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Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.

References

Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://www.britannica.com/event/Boxer-Rebellion

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm

The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi

References

Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China, by Jung Chang, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Palace

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.

References

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

a brief history of radical mastectomy

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Dr William Halsted

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an oncologist, an academic and an astonishingly gifted writer and story-teller, in the Indian tradition of seemingly effortless, self-effacing wordsmiths. I read, and learned heaps from, his 2016 book The Gene a while back, and now I’m being educated by his first book The Emperor of all Maladies, a history of cancer. 

The book twists together different threads of cancer treatment in the modern era, most notably various forms of chemotherapy, and surgery. I’m focusing solely on surgery here, as it pertains to breast cancer, because it highlights the relation between experts (very predominantly male) and sufferers (exclusively female).


The term mastectomy is a bit of a mystery, at least to me. The suffix –ectomy is clear enough, meaning ‘cutting out’, or surgical removal, and ‘lumpectomy’ is a slightly dismissive term for the surgical removal of lumps (from the days when full-blown excision was king) . Maybe mastectomy refers to the removal of a mass of tissue, though why it wouldn’t be called massectomy or masectomy, and why it refers only to the breast, I don’t know. It has nothing to do with mast cells.


The radical mastectomy – the concept refers to ‘root’ as in rooting out, rather than quasi-political radicalism – is most associated with an American physician, William Halsted, though radical surgery in the treatment of cancer was far from unknown when Halsted began practising in the 1870s. Cancer at the time was recognised as the growth and spread of malignant tissue, at mysteriously varying rates, and the surgical removal of that tissue seemed the obvious response. Nineteenth century developments in anaesthesia helped to make the procedure more bearable for all, but operations in the US were often ad hoc and unsanitary. In the late 1870s Halsted made a trip to Europe, which radically changed his outlook and practice. He encountered and absorbed the ideas of various pioneers in surgery and anatomy, including Joseph Lister, Theodor Billroth, Richard von Volkmann and Hans Chiari, then returned to the US, and in the 1880s he quickly established a reputation for boldness and skill as a surgeon. Having become familiar with cocaine, which he recommended as an anaesthetic, he soon became addicted to the drug, which gave him seemingly boundless energy. He tried using morphine to kick the habit, and then found himself in a struggle with both drugs, but this barely damped his work-rate.

Hasted had become particularly interested in Volkmann’s surgical work on breast cancer, and noted that, though the surgeries became more extensive, the cancers returned. An English surgeon, Charles Moore, was experiencing the same problem. Moore’s painstaking analysis of the operations and the following relapses showed that malignant cells had begun to proliferate around the edges of previous surgeries. It seemed clear to him that the surgeries just weren’t extensive enough, and by limiting the surgery to the clearly evident cancerous tissue, and not widening the margins to ensure that the malignant region was properly cleaned out, surgeons were exercising ‘mistaken kindness’. Of course, the problem with this argument was that more radical surgery could itself be life-threatening as well as permanently disfiguring and debilitating. What was also not known at the time was the detailed mechanism of cancer’s metastatic spread throughout the body via the blood and lymph systems. However, this was a time when medical expertise tended to go unquestioned. Halsted and his surgical followers were considered heroes, and the delayed return of the cancers tended not to be dwelt on. The surgeons certainly did buy time for their patients, but often at great cost. Volkmann, for example, had taken breast surgery further by removing not just the breast but the muscle beneath it, the pectoralis minor, to try to ensure the complete removal of the cancer. Impressed, Halsted took things to the next level, cutting through the more vital pectoralis major, essentially killing off movement of the shoulder and arm. Radical mastectomy had now truly arrived, and was to become even more radical, with the collarbone and the group of lymph nodes beneath it becoming the next target, and it didn’t stop there, as cancer kept recurring. As Mukherjee describes it:

A macabre marathon was in progress. Halsted and his disciples would rather evacuate the entire contents of the body than be faced with cancer recurrences. In Europe, one surgeon evacuated three ribs and other parts of the rib cage and amputated a shoulder and a collarbone from a woman with breast cancer.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies, p65

There were, of course, no female surgeons at this time, and precious few female doctors, and the male-female power imbalance was coupled with that of the expert and his suffering if not panicking victim to create a kind of juggernaut of largely unnecessary suffering. It took years to reverse this radicalising trend. Nowadays, radical mastectomies are very rarely performed, but with so many giants in the field – who often controlled the nature of clinical trials related to cancer – having earned their reputations through their surgical expertise, change was slow in coming, in spite of a gradual increase in often heroic dissenting voices. For example, Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, refused to undergo a radical mastectomy, which would in any case have offered only brief respite as the cancer had already spread to her bones. Changing attitudes to experts and their secret and superior knowledge was of course a feature of the sixties and seventies, when the turning point really occurred. Developments in the field of course played their part. The knock-out blow for the procedure is largely associated, according to Mukherjee, with another surgeon, not unlike Halsted in energy and drive.

Bernard Fisher had been analysing the data of Halsted’s critics, notably Geoffrey Keynes in England and George Crile in the US, and became increasingly convinced, for a number of reasons, that radical mastectomy was a wrong-headed approach. In 1967, Fisher became the chair of a national consortium in the US, the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP), and began an uphill battle to run large-scale trials to test the efficacy of different treatments of breast cancer. Patients were reluctant to engage, and most surgeons were hostile. The process took years, but results were finally made public in 1981. Here’s Mukherjee’s summary.

The rates of breast cancer recurrence, relapse, death and distant caner metastasis were statistically identical among all three groups [i.e treated with radical mastectomy, with simple mastectomy, or with surgery followed by radiation]. The group treated with the radical mastectomy had paid heavily in morbidity, but accrued no benefits in survival, recurrence or mortality.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies, p201
Dr Bernard Fisher

So. Richard Feynman once famously/notoriously said ‘science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. When someone says science teaches us such and such, s/he’s using the word incorrectly – science doesn’t teach us, experience teaches us.’ I agree. Science isn’t a person, let alone an expert person. Science is, to me, an open-ended set of methods based on experience. Experience creates new methods out of which new experiences are created, and we move on, trying to right the wrongs and to minimise the damage, while always maintaining our skepticism.

Reference

The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 22, 2019 at 3:01 pm

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm