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It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present

One of the splashy headlines from today’s newspapers concerned an American mogul’s plans to build a second planned city in Uganda….even though he hasn’t finished his first. I did not know that American moguls were building any cities in Uganda, but strange, futuristic planned cities interest me, so I was quick to click on the headline! Apparently the mogul in question is the rap/R&B singer Akon, whose family emigrated to Missouri from Senegal. Akon’s first planned city, “Akon City” is set to be built in Senegal, not Uganda (I guess I misunderstood the Post’s somewhat misleading headline). All financial transactions which take place in Akon City will be made with “Akoins” a cryptocurrency also devised by Akon.

3D illustration of a futuristic city in sunset, with an organic architectural design and high-rise buildings, for fantasy and science fiction backgrounds.

Although urban planners and economic development experts are…skeptical…about both cities, Akon and his collaborators aver that they have raised $4 billion dollars of the required $6 billion dollars to get stage one of the city (in Senegal) started. I am going to gloss over the pointed questions which auditors and activists have raised concerning how so much real estate was pledged to these projects by cash-strapped governments and just show you some pictures (in fact, all of these pictures are designs/conceptions for how Akon City could look).

I am not going to speculate about whether Akon can build Akon City and finance it with Akoins, however I would like to propose that if he does manage to do so, he should immediately extend a sister city deal (and most-favored-trade status) to Akron, Ohio. I feel like that post-industrial rustbelt city has been desperately looking for someone with Akon’s interests. In fact, I wonder if they couldn’t raise some quick cash from the rap mogul by getting rid of their “R” (which they could make some extra money off of by selling to Pune, India or Vigo, Spain, or some similar metropolis).

Yesterday’s post was about the intellectual and emotional dissonance of realizing that all of the stuff American schoolchildren are taught about how our democracy works is no longer true. Our quarter-of-a-millenium long experiment in self-government is starting to fail. Thanks to the decades-old legislative logjam in the Senate, meaningful far-reaching legislation is nearly impossible to pass. In place of well-crafted legislation, we have been muddling forward with a baffling hodgepodge of conflicting executive orders and judicial rulings. American citizens (who are not the most patient people to begin with) see this dysfunction and tune out of politics–or start believing in crazed strongmen or weird conspiracy theories. How did we get here?

Although gerrymandering, political polarization, “media bubbling,” and demographic factors have all contributed to the mess, the biggest problem in American politics at this moment is the filibuster, a procedural rule which means that any United States senator can derail legislation by refusing to yield the floor unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote for cloture (which ends the debate and brings the legislation to a vote whereupon a simple majority of 51 senators can then pass the legislation). The founding fathers meant for the Senate to be counter majoritarian (since pathetic little states have the same 2 senators as large worthwhile states) however they wanted legislators to be able to make deals and pass laws! The filibuster is not in the Constitution but is a part of the senate’s self-created rules (which can arguably be changed–under certain specific circumstances–by a simple majority). The current state of affairs vis-à-vis the filibuster was made possible in 1806 thanks to the advice of the infamous Aaron Burr (who was then vice-president and thus the presiding officer of the Senate). Burr recommended the Senate get rid of a rule which allowed for a simple majority to force a vote on the underlying question being debated.

Yesterday I mischaracterized the filibuster as requiring a senator to continuously talk on the floor. For many years–from 1837 (the first time the filibuster was used) through the Civil War and up to World War I–that is how the rule was construed; however, in the modern era, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened. I think my civics teacher was hoping to explain that back in 1988, but the exigencies of middle school prevented him from properly explaining the Byzantine complexities of Senate rules. Speaking of which, this excellent overview by the Brookings Institute actually explains all of the filibuster/cloture rules and all of their possible ramifications. Within that article we find the following troubling graph which is a fair representation of the growing importance of the ever-growing power of the minority to balk legislation.

I worry that the real point of this essay is being lost as I try to explain esoteric parliamentary rules (hardly my métier, anyway). Yet that worry should focus everyone’s attention, since it is what has effectively already happened. Mitch McConnell, the “grim reaper” of the Senate believes that Americans will not care if, through inaction and executive rulings he strips them of their rights, their wealth, and their future. He believes that faced with a complex procedural problem, Americans will blame both political parties. This benefits the Republicans who hardly care if government accomplishes nothing, since it allows them to say “government accomplishes nothing” and then pilfer the system and flout rules designed for a lifetime ago. When faced with such obfuscation and bad intentions, Americans should be furious! The U.S. government is not designed to allow Mitch McConnell to hollow out society and shovel money to his billionaire masters while China takes over the world! The fact that we have allowed him to take over our country because he is a master of mendacity and tortuous rules should shame every American voter. We should write to our senators and demand that they end the filibuster, and if they don’t we should remember to vote them out. Joe Biden also needs to dangle big rewards (and big threats) in front of Joe Mansion until the West Virginia senator properly tows the party line [this essay has taken twice as long as it should since I keep writing incandescent insults about Joe Manchin and then ruefully erasing them].

