November 28, 2011

South Korean uniqueness and its rising murder rate

From a bird's-eye-view the Northeast Asian peoples are all remarkably similar, lack of variation being a hallmark of intensive agriculture because taking risks does not pay off, only the same monotonous grind day-in and day-out. So a variety of types playing different strategies will not be maintained as they are in pastoralist or horticulturalist groups, where you can certainly do well by playing it safe, but where taking big risks is also a viable strategy.

Pastoralists can attempt raids for livestock to boost their material wealth, while horticulturalists can try raiding nearby groups for wives, not only boosting their wealth (since women do most food production in gardening societies) but their reproductive output too. Agriculturalists rely on land to settle and plant crops on, and that cannot be gotten so easily through a get rich quick scheme, unlike herd animals or women -- movable things that you can run off with. They also won't bother raiding for women because without more land in the first place, they'll have a hard time producing more food to feed another wife and set of children.

Still, there is variation among the Asians that's worth trying to explain. For example, why are South Koreans more out-and-about, pleasant, and likely to laugh around each other, compared to the Japanese or Chinese? I didn't get a very strong sense of that among the Korean-Americans I've known, but wherever there's a large concentration of foreign students from these three groups, the pattern is hard to miss. This particular set of differences would then seem to be related to something going on in South Korea, not to evolved differences shared between them and the diaspora.

A good idea continues to pay off no matter where or when you apply it. Given how much social change we can explain by whether the violence rate is steadily rising or falling, that's where we should turn first. I could only find data back to 1995, but what do you think the trend in South Korea's homicide rate looks like?


That's an increase of over 120% since 1995, and who knows how long it had been rising before then. China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore have all had falling murder rates over this time, and Japan's has been falling since at least the late 1920s. (Data not shown, but from here and here.) South Korea is truly unique among its neighbors in having a steadily rising violence rate.

So its people and culture should be taking a detour toward the kind of society that the West turns into when its murder rate begins rising. Koreans are more out-and-about and fun-loving, like Westerners during the Jazz Age and the New Wave Age. They've begun exporting movies based on revenge and the Culture of Honor (such as Oldboy), just like the vogue for such plays during the Elizabethan-Jacobean violence wave, or the vogue for dueling during the Romantic-Gothic violence wave, or all those vigilante movies from America in the '70s and '80s.

The flipside of a thirst for revenge is the Culture of Hospitality (re-paying kindness with kindness, and starting off kind). I'll write the whole thing up later, but I checked every country's entry in a Wiki for hitch-hiking around the world, and the South Koreans came off as the most hospitable to travelers among the East Asians (for example the people who pick you up might also invite you to rest for the night in their home).

And their religion in recent decades has steered more toward the supernatural, apocalyptic, and proselytizing strains of Christianity (after America, they have the most missionaries), plus the large New Age / cult movement of the Unification Church, still going strong. It's just like the fundamentalist and cult movements that sprung up in the West during the 1900s - 1920s, and then again during the '60s through the '80s.

I don't dig Asian girls, but the prediction from all the rest is that they should have more cool chicks than neighboring countries, like American girls were in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, in contrast to the colder, bossier, and more cocooning girls of the mid-century or the past 20 years. Anyone with yellow fever, chime in.

How do we know it's their rising violence rates and not something else special about them? Like maybe it's due to their cultural clash between them and North Korea -- but then Taiwan should look like them, and they don't. That follows from the murder rate idea, since Taiwan's has been falling like the rest of East Asia. The South Korean pattern fits in with the Western countries that saw rising homicide rates during the '60s through the '80s that were not, however, engaged in a clash of civilizations -- England, Italy, Australia, etc.

So what ties it all together is whether the violence rate is rising or falling. Not too surprising given everything I've written about over the past... two years or however long, but it's nice to have another case study, especially from outside of Western Europe and its off-shoots.

The anti-social mid-century and present day: Drive-in churches, restaurants, and theaters

One of the greatest misconceptions about periods of increasing safety, such as the 1950s, is the view that people are out and about, chatting up their neighbors, strolling down Main Street and socializing with fellow pedestrians, and so on. In reality, the falling-crime period of the mid-'30s through the late '50s was one of ever greater cocooning. The TV show Mad Men depicts this very well, almost as vividly as the paintings of the mid-century's greatest representational artist, Edward Hopper:


To many people I've talk to about this, it seems paradoxical that cocooning and falling crime rates go together -- what do they have to be afraid of? And why are people in rising-crime times more outgoing -- aren't they afraid of all that crime? But it is people's isolation in tiny, private, controlled spaces that sends down the crime rate -- criminals find it a lot harder to get at victims. Also, heat-of-the-moment fights will become less frequent when people stop going out in public, where accidents can escalate into fights. Similarly, when people start venturing out into larger, public, not-so-controlled spaces again, criminals have an easier time finding victims, and heat-of-the-moment fights will become more common.

So, the social isolation and community fragmentation that come from cocooning are the price we pay for enjoying falling crime rates. When we leave our cocoons, we make ourselves more vulnerable, so rising crime rates are the price we pay for enjoying a rich public and community life.

To illustrate how anti-social the mid-century was, consider one of the era's most iconic building types -- the drive-in. People were so mistrusting, suspicious, or just uneasy being around strangers in public that they didn't want to leave their cars for anything, even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the rest of the experience.

The best known example is the drive-in movie theater:

These became popular from the mid-'30s onward, after the wild culture of the Jazz Age ended and its sublime picture palaces were no longer popular with movie-goers. They started to die out themselves over the course of the '60s, when patrons once again wanted to be part of a crowd of real people inside a climate-controlled theater. Surprisingly, drive-in theaters have not made a comeback in the falling-crime period after 1992, perhaps because home video, Netflix delivery, and Redbox have already made it easy to see newish movies without having to be around other people.

