Sunday, August 30, 2020

How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lessons from European History

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If then that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about.

The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increases, going from nuclear weapons to the control of the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader also increase. 

Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general "science of evil." In this post, I propose a brief exploration of this field that starts with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future. So I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately, there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive and bloodthirsty as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from his story.

Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making.  

The armies of Napoleon Bonaparte went through many victories and a few crushing defeats. Leaving aside the question of whether Napoleon was the military genius that we often think he was (but Lev Tolstoy totally disagreed on this), we can say that at least he had a clear vision of what he was trying to do: creating a Europe-wide French empire. In this sense, the invasion of Russia of 1812 was not a strategic blunder. Napoleon had correctly identified a crucial enemy, Russia, to his imperial ambitions. It was more a tactical mistake: he had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the task.

But Napoleon's task was more difficult than just taking an army across the Russian plains in winter. France's imperial ambitions were difficult to put into practice for a simple reason: resources. As you see in the figure, below, France had only modest coal resources and its production never could match that of its more powerful rivals, England and Germany. And, during the 19th century, coal was the crucial resource that created military power: no coal, no empires.

Yet, in the 19th century, France had an advantage in the European power game. Look at the political map of Europe (the figure shows the situation in 1830). You see France as a large and unitary state placed right in the middle of Europe and surrounded by a plethora of statelets in the East and South. At the beginning of the 19th century, France had the largest coal production and the most developed economy in Europe, apart from Britain,. That was the factor that propelled Napoleon's armies in their conquests. And even after the fall of Napoleon 1st, the situation remained the same: France was the most powerful state of central Europe. 

But France had a problem: it didn't control a crucial region: the Ruhr and its coal mines, the richest of Europe. Without that region, France's coal production from the Vosges and Jura couldn't possibly be enough for France to dominate Europe.

The Ruhr region is today part of Germany and it had been occupied by Prussia already in the 18th century. Napoleon annexed the region in 1801 and turned it to the Grand Duchy of Berg whose ruler was his brother in law, Joachim Murat. Napoleon never made a mistake in judging the strategic importance of a territory. And he probably understood that the Ruhr was the center and the focus of the European coal production. Whoever controlled the Ruhr, controlled central Europe. 

At the same time, another empire was going through its death throes for lack of coal. It was the Ottoman empire, said to be the "Old Man of Europe." But the Ottoman empire was not older than the other states it was facing,  it was just desperately starved of coal. It controlled no mines. That was another strategic element of the puzzle that Napoleon had perfectly understood when he had embarked on the invasion of Egypt in 1798.

Now, imagine yourself in the clothes of a successor of Napoleon Bonaparte. You are the absolute ruler of France and you want your country to dominate Europe, what should you do? Basically, you have to continue what Napoleon himself had started: dominate the center and make sure that the Ruhr mines are yours or, at least, not under the control of a rival power. Then, you have a free hand to expand in the Mediterranean. And, indeed, France had started doing exactly that by conquering Algeria in 1830. At that point, the way for France was open to conquer the whole North African Region from the weak Ottoman Empire. It was not to be exactly a piece of basboussa cake, but it would have been possible to turn the Mediterranean into a French lake.

At this point, we see arriving on the scene Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He managed to be elected president of France in 1848, then he made himself "Emperor" by a coup d'état in 1852, taking the name of "Napoleon III."

The story of Louis Napoleon is long: he ruled France for 22 years, and of the many things he did, not all were wrong. But, in terms of international strategic choices, he was truly a disaster, even worse than our George W. Bush. 

It will suffice to say that Louis Napoleon did exactly the opposite of everything he should have done. Really, if he had been paid by the enemies of France, he couldn't have done more damage than he did. At least, we can consider him as a bad example to ponder. 

Let's start from the beginning. We said that France had started expanding in the Mediterranean already in 1830, conquering Algeria. France could have continued expanding along the North-African coast provided that, 1) Italy was prevented from forming a unified state that would have been a competitor for the same area. 2) France would seek an alliance with Russia to further weaken the Ottoman Empire, and 3) England was kept out of the Mediterranean area as much as possible.

But, as I said, Napoleon III had a knack for doing the opposite of what needed to be done. In 1853, instead of fighting Britain and the Ottomans, he created and led an alliance with them to fight Russia in Crimea. It was a strategic mistake so huge to be truly mind-boggling. France had no strategic interests in the Black Sea and why in the world should the French help the Turks against Russia when the French had a good chance to snatch a huge chunk of the Ottoman possessions in North Africa? 

The Crimean war was a disaster: it was a military victory for the French-led coalition, but it was one of those victories that you would prefer had been defeats. The effort had utterly exhausted the coalition, but far worse was how the Crimean war influenced the events in Italy. Piedmont had sent troops to Crimea in exchange for the promise that France would later help Piedmont to fight Austria. In 1859, Napoleon III felt he had to honor his promise, and he sent troops to Northern Italy to help Piedmont. The result was another victory that one would have preferred having been a defeat. In the wake of the victory, Piedmont conquered the whole Italian Peninsula and unified it in a single state. A complete strategic disaster that saw France help to create a state that in the future would be a competitor and even an enemy. Among other things, in 1911, Italy attacked and conquered Libya, stopping all hopes of France to expand further in North Africa.

Afterward, Napoleon III kept making one mistake after the other, as if he wanted to create a cliff as deep as possible to fall into it faster. He didn't move a finger to stop Prussia from gobbling up its neighbors to create a single, powerful state. He did nothing even when there were good chances for France to fight Prussia in a coalition with other European states. First, there came the Schleswig war in which Prussia was left free to maul the weaker Denmark at the Battle of Dybbøl in 1864. Then, there came the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 where, again, France didn't do anything to counteract Prussia's expansion. Then, there came France's turn to be mauled by the Prussian artillery. The French army was crushed at Sedan in 1870 and Louis Napoleon himself was captured. With that, France was forever consigned to the status of 2nd rank power. It was a rapid ruin for a leader who had outlived his own mistakes and died in exile, in England, in 1873. 

But perhaps we can say also something good about Louis Napoleon. Despite all his blunders, he was not a bloodthirsty psychopath as many leaders are. One of the last images we have of him is after the defeat at Sedan, 1870, after that he had been captured by the Prussians. We see him sitting and amiably (perhaps) chatting with Otto Von Bismarck, minister-president of Prussia. Earlier on Louis Napoleon had ordered his army to surrender to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. At least that was a good thing he did.

Now, what can we learn from this incredible series of mistakes? One is how difficult it is to get rid of a bad leader once he takes upon himself the title of "Emperor." But what caused Louis Napoleon to be so ineffective?

For one thing, Louis Napoleon may have been trying to emulate his illustrious uncle, Napoleon 1st, and the attack on Russia in 1854 was perhaps an attempt to avenge the French defeat in Russia in 1812. But, like many leaders, Louis Napoleon was also a womanizer. So, he could be controlled, in part, by means of his sexual appetites. He may have sent the French army to help Piedmont as the result of the work of his Italian mistress, the Countess of Castiglione who, in turn, had been operating as a secret agent for her cousin, Count Cavour, the leader of the Piedmontese government. Or, it may just be that the task of governing a state is beyond the capabilities of most people, and Louis Napoleon was not an exception to the rule

It is a general pattern, leaders often arise by understanding and exploiting the internal power-games of an organization. But when they reach the top, they may turn out to be completely incompetent at leading the organization. It is typical of politicians, good at being elected but often totally unable to do anything else. And Louis Napoleon was surely a politician more than anything else. 

