection, and the affection we get from them (and give to them) brings us great pleasure. And men seen with dogs were indeed found to get a lot more interest from women (just today I chatted up a man who was merely carrying a bag of dog food; it was as if he carried a sign that said, I'm a loving person). 

But I’ve also noticed something disquieting: some people, including married couples, prefer dogs to such an extent that they aren’t interested in having children. I think we need to make childcare less stressful  — e.g. make help with childcare chores readily available, so the primary caretaker can be rested and more relaxed. France has done this, and birthrate has gone up: the availability of quality childcare had a much bigger effect than financial incentives.

The lowering of stress seems the key. 


The woman killed by her wolves story was actually something my husband learned about back in Pittsburgh. The garage he took his work truck to for inspections and maintenance was actually near this woman’s property, and the workers there were all abuzz after she (or what was left of her) was found. I think all the wolves were euthanized.

And I believe fear is absolutely the trigger for most violence, the perception of some threat, even if that perception is inaccurate. My beloved chocolate lab, who was a real sweetheart, had never been around an infant. We had visitors one day who had a baby with them—she was in her little carry seat, and they set her down on the coffee table. We were all sitting around talking, and I didn’t see the dog. The baby was not crying, just making those little chortling sounds babies sometimes do. I found the dog standing back behind the couch, anxiously peering over the back at the baby, obviously nervous about this strange creature, afraid of what it might mean for him. Exactly the kind of circumstance where even a laid back dog might snap or bite.

And the kind of rabid hate talk that comes from the political right is certainly based in fear—fear of threats real or imagined, often of the most primitive kind. I think of some of the astonishing ideas they have spouted about women, and women’s sexuality, and the way any variation on “traditional” gender definitions is perceived as a threat—an intimate and powerful threat—to their own sense of identity. So much fear that even the smallest chink in the fortress of their world might bring it all down in ruins. Gay Marriage, for instance, can only lead to Armageddon.


This is so funny: “Gay Marriage, for instance, can only lead to Armageddon.” On the other hand, many of those right-wingers yearn for Armageddon. They want to see the whole world destroyed: a marvelous (to them) fulfillment of crazed prophecies. The weaker the evidence, the more rabid the zeal.

Interesting that powerful white males would feel so threatened by women, gays, poor people, immigrants . . . Maybe Shakespeare offers insight into this when he speaks about sleepless, anxiety-ridden kings: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, pt 2).



Latest UN projections expect the world’s population to grow by 2.9 billion – equal to another China and India – in the next 33 years, and possibly by a further three billion by the end of the century. By then, says the UN, humanity is expected to have developed into an almost exclusively urban species with 80-90% of people living in cities.

Whether those cities develop into sprawling, chaotic slums – with unbreathable air, uncontrolled emissions and impoverished populations starved of food and water – or become truly sustainable depends on how they respond. Many economists argue that population growth is needed to create wealth, and that urbanization significantly reduces humanity’s environmental impact. Other observers fear cities are becoming ungovernable – too unwieldy to adapt to rising temperatures and sea levels, and prone to pollution, water shortages and ill health.

Many cities are already investing in clean transport and water, sewage, renewable energy, planning, wellbeing and good housing for all. Others face what seem like insurmountable problems.


India, which is widely expected to be the most populous country in the world with more than 1.5 billion people by 2050, has seen its urban population double in 30 years, to nearly 600 million. Its megacities, like Mumbai and Delhi, are not expected to grow much more; instead, smaller cities are rapidly expanding.

Ramachandra and his colleague Bharath H Aithal have documented the environmental effects of breakneck urban growth in Bangalore. They say temperature in the city has increased by 2-2.5C over the past three decades, while the water table has declined in places from 28 metres down to 300 metres deep; there has been an 88% loss of vegetation and a 79% loss in wetlands, and frequent flooding even during normal rainfall.

Ramachandra fears that what has happened to Bangalore will happen to all Indian cities. “Air pollution is at dangerous levels, the water is polluted, there is nowhere for the waste to go, and the lakes have been killed,” he says.

The “frenzy of unplanned urbanization” is threatening nature as never before, says Prerna Bindra, author of The Vanishing, a new analysis of how urbanization and economic growth have affected India’s rich wildlife. “Wetlands, lakes, green spaces are giving way to glass and concrete. The retreat of natural habitats has meant the rapid decline of urban wildlife – even the once ubiquitous – house sparrows, or the bullfrogs and common toads that serenaded the monsoons, or jackals [which were] once not a very uncommon sight on urban fringes.”

