Friday, July 27, 2007 40 Comments

Conrad reviews Africa Addio

here. Since I prodded him to this, I suppose I should say a few words.

Of course this is a lovely review - what more could one expect? Conrad's choice of screenshots is excellent - revealing the cinematic achievement that is Africa Addio. If not for the content and the title font, it'd be almost impossible to believe this documentary was made in 1966. Merely as moviemakers, Jacopetti and Prosperi (directors of the more famous Mondo films, although they consider Addio their masterpiece) were far ahead of their time.

Addio is not merely a movie, however. It is a historical document. And this is where I must fault Conrad slightly, because the problem is, he is misleading you a little. It is a very pardonable reviewer's trick. The trouble is that he wants you to watch the movie (the Google Video copy has been pulled, but it's easy to find on DVD), and so he makes it sound a little bit like a National Geographic Special.

And you almost certainly don't want to watch this movie. If there is any good reason for the world to have an MPAA, Africa Addio is it. In fact, I don't think an NC-17 would really do Addio justice. I think it might well be something like an NC-40. Certainly, if you are between the ages of three and ninety-three, there's no chance you will ever forget the experience.

Let me put it this way. In Addio, you see two men killed onscreen. (These executions are almost certainly not faked - I don't believe any of the footage is, although clearly some of the events, such as charismatic megafauna being hunted with spears, are orchestrated rather than incidental.) But what's really appalling is that by the point at which you see this, which is toward the end of the film, it hardly bothers you at all. It seems, really, almost normal.

The genius of Addio is that it sweeps you into the welter of stupendous tragedy that was Africa in the '60s, engaging your senses and forcing you beyond any conceivable denial. If you saw Hotel Rwanda or Last King of Scotland, perhaps you got a small taste of this experience. But both of these were, of course, fiction.

For example, Addio contains the only footage of actual genocide that I know of. And it's not just footage of genocide - it's 35mm film, shot by one of the leading documentary cinematographers of his generation, from a helicopter, of a genocide which I had never even heard of.

The genocide is the murder of the Arabs of Zanzibar in 1964. It's briefly mentioned on this page, which gives a death count of 5000, a number which anyone who sees the film can tell is understated. You see almost that many people on screen, and that's just the rolls they used. Murdering 5000 people barely counts as genocide these days, and it hardly requires the use of large, preprepared, mechanically-dug mass graves.

(My guess is that the memory hole in this case is due to the fact that the Arab ruling class of Zanzibar was generally aligned with the British Empire, and the African party which sponsored the coup and genocide was aligned with Tanzania, which Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form three months later, and which was a longtime darling of the Western left.)

Allow me to set the scene. After trying to land in Zanzibar, and being forced to make a quick takeoff when their plane is shot at and a companion plane is burned on the landing strip, our filmmakers rent a helicopter in Kenya and fly over the scene at a reasonable height. We see a line of people, dark-skinned men, women and children in white Arab clothing, walking single file as far as the eye can see, toward the aforementioned mass graves. The soldiers guarding them occasionally look up and take a potshot at the copter, but it's too high.

Cut to a shallow tidal flat, where hundreds at least, probably thousands of Arabs have been literally driven into the sea. Small boats are collecting a few of them. The rest merely stand around in water up to their ankles, presumably wondering what in the hell to do. There is no answer. The mainland is not in swimming distance. The next day, the helicopter returns, and where there had been people, there are now bodies - still in the same white robes.

Have you ever wondered how, if the Nazis had invented some miracle wonder-weapon in 1944 and actually won the war, they would explain the Holocaust? Because I'm sure there would be a way. Hitler never ordered it. It was war, things happen. It was the Allies' fault for not accepting Jewish refugees. The British and Americans bombed city centers, boiling Germans alive like rats in tunnels. The Soviets did all kinds of crazy horrible things. All of these and more, I'm sure, would be deployed.

But if the Nazis knew one thing, it was how to distort reality. It's often forgotten that when Hitler wrote of the Big Lie, he meant - of course - the lies of others. He, Hitler, was debunking these lies, offering truth to the people. But of course he was projecting, and how better to present his own Lie?

And so all educated people on the planet today learn that there was something called "colonialism," that "colonialism" was evil, and that its death was a "liberation."