So, why do we trust a system that can't do anything else than place incompetents at the top? It may be just because we couldn't think of a better system. The alternative, often touted as a good idea in difficult times, is to put a "strong man" at the top, hoping that miraculously he will fix what needs to be fixed. It never works that way.

In the end, it could be that Louis Napoleon's blunders were just part of the inexorable flux of history. Imagine that the two men in the figure above had exchanged their roles, with Otto Von Bismarck a competent French Emperor and Louis Napoleon as an incompetent Prussian leader. Then, maybe, Napoleon 1st's dream could have been realized, with France dominating Europe and the whole Mediterranean Sea. In this case, you would probably be reading this post in French, but would something really have changed in the bloody history of the world during the 20th century? A French European empire would have found itself in direct contrast with the Russian Empire and the British Empire. So, plenty of wars and carnage would still have occurred. Perhaps a competent ruler is not necessarily better than an incompetent one. Whatever the case, history keeps going onward.




Notes on the Crimean war

The Crimean war is one of the most misunderstood events of modern history, not so remote to have been so thoroughly forgotten, and yet it was forgotten and its reasons often twisted in such a way to make it turn into something completely different. Just as an example, James Hamblin briefly mentions the Crimean War in his 2020 book "Clean" saying at page 242 that it took place because " the British were fighting back Russian expansion into Crimea" forgetting that Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783, 70 years before the start of the war. And BTW, the US was friendly to the Russians at that time. 

Here are some posts I wrote about the Crimean War

The Ring of Fire Around Russia

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Triumph of Catastrophism. How Greta Thumberg Carried the Day

Disclaimer: I am NOT saying here that the Covid-19 does not exist nor that people didn't die because of it. If you react with the term "denialism" you are only showing that you have no rational arguments to produce.

Do you remember that weird girl from Sweden? Yes, the one with the braided hair. What was her name? Greta something.... It is strange that so many people seemed to pay attention to what she was saying about things like climate change. Why should anyone be worried by that? Nobody cares about climate change anymore when there are much more important matters at hand with the great pandemic sweeping the world? And yet, strangely, nowadays people are doing exactly what Greta had told them to do.


Not long ago, I published on Cassandra's Legacy a post titled "The Great Failure of Catastrophism." In it, I argued that some 50 years of warnings from scientists had been completely ignored by the powers that be. I also argued that a relatively minor perturbation, as the one caused by the Covid-19 epidemic, had been enough to consign all worries about climate to the dustbin of the silly ideas that nobody should care about. 

But things keep changing and I am now amazed to see that humans are acting exactly as if they had listened to Greta Thunberg. Do you remember? She said we shouldn't use the plane, that we should travel less, use less energy, consume less. Exactly what's being done.

People are not flying anymore so much, they stopped most of their long distance traveling, the mass migration called "international tourism" seems to have disappeared for good. Some of the most polluting manufacturing operations are slowing down, and with that the exploitation of natural resources. The shale oil industry is dead and the whole extractive industry is going down the drain, too. Humans seem to have largely abandoned their beloved ritual of daily commuting and even professional sports have disappeared beyond the horizon of the events (although they weren't the most polluting activity around).

It is incredible: people would be howling their displeasure all the way to the moon if they had been asked to fly less for the benefit of the ecosystem and themselves, but now they are meekly doing exactly that out of fear of the coronavirus. 

You see, the young lady, Greta Thunberg, had been able to move a few things, but she was still operating within the old paradigm of communication. She was a leader in the same way as Joan of Arc was, long ago. The problem with leadership is that it attracts love and hate at the same time. Sometimes, a lot of hate. And the way to neutralize a successful leader is to pour hate on him or her. Do you remember what happened to Joan of Arc? That was what Greta Thunberg was risking and it is good for her that her cycle has been so short -- now she can be a normal girl for the rest of her life. 

But now, it is no more the time of leaders. The change we are seeing is being created by impersonal forces. There is nobody to hate about the coronavirus: you can't hate a small chunk of RNA that you can't even see. Viruses have no leaders, they don't care about anything, they are impervious to love and hate. What moves things onward nowadays is not hate, it is pure terror and you can't hate terror, you can only resist it or be crushed by it. And it seems clear that most of us are being crushed by terror. Terror is a primal force, almost impossible to resist.

The overall impression is that we are seeing enormous forces stirring. Forces that will change the world so deeply that, right now, we can't even vaguely imagine how. If you have time, do read the book by Shoshana Zuboff "Surveillance Capitalism." She correctly points out how the new technologies called "profiling" and "targeting" are generating a level of control over individuals that never existed before in history. So far, these technologies have been used for relatively harmless purposes such as sales and influencing electoral votes. What we see now is deeper and wider: it is raw power over people's minds. The enormous creature that's raising its ugly head has a name, and it is the World Wide Web. 

It is a huge beast we have nurtured and raised. Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Gates, or some of their colleagues may still think they can control it, but it is too late. Nobody who is human can control this thing anymore. We'll go where "it" will take us. And maybe, just maybe, this thing perceives that humans need to stop destroying everything on this planet, including themselves. Perhaps the head of the beast is not so ugly, after all? Who knows?

Then, of course, all what I said up to now will turn out to be wrong if we see the famed "recovery." Most people seem to think that once we have a vaccine for the dreaded little monster, everything will return to normal in the best of worlds. But that's questionable, to say the least. Someone who understands that there won't be a "normal" anymore is Charles Hugh Smith of the "Of two minds" blog. Below, let me report an excerpt from one of his recent posts where, among other things, you can find an excellent illustration of how the Seneca Effect works.