The solution may be in the hands of the many strong indigenous and middle class groups that have set up in the last 20 years to demand less destructive development and attempt to reduce the use of polluting fossil fuels, enforce conservation laws and educate the authorities. But there is a long way to go.


The scale and speed of China’s shift to cities is shocking – possibly the fastest and largest migration of a human population in history. In just 30 years, nearly 500 million people have moved from rural areas into China’s 622 main cities, and a predominantly rural country has become nearly 60% urban. By 2025, over one billion Chinese – two in three people – will live in cities.

Guiyang is a model of central urban planning from the perspective of people. It has few slums and little sprawl, and its growth has been ordered. But urbanization has been an ecological disaster. In the early days, pollution turned the Nanming river black and stinking. Air pollution was allowed to continue unchecked, while carbon dioxide emissions rocketed from coal-fired industry, forests were cleared and soil was contaminated on a massive scale. And China’s breakneck urbanization extends beyond its borders, devastating vast areas of Africa and Latin America, where it turned for the raw materials for its industrial revolution.

“Rapid urbanization was encouraged. It was the way China grew its economy,” says Gordon McGranahan of the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, who specializes in global urbanization. “China used cities to generate growth and land to generate investment. It had to bring people to the cities; it experimented with converting land to urban areas. Its cities were critical to its growth. No one paid much attention to the environment until it hit them in the face.” ~



I hope that increasing urbanization will mean that a large portion of the earth can eventually be returned to wilderness. It will of course take time — and the megacities will have to find a way to be more sustainable. 


“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” ~  Friedrich Nietzsche


The word "caucasian" came up and I said, "That's so much nonsense." ~ "Of course it is — unless you are Hungarian," my interlocutor earnestly replied. I decided to pass. I constantly run into ignorance so deep it's best to just talk about the weather. Weren't we supposed to get rain? I suppose it went to Hungary instead, the home of the true “causasians.”


~ “No line about class in the United States is more famous than the one written by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906. Class consciousness in America, he contended, foundered “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Sombart was among the first scholars to ask the question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” His answer, now solidified into conventional wisdom about American exceptionalism, was simple: “America is a freer and more egalitarian society than Europe.” In the United States, he argued, “there is not the stigma of being the class apart that almost all European workers have about them. . . . The bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes,’ which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown.”

In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg joins a long list of historians over the last century who have sent Sombart’s theory crashing on the shoals of history. The prolific Charles and Mary Beard, progressive historians in the first third of the 20th century, reinterpreted American history as a struggle for economic power between the haves and have-nots. W.E.B. Du Bois interpreted Reconstruction as a great class rebellion, as freed slaves fought to control their own working conditions and wages. Labor and political historians in the 1970s and 1980s recovered a forgotten history of blue-collar consciousness and grass-roots radicalism, from the Workingmen’s Party in Andrew Jackson’s America to the late-19th-century populists of upcountry Georgia to the Depression-era leftist unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Historians of public policy, like the influential Michael B. Katz, emphasized the persistence of notions of “the undeserving poor,” an ideology that blamed economic deprivation on the alleged pathological behavior of poor people themselves and eroded support for welfare programs.

Isenberg — a historian at Louisiana State University whose previous books include a ­biography of Aaron Burr — provides a cultural ­history of changing concepts of class and inferiority. She argues that British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal. Richard Hakluyt the younger, one of the many colorful characters who fill these pages, saw the continent as “one giant workhouse,” in ­Isenberg’s phrase, where the feckless poor could be turned into industrious drudges.

 That process of shunting outsiders to the nation’s margins, she argues, continued in the early Republic and in the 19th century, when landless white settlers began to fill in the backcountry of Appalachia and the swamps of the lowland South, living in lowly cabins, dreaming of landownership but mostly toiling as exploited tenant farmers or itinerant laborers.

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless rural poor as boisterous, foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters.”

Not all stereotypes of the white poor were negative. In the Jacksonian period, populists celebrated Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap. Lincoln might be derided as a poor woodsman, but he was also valorized for his log cabin roots. During the Great Depression, New Deal photographers and writers depicted farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl as virtuous people, victims of economic forces beyond their control.

By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on their physical traits.

