Greeks were Gauls to Persians

The past didn’t all happen at once

A problem I frequently have in my mental landscape is compressing large parts of the past together as all happening at once. I assume I’m not the only one. As a macro example, we kind of all think of “dinosaurs” as all happening at the same time until they all died, but that’s not how it worked: there were more years between the last Stegosaurus and the first T Rex than between the last T Rex and the first human.

The story I mentioned yesterday about the protests against the ancient Mediterranean course at Reed reminded me of how bad my mental ancient Near East timelines are. I’m not remotely a scholar or expert here, but I just wanted to kind of lay the years out for posterity, because I think that will help me remember this more.

Start with the bronze age

So, the bronze age in the mediterranean lasted, roughly, from 3000 BC to 1200 BC. This is the period of non-alphabetic writing systems, bronze (duh), calendars, and megaliths (the Great Pyramid was 2560 BC; mammoths wouldn’t be extinct for another century, bizarrely). 2700 BC was when Knossos on Crete reached a population of 80,000; that’s also roughly when the Old Kingdom began in Egypt.

The Old Kingdom fell in 2200, and the Middle Kingdom rose around 2000 (This is the traditional year of Abraham’s birth). Stonehenge was finally completed in 2200 or so, after several centuries of work.

Around 1600, Knossos disappears and the Mycenaeans appear. The Middle Kingdom falls and is replaced by the New Kingdom. This is when the Hittites establish themselves in Anatolia. This is also when the Rigvedas were composed, and when the Olmecs started building their cities. Greeks spread all over the eastern Mediterranean, first as mercenaries and traders.

And then the iron age

Around 1200, the Bronze Age suffered a pretty rapid collapse; this unsettled period is the setting of the Iliad and Odyssey. There’s a long “dark age” of about 500 years with much worse sourcing than earlier or later periods. During this 500 years, the Greek mercenaries and traders start setting up permanent colonies all over Anatolia (and Italy and Sicily). By the time we start getting archaic Greek sources (Homer and Hesiod, call it 700 BC), a lot of the Greek religion and civic culture had fully formed (there were oligarchies and tyrannies and democracies in the city-states, there were Olympic games every four years, etc.) The use of iron became widespread and largely replaced bronze in armor and weapons. The chariot more or less disappeared from the battlefield, and horses began to be bred big enough to carry an armored soldier (Homer apparently didn’t understand how chariots actually were used in Bronze Age warfare). Despite what Civ V tells you, the phalanx was definitely an iron age unit.

There are some traditional but not-exactly-firm dates during this period. The first Olympic games were supposedly in 776 BC. The founding of Rome was 753 BC. The Medes took over Persia in 728, and established the Persian Empire in 650; this is not coincidentally when the Assyrian Empire fell. It’s also when the Mediterranean started to enter the “classical” period.

I prefer Herodotus’s earlier work

Around 550 or so you get a generation that produced Confucius, Siddharta Gautama, Mahariva, Jeremiah, and Cyrus the Great. Interestingly, both Athens and Rome expelled some tyrants and established a democracy and republic, respectively, in 508 or 509 BC. Athens went on to rule most of the eastern Mediterranean within a few decades, while Rome floundered around in Latium for the next 200 years.

The years around 500 were another impressive generation: Euclid finished his Elements, Panini finished his Grammar, and Pingala introduced a positional number system with a zero and a variable base. This was also when King Aristagorus incited the Anatolian Greeks to rebel. We start to get much clearer sourcing from this point on.

Marathon was 490, and Aeschylus fought at it. Sophocles was too young to fight but alive. Herodotus was a child in Anatolia; he lived in a Halicarnassus, which never rebelled, so he stayed a Persian subject his whole adult life until he retired to Italy because of local political problems. Thermopylae and Salamis were in 480. Socrates was born in 470.

The Persian War ended in 450 and the Golden Age of Athens began; Aeschylus only saw one year of that age; Plato didn’t see any of it because he was born in 427 after it ended. Socrates died in 399; Aristotle was born in 387, the same year Rome was sacked by Gauls. Alexander the Great defeated Persial in 331 and died in 323.

