This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 13. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
The term “jet lag” is younger than I am, dating back to roughly 1966. Whoever coined it wasn’t yet talking about flying 11 hours through eight time zones, which is what I did over the weekend. (Having learned my lesson, I altered my original itinerary through Amsterdam and went Heathrow to LAX, which gave me a nice day in London.) And I hadn’t even gotten over my L.A.-to-Europe jet lag when I returned after two weeks. Must be getting old. Older than jet lag…
That’s my sorry excuse for not getting a newsletter out this weekend or even on Monday.
There are two different machines: one to twist silk filaments into strong silk thread and a second one to load those finished threads onto spindles for transport. Here they are in the museum.
While researching The Fabric of Civilization I visited three different museums that feature these machines. Here’s a video I shot at Civico museo setificio Monti in Abbadia Lariana, where the throwing machine dates to 1818, making it relatively recent.
There’s also an excellent museum, the Civico Museo della Seta Abegg, in Garlate, not far from Como on a different finger of the lake that splits at Bellagio.
I went back to Caraglio because I’m going to try writing some children’s books about textile history, starting with one set there. The books would feature fictional child protagonists and stories but historical facts.1 It’s amazing how much you realize you don’t know when you move from nonfiction to fiction and have to flesh out a setting. Even though I’d supposedly done the research, I realized how little I knew about exactly what life was like in these mills. Silk cocoons are harvested in the spring and summer and the filaments need to be reeled off as soon as possible. I knew this when I was writing The Fabric of Civilization—it comes up in discussions of incremental Chinese innovations—but hadn’t thought about the implications for the labor force in Italian mills. The maestre who expertly reeled the filaments were working very intensely but only a few months a year. The mills were a supplement to agricultural labor.
1 I might, however, try a purely nonfiction biography of Agostino Bassi.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on July 22, 2022 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on July 5. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
After attending a conference in Utrecht, on Saturday I flew to Italy to do some follow-on textile research. Leaving Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, however, required first standing in a four-hour line, longer any line I’ve seen in my 62+ years of life. Thousands of people, several miles long (I estimate 6 km based on the Pokemon Go count). Staff handed out bottles of water in a couple of places and gave us cookies to keep up our strength. We’d go through a massively long line in one room, only to emerge into another room or outside staging area at least as long. The longest imaginable Disneyland line would equal perhaps one of these segments.
The problem arises from staff shortages in security. It’s been pretty well reported in Europe but aside from Bloomberg (e.g., here and here) and specialty sites (e.g., here and here) the massive delays at this major hub have gotten relatively little attention in the U.S. I got to the airport more than three hours before my flight, naively imagining I’d have time to spare. Instead, I only made my flight to Florence because it was seriously delayed and even so, the doors were closed when I arrived at the gate. As the agents were telling me I couldn’t board, a pilot came out and said to let me on.
My itinerary calls for a return through Schiphol after an overnight stay in Amsterdam. I’m trying to figure out a way to avoid those lines.
Damadian created the world’s first MRI scanner after he realized that cancerous cells would produce different magnetic resonance signals when compared to normal, non-cancerous cells. Prompted by Damadian’s discoveries, Lauterbur developed a way for MRI machines to visualize these cells’ signal differences and produce a clear image of inside a patient’s body. Finally, Mansfield created a technique for MRI scans to be conducted in just seconds, rather than hours, and for the image that the scanners produced to be significantly clearer, and therefore more accurate. Each year, hundreds of millions of MRI scans take place. Thanks to their use, untold millions of lives have been extended or saved.
Mine is one of those lives. In 2007, I was diagnosed with what appeared to be a minor case of breast cancer. The tumor was tiny and it looked like I’d get surgery to cut it out and then possibly radiation treatment. The day before surgery, I went in for an MRI to map the cancer so that acupuncture-like needles could be inserted the next day to guide the surgeon. When I showed up for the surgery, I learned that the MRI had revealed massive amounts of lymphovascular invasion that had been completely undetected on mammograms. The cancer was much more serious than expected. That surgery, which failed to get clean margins, was followed by chemotherapy, more surgery, radiation, and—critically important—the miracle drug Herceptin.
