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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

Ant-Tribe

Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.

Ok, I apologize for this week.  A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week!  To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.

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“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!”  Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society.  We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.

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First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades.  You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing).  Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.

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The other way was the master/apprentice system.  This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world.  A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes.  This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.

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During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices.  It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway).   Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests).  It is making society sclerotic.  Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn.  We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model.  The apprentice system worked well in the past.  Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).

Nothing could go wrong here!

Nothing could go wrong here!

Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds.  It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association.  The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways.  Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer.  Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.

Nice Digital Serpent!

Nice Digital Serpent!

Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since.  It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school.  I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.

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super-bowl-xlixDid anyone watch the Super Bowl broadcast yesterday? For readers who are living abroad, this is the championship contest of American football, a gladiator-style proxy war game (which doesn’t really involve the feet like soccer does–it could probably use a different name). Anyway, football is a high-profile national tribute to Ares. We pay the finest players princely sums, but they are human sacrifices who often get terribly injured and tend to live shortened lives. We are a warlike people. The big championship game is a national spectacle which everyone watches on TV while eating pizza, chili, pie, and suchlike caloric winter food. There are cameo appearances by celebrities, turgid political tributes, product placements, and many, many advertisements. There is much hollow pageantry.

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

I am just going to come out and say this. The look and feel of Super Bowl XLIX was bizarre. The advertisements were so overproduced that it was a challenge to figure out what most of them were selling until the end. There were confetti canons, pyrotechnics, washed-up athletes, and strange giant animal robot puppets operated by shadowy squadrons of ninja puppeteers. There were dancing sharks and sentient trees, and legions of cheerleaders in hotpants with faces painted into identical masks. There were the gladiators themselves, in plastic armor, numbered like cattle, with neon-colored jerseys festooned with the sponsors who own them. Above it all glistened the Lombardi trophy–a Brancusi sculpture re-imagined by an imbecile.

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

My roommate grew up in a sheltered artists’ community and then in boarding school and she had never seen the Super Bowl until yesterday. Afterwards, her eyes were wide and her mouth was agape. She said, “That was much, much weirder than I expected!” And she was right. vw-supertease-hed-2014 Please don’t mistake me. I like odd things, so the strangeness of Super Bowl doesn’t bother me. It was like a tacky contemporary version of a Piero di Cosimo painting. But it does surprise me that this is what stodgy Americans have collectively created. When I was growing up, it was a terrible to be “weird”. Reading books was weird. Having a pumpkin-colored sweater or a plain lunchbox was weird. Talking about literature or science was weird. Not loving Jesus Christ as your personal savior was the weirdest thing of all (not that anyone confessed to such a thing). Our nation despises weirdness. In red state middle America, children hunted out “weirdness” in other children like McCarthy on espresso and they dealt with any trace of difference like red ants dealing with a caterpillar in their tunnel. dd0087968f06a13f5f5f6b66e740bb94 So how did we end up with something like the Super Bowl? The puritan mold marks still show on most American institutions. We are center right in most ways that matter. Yet for our big game we somehow end up with a spectacle that would make the wildest Luperci or the most debauched opium eater scratch their head in dazed wonder.

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can't find one without the pop star too...

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can’t find one without the pop star too…

Maybe the strangeness of the Super Bowl was incremental: one year we added the hydrocephalic trophy; the next year someone invented glitter canons; the eighties happened; Prince played the halftime show. Suddenly a football game had morphed into a very abstract phenomena. bacteria1 Or maybe the game reflects the jostling of many different competing corporate interests—just like different colonies of bacteria make weird fractal patterns in a petri dish as they try to efficiently grab all of the resources. Could it be that human celebrations naturally tend to be baroque and eclectic so that everyone is included? Or perhaps, despite our briefcases, stodgy business casual clothes, and Cato-style Republican congress, we Americans are really weirdos.

Cato keeps showing up here too...

Cato keeps showing up here too…

Or it is also possible that the Superbowl was exactly like middle school, right down to the meaningless football game, the pageant with dancing trees, and the bright colors plastered over institutional sameness?  We are only pretending it was weird so that people will be able to talk about something…and so that people who write on the internet can get you to click their little articles.

Hey! Dangit...

Hey! Dangit…

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