The New Normal is De-Normalization

excerpt from Charles Hugh Smith's blog

What I mean by Denormalization is the complete dismantling of what was taken for granted as normal and the loss of any future version of normal. Consider sports as an example. We all know the Old Normal that millions hope will magically return: $100 million player contracts, millions in TV ad revenues, pro franchises worth billions of dollars, NCAA playoffs, etc.: a dominant kingdom in the nation's media and mindshare.
The dirty little secret that troubled the kingdom long before Covid-19 was a steady erosion in attendance at live games and in the viewing audience. Younger generations have relatively little interest in all the trappings and habits of Boomer sports manias. They'd rather watch the 3-minute highlight video on their phones than blow half a day watching games that are generally lacking in drama and are largely replaceable with some other game.
What few seem to notice is that the Old Normal had become insanely expensive, irksome and boring, activities that were habits coasting on momentum. Those embedded in the Old Normal acclimatized to the absurdly overpriced seats, snacks, beer, parking, etc. of live events and the insanely long commutes required to get to the venue and then back home, as their happy memories of $5 seats decades ago is the anchor of their lifelong devotion and habits.
The old fans coasting on ritual habituated to the cookie-cutter nature of the games, while those who never acquired the habit look with amazement at the seemingly endless dull progression of hundreds of interchangeable sporting events.
Advertisers will eventually notice that younger generations never acquired the habit of worshipping sports and so there is nothing to stem the collapse of the Old Normal but older fans, some percentage of whom will find they don't miss it once they fall out of the habit.
Some other percentage will find they can no longer afford to attend live games, or they'll realize they no longer feel it's worth it to grind through traffic or public transit just to sit for additional hours and then repeat the entire slog back home.
Another percentage will suddenly awaken to the artifice of the whole thing; they will simply lose interest. Others will finally realize the corporate machine (which includes college sports) has long since lost any connection to the era that they remember so fondly.
This same Denormalization will dismantle fast food, dining out, air travel, healthcare, higher education and innumerable other iterations of normal that have become unaffordable even as the returns on the lavish investments of time and money required diminish sharply.
How many of you deeply miss air travel? You're joking, right? Only certifiably insane people would miss the irksome hassle and discomfort, from the endless delays due to mechanical problems (don't you people keep any spare parts, or is it all just in time like every other broken system in America?), the seats that keep getting smaller as the passengers keep getting larger, the fetid terminals, and so on.
Like all the other iterations of normal, the entire experience has been going downhill for decades, but we all habituated to the decline because we were stuck with it.
What few seem to understand is all the Old Normal systems can't restabilize at some modestly lower level of diminishing returns; their only possible future is collapse. Just as fine-dining restaurants cannot survive at 50% capacity because their cost structure is so astronomical, the same is true of sports, airports, airlines, cruise lines, fast food, movie theaters, healthcare, higher education, local government services and all the rest of the incredibly fragile and unaffordable Old Normal.
None of these systems can operate at anything less than about 80% of full capacity and customers paying 80% of full pop, i.e. full retail. Since their fixed cost structures are so high, and their buffers so thin, there's nothing below the 80% level but air, i.e. a quick plummet to extinction.


Monday, August 17, 2020

Money, Gods, and Taboos: Re-sacralizing the Commons

 Reposted from "Chimeras"

Temple worship in Ur, from Sumerian times. Note in the lower panel people are bringing all sort of goods to the temple represented as the abstract structure on the right. 

House founded by An, praised by Enlil, given an oracle by mother Nintud! A house, at its upper end a mountain, at its lower end a spring! A house, at its upper end threefold indeed. Whose well-founded storehouse is established as a household, whose terrace is supported by lahama deities; whose princely great wall, the shrine of Urim! (the Kesh temple hymn, ca. 2600 BCE)

Not long ago, I found myself involved in a debate on Gaian religion convened by Erik Assadourian. For me, it was a little strange. For the people of my generation, religion is supposed to be a relic of the past, opium of the people, a mishmash of superstitions, something for old women mumbling ejaculatory prayers, things like that. But, here, a group of people who weren't religious in the traditional sense of the word, and who included at least two professional researchers in physics, were seriously discussing about how to best worship the Goddess of Earth, the mighty, the powerful, the divine, the (sometimes) benevolent Gaia, She who keeps the Earth alive.

It was not just unsettling, it was a deep rethinking of many things I had been thinking. I had been building models of how Gaia could function in terms of the physics and the biology we know. But here, no, it was not Gaia the holobiont, not Gaia the superorganism, not Gaia the homeostatic system. It was Gaia the Goddess.

And here I am, trying to explain to myself why I found this matter worth discussing. And trying to explain it to you, readers. After all, this is being written in a blog titled "Chimeras" -- and the ancient Chimera was a myth about a creature that, once, must have been a sky goddess. And I have been keeping this blog for several years, see? There is something in religion that remains interesting even for us, moderns. But, then, what is it, exactly?

I mulled over the question for a while and I came to the conclusion that, yes, Erik Assadourian and the others are onto something: it may be time for religion to return in some form. And if religion returns, it may well be in the form of some kind of cult of the Goddess Gaia. But let me try to explain

What is this thing called "religion," anyway?

Just as many other things in history that go in cycles, religion does that too. It is because religion serves a purpose, otherwise it wouldn't have existed and been so common in the past. So what is religion? It is a long story but let me start from the beginning -- the very beginning, when, as the Sumerians used to say, "bread was baked for the first time in the ovens".

A constant of all ancient religions is that they tell us that whatever humans learned to do -- from fishing to having kings -- it was taught them by some God who took the trouble to land down from heaven (or from wherever Gods come from) just for that purpose. Think of when the Sumerian Sea-God called Aun (also Oannes in later times) emerged out of the Abzu (that today we call the abyss) to teach people all the arts of civilization. It was in those ancient times that the Gods taught humans the arts and the skills that the ancient Sumerians called "me,"  a bewildering variety of concepts, from "music" to "rejoicing of the heart." Or, in a more recent lore, how Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire and gave it to humankind. This story has a twist of trickery, but it is the same concept: human civilization is a gift from the gods.

Now, surely our ancestors were not so naive that they believed in these silly legends, right? Did people really need a Fish-God to emerge out of the Persian Gulf to teach them how to make fish hooks and fishnets? But, as usual, what looks absurd hides the meaning of complex questions.

The people who described how the me came from the Gods were not naive, not at all. They had understood the essence of civilization, which is sharing. Nothing can be done without sharing something with others, not even rejoicing in your heart. Think of "music," one of the Sumerian me: can you play music by yourself and alone? Makes no sense, of course. Music is a skill that needs to be learned. You need teachers, you need people who can make instruments, you need a public to listen to you and appreciate your music. And the same is for fishing, one of the skills that Aun taught to humans. Of course, you could fish by yourself and for your family only. Sure, and, in this way, you ensure that you all will die of starvation as soon as you hit a bad period of low catches. Fishing provides abundant food in good times, but fish spoils easily and those who live by fishing can survive only if they share their catch with those who live by cultivating grains. You can't live of fish alone, it is something that I and my colleague Ilaria Perissi describe in our book, "The Empty Sea." Those who tried, such as the Vikings of Greenland during the Middle Ages, were mercilessly wiped out of history.

Sharing solves the problems of the ups and downs of the supply of food and of all commodities. It is the essence of civilization, but it is not trivial: who shares what with whom? How do you ensure that everyone gets a fair share? How do you take care of tricksters, thieves, and parasites? It is a fascinating story that goes back to the very beginning of civilization, those times that the Sumerians were fond to tell with the beautiful image of "when bread was baked for the first time in the ovens,"  This is where religion came in, with temples, priest, Gods, and all the related stuff.

Let's make a practical example: suppose you are on an errand, it is a hot day, and you want a mug of beer. Today, you go to a pub, pay a few dollars for your pint, you drink it, and that's it. Now, move yourself to Sumerian times. The Sumerians had plenty of beer, even a specific goddess related to it, called Ninkasi (which means, as you may guess, "the lady of the beer"). But there were no pubs selling beer for the simple reason that you couldn't pay for it. Money hadn't been invented, yet. Could you barter for it? With what? What could you carry around that would be worth just one beer? No, there was a much better solution: the temple of the local God or Goddess.

