Once upon a time, animal sacrifice was an important part of Hindu life, Catholic priests weren’t celibate and visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were part of Islamic art. And soon some churches in the UK may be marrying gay couples. How do religions manage to change their mind?
In 1889, Wilford Woodruff became the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – more commonly known as the Mormon Church.
As president, he was seen as a living prophet, someone who could receive wisdom and advice from Jesus Christ. And he was certainly in need of advice – his church was in crisis.
For 40 years, Mormons had been at loggerheads with the US Congress over the issue of polygamy, which was encouraged among male believers. The government said it was illegal, and held that religious conviction was no defence.
Woodruff and others lived a precarious life, moving around in an attempt to dodge marshals with arrest warrants for bigamy. In 1890, the government brought things to a head by moving to confiscate all of the church’s assets.
It was then, Woodruff said, that Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and showed him the future of the Mormon Church if the practice wasn’t stopped – and it wasn’t pretty. Although he did not renounce plural marriage, he issued a manifesto banning it.
If that sounds like a problem easily solved, it wasn’t – according to Kathleen Flake, a professor in American religious history at Vanderbilt University, and a Mormon herself.
“It was a very difficult thing socially, personally and theologically,” she says. The change destabilised the entire church, and led to deep reflection about what Mormonism’s core principles were.
History shows that any religion that refuses to change dies out, Flake adds. But what about those religions that don’t have living prophets – how do they change?
Read it all at BBC News Magazine.
An airman being captured by Vietnamese civilians in Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi in 1967. The airman is John McCain. imgur
The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959-1961
Nancy Qian, along with a big group of coauthors, has done a great amount of interesting empirical work in recent years on the economics of modern China; among other things, she has shown that local elections actually do cause policy changes in line with local preferences and that the state remains surprisingly powerful in the Chinese economy. In this paper with Xin Meng and Pierre Yared, she considers what is likely the worst famine in the history of mankind, China’s famous famine following the Great Leap Forward. After a agricultural production shock in 1959, a series of misguided policy experiments in the mid-1950s (like “backyard steel” production, which produced worthless metal), and an anti-Rightist purge which ended a brief period of less rigid bureaucracy, 30 million or so people would die from hunger over the next two years, with most deaths among the young and the very old. To put this in relative context, in the worst-hit counties, the birth-cohorts that should have been born or very young in 1960 and 1961 are today missing more than 80% of their projected members.
What is interesting, and what we have known since Sen, is that famines generally result from problems of food distribution rather than food production. And, indeed, the authors show that total grain production in caloric terms across rural parts of China is a multiple of what is necessary to hold off starvation during the height of the productivity shock. What is interesting and novel, though, is that provinces with higher historic per-capita grain production had the highest mortality, and likewise counties with the highest per-capita production as measured by a proxy based on climate also have the largest number of “missing” members in their birth year cohort in the 1990 census. This is strange – you might think that places that are living on the edge in normal times are most susceptible to famine.
Read more HERE.
Learning From Los Gatos
Why Silicon Valley is not the second coming of the Gilded Age.
It’s no surprise that George Packer—one of the most gifted writers in the business—has hit upon a fascinating topic in his latest New Yorker piece: the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. While the essay is behind a paywall, it’s definitely worth tracking down if you’re not a subscriber. (Also, hey, it’s The New Yorker — you should be a subscriber!) But for all the richness of the subject matter, in this case I think Packer has failed to capture the complexities of the Silicon Valley scene, in part because he’s using older conceptual frames that don’t adequately explain the phenomena he’s observing.
There is much of Silicon Valley that warrants criticism: the mono-culture now threatening San Francisco’s storied diversity and general weirdness; the anonymous office park sprawl of its built spaces; the male-dominated engineering culture; its assumption that all disruptions are good ones by definition; its casual scorn for older institutions. Packer has appropriately cutting words—and anecdotes—for most of these flaws in his piece. But his two main criticisms—the “prevailing” politics of the Valley and its economic inequality—miss their marks, for slightly different reasons.