Despite the sacking, Rome was by this point the dominant city-state in Italy, but had not started to throw its weight around outside of the peninsula. They were still busy with the struggles of the orders, and the Plebian order was in the process of forming. It wouldn’t be until 260 that they began the Punic Wars and expanded their reach into the Mediterranean; 60 years after Alexander died.

Greeks were Gauls to Persians

The thought that led to this post’s title was about Rome and Greece constantly facing incursions from less urbanized peoples to their north and west. To a very crude approximation, there was something of an axis running from Italy through Greece to Anatolia and the Levant, and the civilizations became increasingly urbanized and sophisticated as you move east along it.

Rome was sacked by Gauls in 387, but almost immediately started using Gauls as soldiers (not as much as they would later, but it began quite early). Similarly, Greeks were sacking Eastern Mediterranean cities right and left, but were very quickly hired by Near Eastern empires as mercenaries – Xerxes may have had more Greek soldiers in his expedition than the Greeks did.

Greeks were Gauls to the Persians, and it really changes the sense of a lot of the Classical era writings when you remember Europe was the uncivilized periphery of a very sophisticated Near Eastern world.

The Problem with Apu

Hari Kondabolu works with a form that can be difficult to describe. It contains elements of stand-up comedy, but also community advocacy, motivational speaking, and consciousness raising. His acts are not simply stand-up comedy pointed towards important subjects (that’s nothing new); they are texturally different from pure stand-up, with a serious, even dark, undertone bristling beneath the surface at all times.

His recent short-form documentary, The Problem With Apu, loses some of that edge compared to his live work. He interviews dozens of people, from other South Asian actors, to film historians, to Whoopi Goldberg, to former Simpsons producers. This is what you have to do in a documentary, but it breaks up the intensity of the smoldering, barely-under control anger that drives his stage work.

Now, that said, the film is really, really good. And I think it might be especially good if you’re someone who saw the premise and sneered “some SJW whining about TV again”, or even just got defensive and thought “but the Simpsons are so good”. The film is not a hatchet job; it does not try to guilt you into boycotting anything. But it is a very compelling exploration of how representation in media works, and how in particular the character of Apu has affected the lives of South Asians in the US.

I think the weaknesses the film has may have been based on Kondabolu running up against the clock: the piece is too short. It clocks in at a little bit under an hour, and doesn’t give Hari the time to really poke around some of the dark closets he opens the doors to.

For instance: I would have liked him to unpack the phrase “Indan accent”. India in the sense of the modern Republic has 22 institutional languages (as well as official recognition for English, Portuguese, and French) and literally hundreds of regional languages; India in the sense of the subcontinent and outlying islands has several more. These languages represent a dizzying variety of families; Hindi is more closely related to English than to Telugu, Kondabolu’s parents’ native language. There is literally nothing that sonically ties all of these languages together, and the accents sound nothing like one another.

But to Americans, the “Indian accent” means a Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, or Sindhi accent. And (they do get into this at one point) what Americans seem to notice most are those beautiful retroflex consonants (make a “t” sound with the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth rather than just above your top teeth). This amused me because when Marathi-speaking people would make fun of my accent, they would also exaggerate those retroflex sounds, because as an American I lack a pure dental “t”.

I also wish they had had time to make a contrast that seemed to be glaring out to be made. Apu and Groundskeeper Willie are two immigrant characters with accents. There’s another immigrant character with no accent: Carl. Lou (and that is Azaria again) also does not have an accent. Dr. Hibbert’s accent is simply “patrician”. I feel confident in saying that the Simpsons would never in a million years have played a black character with a parody AAVE accent — they know their fans would not have accepted it. And that’s pretty damning.

No doubt some pissed off white southern troll is now going to make “The Problem with Cletus” (and I’ll even say I think that’s a lazily-written character). But if you can brush aside an immediate knee-jerk like that, this is a film that anybody who cares about representation and/or the Simpsons should see. And I really hope he gets the chance to rework this into a feature-length.