We have beautiful descriptions of the Sumerian temples in the works of the priestess Enheduanna, among other things the first named author in history. From her and from other sources, we can understand how in Sumerian times, and for millennia afterward, temples were large storehouses of goods. They were markets, schools, libraries, manufacturing centers, and offered all sorts of services, including that of the hierodules (karkid in Sumerian), girls who were not especially holy, but who would engage in a very ancient profession that didn't always have the bad reputation it has today. If you were so inclined, you could also meet male prostitutes in the temple, probably called "kurgarra" in Sumerian. That's one task in which temples have been engaging for a long time, even though that looks a little weird to us. Incidentally, the Church of England still managed prostitution in Medieval times.

So, you go to the temple and you make an offer to the local God or Goddess. We may assume that this offer would be proportional to both your needs and your means. It could be a goat that we know it was roughly proportional to the services of a high-rank hierodule. But, if all you wanted was a beer, then you could limit your offer to something less valuable: depending on your job you could have offered fish, wheat, wool, metal, or whatever. Then, the God would be pleased and as a reward the alewives of the temple would give you all the beer you could drink. Seen as a restaurant, the temple worked on the basis of what we call today an "all you can eat" menu (or "the bottomless cup of coffee," as many refills as you want).

Note how the process of offering something to God was called sacrifice. The term  comes from "sacred" which means "separated." The sacrifice is about separation. You separate from something that you perceived as yours which then becomes an offer to the God or to the community -- most often the same thing. The offerings to the temple could be something very simple. As you see in the images we have from Sumerian times, it didn't always involve the formal procedure of killing an animal. People were just bringing the goods they had to the temple. When animals were sacrificed to God(s) in the sense that they were ritually killed, they were normally eaten afterward. Only in rare cases (probably not in Sumeria) the sacrificed entity was burnt to ashes. It was the "burnt sacrifice" called korban olah in the Jewish tradition. In that case, the sacrifice was shared with God alone -- but it was something exceptional.

In any case, God was the supreme arbiter who insured that your sacrifice was appreciated -- actually not all sacrifices were appreciated. Some people might try to trick by offering low quality goods, but God is not easy to fool. In some cases, he didn't appreciate someone's sacrifices at all: do you remember the story of Cain and Abel? God rejected Cain's sacrifice, although we are not told exactly why. In any case, the sacrifice was a way to attribute a certain "price" to the sacrificed goods.

This method of commerce is not very different than the one we use today, it is just not so exactly quantified as when we use money to attach a value to everything. The ancient method works more closely to the principle that the Marxists had unsuccessfully tried to implement "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." But don't think that the ancient Sumerian were communists, it is just that the lack of method of quantification of the commercial transaction generated a certain leeway that could allow to the needy access to the surplus available, when it was available. This idea is still embedded in modern religions, think of how the holy Quran commands the believers to share the water of their wells with the needy, once they have satisfied their needs and those of their animals. Or the importance that the Christian tradition gives to gleaning as a redistribution of the products of the fields. Do you remember the story of Ruth the Moabite in the Bible? That important, indeed.

But there is more. In the case of a burnt sacrifices, the value attributed to the goods was "infinite" -- the goods consumed by the flames just couldn't be used again by human beings. It is the concept of Taboo used in Pacific cultures for something that cannot be touched, eaten, or used. We have no equivalent thing in the "market," where we instead suppose that everything has a price.

And then, there came money (the triumph of evil)

The world of the temples of the first 2-3 millennia of human civilizations in the Near East was in some  ways alien to ours, and in others perfectly equivalent. But things keep changing and the temples were soon to face a competition in a new method of attributing value to goods: money. Coinage is a relatively modern invention, it goes back to mid 1st millennium BCE. But in very ancient times, people did exchange metals by weight -- mainly gold and silver. And these exchanges were normally carried out in temples -- the local God(s) ensured honest weighing. In more than one sense, in ancient times temples were banks and it is no coincidence that our modern banks look like temples. They are temples to a God called "money." By the way, you surely read in the Gospels how Jesus chased the money changers -- the trapezitai -- out of the temple of Jerusalem. Everyone knows that story, but what were the money changers doing in the temple? They were in the traditional place where they were expected to be, where they had been from when bread was baked in ovens for the first time. 

So, religion and money evolved in parallel -- sometimes complementing each other, sometimes in competition with each other. But, in the long run, the temples seem to have been the losers in the competition. As currency became more and more commonplace, people started thinking that they didn't really need the cumbersome apparatus of religion, with its temples, priests, and hierodules (the last ones were still appreciated, but now were paid in cash). A coin is a coin is a coin, it is guaranteed by the gold it is made of -- gold is gold is gold. And if you want a good beer, you don't need to make an offer to some weird God or Goddess. Just pay a few coppers for it, and that's done.

The Roman state was among the first in history to be based nearly 100% on money. With the Romans, temples and priests had mainly a decorative role, let's say that they had to find a new market for their services. Temples couldn't be anymore commercial centers, so they reinvented themselves as lofty place for the celebration of the greatness of the Roman empires. There remained also a diffuse kind of religion in the countryside that had to do with fertility rites, curing sickness, and occasional cursing on one's enemies. That was the "pagan" religion, with the name "pagan" meaning, basically, "peasant." 
Paganism would acquire a bad fame in Christian times, but already in Roman times peasant rites were seen with great suspicion. The Romans burned witches, oh, yes, they loved to burn witches -- they burned many more than would ever be burned in medieval times. And the victims were most likely countryside enchanters and enchantresses. They were considered dangerous because the real deity that the Romans worshiped was money. An evil deity, perhaps, but it surely brought mighty power to the Romans, but their doom as well, as it is traditional for evil deities. Roman money was in the form of precious metals and when they ran out of gold and silver from their mines, the state just couldn't exist anymore: it vanished. No gold, no empire. It was as simple as that.

The disappearance of the Roman state saw a return of religion, this time in the form of Christianity. It is a long story that would need a lot of space to be written. Let's just say that the Middle Ages in Europe saw the rise of monasteries to play a role similar to that of temples in Sumerian times. Monasteries were storehouses, manufacturing centers, schools, libraries, and more -- they even had something to do with hierodules. During certain periods, Christian nuns did seem to have played that role, although this is a controversial point. Commercial exchanging and sharing of goods again took a religious aspect, with the Catholic Church in Western Europe playing the role of a bank by guaranteeing that, for instance, ancient relics were authentic. In part, relics played the role that money had played during the Roman Empire, although they couldn't be exchanged for other kinds of goods. The miracle of the Middle Ages in Europe was that this arrangement worked, and worked very well. That is, until someone started excavating silver from mines in Eastern Europe and another imperial cycle started. It is not over to this date, although it is clearly declining.

So, where do we stand now? Religion has clearly abandoned the role it had during medieval times and has re-invented itself as a support for the national state, just as the pagan temples had done in Roman times. One of the most tragic events of Western history is when in 1914, for some mysterious reasons, young Europeans found themselves killing each other by the millions while staying in humid trenches. On both sides of the trenches, Christian priests were blessing the soldiers of "their" side, exhorting them to kill those of the other side. How Christianity could reduce itself to such a low level is one of the mysteries of the Universe, but there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. And it is here that we stand. Money rules the world and that's it.

