At the Emperor’s request, he was left at Court to advise on political and financial negotiations with His Majesty

Friday, April 28th, 2023

After the Battle of Delhi, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), the victorious British commander ‘bowed his head at the feet of the imperial throne’, then conversed with the blind Emperor through his deputy, Colonel Sir David Ochterlony:

Ochterlony’s father was a Highland Scot who had settled in Massachusetts. When the American Revolution broke out, his loyalist family fled to Canada, and David entered the Company’s army in 1777. He never returned to the New World, and, having made India his home, vowed never to leave it. He had collected a variety of Indian wives, to each of whom he gave an elephant, and through whom he learned to speak fluent Urdu and Persian. This was something that impressed and surprised the chronicler Munna Lal, who noted that Da’ud Akhtar-Luni Bahadur (as he called him) ‘was unrivalled for understanding and penetration and very well-versed in Persian letters. At the Emperor’s request, he was left at Court to advise on political and financial negotiations with His Majesty.’

An accidental experiment during COVID suggests too many children are removed to foster care

Thursday, April 27th, 2023

An accidental experiment during COVID suggests too many children are removed to foster care:

COVID changed things.

With children home from school and routine doctors’ appointments and other activities canceled, the number of maltreatment reports fell by half.

The New York state child welfare agency waived the requirement that caseworkers visit children’s homes and directed them to conduct remote check-ins instead, unless the caseworker was unable to reach the family by video call, or if a remote visit raised concerns.

And the family court no longer allowed ACS to file petitions for court-ordered supervision; it would consider only requests for removal.

“For the first time, ACS was forced to triage the cases it filed, no longer able to seek court intervention for less severe cases,” Friedman and Rohr wrote. “On every level — reporting, investigation, monitoring, and court intervention — New York City’s child welfare apparatus dramatically shrunk its footprint.”

As a result, the numbers of children placed in foster care dramatically decreased: from April through June 2020, roughly half as many children were removed from their families compared with the same period the previous three years, according to Friedman and Rohr’s analysis.

If these plummeting numbers of reports and removals had obscured a wave of abuse, the authors point out, one would expect signals of that abuse to emerge, for example, in an increase in children with suspicious injuries at city emergency rooms. But as David Hansell, the ACS director at the time, testified at a city council hearing in June 2021, there were no significant changes in ER visits for children during the lockdown, as “you might think would happen if there were more children suffering any kind of serious physical abuse,” he said.

If the pandemic hid a wave of abuse, one would also expect a surge in substantiated reports of abuse once schools and courts reopened, as previously undetected signs of maltreatment were finally discovered. But that didn’t happen either, Friedman and Rohr found.

Around 600 well-trained Company civil servants, guarded by 155,000 Indian sepoys, were to administer most of peninsular India

Wednesday, April 26th, 2023

After the Battle of Delhi, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), the East India Company consolidated a land empire that controlled over half a million square miles of territory, which, fifty years later, would become the British Raj:

Around 600 well-trained Company civil servants, guarded by 155,000 Indian sepoys, were to administer most of peninsular India. Here the Company’s army was now unequivocally the dominant military force, and the Governor General who controlled it the real Emperor. Not only had Lord Wellesley gained many more subjects than Britain had lost a decade earlier in North America — around 50 million — he had also created a cadre of young men committed to his imperial project, and who would carry it forward after he had gone. Wellesley’s ambitious protégés were working for the establishment and spread of an Anglicised colonial state that would provide an efficiently regimented but increasingly remote and alien administrative infrastructure for this new empire. As one of them, the young Company diplomat Charles Metcalfe, wrote, ‘Sovereigns you are, and as such must act.’

In London there was surprisingly little awareness as yet of what had been achieved. The country was still obsessed with the struggle with Napoleon, and despite the swathe of territories Lord Wellesley had conquered, there was little interest in what had taken place in India outside those organisations or people directly concerned with it. Even Wellesley’s ultimate boss, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, declared himself ‘totally unacquainted with every part of this subject’ when Lord Wellesley’s aggressively expansionist Indian policy was briefly discussed in a half-empty House of Lords.

But within India everyone knew that a major revolution had just taken place. Many Muslims, led by the puritanical Delhi imam Shah Abdul Aziz, saw this as the moment that India had slipped out of their hands for the first time since the twelfth century: ‘From here to Calcutta, the Christians are in complete control,’ wrote Shah Abdul Aziz in an 1803 fatwa of jihad. ‘India is no longer Dar ul-Islam.’ Company officials realised it with equal clarity: ‘We are now complete masters of India,’ wrote Thomas Munro, ‘and nothing can shake our power if we take proper measures to confirm it.’

The sinews of British supremacy were now established. With the exception of a few months during the Great Uprising of 1857, for better or worse, India would remain in British hands for another 144 years, finally gaining its freedom only in August 1947.

Individualism, impersonal sociality, and a pacified environment allowed the market economy to grow beyond its former limits

Wednesday, April 19th, 2023

Europe, particularly northwest Europe, was pushed forward by an expanding market economy, Peter Frost explains, in the fourteenth century, when England and Holland embarked on sustained economic growth:

That expansion was driven, in turn, by a population that tended toward individualism and “impersonal sociality.” For at least the past millennium, Europeans were behaviorally distinct north and west of a line running approximately from Trieste to St. Petersburg:

Almost everyone was single for at least part of adulthood, and many stayed single their entire lives.