And when I tell you that, in reality, this "liberation" amounted to an orgy of tyranny and murder which surely at least competes with the achievements of Stalin, Hitler or Mao - that the transition from "colonialism" to "postcolonialism" amounted to a transfer of the Third World from one Western faction to another, from Optimate to Brahmin, Revelationist to Universalist, from indirect rule at the local level to the same at the national level - that it replaced governments whose quality of service was generally indifferent to good, with ones whose quality of service was disastrous to mediocre, but whose officials at least had the right skin color - who are you to believe? Me, or every educated person on the planet?

Perhaps I am just like Hitler. After all, Unqualified Reservations has basically the same goal as Mein Kampf - to convince the reader that he has been fooled, that the world he thinks he lives in is a simulacrum, a fiction, a faked documentary. True, I don't attribute the disparity to the international Jewish conspiracy, or to any conspiracy at all. But at least Hitler's readers knew his real name.

And this is why I treasure a film like Africa Addio. Because it's 40 years old and the things it shows happened, and because the men who made it were mad geniuses, who could turn some of the world's ugliest history into undeniable beauty, whose work can still command our eyes when no sane man should want to see. Again, believe me - you don't want to watch Addio. On the other hand, if you don't believe me, you are free to watch it. At least for now.


Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

I think these two reviews nicely demonstrate both the similarity and difference between our worldviews. I can't say I intended to make it sound National Geographic though--maybe I should amplify the violence part.

July 27, 2007 at 2:53 AM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

I am trying to understand how exactly you deviate from the officially-sanctioned critique of the post-colonial condition.

Every responsible commentator today agrees that postcolonial Africa has been spectacularly fucked since liberation. (The only people who don't agree with this assessment are those who live in certain African states where negativity and defeatism are forbidden.) What is not agreed upon is why Africa is so fucked, and whether this fuckedness was a historical inevitability.

According to the official Universalist history, Africa is currently because of the incompetence/wickedness of the departed colonial powers. Liberation was good and inevitable, but the implementation was botched. If the colonial powers had done things differently, Africa today would be like Europe, only with black people.

You seem to imply that liberation was bad - that it was a world-historical atrocity committed/abetted by the colonial powers, in cooperation with indigenous revolutionaries who proceeded to do all of the nasty stuff that revolutionaries usually do when they get into power. I'm not certain whether you believe that liberation was inevitable; could you please clarify your views? If liberation was not inevitable - if it is conceivable that the British could be peacefully and competently administering large parts of the Africa today - then we must ask why the British left at all, and whether it might be good to put them back in charge. On the other hand, if liberation was inevitable, then we must ask whether arrangements could have been made to smooth the transition - and this leads us directly to the Universalist critique.

I believe that liberation was inevitable. People generally hate being ruled by others who do not share their ethnicity. They prefer to be ruled badly by people who are similar to themselves. The European administration of Africa was simply unsustainable; even assuming that the colonial project could enjoy domestic political support, it could not continue indefinitely, as populations within Africa grew faster than the available number of colonial administrators. At some point, xenophobia becomes unmanageable and the foreigners are compelled to leave. The ideology of Universalism does not seem to be essential to this revolutionary process.

July 27, 2007 at 2:53 AM  
Anonymous Raymund said...

Chairmank, I have to disagree with "People generally hate being ruled by others who do not share their ethnicity" as an explanation for why decolonialism was inevitable. Africa today is almost nothing but people being ruled by others who do not share their ethnicity, with ethnicity defined at the tribal level. Uganda since the '70s, Zimbabwe since the '80s, etc. have been one-tribe states where the ruling tribe gets money, cushy government jobs, military power, expropriated properties, chances to plunder and rape, etc. at the expense of the other tribes.

I strongly doubt the average uneducated African cares who rules the territory so long as he's free to live his life as best he sees fit. The leaders of the independence movements weren't uneducated Africans, but were instead Europe-educated elites. Only Europe's loss of will made decolonialism inevitable.

The colonial powers can be blamed for dividing up Africa on geographic and not tribal grounds, leading to the one-tribe state and its problems. I often think Africa would be better off in the long term if we erased its borders and let all its tribes slug it out until an equilibrium is reached. Everyone here should read Edward Luttwak's "Strategy" for this point alone: Lasting peace comes only when war burns itself out.

