Alcohol and Civilization, and other recent items

How civilization might have been driven by the desire for alcohol; about the NYT interviewing Republicans; the perspective on conspiratorial thinking from an American living in Britain; paranoia and the GOP; DeSantis’ war on “wokeness”; Paul Waldman on 6 things people believe about politics that are wrong.

And pasta.

Salon, Troy Farah, 17 Jan 2023: Drinking culture: Why some thinkers believe human civilization owes its existence to alcohol, subtitled “Philosopher Edward Slingerland argues alcohol shifted us from hunter-gatherers to agrarians”

Provocative notion that humans pursued agriculture principally in order to grow crops that they could ferment to make alcoholic beverages.

To some people, alcohol is a scourge on humanity that can do no good. It’s true that booze is directly and indirectly responsible for many pitfalls in society, from drunk driving to increased risk for cancer. But what if alcohol was not merely a vice, but one of the triggers that sparked the dawn of human civilization — in essence, the very thing that shifted us from hunter-gatherers to agrarians?

This is a provocative thesis, and one that might upset Puritans. Yet it has some serious adherents, including philosopher Edward Slingerland. Slingerland believes alcohol may have helped shaped human evolution from the very beginning, and continues to have positive benefits for society — beyond providing a socially acceptable form of euphoria.

This concerns a book called Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward Slingerland. It was published in 2021, though I didn’t notice it at the time. “The first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread,” he writes. The article here is an interview with Slingerland “about some of the misconceptions about alcohol’s place in human evolution.”

Two points stood out to me. First, alcohol is becoming passe, with psychedelics and cannabis becoming more popular, at least among a minority. Second, there’s a sense in which alcohol has served social purposes over the millennia, when getting drunk was done in groups and the alcohol, fermented from grain or grapes, had a relatively low alcohol content, compared to distilled alcohol. He summarizes,

Traditionally, alcohol was always consumed in communal, social, ritual contexts, with built-in rules about drinking, ways to kind of regulate people’s consumption rates, ways to stop people when they’ve had too much. That’s another safety feature that’s been disabled [in modern life]. Right now from my apartment in Vancouver, I can call my local liquor store and have them deliver a case of tequila to my house. And then I can sit here alone in my house in front of the TV and drink as much of it as I want.


AlterNet, Hunter, 16 Jan 2023: Opinion | What a mess: The New York Times interviews Republican voters

This article is a hoot. It’s a “Stop! Kill me now!” piece. The writer is enraged, not so much that the New York Times interviewed a group of Republicans in a way it has interviewed other groups (of teachers, of doctors, etc.) and printed excerpt from their responses to three or four questions put to the group. The NYT piece he refers to is Skeptical About Trump ’24? These 12 Republicans Will Set You Straight.

Hunter is flabbergasted that the NYT prints their uninformed, loony-tunes responses as if they mean anything at all. Hunter’s piece goes on and on quoting examples; I’ll try to find one that is representative of both a Republican response and Hunter’s reaction to it. Here’s a preliminary comment.

Most. Americans. Do. Not. Pay. Attention. To. Politics. They know only what they have heard thirdhand. The most useable quotes almost always come from the volunteers who are the least informed but the most hardheadedly confident in themselves, a bad combination that never gets any better than absolutely awful.

So many examples. Here’s one.

Was Trump, glorious figurehead who raised American life into the highest tier of awesomeness that has ever been, “cheated” out of winning his pandemic economic-crisis post-(first)-impeachment election?

(Andrea, 49, white, N.J., executive assistant) Cheated as in ballots — truckloads of ballots showing up in the middle of the night. There’s videos of it. There is proof. […]
(Sandy, 48, white, Calif., property manager) I know the videos that Andrea is talking about. It’s well documented, but the media doesn’t want to cover that type of stuff.
(Judi, 73, white, Okla., retired) No, I still think [Trump] won the election and that he should still be our president. He should be our president right now.

Truckloads! Truckloads of secret vaccines! I mean, ballots! It’s all on video! It’s streaming in 5G from every maple tree, but the government doesn’t want you to know! It is very important that we, the readers of The New York Times, are exposed to the free and unfettered opinions of our nation’s most thickheaded and source-agnostic of opinion havers, because reasons! How would America know that one specific retired Oklahoma vaccine skeptic believes Joe Biden is not the legitimate president if The New York Times did not create an entire “interactive” web feature highlighting this important f*cking information? How could the readership survive if we did not contact these people not once, but a second time so that they could rub their curlicue opinions in our eyeballs twice instead of once?