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 22. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
I’m headed off to the Breakthrough Institute’s Dialogue 2022 conference, where tomorrow morning I’ll be on a panel discussing Ezra Klein’s idea of “supply side progressivism.” Ezra says he’s been reading The Future and Its Enemies and characterizes himself as what I call a technocrat, which is no doubt correct. But his critique of the problem of getting stuff done is basically correct, and I see some possibilities for a positive coalition with strong dynamist elements.
To see what we’re up against, read this NYT article on a Bay Area woman’s fight to block a 20-unit condo development on a vacant lot. (I live in a 14-unit condo development, built in 1975, so this is essentially an argument that people like the Postrels ruin the neighborhood.) She’s straight out of The Future and Its Enemies, complete with devotion to E.F. Schumacher.
Susan Kirsch is a 78-year-old retired teacher who lives in a small cottage home in Mill Valley, Calif., on a quiet suburban street that looks toward a grassy knoll. A Sierra Club member with a pesticide-free garden, she has an Amnesty International sticker on her front window and a photograph on her refrigerator of herself and hundreds of other people spelling “TAX THE 1%” on a beach.
The cause that takes up most of her time, however, is fighting new development and campaigning for the right of suburban cities to have near total control over what gets built in them….
After all, this is a person who once wrote an op-ed that said the removal of five trees in Mill Valley sent “existential messages to our fellow citizens of the world.” Who has fought for two decades to prevent a developer from putting 20 condominiums on a hill at the end of her street.
Ms. Kirsch’s nonprofit, Catalysts for Local Control, opposes just about every law the California legislature puts forward to address the state’s housing and homelessness problem. In Zoom meetings with her members, she describes lawmakers’ intentions in dark terms and drives the message home with graphics that say things like, “Our homes and cities are under attack.”
It might seem kitschy if it weren’t so effective. Susan Kirsch was 60 when she began her fight against the condos down the block. Eighteen years later, the hill remains dirt.
Enclaves and the Problem of “Stakeholder Capitalism”
Stakeholder capitalism implicitly assumes a cultural consensus identical to whatever its advocates believe. It harks back to the mid-20th century, when big US companies enjoyed little competition, mass media marginalized all but a narrow range of political, religious and social views, and hierarchy and security dominated worker expectations. It pretends social media, Slack channels and “bringing your whole self to work” don’t exist.
For a purer version of what stakeholder-oriented management can engender, forget profits and political disagreements. Look at the turmoil roiling all sorts of left-wing nonprofits. In a report in the Intercept, Ryan Grim details why Washington D.C.-based groups have spent the past few years engaged in “knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines.”
Read the whole thing here. Bloomberg allows a limited number of free reads. If you hit the paywall, you can read an ungated version here, thanks to my WaPo subscription, but it doesn’t have the all-important links. (I eventually put my columns on my site, but I have to wait at least 90 days.)
Speaking of Twitter, I highly encourage anyone on it to switch to the chronological feed. Suddenly people you forgot you were following will show up (at least if you follow a lot of people). From Home, click the sparkly icon in the upper right and choose “Switch to latest Tweets.”
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on June 14. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
In between other subjects and more pressing deadlines, I’ve been thinking about purity. Our public discussions have become obsessed with it.
The pandemic has forced us to contend with a new and invisible contaminant, resulting in conflicts about monitoring, safeguarding, and defining purity. Is wearing a mask a vital shield or a violation of individual integrity? Does a vaccine protect against contamination or constitute pollution?
The quest for purity informs cancel culture. It pushes partisans to ever-greater extremes, even when those positions are politically self-defeating. It turns historical heroes /into villains and closes nuclear power plants in the face of climate change. It makes the ideal the enemy of the improved, the perfect the exterminator of the better. If we want to understand our cultural moment, we need to think seriously about purity.
I like and admire Jon Haidt, but I don’t believe this claim. I have lived too long in the land of detox cleanses and Prop. 65 warnings to accept that liberals don’t care about purity, sometimes to an obsessive degree. And I have witnessed too many libertarian disputes about who qualifies as a “real libertarian” to equate laissez-faire attitudes toward sex, drugs, and bioengineering with indifference to purity.
In reminding us of the importance of purity in defining political identity, moral foundations theory points in a useful direction. But anthropology is more useful than psychology in understanding what’s going on. Purity concerns are a human universal. They just take different forms.