July 27, 2007 at 7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both chairmank and raymund have made good points. Perhaps the way to understand both would be to point out that a lot of liberating revolutions were billed as "Africans to be ruled by Africans", and all sorts of Africans were convinced. No one could see futures of one-tribe rule; they saw a present of European/Arab rule and a promised future of black-led democracy. As long as that future was plausible, revolution was close to inevitable.

My sense is that, to potential revolutionaries in Africa and to dogmatic left in Europe and the US, images of white-on-black imperialism, slavery, etc. blocked out all other images (which, due to lack of camera crews, were probably not all that vivid to begin with).

A belief that black-on-black imperialism is less memorable/ important/ objectionable than white-on-black is quite pernicious, and difficult to confront since it is rarely stated openly. Occasionally, the left will openly make laughably wrong assertions like "Africans lived in peace before the Europeans came", but usually the views are concealed by a veil of et tu quoque, something along the line of:
Well, yes, of course the Bantus were mere colonial overlords in southern Africa, but their violence and imperialism matters (much) less than British or Dutch examples because it
(a) happened a long time ago,
(b) was based on ethnic bigotry, a lesser sin the racial bigotry (if you consider Capoid people the same race as the Bantus, a big "if"),
(c) wasn't bolstered by hypocritical British notions that it aimed to help the indigenous people, or
(d) was accompanied by violence which isn't as well-documented as white-on-black imperialism.

This whole thing leads me to a Marxian-sounding conclusion which makes me a blush a little. Revolution was inevitable because the colonial administrations contained the seeds of their own destruction: self-doubt and self-criticism (i.e. Shaka didn't have an anti-imperialist ideology to contend with; others did). I'll have to think more about that.

July 27, 2007 at 9:33 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Also, I must say I find the 'DON'T WATCH THIS!!!!' shtick a bit disingenuous; after all, if you really wanted people not to see it, you wouldn't discuss it.

July 27, 2007 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Well, there is an element of the Duke and the Dauphin in it, I suppose... but really, I don't want anyone to be accidentally horrified. If you're ready to be horrified, by all means, see the movie.

July 27, 2007 at 10:03 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Ch. K.,

I am pretty much with Raymund and anon on this one.

The chutzpah of blaming colonialism for the troubles of postcolonialism is pretty unbelievable.

I mean, faction A says: if you do X, P will happen. Faction B says: if you do X, Q will happen. Faction A wins a devastating victory over faction B, X is done, and Q happens.

And what is the line we get? What is the consensus reading of history? The line is, if only it wasn't for you B people, we would have had P rather than Q!

I mean, surely this is possible, but extraordinary chutzpah demands extraordinary evidence. Occam's razor tells me the most likely answer is that the Bs, who after all were the ones with actual experience in governing actual African countries, were simply right.

And I don't see anyone at all on the Universalist side acknowledging the burden of proof that their position must face. Instead I see invective, hatred and lies.

As for "people generally hate being ruled by others who do not share their ethnicity," try that one on the Normans, the Mughals, the Manchu, or any of the literally kajillions of successful foreign-origin ruling castes throughout history.

The truth behind this statement is that people generally hate being ruled by others, period. They would much rather do the ruling, and let the others be the ruled. To this end they will seize any organizational pretext, ethnic nationalism being only one of many. But only if they have a chance of success. Otherwise, why bother?

And the reason the "liberation movements" had a chance of success after World War II, and not before World War II, has - in my opinion - very little to do with population growth or other "inevitable" developments, and very much to do with military and political events in the Northern Hemisphere.

Given these events, "liberation" was in fact inevitable, and those Optimates who recognized this and surrendered, rather than those who chose to fight, are praiseworthy. But I think this is a different meaning of "inevitable" than the one you had in mind.

July 27, 2007 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Just so, and an interesting note: I'd long been curious about the state that's often described as the exception to the disaster of "liberation," Botswana, which is often described as a "thriving democracy." So one day I looked it up.

Short summary: Botswana is a one-tribe, one-party state in which the traditional rulers of the tribe are the leaders of the party and the rulers of the country. A survival of classic indirect rule.

