Lost Tribes and Human Nature

I found this video, of an uncontacted tribe meeting a white man for the first time, utterly compelling.

I admit that the Enigma style sound-track (actually Yeha-Noha by Sacred Spirit, a new feature on YouTube helpfully reveals) helps churn the emotions.

But there is a beauty in the images, in the actions of the startled men and women on film. Initially, they are clearly shit-fucking scared. Although they are armed, and could have let loose an arrow into the explorer’s gullet at any moment, they do not give in to their fear. Curiosity is the more powerful emotion. They dare to touch the hand of the explorer and his cameraman. And crucially, they trust him enough to shake his hand, taste the salt, and take him to their village. For his part, the white explorer (film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux) appears honest and sensitive, and the moment early on where he reaches out his hand is just sublime.

Its an imperfect experiment, but these uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it. Its a blow to the idea that humankind is essentially destructive and violent, and that politics must essentially be about protecting ourselves from others, in the pursuit of self-interest.

The video is actually from 1978, but these tribes-people are totally outside of time and only Dutilleux’s short-shorts date the piece. But I came upon it because of a more contemporary campaign to help preserve uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Rainforests. There is a lot more fascinating imagery, and a petition to sign, at UncontactedTribes.org.

Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.

Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.

If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.

So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.

Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.

On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.

In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.

Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.

The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.


I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

#Egypt, The Most Important Data Nexus on the Planet

Amid all the uncertainty and violence happening in Egypt, I was struck by a story from Alexandria.  Youths have been organising to protect Bibliotheca Alexanadrina, ‘The New Library of Alexandria’.

The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria.  They are collaborating with the army.  This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.

A major early move by the Egyptian government was to ‘flick the switch’ and choke Internet communications.  In the short term this has clearly given Mubarak and his cohort the upper-hand, by keeping the pro-democracy groups divided and chaotic.  However, the short-term gain might weaken them in the future.  As the the freelancer journalist Ashraf Khalil just tweeted from Cairo:

Told Nile TV that the main economic damage to #egypt is from Net shutdown (estimated $90 mill) and images of violence scaring away tourists

The stories of the Library and the net shut-down recall an old Wired article by Neal Stephenson, where he traces the paths of fibre-optic cables around the world (I actually mentioned it last December when discussing Wikileaks). Stephenson’s travels take him to Egypt, where a major new communications cable is being landed in Alexandria, at a most historic location:

If you turn your back on the equipment through which the world’s bits are swirling, open one of the windows, wind up, and throw a stone pretty hard, you can just about bonk that used book peddler on the head. Because this place, soon to be the most important data nexus on the planet, happens to be constructed virtually on top of the ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria.

Just one more reason why we are all bound up in Egypt’s fate.  Let’s hope that the people who marshalled to protect their museums, are the ones to prevail.

Heathcare Reform Photo

I just saw this photo on a BBC News report on healthcare reform.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It was pulled from the White House’s official Flickr stream, and I think it may soon become emblematic.  It will be used to illustrate a huge victory, substantial but also symbolic, of the Obama Administration.  The President looks chuffed but not ecstatic.  A job well done, but you sense he will be turning to his staff to ask, “what’s next?

Maybe that’s not what happened in reality.  Maybe the President went mental and stood on a table with a knife, lording over his defeated enemies.  But we don’t see that photo.  Significantly, we only have this one image of the celebrations, so that is what will persist of that moment – its a clever bit of subtle PR.  Politicians have been shaping the narrative with flattering images for centuries, of course.  But its always interesting to watch it happen in real time.

War Anniversaries

The new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, ‘Outbreak‘, commemorates 70 years since the start of The Second World War. When I saw the poster on the tube this morning, it took me back 20 years to primary school, when we did a whole term’s class project on the war: gas mask boxes, rationing, evacuation, Vera Lynn, &ct.

That was for the 50th anniversary, which still seemed fairly recent. Seventy years seems a much more distant time. The experience of learning about the Second World War in 2009, must be a little like learning about the First World War back in 1989: I am reminded of Kottke’s Timeline Twins.

I note that, since the First World War lasted from 1914-19, and the Second World War from 39-45, there is never a year when we are without a x10 year anniversary for some event or other in one of those great conflicts. That’s a good thing: lest we forget. But I cannot help but wonder at what point the anniversaries start to get less attention. The Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar only seem to raise interest on the x50 year markers; Banockburn, Bosworth Field, Naseby, The Boyne and Culloden only on the centenary.

Mention the War

From Carole Ann Duffy’s Last Post:

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

The life cut short would always have been good.  A life actually lived rarely compares.

Thoughts on war as a ‘game’Thoughts on the “old lie” and my own long-dead uncles:

That word, that “yet”, challenges us.  Sassoon knows that we will forget, eventually, and the men who died at The Somme and elsewhere will eventually be known to us only as nameless fodder, much like the thousands who died at Waterloo.  Too far back in history to be properly human.  But no Seigfried, not yet, not while three men who fought in that war still roll down Whitehall in their chairs.