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the American past, questions of class status have been entangled with notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

“Class,” she writes, “had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Thus we get a history of class in America that ­discusses white tenant farmers at length, but scarcely mentions black sharecroppers or Mexican farmworkers, as if somehow their race segregated them from America’s history of class subjugation. Native Americans make cameo appearances playing their role as a degraded race or as the noble savage — as ideal types rather than as ­exploited and impoverished peoples themselves. The “coolie” Asian workers imported to the post-Civil War South, the Filipino agricultural laborers of California’s Central Valley and the inhabitants of San Francisco’s and New York’s 19th-­century Chinatowns, all workers, most at the bottom of the economic ladder, are virtually absent from these pages, even though they were subject to caricatures stunningly similar to those hurled at backcountry “squatters” and “hillbillies.”

It is a commonplace argument in American politics that somehow race and class stand apart. Pundits charge that racial minorities practice a self-segregating “identity politics” rather than uniting around shared economic grievances. But a history of class in America that assumes its whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.” ~

From another source:

~ “The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. They were alternately known as "waste people," "offals," "rubbish," "lazy lubbers," and "crackers." By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called "clay eaters" and "sandhillers," known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society – where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. 

Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics — a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ's Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation's history. With Isenberg's landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.” ~ 

from yet another:

~ “As Nancy Isenberg describes in her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, one question that polite American society has always asked itself is whether poor whites can really be considered white (or even truly human). Usually, the answer has been that the people whom the upper classes have alternately called offscourings, bogtrotters, clay-eaters, swamp people, mudsills, hillbillies and rednecks are indeed a breed apart, deserving of sympathy or scorn but rarely solidarity.

White Trash documents in exhaustive detail how every stage in the continent’s development – from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the inauguration of President Donald Trump – has seen its elites construct their own taxonomies of deplorable (and expendable) white people. Isenberg’s purpose in doing so is to undermine the belief among Americans that their society miraculously shed the burdens of class and pedigree that prevailed in the mother country of England. ‘Far more than we choose to acknowledge’, she writes, ‘our relentless class system evolved out of recurring agrarian notions regarding the character and potential of the land, the value of labor, and critical concepts of breeding’.

This story begins with the evacuation of Britain’s human ‘waste’ from the country’s slums as part of the English nobility’s efforts to ‘fertilize’ the New World. In Isenberg’s words, ‘the idle poor, the dregs of society, were to be sent thither to throw down manure and die in a vacuous muck.’ Agricultural metaphors and the logic of animal husbandry persisted into the revolutionary period: Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on populating the country were shaped by his experiences raising pigeons, while Thomas Jefferson’s vision of future US leadership rested on his faith in a ‘fortuitous concourse of breeders’ that would give birth to a natural aristocracy. Isenberg makes a strong case that the new republic was not – and was never envisioned by its founders to be – an egalitarian and classless society, but rather one based on rank and privilege.”

With the advent of the Civil War, the language of class identity took a new turn: destitute southern whites in particular became a ‘notorious race’, which according to some critics had ‘fallen below African slaves on the scale of humanity’. As one writer for the Atlantic Monthly asked in 1865, why should the victorious Union keep ‘the humble, quiet, hard-working negro’ disenfranchised and leave the North vulnerable to the vote of the ‘worthless’ and ‘vicious’ poor whites, who were ‘fit for no decent employment on earth except manual labor’? It was from this point onwards that the label of ‘poor white trash’ began to stick, and the image of the inbred, ignorant and immoral southern redneck emerged as the ridiculous and frightening figure that is still so firmly entrenched in modern culture (the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies and the 1972 film Deliverance are just two of the examples that Isenberg examines in this regard).” ~

I was particularly struck by the observation that poverty is like traveling back in time: houses are old, and haven’t been renovated or even painted in decades. The porches are sagging. The furniture is decades old. The same liquor stores and tattoo parlors line the streets, in the same dilapidated condition.

In Johnson, Vermont, I was especially intrigued by a low-slung house whose small windows were covered almost to the top by some mysterious stuff inside. Finally I managed to get close enough to see: those were plastic bags. Whoever lived there collected plastic bags over the years and just kept piling them on the floor the way some people keep stacking newspapers and magazines. This made me flash back to a homeless man I once met, with not one shopping cart, but two. I assumed the carts were filled with blankets and other practical stuff, but no — they were filled with crumpled plastic bags jammed in to overflowing.

