Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Fetishization of the Old

In about eighty years I will be dead, and in another eighty everyone who ever really knew me will be too.  I will be at risk of being forgotten; everyone alive now will be, but most importantly for me, I will be.  I would like to think that I will be remembered.  We all would.


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-Beatrice (F) and Benedick (M) and fiances; so are Hero (F) and Claudio (M).  The men are best friends, as are the women.  Claudio believes Hero is cheating on him and breaks of their engagement.  Beatrice tells Benedick, in retaliation for casting shame upon Hero, to kill Claudio.  Benedick eventually relents, and agrees to murder his best friend.
-Stradivarious string instruments are instruments made by Antonio Stradivari.
-"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."


The objects referenced above share three similarities.  

The first is that they're really old.  The first, a summary of a key plot point in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, was written sometime in the late sixteenth century.  The second, the most famous string instruments ever made, were constructed sometime around 1700.  And the third, the second amendment to the constitution of the United States of America, was adopted on December 15th, 1791.

The second commonality is that they are revered.  Shakespeare is widely considered to be the best author ever to have lived.  His works are required reading at almost every level of school, the subject of quite a lot of academic research, and the focal point of many theater festivals around the world.  Stradivarius violins sell for a few million dollars each, and cellos an order of magnitude above that--both an order of magnitude above the cost of other professional-level instruments.  The constitution has become the focal point for almost every public policy debate in Washington, by far the most ubiquitously cited source, and it was the interpretation of the constitution that rested at the heart of the recent supreme court case on Obamacare.  The second amendment itself has determined the balance of gun control laws in America, has been used to limit local attempts to ban certain guns and to determine which attempts to limit access to guns are allowed.

The third thing that these three old, revered works share in common is that they are ridiculous.  The plot twist  in Much Ado--typical of Shakespeare--relies on simultaneously one-dimensional and unrealistic characters, illogical plots, and obvious endings.  I mean, come on--kill someone because he thinks, with good reason, that his fiance is cheating on him?  Beatrice is absurdly out of line in an unrealistic way; Benedick is absurd for listening to her, and this is all supposed to be taken in stride.  Professional violinists don't show preferences for Stradivarius violins in double blind tests versus newer instruments.  And we as a country should be able to decide what the best gun control laws are and enact them democratically, instead of listening to vaguely worded commands about gun laws from people who lived two hundred years ago when we were in open rebellion against a foreign occupier and didn't yet have a reliable police force or army.  Instead of making decisions about what laws make sense in a country with internal security, a police force, and an army, we have to constantly make sure that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Whatever the fuck that means.  All of Shakespeare's plays are like that, too, and the problem with the constitution is more general than the second amendment.

I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare and the constitution and Stradivarius violins, and at the bottom of this post I do*, but really I shouldn't need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning.  About half of the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that.  When Shakespeare wrote almost all of Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate--probably as low as about ten million people.  By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere.  What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564?  The Bayesian priors aren't very favorable.

And take a look at string instrument creation.  Not only does current society have much more expendable income and energy to devote to things like creating instruments, but we now have machines capable of cutting wood with micrometer level precision available to consumers; what are the odds, really, that the best violins have been made by a human hand in 1700?


The problem is much more systemic than plays and violins and laws.  Citizen Kane was finally unseated as the best film of all time and bumped to number two--still quite an achievement for an almost unwatchably empty film.  Old wines sell for ridiculous prices despite the lack of correlation between price and taste.  (See here for recently disgraced Jonah Leherer's attempts to salvage expensive win.)  The framers of the constitution are easily the most revered people in America and--importantly--those most often looked to for advice on public policy--despite being, you know, people with slaves who wouldn't understand a thing about the modern economy or technology or society.  I spent a fair chunk of my childhood trying to decide who the best ten baseball players ever were--how does Gehrig compare to Bonds?--even though any of the players from 1920 would flunk if forced to play against modern teams.  Again and again in our culture, the same theme pops up: we fetishize the old.