All of which is to say that the United States government is not as broken as it looks. With a single rule change, we could have 21st century infrastructure, glorious innovation, comprehensible healthcare, and an economy which makes everyone prosperous! So why has that rule not been changed? Mitch McConnell has threatened Americans with scorched earth and political apocalypse if the filibuster is reformed or eliminated. Do you like being threatened? I do not.

When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.

Here is a silver diadem discovered in a recently excavated Bronze age tomb from the La Almoloya archaeological site in southern Spain. The tomb consisted of a great earthenware jar containing the remains of two elites–a man and a woman (the jar was buried under a sort of longhouse/mead hall/political assembly building). Since the Argaric people were early masters of metallurgy, both skeletons were richly arrayed in gold and silver jewelry, however the female skeleton was the one wearing the diadem. The NYTimes article which I read went to great length describing how shocking the highly polished reflective silver would be in an era when mirrors and reflective surfaces were not omnipresent (the author of that article also took pains to describe the tintinnabulation that this Bronze age chieftainess would have made with all of her bangles, plugs, earrings, and necklaces). Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that Argaric society was patriarchal, but this discovery has caused experts to reassess that conclusion (and to take note that previous graves also contained crown-wearing, high-status Argaric women). Perhaps power was shared between the genders or even apportioned in some sort of matriarchal fashion (although I think we will be left to speculate about this unless more conclusive evidence is discovered).

Argaric culture flourished from 2200 to 1550 BC. As bronzeworking warriors surrounded by less technologically advanced tribes, they were able to rapidly expand into an empire of sorts. I wonder how much they knew of the great contemporary palace civilizations of Mycenae and Knossos to the east. Alas, their technology seems to have been their undoing, since the need for timber, charcoal, and arable land resulted in widespread deforestation and agricultural collapse.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Ok….last week Ferrebeekeeper proposed brainstorming some fundamentally new ways of doing things to help us out of the worldwide social sclerosis of the last two decades. Time is swiftly marching on… Where are the ideas already? Well, it turns out it is hard to reinvent the world (especially if you are tired out by working at a meaningless & incomprehensible dayjob which you are no good at) and…well…actually, maybe that is a great place to start! Let’s take a look at the worldwide economy, the “invisible hand” which compels so much our behavior. Specifically, let’s launch some broadsides at the self-dealing field of economics.

Sadly, in this iteration of the worldwide society, “the economy” has more recognizable power over your day-to-day life than probably any other entity. Such a conceit is nonsense, of course. If something were to go a tiny bit wrong with, for example, the sun, it could scour away life on the planet in an instant with a bullwhip of crazy radiation (other stars which are not so temperate produce this kind of solar flare all of the time). Yet all of the world’s stellar physicists could probably fit in a Denny’s, whereas there are more economists then there are crabeater seals (one of the most numerous large mammal left in the wild). These highly paid specialists (the economists, not the crabeater seals) accomplish very little except to fill our world with fallacies and misery. How did we end up with such fumble-fingered mechanics tending the great engine which powers all of our enterprises and hopes?

Economists study the ways that humans allocate and use resources. The dismal scientists try to frame basic rules based on the behavior which they observe and measure. Equipped with these axioms and principles, the economists then posit more productive and efficient ways to allocate resources and achieve certain desired outcomes. It is a famously boring and technocratic field filled with statisticians (and even more exotic varieties of advanced number crunchers). A few of the top performers get Nobel prizes or highly paid sinecures in academia. A handful more become talking heads or pundits. The majority are shipped off to be managers, financial consultants, CFOs, finance advisers, and the like.

Unfortunately, economists are infamous for getting all of their predictions and blueprints completely wrong! Just as medieval physicians could not save patients and medieval astronomers could not explain the motions of the stars, there is are basic reasons that economists are not good at explaining or modeling the economy.

Bacterial colonies in petri dish.

At an individual level humans resemble cruel and intemperate monkeys (for good reason–since that is exactly what we are) but seen through a god’s eye view at a global level we look more like a series of codependent yet competing bacterial colonies. This is the critical idea of today’s post. Economics pretends to be a hard-edged applied science like physics or mechanical engineering, but people do not behave like energy vectors or pistons. We really are more like bacterial mats, or corals, or colonies of crab-eater seals. If economics took its language and methodology from evolutionary biology (macro economics) or behavioral biology (micro economics), the discipline would become vastly more efficient at understanding and describing complex human systems of resource use. I suspect that we would also become much better at predicting and guiding our activities in useful and sustainable ways.

The idea that biology is a better template for understanding the activities of people (who are known biological entities) is hardly a new one. The great philosophers and thinkers who invented economics borrowed liberally from the forest and the farm to explain their new discipline. But alas, many of these ideas were burned away in the blast furnaces of the industrial revolution and in the mechanistic efficiency drives of hard-nosed capitalism. After Smith, Bentham, and Stuart Mill, economics quickly fell into the hands not of utilitarians but of rigid formalists, and there it has languished ever since!

