Wrestling With the Founding in the Culture Wars (Thomas W. Merrill, 1/11/24, Law & Liberty)

Thomas Jefferson was weirder and more complex than our political discourse today can easily acknowledge. Consider these two facts. On the one hand, Jefferson was, as we might say today, French Revolution adjacent. He was sympathetic to the revolution for a long time, perhaps longer than we today feel comfortable with. In a well-known letter to William Short in 1793, Jefferson praised, or at least accepted, the violence of the revolution as necessary for the cause of human freedom. On the other hand, at the end of his life, Jefferson was Southern secessionist adjacent. The whole point of the famous letter to John Holmes of 1820, sometimes called the “wolf by the ear” letter, is that if Congress tried to regulate slavery in the territories, the Southern states would break the Union. Contrary to Abraham Lincoln’s later appeals to a “founding consensus” on slavery in the territories, carefully crafted for his political audiences, Jefferson thought and argued that slavery should in fact spread throughout the territories.

This Jefferson makes us feel uncomfortable. How can you describe a figure who wrote the Declaration of Independence, sympathized with the radical parts of the French Revolution, and yet still ended up in a place close to what the proslavery South became? We don’t have a name for this. Jefferson continues to frustrate our desire for clear political categories.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps this observation might help. For most of us, the first word that comes to mind when we hear the name Jefferson is “hypocrite.” And of course, it is hard to argue with that, for all the reasons that we already know. The man wrote the Declaration, but owned slaves; he orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase against his narrow interpretation of executive power; the list goes on. At the same time, the word hypocrite doesn’t really do justice to the Jefferson phenomenon. For one thing, hypocrite leads us to think about the situation largely in terms of personal moral behavior, as though it were simply a matter of someone preaching one thing in public but acting differently in private. Now, there is a dimension of Jefferson’s actions that fits this—think of Sally Hemings.

But there’s another word that fits Jefferson better. That word is tragedy or grand self-contradiction. In tragedy, precisely at the moment when he becomes himself most fully, the hero also undermines everything he holds highest.


For Enslaved Cooks, Persimmon Beer Combined Ingenuity and Joy: A conversation with Michael Twitty about the powerful history behind a centuries-old beverage. (DIANA HUBBELL, NOVEMBER 12, 2021, Atlas Obscura)

MICHAEL TWITTY, THE JAMES BEARD Award–winning culinary historian, estimates he has brewed his grandmother’s persimmon beer about a dozen times. Made by fermenting Diospyros virginiana, the diminutive North American persimmon, with sugar, honey, and yeast, persimmon beer is more akin to fruit wine or liqueur than anything brewed with barley, malt, and hops. Twitty continues to make his family recipe for its sweet-tart flavor and striking amber hue imbued by red pine straw. More than anything, though, he continues the tradition of fermenting this gently boozy elixir because of its deep ties to Black American history and its power to start conversations.

In his book The Cooking Gene, Twitty describes the experience of sharing a batch with contemporary Civil War reenactors. “Persimmon beer became my social lubricant of choice, even with a whole troop of Confederate soldiers,” he writes. Twitty notes that it was likely the very same drink with which his ancestors would have toasted their freedom in 1865.

For generations of Black families across the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries, persimmon beer played an integral role in daily life. In his quest to uncover more about the foodways of his ancestors, Twitty learned that American persimmon trees are a genetic echo of fruit trees in West Africa, and that both the plant and the beverage provide a thread across the history and geography of the African diaspora.

With ’simmon season currently in full swing, Gastro Obscura spoke to Twitty about his family history, the importance and evolution of foraging, and how much a single recipe can reveal.


What’s a prez to do? Grant and the Klan (H. W. BRANDS, JAN 27, 2024, A User’s Guide to History)

South Carolina was the test case. South Carolina had long been the most troublesome of states; it was the loudest agitator for states’ rights and the first state to vote for secession. In 1871, South Carolina allowed the Klan to rampage out of control, threatening and committing violence, including murder, against black men who were trying to exercise their right to vote. Judges and juries in South Carolina, even if they had been inclined to deliver justice to black victims, were themselves intimidated.