Tshombe in Katanga tried to establish something similar, but the powers that be caught on and he was crushed by UN forces with US military support. About the only successful UN military operation, if you don't count Korea.

It was terribly important to Universalists that the Third World - let's not forget that this term was originally an expression of optimism and hope - be not only black-ruled, but also socialist. Or at least ruled by politicized intellectuals, like themselves, who would be suitable clients for their brave new world of transnational helping hands.

Hence the rise of the Wabenzis, now descending on South Africa. Try blaming colonialism for that!

July 27, 2007 at 10:26 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Another feature of this film that was way ahead of its time was the "women on trampolines" segment, anticipating the man show by decades. This is probably the most objectionable part of the flick, as 1) they almost say in so many words, "the rest of Africa is a hellhole, but everything is great in Johannesburg" and 2) it makes the whole film seem superficial. Women on trampolines? What were they thinking?

July 27, 2007 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

I liked the trampolines bit--it was positively phantasmagorical. And then to cut to the swollen breasts of nature: genius.

July 27, 2007 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

The chutzpah of blaming colonialism for the troubles of postcolonialism is pretty unbelievable.

I agree with this, but I'm unconvinced that "Universalists" don't. I mean, I thought I was a Universalist. Do you have any evidence that a substantial chunk of the people you refer to as Universalists still think that?

July 27, 2007 at 12:40 PM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

If I may offer an answer to jewish atheist's good question:

That's a good question. I can't think of any written sources that try to blame colonialism for postcolonial violence and misrule off the top of my head. I hear it much more in informal conversations with people I consider sort-of-Brahmins and definite Universalists. If you sadly mention the threat Zulus pose to other South African ethnic groups, blame is subtly shifted to the British and Dutch. Ditto for whatever other areas areas are up for discussion.

On hunch, I did a little Google search, and I came up with this, on the matter of India, 1947. (I'm not sure that the writer is a Universalist though.) I don't know too much about Indian independence, but I regard with skepticism the charge that Churchill was responsible not just for treating Indians badly as a whole, but for causing Hindus and Muslims to mistrust each other. I'm guessing that would have begun under the Mughals.

Actually, it seems a little too easy to blame partition for whatever violence came after decolonization. The European empires are blamed for not splitting Africa on ethnic lines; the British are blamed for splitting Ireland along ethnic lines; now, orwelltoday blames them for doing the same thing in India.

Partitioning along arbitrary lines is bad because then you'd get Africa's present situation: big blocky countries ruled by a single tribe with no concern for other groups.

Partitioning along ethnic lines is bad because then you get the Indo-Pakistan or Ulster-Ireland conflicts, governments which, even if fairly elected, have no reason to be concerned with other groups.

Not partitioning at all is bad because we get One World Government (or its obscure little brother, Continent-Wide Government). Where would you put the capital of Africa? What would the official language(s) be?

Am I getting this right?

I'm not saying decolonization couldn't have been done better, I'm just saying, if it were done in the best possible manner, it would still seem pretty shabby to the Universalists and the Idealists, who would cover the decolonizers with as much or more shame as their colonial antecedents. To borrow from Mencius for the fiftieth time, a central tenet of Universalism is that everyone deep down believes in equality, peace, and democracy, so if previously-subjugated people act differently it must be the fault of Optimates in other countries, to be cured by more progress.

July 27, 2007 at 2:56 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


It's pretty much the entire content of postcolonial theory, which is orthodox whether we like it or not.

That said, I'm intrigued that you've never been exposed to postcolonial theory, at least not in any obvious ways.

Of course it is mystical gobbledygook, not in any way distinguishable from, say, Scholastic theories of the Trinity, or (to be more inflammatory) Nazi "racial science." And as such, since it cannot be understood by anyone whose method of understanding things is to think them through rather than to regurgitate them, it tends to stay in the university and resist diffusion. Still, once you know a little about it, you do see the bits and pieces that have crept out, as bbroadside notes...

July 27, 2007 at 9:38 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I have to side with Conrad on the "women on trampolines." It is consistent with the Mondo aesthetic, which abandons taste for impact.

And considering events in South Africa today, I don't find the treatment unprescient at all. One wonders where those women on trampolines are now. See this by the widow of Alan Paton...