Children usually left the nuclear family to form new households, and many individuals circulated among unrelated households, typically young people sent out as servants.

People were more individualistic, less loyal to kin, and more willing to trust strangers (Frost 2017; Frost 2020; Hajnal, 1965; Hartman, 2004; Hbd*chick 2014; ICA, 2020; MacDonald 2019; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94-95, 150-153, 184-190).

According to Schulz et al. (2019), the above behavioral pattern was created by the Western branch of Christianity, particularly through its decision in the ninth century to broaden the ban on cousin marriages to any couple who shared a common ancestor seven generations previously. That ban, they argued, had the effect of creating the Western European pattern of late marriage, frequent celibacy, and nuclear households. That pattern, in turn, encouraged individualism and impersonal sociality.

Schulz et al., however, ignore two points. First, the broadening of the cousin marriage ban resulted from a decision to abandon the Roman method of calculating degrees of kinship, whereby first cousins were considered to be fourth degree. The new method, of Germanic origin, made them second degree, thereby doubling the number of forbidden marriage partners (McCann, 2010, pp. 57-58). In sum, the ban was Church-enforced but of pagan origin.

Second, when the cousin marriage ban was broadened in the ninth century, Western Europe already had high rates of late marriage, celibacy, and nuclear households. This has been shown at two locations in ninth-century France: the estates of the Abbey of St Germain-des-Prés near Paris, where about 16.3% of all adults were unmarried, and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, where the figure was 11.5%. At both locations, households were small and nuclear (Hallam 1985, p. 56). A ninth-century survey of the Church of St Victor of Marseille shows both men and women marrying in their mid to late twenties (Seccombe 1992, p. 94). Further back, in the first century, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Germanic tribes, “Late comes love to the young men, and their first manhood is not enfeebled; nor for the girls is there any hot-house forcing; they pass their youth in the same way as the boys” (Tacitus, Germania 20, 1970).

It seems more correct to say that Western Christianity promoted individualism and impersonal sociality because it had assimilated a pre-existing pattern of weak kinship, late marriage, and openness to non-kin. A fusion took place between the Christian faith and the pre-Christian values of northwest Europe (Russell 1994). With the loss of North Africa and Spain to the Muslims, and the rise of the Frankish-dominated Carolingian Empire, Western Christianity saw its ideological center of gravity move northward and westward.

From the eleventh century onward, the Western Church also strove to pacify social relations. Both Church and State came around to the view that the wicked should be punished so that the good may live in peace. Courts imposed the death penalty more and more often and, by the late Middle Ages, were condemning to death between 0.5 and 1.0% of all men of each generation, with perhaps just as many offenders dying at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial. The homicide rate plummeted from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, with the result that the pool of violent men dried up. Most murders would now occur under conditions of jealousy, intoxication, or extreme stress. (Frost and Harpending 2015).

Those three causes — individualism, impersonal sociality, and a pacified environment — allowed the market economy to grow beyond its former limits (Frost 2020; Macfarlane 1978; Weber 1930). The first two causes had long been around in northwest Europe, being what we may call “pre-adaptations” to the market economy. It was the third one, the pacification of social relations, that sparked the economic takeoff of the fourteenth century. The “market” was no longer a marketplace—an isolated point in space and time. It was now a means to carry out transactions wherever and whenever. It could thus spread farther and farther beyond the marketplace, replacing older forms of exchange and ultimately replacing kinship as the main organizing principle of society.

The Permanent Settlement, introduced in 1793, gave absolute rights to land to zamindar landowners

Tuesday, April 18th, 2023

In India, Cornwallis set about making a series of land and taxation reforms guaranteeing a steady flow of revenue, particularly in time of war, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), as well as reinforcing the Company’s control of the land it had conquered:

The Permanent Settlement, introduced in 1793, gave absolute rights to land to zamindar landowners, on the condition that they paid a sum of land tax which Company officials now fixed in perpetuity. So long as zamindars paid their revenues punctually, they had security over the land from which the revenue came. If they failed to pay up, the land would be sold to someone else.

These reforms quickly produced a revolution in landholding in Company Bengal: many large old estates were split up, with former servants flocking to sale rooms to buy up their ex-masters’ holdings. In the ensuing decades, draconian tax assessments led to nearly 50 per cent of estates changing hands. Many old Mughal landowning families were ruined and forced to sell, a highly unequal agrarian society was produced and the peasant farmers found their lives harder than ever. But from the point of view of the Company, Cornwallis’s reforms were a huge success. Income from land revenues was both and enormously increased; taxes now arrived punctually and in full. Moreover, those who had bought land from the old zamindars were in many ways throwing in their lot with the new Company order. In this way, a new class of largely Hindu pro-British Bengali bankers and traders began to emerge as moneyed landowners to whom the Company could devolve local responsibility.