I think there is a special name for this pathology. It doesn’t absolutely have to go with poverty, but perhaps it’s the ultimate in “poverty mentality.” You don’t throw anything away — it might “come in handy” one day. Nothing is designated as “trash” — except, tragically, the people who can’t seem to part with it. 


As the distance between the wealthy one percent and the rest of us becomes steadily and obscenely greater and greater, it gets harder and harder to ignore. As long however, as that powerful one percent can depend on and cultivate racial and ethnic division we can be set against each other, so busy blaming and hating our fellows, that we defeat ourselves and act against our own best interests —witness the huge white working class support of Trump, which still continues despite his abandonment of campaign promises. It seems hugely irrational, as irrational as racism and ethnic hatred always is — and just as hugely powerful. These are the engines that created the Holocaust, that continue to fuel genocide, that remain a real possibility, even now, even here, even for us.

With all that I feel that now is also a moment full of potential. Many voices are being raised, voices that have been silenced in the past, and are now refusing silence. Changes are coming.

I am glad to be here now, in this singular place and time, looking for great things to come.


I feel both frightened by what’s happening, especially the rise in hate crimes, and cautiously optimistic when I hear words I thought I’d never get to hear, e.g. Medicare for everyone — and see the young rise up for their right to go to school, say, without having to fear for their lives. I hope I’ll live long enough to see campaign finance reform and many other necessary changes — after all, I have already lived long enough to witness quite a cultural change.

Since we’ve talked about domestication and the diminishment of the fear response, it’s interesting that conservatives show a more intense fear response (as revealed by neuro-imaging, not merely through answers to questions about immigration and so forth).

Right-wing demagogues know that their most powerful tool is an appeal to fear. Fear pushes a person to the right, while making someone feel safer accomplishes the opposite. Much follows from that. FDR was brilliant when he said, “what we have to fear is fear itself.”

We definitely live in a turbulent time. One thing we’ve learned is that the Germans are probably correct when they say, “If you were in our place, you’d have acted the same.”

But maybe not — when I watch the young speak out without fear, I am reminded that this is something special about America.


~ “The notion that tarot cards somehow survived the cultural wreck of ancient Egypt has a surprisingly specific origin: Paris, 1781, when France seethed with secret societies and private clubs. Some were radically political, as would soon bear fruit. Many more had pretensions to having privileged access to occult traditions.

Freemasonry was the most fashionable of these societies, with its claims to a heritage deriving from the Knights Templar, and back further, from the architects of Solomon’s temple itself. But it bobbed in a rich esoteric stew that looks familiar to any observer of the present-day ‘New Age’: Rosicrucianism, theosophy, Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, Martinism, Hermeticism (believed to derive ultimately from the ancient Egyptian god Thoth). Esoteric ideas and traditions were widely explored, elaborated and, often, invented.

The mood has been dubbed ‘anti-Enlightenment’ – or Counter-Enlightenment, to use Isaiah Berlin’s term. It owes something to the Romantic taste for the exotic and mystical, though anti-clerical and anti-authoritarian impulses were present too. Delving into ‘dark’ mysteries was conceived as an intellectual and ethical riposte to the hyper-rationalism of ‘enlightened’ secularism. Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791) frames the opposition neatly by setting the crepuscular, murderously matriarchal Queen of the Night against Sarastro, the rationalist, Masonic, Isis-and-Osiris-worshipping priest of the Sun.

Ancient Egypt was particularly fashionable in early 1780s Paris. (And not just in Paris: the Great Seal of the United States, with its prominent pyramid and Masonic eye, was designed in 1782.) Between 1781 and 1785, the Italian charlatan Giuseppe Balsamo, the self-styled Count Cagliostro, founded his own Egyptian ‘rite’ of Freemasonry. A fashionable Cagliostro lodge was reported in 1785 as being decorated with statues of Egyptian gods, hieroglyphics, a stuffed ibis and an embalmed crocodile.

However, the immediate source for the suits of European tarot was uncovered in 1939, when the archaeologist Leo Mayer found a 15th-century deck of Mamluk tarot cards in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. The correspondences revealed are temptingly neat. Children inducted into the Mamluk military slave retinue progressed through the ranks from page to equerry to khassakiyah, or elite soldier. The most trusted khassakiyah carried symbols of office, including the cup (the cup-bearer), sword (sword-bearer), and polo stick – emblems that were frequently depicted on coins. The polo stick was presumably translated into the baton or club by mystified Italian Renaissance card-makers who made the first European tarot decks, copied from the east.

