They may be vile customs, but they’re our vile customs

By skepticlawyer

Henry Kissinger once said of Saddam that ‘we knew he was a son of a bitch, but we thought he was our son of a bitch’. I think it’s fair to say that Saddam ruled his country with spectacular nastiness, but that he also did enough to garner the support of a significant chunk of the population.

When the countries who had once backed him turfed him out in 2003 and offered better governance in exchange, the shock and dismay of those policy-makers who naively expected that the locals would prefer being well-ruled by foreigners to being tyrannized by one of their own was a sight to behold. Perhaps they should have listened to the wise words of Lord Napier, he who eliminated suttee from the Indian Subcontinent, at least while the British were in charge:

So perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to be misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another.

He made this comment in 1842. Similar sentiments turn up in the writings of other liberalizing colonials, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon. There is even empirical evidence for it. Economists Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A Robinson argue (with good data to back them) that those countries most thoroughly colonised — where both local institutions and a portion of the local population have been displaced by the colonial power’s institutions and population — are now more prosperous than countries where European colonizers either did not stay or did not bend local institutions to their will.

The problem with this awkward fact is that the locals tend not to like it very much, up to and including indulgence in the rankest nostalgia for some pretty appalling customs. Think, for example, of Frantz Fanon’s rhapsodic defence of the Islamic veiling of women, for example. This is not a modern phenomenon. Colonised people historically have been perfectly capable of recognising that there were times when the colonizer was better at the ‘governance thingy’ than they were, and still resented the colonial power. Here is an almost Pythonesque lament from the 1st Century AD, pulled from the Babylonian Talmud:

How beautiful are the works of this nation (the Romans). They have established markets, they have built bridges, they have opened bathing-houses.’ R. Jose said nothing, but R. Simeon b. Johai said: ‘All these things they have instituted for their own sake. Their markets are gathering-places for harlots; they have built baths for the purpose of indulging themselves in their comforts; they have built bridges to collect tolls from those who cross them.

(Note the worrying about the wimminz; ‘harlots’ here is a reference to the fact that Roman women were not chaperoned, while Jewish women were. I have often suspected much anti-colonial activity to have quite a bit of hysteria about the wimminz at the bottom of it; it fairly drips from the pages of Fanon, and it was Gayatri Spivak who got herself into a dreadful tangle when it came to ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ over suttee).

It is this preference for ‘our sons of bitches’ and ‘our vile customs/institutions’ that will almost certainly ensure economist Paul Romer’s innovative proposal for Charter Cities will be stillborn, a point Lorenzo makes with some force here. Lorenzo argues that there are Medieval models that Romer could more fruitfully adopt, but even they strike me as involving considerable meddling in the internal affairs of a modern nation-state, and would likely be resented in much the same way as colonial enterprises like Hong Kong (a point Lorenzo makes) or Julius Caesar’s refounding of Corinth as a ‘free city’ (no port taxes, thoroughly mercantile city charter) in 44 BC. (The Romans had destroyed it and sold the population into slavery in 146 BC; its looting was supervised by a general who always struck me as a Roman Sir Les Patterson).

I was put in mind of the above by two things.

First, I watched the director’s cut of the Wicker Man, and second, I read a piece of Lorenzo’s on the uses of ‘tradition’ in arguments about the danger of changing social customs. The Wicker Man — in its longer form — is not only a superb film (Christopher Lee called it the best scripted film he had ever acted in), but also a powerful meditation on the constructed nature of tradition. Shaffer and Hardy’s first rate novelization brings this out even more strongly; I highly recommend it.

For those who have lived under a rock since 1973, much of the Wicker Man revolves around the reversion to paganism on a remote island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. In the course of a police investigation, a strongly Christian police officer (a more sympathetic character in the novel; Edward Woodward is something of a ‘Wee Free‘ cipher in the film) is confronted with a society whose organising principles are ‘as foreign to him as India’ (p 121). However, it also emerges that the island’s reversion was deliberately engendered by the Great-Grandfather of the current Laird, a landlord who opted not to undertake the Highland Clearances along with his wealthy fellows, opting instead to try his hand at developing productive agriculture and so keeping the crofters in their homes.