The Atlantic, Brian Klaas, 17 Jan 2023: Asymmetrical Conspiracism Is Hurting Democracy, subtitled “In the past decade, conspiratorial thinking has shifted from a worrying factor in Republican politics to a defining feature.”

Perspective of an American living in Britain for the past decade.

But Britain’s and America’s democratic woes are not at all the same. The problems in American democracy are worse. That’s because a particularly insidious disease has infected the core of its political system, one that is not present to the same degree in other rich democracies: extreme conspiracism. Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.

Within the modern GOP, conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for Trump’s MAGA base. Trump’s disciples have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of a dizzying cast of characters, along with a series of code words for alleged cover-ups. They rattle off their accepted wisdom about conspiracies that most people have never heard of, such as “Italygate,” the absurd notion that the U.S. embassy in Rome, in conjunction with the Vatican, used satellites to rig the 2020 presidential election.

He goes on to discuss Jonathan Gottschall and his ideas about storytelling. (I reviewed one of his books here, though I haven’t read his latest one.)

Jonathan Gottschall, an expert on the links between evolution and human storytelling, has come up with a simple, compelling explanation for why people are innately drawn to conspiracy theories. We are, in his words, a storytelling animal. Our minds have evolved to latch on to stories to make sense of a maddeningly complex world.

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are some of the best stories out there. They’re thrillers. Many would make great blockbuster films. And to debunk a conspiracy theory is to tell someone that there is no story. It’s trying to convince a person who has made sense of patterns—by squinting at them through the fun-house mirror of conspiratorial thinking—that those patterns are meaningless. That’s not a message the storytelling animal wants to hear.

Familiar ideas, though ever relevant. (With mentions in the article of Kurt Andersen and Yuval Noah Harari and Richard Hofstadter.)



Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 17 Jan 2023: “The apocalyptic mindset is Republican orthodoxy at this point:” How paranoia consumed the GOP, subtitled “Author Jared Yates Sexton places Trumpism in a dark lineage of history, but holds out hope things can get better”

Interview with author Jared Yates Sexton, author of the just-published (today!) book The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis.


Vox, Ian Millhiser, 17 Jan 2023: Ron DeSantis’s war on “wokeness” is a war against the First Amendment, subtitled “The Florida governor (and likely presidential candidate) appears to believe that government exists to advance his ideas — and to suppress dissent.”

Because we can’t have indoctrination, now.


Washington Post, Paul Waldman, 16 Jan 2023: Opinion | 6 things people believe about politics that are totally wrong

Hmm, what would these be? I’ll quote his six headers…

  • “If members of Congress read bills before voting on them, legislation would be better.”
  • “If only we stopped wasteful spending, we’d solve most of our problems.”
  • “My family balances its budget. Why shouldn’t the government?”
  • “Government should be run like a business.”
  • “The parties need to stop the partisan squabbling and get things done.”
  • “We need more people in Congress who aren’t politicians.”

All of these are wrong, for various reasons, and they’re examples of my thesis (or provisional conclusion) that most intuitive, ‘common sense’ notions are wrong, because they’re simple-minded, and reality is more complex than people who think in terms of black and white (generally, conservatives) can imagine.

I’ll give one example of the writer’s response to these items. The first one.

How could anyone oppose that? But the truth is that most legislators usually don’t read the text — and that’s fine. It isn’t because they’re lazy. It’s because legislation involves a specialized type of language, written by experts for purposes that have nothing to do with understanding and wise decision-making. Members should know exactly what they’re voting on, but the text of bills is only tangentially related to that goal.

For example, a passage in a bill:

For the cost of direct loans as authorized by section 305(d)(2) of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (7 U.S.C. 935(d)(2)), including the cost of modifying loans, as defined in section 502 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, cost of money rural telecommunications loans, $3,726,000.


Finally, one more example of how a simplex rule about carbs is misleading.

Salon, Emma Beckett, 17 Jan 2023: Stop hating on pasta — it actually has a healthy ratio of carbs, protein and fat, subtitled “‘But pasta is mostly carbs!’ I hear you cry. This is true, but it’s not the whole story”

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