Grant had to decide what to do. If he did nothing, much of the victory his army had won during the war might be lost during the peace. Federal authority would be nullified even without secession. South Carolina’s bad example would surely spread.

He pondering deploying the army, but he wasn’t sure of his authority to do so. Under the Constitution he was commander in chief, but that didn’t mean he could dispatch the army whenever and wherever he wished. Moreover, once he sent in the army, how would he extricate it? The army might impose good behavior on South Carolinians, but what would prevent them from bad behavior once the army left? The army couldn’t stay in South Carolina forever.

Grand decided he couldn’t do nothing. To bolster his authority, he had his allies in Congress present a bill to authorize the use of force against the Klan. His model was a force act Congress had approved in the 1830s giving Jackson authority to suppress a potential rebellion in South Carolina when that state was complaining about a tariff it didn’t like. The Ku Klux Klan Act, as it was called when passed, aligned the legislative branch with the executive on the matter of enforcing federal law in the South. Whether the judicial branch would object remain to be seen.

Grant was willing to take that chance. He ordered the army into South Carolina for the purpose of enforcing federal law and breaking up the Klan. Martial law allowed the arrest of many hundreds of Klansmen and fellow travelers without the requirement of habeas corpus. Others got the message and fled ahead of the troops.

Southerners and Democrats howled that Grant was making himself a military dictator. Having been called worse things during the war— butcher and drunkard, most often—he was unfazed.

The action was more successful than he had hoped. Although the detainees couldn’t be charged under federal law with anything worse than conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights— murder, assault and most other crimes remained under the exclusive jurisdiction of states in those days— several hundred were prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned or fined.

The political effect was the most important consequence. The Klansmen and their abettors realized they weren’t beyond the reach of the law. Grant’s action ended the reign of the Klan in the South, until it was resurrected and expanded to other sections of the country in the 20th century.


Statistical Significance—and Why It Matters for Parenting (Emily Oster, Jan 29 2024, Parent Data)

Publication bias and p-hacking are two shorthand, jargony ways to describe journal and researcher behaviors that make it more likely that the results we observe in published papers are occurring just by chance.

First: Academic journals are more likely to publish papers that find significant results. It’s not hard to see why this might be true. It’s not very interesting to publish a result saying that M&M color doesn’t impact multiplication speed — that’s kind of what we expected. But a result that says it does matter — that’s more surprising, and more likely to spark the interest of a journal editor.

This is what we call publication bias, and it turns out that this pattern means that the results we see in print are actually a lot more likely to be statistical accidents. Often, many researchers are looking into the same question. It’s not just my research team who is interested in the M&M-multiplication relationship — imagine there are 99 other teams doing the same thing. Even if there is no relationship, on average 5 of those teams will find something significant.

These 5 “successful” teams are more likely to get their results published. That’s what we all see in journals, but what we do not see is the 95 times it didn’t work. When we read these studies, we’re assuming, implicitly, that we are seeing all the studies that were run. But we’re not, and we’re more likely to see the significant-by-chance results.

The issue of publication bias would be problematic just on its own. But it’s even more problematic when it interacts with researchers’ incentives. Researchers need to publish, and (see above) it is easier to do so when results are significant. This can lead to what people sometimes call p-hacking (the “p” stands for probability).

When researchers run a study, there are often a lot of ways to analyze the data. You can analyze the impact on different subgroups of the population. You can analyze the impact of different circumstances. You can test many different treatments. The idea of the xkcd cartoon is that you could test the impact of all the different M&M colors on some outcome.

The more of these tests you do, the more likely you are to get a significant effect by chance. If you do 100 tests, you expect 5 of them to be significant at the 5% level. And then, because of publication bias, you write up the results focusing only on the significant groups or significant M&M colors. Of course, those are just accidental. But as a consumer of research, we do not see all the other things that happened in the background.

For these two reasons: some of what we see published, even if it is from a randomized experiment, is likely to be a result of statistical chance. There is a somewhat notorious paper that suggests that “most” research findings are false; I think this is overkill, but it’s a perspective.