Opposed by the local kirk (the novel reveals that various churchy types tossed his newly developed artificial fertilizer into the harbour), the Laird decided to break the kirk by making his small group of pagan followers more economically prosperous than their Christian rivals. In time, his Great-Grandson boasts, ‘the ministers fled the Island, never to return’ (p 138). The modern islanders are indeed happy, prosperous and utterly, utterly alien. It has taken a mere 150 years for a new set of traditions to take hold, to seem completely ‘natural’ and ‘organic’.

Thing is, anyone with any knowledge of classical paganism can recognise the synthesis the Laird undertook: there’s bits from Celtic paganism (the Hand of Glory, the Triple Goddess), bits from Roman paganism (Diana of Nemi, the fire leap), bits from Germanic paganism (the totenkopf) and even a steal from Afro-Caribbean paganism (patron deities and totemic animals). In other words, it’s a fudge. And then the current Laird reveals that his Great-Grandfather was an atheist.

The religion was a construct, put there so the Laird’s family could make everyone stinking rich, starting, of course, with the Laird’s family. Problem is, 150 years on, all but those few islanders who have been educated to university standard (variously at St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and Oxford) believe it and practice its rituals assiduously. (Including one horrifyingly vile custom, which I will not reveal out of courtesy to Legal Eagle, who hasn’t yet seen the film — NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS PLEASE). The point is that the islanders like their customs and traditions, even the ugly ones, and one gets the distinct impression that attempts to change them would be met with fierce resistance (Scots are good at fierce resistance).

Lorenzo’s piece concerns an attempt — a nuanced one, to be fair — to argue against gay marriage on the basis of tradition, to which Lorenzo responds (in so many words) ‘which tradition?’:

The “naturalness” of the familiar is a powerful thing. Indeed, a working definition of our sense of something being “natural” is ‘accepted background constraint’. But Harris goes too far: the notion that traditions are “hardwired into our neural circuitry” is nonsense, they vary too much across societies and across time.

The awareness of this variety is, of course, itself corrosive of tradition, for it means that tradition loses its sense of “naturalness”, of being part of the “necessary” and “normal” structure of things, because clearly, if traditions vary so much, they are not such.

Being the careful medievalist he is, Lorenzo tracks through a selection of traditions, many of which contradict each other, and some of which are — like the Scots Islanders’ paganism and the police officer’s Christianity in The Wicker Man — mutually exclusive. All of these traditions have their strengths and weaknesses. All are both ugly and beautiful in different ways and to different degrees. All are constructs, often deliberately envisaged in opposition to another set of constructs. And all are claimed by one group or another, including the vile bits.

There are, I think, some profound truths to be found in both the constructed nature of traditions and the ferocity with which people claim them to be natural and clasp them close. First, it behooves us to look carefully at which ‘traditions’ contribute to human possibility: in Hayek’s words, which traditions make our society ‘one in which we would like to live’. Second, it also behooves us to recognise that people will cling with utter perversity to a given set of traditions (good, bad or indifferent) simply because those traditions are theirs, not the coloniser’s or some other outsider’s. If nothing else, these brute facts should make us chary of foreign adventurism in a liberalizing cause (Iraq, Afghanistan), but also give us a willingness to say — no matter how cherished a tradition may be — ‘I’m sorry, but you made that up, and it’s not helping.’

UPDATE: LE has now seen the director’s cut so SPOILERS may now commence 😉


  1. Posted July 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    The only true means of liberating a population is a liberal education. Rare in many states with powerful woo-ocratic traditions, but increasingly rare in states that have made even tertiary education functional only for the workforce thought to be needed in the short term.

    Perhaps this operates within a state too: constrain the scope for thought so that serfdom under Tsars and slavery under Stalin were little different.

    Woo flourishes in all but /very/ few highly educated states, showing just how powerful tradition can be, arbitrary as it is.

    JK Galbraith’s prescription for getting a stricken nation was simple: send in teachers to teach, and nurses to ensure enough survive long enough to be taught. The rest will happen organically.

    But the sticking point will always be those classes reliant on tradition (so often tied to woo) for income and status. I’d love to know a way of excising those while keeping the true custodians of a culture alive for the masses – those true custodians being the people that make the culture live by adding to it rather than profit from stasis.

  2. Posted July 5, 2010 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    SL: Thanks for the plugs!

    That people take what they want (see the development of religions among the descendants of Africans in the Americas), is the power to be harnessed in changing traditions.

    Law has role there, however, in preserving the realm of choice against violent enforcement of custom and tradition.

    The sense of identity as a protector of traditions is powerful. Hence the well-known tendency of emigre cultures to be somewhat “snap frozen”. It helps to understand the Quebecois, for example, to realise that they are a French culture that never went through the French Revolution, they are pre-Revolutionary, hence inclined to “throne and altar” outlooks.

    In Oz, folk have tended to go on a bit about “the old country” until they go back for a visit years later. When they would find (1) it had changed (2) they were reminded of the reasons they left in the first place.

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    On a much more banal scale, but nevertheless another example, would be the AJ Simpson jury’s “not guilty” verdict.

  4. Peter Patton
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    On an OT point, Dave Bath mentions “woo.” I’ve seen this “woo” written about here before. Excuse my ignorance, but please explain.

  5. TerjeP
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I would prefer to have my life badly governed by me than efficiently and gloriously governed by somebody else.

  6. Posted July 5, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Peter [email protected] : “woo”=magical thinking, often deist.

    [email protected]: I’d rather my quality of life as far as one key determinant, health, is concerned, to be governed by the collective wisdom of the relevant experts, with adequate explanation, and consideration of individual circumstances. OK, so possibly “relevant experts” are thin on the ground in legislatures…

    I’d enjoy SL’s thoughts on when rule by a different culture actually works more or less (Rome and Achaemenid come to mind) – what the “alien” overlords change (or will not tolerate), and what they let be. I note the Achaemenids like Darius I and Xerxes didn’t care if subject cities had their own (client) monarchs or were democratic within their province – not dissimilar from chartered cities like York under Plantagenets. Those successful overlordships only demanded the basic rule of law (no killing each other), occasional tugs of forelocks to central authority, tolerance of other’s quirky and harmless traditions, and the payment of taxes. I note these groundrules were assured by Britain to the American colonies who revolted. I also ask if and /how/ UN overlordship could ever be properly offensive.

  7. Patrick
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I also ask if and /how/ UN overlordship could ever be properly offensive.

    Just about always and by simple virtue of being overlordship.

    As for your response to Tel, you are at cross-purposes. I don’t think I presume too much to say that Tel would love to have the input of the relevant experts. However he would reserve to himself the final decision as to whether the potential costs of any behaviour outweighed its potential benefits, just as he would hope that you too made this decision for yourself.

    Nothing stops you taking into account the advice of experts.

  8. Posted July 5, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    DB: That is how Tokugawa rule worked in Japan too. As long as daimyo:
    (1) only had one castle
    (2) kept to the limits on number of samurai
    (3) paid (fairly light) taxes
    (4) visited Edo when specified, but only when specified,
    everything else was pretty much up to them. A sort of “competitive federalism” in “feudal autocrat” style.

    For those who like their superior SF, think Lois McMaster Bujold and Barrrayar.

  9. Posted July 5, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    When the UN appointed Iran to head up the Human Rights Commission, I started to agree with Jason Soon that the best thing for it would be to dynamite the building and build a giant McDonald’s in its place.

    The UN would not only be overlordship, as Patrick points out, but incompetent overlordship. The organisation is a giant waste of everyone’s time and money, and we’d be better off without it.

    And just on Lorenzo’s link (brothers of a Muslim actress in the Potter films being pinged in court for beating her up for dating a Hindu), I don’t particularly care that they’re going to be ostracised and treated badly at college. Might teach them not to do it again.

  10. Patrick
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I would double down and hope that they are going to be treated badly!

    I think DB’s comment #7 could be framed as an example of what it means to be a lefty.

    I am not certain, however, that we would be better off without the UN as such. However I would undoubtedly consider us better off without the vast majority of its sub-bodies and indeed without the vast majority of international bodies overall. In particular, I would abolish the UNHRC, any international body that was anything to do with racism, gender, Palestine or religion, the ILO and almost any intra-European inter-governmental body that wasn’t part of the EU proper.