July 27, 2007 at 9:43 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I first saw the movie after Mencius mentioned it at gnxp. I think it could do without the trampolines and the focus on mistreatment of animals (I rank them far, far below people), but the documentarizing of genocide unrecorded anywhere else makes up for any flaws in the film and would still do so if it were a far more flawed film.

I, too, wonder where Jewish Atheist has been. I hear about the "legacy of colonialism" constantly, and I'm not even all that interested in the third world. Just earlier today I read this atrociously bad blog entry (from someone born in what is now Zimbabwe, coincidentally) and posted the following: "People seem to use colonization to explain too much. How different are Liberia and Ethiopia from neighboring countries? Thailand from the rest of southeast asia? The more sensible explanation is that Africa has always been poor and that simply hasn't changed, though medicines and foods permitting larger populations have arrived, as well as guns and various ideologies that lower populations in an especially unpleasant manner."

July 27, 2007 at 10:25 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...


You're correct that most people in Africa today are not ruled by people of their own ethnicity. But the departure of colonial powers at least presented the opportunity to implement autonomous ethnic rule. I think that people living in British west Africa in the 1960 were not interested in an independent Nigeria or Cameroon as a state in itself; rather, they were interested in an independent Nigeria as a prerequisite to the regional secession of mono-ethnic mini-states. Of course, they were thwarted by certain actors who realized that it was profitable to use the central government to bleed other ethnic groups to advance the interests of their own ethnic group. But the disastrous consequences of this inter-ethnic aggression simply provide further evidence that people prefer to be ruled by others of the same ethnicity.

Do you really believe that the Han did not resist being ruled by Manchus? Did the natives of ritain willingly defer to their Norman overlords? Just because these foreign rulers maintained power does not imply that their indigenous subjects were satisfied with the arrangement. I believe that ethnic solidarity is a universal cognitive bias - unfortunate but true. (I wish that I could honestly assert that I do not prefer the company of other northeast Asians, but the fact remains that I am a racist even after a thorough Universalist education. I don't go around committing hate crimes against white people or black people, but I'm sure that if you administered the proper psychological assessment to me, you would reveal an involuntary ethnic bias.) My point is that the Universalist nonsense about "self-rule" at least acknowledges a universal human cognitive bias.

July 27, 2007 at 10:47 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

That said, I'm intrigued that you've never been exposed to postcolonial theory, at least not in any obvious ways.

It's not that I've never been exposed -- I saw some of that stuff in college -- but those beliefs strike me as something you find in silly English Departments rather than in the general Brahmin/Universalist public. The B/U caste you describe is huge, but the number of wacky English professors is relatively small.

July 28, 2007 at 6:50 AM  
Anonymous dearieme said...

The cause - or, more likely the timing - of decolonisation of British Africa was probably two-fold. (1) It cost too much to keep the colonies, and Britain was still deep in debt from two World Wars. (2) Her creditor - the USA -was urging decolonisation on Britain. That all seemed to be part of the American objection to sea-borne empires - British, French, Spanish - but not to horse-borne e.g. Russian and, uh, American. Anyway, that slaughter in Zanzibar probably explains why the Heath government let the Uganda Asians settle in Britain a few years later - to save them from a similar slaughter. Another slaughter you might like to look into is Mugabe's mass murder of Matabele (aka Ndbele) in Zimbabwe.

July 28, 2007 at 7:38 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

"The B/U caste you describe is huge, but the number of wacky English professors is relatively small."

Wacky English professors are pilots for the huge B/U caste.

July 28, 2007 at 7:56 AM  
Anonymous ru said...

Yeah, Mencius, I am in fact very grateful that you have written about the current political environment: your observations are extremely valuable. It is the average blogger or the average blog comment writer that should IMHO
refrain expressing a position on any political fight of the last 80 years.

July 28, 2007 at 5:31 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Of course they resisted. Revolts by Saxons, Marathas, and Han Chinese were quite widespread.

At least until it turned out that these revolts wouldn't succeed. And then they stopped (and, in the case of the Manchu, started again when the Qing grew weak).

Xenophobia and solidarity are indeed human universals. But they're fairly mild ones compared to the desire for power and the sense of self-preservation.