Some people just want to watch the world burn: the prevalence, psychology and politics of the ‘Need for Chaos’ (Kevin Arceneaux, Timothy B. Gravelle, Mathias Osmundsen, Michael Bang Petersen, Jason Reifler and Thomas J. Scotto, 22 February 2021, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society)

Across all four countries, most people fell in the Low Chaos category and few people fell in the High Chaos category, but combining the Rebuild and High Chaos categories showed that there is support for some degree of chaos-seeking at around 20% in the four Anglo-Saxon countries. Is this something that should be worrying from a normative standpoint? We believe that the Latent Profile Analysis helps answer this question. If 20% of a country yearned for a violent overthrow of the current system, it would be worrying, but it seems that a considerable fraction of this 20% does not want destruction for the sake of destruction, but rather they imagine rebuilding society’s institutions in a way that does not involve violence. We leave aside whether their particular vision is a ‘good’ one, and simply note that most Utopian visions begin with the notion that society must be remade in some fundamental way.

We then turned our attention to exploring whether demographic and political characteristics help differentiate who falls in the different latent profile categories. Echoing previous research, we found evidence that chaos-seeking tends to be higher among the young, men and those with less than a college degree. Interestingly, we did not find consistent differences in terms of demographics between the Rebuilder and High Chaos subtypes. This would suggest that chaos-seekers, whether they like destruction for the sake of destruction or not, may be motivated by a sense of marginalization and grievance that exists at high levels in Western society today [7].

We also found that individuals who identify as Right wing were also more likely to fall in the High Chaos category, yet when we turned our attention to the political preferences of these individuals, the only consistent pattern that emerged was a dislike of immigration. Consistent with [8], we do not find much evidence that individuals in the High Chaos category are idealistic visionaries who want to dismantle social and political institutions to build a better world. Our evidence was much more consistent with the results of previous research that paint individuals high on the NFCChaos scale as nihilists who are only looking out for themselves. In contrast, individuals who fell in the Rebuild category did seem to have something approaching a social outlook. They do not like new lifestyles and, in the USA, they are not fans of capitalism. Perhaps these individuals want to replace established political institutions to make the world a better place (at least their view of what constitutes ‘better’.).


Unseen Innovation (Donald J. Boudreaux, February 1, 2024, AIER)

[E]ven when the market’s achievements are within plain sight — literally visible to the naked eye — they are often overlooked. Some innovations, such as the microwave oven in the 1970s and the smartphone in the first decade of this century, are so novel when they arrive on the scene that they’re oohhhed and aahhhed at first. But because the market soon makes these goodies affordable to almost everyone, they quickly become commonplace and expected.

And if, as is almost always the case, continued innovation and market competition drive the prices of these marvelous and amazing goods ever-further downward, they soon come to be regarded as cheap and frivolous trinkets — evidence, it is said, of the market elevating the shallow, the material, and the atomized individual over the profound, the spiritual, and the soul-sustaining community. Only sociopathic homo economicus and his silly defenders resist efforts to protect workers and communities from the vicious and soulless global competition that greedily spews out the baubles and gee-gaws available at Walmart and Target.

Workers and communities, apparently, would be far better off if the market were sclerotic and kept the likes of microwave ovens, smartphones, fresh blueberries in winter, and 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets so scarce as to be affordable only by hedge-fund managers and Hollywood starlets. Hoi polloi, noticing these luxuries being consumed by the superrich, might suffer a bit of envy, but this displeasure would be, we are told, swamped by the benefits that ordinary people would enjoy from the stability of their jobs and communities. One cannot put a price on the satisfaction experienced by welder Jones knowing that, like his father and grandfather before him, his sons and grandsons after him will also work as welders.

…we are so immersed in affluence we don’t notice it.


People Have Very Different Understandings of Even the Simplest Words (SIMON MAKIN, 2/01/24, Scientific American)

In 2017 Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist who directs the Climate Action Unit at University College London, ran the opening session of a conference on decision-making under uncertainty for an audience of scientists, finance professionals and policy makers. He divided them into groups of six and gave them questions and activities centered on their personal and professional experiences of risk. After a while, some hands went up. “They said, ‘We just realized we cannot agree on the definitions of risk and uncertainty,’” De Meyer says. “Even within those small groups, they ran into irreconcilable differences.”