The Mamluk origin theory is the best on offer, but it is not definitive. Nor does it explain the separate suit of 21 named trumps: the Magician, Empress, Tower, Moon and so on – 22, including the Fool. They emerged later, in the aristocratic courts of the Italian Renaissance – as is suggested by tarot’s original name. In 15th-century Italy, the cards were known as trionfi. They drew from the imagery of the ‘triumphs’, or allegorically themed carnival parades, of which modern carnival floats are the descendants.

Even at the very birth of tarot card-makers were cherrypicking from diverse traditions, and seizing on the allegories that suited them. The beguiling obscurity of the symbolism lent itself to the process. So it’s almost surprising that the idea of using tarot for divination took so long to emerge. But, like the cards’ supposed ancient Egyptian origin, this notion belongs very specifically to the 1780s.

The querent is complicit in the process. What drives this complicity was first measured in 1949, when the psychologist Bertram Forer asked his students in Los Angeles to fill out what he told them was a personality test, the ‘Diagnostic Interest Blank’. When Forer handed back the ‘results’, he told his students that they were based on the tests. In fact, he had culled 13 broad-brush statements from published horoscopes, including such devastating insights as ‘You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage’ and ‘At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.’ No! You too?

Every student was asked to assess the test’s accuracy on a scale of 0 to 5, where 5 indicated perfection. Their average score, astonishingly, was 4.26. Feeling smugly sure that I wouldn’t have fallen for it myself, I spoke to the psychologist Christopher French, who researches paranormal beliefs at Goldsmiths, University of London. He told me that most of the 13 personality descriptions in Forer’s original test are ‘two-headed statements that describe the human condition – and that’s why they resonate so much’. If they don’t describe you, French delightedly tells his own students, ‘you’re probably a psychopath’. But the universality of the statements is only part of the point: Forer’s experiment demonstrated that the statements were not perceived as universal but as highly individual.

Confirmation bias is also at work. We prefer to have our existing beliefs confirmed, and selectively pay attention to statements that perform this happy function for us. So when a tarot reading is momentarily inaccurate, we ignore or forget it. When it hits the mark, we are struck by its success.

Why does tarot survive? In a sense, tarot does encode wisdom – albeit within an invented tradition rather than a secret one. It is a system for describing aspirations and emotional concerns. It is a closed system rather than one based on evidence but, as such, it is not dissimilar to psychoanalysis, another highly systematized, invented tradition whose clinical efficacy depends ultimately on the relationship between client and practitioner.

In The Occult Tradition (2005), the historian David S Katz describes how deeply psychoanalytic theory, and Jung in particular, drank from the well of occult literature. The same combination of therapeutic aims and occult mystery was irresistible to the New Age too. Farley describes the cards as the ‘New Age tool par excellence’, able to shift fluidly from play to fortunetelling to ‘healing’.

It would require a sociological study to be sure, but it is possible that tarot offers a means to practice therapy for people who in some way stand outside formal or orthodox educational systems. It certainly seems to flourish in places such as Brighton and Glastonbury, not Cambridge and Hampstead.

And in a larger sense, the occult pseudo-history of tarot grasps a wisp of truth along with its armfuls of chaff. The cards are not the last survival of an ancient and exotic wisdom tradition. They are not the lost Book of Thoth. They are, however, a fairly unique remnant of the esoteric wisdom traditions of the European Renaissance, and they offer a form of informal, popular, easily accessed therapy. Meditating on the meaning and relevance of the four virtues, of Time, Love and Death, of the Hanged Man, the Angel and the Wheel of Fortune, can be valuable. The same is true, even, of meditating on the Fool.

Italian tarot cards, 1466

"Now that the Easter Bunny is caged for another year, here's my question: If God raised Jesus from the dead, why not make it public so everyone could see and believe? If the empty tomb is a deal breaker — all that gnashing of teeth and eternal damnation — why be so secretive? What kind of God plays games like that?

I think it's more likely that it never happened. It's likely that our annual Easter hoopla was never supposed to be about raising Jesus from the dead. There's no call to remember it in the bible. In fact, the bible sets aside all kinds of days as religious holidays for believers, but no mention of Easter.

But what we do know is that ancient civilizations have been celebrating Easter for at least 5,000 years — long before Jesus and long before Judaism.