Since any successful government must conquer the latter two, the factor of ethnic nationalism - which provides an automatic alliance structure, and all hominoids in the chuman clade are inveterate alliance-builders - while it makes the problem of governing somewhat harder, is not, I think, best understood as a qualitative distinction.

I'd say the dynamic in colonial territories shortly before the end of colonial rule was much the same everywhere: natives, typically the elite with some Western education, saw a power vacuum, and realized that the first people to fill that vacuum would remain in it for quite some time. As for their rhetoric, it was whatever worked best at rallying support, whether military or mob - or, preferably, both.

Of course, I'm not saying that all postcolonial leaders thought in this cynical way. As usual, many or even most were probably quite sincere. But evolution works, and the winners were those whose actions most approximated this Machiavellian approach.

July 28, 2007 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I don't disagree at all with your observation, and I think the best way to describe it is not to say that most educated Americans hold this academic postcolonial view - but that, if they have any view on the subject, this is the view they hold.

Because what the postcolonialists have succeeded in doing is rendering it impossible to transmit any interpretation other than theirs through the educational system. So theirs wins by default.

They can't filter the press, though, so you can still buy Ian Smith's memoirs and decide what you think. ("Usually ships within 4 to 6 weeks." Indeed.) Smith is anything but an eloquent writer, but if you are interested in parallax views his take is certainly worth knowing. Supplement with an orthodox history of the same events, such as that by Martin Meredith.

July 28, 2007 at 7:25 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I would go even farther than this: I'd say that the State Department internationalists who compelled the British and French to decolonialize were essentially seeking to transfer these colonies to an empire of their own, ie, the international system they envisioned developing around the UN.

That this empire never actually worked - State never had any real influence over the "nonaligned" nations - is a mere detail, and can anyway be blamed on the American right, who ruined it all with their barbarous, hateful anticommunism.

In any case, the real goal is the same as always: defeating one's enemies. Conquest is wonderful but destruction is sufficient.

I don't think it's at all a leap too far to see decolonialization as yet another Roundhead blow landed on the routed Cavaliers. Perhaps one day there will be a reckoning of this old balance sheet, which has certainly piled up quite a few liabilities.

July 28, 2007 at 7:33 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I wish I still had "Wars of National Liberation" nearby. It had an excellent point about how little support there is in Africa for changing the boundaries from those decided in Berlin in the 19th century by great powers to ones based on ethnicity. Apparently all the African states are deathly afraid of instability and breaking up, and so all of them tend to support the efforts of one another to hold their countries together. It also has a point about the distaste American officials had for the French empire, but that might not just be part of Mencius' narrative. France supported the Biafrans because it wanted to break up the largest Anglophone country in Africa, the South Africans supported these same Ibos due to their shared Christianity, and I forget exactly why Britain supported the Nigerian government though I suppose it was to maintain good relations. Some things simply don't fit in overarching historical narratives of the type Mencius is pushing.

I've been plugging Eliezer Yudkowsky and Bayesian/Popperian/empiricism over here, and I think his latest, Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences), at Overcoming Bias is quite good.

Lastly, I'm still curious what sources on Iraq Mencius thinks are more reliable than the Lancet study. It's not a major focus of mine, but he seemed very confident it is wrong, and I have not come across that sort of skepticism elsewhere.

July 28, 2007 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

Mencius: Appeal to ethnic solidarity are obviously a nasty trick. But this trick works remarkably well, in the same way that the adaptive fiction of democracy works well. While I am sympathetic to your aims, I believe that you underestimate the human ability to be deceived and to willingly go along with the deceit.

July 28, 2007 at 11:07 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I don't believe the trick is intrinsically flawed because it's nasty. I believe that in order to govern effectively, you need to be able to defeat all such tricks - not morally, but militarily.

I certainly try never to underestimate the capacity for self-deceit, especially moral self-deceit! I think most people are generally sincere and well-intentioned in their actions.

July 29, 2007 at 12:27 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I agree with your history, but I don't see how it differs with me at all. In particular, why would you expect the rulers of African states to want to break themselves up? Being a "big man" in Africa is a pretty sweet deal.

The Lancet study comes from an incredibly untrustworthy source, and its methodology strikes me as pretty much guaranteed to multiply error. I don't see any need for any such statistics.