De Meyer works to improve communication about climate change, and it quickly struck him that a major problem was how often professionals who were involved simply misunderstood one another. This, he says, is because people differ in the concepts they have even for basic terms, so what someone thinks they are saying is often not what others understand. This, he claims, explains why climate scientists struggle to get their messages across and why big financial organizations underestimate the threats of climate change. Recent psychology research shows that conceptual differences of this sort turn up everywhere and that people are usually oblivious to these disparities. Neuroscience studies demonstrate that they are underpinned by differences in how the brain represents concepts, a process influenced by politics, emotion and character. Differences in thinking that have been shaped by lifetimes of experience, practice or beliefs can be almost impossible to shift. But two steps offer a way forward: making people become aware of their differences and encouraging them to choose new language that is free of conceptual baggage.

The very term “concept” is difficult to define.


Why Harry Potter Is a Tory (BEN JUDAH, 1/05/18, American Interest)

[W]hen British readers pick up Harry Potter they instantly recognize it as that most Tory of genres. A piece of public school—and in Britain this of course means not only private but elite education—school days fiction, just with wizards on flying brooms.

Whereas in most postwar British public school fiction, such as the 1968 schoolboy insurrection movie If, the school was the enemy, administering senseless punishments and ridiculous demands, from the Philosopher’s Stone to the end, the real hero in Harry Potter is the school. The enemy, those who wish the institution harm.

But there is something deeply deferential—and utterly Tory—in how Harry takes on Hogwarts. The headmaster is practically the boy’s best friend, and he advances by doing exactly as he is told by the wise old Dumbledore. The order the school represents is nothing malevolent in the Potterverse—an enchanted Tom Brown’s School Days. There are no tie-loosening, headmaster-hating rebels for us to identify with at Hogwarts for J.K. Rowling. Only Dumbledore’s boys.

Right to the end—and this is one of the rare moments of dissatisfaction I can usually detect amongst Potterheads—Harry does the Establishment Thing and not marry Cho Chang, but Ginny Weasley, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic, but financially threadbare, noble line.

But is that enough to find Harry Potter inherently Tory?

Not until we enter the Ministry of Magic.

To me, perhaps the most blatantly Tory strain running through the Potterverse is the portrayal of Wizarding Whitehall. Nothing good can ever come of the Ministry of Magic, whose bureaucrats are badgering nincompoops with names like Cornelius Fudge and Pius Thicknesse, men who talk down to the befuddled Muggle Prime Minister, informing him how things are really run through a portrait and a fireplace in Number 10 Downing Street, like a voice of a Regency Palace emissary.

Not only are bureaucrats goofy and gluttonous, but every intervention by the Department of Mysteries and the Department for Magical Accidents and Catastrophes makes things worse. Problems, in Harry Potter’s world, can only be solved by the Wizards themselves—by the Tory Big Society of chipper public spirited Wizards. All that can be hoped for, even under Minister For Magic Hermione in J.K Rowling’s latest 2016 theatre spinoff Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is for government to be less corrupt. Magic will never come to the masses.

There is something terribly Tory too, in what Potter is fighting for, and the way he goes about it. What does he do with that extraordinary Elder Wand? What does he do with with second chance at life?

There is no magical socialism in the epilogue “Nineteen Years Later” at the end of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. There is no life’s work (and clearly no interest) in bringing the magical and muggle worlds back together for all mankind. All we see at Platform 9¾ is Harry Potter cheerfully sending off his children on the Hogwarts Express to public school. Harry has protected a venerable institution and then has simply pottered off, to live out his days in some secluded wizarding Surrey.

But what about Lord Voldemort? The hole in Harry Potter is that there is no meaningful interrogation of the system that produced Voldemort—the system of segregation and secrecy between muggles and magicians. As long as Harry Potter shows no interest in opening Hogwarts, handing everyone in Britain a wand, and closing down the Ministry of Magic, the system that produced both Voldemort, Grindelwald and the Death Eaters, the political system of which Slytherin is an inherent part, will remain.

Because as long as there are muggles and magicians, as long as there is magical blood, there will be wizards who think they are racially superior to the muggle-born, meritocratically catapulted into Hogwarts, and wizards who dream of slavery. But Potter is perfectly happy sending his son up to Hogwarts, at Platform 9¾, next to a now-pater familias Draco Malfoy.