So even as the old Mughal aristocracy was losing high office, a new Hindu service gentry came to replace them at the top of the social ladder in Company-ruled Bengal. This group of emergent Bengali bhadralok (upper-middle classes) represented by families such as the Tagores, the Debs and the Mullicks, tightened their grip on mid-level public office in Calcutta, as well as their control of agrarian peasant production and the trade of the bazaars. They participated in the new cash crop trades to Calcutta–Dwarkanath Tagore, for example, making a fortune at this time in indigo–while continuing to lend the Company money, often for as much as 10–12 per cent interest. It was loans from this class which helped finance colonial armies and bought the muskets, cannon, horses, elephants, bullocks and paid the military salaries which allowed Company armies to wage and win their wars against other Indian states. The Company’s ever-growing Indian empire could not have been achieved without the political and economic support of regional power groups and local communities. The edifice of the East India Company was sustained by the delicate balance that the Company was able to maintain with merchants and mercenaries, its allied nawabs and rajas, and above all, its tame bankers.

In the end it was this access to unlimited reserves of credit, partly through stable flows of land revenues, and partly through the collaboration of Indian moneylenders and financiers, that in this period finally gave the Company its edge over their Indian rivals. It was no longer superior European military technology, nor powers of administration that made the difference. It was the ability to mobilise and transfer massive financial resources that enabled the Company to put the largest and best-trained army in the eastern world into the field.

Cornwallis’s mission was now to make sure that the same never happened in India

Sunday, April 16th, 2023

As soon as he recovered from his duelling wound in October 1780, Philip Francis returned to London, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), where he used his new Indian wealth to buy a parliamentary seat and to lobby to bring Hastings down:

In February 1782, he found a sympathetic ear in Edmund Burke, then a rising Whig star. Burke had never been to India, but part of his family had been ruined by unwise speculation in East India stock.


Nor did he even look the part: far from being an ostentatious and loud-mouthed new-rich ‘Nabob’, Hastings was a dignified, intellectual and somewhat austere figure. Standing gaunt at the bar in his plain black frock coat, white stockings and grey hair, he looked more Puritan minister about to give a sermon than some paunchy plunderer: nearly six feet tall, he weighed less than eight stone: ‘of spare habit, very bald, with a countenance placid and thoughtful, but when animated, full of intelligence.’


If anything, the Impeachment demonstrated above all the sheer ignorance of the British about the subcontinent they had been looting so comprehensively, and profitably, for thirty years.


Few were surprised when, after seven years, on 23 April 1795, Hastings was ultimately cleared of all charges.


Amid all the spectacle of Hastings’ trial, it made sense that the man sent out to replace him was chosen by Parliament specifically for his incorruptibility. General Lord Charles Cornwallis had surrendered the thirteen American Colonies of the British Empire over to George Washington, who then declared it a free and independent nation.

Cornwallis’s mission was now to make sure that the same never happened in India.


In America, Britain had lost its colonies not to Native Americans, but to the descendants of European settlers. Cornwallis was determined to make sure that a settled colonial class never emerged in India to undermine British rule as it had done, to his own humiliation, in America.

By this period one in three British men in India were cohabiting with Indian women, and there were believed to be more than 11,000 Anglo-Indians in the three Presidency towns.61 Now Cornwallis brought in a whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation aimed at excluding the children of British men who had Indian wives, or bibis, from employment by the Company.


Yet, like their British fathers, the Anglo-Indians were also banned from owning land. Thus excluded from all the most obvious sources of lucrative employment, the Anglo-Indians quickly found themselves at the beginning of a long slide down the social scale. This would continue until, a century later, the Anglo-Indians had been reduced to a community of minor clerks, postmen and train drivers.

It was under Cornwallis, too, that many Indians – the last survivors of the old Murshidabad Mughal administrative service – were removed from senior positions in government, on the entirely spurious grounds that centuries of tyranny had bred ‘corruption’ in them.

Every other male is a potential ally

Saturday, April 15th, 2023

Helen Reddy’s 1971 anthem “I Am Woman” captured the spirit of feminism in that era, Arnold Kling notes:

The mood was optimistic, proud, and spirited. “Nothing can stop me,” the song seemed to say. Once doors were open to women, they would charge through and never look back.

Today, the mood of feminists seems much darker. On college campuses, some seethe with resentment. They look to university administrators to fend off “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture.” They allege that free speech causes harm. They insist that schools ban words and speakers. They want “safe spaces.” It seems as though “I am strong, I am invincible” has been replaced by “I am anxious, I am vulnerable.”


I would suggest that higher education, once dominated by men, used to cater to men’s warrior nature. Today, with female students the majority, colleges and universities cater much more to women’s worrier culture.

In her book [Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes], Benenson presents extensive empirical evidence for general differences in behavior and temperament between human males and females. These are differences that she and others have found in infants, toddlers, children, and adolescence. They are found in primitive cultures as well as in modern Western cultures. They are similar to traits found in other primates, including our chimpanzee relatives.


Benenson catalogues numerous differences in temperament and behavior between males and females. These include:

  • Boys are drawn to fight one another, and girls are not.
  • Boys are eager to play on their own, without the authority of teachers, and girls are not.
  • Girls enjoy play that involves acting out scenes of caring for a baby or a person in distress, and boys do not.
  • Women show higher levels of fear and anxiety and lower propensity to take risks than men do.
  • When evaluating same-sex individuals as potential friends or allies, men look for strength, courage, and useful skills. Women look for vulnerability and the absence of overt conflict.
  • Boys tend to have large groups of friends, with loose ties and shifting alliances. Girls tend to form tight cliques.
  • At recess, boys enjoy competitive team sports. They are concerned with formal rules and spend time negotiating such rules. I think of pickup softball games where there are only six players on a team. The rules might be “anything hit to right field is a foul ball,” or “batting team supplies pitcher, catcher, and first baseman” or some other ad hoc modification of normal baseball rules.
  • At recess, girls are less likely to choose competitive team sports, and they lose interest in team games relatively quickly.
  • Men value competition with prizes for those who demonstrate the most skill. Women prefer that no one stand out.


