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How slavery became America’s first big business

Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.

The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.

But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.

To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton. Link

The future of religion

Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – have supernatural aspects (animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animatism). These must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. (An exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practised in hyper-modern Japan.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral instructions: Yahweh, Christ and Allah. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues it was belief in these “Big Gods” that allowed the formation of societies made up of large numbers of strangers. Whether that belief constitutes cause or effect has recently been disputed, but the upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves. Link

The benefits of spending time alone

Loneliness has been called an epidemic of the modern era, and social isolation has been linked to all sorts of health problems, including heart disease, stroke and premature death. But there’s a difference between being socially isolated and enjoying your own company.

From stronger friendships to helping improve your focus – there’s a lot to be said for being a so-called “loner”. Ever wonder why all your best ideas come to you in the bath or on a walk? Creativity has been linked to being more reclusive, and spending time by yourself can be relaxing. Link

The Arab world in seven charts

Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious, according to the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa.

The finding is one of a number on how Arabs feel about a wide range of issues, from women’s rights and migration to security and sexuality.

More than 25,000 people were interviewed for the survey – for BBC News Arabic by the Arab Barometer research network – across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories between late 2018 and spring 2019.

Here are some of the results. Link

Science has fallen apart about ‘the Mediterranean diet’

The million-dollar question in nutrition science is this: What should we eat to live a long and healthy life?

Researchers’ answers to this question have often been contradictory and confusing. But in recent decades, one diet has attracted the lion’s share of research dollars and public attention: the Mediterranean way of eating. And in 2013, its scientific cred was secured with PREDIMED, one of the most important recent diet studies published.

The study’s delicious conclusion was that eating as the Spanish, Italian, and Greeks do — dousing food in olive oil and loading up on fish, nuts, and fresh produce — cuts cardiovascular disease risk by a third. As Stanford University health researcher – and nutrition science critic – John Ioannidis put it: “It was the best. The best of the best.”

Not anymore. Last June, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine pulled the original paper from the record, issuing a rare retraction. It also republished a new version of PREDIMED, based on a reanalysis of the data that accounted for the missteps.

PREDIMED was supposed to be an example of scientific excellence in a field filled with conflicted and flawed studies. Yet it now appears to be horribly flawed. Link

Humans didn’t start out being able to digest animal milk

Dairy milk has competition. Alternative “milks” made from plants like soya or almonds are increasingly popular. These alternatives are often vegan-friendly and can be suitable for people who are allergic to milk, or intolerant of it. The runner-up in the 2018 series of The Apprentice (UK) ran a flavoured nut milk business.

But the rise of alternative milks is just the latest twist in the saga of humanity’s relationship with animal milk. This relationship dates back thousands of years, and it has had a lot of ups and downs.

When you think about it, milk is a weird thing to drink. It’s a liquid made by a cow or other animal to feed its young; we have to squirt it out of the cow’s udders to obtain it. Link

How the West became self-obsessed

It’s quite extraordinary. They put people from the West and people from East Asia into the lab and found that their cognition still works in ways that reflect the history of their respective cultures, and that history was shaped in large part by geography. For instance, the landscape in East Asia 2,500 years ago was totally different than Greece. It was landlocked, with low mountains and undulating landscapes. To get ahead, you had to be part of a big farming community either growing wheat or rice, and you had to participate in these massive irrigation projects that were essential to group success.

Nisbett put Western people and people from East Asia in a lab and had them look at a cartoon of a fish tank, in which there was a big individualistic flashy fish at the front and lots of smaller fish around it. They tracked tiny unconscious eye movements to see what people were paying attention to. They discovered that Western people were largely focused on the big flashy fish out front and East Asian people were largely focused on the group of smaller fish around it.

Afterward, they asked people from both groups what they saw, and the Westerners said, “Oh, I saw a fish,” and the East Asian people said, “I saw a fish tank,” and they would describe the context. The researchers then asked them what they thought of the fish, and the Westerners would say that the big fish was obviously the leader and the East Asian people would say they felt sorry for the big fish because it had obviously been excluded from the group.

That’s a long answer, but the point is really important. This tendency to focus on the self, on the individual, runs deep in our cultural history, and it’s not something we can easily escape. Link

Great civilisations take their own lives

The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.

We know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities levelled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking. We can also invest in recovery. There are already well-developed ideas for improving the ability of food and knowledge systems to be recuperated after catastrophe. Avoiding the creation of dangerous and widely-accessible technologies is also critical. Such steps will lessen the chance of a future collapse becoming irreversible.

We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past. Link

Why we stopped trusting elites

Because, we don’t trust them anymore.

For hundreds of years, modern societies have depended on something that is so ubiquitous, so ordinary, that we scarcely ever stop to notice it: trust. The fact that millions of people are able to believe the same things about reality is a remarkable achievement, but one that is more fragile than is often recognised.