What Constitutes Contamination?
Purity is about identifying and eliminating contaminants—anomalies that are sources of danger. The danger may be physical, spiritual, cultural, or moral. To purify is to purge whatever is out of place. It establishes what belongs by banishing what does not. “The quest for purity is pursued by rejection,” writes anthropologist Mary Douglas in her landmark 1966 book Purity and Danger.
Every culture and every person beyond infancy maintains standards separating clean from unclean, safe from hazardous, permitted from forbidden. We police purity when we do laundry, copyedit manuscripts, or recite religious creeds. Vegans observe one system of dietary purity, paleo adherents another. Concepts of purity are among the essential classifications we use to navigate the world.
“Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience,” writes Douglas. Shared purity standards define communities. The rituals, customs, and mores that maintain purity embody communal values and beliefs.
The critical question, then, is not whether we care about purity but what we count as contamination. What characterizes an impurity? How small a trace constitutes pollution? Who decides? In many forms, these are the questions roiling our culture.While many discussions of purity focus on the first question, the second and third are just as important—and not just for environmental regulators measuring effluents in parts per million. The law of diffusion dictates that every vegan dinner contains microscopic traces of dead animals, yet the alternative to ingesting them is starvation. Absolute purity is intolerable. At some level, the pollutant must cease to count. But how do we determine what that level is?
Take the latest Twitter-fueled purity purge and the organizational “dumpster fire” that followed. Dave Weigel, a national political reporter for The Washington Post, retweeted a lame joke: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” Felicia Sonmez, another national political reporter, tweeted an objection. Weigel apologized and deleted the offending joke. Sonmez then went on a multi-day Twitter campaign complaining about Weigel’s tweet, the Post’s social media policies, and the sometimes-abusive pushback against her tweets. Memos were issued. Statements were made. Weigel was suspended for 30 days without pay. Finally, the Postfired Sonmez.1
You might consider the joke unacceptably sexist and thus an impurity. But you might also deem it minor and dumb, the equivalent of a spot of lint on your clothes, to be flicked away and forgotten. Alternatively, you might consider it an indicator of deeper crimes, a social version of Lady Macbeth’s damn’d spot. Different people would make different judgments about whether Weigel violated the Post’s community-defining purity conventions and, if so, how seriously. Who decides what should be done? Who makes the rules about how best to restore purity?
Who makes the rules?
Here, another aspect of Douglas’s work offers a valuable rubric. In several forms over the course of her career, Douglas developed what she called Grid-Group theory.2 It posits two key dimensions that define the characteristics of social groups. Group is how integrated the members are with each other—how tight the group’s identity is. Grid is how rigid and well defined the rules are for establishing status and power.
The result is a two-by-two matrix. Douglas classified groups with clear identities and rules as “hierarchies” and those with low integration and open status as “individualist.” The rare category of rigid status and low group affiliation she called “isolate.” And then there was the “enclave,” a well-defined community where power and status are always in flux. That’s where things get interesting, and sometimes frightening.
With no official authority, enclaves rely on emotional commitments and strongly held beliefs to maintain community cohesion. As a result, they tend to be subject to bouts of dangerous enthusiasm—literal and metaphorical witch hunts—in which belonging demands conformity to increasingly narrow patterns of thought and behavior. To stay cohesive, enclaves do a lot of banishing and boundary policing.
In an enclave, unleashing charges of impurity is a way to wield or obtain power. In traditional African cultures with enclave structures, Douglas observed, one result was the weaponization of sorcery allegations. “Any young man can plausibly accuse of sorcery a reactionary old incumbent of an office which he himself is qualified to occupy when the senior obstacle has been removed.” But, she warns, “If sorcery beliefs really serve as instruments for self-promotion they also ensure that the ladder of promotion is short and shaky.”
The 21st-century American version of sorcery allegations are charges of racism, sexism, harassment, and similar offenses. Many examples of “cancel culture” occur in enclaves—fan groups, for instance, or loose professional associations. In 2020, the online knitting community was torn apart by what British journalist Gavin Haynes dubbed a “purity spiral,” in which people who thought of themselves as kind-hearted liberals were suddenly ostracized and boycotted for alleged white supremacy.