Benenson claims that what underlies these differences is that women pay more attention to their survival as individuals, while men pay more attention to survival in group competition. In terms of evolutionary psychology, a female needs to protect her own health in order to be able to bear children and to enable them to survive to adulthood. Benenson notes that until recently in human history, 40 percent of children died before the age of two. Increasing the chances of her baby’s survival had to be a major concern for women.


For men, the ability to pass their genes along is relatively less dependent on their individual survival. It is relatively more dependent on the ability of their group to out-compete other groups, especially in war.


For a female, every other female is a potential competitor. Women eliminate a competitor by ganging up on the unwanted woman and excluding her. The excluded woman may not have violated a formal rule, but she seems threatening for some reason.

For a male, every other male is a potential ally. You may fight a man one day, and the next day you may join with him to fight a common enemy. Men want to see non-cooperators punished, but subsequently the rule-breaker might be rehabilitated. Permanent exclusion would be a bad practice.

So began what the Maratha newswriter described as a ‘dance of the demons’

Friday, April 14th, 2023

After his father Zabita Khan led several rebellions against Shah Alam II, the young Ghulam Qadir was captured, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), and kept in a (metaphorical) gilded cage. As an adult, he returned, with his own people, the Rohilla, under the pretense that “this Ghulam Qadir is a child of His Majesty’s house and has eaten his salt”:

‘The Rohillas swore [on the Quran] that they had no intention of doing any harm,’ wrote the Maratha newswriter. ‘They said they only wanted that the Emperor should lay his gracious hand on their heads. After Ghulam Qadir had taken a formal oath swearing he came to his sovereign in peace and as an ally, the Emperor sent his eunuchs to tell him he would admit him to an audience, but only with ten or twenty followers.’107 However, the Head Eunuch, Mansur Ali Khan, who was also the Nazer, or Overseer of the Fort Administration, had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life at the fall of Pathargarh and now wished to reingratiate himself. Against the Emperor’s orders, he opened the great double gates of the Fort and allowed the Afghan to march in all 2,000 of his men.


Then Ghulam Qadir, in what would at any other time be regarded as an unpardonable breach of etiquette, sat down on the cushions of the imperial throne next to the Emperor, ‘passed an arm familiarly round his neck and blew tobacco smoke into his sovereign’s face’.


So began what the Maratha newswriter described as a ‘dance of the demons’, a reign of terror which lasted for nine weeks.


While he was still speaking, the Rohilla summoned Prince Bedar Bakht. Ghulam Qadir stepped forward, and took the Emperor’s dagger from his girdle, then without a word sent the Emperor off to the imperial prison of Salimgarh, and placed Bedar Bakht on the throne.


While he looted the city and the palace, according to Azfari, the Rohilla, ‘day and night gave himself over to great quantities of various intoxicants, particularly to bhang, bauza [beer-like booze] and ganja’.


The servants began to be hung upside down and tortured over fires to reveal hiding places of the Emperor’s treasure.


‘Some maid-servant dancing girls and providers of pleasure favoured by Shah Alam were brought in without veil or covering; they were taken to the daira camp where they were made to pleasure drunken louts.’


The Head Eunuch Mansur Ali was dragged through a latrine and left nearly to drown in the sewer beneath: ‘Ghulam Qadir called out to his henchmen: “If this traitor (namak-haram) doesn’t produce the seven lakhs rupees** within the next watch, stuff his mouth with excrement!”’120 When the eunuch protested that he had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life as a baby, the latter replied, ‘Do you not know the old proverb, “to kill a serpent and spare its young is not wise”.’


“Throw this babbler down and blind him.”


Shah Alam looked straight at Ghulam Qadir and asked: ‘What? Will you destroy those eyes that for a period of sixty years have been assiduously employed in perusing the sacred Quran?’


But the appeal to religion had no effect on the Afghan.


Ghulam Qadir Khan jumped up and, straddling his victim’s chest, ordered Qandahari Khan and Purdil Khan to pinion his hands to his neck and hold down his elbows. With his Afghan knife [contrary to the usual practice of blinding with needles] Qandahari Khan first cut one of Shah Alam’s eyes out of its socket, then the other eye was wrenched out by that impudent rascal. Shah Alam flapped on the ground like a chicken with its neck cut.


Then he called for a painter, and said, ‘Paint my likeness at once, sitting, knife in hand, upon the breast of Shah Alam, digging out his eyes.’


Just as he may once have been turned into a catamite, so now it was his turn to humiliate the males of the royal house.