The notion that public figures and professionals are basically trustworthy has been integral to the health of representative democracies. After all, the very core of liberal democracy is the idea that a small group of people – politicians – can represent millions of others. If this system is to work, there must be a basic modicum of trust that the small group will act on behalf of the much larger one, at least some of the time. As the past decade has made clear, nothing turns voters against liberalism more rapidly than the appearance of corruption: the suspicion, valid or otherwise, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own private interest. Link

One man’s (very polite) fight

News about Muslims in the British press is rarely positive, but it is never scarce. Consider these stories, published across a typical month towards the end of 2016. In the Times on 9 November 2016, an article announced: “Islamist School Can Segregate Boys and Girls.” On the Daily Express website, nine days later: “Anger as less than A THIRD of Muslim nations sign up to coalition against Isis.” In the Sun online, on 1 December: “SECRET IS SAFE: Half of British Muslims would not go to cops if they knew someone with Isis links.” On the Daily Express site the day after: “New £5 notes could be BANNED by religious groups as Bank CAN’T promise they’re Halal.” On ITV News, the same day: “Half of UK Muslims would not report extremism.” Two days later, in the Sunday Times: “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75% Muslim.” The Mail on Sunday, that same day: “Isolated British Muslims are so cut off from the rest of society that they see the UK as 75% Islamic, shock report reveals.” And another version, in the Sun online: “British Muslims are so cut-off from society they think 75% of the UK is Islamic, report reveals.” Link

It’s Time For a Perspective

Compare the defense budgets of the United States and Russia. The president recently signed a gargantuan $700 billion gift to the Pentagon, with marginal dissent from either party or their affiliated media outlets. The budget increase alone ($61 billion) exceeds Russia’s entire annual expenditure ($46). The U.S. military budget now equals more than the combined budgets of China, Russia, Britain, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, and France. As Vice concluded, “it’s 14 times larger than the Kremlin’s budget.”

Furthermore, covert American operations are deeply invested in interrupting democratic processes not only in Russia, but everywhere else. This includes the heart of Europe, where corporate media is now pretending the United States has always respected happy norms and decorum. It is as if the Snowden leaks never happened. The Defense Department’s tapping of Angela Merkel’s phone never happened. The Obama administration’s spying on the German press, including Der Spiegel, never happened. The same administration’s outing of German government whistle-blowers never happened.

Prominent think tanks in Washington are funded by the Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates contributes generously to the coffers of the Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Center for American Progress (CAP). The Brookings Institute graciously accepts millions from Qatar. The Atlantic Council and Center for Strategic and International Studies enjoy similar arrangements with other oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. The same can be said for numerous other repressive governments beyond the Gulf. And then there are the defense contractors, Wall Street banks, and Silicon Valley behemoths, all of which have joined such governments in capturing intellectual real estate in academia as well. Link

Amateur wine scores are every bit as good as professionals

Few consumer products offer as staggering a range of choice as wine. You can buy a bottle of Dark Horse Big Red Blend for $8. Or for around $500, you can get a 2012 bottle of Sloan Proprietary Red. Yet for each bottle, the same question applies: Is it any good?

For decades, Americans turned to professional critics like Robert Parker to help them make that determination. But the internet changed all that. Link

Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides

Ali A. Risvi

Are you “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine”? It isn’t even noon yet as I write this, and I’ve already been accused of being both.

These terms intrigue me because they directly speak to the doggedly tribal nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You don’t hear of too many other countries being universally spoken of this way. Why these two? Both Israelis and Palestinians are complex, with diverse histories and cultures, and two incredibly similar (if divisive) religions. To come down completely on the side of one or the other doesn’t seem rational to me.

It is telling that most Muslims around the world support Palestinians, and most Jews support Israel. This, of course, is natural — but it’s also problematic. It means that this is not about who’s right or wrong as much as which tribe or nation you are loyal to. It means that Palestinian supporters would be just as ardently pro-Israel if they were born in Israeli or Jewish families, and vice versa. It means that the principles that guide most people’s view of this conflict are largely accidents of birth — that however we intellectualize and analyze the components of the Middle East mess, it remains, at its core, a tribal conflict.

By definition, tribal conflicts thrive and survive when people take sides. Choosing sides in these kinds of conflicts fuels them further and deepens the polarization. And worst of all, you get blood on your hands.

So before picking a side in this Israeli-Palestine conflict, consider these questions: Link

 

“Weathered but wiser”

Our decision to sell up, buy a boat and sail around the world had been slightly more challenging than anticipated.
We had begun the journey with much bravado on our 46-foot yacht “Boomerang” in the UK and ended our first stint weathered and wiser in Sardinia.
During that time, we’d clocked up a rescue from the coast guard thanks to a huge rope we collected around our propeller, two haul outs to get the sail drive fixed, a couple of leaks and countless days in marinas trying to get various gauges and gadgets repaired.
There had been near misses with unidentified vessels on night sails, close calls with erratic powerboat owners in Ibiza and way too much rowing in a fuel-hungry dinghy. Link

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