Movies shown at the drive-in suffered from poor picture quality, contaminated as the space was by ambient light, which also meant movies could only be shown at night. The original sound, which came from little speakers attached to the car windows, was also poor, although it did improve when customers dialed it in on their car radio. Lacking an enclosed structure, people had only their cars to protect them from the elements. This is why most nostalgic portrayals of the drive-in take place during balmy summer nights, not when it is cold, windy, raining, snowing, or thundering.

What these theaters did offer was the ability to go out and see a movie without having to sit next to other people, hear their comments, smell their body odor, feel their legs brush against your knees as they squeezed down your aisle, and so on. Catering to cocooners, they did not spring up during the more violent but pro-social Jazz Age, when being absorbed into the crowd was all part of the fun of seeing movies.

By the '20s car ownership had begun to soar, so it's not as though there was no potential audience for drive-in theaters. It's just that few back then would have wanted to use their cars as an isolation chamber, except for young people who made out in the back seat away from prying eyes.

After the theater, the most iconic example is the drive-in restaurant:

Aside from the odd example during the '20s and early '30s, these restaurants really began taking off in the later '30s, becoming fixtures of the culture during the '40s (which tended to have a wheel-spoke shape) and the '50s (when the shape was more a long canopy with cars parked side-by-side underneath). As the crime rate and desire to interact with others took off again during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, they started dropping like flies, either being demolished outright or being converted into fast food joints like Burger King. There's a scene in Footloose that's set at a drive-in, although tellingly for 1984 all the kids are out of their cars, moving their bodies in time with loud dance music.

However, during the falling-crime period of the past 20 years, they have seen a rebirth with the Sonic Drive-In chain, and in a modified form with the Checkers chain.

As with theaters, the drive-in restaurant allowed you to park your car close to the restaurant, enter, order, find your car again, and peel out as fast as possible, minimizing the time you had to be around others in public. It's like how in the past 20 years no one sits down to eat in fast food places anymore, but either order their food to go or more likely hit up the drive-thru window so they don't have to leave their cars at all. I remember when the tables and boothes at popular fast food chains would be rather packed during busy hours, but now it's all shifted to the endless drive-thru lane.

Space to eat in the drive-in's dining room itself was minimal and usually featured only or mostly stools with no backs, so that you felt like leaving soon, instead of providing comfortable seats to encourage lingering. Before long they began offering curb service, where you park your car in their lot, an employee (called a car hop) walks out to take your order, re-enters the building to place it, and returns with your food, either in a to-go bag, or on a tray that rested on your open car window. You ate the meal entirely while seated in your car, sealed off from anyone who wasn't riding with you, limiting your interactions to family members or close friends.

Except for that pesky car hop -- sure she's young and pretty, but still she's a stranger, so wasn't there some way to cut out even her? You bet there was -- the motormat. This type was not widespread at all, but the mere fact that they even tried it out, let alone got enough customers to stay in business, just shows how antithetical it was to the mid-century mindset to be a people person. Here are some pictures:


You'll notice that the usual wheel-spoke shape is there, but the cars are parked quite a ways from the restaurant itself. Conveyor belts connected the kitchen to a covered space that hugged the car window, taking in orders, cash, and used trays, and sending out the food. Otherwise it's like a normal drive-in, where you eat from a tray in your car, but now all functions have been completely mechanized and you don't have to see a single human face to go out for a meal.

Finally there was the drive-in church:


These started popping up in the '40s and reached their zenith during the '50s, falling into gradual disuse once people came out of their cocoons during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However, just as with the Sonic Drive-In restaurants, drive-in churches have made a comeback in the falling-crime times we live in now. They go at least back to the 2000s, although I'm not sure if they were there in the '90s as well.

They don't represent a separate building type, as they were just drive-in theaters that had no better use on Sunday morning. A preacher stood on a central stage, and attendants listened through the little speakers or over the radio as usual. They still offered no protection from the elements and prevented the crowd-vibe from igniting. How did Sunday School work if the children didn't have cars of their own?

We tend to think that the spread of the car caused all sorts of trends that have only gotten stronger as cars have become more common. We see it as an exogenous technological change to which the main workings of society respond passively.

There's something to that, but I think it's over-rated. If people don't want to spend much time in their cars, then they won't. Cars were growing in popularity during the Jazz Age, but who would want to hang out in them all day? Aside from joyriding and making out, they used them to travel to a more carnivalesque space like a speakeasy, a movie palace, a cafeteria or automat, or grand-scale department store. Same thing happened in the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- all of this drive-in stuff disappeared because people felt like hanging out in a nightclub, shopping mall, indoors movie theater, or any other place allowing lots of strangers to pile in and enjoy the community feeling.

During the mid-century and for the past 15 to 20 years, tastes have gone the other way, and people have changed their use of cars accordingly, using them as protective bubbles during their as-short-as-possible trips away from home. The car is equally happy to take the passengers to a curb service drive-in restaurant or to a mall with a bustling food court.

In contrast to the idealized view we have of drive-ins, a look at the real culture shows something unsettling, like a bunch of drones plugging their portable cubicles into a cell within the hive. The cars all facing the same direction and with anonymity makes it look even more hive-like. With people in a movie theater, food court, or church pews, you can make out individual faces, notice unique mannerisms, etc., but not with cars.

It also reveals how socially distant rather than close people were back then, as well as these days. The most they were willing to risk was going to a diner, but those were still pretty small, quiet, and featuring lots of backless stools. That's another restaurant type that has seen a total rebirth over the past 20 years, most of them very self-consciously retro. But I'll get around to covering other changes later.