The Problem With Money

Our society is perhaps the most monetized of history -- money pervades every aspect of life for everyone. The US is perhaps the most monetized society ever: for Europeans it is a shock to discover that many American families pay their children for doing household chores. For a European, it is like if your spouse were asking you to pay for his/her sexual services. But different epochs have different uses and surely it would be shocking for a Sumerian to see that we can get a beer at the pub by just giving the alewives a curious flat object, a "card," that they then give back to us. Surely that card is a powerful amulet from a high-ranking God. 
So, everything may be well in the best of worlds, notoriously represented by the Western version of liberal democracy. Powerful market forces, operated by the God (or perhaps Goddess) called Money or, sometimes, "the almighty dollar," ensure that exchanges are efficient, that scarce resources are optimally allocated, and that everyone has a chance in the search for maximizing his/her utility function.

Maybe. But it may also be that something is rotten in the Great Columned Temple of Washington D.C. What's rotten, exactly? Why can't this wonderful deity we call "money" work the way we would it like to, now that we even managed to decouple it from the precious metals it was made of in ancient times?

Well, there is a problem. A big problem. A gigantic problem. It is simply that money is evil. This is another complex story, but let's just say that the problem with evil and good is that evil knows no limits, while good does. In other words, evil is equivalent to chaos, good to order. It has something to do with the definition of "obscenity." There is nothing wrong in human sex, but an excess of sex in some forms becomes obscene. Money can become obscene for exactly this reason: too much of it overwhelms everything else. Nothing is so expensive that it cannot be bought; that's the result of the simple fact that you can attribute a price to everything.

Instead, God is good because She has limits: She is benevolent and merciful. You could see that as a limitation and theologians might discuss why a being that's all-powerful and all-encompassing cannot be also wicked and cruel. But there cannot be any good without an order of things. And order implies limits of some kind. God can do everything but He cannot do evil. That's a no-no. God cannot be evil. Period.

And here is why money is evil: it has no limits, it keeps accumulating. You know that accumulated money is called "capital," and it seems that many people realize that there is something wrong with that idea because "capitalism" is supposed to be something bad. Which may be but, really, capital is one of those polymorphic words that can describe many things, not all of them necessarily bad. In itself, capital is simply the accumulation of resources for future use -- and that has limits, of course. You can't accumulate more things than the things you have. But once you give a monetary value to this accumulated capital, things change. If money has no limits, capital doesn't, either.

Call it capital or call it money, it is shapeless, limitless, a blob that keeps growing and never shrinks. Especially nowadays that money has been decoupled from material goods (at least in part, you might argue that money is linked to crude oil). You could say that money is a disease: it affects everything. Everything can be associated with a number, and that makes that thing part of the entity we call market. If destroying that thing can raise that number, somewhere, that thing will be destroyed. Think of a tree: for a modern economist, it has no monetary value until it is felled and the wood sold on the market. And that accumulates more money, somewhere. Monetary capital actually destroys natural capital. You may have heard of "Natural Capitalism" that's supposed to solve the problem by giving a price to trees even before they are felled. It could be a good idea, but it is still based on money so it may be the wrong tool to use even though for a good purpose..

The accumulation of money in the form of monetary capital has created something enormously different than something that was once supposed to help you get a good beer at a pub. Money is not evil just in a metaphysical sense. Money is destroying everything. It is destroying the very thing that makes humankind survive: the Earth's ecosystem. We call it "overexploitation," but it means simply killing and destroying everything as long as that can bring a monetary profit to someone.

Re-Sacralizing The Ecosystem (why some goods must have infinite prices)

There have been several proposals on how to reform the monetary system, from "local money" to "expiring money," and some have proposed to simply get rid of it. None of these schemes has worked, so far, and getting rid of money seems to be simply impossible in a society that's as complex as ours: how do you pay the hierodules if money does not exist? But from what I have been discussing so far, we could avoid the disaster that the evil deity calling money is bring to us simply by putting a limit to it. It is, after all, what the Almighty did with the devil: She didn't kill him, but confined him in a specific area that we call "Hell" -- maybe there is a need for hell to exist, we don't know. For sure, we don't want hell to grow and expand everywhere.

What does it mean a limit to money? It means that some things must be placed outside the monetary realm -- outside the market. If you want to use a metaphor based on economics, some goods must be declared to have an "infinite" monetary price -- nobody can buy them, not billionaires, not even trillionaires or any even more obscene levels of monetary accumulation. If you prefer, you may use the old Hawai'ian word: Taboo. Or, simply, you decide that some things are sacred, holy, they are beloved by the Goddess and even thinking of touching them is evil. 
Once something is sacred, it cannot be destroyed in the name of profit. That could mean setting aside some areas of the planet, declaring them not open for human exploitation. Or setting limits to the exploitation, not with the idea of maximizing the output of the system for human use, but with the idea to optimize the biodiversity of the area. These ideas are not farfetched. As an example, some areas of the sea have been declared "whale sanctuaries" -- places where whales cannot be hunted. That's not necessarily an all/zero choice. Some sanctuaries might allow human presence and a moderate exploitation of the resources of the system. The point is that as long as we monetize the exploitation, the we are back to monetary capitalism and the resource will be destroyed.

Do we need a religion to do that? Maybe there are other ways but, surely, we know that it is a task that religion is especially suitable for. Religion is a form of communication that uses rituals as speech. Rituals are all about sacralization: they define what's sacred by means of sacrifice. These concepts form the backbone of all religions, everything is neatly arranged under to concept of "sacredness" -- what's sacred is nobody's property. We know that it works. It has worked in the past. It still works today. You may be a trillionaire, but you are not allowed to do everything you want just because you can pay for it. You can't buy the right of killing people, for instance. Nor to destroy humankind's heritage. (So far, at least).

Then, do we need a new religion for that purpose? A Gaian religion?

Possibly yes, taking into account that Gaia is not "God" in the theological sense. Gaia is not all-powerful, she didn't create the world, she is mortal. She is akin to the Demiurgoi, the Daimonoi, the Djinn, and other similar figures that play a role in the Christian, Islamic and Indian mythologies. The point is that you don't necessarily need the intervention of the Almighty to sacralize something. Even just a lowly priest can do that, and surely it is possible for one of Her Daimonoi, and Gaia is one.

Supposing we could do something like that, then we would have the intellectual and cultural tools needed to re-sacralize the Earth. Then, whatever is declared sacred or taboo is spared by the destruction wrecked by the money based process: forests, lands, seas, creatures large and small. We could see this a as a new alliance between humans and Gaia. Maybe we could use an old fashioned term "a New Covenant with Gaia." In the end, it doesn't matter. All the Earth is sacred to Gaia, we may just decide that some parts of it are especially sacred and cannot be touched by money. And not just the Earth, the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed among humans, they are just as sacred and must be respected. 
All that is not just a question of "saving the Earth" -- it is a homage to the power of the Holy Creation that belongs to the Almighty, and to the power of maintenance of the Holy Creation that belongs to the Almighty's faithful servant, the holy Gaia, mistress of the ecosystem. And humans, as the ancient Sumerians had already understood, are left with the task of respecting, admiring and appreciating what God has created. We do not worship Gaia, that would silly, besides being blasphemous. But through her, we worship the higher power of God.  

