Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Visits the Great Pyramid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Memory of Her Deceased Brother

The phrase “his­to­ry is writ­ten by the vic­tors” is a cliché, which means that it is at least half true; offi­cial his­to­ries are, to a sig­nif­i­cant degree “writ­ten,” or dic­tat­ed, by rul­ing elites. But as far as the actu­al writ­ing down, and exca­vat­ing, nar­rat­ing, argu­ing about, and revis­ing of his­to­ry goes… well, that is the work of his­to­ri­ans, who may work for pow­er­ful insti­tu­tions but who are not themselves—with sev­er­al notable excep­tions, of course—politicians, gen­er­als, or cap­tains of indus­try.

This is all to the good. His­to­ri­ans, and Twit­ter­sto­ri­ans, can tell sto­ries and present evi­dence that the vic­tors might rather see dis­ap­pear. And they can tell sto­ries we nev­er knew that we were miss­ing, but which human­ize the past by restor­ing the lives of ordi­nary peo­ple with ordi­nary con­cerns. Sto­ries of every­day ancient Romans and Egyp­tians, for exam­ple, or of ancient Romans in Egypt, vis­it­ing and van­dal­iz­ing the pyra­mids.

In one such poignant sto­ry, cir­cu­lat­ing on Twit­ter, a Roman woman named Ter­en­tia carved into the lime­stone fac­ing of the Great Pyra­mid some­time around 120 AD a touch­ing poem for her broth­er, who had just recent­ly died. As told by medieval­ist, lin­guist, and Senior Edi­tor at His­to­ry Today Dr. Kate Wiles, the poem might have been lost to the ages had it not been dis­cov­ered by Ger­man pil­grim Wil­helm von Bold­ense­le in 1335.

Know­ing Latin, Von Bold­ense­le read the poem, found it mov­ing, and copied it down. (See his man­u­script at the top.) Wiles quotes a part of the prose Eng­lish trans­la­tion:

I saw the pyra­mids with­out you, my dear­est broth­er, and here I sad­ly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in mem­o­ry of our grief. May thus be clear­ly vis­i­ble on the high pyra­mid the name of Dec­imus Gen­tianus….

We can sur­mise that Ter­en­tia must have had some means to trav­el, but in Wiles’ abridged Twit­ter ver­sion of the sto­ry, we also might assume she could be any­one at all, griev­ing the loss of a close rel­a­tive. Terentia’s grief is no less mov­ing or real when we learn that the inscrip­tion goes for on sev­er­al lines Wiles cut for brevi­ty.

Turn­ing to Emi­ly Ann Hemelrijk’s book Matrona Doc­ta: Edu­cat­ed Women in the Roman Elite from Cor­nelia to Julia Dom­na, Dr. Wiles’ source for the Great Pyra­mid poem, we find that Ter­en­tia wasn’t just an edu­cat­ed, upper class woman, she was a very well-con­nect­ed one. The inscrip­tion goes on to iden­ti­fy her broth­er as “a pon­tif­ex and com­pan­ion to your tri­umphs, Tra­jan, and both cen­sor and con­sul before his thir­ti­eth year of age.”

In his anthol­o­gy Women Writ­ers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Ian Michael Plant pro­vides even more his­tor­i­cal con­text. Of Ter­en­tia, we know lit­tle to noth­ing save the Von Boldensele’s copy of her six hexa­m­e­ters (and pos­si­bly more that he ignored). Of Dec­imus Gen­tianus, how­ev­er, we know that he not only served as a con­sul under Tra­jan but also as gov­er­nor of Mace­do­nia under Hadri­an. Ter­en­tia “chose the pyra­mid for her epi­taph to pro­vide a suit­ably grand and ever­last­ing site for her trib­ute to him,” writes Plant. (Cue Shelly’s “Ozy­man­dias.”)

Not only is the poem about a vic­tor, but it appears to shift its address from him to the ulti­mate vic­tor, Emper­or Tra­jan, in its final lines. Should this change our appre­ci­a­tion of the sto­ry as a slice of Roman tourist life and exam­ple of ancient wom­en’s writ­ing? No, but it shows us some­thing about what his­to­ry gets pre­served and why. Despite his­to­ri­ans’ best efforts, espe­cial­ly in pub­lic-fac­ing work, to make the past more acces­si­ble and relat­able, they, too, are lim­it­ed by what oth­er cul­tures chose to pre­serve and what to pass over.