November 25, 2011

Black Friday, from community carnival to me-first melee

Examples of people cocooning themselves more over the past 20 years are too numerous to list. But one apparent counter-example is Black Friday -- even if only for a day, aren't people out-and-about, strengthening social bonds by buying gifts for others?

For awhile I didn't have too good of a feel for what this day has been about. I've avoided shopping on Black Friday for a very long time because I sensed that it was degenerate, totally unlike the mall during Christmastime in the '80s when it felt more like a carnival, everyone feeding and feeding off of each other's high spirits. After a little reflection and a look through newspaper articles from the '90s through today, it turns out not to be a counter-example at all.

The vague image we're given in the media, or that we invent ourselves, is of people who are so intent on buying so many presents for so many people, that they can't get in the doors early enough or behave themselves well enough. The competition to get the best gifts for others has just become too chaotic.

In reality, hardly anyone goes out on this day to buy gifts for other people; at best it's an after-thought or rationalization. Rather, buying a handful of things for others has become an excuse to buy stuff for themselves at deals that will never show up the rest of the year. Estimates from the 2000s were that anywhere between 50-75% of people were buying things for themselves while Christmas shopping, and that the average person's self-indulgence accounted for nearly one-quarter of all dollars they spent (around $150 out of $650 total).

The first references to this practice of Christmastime "self-gifting" (how's that for Newspeak?) appear in 1993. This is right as the crime rate is turning around, causing society to shift from the tragic-romantic side of the spectrum to the trivial-efficient side. Already by the early 2000s, this gradual change has moved far enough so that newspapers regularly comment on the self-centeredness of Black Friday shoppers.

An article from 2003 is headlined, "Looking out for no. 1; Survey: Consumers plan to shop for themselves this holiday season". Another from that year reads:

There is an increasing consumer-cultural emphasis on self-oriented spending - from Be Good to Yourself meals to a bespoke cable channel called Me TV. Buying baubles for yourself is just the decadent, high-end version of this. "Self-gifting is the new normal," declares Maria Salzman, global trend predictor and head strategist at Euro RSCG. "It's a real part of December. And Valentine's Day is a second self-gifting event. If there's no lover in your life, it's time to indulge yourself all the same."

By now, many of the people interviewed are so shameless in their egotism that you'd think the reporter made the quotes up. (Until you remember the "I'm-a get MINE" mentality of the 1992-and-after period.) From a 2010 NYT article which shows that this practice was not limited to the housing bubble euphoria:

Americans are shopping selfishly again.

On this year's Black Friday, retailers and analysts said they saw a surge in traffic at stores and malls over last year, and also were noticing that shoppers snapped up discretionary items for themselves rather than gifts or necessities. . . .

At an Oakland Best Buy, Jan Paolo Patena, a 19-year-old college student, was waiting to buy an external hard drive.

''Black Friday is all about me,'' he said. ''I'm not here for anyone else. This is not about Christmas presents. If somebody else wants something, they can stay out here in the cold all night.'' [Reminder: execute all Millennials.]

Rebecca Bolivar, 19, a college student who was shopping at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., said she came to buy shoes, jackets and gifts for her boyfriend, in that order.

''If I run out of money, I go first,'' she said.

At a Best Buy in Patchogue, N.Y., despite a chilly rain, the line for the 5 a.m. opening stretched about 350 yards down the street. Julio Jaber, 25, was there to buy a 55-inch TV. ''It's for myself,'' he said, shaking his head as rain fell on him. ''For somebody else? Forget it.''

Malls, like the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, Calif., reported similar sentiments. At Sears and Kmart, many shoppers bought on layaway, said a spokesman, Tom Aiello, indicating that the items were not gifts.

''You have more spontaneous shoppers buying things for themselves,'' said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the Mall of America.

And so on. Again these are just a representative handful from a stream of similar articles.

If people's mindset has changed from other-focused to self-focused, that also explains why there is such a war of all against all devastating retail stores during the Christmas shopping season. We naturally hold our own satisfaction above others', so if we see a rival shopper about to get a coffee-maker that we planned to give our friend, well our friend will be just as happy with some other coffee-maker, or maybe he won't mind getting something else entirely. But if that was the coffee-maker that I wanted for myself -- then get your fucking hands off of it!

We shop for ourselves all the time without this chaos, but this time there are DEALS DEALS DEALS, and they're only here once a year. Still, the main cause of the shift has been a change in people's mindset, because they had Christmas specials before the '90s and people did not kill each other over them. It's only when combined with a newly egocentric population of shoppers that all Black Friday hell breaks loose.

Turning to Wikipedia instead of doing another Lexis-Nexis search of newspapers, the first pop culture reference to violence or chaos during Christmas shopping is the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way. This doesn't depict the general melee of the 2000s, and the battle is over a gift for someone else, not for the shoppers themselves, but remember that this is only a few years into the shift. Regular reports of violence and hostility begin showing up in the 2000s.

As late as the 1989 movie Christmas Vacation, there was an atmosphere of excitement, even anxiety, during Christmas shopping, but the department store where Clark goes for his wife didn't look like a battlefield. The only time during the '80s when anything like that happened was when Cabbage Patch Kids came out, but that was only over one product and in one year only, not a retail-sector-wide brawl year after year.

The fact that these crazed shoppers are out there hunting for deals for themselves also fits in with another major change in Christmas gift-giving since 1992 -- the gift card. After all, if everyone out there on Black Friday were so busy scooping up real tangible things for others, then why the hell do we all wind up getting a pile of gift cards?