Fear the Democrats’ “economic pivot”

Thomas Frank has perhaps done more damage to the Democratic party than any 1 person in recent memory, by giving currency to the phrase “voting against their economic interests”. 12 years after his book came out, Democrats still buy the premise that poor white people in Dumbfuckistan vote for Republicans in large numbers, and that they do this because Democrats don’t offer an economic message for the White Working Class (™, trumpet fanfare).

Frank wrote his book in the wake of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004; thinkpieces along these same lines are essentially a cottage industry in the wake of Trump’s scraping through the electoral college. And they are all entirely wrong and need to stop.

Fortunately we do have some numbers that show how different groups of people actually voted in 2016. Read them a couple of times, because it can take a moment to realize how entirely backwards the Democratic narrative is from that loss.

Clinton didn’t just win voters from households making less than $50K, she dominated. She won by 12 points. And she closed the Democrats’ normal gap among voters making more than $100K to parity. The gap in support was in voters making $50K to $100K (and in fact other polling narrows it down to $70K to $100K).

Croesus apocryphally said that no man has ever thought himself rich. Fair enough. But it struck me as ridiculous that we were calling $80K per year, $30K above the national household median, “working class”. And that’s because I wasn’t thinking about race.

The median white high school graduate in the US today makes $36K. In a two-earner family (and this is still “normal”, if a bit waning), that yields $72K as a hypothetical median white high-school educated household. That is to say, exactly Trump’s economic sweet spot. Now, life is hard everywhere, but it’s just incredibly out of touch to call $72K poor, anywhere. Even the richest cities have a lower median household income than that. That’s the wage premium that comes with being white. (The median black high school graduate income is $12K, meaning a 2-earner family is at $24K.)

Christ Ladd, at Forbes, has taken this argument to its conclusion, a conclusion I find very troubling but can’t summon an argument against. Looking back at the Roper Center numbers, voters concerned about “the economy” preferred Clinton by 11 points. Voters concerned about “foreign policy” voted Clinton by 27 points. I don’t think you can overstate the reversal this represents of the parties’ perceived strengths 30 years ago. Meanwhile, voters concerned about “terrorism” preferred Trump by 17 points, and those concerned about “immigration” preferred him by 31 points.  Now, it’s important to remember that those 4 rubrics are not equal. Voters concerned about the economy were 52 percent of the electorate, more than the rest of the issues put together (foreign policy and immigration were each 13 percent, and terrorism was 18 percent. So Clinton decisively won the huge block of voters concerned about the economy.

This leads to an awkward question: why, after an election in which the Democratic candidate won voters concerned about “the economy” by 11 points, is the Democratic party talking about changing its economic message? And why is the party doubling down on its values about immigration, when it lost “immigration” voters by 31 points?

The repudiation of the first major-party female candidate by a male party power structure is clearly a large part of that. But I think in the Democratic party there’s also a racial microcosm of the country as a whole: as minorities become more empowered and more confident, white power holders feel threatened and try to fit the square pegs of this new energy into the round holes of 2-generations-old leftism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about class-conscious white people who seem genuinely puzzled that black people happen to be disproportionately poor).

I’m going to do immigration in a later post, so I won’t go into that here. But like with so many issues, reductionists everywhere are ignoring the intersectionality of all these questions. Economic growth is driven by immigration; both terrorism and counterterrorism have nexuses with immigration.

In broad strokes, you could describe the split in the Democratic party as “class-forward” vs. “culture-forward” (I’m definitely the latter). The class-forward group wants to say that Democrats failed to deliver an economic message to displaced factory workers (note, incidentally, it’s always that, and not displaced typists or switchboard operators). But I have to conclude that if the Democrats had a fundamental problem with our economic message, we would not have won both the poorer half of the country and voters explicitly concerned about the economy as broadly as we did. The class-forwarders accuse people like me of just throwing up our hands and saying “Trump voters are racist”; and, yes, maybe we’re too quick to do that. But the numbers are hard to get around, on that. Feel free to cast those Roper results in a non-racist light in the comments, if you think I’m giving up too soon.