He signed an order to that effect, dismissed his henchmen, and settled down to go to sleep with his head on the knees of the Crown Prince Mirza Akbar Shah, having taken off his sword and dagger and placed them within sight and reach of the princes. He closed his eyes for an hour, then got up and gave each of the princes a violent slap, calling out derisively: ‘You are prepared so passively to swallow all this, and still you delude yourselves that you could become kings? Huh! I was testing you: if you had one little spark of manly honour in your heart, you would have grabbed my sword and dagger and made quick work of me!’ Heaping them with abuse, he dismissed them from his presence and sent them back to prison.


The same day a number of the younger princesses were stripped naked, minutely searched ‘in every orifice’, fondled, flogged, then raped. Victorian translations of the sources have censored these passages, but the Persian original of Khair ud-Din tells the whole brutal story.


This was an Irish mercenary called George Thomas, ‘the Raja from Tipperary’, a one-time cabin boy who had jumped ship in Madras and made a name for himself as a talented artilleryman and caster of cannon.


After almost three months, Ghulam Qadir had finally departed, taking with him everything he had plundered, along with nineteen of the senior princes, including Prince Akbar, as hostages. The badly wounded Shah Alam he left behind in the Red Fort, apparently hoping he would be incinerated by the explosion he set off as a final parting present to the Mughals

Ghulam Qadir did not get away:

They then seized Ghulam Qadir, bound him and locked him in a cage. They despatched him on a humble bullock cart, with chains on his legs and a collar around his neck, to Scindia’s headquarters, ‘guarded by two regiments of sepoys and a thousand horse’. For a while Ghulam Qadir was displayed in his cage, suspended in front of the army, to be jeered at and mocked. Then, ‘By the orders of Scindia, the ears of Ghulam Qadir were cut off and hung around his neck, his face was blackened, and he was carried around the city.’

The next day his nose, tongue and upper lip were cut off, and he was again paraded. On the third day, he was thrown upon the ground, his eyes were scooped out, and he was once more carried round. After that his hands were cut off, then his feet, then his genitals and last of all, his head. The corpse was then hung, neck downwards, from a tree.


Mahadji Scindia sent the ears and eyeballs to the Emperor Shah Alam in a casket as a congratulatory gift. He then had Mansur Ali Khan, the head eunuch who had let the Afghans into the fort, ‘trampled to death under the feet of an elephant’.

Normal governments can’t deal with such people unless the stakes are existential

Thursday, April 13th, 2023

Alanbrooke — Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke — is one of Britain’s great heroes, Dominic Cummings reminds us, though not nearly so famous as Nelson or Wellington:

Most involved in politics talk a lot about ‘strategy’ but know little or nothing about this crucial strategist of WW2. Other WW2 generals such as Montgomery are much more famous. Alanbrooke was promoted by Churchill to Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in the dark days of November 1941 as the Nazis approached Moscow. His nickname was ‘Colonel Shrapnel’. His formidable character burst with energy yet he also held himself in incredible control — true leaders, he thought, had to preserve and project self-control (to a degree that would be regarded as ‘unhealthy’ now). He repeatedly deflated Churchill and others, sometimes snapping a pencil between his fingers as he said ‘I flatly disagree’. His relationship with Churchill was stormy. Alanbrooke deeply admired him but the responsibility fell on Alanbrooke, more than anybody, of dealing with Churchill’s flaws and the dangers they risked. In replacing Dill with Alanbrooke, Churchill wanted someone more vigorous to prosecute the war and he got it.

When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes — stiff-necked Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal with than that!

It’s greatly to Churchill’s credit that he appointed him and stuck with him despite extreme disagreements and passions exploding amid the incredible tension of world events and their vast stakes, but it’s also much to his discredit that his memoirs vastly underplayed Alanbrooke’s contributions to victory.


Alanbrooke was one of those extraordinary people thrown up by war to senior roles who then almost always disappear when the war ends and discussions at the top revert to the norm — avoiding hard questions. It’s as if normal governments can’t deal with such people unless the stakes are existential. General Groves was another such extraordinary character who ran the Manhattan Project and was pushed out of the Pentagon after 1945 for being ‘too difficult’.


While children and students are told they study history ‘to learn from the mistakes’, one of the most fascinating and striking things about our world is how little learning there is from the greatest of errors. You can read analyses of deterring Prussia/Germany in Whitehall that are practically identical and indistinguishable from 1866, 1870, pre-1914, and the 1930s. You can read history after history of war after war. Human nature and the dynamics of large organisations don’t change so the same problems recur from the start of written history, and nobody can find a way of creating institutions that surmount these problems for long. You may reshape the Prussian General Staff and then reshape the map of Europe but before you know it, you’ve gone from the Elder Moltke working with Bismarck in triumph to his nephew imploding in disaster. One minute Bill Gates; the next, Steve Ballmer. Everything has its time of growth and decay. This means that we stumble into disaster after disaster where the details change but the fundamental patterns don’t. Covid and Ukraine are just the latest examples.

On one hand, we can see abstract principles of high performance a) recur constantly in written history we can all read, b) are extremely simple and do not require high intelligence to understand, and c) when deployed are frequently shocking, even world-changing, as well as sometimes bringing power, wealth and fame to those who deploy them.

But on the other, these principles remain essentially unrecognised by roughly 100% of institutions of all kinds, private and public. Instead, roughly all normal large organisations actually optimise for the opposite principles and promote those who embody these anti-principles. If there is some occasional high performing blip (such as PARC or the Vaccine Taskforce), these normal organisations, and particularly the middle managers within them, will move swiftly to close them and push away those responsible as far and as fast as possible.