Gift certificates existed long before gift cards, so the technology was there if anyone wanted to make use of it. But because a gift card is a half-gift, no one bothered buying them except for recipients on the outskirts of their social circle. The first gift cards began with Blockbuster in 1994, right as the crime rate was dropping, and have only exploded since then.

It's even more bizarre because gift cards are one of the few items that are NOT included in the store-wide sales. If shoppers were making such a mad dash to Black Friday bonanzas in order to get deals on gifts, rather than on indulgences, then why do they end up buying so much of something that never goes on sale?

The only way to make sense of all these changes over the past 20 years is to view Black Friday and Christmas shopping in general as now a mostly egocentric shopping spree, not an other-regarding community carnival, and one that appeals to efficiency and convenience rather than romance and fantasy.

From a rough look through articles on Black Friday shopping from 1900 through 1960, I got the same impression that the rising-crime Jazz Age had a more sublime and community-focused Christmas shopping atmosphere, while the falling-crime mid-century felt more like today's bargain-hunters temporarily leaving their cocoons to shove others off of their epic find. But I'll have to poke around more before committing to that.

There is nothing like the superorganic feeling of belonging to a crowd, but the spirit of collective effervescence, or communitas, or whatever you want to call it, has totally evaporated from Christmas shopping. A crowd or a mob feels united, whereas today all that a Black Friday shopper can join is a melee. Cloaking this naked selfishness in the garb of the gift-giving spirit just makes the whole thing even more disgusting. Don't mean to end on such a bitter note, but I just can't stand how rotten the Christmas season has become, and so quickly.

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving parades, a Jazz Age invention

Many of our most visible and cherished "traditions" don't go back very far at all, showing that traditionalism isn't about maintaining whatever there was in ye olden days, but about preserving the good innovations of earlier eras (and weeding out the bad ones).

A good example are large-scale Thanksgiving parades, where all of the major ones were founded during the 1920s and early '30s. The Macy's parade began in '24 and introduced the balloons in '27, the America's Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit started in '24 too, the Gimbels parade in Philadelphia before either of those in '20, the Hollywood Christmas Parade in '28, and Chicago's Grand Holiday Tradition parades in '34. The newest parade I could find that has been going for any time is Pittsburgh's Celebrate the Season parade, which began in 1980.

Not surprisingly we see all of these popping up during rising-crime periods, and especially during the second apocalyptic half of such a period (except for the Chicago parade that began one year after the 1933 peak in the homicide rate, but close enough). They are yet another example of a visual spectacle whose creation seems possible only during such times of mounting danger in the environment. Others are Art Deco skyscrapers, movie palaces, the carnivalesque form of the department store and mall, the automat and food court, sublime golf course architecture, public Fourth of July fireworks events, massive Christmas displays, and many others.

In contrast, the falling-crime era of the mid-century (1934-1958) brought us Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a catalog of gentle and secular Christmas songs, and not much else in the way of holiday traditions.

By the way, I've never really felt possessed by any of those Christmas songs, so they seem over-rated to me, although I realize most people do feel warm when they come on. The only Christmas songs I've loved are "O Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night," which just so happen to have been composed during a period of rising homicide rates across Europe, in 1824 and 1818 respectively. That was during the apocalyptic second half of the Romantic-Gothic period of 1780-1830. Throw in "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson from the recent crime wave, which sounds like a Christmastime song.

In any case, even if you value a falling violence rate over cultural innovation, you should still be thankful that we have had periods of rising violence rates in the past that led to more inventions. Most experiments went nowhere, but some of them were great successes, and we're blessed to still enjoy them.

November 22, 2011

Why East Asians are so unconscientious and disagreeable: Is it agriculture?

Big thanks to commenter Miguel Madeira who linked to an article on global differences in personality by Schmitt et al. (2007). These kinds of papers pop up now and again, and it doesn't conflict with the gist that I got from earlier ones. This paper has much better graphs and tables, though.

There's a lot that could be covered, but I'll stick to clearing up a major misconception about East Asian personalities. Westerners think the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have a far stronger work ethic than we do, and are so much more agreeable -- they certainly don't seem as violent and confrontational as we are. Let's go straight to the data.

You can browse the free PDF linked above to see a clearer picture, but here is the Cliff's Notes version. The top graph shows Agreeableness scores by global region, with East Asia on the far right, and the bottom is Conscientiousness. For now don't try reading the other regions, just focus on how East Asia is in a league of its own.


Those are 95% confidence intervals, so there is almost no overlap between the East Asian distribution and the others for Agreeableness. For Conscientiousness, it is not even close -- they might as well come from Mars.

The countries in East Asia include Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Just about all countries are represented by college students. Given that college admissions is a proxy for IQ, and given that East Asians have the highest national IQs, the college student respondents there are closer to the average person, whereas in Africa they are totally unrepresentative (many of the African surveys weren't even given in the local language, suggesting they show what the educated elite is like). In the paper's Table 5 you can see scores by country rather than region, and all four East Asian countries are extremely low in both traits, so it's not like one of them is ruining it for the rest.

When I first saw results like these I was a bit puzzled too, but then I reflected on my extensive contact with East Asians over the years, and it didn't seem so odd. They aren't violent and don't get in your face, so we assume they're agreeable. In reality, they are autistic or misanthropic, they just don't let it show. But they have trouble making lots of friends in school, and the males either cannot relate to girls or have a bitter hatred of them, so that they remain virgins for life. I can't think of another group who showed such autism and misanthropy, and the graph above tells me I shouldn't bother looking.