I really, really dislike the word "empirical." Either something is a controlled experiment or not. If not, treating it as if it was one is an excellent way to amplify one's own preconceptions.

Deductive and intuitive reasoning are both much more important aspects of common sense than anyone at Overcoming Bias seems to want to admit, and the result is that they are far too confident that their perception of reality is accurate. Socrates, as I recall, had something to say about this.

July 29, 2007 at 12:34 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

Right now I'm thinking of an experiment to test the question of how many Brahmin / PI / Universalists blame colonialism for the violence that occurred after decolonization.

Around some of your most progressive and/or Universalist friends, mention some heinous episode of postcolonial violence, maybe expressing sorrow over the latest victim of the machete. Be careful not to mention it in the context of the previous colonial power, or in a conversation in which that has been broached, but make sure you do it around people who are aware of the basics of colonial history.

See how they respond. Do they say, "Yes, it's terrible that people suffered so much. I hope things clear up soon," or something similarly neutral. Or do they say, "Oh, well, how could you expect anything different given what the Portugese / English / whoever did to them 60-300 years ago?"

No one really explicitly denies that the formerly oppressed have the same degree of free will as the former oppressor. The notion just sort of hangs in the background. How could you expect Hindu and Muslim to get along, given that the East India Company was such a monster? How could you expect that the Malays would cheerfully cooperate with the Chinese ethnics, when the British used to deny them both voting rights?

I'm can't say how important or widespread these notions are, but they do seem to pop up often.

"Liberals must somehow overcome the curious condescension which takes the form of sticking up for and explaining away anything, howsoever outrageous, which Negroes, individually or collectively, might do." That's Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is as much of Vaisya - Brahmin hybrid as it is possible to be. My assertion is that the "curious condascension" has its international equivalent, applied not to a particular race but to whoever the speaker considers historically oppressed.

Before my exposure to this blog, I had little trouble explaining that pattern. Borrowing from Nietzsche, I reasoned that some disease of modern thinking caused people to assign as little freedom / responsibility / adulthood as possible to whatever group they felt they needed to boost. It's hard to blame a literal slave for wrongdoing, and since blame hurts, just make a figurative slave out of whoever you feel has suffered too much.

I still think that idea is okay, but I'm not sure how they "curious condascension" squares with Universalism. The two seem contradictory at first, but maybe they line up when the Brahmin/Universalist reasons that anyone who hasn't achieved whatever (peace, prosperity, equality, democracy) must have failed because of external (invisible) chains, rather than a different internal value system. I'll have to think about that.

July 29, 2007 at 12:46 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Anyone who wishes to blame the woes of Africa on the European colonial powers that briefly ruled there should consult Sir Richard Burton's accounts of his travels to West Africa. Most people who have read anything about the slave trade understand that the "Roots" scenario is false, and that European slavers rarely if ever captured slaves themselves. It was much safer, and perfectly easy, for them to buy them from coastal Africans who captured them on periodic raids inland. Africans have always been ruled, and not infrequently enslaved, by other Africans. Europeans simply availed themselves of a market that was already open for business.

Burton makes clear that it was worse than just that. While in the area called the Slave Coast (what is now Ghana and Dahomey) he attempted to persuade the local despot, Gelele, to desist from the slave trade. The details of Gelele's rule which he records give one the impression that the slaves sold to Europeans were the lucky ones. Every year large numbers of the captives were consumed in a festival of human sacrifice known as the "Annual Custom;" in years when a new ruler succeeded, the number of killings was augmented in what was called the "Grand Custom." If you can't locate a copy of Burton's "A Mission to Gelele, king of Dahomé" (1864), you can find a well-done summary of what Burton described in the context of one of George MacDonald Fraser's entertaining Flashman yarns, "Flash for Freedom!"

The Universalist pattern Sen. Moynihan described as "curious condescension" is the lineal progeny of Rousseau's fantasy about the "noble savage" who would, but for the meddling of nasty Christian civilisation, be living at peace and in harmony with the environment. This is, of course, romantic nonsense. Seen in the context of real history, the butchery in Liberia, Rwanda, etc. seems more a reversion to the pre-colonial norm than any sort of perverse reaction to colonialism.