This reliable feature of our world has many effects. One of them is that government systems are essentially ‘programmed’ to be slow and inefficient in updating. All institutions optimise for certain things based on incentives and culture. Large established organisations almost always optimise for ‘protect established power networks’, not ‘update useful information even if it disrupts established power networks’. And this means that the old parties, old bureaucracies and old political media are necessarily constantly surprised by events far beyond what they need to be — beyond the inevitable surprises generated by the uncomputable complexity of the world. The most valuable information is and will be almost always at the edge. Elite self-deception was critical to the context of WW2 and looking over the centuries it seems only safe to assume it’s a permanent state of affairs, at least without revolutionary experimentation with institutions that optimise differently and will (we should assume) in their own ways be as, or even more, dangerous.

A diamond-studded substitute was attached in its place

Monday, April 10th, 2023

William Dalrymple shares many stories about India during The Anarchy that could come from Game of Thrones or its sequel House of the Dragon:

The main architect of the Afghan incursions into northern India, Ahmad Shah Durrani, had now returned to the mountains of his homeland to die. He was suffering the last stages of an illness that had long debilitated him, as his face was eaten away by what the Afghan sources call a ‘gangrenous ulcer’, possibly leprosy or some form of tumour.

Soon after winning his greatest victory at Panipat, Ahmad Shah’s disease began consuming his nose, and a diamond-studded substitute was attached in its place. By 1772, maggots were dropping from the upper part of his putrefying nose into his mouth and his food as he ate.

The Boston Tea Party was provoked by fears that the East India Company might be let loose on the thirteen colonies

Saturday, April 8th, 2023

In 1780, the East India Company found itself more than £10 million in debt and unable to pay its own salaries, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), and its poor reputation had global consequences:

In America, the Patriots had turned on the King, partly as a result of government’s attempts to sell the stockpiles of East India Company tea, onto which was slapped British taxes: the Boston Tea Party, an event that built support for what would become the American War of Independence by dumping 90,000 pounds of EIC tea, worth £9,659 (over £1 million today), in Boston harbour, was in part provoked by fears that the Company might now be let loose on the thirteen colonies, much as it had been in Bengal.


Even as Haidar was pursuing a terrified Munro back to Madras, British forces in America were already on their way to the final defeat by Washington at Yorktown, and the subsequent surrender of British forces in America in October.


In Parliament, a year later, one MP noted that ‘in Europe we have lost Minorca, in America 13 provinces, and the two Pensacolas; in the West Indies, Tobago; and some settlements in Africa’. ‘The British Empire,’ wrote Edmund Burke, ‘is tottering to its foundation.’

Intelligence correlates positively with wanting more social freedom and economic freedom, but these two political dimensions are negatively correlated

Friday, April 7th, 2023

Conservatives aren’t stupid, Emil O. W. Kirkegaard notes, depending on how you slice the data:

Depending on whether we look at political ideology or political party, the gaps can reverse in the general population, but they aren’t large.

Non-White voters drag down the Democrats, so when looking at only Whites the left has a consistent lead in intelligence, but it’s pretty small. However, it is true that extreme liberal Whites are the smartest group with a mean of 107 IQ versus their counterparts extreme conservative Whites with a mean of 98.5, close to a 10 IQ gap.


So, intelligence correlates positively with wanting more freedom as in social freedoms (abortions, free speech etc.) and economic freedom (less government involvement), but these two political dimensions are negatively correlated. This brings forth the libertarian high IQ rarity pattern. Because the ideologies are negatively correlated, people who are high in both views are rare, but their IQs are particularly elevated. Noah notes that if you combine the political ideologies into a single component, this correlates .40 with IQ. That’s pretty high!

Oligarchy is inherently leftist, just as monarchy is inherently rightist

Wednesday, April 5th, 2023

Our problem, Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug) explains, is that the world is run by a regime with a long-run structurally leftist bias:

It evolves leftisms. On Mars, the same regime structure would evolve the same ideas. Oligarchy is inherently leftist, just as monarchy is inherently rightist.


The engineering problem is that when a marketplace of ideas makes final decisions, the marketplace is polluted with power. When the marketplace is polluted with power, its ideas compete not just on their wisdom, but on their ability to generate power—for example, their power to attract (or reject) funding.

This is why leftism always wins: leftism is what generates more power. Leftism always has more energy and more excitement. This is because its ideas generate power—leftist ideas always involve impact on the world. If science is put in charge of science, science will favor ideas which make science more powerful, which will be or become leftist ideas. Leftism at bottom is just the natural and inevitable human urge to matter.

Everything is science, or at least works like science. If diplomats and foreign-policy experts are put in charge of foreign policy, they will want to take over the world. If they can. If we can. Why wouldn’t they? How can isolationism compete in the market for foreign-policy ideas? Isolationism is to foreign-policy jobs as rat-poison is to rats.