We like old plays and old movies and old wines and old instruments and old laws and old people and old records and old music.  We like them because they're old and come with stories but we convince ourselves that there's more: we convince ourselves that they really were better.  We don't just read stories about the framing of the constitution at bedtime, we use it as our guide for public policy.  We don't just like to listen to the Beatles but we convince ourselves that they are the best and that anyone who doesn't like them doesn't have good taste in music.  We don't just respect the old; we think that the old is right and that those who prefer the new to the old are wrong.

So why is it that we have become so enamored of things made in 1700?

There are many reasons.  One is that there is a whole lot of inertia in the system.  If Shakespeare is the most respected thing in 1900 then teachers will teach it in 1900 and academics will write about it in 1900 and if you're young in 1900 and want to be "in the know" and want to become an insider in academic literature, then, well, you'd better study Shakespeare; and so it's passed on from generation to generation.  Furthermore, once something acquires a label, it's very hard to dislodge the label--even if the label is as the best author ever and there are more and more authors every day giving the old one a run for its money (and then some).  I think there's one more reason, though, that we fetishize the old.  I was reminded of it about a month ago while in a taxicab heading toward the Atlanta airport, and I saw a billboard advertisement for a Church that said, superimposed on the pastor's face: "In these troubled times, some things never change."

In about eighty years I will be dead, and in another eighty everyone who ever really knew me will be too.  I will be at risk of being forgotten; everyone alive now will be, but most importantly for me, I will be.  I would like to think that I will be remembered.  We all would.  And if we as a society spend so much time looking backward, so much time romanticizing those who died two hundred years ago, so much time replicating traditions born hundreds of years ago, then the future doesn't look quite so divorced from the present.  And the thought that your society and your town and your way of life and maybe even you might be remembered in two hundred years doesn't seem quite so hopeless.

It's easy to get caught up in romanticization of the past and forget that it's the reason that 46% of Americans don't believe in evolution.
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This is not, of course, to say that Shakespeare should be banned.  Everyone should be entitled to read what they want.  But our laws should not be based on two hundred year old unchangeable documents, and schools shouldn't base their curriculum around analyzing Shakespeare; and next time you want to go see Citizen Kane playing in your local artsy movie theater, I think I'll pass.



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*: The recent ruling on Obamacare rested on the personalities of two judges--John Roberts and Tony Kennedy.  The reason that such an important case rested on personality instead of law or fact is because the vagueness of the constitution gives the justices free reign to rule as they wish.  Obamacare was originally believed to be extremely unlikely to be overturned, and then underwent a series of transitions in terms of likelihood of being overturned, peaking at almost 80% on Intrade, before being upheld.  And during this time, the constitution did not change; only one of the bumps even came from legal arguments in front of the court.  Instead a year of speculation over the personal opinions of John Roberts and Tony Kennedy occurred.  The constitution not only sets arbitrary and vaguely worded rules from a time when the nation was very different that are now almost impossible to change, but also allows people to judge the legality as they wish on almost any issue--even if they're a judge tasked with deciding whether a law will be upheld.  But, you say, wouldn't we become a police state devoid of free speech if we lost constitutional protections?  Look at the UK, whose constitution's main role is to establish a now-figurehead monarchy.  Look at almost any comparable country--it's not going to rely as much on their constitution as we do on ours.  If we want free speech--which we absolutely do--then let's have a law saying so.

Similarly, Shakespeare's non-comedies fix few of the flaws found in Much Ado About Nothing.  Romeo and Juliet are incredibly flimsy characters, and the plot is absurd.  (For those interested, the number of lines between when Romeo is first made aware of Juliet's existence and when he recites his first love sonnet about her is 32, and none of those involve any action on Juliet's part, let alone interaction between them.)  Sure, you could say that the play is attempting to highlight the immaturity of youth, but at that point you're attempting to cite the one-dimensionalness of the main characters of a work as a strength.

And Shakespeare isn't alone in being a shitty writer from hundreds of years ago.  The most ambitions woman in Pride and Prejudice has a life goal of marrying a rich, handsome man who is also intelligent--the thought that a woman could have a career or even hobby independent from her husband is outside the scope of the book.  And don't get me started on The Canterbury Tales.