As for their abysmal levels of conscientiousness, again we look at them and see them getting good grades and decent jobs, which you can't do without hard work. But that doesn't mean they have a solid work ethic or have learned the value of hard work. Those are values that you have internalized and that allow you to work independently toward achievement -- when tempted to cheat the rules or give up when the going gets tough, you feel compelled to play fair or keep slogging through it.

East Asians have evolved the opposite system -- they have outsourced all of that behavioral monitoring to some authority, such as their Tiger Mother parents, a council of elders, a bureaucracy, an emperor, or whatever. When they feel tempted to cheat or give up, they are not very capable of correcting themselves -- that authority monitor has to swoop in, shout in their face to play fair or persevere, and they do as they're told. They can still get things done, but not on their own, only by total deference to an authority with their interests in mind.

Here are some colorful real-world reminders of how lazy East Asians are when left to themselves:

There are millions of young Chinese boys that love video games and play them so much that the Chinese government enacted strict rules that limited playing time.

These rules impose penalties on players who spend more than three hours a day by reducing the abilities of their characters and any players that spend more than five hours simply are forced to take a five-hour break before they can return to a game.

Video gaming got so out of hand that the Chinese government opened video game addiction clinics and while it sounds extreme to me, these clinics used electro-shock treatments to zap players out of their addiction.

And

Asian countries, such as South Korea, are recognizing video game addiction as an urgent public health matter, with several deaths having occurred in internet cafes, apparently as a result of blood clots occurring during prolonged sitting at computers.

And

The IMRC found evidence that more than 27% of youth ages 12-18 in Japan were experiencing such medical problems as periodic headaches and fatigue, blurred vision, loss in appetite, and even clinical depression, all directly linked to extensive use of video games.

And

A South Korean couple who let their baby starve to death while raising a "virtual child" on the internet were given prison sentences on Friday.

The 41-year-old husband and his wife, 25, were arrested in March for leaving their daughter to die while they spent hours at internet cafes.

Not that Americans are immune to screwing around in pointless activities (like keeping a blog). Still, the total lack of personal drive in East Asians means they'll get sucked into zombifying activities to a far worse degree. Westerners will get restless sooner and feel like doing something more fun and productive.

It isn't just the lower tiers of Asian society that are like that. In his book Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray details and discusses how small of an impact East Asians have had in the arts, sciences, and applied fields like technology and medicine, compared to Western Eurasia. And remember they've got higher average IQs than other regions, so it is clearly more of a personality or temperament difference.

And not just openness or curiosity -- although that's bad enough there (see the paper, which shows East Asia in a league of its own in scoring low for Openness to Experience). To achieve something impressive, you can't rely on some external monitor to constantly browbeat you into thinking up new things, getting the small tasks done, and so on. You need an internal stick-to-it-iveness to blaze a trail.

All of this I see as an adaptation to intensive agriculture, the only thing that so strongly sets them apart from the rest of the world. According to the paper, the Ukraine actually resembles East Asia in personality. They were the breadbasket of Eastern Europe and had a heightened sense of themselves as agriculturalists, in stark contrast to the nomadic pastoralists from the Steppe who have regularly overrun their region.

Agriculture always leads to a hierarchical state, sometimes even a gigantic empire as in China. Part of this change is that there's now a stable class of bureaucrats who can monitor and enforce social norms. So people outsource morality -- that is, the regulation of social interactions -- to parents, experts, or whoever. This move toward amorality shows up in lowered Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. It doesn't mean they'll turn into violent hotheads, just that they've selected the moral lobe of their brain to shrink, since someone else will make them behave properly, not they themselves. That selects for an enlarged obedience lobe in the brain.

Pastoralists are the opposite, and indeed the Middle East and Balkans all score very highly on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. It's not as crazy as it sounds, once we remember that Agreeableness and non-violence aren't the same thing. Persians do not have a free-floating level of misanthropy -- in fact, they are very hospitable, people-loving people. But if you get on their bad side, they feel the need to settle the score. It is the Culture of Honor, not the Culture of Autism and Misanthropy.

Lacking large, stable, hierarchical states, pastoralists have to rely on the Culture of Honor to settle disputes and the Culture of Hospitality to provide mutual aid. It also prevents them from outsourcing morality to bureaucrats -- animal herders are the prototypical rugged individualists, although they also rely on the hospitality of strangers when they get stranded. They have to monitor and motivate themselves. It is no accident that the major moral systems that have spread across the globe came from pastoralists -- those of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their off-shoots (pagan Europe, Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Hinduism), and later and more successfully Christianity and Islam. Agriculturalists, whether the Northeast Asians, Ancient Egyptians, or Aztecs, never came close to exporting a moral system that broadly.

To wrap up with a thought from Nassim Taleb, I think this underscores how fragile a super-specialized system is, particularly one that involves so much outsourcing. It looks more stable and efficient in the short term, but it is much less robust to shocks. Again just look at video games -- people in the Balkans and Middle East have access to video games, internet cafes, and so on, just as the Chinese do, and the wealthier ones have at least as good access as the Koreans and Japanese do. Yet they aren't dropping like flies from video game addiction, porn addiction, etc.

Video games are like a new infectious disease that tests how truly robust the Asian system of behavioral monitoring is. If the Tiger Mother method were just as good as the self-motivating and self-monitoring method, then it should have resisted the infiltration of video games much better than it has. Instead it has unmasked the deplorable laziness of Asians when the Tiger Mother can't be breathing down their necks, or cut off their internet connection, etc. They sink into a mire of joyless addictions, whose depths the rest of the world cannot fathom.

November 21, 2011

Expressionism emerges during waves of violence, 2

In the first post on how the early 20th-C wave of violence gave birth to Expressionism, I went over its core traits and explained why artists would move that way during a period of rising crime, especially during the second half when the future looks more apocalyptic.