Is it possible? If history tells us something is that money tends to beat religion when conflict arises. Gaia is powerful, sure, but can she slay the money dragon in single combat? Difficult, yes, but we should remember that some 2000 years ago in Europe, a group of madmen fought and won against an evil empire in the name of an idea that most thought not just subversive at that time, but even beyond the thinkable. And they believed so much in that idea that they accepted to die for it

In the end, there is more to religion than just fixing a broken economic system. There is a fundamental reason why people do what they do: sometimes we call it with the anodyne name of "communication," sometimes we use the more sophisticated term of "empathy," but when we really understand what we are talking about we may not afraid to use the world "love" which, according to our Medieval ancestors, was the ultimate force that moves the universe. And when we deal with Gaia the Goddess, we may have this feeling of communication, empathy, and love. She may be defined as a planetary homeostatic system, but she is way more than that: it is a power of love that has no equals on this planet. But there are things that mere words cannot express.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

How does it feel to live in a crypt? Impressions after one year

to live In "The Outsider" (1926), H. P. Lovecraft tell the story of someone who lives underground and who discovers his true nature only when he comes out of his crypt and sees his own image in a mirror. That's not exactly my case, but it is true that I have been living underground for more than a year, by now. It has been a good experience

Last year, I published a post on Cassandra's Legacy describing my experience with living in an underground apartment in Florence, chosen as my new home with the specific idea of resisting to the summer heat waves, intensifying every year because of global warming. After about one year, I can confirm that it was a good idea and I can add some more details. Below, I reproduce last year's post. 

First of all, I can confirm that an underground apartment is way better than any other kind of homes in the hot summers of central Italy. This year, summer is not being so terrible as last year, but we are in the midst of heat wave that will last at least one more week, probably more. Right now, the thermometer inside my apartment marks 26.2 C, which is a nice temperature. Outside, it is hot and damp, a climate unsuitable for human beings. 

Then, of course, I also spent a winter in this apartment. It is not very small, about 140 square meters, but it was possible to heat it at a very reasonable price using the existing gas-powered system. Nothing fancy, here, but the apartment has three sides against the rock of the hill, so there was very little dispersion of heat. 

Something I was afraid of was the humidity. So much that I bought a de-humidifier. But, over about one year of use, I found that it was not very useful. The apartment maintains by itself a humidity level of about 50%-60%, occasionally gets close to 70%. It is normally less humid than outside, so that by running the dehumidifier at full power I was just trying to dehumidify the whole town! Not so practical.

At the beginning, I was afraid that this relatively high humidity was bad for health. Indeed, last year I was suffering of a bad case of chronic stiff neck (Cervical spondylosis if you like), refractory to most treatments. But, after more than a year that I have been living here, my stiff neck is practically gone. Could it be that this range of humidity is good for you? I can't say that I have a sufficiently large statistical sample (just me!). Also, some arnica gel and getting rid of my bifocal glasses may have helped. Or perhaps the human sacrifices I performed at full moon. But never mind that: let's say that I can tell you that living underground seems not to be a recipe for getting arthritis. 

Not that there are no problems with this relatively high humidity rate. A mistake that my landlord made was to mount sealed window frames that don't let air pass through. It was a bad idea, especially in the bathroom and the kitchen. When someone takes a shower or cooks spaghetti, the result may be that the walls become spotty green, not really oozing out green monsters, but still not pleasant to behold. That required a repainting job, installing air vents, and setting the de-humidifier in the kitchen, ready to go when the cooking starts. Nevertheless, a few green spots are appearing on the walls in other places -- it is mostly an aesthetic problem.

What else? The small garden of the apartment was truly a life-saving relief during the months of lockdown. Just as the internal stairs, allowing good exercise by climbing them up and down some 10 times every day. 

And so things stand. Here is a picture of a touch of class of the apartment, with a sculpture made by a student of my mother at the Art Institute of Florence.

Too bad that not everybody can live underground! And here is the article I wrote last year.


Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my new subterranean life

From Cassandra's Legacy, Aug 13, 2019

Here is one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one!

This summer in Florence we already had two vicious heat waves. As I am writing, we are in the middle of the third one, even more vicious. It has been, actually, a continuous period of very high temperatures punctuated by a few storms that brought the usual floods and disasters.

Global warming is no joke. If you don't plan for these heat waves you seriously risk your life, especially if you are not so young and you are not in perfect health. And people do die: we don't have statistical data for this year, yet, but the reports from countries like Europe, India, and Japan tell of tens, maybe hundreds, of victims and thousands hospitalized.

As usual, people here and everywhere in the world suffer from the syndrome that Daniel Pauly calls "shifting baselines." They seem to think that it is all normal because that's what they have been seeing during the past decade or so. And they don't seem to realize that they are living in houses that were designed and built in a world where heat waves were occasional and lasted just a few days, not the rule for more than one month per year.

Most homes in Florence have no air conditioning or have the kind of makeshift units that make a lot of noise but don't do much to lower temperatures. Some people insist on saying that air-conditioning is "not ecological" because it consumes energy. In other cases, the city regulations forbid people to install the external unit of a truly efficient air conditioning system. And, worst of all, very few people realize how bad it is going to be in a few years from now.

So, I have been preparing for what's coming. I told you already how we (me and my wife) decided to move from a big, American-style suburban home to a smaller apartment, downtown. It was for several reasons, but one was that our former home was so large that it was impossible to cool it in summer at reasonable costs. So, we chose an apartment that would be especially suitable to survive these terrible heat waves even without air conditioning. An underground apartment.

Actually, our home is not fully underground, It is on the slope of a hill, three sides are against solid rock but the fourth, the North side, opens on a small garden. That's the only side having large windows, but the sun never shines on them. That was part of the choice: it was to keep the house cool. Here is a picture of our living room.

And here is the garden, in the background you can see the bomb shelter that came with the apartment, it is a WWII relic. It is not supposed to be used against heat waves, but it could be useful again for its original purpose, who knows?

Here is my studio, the room that corresponds to the "slit window" shown at the beginning of this post. The picture is taken in a moment when the sun shines exactly on that window, normally the room is much darker, of course. But it is the kind of place where you can concentrate on your work.

The apartment is not very large, but more than enough for two people. It has two bedrooms, kitchen, two bathrooms, storage space, and more things, but I guess what you want to know at this point is how it performs during heat waves. And, I can tell you it performs beautifully.

As I am writing this post, the temperature outside is about 39°C  (102.2°F). Inside, the thermometer marks 26.3 °C, I never saw it going over 26.6 °C (80 °F), so far. No air conditioning, windows are tightly shut. It is a reasonably comfortable temperature although we found we needed a dehumidifier running full time to bring the humidity in the comfortable range of less than 60%. (*)

For comparison, my mother-in-law apartment is nearby. It is an old building with massive walls, but also with windows facing South. With the air conditioning off, it touches 29 °C. My daughter's apartment is on the second floor of a modern building. It arrives at 30-31 °C if the air conditioning is off. Some people tell me that their apartments downtown Florence reach 33-34 °C (91-93 F). That starts to be uncomfortably close to that upper limit of survivability marked by a "wet-bulb temperature" of 36 degrees. Not a joke: heat kills.