Hemel­rijk admits, “the poem is no lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece,” but Von Bold­er­se­le saw enough mer­it in its sen­ti­ments to record it for pos­ter­i­ty. He also made a judg­ment about the inscription’s his­tor­i­cal import, giv­en its ref­er­ences, which is prob­a­bly the rea­son we have it today.

via Dr. Kate Wiles

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play Cae­sar: Trav­el Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Inter­ac­tive Map

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

How the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids Were Built: A New The­o­ry in 3D Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

20 Years Before John Cage’s 4′33″, a Man Named Hy Cage Created a Cartoon about a Silent Piano Composition (1932)

Quite a find by Futil­i­ty Clos­et:

In John Cage’s 1952 com­po­si­tion 4’33”, the per­former is instruct­ed not to play his instru­ment.

Amer­i­can music crit­ic Kyle Gann dis­cov­ered this 1932 car­toon in The Etude, a mag­a­zine for pianists.

The cartoonist’s name, remark­ably, is Hy Cage.

Need any back­ground on Cage’s 4′33″? Explore the posts in the Relat­eds below.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cage’s Silent, Avant-Garde Piece 4’33” Gets Cov­ered by a Death Met­al Band

John Cage Per­forms His Avant-Garde Piano Piece 4’33” … in 1’22” (Har­vard Square, 1973)

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4’33”

The BBC Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra Per­forms 4′33,″ the Con­tro­ver­sial Com­po­si­tion by John Cage, Born 100 Years Ago Today

The Proper Way to Eat Ramen: A Meditation from the Classic Japanese Comedy Tampopo (1985)

There is a right way to eat every dish, as an ever-increas­ing abun­dance of inter­net videos dai­ly informs us. But how did we nav­i­gate our first encoun­ters with unfa­mil­iar foods thir­ty, forty, fifty years ago? With no way to learn online, we had no choice but to learn in real life, assum­ing we could find a trust­ed fig­ure well-versed in the ways of eat­ing from whom to learn — a sen­sei, as they say in Japan­ese, the kind of wise elder depict­ed in the film clip above, a scene that takes place in a ramen shop. “Mas­ter,” asks the young stu­dent, “soup first or noo­dles first?” The ramen mas­ter’s reply: “First, observe the whole bowl. Appre­ci­ate its gestalt. Savor the aro­mas.”

Behold the “jew­els of fat glit­ter­ing on its sur­face,” the “shi­nachiku roots shin­ing,” the “sea­weed low­ly sink­ing, the “spring onions float­ing.” The eater’s first action must be to “caress the sur­face with the chop­stick tips” in order to “express affec­tion.” The sec­ond is to “poke the pork” — don’t eat it, just touch it — then “pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl.” The most impor­tant part? To “apol­o­gize to the pork by say­ing, ‘See you soon.’ ” Then the eat­ing can com­mence, “noo­dles first,” but “while slurp­ing the noo­dles, look at the pork. Eye it affec­tion­ate­ly.” After then sip­ping the soup three times, the mas­ter picks up a slice of pork “as if mak­ing a major deci­sion in life,” and taps it on the side of the bowl. Why? “To drain it.” To those who know Japan­ese food cul­ture for the val­ue it places on aes­thet­ic sen­si­tiv­i­ty and adher­ence to form, this scene may look per­fect­ly real­is­tic.

But those who know Japan­ese cin­e­ma will have rec­og­nized imme­di­ate­ly the open­ing of Tam­popo, the beloved 1985 com­e­dy that sat­i­rizes through food both Japan­ese cul­ture and human­i­ty itself. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes the ramen-mas­ter vignette as depict­ing “a kind of gas­tro­nom­ic reli­gion, and direc­tor Juzo Ita­mi cre­ates a scene that makes noo­dles in this movie more inter­est­ing than sex and vio­lence in many anoth­er.” Not that Tam­popo, for all its cheer­ful­ness (Ebert calls it “a bemused med­i­ta­tion on human nature in which one humor­ous sit­u­a­tion flows into anoth­er offhand­ed­ly, as if life were a series of smiles”) does­n’t also con­tain plen­ty of sex and vio­lence. Wal­ter Ben­jamin once said that every great work of art destroys or cre­ates a genre. Tam­popo cre­ates the “ramen West­ern,” rolling a cou­ple of cow­boy­ish truck­ers (seen briefly in the clip above) into boom­ing 1980 Tokyo to get a wid­ow’s fail­ing ramen shop into shape.