Now I'll show how the same basic styles emerged yet again during the later 20th-C wave of violence, particularly during the second half of roughly the mid-'70s through the very early '90s. In later posts, I'll look at works that turn more toward the redemptive, spiritual, pastoral, and so on. These ones are more about the anxiety and alienation that set up the urge to re-join a tightly knit community in greater touch with nature. I'll start with museum art and music videos; the third post will look just at movies, since there's a lot to see there.

Just as a reminder of what art looked like during the falling-crime era of the mid-century:


No figures or representation, low variety and intensity of colors (none by the end), and hardly any emotion, dynamism, or subjectivity (none by the end). This was hardly a 20th-century event, as every period of falling violence produces a much "cooler" art compared to the "hotter" art of the rising-crime periods before and after it. (But that is another story.)

Feel free to skip these quotes, but they give a vivid impression of the tumult that was shaking up the sterile art world by the mid-'70s. Here are some excerpts from Hilton Kramer's essay "Signs of Passion" for ZEITGEIST, a catalog for a Neo-Expressionist exhibition in 1982. By the 1960s,

All evidence of subjective emotion, every impulse toward improvisation and what Ruskin had called "impetuosity" and "incompletion", anything that suggested the role of the unconscious or of the irrational in art was suppressed in favor of clean surfaces and hard edges, of instant legibility, transparency, and order. The rising generation seemed to harbor a profound aversion to anything in art that smacked of mystery or interiority. There was a virtual ban on revelations of the soul. Incitements to feeling were looked upon as a kind of vulgarity. For the first time in the history of criticism, boredom in art was upheld as an exemplary emotion. We had entered the era of "cool" and impersonal styles.

Sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it? In fact during the falling-crime era after the early '90s, we've gone right back to this too-cool-to-care attitude. I don't think it's an affectation either -- people are just a lot less electrically conductive than they were in the '80s.

[Neo-Expressionism's] first task was to restore to painting its capacity to encompass the kind of poetry and fantasy that had long been denied to it, and toward that end it was obliged to mount an attack -- sometimes, it seemed, literally -- on the picture surface. What was discarded straightaway was the easy legibility and transparency that, in truth, had long ago degenerated into a facile convention. Instead of leaving everything out of painting and making a neat, clean, perfect form of what remained, the Neo-Expressionists were clearly determined to put everything in. Their paintings swamped the eye with vivid images and tactile effects, relying more on instinct and imagination than on careful design. The mystical, the erotic, and the hallucinatory were once again made welcome in painting, which was now made to shun the immaculate and the austere in favor of energy, physicality, and surfeit.

And of course they were hardly alone in this frontal assault, joined by the revivals of Fauvism and Art Deco.

It was this experience of surfeit, I think, that had the most unsettling effect on established taste. We had grown used to the idea that changes in pictorial style inevitably entailed depletion and purification. . . . [Neo-Expressionism] put into question the very practice of identifying the vitality of art with this process of progressive depletion.

This makes it sound like a theoretical debate that somebody won, but in reality the fun-lovers and the killjoys will never budge from their positions. It is instead a matter of what fraction of the population belongs to which group at some time. The fraction of fun-lovers rises with the violence rate, so by the later 1970s the death of abstract, minimal, Puritanical art was inevitable. Similarly once the violence rate began plummeting after 1992, it was unavoidable that the killjoys would take over the culture once more.

Here are some representative Neo-Expressionist paintings from the '80s, and one from 1992, by Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, Rainer Fetting, and Helmut Middendorf (click to enlarge):


Saving movies for the next post, let's have a quick look at just a handful of music videos, a new medium that joined the visual culture during this time. They were never as absorbing and sublime as movies, but they still show how broad the Expressionist influence was.

Nobody pumped out this type of video more than Billy Idol, which was a perfect fit to his musical style -- putting modern alienation and hedonism on display, even having some fun with it for a bit, but ultimately yearning to forge a deep social bond with someone to help him through the urban jungle (as in "Catch My Fall"). The clearest example is the video for "Flesh For Fantasy," with its distorted-perspective buildings, exaggerated choreography, and uneasy voyeuristic look at sexuality.



Only somewhat less stylized, and focusing more on the sense of menace in urban streets and bars, is Pat Benatar's video for "Love Is A Battlefield". The video for "Planet Earth" by Duran Duran is pretty bare, but it still uses a stage that looks like it came from a German Expressionist horror movie. They were outdone there by (who else?) Billy Idol in the video for "Dancing With Myself", directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame.

Is there anything new in Neo-Expressionism? I'll elaborate more in the post on movies, but even looking at the music videos you see a far greater anxiety about the more globalized and ethnically heterogeneous world of the 1980s compared to the 1910s. Since one of the core concerns of Expressionism was the sense of loss of belonging and community in the modern world, it was only natural that the Neo-Expressionists -- in the diverse countries anyway -- would uncover the anxiety over the melting pot ideology clashing with the reality of black pimps, inscrutable Orientals, and so on.

This was hardly their central focus, but it did show up fairly reliably, and was not so much a part of early 20th-C Expressionism, whose alienation was all about urban and modern effects, and not ethnic diversity effects.

November 15, 2011

Why some cultures have more touching, gesturing, eye contact, and closer space

Looking through some guidebooks for international businessmen who have to be hypersensitive to cultural differences in non-verbal communication, it seems like there's a single general factor, that some cultures are closer and others distant. This includes lots of separate things like touching others more, standing closer to others, making more prolonged eye contact, showing more facial expressions (especially smiling), and making more dramatic gestures, which, like facial expressions, "tip your hand" or reveal how you're feeling, instead of keeping your guard up by locking your arms at your sides.