8 comments:

  1. I don't think Bayesian analysis is always reliable here. The very best music composer of all time is very likely Mozart, Beethoven, or someone from a similarly early era. (Unfortunately there is no objective double-blind way to test this proposition.) Their achievements derive in large part from the culture and environment in which they lived -- external factors that simply cannot be replicated today.

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    1. I'm not sure I'm as convinced as you are that they're the best composers every: as you say, there's not objective test of this and it's not even exactly clear what the statement means. Certainly the conventional wisdom is that they are the best ever, but the conventional wisdom is also that Stradivarius violins are the best ever and that old expensive wines are the best ever. You say that external factors that cannot be replicated today--what factors are you thinking of? Because I can think of a lot of factors today that weren't true back then that are conducive to music composition: larger population, wide availability of well made instruments, lots of free time/time not spent subsistence farming...

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    2. Would you care to nominate any specific modern composer for the title of best ever?

      The greatest factor working against modern composers is the availability of recording technology. Musicians today can simply record their work as audio. There is no need for the old concept of a discrete composition.

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    3. I guess what I'd say here is that I think that music is an area where best isn't even really that meaningful of a concept beyond what makes people happy to listen to; a good composer won't solve any practical problems or make the world a better place through their music beyond creating music that people enjoy listening to, so this is an arena where I think that popular is a more meaningful word than good.

      And while it's true that you can look at recording technology as a downside for music composition, it can also be an upside: it's really easy to see how a piece sounds, test out various things, etc., and also much easier to disseminate it.

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  2. Your Constitution example is weaker than the others. Certainly the United States' current system is not the best of all possible systems, but it was a reasonable choice to found the nation on a document that would be hard (but not impossible!) to change. The Constitution prevents many problems that arise from a system where a legislature can arbitrarily dictate and revoke as it wishes, and I believe that outweighs the detriments of its inflexibility. It may be that the current political ecosystem gives certain individuals too much interpretive power and precludes meaningful change, but that's a separate problem.

    At the very least, the nature of the Constitution as a document designed and intended to be fundamental to the nation for as long as it exists sets it apart from almost all art.

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    1. It's true that there are advantages to a constitution like we have, an that it's designed to be hard to change, but most comparable countries do not have (and revere) a constitution in the same way we do; most countries rely much more on laws and less on a constitution--and other Western democracies show little signs of devolving into military dictatorships because of their lack of almost-impossible-to-change and crucially important constitutions.

      And while in the short run the constitution may have been very useful, we really shouldn't be listening to it for policy advice now except to the extent we are bound to: this is a document that reflects late 18th century wisdom, which is, to be frank, quite a lot worse than current wisdom. In addition to obvious flaws like sanctioning slavery and sexism, the constitution just wasn't designed for a world with such urbanization and security and technology.

      And even putting all of those aside, the constitution is hopelessly vague on many issues that people try to apply it to--the framers certainly didn't think about what sort of medical insurance mechanisms should be allowed.

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  3. I can't even begin to describe how absurd I find these arguments. They are based on chronocentrism and faulty assumptions about how societies evolve.

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  4. 1. A startling number of those philosophers never had to work for a living. Coincidence?

    2. Both your post and the modeling piece seem to assume independence of philosophers -- that is, that what has already been written has no effect on what is likely to be written. If nearly every person who knew how to write in the 18th century had at least a passing familiarity with Aristotle, would that make them less likely to write something in the same vein as the Nicomachean Ethics?

    3. Have you read the old philosophers you're talking about? Have you read the Constitutional debates? I'll give you Citizen Kane, but much of what you're chucking out is hands-down brilliant.

    3a. On that point, why do you think we have a Constitution at all? Window dressing? Security blanket? And is there any reason to be wary of strict majoritarian lawmaking, or of laws -- especially fundamental laws -- that can change entirely on a daily or yearly basis? John Stuart Mill wrote that he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that; what would he have said of a cost-benefit analysis that only included costs?

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