Through par­o­dy and sly­er forms of allu­sion, Tam­popo ref­er­ences cin­e­ma both West­ern and East­ern, and its cast includes actors who were or would become icon­ic: the stu­dent of ramen is played by Ken Watan­abe, now known to audi­ences world­wide for his roles in Hol­ly­wood pic­tures like The Last Samu­rai and Incep­tion. The mas­ter is played by Ryû­tarô Ôto­mo, a main­stay of samu­rai films from the late 1930s through the 1960s, who chose this as his very last role: the very day after shoot­ing his scene, he com­mit­ted sui­cide by jump­ing from the top of a build­ing. (Ita­mi would die under sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances in 1997, some say with the involve­ment of the Yakuza.) Now that inter­net videos and oth­er forms of 21st-cen­tu­ry media are dis­sem­i­nat­ing the rel­e­vant knowl­edge, we can all study to become mas­ters of ramen, or for that mat­ter of any dish we please — but can any of us hope to rise to the exam­ple of ele­gance, and hilar­i­ous­ness, laid down by Ôto­mo’s final act on film?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Right and Wrong Way to Eat Sushi: A Primer

How to Make Sushi: Free Video Lessons from a Mas­ter Sushi Chef

Watch Tee­ny Tiny Japan­ese Meals Get Made in a Minia­ture Kitchen: The Joy of Cook­ing Mini Tem­pu­ra, Sashi­mi, Cur­ry, Okonomiya­ki & More

Cook­pad, the Largest Recipe Site in Japan, Launch­es New Site in Eng­lish

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch 15 Films by Designers Charles & Ray Eames

If you’re read­ing this, chances are good that you live in the mod­ern world, or at least vis­it it from time to time. But what do I mean by “mod­ern”? It’s a too-broad term that always requires a def­i­n­i­tion. Some­times, for brevity’s sake, we set­tle for list­ing the names of artists who brought moder­ni­ty into being. When it comes to the tru­ly mod­ern in indus­tri­al design, we get two names in one—the hus­band and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames.

The design world, at least in the U.S., may have been slow­er to catch up to oth­er mod­ernist trends in the arts. That changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly when sev­er­al Euro­pean artists like Wal­ter Gropius immi­grat­ed to the coun­try before, dur­ing and after World War II. But the Amer­i­can Eames left per­haps the most last­ing impact of them all.

The first home they designed and built togeth­er in 1949 as part of the Case Study House Pro­gram became “a mec­ca for archi­tects and design­ers from both near and far,” notes the Eames Office site. “Today it is con­sid­ered one of the most impor­tant post-war res­i­dences any­where in the world.” “Famous for their icon­ic chairs,” writes William Cook at the BBC, the stream­lined objets that “trans­formed our idea of mod­ern fur­ni­ture,” they were also “graph­ic and tex­tile design­ers, archi­tects and film­mak­ers.”

The Eames’ film lega­cy may be less well-known than their rev­o­lu­tions in inte­ri­or design. We’ve all seen or inter­act­ed with innu­mer­able ver­sions of Eames-inspired designs, whether we knew it or not. The pair stat­ed their desire to make uni­ver­sal­ly use­ful cre­ations in their suc­cinct mis­sion state­ment: “We want to make the best for the most for the least.” They meant it. “What works good,” said Ray, “is bet­ter than what looks good because what works good lasts.”

When design “works good,” the Eames under­stood, it might be attrac­tive, or pure­ly func­tion­al, but it will always be acces­si­ble, unob­tru­sive, com­fort­able, and prac­ti­cal. We might notice its con­tours and won­der about its prin­ci­ples, but it works equal­ly well, and maybe bet­ter, if we do not. The Eames films explain how one accom­plish­es such design. “Between 1950 and 1982,” the Eames “made over 125 short films rang­ing from 1–30 min­utes in length,” notes the Eames Office site, declar­ing: “The Eames Films are the Eames Essays.”