Clive walked out of the drawing room ‘to visit the water closet’

Sunday, April 2nd, 2023

Clive of India was the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency. He returned to Britain with immense wealth, but he was also held partly responsible for the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. William Dalrymple describes (in The Anarchy) how Clive died:

He had always suffered from depression, and twice in his youth had tried to shoot himself. Since then, despite maintaining an exterior of unbroken poise and self-confidence, he had suffered at least one major breakdown. To this burden was now added agonising stomach pains and gout. Not long after his return to England, on 22 November 1774, at the age of only forty-nine, Robert Clive committed suicide in his townhouse in Berkeley Square.

His old enemy Horace Walpole wrote about the first rumours to circulate around London. ‘There was certainly illness in the case,’ he wrote, ‘but the world thinks more than illness. His constitution was exceedingly broken and disordered, and grown subject to violent pains and convulsions. He came to town very ill last Monday. On Tuesday his physician gave him a dose of laudanum, which had not the desired effect. On the rest, there are two stories; one, that the physician repeated the dose; the other that he doubled it himself, contrary to advice. In short, he has terminated at 50, a life of so much glory, reproach, art, wealth, and ostentation!’

The truth was more unpleasant: Clive had actually cut his jugular with a blunt paperknife. He was at home with his wife Margaret, his secretary Richard Strachey and Strachey’s wife Jane. Jane Strachey later recorded that after a game of whist, which had been interrupted by Clive’s violent stomach pains, Clive walked out of the drawing room ‘to visit the water closet’. When after some time he failed to return, Strachey said to Margaret Clive, ‘You had better go and see where my Lord is.’ Margaret ‘went to look for him, and at last, opening a door, found Lord Clive with his throat cut. She fainted, and servants came. Patty Ducarel got some of the blood on her hands, and licked it off.’

Clive’s body was removed at the dead of night from Berkeley Square to the village church in Moreton Say where he was born. There the suicide was buried in a secret night-time ceremony, in an unmarked grave, without a plaque, in the same church where he had been baptised half a century earlier.

America really is the greatest country in the world

Wednesday, March 29th, 2023

Around the wide world, Scott Alexander notes, all cultures share a few key features:

Anthropologists debate the precise extent, but the basics are always there. Language. Tools. Marriage. Family. Ritual. Music. And penis-stealing witches.

Nobody knows when the penis-stealing witches began their malign activities. Babylonian texts include sa-zi-ga, incantations against witchcraft-induced impotence. Ancient Chinese sources describe suo yang, the penis retracting into the body because of yin/yang imbalances. But the first crystal-clear reference was the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th-century European witch-hunters’ manual. It included several chapters on how witches cast curses that apparently (though not actually) remove men’s penises.

In 2001, journalist Frank Bures came across an unusual BBC article about a mob that had killed twelve people in Nigeria, believing them to be penis-stealing witches, and then, few months later, he came across a similar article about five people in Benin. He travels the world looking for cases:

I want you to picture the scene. An American journalist has been traveling the world in search of a dying variety of witchcraft. Now he’s reached the end of the line, the wildest and most primitive region of China. With great difficulty, he has procured an interpreter. Together, they consult a shaman, who sends them on a quest to find a second, wiser shaman who specializes in ghosts. After many trials and tribulations, he reaches the second, wiser, ghost-specialist shaman, who invites him into his home, filled with strange charms and magical images. “Tell me your question,” says the shaman. And Bures asks: “What do you know about penis-stealing witches?”

…and the shaman answers: “Haha, no one believes in that stuff anymore.”

As a nature documentary, Nurse’s book The Geography of Madness is kind of a bust, Alexander notes, but he rescues it with his insight into culture-bound mental illness:

A culture-bound mental illness is one that only affects people who know about it, and especially people who believe in it. Often it doesn’t make sense from a scientific point of view (there’s no such thing as witches, and the penis can’t retract into the body). It sometimes spreads contagiously: someone gets a first case, the rest of the village panics, and now everyone knows about it / believes in it / is thinking about it, and so many other people get it too.

Different cultures have their own set of culture-bound illnesses. Sometimes there are commonalities — many cultures have something something penis something witches — but the details vary, and a victim almost always gets a case that matches the way their own culture understands it.

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT MAKING IT UP. I cannot stress this enough. There are plenty of examples of people driving metal objects through their penis in order to pull it out of their body or prevent the witches from getting it or something like that. There is no amount of commitment to the bit which will make people drive metal objects through their penis. People have died from these conditions — not the illness itself, which is fake, but from wasting away worrying about it, or taking dangerous sham treatments, or getting into fights with people they think caused it. If you think of it as “their unconscious mind must be doing something like making it up, but their conscious mind believes it 100%”, you will be closer to the truth, though there are various reasons I don’t like that framing.


The phrase “run amok” comes from Malaysia, where it referred to a specific phenomenon: some person who had been unhappy for a long time would suddenly snap, kill a bunch of people, then say they had no memory of doing it. Malaysian culture totally rolls with this and doesn’t hold it against them; the unhappiness is a risk factor for possession by a tiger spirit, which commits the killings. Although Malays have been doing this since at least the 1700s, there are some fascinating parallels with modern US mass shootings that suggest the damn tiger spirits have finally made it to the US common psychological origins.

I have seen exactly one demonic possession case in my ten years as a psychiatrist. The man fell to the ground, mouth foaming, chanting strange syllables and the names of Biblical demons. My attending doctor at the time — one of those people who somehow manages to be an expert in everything — was an expert in demonic possession, and told us that he was in no way psychotic, antipsychotics wouldn’t help him (except insofar as they help everyone by decreasing all behaviors), and he needed to “work through his issues”. The patient was uncooperative — he was only visiting MDs because the local bishop wouldn’t call in an exorcist until he got a psych exam — and eventually left against medical advice.