    Once I actually started looking at a list I expect that I would abolish most of the ones I haven’t heard of as well.

    By abolish I really mean ‘abolish government funding for’, since I don’t care if people want to fund this stuff themselves (in fact, they seem to do a better job, compare Amnesty, HRW, Heritage, Freedom House etc to the UNHRC!).

  11. Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

  12. Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “I think DB’s comment #7”


    The thing I am interested in, given that overlordship is inevitable somewhere all the time, is what makes a /successful/ (from the point of view of the underlings’ society, perhaps only in the long term) overlord? It’s a bit like “what makes a good dictator?”. There is no law I can think of the overlording has to be, on the whole, a bad thing.

    Personally, I reckon a fairly homogenous world culture (as homogenous as Oz is now), is inevitable (unless civilization collapses again), until the Lunar and Martian colonies have been well-established, want their own independence…. and then a homogenous Sol culture will happen… just as the Alpha Centauri colonies start getting annoyed by Sol retaining overlordship.

    And, a bit off-topic, re [email protected] on “nothing stops you taking the advice of experts”… but sometimes you cannot reject the expert consensus (e.g. if you are psychotic and need to be sectioned), and professionals won’t do what you want them to do (“I’ve got a blister, amputate my arm”) unless you are convincing. (And oh the problems of being professional in IT when someone asks you to do something you /know/ is a Bad Thing).

  13. Patrick
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I am a bit lost, DB, your last paragraph presents two extreme cases, one where coercion is considered justified for similar reasons to those justifying criminal law and a second where two people exercise their free will.

    I am not sure what either really has to do with eg banning cigarettes except perhaps to show that many people get cigarettes completely out of proportion.

  14. Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo has written a thoughtful quasi follow-up to this post over at his place; highly recommended.

  15. derrida derider
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, Wicker Man (the original, not the dire Hollywood remake with Nick Cage) was an awesomely clever film.

    One thing that impressed me, though, was how the scriptwriters made the point that religious belief (pagan in this case) had to infest all aspects of the peoples’ lives in order for it to stick. The old Laird created it for economic reasons but he had to cover off many other dimensions (notably sexuality, and also attitudes to death).

  16. Posted July 9, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    religious belief (pagan in this case) had to infest all aspects of the peoples’ lives in order for it to stick

    Yes, hence the fear of fun common to strict monotheism, such as contemporary Islamism.

    SL: Thanks for the plug! 🙂

  17. Peter Patton
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink


    I think I am now onside with keeping the UN. What I would dynamite is the ease with which a patch of dirt can be given ‘N’ – nation – status. Of the 190 whatever current members of the UNGA, about 130 should be deleted.

    One criteria should be the amount of foreign aid received. Foreign aid should be treated as an equity injection, with attendant voting rights for the equity provider.

  18. Posted July 12, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    One criteria should be the amount of foreign aid received. Foreign aid should be treated as an equity injection, with attendant voting rights for the equity provider.

    I know I shouldn’t find this funny, but I do. Chuckle.

  19. Peter Patton
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Why SL? The more generous foreign aid donors could bundle up bits of their equity stakes in each of these countries into bonds. Because of the diversified sovereign risk in the bonds, you could get the rating’s agencies to rate them AAA. Then some savvy banker could invent a product could say a sovereign credit default swap.

    Hah, wait a minute, I’ve think I’ve read this fairy take before… 😉

One Trackback

  1. […] I have read similar justifications as to why animal sacrifice is no longer practiced in Judaism (contra Leviticus). The argument in the commentary I read was that prayers stood in for animal sacrifice. Religions often do this over time. Certainly I wouldn’t want Druidry to return to human sacrifice! Nonetheless, I think that the dark side of paganism should not be ignored or downplayed. The thing that I rather like about historical paganism, but which scares me at the same time, is the recognition of the destructive and cruel side of life as natural. The film The Wicker Man does a great job of showing both the positive and the profoundly negative aspects of paganism (reviewed by SL here). […]

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