If this state­ment has pre­pared you for dry, didac­tic short films filled with jar­gon, pre­pare to be sur­prised by the breadth and depth of the Eames’ curios­i­ty and vision. Here, we have com­piled some of the Eames films, and you can see many, many more (15 in total) with the playlist embed­ded at the bot­tom of the post. At the top, see a brief intro­duc­tion the design­ers’ films. Then, fur­ther down, we have the “bril­liant tour of the uni­verse” that is 1977’s Pow­ers of Ten; 1957’s Day of the Dead, their explo­ration of the Mex­i­can hol­i­day; and 1961’s “Sym­me­try,” one of five shorts in a col­lec­tion made for IBM called Math­e­mat­i­ca Peep Shows.

Just above, see the Eames short House, made after five years of liv­ing in their famed Case Study House #8. The design on dis­play here shows how the Eames “brought into the world a new kind of Cal­i­forn­ian indoor-out­door Mod­ernism,” as Col­in Mar­shall wrote in a recent post here on famous archi­tects’ homes. Their house is “a kind of Mon­dri­an paint­ing made into a liv­able box filled with an idio­syn­crat­ic arrange­ment of arti­facts from all over the world.” Unlike most of the Eames designs, the Case Study house was nev­er put into pro­duc­tion, but in its ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty, we can see all of the cre­ative impuls­es the Eames brought to their redesign of the mod­ern world.

See many more of the Eames filmic essays in this YouTube playlist. There are 15 in total.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Pow­ers of Ten and Let Design­ers Charles & Ray Eames Take You on a Bril­liant Tour of the Uni­verse

How the Icon­ic Eames Lounge Chair Is Made, From Start to Fin­ish

Vis­it the Homes That Great Archi­tects Designed for Them­selves: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Cor­busier, Wal­ter Gropius & Frank Gehry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Watch Robert Hunter (RIP), Grateful Dead Lyricist, Perform His Legendary Songs “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil” & More

Even if you aren’t a fan, a men­tion of the Grate­ful Dead will con­jure hir­sute Jer­ry Gar­cia and band, lit by psy­che­del­ic lasers from with­out, hal­lu­cino­gens from with­in. You’ll recall the Dead’s logo, the skull with a light­ning bolt in its crown; you’ll remem­ber tie-dye shirts with rose-crowned skele­tons on them; you’ll see again those grin­ning, danc­ing bears your col­lege room­mate stuck all over her lap­top and on the back of her beat-up 30-year-old Toy­ota.

You might call to mind these pic­tures with more or less fond­ness, but you need nev­er to have heard a sin­gle song or have stepped into the park­ing lot of a Dead show to have imbibed all of the band’s icon­ic imagery.

Dead­heads, how­ev­er, will see these many sig­ni­fiers as win­dows onto a rich­ly tex­tured extend­ed uni­verse, one filled with lore and triv­ia, and inhab­it­ed by-behind-the-scenes cre­atives who built the band’s look, stage show, and folk-occult mythol­o­gy.

The Dead were at the cen­ter, but their lega­cy would nev­er have car­ried such weight with­out Owsley Stan­ley, for exam­ple, nick­named “Bear”—who inspired the danc­ing (actu­al­ly, march­ing) bears and came up with the skull and light­ning bolt (both drawn by artist Bob Thomas). Stan­ley also bankrolled the Dead with mon­ey from his LSD empire, built their “wall of sound” sys­tem, and served as pro­duc­er, sound engi­neer, and all-around gen­er­a­tive force.

No less crit­i­cal to the band’s exis­tence was Robert Hunter, the lyri­cist who penned the words to “Truckin’,” “Dark Star,” “Casey Jones,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Ter­rapin Sta­tion,” “Rip­ple,” “Jack Straw,” “Friend of the Dev­il,” “Box of Rain,” “Touch of Grey,” and oth­er songs cen­tral to their huge live and stu­dio cat­a­logue, includ­ing favorites like “Bertha,” a live-only tune “prob­a­bly” about “some vaguer con­no­ta­tion of birth, death and rein­car­na­tion. Cycle of exis­tences, some kind of such non­sense like that.”