July 29, 2007 at 3:38 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Your thinking is both flattering and acute :-)

You present the problem: how does this obvious racial/national asymmetry in judgment fit with Universalist doctrine, which proclaims that there should be no asymmetries in judgment?

Your answer is also the simplest one that can be presented. But - as Michael S. points out - it has the significant demerit of not withstanding very much scrutiny. Great fuzzy clouds of theory must be knitted around it.

But why do they even get into the problem? Where does this Rousseauvian condescension come from? Why, despite its problems with reality, is it so persistent?

This deserves its own post, but briefly, I'd say that it's that Universalists are not notably militaristic - and as such they need allies. The "oppressed," whether at home or abroad, are a perfect source of this power.

July 30, 2007 at 3:31 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

I suspect that curious condescension and the myth of the noble savage flow from the most central beliefs of Universalism.

The original theological meaning of universalism was that, at the end of days, no one would be damned - everyone would be saved. This belief was closely associated with early unitarianism, for example that of the Socinians. Universalism is a way of denying that "in Adam's fall/we sinned all." If there was no original sin, there is no need for a Savior, hence unitarianism.

If not by original sin, how, then, are we to explain the moral failings of humanity? If, in a state of nature, man is naturally good, the reason must be (as Rousseau suggested) that the institutions of society are to blame. Get rid of them, and man's inherent goodness will flourish.

The concept of the noble savage and of the corrupting influence of civilization is made much easier to accept by our intimate acquaintance with all the failings of our own social institutions, and our comparative ignorance of those of others. It is easy to see primitive societies as innocent, first because the wish is father to the thought, and secondly, because we don't know that much about them.

Universalism inverts the thesis of Bishop Reginald Heber's famous hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." In Heber's lyrics, the lands of the heathen are described as places where "every prospect pleases/and only man is vile" - because ignorant of Christ's promise to redeem vile men from the original sin that is their portion as heirs to Adam's fall. But, since according to the Universalist view, man is not inherently vile, it is amongst civilized people that every prospect pleases, and only man is vile because of the perverting influence of civilization. Therefore we have a better chance of finding the good amongst peoples who have never been tainted by its poison breath.

The degree to which this view has persisted since the time of Rousseau, despite all the evidence to the contrary, shows the depth of the Universalist faith. The French revolution alone should have shown Rousseau's theory that sweeping away the old corrupt institutions would inaugurate a return to the Edenic state was a fraud. Still, the same sort of people who pinned their hopes on the Jacobins later pinned them on the Bolsheviks, and on Mao Tse-tung; and they still think Castro's Cuba is a promising experiment, if not a proved one (cf. Michael Moore).

Anthropology is merely another venue for such hopes. Consider how Margaret Mead's Samoa, or the "gentle Tasady" or other false and romantic interpretations of the primitive. Even primate zoology does not escape this. For a long time, chimpanzees, we were assured, shared more DNA with humans than any other species. To be sure, baby chimps are cute and affectionate; but it did not long escape notice that adult ones shared, in addition to DNA, all-too-human tendencies towards territoriality, greed, and violence. Then the primatologists discovered bonobo apes, who supposedly were bisexual, had a communal economy ("it takes a village...") and matriarchal social organization. What could more ideally answer Universalists' fondest hopes? Unfortunately for them, this myth too is now beginning to crumble (see the most recent [July 30] issue of the New Yorker).

Whatever may be said about some of the beliefs of orthodox Christianity, it seems to me that there is deep insight into the human character in the doctrine of original sin.

Pride, anger, avarice, envy, sloth, gluttony, and lust are fundamental and dominant aspects of human nature, semper et ubique et ab omnibus. They are innate, because they are all in one way or another assertions of self-interest. Consider the squalling infant, who is too young to be sensible to any moral instruction. He thinks only of his own comfort, and never mind his mama's or papa's inconvenience, he wants it NOW! The infant displays six of the seven deadlies - lust alone fails to appear until the onset of puberty.

All of the character traits we admire, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, by contrast, ane not instinctual in this way; they have to be learnt. It is (among others) the job of civilization to teach them, and that point is one that Universalism fails to acknowledge. It may be the germ of its destruction.

July 30, 2007 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Because this is at the end of an aging thread, I've taken the liberty of pulling it up to a guest post.

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March 2, 2009 at 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 8:02 PM  
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