Perhaps the great problem with economics is that it is paid for by patrons who have already decided exactly what they want (more of what we have right now, thank you). Economists got bought out. Those think tanks and endowed chairs are paid for by Koch brothers and their ilk. Don’t even ask about the second tier economists (who work as CFOs rather than professors). They are too busy squeezing the balance sheet to be bothered with any other concerns.

Anyway, the net result of the philosophical and scientific errors at the heart of this academic discipline are extreme. Public policy is poisoned by a priori economic assumptions which are obviously false–like the idea that people make economic choices by rationally calculating their best interest! Take a single cursory look at the world and then tell me if you believe that Homo economicus is really at the helm.

It is a shame that I have attacked and belittled economists throughout this article (although I’ll do it again). The economists I have actually met have demonstrated enormous mathematical talent, analytical ability, practical intellect, and quantitative genius (and self-discipline!) in ways I cannot understand, much less emulate. But since their discipline is corrupted by dogmatic faith that people’s behavior fits highly mechanical models (and by moneyed interests) these virtues do not much help us move forward.

All of this is starting to change, however, and there are economists who dream of reclaiming their scholarly discipline from the money men and business weasels. The real point of today’s post is to introduce an economics website which which uses the broader ideas of biology and sociology to inform economic thought. The website is called “evonomics” and it is filled with brilliant insights into how we actually work and spend (and how we could do much better). As you have probably gleaned from even this short essay, even the powerful tools of biology and psychology don’t fully address the full spectrum of economic concerns. Questions of what is fair and what is desirable–humanities questions!–enter into economics as well. As it uses evolutionary biology to rewrite the economics textbook, evonomics also makes space for such liberal arts concerns. After all, humans MADE the economy. We can remake it in better ways, if we can only think and plan better. We will talk more about this, but for the moment, check out that website (and, of course, let me know what you think).

Right now the western democracies generally–and America, specifically–are caught in an agonizing cultural tar pit where we seem unable to reform or renew ourselves. The fundamental root of this problem is socioeconomic: business monopolies and corporate cartels are gobbling up more and more of society’s resources and using those resources to prevent true competition from emerging. The vast corporate cartels also use their resources to subaltern politics and prevent government from properly regulating and rectifying this unfair market dominance. As Republicans (or nationalists, or Tories, or fascists, or whatever they are called) sabotage and discredit the government at the behest of their corporate masters, the nation becomes afflicted by stalemate and gridlock. The more the pro-monopolist politicians can make things worse, the more they can claim “government is broken.” Then these corrupted politicians privatize services we all need (and destroy research and development, which are, after all, dangerous to the great monopolies). The corporate cartels become yet more powerful. The government grows more feeble. Voters grow more disillusioned and alienated. Society begins to falter and fail.

On the side of the world, our national adversaries have none of this to worry about. In Russia and China, the monopolies have won completely. This confuses many people since it happened the opposite way over there. Instead of business cartels installing a corrupt single party to cement their social control, a corrupt single party has installed business cartels. However, the net result is the same: a single cabal of autocrats makes all of the rules and controls all of the resources.

This perspicacious article from Matthew Rozsa makes this same case (albeit in a somewhat different way). The writer asks that a political and cultural coalition of Generation X, Millenials, and Zoomers rise to the political challenge of our times in the same way that the Lost Generation, the greatest Generation, and the Silent Generation managed the epic crises of the mid-twentieth century [by the way, here is a link to some long ago posts about these demographic cohorts].

I think this is a great idea…but it is going to call for more ideas. Imagination is allowed on the internet…but not anywhere else in our world! In order to out-compete the huge anti-competitive cartels we are going to need lots and lots of ideas. We will need not just new ways of doing things but new reasons for doing things. When I was younger I used to hear “Oh these ideas are great, but how will they make money” Well what is money doing for us? It is only a placeholding symbol for status and resources–like the score on a videogame, or the gilt crown on a tinpot king. It is not actually an end in and of itself. The fact that so many people think otherwise is part of the problem. The MBA-ification of our civilization has stolen our best minds and created this monopoly problem to begin with! Let’s brainstorm new solutions!

All of which is to say, Ferrebeekeeper is going to start a new series of posts about how society can better focus humankind’s dangerous primate drives and tendency towards certain terrible fallacies into more productive directions. Many of the most compelling new ideas for doing things are being suppressed–because people are afraid to even examine them or argue about them. I have no illusions that we will find the next economic paradigm to replace capitalism (like it replaced mercantilism or mercantilism replaced feudalism) but I do believe that by brainstorming, fantasizing, and looking more deeply at past societies and the world of nature we can do away with some of the reactionary thinking, corruption, and parochial obscurantism which are trapping us all in a system which is killing not just us but the whole world of life.

February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2021