Well, Harry Patch and Henry Alligham are gone, and our own memories will start to fade.  Its not the job of poets to rewrite history.  Its enough for them to keep the memory strong.

Thoughts on Apollo, part I

Its the anniversary if the first moon landing tomorrow. Here’s yrstruly on Twitter:

I really can’t get enough Apollo XI anniversary coverage. An extraordinary boundary in human achievement.

Two minor thoughts on why I find the Apollo missions so fascinating. First, the technology seems so basic by today’s standards. I’ve read widely on the engineering behind the Apollo programme, so I know the machines were cutting edge in the 1960s. But I also know that the speed at which inventions were taken from theory to prototype and then to implementation, was much quicker than comparable projects, such as airliners and military hardware, are developed today. The images of the Apollo space craft modules make me think of the word ‘contraption’.

In addition, they were supported by such meagre computer power. Famously, there is more computer capability in a modern mobile phone than there was on the Apollo missions. Worse, the lunar model computer actually crashed during the descent stages of Apollo XI and Apollo XIV. What a contrast to all the back-ups, fail-safes and diagnostics that go into modern aviation technology.

To go so far in such vehicles was brave to the point of insanity. It is almost as if they went before their time. Most people speak of the Apollo programme as being a feature of the Cold War, part of the Arms Race, quintessentially 1960s. But I see it as being rather incongruous with the earthbound history around it. A tangent to the timeline that no-one was ready for, that no-one can parse. An alien act.

Timeshifted Blogs

The Apollo Plus 40 Twitter Feed reminds me of the Orwell Diaries project.  Each pulls a piece of history forward to the present day, where you can experience it in real-time. (via Kottke).

My inner autistic feels slightly uneasy about the the disparity between dates and day.  For example, The Eagle Lunar Module landed on the moon at just after 8pm EDT, on 20th July 1969, which was a Sunday evening (see Mark’s Livingston’s date-to-day converter).  However, I’ll presumably be reading a tweet announcing “the Eagle has landed” late on the evening of Monday 20th July 2009.  Sunday nights and Monday nights feel very different.

The BBC screened couple of TV programmes a few years ago, Dateline Jerusalem and Bethlehem Year Zero, that operated on a similar timeshift concept for the Easter and Christmas stories.  Not quite real-time, though.  It strikes me as a new way to consume other types of art too:  perhaps reading the entire oeuvre of a given writer by purchasing their books exactly 40, or 50, or a 100 years after the initial publication.  Hansard, the Houses of Parliament archive, would be the perfect resource for an extended “on this day” type feed.

What’s freaky about the Internet, or specifically, the Internet where everyone uses permalinks, is that everything is already pre-archived, ready for this kind of treatment at a moment’s notice.  Many is the time when I have accidentally thought that an archived news story is happening at that moment.  With TV, film and radio, there are certain giveaways like picture and sound quality, colour balance, or even accents and pronounciation, which date the archived item.  In print, the age of the page is easy to discern, by the graphic design style if not by the yellowing of the parchment.  Meanwhile, the division of design and content on the Internet means that old text is constantly inserted into modern designs.

I’m not sure which I like best – going back in time to experience the sights and sounds of a forgotten era; or having the old narratives brought forward into a twenty-first century setting.  There’s room for both, of course, but different approaches conjour different feelings, and teach us different lessons.

Social Cost of Slavery

Via Blattman, by way of Sides and Sullivan, an interesting piece of research on how the slave trade had an impact down the generations:

we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. (pdf)

This reminds me of several things.  The first is the debate between Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in 2004, when they contested the Illinois Senate seat that Obama eventually won by a landslide.  Keyes essentially accused Obama of being “not black enough“:

Barack Obama and I are of the same race, but we are not of the same heritage. And there is a distinction. Race is something physical. Heritage is something that may have an element that is physical or biological, but that also includes other elements of history and experience–the kinds of things that have helped to shape the mind and heart of an individual and that are not determined by physics and biology. And we are of different heritages. I’m of a slave heritage, and he is not.

Although Keyes was right to make the distinction between heritage and race, he was wrong to think it had any electoral relevance.  And in the light of the Harvard research, it looks like he was wrong about the extent of the differences between his and Obama’s heritage.   Even if Obama, through his father, is not of slave descent, he is however from a people from whence slaves were drawn.  And that brings with it similar social problems to bona fide slave children (as Keyes would have it).

Second, I’m reminded incidentally of the correlation between the counties that voted blue (i.e. Democrat) last November, and the cotton picking regions of mid-nineteenth century America.

Thirdly, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s formulation: “We are the heir of all ages”.

Which in turn allows me to ponder the idea of ancestor worship, popular in many African cultures.  Taken literally, the idea that your forebears might be watching you seems like an irrelevant and primitive idea.  However, seen through the prism of the Harvard research, the idea of being haunted by your country’s collective past takes on a new and very real meaning.  The unease of great-grandparents long-since buried, still festers in the soul, and it cannot be excised by education, science or modernity.

Part of the 'Gambella Stories' series by Turkairo
Part of the ‘Gambella Stories’ series by Turkairo