At the closer end are cultures from the Mediterranean, Middle East, India / Pakistan, Latin America (whose international businessmen are Mediterranean), and Eastern Europe. At the distant end are China, Korea, and Japan. Northwestern Europeans and their off-shoots like America are in between.

So it looks like the main difference in how close or distant people are is the subsistence mode they're adapted to -- the intensive agriculturalists of East Asia are distant, the pastoralists of the Mediterranean through milk-drinking South Asia are close, and the mixed agro-pastoralists of Europe are in between.

If that's right, then we should see differences even within a continent. So most of the high-touch "Eastern Europeans" are probably from the Balkans or other hilly places like the Carpathian mountains, where herding but not farming pays off, and probably not so much from the stricter farming areas in the Ukraine. Also, among Northwestern Europeans, the Irish and Scottish should be closer than the English or Dutch. I've been to lots of clan reunions for the Scotch-Irish hillbilly side of my family, and they are very close and boisterous, just as much as Italian or Persian families would be. But I haven't had enough experience among, say, New England descendants of Puritans, who were mostly farmers, to compare first-hand.

There could be all kinds of gradients that are lowest in East Asia, highest in the Middle East, and intermediate in Europe. Why pastoralism? Well again because it seems to scale down to explain differences even within a continent, like Spain vs. Holland, and smaller regions still, like Ireland vs. England.

But also because pastoralism is what drives the culture of honor and the culture of hospitality, for reasons I might review later. When your honor and reputation are always at stake, you don't want to hide how you feel -- you let them know right away that they should back off. In a large, sedentary agricultural state, where a culture of law prevails, you should keep your feelings to yourself and let some bureaucracy or council or maybe just your elder kin determine who's right or wrong.

In a culture of hospitality, you try to cultivate an image of someone who hosts any guest, and more lavishly than you would treat yourself, as well as re-paying the hospitality that someone else has shown you. This obsession with benevolent reciprocity is just as strong in Italy, Lebanon, and Appalachia as is the machismo and vendetta mindset. This shows up in their body language too: they smile more and laugh harder in a friendly context, but in a confrontational context they contort their faces and gesticulate more wildly.

So assuming you're going to get anywhere near another person in the first place, in a pastoralist culture you'll go off into guest-host mode and strive to establish a tight social bond. Hence closer distances, more touching, and more eye contact. Where guest-host relations are less sacred, even weak, as among farmers, you'll keep all strangers at arm's length, and not give away what you're feeling or thinking.

Our immigration policy is idiotic beyond belief, so there are all sorts of things we should be screening potential immigrants for. But these kinds of differences don't show up much in the discussion. I'd rather live next door to proud Persians who would show some sign of real affection between neighbors, even inviting me over for dinner, and not inscrutable Oriental drones who only wanted to be left alone to plug into the hive.

Overall I'd much rather stay here than in Spain, but one thing I miss about living in Barcelona was how much closer their culture is. Maybe it's the hillbilly genes, but I'm more touchy-feely and kinesthetic than the average American, and my only outlet these days is socializing at dance clubs -- especially at '80s night, when the music puts everybody in that mood. I'm truly grateful for that, but still wish there were more everyday chances to enjoy it.

Relationships among guys over there did seem more buddy-buddy, not that we're aloof over here either. What really stood out was the between-sex physical closeness. Every babe I met gave me the cheek-to-cheek "kisses," stood close, often reached out to rub my shoulder when she asked how I was doing (always with a bright smile), and tracked every slight movement of my eyes with her own. Little things like that, accumulated over the day and across the years, go a long way toward making people feel more tightly integrated into a cohesive community.

November 14, 2011

Expressionism emerges during waves of violence, 1

From the turn of the 20th C. through the early 1930s, there was a crime wave that went against the centuries-long decline in violence. It was somewhat uneven, hitting some countries and not others, or some countries only for a portion of the period. (Here in America, the homicide rate rose steadily from at least 1900 to a peak in 1933.)

Times of rising violence rates produce visual art that is, for lack of a better catch-all word, more Dionysian. Specifically, it is more emotionally open, looks more dynamic, shows a greater variety and intensity of colors, and chooses subject matter that is more dramatic, beautiful, and sublime.

So, as violence rates cycle up and down, the dominant art styles will follow. I covered this before in the case of Art Deco and Fauvism both being born in the early 20th C. crime wave and seeing revivals during the more recent crime wave of ca. 1960 to 1990, in contrast to their polar opposites reigning during the falling-crime period of the mid-century (such as dumb ugly box architecture).

Expressionism shared most of the core traits of the art of its time, such as Deco and Fauvism. Its variation on them was to dial up the raw emotion (often with exaggerated poses), to heighten to subjective point-of-view by using unusual or distorted perspectives, and to focus more closely on the theme of social alienation and disintegration.

Typical of art from apocalyptic times, it doesn't convey a sense of nihilism or fatalism. Quite to the contrary, it shows a deep yearning to actively reach out and re-connect with our fellow group members and with nature. There's an anxiety about this, though -- having slid so far toward atomization, we may have to embarrassingly grope our way through this re-connection at first. Still, what else are we supposed to do when the end of the world looks so near? There's no hint of the whiny-emo complaint that "No one wants to be my friend, please play with me," but rather "Our society keeps getting more fucked up, so we'd better stick together and try to do something about it, or else we're goners."