After going down the list, Bures asks the correct next question: how do we know whether or not our own mental illnesses are just as culture-bound as the Japanese or Malaysians’? Cultures that believe in witches have witch-related culture-bound illnesses; cultures that believe in demons have demon-related ones. We believe in science, so we should expect sciencey-sounding culture-bound illnesses, and these might be hard to tell apart from other, more physical conditions. So how suspicious should we be, and of what?


Anorexia was mostly unknown in the West, until becoming “trendy” in the mid-1800s. During that period, doctors reported high prevalence of anorexia among “hysterics”, but the fad ended after about ten or twenty years, and it went back to being basically unknown. In 1983, famous singer Karen Carpenter died of anorexia, thrusting it back into the national news, and suddenly lots of people (in the West) were anorexic again.

Meanwhile, foreign doctors who trained in the West went back to their home countries, searched far and wide for it, and found almost nothing. The few cases they did see didn’t resemble the typical Western version at all – for example, one Hong Kong psychiatrist was able to find a woman who refused to eat out of grief when a boyfriend left her, but she didn’t think she was fat, or feel any cultural pressure to be thinner. The absence of anorexia abroad was especially surprising since anorexics tend to end up in the hospital with extremely noticeable malnutrition that doesn’t really mimic anything else. It’s not really possible to hide severe anorexia the way you can hide severe depression.

In 1994, Hong Kong got its own Karen Carpenter — a young girl died of anorexia, setting off a national panic and many public awareness campaigns. Near-instantly, anorexia rates shot up to the same level as the West, with the appropriate number of people presenting to hospital ERs with severe malnutrition.


My own experience with sensitization: every so often my house gets infested by ants and some of them crawl on me. Then I get rid of the ants, but even after they’re gone, for a couple of weeks I can still feel hallucinatory ant-crawling feelings on my arms. You can think of this as setting a threshold that balances false positives and false negatives – my nervous system will always be noisy, get random itches, etc, when do I interpret any particular pattern of impulses as a crawling ant? If I set the threshold too high, I will miss real ants; if I set it too low, I will get fake ants. Presumably there’s some optimal threshold, and that threshold is lower when I know there are ants around and probably one will crawl on me soon. Somehow my brain does the proper Bayesian math under the hood, and so I am afflicted with a few weeks of false positives. Honestly I am getting away lucky; in delusional parasitosis this becomes a trapped prior and they feel it forever.

Bodily sensations seem to be especially sensitive to this.


The ancient Romans loved war. If you loved war, and killed a lot of people, that made you glorious. Nobody worried it meant you were a bloodthirsty psychopath. Or if you were, it’s fine! The past twelve emperors were bloodthirsty psychopaths! Their families, concubines, and guards were all bloodthirsty psychopaths! You’ll fit right in! Relatedly, it doesn’t seem like the Romans had PTSD.

In our society, it’s commonly believed that War Is Hell, and if you enjoy it too much, you might be a bloodthirsty psychopath. Relatedly, estimates of what percent of veterans get PTSD range from 15% to 85%. I’m not sure the 85% number is accurate, but if it was, and I was a veteran, and I wasn’t getting PTSD, I might start worrying that this was starting to signal negative things about me. If my unconscious felt the same way, maybe I’d develop a few PTSD symptoms, just to be safe.

We’re conducting a massive experiment in how far you can take this. People now believe that you can be traumatized by hearing someone express the wrong opinion during a college class — and that intellectuals with sensitive souls and diverse equity-loving justice-promoting minorities will be traumatized most of all. I suspect all of this is true, if you believe it.


“Okay, but gender dysphoria?”

Hopefully now the answer is obvious: it is and it isn’t. People have been having gender identity crises since the beginning of time. There’s some evidence some of this is biological; people with closer to opposite-sex hormone profiles and so on are more likely to end up transgender, and very off-base hormone profiles seem to produce gender issues pretty consistently. But in our modern society, which has a category/guess/narrative around this, it seems to happen orders of magnitude more often than in other societies. And in societies with different categories/guesses/narratives, it happens differently — a lot of people who are transgender today would have been cross-dressers or lesbians 30 years ago.


So fine, yes, gender dysphoria shares some resemblance to culture-bound illnesses; I would put it around the same level as anorexia. But be careful: everything shares some resemblance to everything. What if transphobia is our culture’s version of the penis-stealing witch panic? Wise but evil women (gender studies professors) are using incomprehensible black arts (post-modernism) to make people lose their penises. Sure, those people are losing their penises through voluntary sex-change surgery, but this is just another case of the general principle that we replace the magical explanations natural to other cultures with the medicalized explanations natural to our own. And sure, other culture’s panics involved fake/illusory penis loss and ours involves the real thing, but this is just another case of the general principle that modern Western civilization turns other culture’s myths into reality. When they were telling tall tales about men who flew like birds, we went ahead and invented the airplane; when they imagined golems, we created working robots. Now we’ve finally gotten around to penis-stealing witches.

America really is the greatest country in the world.