In fact, we can say that the driving theme of the entire human story has always been the "dawn of new day” — the resurrection of the earth, and the call to new life. Hence, every culture of antiquity found unique ways to celebrate the triumph of spring. And they called it by similar names — Ishtar, Eostre, Easter. You get the point.

We know that, in the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, hijacked yet another popular festival (winter solstice comes to mind) and "repurposed" the old Easter holiday for their religious holy day. They made Easter a religious day for Christians only.

But the question remains: If Jesus wanted everyone in the world to know that he resurrected from the tomb, why didn't he make at least a one public appearance for history's sake? Why only to a handful of biased believers who didn't even know how to read or write?

Why not appear to the people who killed him — like say, Pontius Pilate, or Judas Iscariot, or the Sanhedrin Council who'd been plotting his death for years? If all these were too scary, then why not at least show up for Pilate's wife who, according to the bible, told her husband to leave the poor guy alone! That's honorable mention stuff right there.

Or better yet, why not go back to the vulgar crowds in Jerusalem — the fickle folks who supposedly threw palms at his feet before they turned against him? These were the people who needed convincing, for crying out loud, not his mom and his best friends.

So now we've got a problem. All these lack of appearances in town mean that no legitimate historian, and not even a disinterested bystander, could ever report that they saw Jesus — even from a distance — after he was dead and buried.

Lets face it: Since the future of the world depended on it — not to mention the billions of people about to go to hell for lack of even a shred of evidence or logic — we're looking at a totally unfair and unjust religious belief system. This makes no sense. None. Nada. Zip. Zero.

We could argue that, “Jesus wanted to reward his disciples for their faithfulness, so that's why he didn’t let anyone else see him.”

But that means he put the whole burden on his disciples to go forth and convince the world. That makes no sense because they had no credibility — people knew they were already believers. And besides, they were not only illiterate, but they'd likely be dead before anyone else started to write about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, it would be 40 more years before the anonymous "Mark" wrote about the death of Jesus, and guess what? Mark never mentioned a single sighting of Jesus, or the name of anyone who claimed he or she had ever SEEN Jesus after he died.

And then there's this: The tomb of Jesus was located at the thriving city of Jerusalem — the historic and religious center of the whole Jewish religion. Wait. Weren't these the same Jewish people whom Jesus said he came to save? So why did Jesus not at least go into Jerusalem after the resurrection, and shake a few hands?

Why would God not want the Jews of Jerusalem to see and hear for themselves that Jesus was alive and well? This makes absolutely no sense.

UNLESS . . .  there was no resurrection. Unless Jesus was actually a Jewish rabbi — and a revolutionary who turned the tables on the status quo. In that case, it all makes sense. The mission of Jesus was to bust down the doors of the encrusted, established religion of the day — and bust the whole crowd of rich, religious hypocrites for the ways in which they oppressed the poor and the outcast. His mission was to call them out for their lack of love, compassion, grace, and basic decency. He busted them for failing to be human.
Their privilege had corrupted their humanity, and they didn't like being exposed and busted.
In that case, there was no need for a resurrection. Only a crucifixion.” ~ Noah Einstein (Facebook, Einstein’s God)


The larger question here is Yahweh's secretiveness, not just Jesus’  or in regard to Jesus (odd: even when the divine allegedly shows itself on a grilled-cheese sandwich or in a mountain grotto, it’s always Jesus or Mary, never the Big Daddy). If Yahweh is the only true god and all the other gods are false — why not be more public? Noah writes about it too in a different essay. Ehrman focuses on the contradictions between the four gospels, but Noah here addresses the even more bothersome issue of secretiveness.

By the way, I used to be under the impression that a whole crowd gathered on the banks of the Jordan heard Yahweh’s words from the opening in the clouds during the baptism of Jesus — but then I happened on the text in Mark that makes it clear that only Jesus heard that voice. Likewise — and this may be even more indicative of schizophrenia — he hears “unclean spirits” calling him the Son of God.

Of course there is no way to prove that Jesus even existed, much less rose from the dead. But various end-of-days preachers did roam the countryside, and more than one may have gotten crucified — though not exactly as atonement for humanity’s sins, starting with the eating of the Forbidden Fruit in Eden. That interpretation is in itself more extreme than the claim of resurrection.
created by Bob Boldt

ending on beauty:


“Hiking: I don't like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike! Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, 'A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” ~ John Muir

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