Here are two representative paintings from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Franz Marc, and two stills each from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis:


Before getting to the post-1960 period in part 2, let's close with a reminder of what direction the art world went in during the mid-'30s through the late '50s, when violence rates began plummeting once more. Painting and sculpture gradually became stripped of emotion, felt static, used fewer and more muted colors, and "portrayed" subject matter that was so abstract that it could not strike a dramatic chord in the viewer. Although this trend declined during the '60s with the rise of Pop Art and psychedelic art, it was still common enough in the form of Minimal and Conceptual Art. In all these respects it was not very different from the soulless mid-century architecture.

Here are some representative works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Donald Judd.


November 9, 2011

The several births and deaths of the slumber party culture

Yes it would be silly to treat something like sleepovers so seriously in themselves that the terms "birth" and "death" would be appropriate. However, they're part of the larger family of guest-host relations, which are central to a cohesive community and a meaningful life. So, as with the case of trick-or-treating, we can use sleepovers as a window into broader social life. Because it's costly to host your kid's friend during a sleepover, it's an honest signal of healthy guest-host relations, not just lip service.

Since the early '90s, play dates have taken over the social lives of children, and babysitters have disappeared as parents have lost trust in the outside world to take care of their kids. I looked for NYT articles specifically about the decline in sleepovers, but only found scattered remarks. In general it looks like fewer kids get to experience them, and even those that do at later ages, to fewer kids' houses, and with greater parental supervision. When I mentioned this topic to a woman with 2 young kids, she too said that sleepovers seem to have dwindled during the age of helicopter parents.

That's their end, but when did they get started? This graph shows how common the phrase "sleepover" is in Google's digital library across the pre-'90s period:


It moves steadily upward in the late 1950s, which a search of the NYT supports, and kept going through the '80s. We're most familiar with that from movies showing teenage sleepovers, such as Weird Science or any of the slasher movies. But anyone who was a child then will tell you that even elementary school kids had frequent sleepovers, across a pretty wide range of hosts, and that the parents generally stayed out of their way for the night.

So far we see the typical pattern of greater independence for young people, and stronger guest-host relations, during rising-crime times, and the opposite during falling-crime times. To really be sure, we'd want to see if that was true for the earlier 20th-C crime wave. Unfortunately the phrase "sleepover" doesn't go back that far, but as it turns out "slumber party" does:


It gets going around 1900 and peaks in the early-mid-'30s, right as the homicide rate peaks. It then plunges until the mid-'60s (although in the NYT it starts going up by the late '50s), and increases after that. So even during the earlier wave up and down of violence, slumber parties were part of wilder times and died out during safer times. You don't see a strong sleepover culture in A Christmas Story (set circa 1940) or in Mad Men (set circa 1960). In one episode Sally does get invited to sleep over at a friend's, but it's rare and only involves two kids, whereas when they were popular they'd sometimes include over a dozen guests.

I browsed through the actual books and magazines that these graphs are based on, from 1900 through the '30s, and the term meant exactly the same thing then as now. Most of the writings are for sorority newsletters and union bulletings, letting readers know what activities they'd hosted recently. Still there were other references to adolescents throwing slumber parties (such as the Camp Fire Girls and the Boy Scouts), and even small children. One referred to an 8 year-old girl inviting some school friends over for a birthday slumber party. As during the recent peak of this activity, it was not just restricted to young adults.

The phrase "pajama party" shows the same movement up and down as "slumber party," although it does get a later start in the late 1910s. Looking into the contexts, though, I found out that it didn't mean a sleepover or slumber party. Pajamas included a much broader range of clothes during the Jazz Age craze for pajama parties, and since most of them were held in a beach setting, I assume they featured "beach pajamas," which just look like wide-legged pants. It sounds like a way for the well-to-do to throw a party with a casual but sporty dress code. I didn't pick up any hint that sleeping over was involved, and it seemed like no one younger than 20 participated.

The take-home message here is that we've found another example of guest-host relations becoming stronger when people face a more dangerous world, and weaker when it gets safer. The logic behind it is pretty simple, but I'll save a summary for a later post, after looking at more examples. I'll also put it into a broader context of what types of societies rely heavily on such relations, and what types don't.

November 2, 2011

The Fauvist mini-revival of the New Wave Age

Over the past couple years, I've looked enough at how the trend in the violence rate affects the narrative and verbal parts of the culture. After looking at the history of car shapes and the Art Deco revival of the later 1970s through the early '90s, I figure I might as well start focusing more on how visual culture responds to the trend in the violence rate.

Three obvious case studies like the Art Deco one are the Art Nouveau revival during the psychedelic '60s and early '70s, and the revivals of Expressionism and Surrealism during the second half of the recent crime wave. As with Art Deco, they showed up at more or less the same point in the violence rate cycle this time that they did the first time, Art Nouveau in the beginning and Deco and Surrealism toward the end. And during the falling-crime period of the mid-century and since the '90s, they've became marginal and their opposites mainstream.

There's a lot to say for each one of those, though, so for now I'll just take a quick look at a mini-revival of Fauvism circa the early 1980s. Unlike the original, it took place during the second rather than first half of the crime wave. Also it wasn't very extensive. I'm having trouble thinking of more than one iconic example off the top of my head, but vibrant and not necessarily naturalistic colors came back into style, so did an interest in boats, and exotic settings.

Here are some original Fauvist paintings from the 1900s by Matisse, Derain, and Kandinsky:



The iconic example of the revival is the music video for "Rio" by Duran Duran:



The use of color and exotic marine setting fit well with the Fauves. The girl's self-confident sensuality and the way she playfully teases and challenges the men remind me most of the women in Kees van Dongen's paintings:



If anyone can think of other perhaps less unforgettable examples, please say so in the comments.