Read it all HERE.
Jaron Lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class
Kodak employed 140,000 people. Instagram, 13. A digital visionary says the Web kills jobs, wealth — even democracy
Jaron Lanier is a computer science pioneer who has grown gradually disenchanted with the online world since his early days popularizing the idea of virtual reality. “Lanier is often described as ‘visionary,’ ” Jennifer Kahn wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile, “a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills.”
Raised mostly in Texas and New Mexico by bohemian parents who’d escaped anti-Semitic violence in Europe, he’s been a young disciple of Richard Feynman, an employee at Atari, a scholar at Columbia, a visiting artist at New York University, and a columnist for Discover magazine. He’s also a longtime composer and musician, and a collector of antique and archaic instruments, many of them Asian.
His book continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.
This week sees the publication of “Who Owns the Future?,” which digs into technology, economics and culture in unconventional ways. (How is a pirated music file like a 21st century mortgage?) Lanier argues that there is little essential difference between Facebook and a digital trading company, or Amazon and an enormous bank. (“Stanford sometimes seems like one of the Silicon Valley companies.”)
Much of the book looks at the way Internet technology threatens to destroy the middle class by first eroding employment and job security, along with various “levees” that give the economic middle stability.
The Dark Side of Liberation
The soldiers who landed in Normandy on D-Day were greeted as liberators, but by the time American G.I.’s were headed back home in late 1945, many French citizens viewed them in a very different light.
In the port city of Le Havre, the mayor was bombarded with letters from angry residents complaining about drunkenness, jeep accidents, sexual assault — “a regime of terror,” as one put it, “imposed by bandits in uniform.”
This isn’t the “greatest generation” as it has come to be depicted in popular histories. But in “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France,” the historian Mary Louise Roberts draws on French archives, American military records, wartime propaganda and other sources to advance a provocative argument: The liberation of France was “sold” to soldiers not as a battle for freedom but as an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen, stirring up a “tsunami of male lust” that a battered and mistrustful population often saw as a second assault on its sovereignty and dignity.
“I could not believe what I was reading,” Ms. Roberts, a professor of French history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recalled of the moment she came across the citizen complaints in an obscure archive in Le Havre. “I took out my little camera and began photographing the pages. I did not go to the bathroom for eight hours.”
China’s Strategy in Afghanistan
Beijing is keen to increase its involvement in the country following the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014. But security problems may interfere.
For a relatively small drilling operation, China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) project in Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province has a large footprint. Several layers of fences and containers serving as blast walls surround the extraction site, which includes dormitories, an office complex and various security structures. Throughout the day, trucks ferry in equipment and more containers. On the outside, the faces are all Afghan, but CNPC’s logo and bright red Chinese slogans are impossible to miss.
This remote outpost, not far from Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan, may symbolize the country’s future after the planned U.S. withdrawal of combat troops next year. As Washington prepares its exit following 13 years in the country, signs that Beijing has steadily stepped up its official and corporate presence across Afghanistan have begun to arise. In September, then Politburo member Zhou Yongkang met with President Hamid Karzai, while lower level diplomats have discussed greater engagement with the Afghan government. China even plans to re-open a branch of the Confucius Institute, an organization devoted to teaching Chinese culture and language, in Kabul.
These efforts are part of a rapid change in Chinese strategy. Until two years ago, Chinese strategists regarded Afghanistan as solely an American concern: Washington broke it, and Washington should have to put it back together. Now, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are the largest investors in Afghanistan’s extractive sector and Afghan officials speak of Chinese investment as central to ensuring that the national government in Kabul will remain in power after 2014. American analysts, for their part, have undergone a similar transition, going from criticizing Chinese companies for riding on the coattails of U.S. security to openly advocating that Beijing take a leadership role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
Read it all HERE.