So, what's the idea of going underground? Why not just use air conditioning? Sure, it could be done. But there is such a thing as the possibility of a black-out, you heard what happened in England these days. Now, if that happens in Italy at the height of a heat wave perhaps you won't die, but for sure you'll suffer horribly.

But can everybody live underground? No, of course not. Some people do, even in Florence there are plenty of basements used as living quarters. But that's not a good idea: Florence is built on an alluvial plain that's periodically reclaimed by the Arno river. It happens infrequently enough that people forget about these periodic floods -- the last big one was in 1966. But they are unavoidable and if you live in a basement in Florence you have to think that, eventually, you'll have to get out of it swimming, if you can. Our apartment, instead, is built on the slope of a hill and it is safe from flooding. But you can't build the whole city on the slope of a hill.

What you can do, though, is to build houses made to withstand the heat waves that will become worse and worse as time goes by. How to do that is no secret: the house must have a large thermal mass to make it able to absorb the heat. It may be underground or partly underground, it may have massive walls, or it may have other tricks to store heat away from the living quarters. But it shouldn't count 100% on air conditioning: besides being wasteful, it may not be healthy and not even comfortable.

So, we have been spending this sizzling hot summer tucked in this basement home. An interesting experience. Looking through the window at the haze of the heat, the feeling was like we were living in a science fiction novel. We had landed in an alien planet, too hot for humans to live, and we had to stay inside our spaceship to survive. Maybe that's our destiny in any case: a planet too hot for humans to live, at least during the summer. It is a concept explored by Antonio Turiel in a science fiction story published on his blog "The Oil Crash" titled "Dystopia IX (in Spanish). Maybe we'll really need spacesuits if we want to venture outside in Summer. Who knows?

Elon Musk's spacesuit was designed for Mars, but it could be useful here, on Earth, if things keep going the way they have been going.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Why Face Masks may be Here to Stay

 Wearing a mask is a burden but, in some cases, also an advantage, especially for women in a patriarchal society. Traditionally, a mask allowed a certain anonymity and a chance for occasional sexual license. Could it be that the current diffusion of the habit of wearing face masks is a reaction to the more and more invasive "surveillance state" in the West? In this post, I explore this issue also in relation to the biblical story of Tamar and Judah  (above, Tamar and Judah in a painting of the Rembrandt school)

The fashion of wearing face masks in the West is surprising, especially after that the epidemic has practically vanished from Western Europe. Yet, Westerners cling to their masks as if their life depended on them, even in conditions when they are not needed, for instance in the open air.
The new fashion of face masks in the West is all the more surprising if you consider that practically no known society in history has ever enforced wearing face masks or veils for everyone, except in areas where protection is needed against sand blown by the wind. In the standard Western iconography, someone who wears a mask is a criminal or an outlaw. Who would need to hide his face if not for some evil purpose? True, sometimes a mask is worn by good characters in fiction, such as Batman, but there is always a dark side to the story.
The only exception to the rule is the veil worn by married women. It is sometimes said to be an Islamic tradition, but there is nothing specifically Islamic in it. In Southern Europe, up to less than one century ago it was common for married women to wear a veil in public and, even today, a Western bride sometimes wears a veil at her marriage. In general, it is typical for women to be veiled in public in patriarchal societies, as it is still the case in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

I would argue that the veil can be seen as a burden, but also as an advantage for women. Nothing exists if it doesn't have a reason to exist and, over history, women accepted to wear veils because it gave them some advantages. A certain degree of anonymity that allowed them to occasionally indulge in behaviors that were not allowed by their society. Indeed, wearing masks remains a characteristic of the Western carnival festivities, where a certain tradition of free sexual encounters remains alive to this day. 

So, could it be that the current explosion of face masks in the West is the result of the diffusion of the "surveillance state"? With more and more oppressive ways to control people being deployed, with face-recognition techniques, surveillance drones, spy cams, and all the rest, wearing a mask provides a certain advantage for the wearer. It is not a coincidence that the "anonymous" hackers are represented as wearing a mask. Anonymity is an advantage and there is safety in numbers.
If this is the case, then, that face masks are likely to become a stable feature of the Western society, independently of their usefulness as anti-virus barriers. They are uncomfortable, but if they can hide you from those pesky drones, well, it may be worth wearing them. Masks as a form of freedom from oppression? Maybe.

To understand more the meaning of wearing masks, let me discuss an ancient story where a face mask played a fundamental role: the biblical story of Tamar and Judah. I already discussed this story in a previous post, but here let me go into some more details.


Tamar and Judah: The Veil as a Life-Saving Tool

 by Ugo Bardi, Aug 2020
In the book of Genesis of the Bible, we read how Tamar prostituted herself in order to have children from her father-in-law, Judah. It is a fascinating story that tells us of remote times, but not so remote that we can't understand the plight of the people who lived and struggled in a world very different from ours. 
The story of Tamar is often commented for its moral and religious meaning, but let me retell it with a more down to earth purpose: understanding how the habit of married women to wear a veil affected ancient patriarchal societies and, occasionally, could be a definite advantage for women.

So, let's start with the protagonists. Judah was one of the patriarchs of the Israelites, the great-grandson of Abraham in person. He was endowed with a certain degree of wickedness and we are told of how he attempted to kill his brother, Joseph. Later on, he seemed to have gained some of respectability, he got married and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Tamar enters the story when she marries Er, the oldest son of Judah. We are not told much about the origins of Tamar. Sources other than the Bible say she was a Canaanite, others that she was the daughter of a high priest. The Bible doesn't mention a dowry, but it is unthinkable that Tamar wouldn't have brought one to Er. Dowries are typical of patriarchal societies were men are considered more valuable than women. In these societies, a woman can gain access to a high rank man by paying for the privilege. 
So, Tamar marries Er and everything seems to be going well in the best of worlds, when Er suddenly dies. The Bible explains to us that God was angry at Er for some reasons, but the real issue is that Tamar is left as a childless widow. In this case, patriarchal societies had a tradition called the "Levirate" that favored, or even imposed, that the younger brother of a deceased man would marry the widow. The law applied when the widow was childless, as it was Tamar's case. 
The Levirate laws are grounded in financial matters, as most marriages were in antiquity, and still are. In a patriarchal society, a woman would gain access to a high-rank man by paying a dowry. But if the man died before having children, the woman would have paid for nothing, because being female she couldn't inherit the possessions of her deceased husband. The levirate law protected the widow, making sure that she would have a husband and a chance to have male heirs. It seems that the children sired by the brother of the deceased husband would be considered as sons and daughters of the first husband in regard to inheritance matters. 