The Saat Rasta Project

Jacob Circle is a circle with no purpose

I lived just north of Jacob Circle in Mumbai for three years. It is a traffic circle in search of a purpose. The circle is the intersection of two main arteries, K K Road and Arthur Road, and four smaller roads, Bapurao Jagtap Road, Ripon Road, Anandilal P Marg, and G Babu Sakpal Marg (I have no idea why some roads are officially recorded as “road” and other as “marg”, and will leave that to parsers of Marathi nationalist politics). The whole area, Vaishali Nagar, is constricted between the Western and Central rail lines. Arthur Road runs parallel to both, and continues on for a while in each direction. But the other roads, running more east-west, all have to end quickly.

K K Road to the West almost immediately crosses over the Western line, including a flyover of the famous Dhobi Ghat open-air laundry, to tee into Dr. E. Moses Marg at the Mahalakshmi racetrack and train station. To the East it almost as quickly intersects N M Joshi Marg and becomes the “S” bridge to Byuculla. Both of these interchanges are constantly congested, but Mahalakshmi gets the worse of it. Traffic regularly backs up all the way to the circle.

Ripon and Bapurao Jagtap Roads head off into the neighborhoods along the central line, but Anandil P Marg and G Babu Sakpal Marg both immediately turn right and head to the Arthur Road jail, which Arthur Road already goes to.

The Saat Rasta Project

I ran across this idea to do something more sensible with those roads. If you continue both of their initial courses out of the circle, they would meet up with Dr. E. Moses Marg after its turns around the racecourse. The architects here plan to build two underpasses beneath the Western Line and turn K K Road into a pedestrian-only green space.

This sounds really neat at first blush. The Western Line already suffers from a shortage of crossings, which contributes to the annual death toll as people try to cut across to avoid a multi-mile walk. Currently K K road is the only crossing, for vehicles or pedestrians, between Lower Parel and Mumbai Central. In contrast, the Central line has one vehicle and two pedestrian crossings at Currey Road, the vehicle bridge at Sane Guruji Road, two pedestrian crossings at Chinchpokli, the “S” Bridge, the Expressway flyover, and Nesbit road in the same North-South distance.

History plays a role here, of course. Back when the mills were still in operation, the Western Line was the track that you either lived on the right or wrong side of, and making it harder to cross that track fulfilled a societal function. But the mills have been shuttered for thirty-five years, and are starting to be redeveloped with the same kind of posh residences and businesses you used to find only west of the tracks.

That aside, widening and extending the two smaller roads seems like a great idea, assuming an underpass is actually feasible (we’re basically at sea level here). That would break up traffic into cars going north and cars going south on Dr. E. Moses Marg, and pedestrians just trying to get across the tracks or to the station. But, yeah: widening. There it is. The space is tight there already, and there are stores, chawls, temples, and a mosque hard against the narrow existing road. So I would imagine the political resistance here would be pretty high.

Do you think the track could bend?

A third little datum for this is that apparently the monorail that languished through the three years I lived there has finally been finished and actually runs trains down to Jacob Circle. This means there’s at least the potential for even more foot traffic in the area.

I don’t really understand the purpose of the monorail. Most of Mumbai’s transit is oriented north to south; the island is about 5 times as long as it is wide, but it can be faster to get downtown than across town in a lot of cases (see above about the history there). The monorail, at least in the south, doesn’t seem to address that at all; it jogs diagonally at one point, but that’s it. I just don’t see what its actual purpose is. I know transit can create its own ridership, just like roads with traffic, but I also don’t see what business or political purpose that traffic serves.

Green space would be nice

The part about the project that sounds best is that it juts several acres of green space east from the racetracks into the center city area. In practice this means making the mill town look and feel a little more like Old Bombay (at least in terms of scale and openness), which has all of the pros and cons that come with making poor parts of a city feel richer (though in practice that ship sailed years ago). I’d like to see more about this plan, and I’m curious to see how it’s received.

And I’m back to WordPress

I’m sad that it’s come to this, but the web is so actively terrible that I realized I didn’t have the time to fight it anymore. My dreams of making the static blog happen again are on hold for a bit, because I need to stop fiddling settings and start writing again.