The knitters in this purity spiral were a classic enclave. They were a tightly bound community (high “group”) without definite lines of authority (low “grid”). Although some knitters might be more influential than others at a given time, that influence was the outcome of choices among equals and could change at any time. Whether calculated or sincere, charges of white supremacy an opportunity to those seeking to enhance their own status—and posed a danger to the already prominent.
A newspaper is traditionally a hierarchy. Editors decide what gets published and who gets promoted. They decide what work is good and when good work justifies overlooking body odor, foul language, or other less-than-desirable personal qualities. They establish rules about what behaviors are off limits, whether accepting gifts from sources or, that favorite movie cliché, sleeping with them. They force writers to omit serial commas.
The internet, especially social media, has upended not just journalism’s business model but its organizational assumptions. Publication has become instantaneous, the line between professional journalism and personal expression blurry. Attention is precious, and journalists are rewarded for attracting traffic to themselves as well as their employers. The “brand called you” that Tom Peters prophesied in 1997 has become essential to surviving as a writer.
That model works for an individual operating independently, or as a gig worker going from job to job. But when infused into an organization, it threatens to turn a hierarchy into an enclave. When that happens, the sorcery charges start flying.
Last October, Anne Applebaum published an article in The Atlantic, appropriately titled “The New Puritans.” It did a good job of chronicling many recent purity spirals and establishing some consistent patterns.
The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices—these are rather typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes, enforced by heavy peer pressure. This is a story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. The crowds are no longer literal, as they once were in Salem, but rather online mobs, organized via Twitter, Facebook, or sometimes internal company Slack channels.
In response, Adam Gurri of Liberal Currents emphasized the selectiveness of Applebaum’s reporting. Of her roughly dozen sources, he wrote, “nearly all are professors or journalists at institutions like Yale or the New York Times, many quite prominent within those prestigious institutions.” The numbers are small, he maintained, and the people are privileged. Institutions always behave badly. All that has changed is that anyone can now be a publisher. “Between phone cameras, the stored and shareable nature of digital communication, and the Internet, everyone can now put a story out into the public view,” he wrote, and “that dramatically increases the overall odds that a media scandal will originate from within an institution.”
There’s a problem with this analysis. Simply because you possess documentary evidence of something negative about someone in your organization doesn’t mean you will be inclined to share it, even if you would like for the information to become public. Rules and bosses will stop you—if, that is, the organization is a hierarchy and you want to remain within it.
Applebaum’s New Puritans succeed because former hierarchies like The New York Times and Yale University are evolving into enclaves. The path to power and status is ill-defined, and anyone can police the group boundaries. Through allegations of impurity, students and employees who theoretically have little authority can quickly erode the legitimacy of veteran editors and even tenured faculty.
Terrifying for the relatively few individuals targeted, purity purges strike fear more broadly because they lack a stopping point. Zealous or ambitious people can keep shifting and tightening the definition of impurities. Even if the numbers are small, at least for the present, institutional structures have shifted in ways that portend amplifying conflict. And while the consequences for individuals may be severe, the social results could be devastating. Knitters may get along fine after a few purges and schisms, but how can knowledge-seeking organizations like universities and publications do their jobs if their members are afraid to be difficult or different? If they manage to function, will they remain credible?
The good news for those who fear the mob will come for them is that most workplaces are still definite hierarchies with no danger of becoming enclaves. They have clear profit-making missions and clear lines between company speech and personal expression. To keep employees from talking about internal matters, they have nondisclosure agreements and threats of termination.
It’s possible for ordinary people to become subject to enclave-driven social-media attacks, and small business owners, like some in the knitting story, are particularly vulnerable. But in most cases, there’s not enough to be gained. For those in the business of expression, however, the calls will come from inside the house until someone asserts the authority to stop them.
2 The best known version of Grid-Group was developed in her 1983 book with Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture. Reflecting Wildavsky’s concerns as a libertarian-leaning political scientist, that version places more emphasis on ideological or political commitments rather than social structure. Here I draw on Douglas’s more purely anthropological analysis.
I have more to say on purity, as well as many questions I haven’t yet thought hard about. It might make a good subject for a book. What do you think? Here’s some wisdom on the subject, from one of my favorite films.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on July 22, 2022 • Comments