So, we read that Judah's family followed the levirate customs and that Tamar's brother in law, Onan, married her. That might have settled all issues, but there is a new problem: Onan is not interested in having children from Tamar. We are told that he "spilled his seed on the ground," something we would call today "coitus interruptus." Why Onan did that is probably still related to the financial implications of the levirate. If Tamar had sired a male heir to Onan, his own inheritance would have been diminished because the son would have counted as Er's son. The story may have been much more complicated than this, anyway what happens is that Onan dies, too. Maybe he was smitten by God for his bad behavior, but the point is that Tamar finds herself a childless widow for the second time. 

At this point, things become really complicated. The levirate law says that Tamar should now marry Judah's remaining son, Shelah. But he is too young, and so Tamar finds herself betrothed to a child with the perspective that when he will be grown up enough, he will behave like Onan, for the same reasons. Then, after having buried two husbands, we may imagine that Tamar's reputation would be a bit tarnished, to say the least. Maybe she is a witch? Don't forget that the Bible says in the Exodus "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." About Shelah, he must not have been so thrilled at the perspective of having to marry a woman who may have been 10 years older than him. And Judah, what could he do? Maybe he could send Tamar back to her family, but then he would have had to pay back the dowry he had received -- not a perspective he would relish, of course. 
Thus being the situation, we seem to have a classic no-win situation. But then something happens that changes everything. Let's read the story from the book of Genesis
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Now, this story has such big holes in it that you could pass a caravan of a hundred camels through them. Let's see to explain. 

First, the idea that a prostitute awaits for customers in "an open place by the way to Timnath" is already suspicious. Prostitutes tend to frequent busy places and for one of them to sit and wait for customers in an "open place" would be dangerous if they were to meet a rough customer. In ancient times, prostitutes operated mainly in temples as "hierodules." That gave origin to the legend that Tamar was a sacred prostitute of some cult. But hierodules were not sacred, they were just a service provided by the temple that also guaranteed their safety and that they were paid. I describe that in a previous post. This is mostly a detail, but one of the many weaknesses of the whole story. 

Second, we are told that Judah "thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face." This is totally absurd. In ancient times, prostitutes did not veil their face. That was a no-no. Period. Here is how I discuss this point in a previous post

According to Michael Astur (1966), a Babylonian hierodule was strictly forbidden from wearing a veil and harshly punished if she did. So, how could Judah mistake a veiled woman for a prostitute? Astour, here, goes through a truly acrobatic leap of logic, noting first that a woman could abandon her hierodule status and marry and, in this case, she was allowed to wear a veil. Then, assuming that Tamar had been a hierodule before marrying, her wearing a veil could be "a privilege evidently extended into widowhood." Even if we were to agree on this perilous chain of assumptions, the explanation still makes no sense. How could Judah know that the veiled woman he had met was a former prostitute when her aspect, instead, was that of a married woman?

Third, we are asked to believe that Judah has sex with his daughter-in-law who has been living in his family for at least a few years and that he doesn't recognize her because she wears a face veil. Now, this is reminding of how Lois Lane in our "Superman" stories is so dumb that she can't recognize that her fiancée Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, just because Kent wears glasses. Maybe Judah wasn't the sharpest pair of scissors in the shearer's toolbox, but the story that the Bible tells us is supposed to be a true story. And Judah cannot have been that dumb. According to some sources, he said he was drunk. Yeah, sure.

Finally, there is the story that the supposed "prostitute" asks Judah for a pledge in the form of "Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff." That's another no-no: from the earliest days of monetary history, prostitutes have been paid in cash. It is unthinkable that Judah would go to the market of Timnath without taking at least a little silver with him. He was there to shear his sheep, and what would he have paid the shearers with? That silver could also have been used to pay for whatever he would have needed while there, including the services of a prostitute. That the supposed prostitute, Tamar, had asked for such a degree of commitment from Judah as to leave something that made him recognizable was weird at least, even suspicious.

So, how do you explain this series of apparently unsolvable contradictions? Well, as Captain Kirk of the Starship "Enterprise" would to say, there are always ways to avoid to put oneself in a no-win situation. And that was what may have happened. 

Let's go back to the impasse: Judah doesn't want to give Tamar to Shelah but he doesn't want to send her back to her family, either. In the meantime Judah's wife dies and suddenly there appears an obvious solution for Judah: take Tamar as his own wife. A good idea that keeps the money at home and still gives Tamar a chance to bear a heir to Judah's family. Besides, it is not hard to imagine that that a woman in full flower, such as Tamar, would have been attractive for a widower, such as Judah. But for Judah to marry her is legally impossible: Tamar is betrothed to Shelah and for Judah that would be seen as adultery, a grave sin, punishable even with death. 

But let's imagine that Judah and Tamar have an affair well before the Timnath story. Then, let's imagine that Tamar gets pregnant. Ouch, big problem: now they are adulterers, sinners, and both punishable by law. Of course Judah could deny being the father of Tamar's child, but that would condemn Tamar to death as a harlot and bring upon Judah the wrath of Tamar's family.

Then, before Tamar's pregnancy becomes obvious, a theatrical performance is organized. Tamar doesn't even need to go to Timnath disguised as a prostitute. Judah just comes back from there without his signet, bracelets, and staff. Then he goes through the charade of sending a friend to Timnath with a goat, supposedly to pay for a prostitute, but well knowing that there has never been one there. When the scandal breaks up, Judah's staff and stuff miraculously reappear in Tamar's hands, lending substance to an otherwise unbelievable story.

See how things fit together? Tamar did misbehave, but her father in law cannot punish her because she carries his child (actually, children, twins will be born). Then Judah is not an adulterer because he didn't know he was having sex with his daughter in law (oh, yeah, he was drunk!!). Tamar's relatives, then, are happy because Tamar's children will inherit Judah's wealth. And everyone his happy to pay no attention to the many inconsistencies of the story. The only one who may not be so happy is Shelah, who has lost the privilege of being the oldest son to Judah because Tamar's children will be considered heirs to the deceased Er. But so is life and you can't have everything.

You see how many details click together in this fascinating story. It is so fascinating because it describes the plight of normal people who weren't so concerned about grand things such as the house of David, but about their own survival in a difficult moment. And we can understand them and their plight, even millennia afterwards. But the most fascinating detail of the story is the role played by the veil. Had there not been the use for women to wear a veil, Judah couldn't have convincingly argued that he didn't know whom he was having sex with. The veil literally saved Tamar's life and ensured that her children would become the founders of the Davidic line of the tribe of Judah. And, as I said at the beginning, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist


In this 1969 song by the Italian singer Lucio Battisti, we hear the story of a man who is told that his wife, Francesca, has been seen with another man. He says that it cannot be, that the woman they saw looked like Francesca, dressed in the same way and with the same hair color. But that cannot be because, he says, "Francesca lives for him." If veils had been worn by Italian married women in the 1960s, this song couldn't have existed.

Lucio Battisti - It's not Francesca (English translation)

you're wrong, who you saw is not
is not Francesca
she's always at home waiting for me
it's not Francesca
if there was a man, then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
like the other one, she's blond but
it's not Francesca
if she was dressed in red, I know
it's not Francesca
if she was hugging(him) then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
she lives for me
she lives for me


Astour, Michael, Journal of Biblical Literature, 85,2 (1966) 185-196.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)