So Hunter told an inter­view­er about “Bertha”’s ori­gin, adding for clar­i­fi­ca­tion, “but then again, it might not be. I don’t remem­ber.” The lyri­cist, who died yes­ter­day, wrote “dream­like vari­a­tions on the Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tion,” notes Neil Gen­zlinger at The New York Times—songs that “meshed seam­less­ly with the band’s casu­al musi­cal style, help­ing to define the Grate­ful Dead as a coun­ter­cul­ture touch­stone.”

Hunter earned the admi­ra­tion not only of the band and its legions of fans, but also of fel­low song­writ­ers like Bob Dylan, who thought of Hunter as a peer and often col­lab­o­rat­ed with him. “He’s got a way with words and I do, too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone. “We both write a dif­fer­ent type of song than what pass­es today for song­writ­ing.” Like Dylan, Hunter worked in a mys­ti­cal vein, “with a bound­less knowl­edge of sub­jects run­ning the gamut from clas­sic lit­er­a­ture to street life,” notes The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Hunter was a nat­ur­al sto­ry­teller who wrote “author­i­ta­tive­ly about every­one from card sharks and hus­tlers to poor dirt farm­ers and free-spir­it­ed lovers.” His nar­ra­tives pro­vid­ed the Dead with a cohe­sive “weird Amer­i­can” folk cen­ter to anchor their free-form musi­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion: a base to return to and exclaim, as Hunter famous­ly wrote in “Truckin’,” “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Though he was him­self a musi­cian, “pro­fi­cient in a num­ber of instru­ments includ­ing gui­tar, vio­lin, cel­lo, and trum­pet,” he nev­er appeared onstage with the band in all their 30 years.

He pre­ferred to stand in the wings or “sit anony­mous­ly in the audi­ence.” Like Stan­ley, he intend­ed his cre­ative efforts for the Grate­ful Dead, not the Grate­ful Dead fea­tur­ing Robert Hunter. But that doesn’t mean he nev­er took the stage to play those leg­endary songs—only that he wait­ed until a cou­ple decades after the band’s last gig. Here, you can see Hunter play fan favorite “Bertha” (top), and sev­er­al oth­er of his beloved Dead songs: “Sug­a­ree,” “Scar­let Bego­nias,” “Box of Rain,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Rip­ple,” and “Friend of the Dev­il.”

These per­for­mances come from appear­ances at the Stafford Palace The­ater and Nashville’s Ryman Audi­to­ri­um in 2013 and the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 2014, before niche audi­ences who knew very well who Robert Hunter was. But while his name may nev­er be as well-known in pop­u­lar cul­ture as the many artists he col­lab­o­rat­ed with and wrote for, Hunter nonethe­less left an impres­sion on Amer­i­can cul­ture that will not soon fade away.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Mon­ster, 600-Speak­er Sound System–Changed Rock Con­certs & Live Music For­ev­er

Take a Long, Strange Trip and Stream a 346-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Live Grate­ful Dead Per­for­mances (1966–1995)

The Longest of the Grate­ful Dead’s Epic Long Jams: “Dark Star” (1972), “The Oth­er One” (1972) and “Play­ing in The Band” (1974)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood Examined on Pretty Much Pop #12

Wes Alwan, who co-hosts The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast with PMP host Mark Lin­sen­may­er, joins the dis­cus­sion along with PMP co-hosts Eri­ca Spyres and Bri­an Hirt to dis­cuss Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hol­ly­wood in the con­text of Tarantino’s oth­er films.

Wes thinks the film is bril­liant, even though he’s not oth­er­wise a Taran­ti­no fan. How is this film dif­fer­ent? We con­sid­er T’s strange sense of pac­ing, his com­ic vio­lence, his his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism, and cast­ing choic­es. Is this a bril­liant film or a fun­da­men­tal­ly mis­guid­ed idea bad­ly in need of an edi­tor?

Some arti­cles we drew on:

Wes is work­ing on a very long essay on this film that isn’t yet com­plete, but he’s writ­ten plen­ty of oth­er long essays about the media and has record­ed sev­er­al episodes of his own PEL spin-off show, (sub)Text: Get it all here.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imag­ine if gov­ern­ments and insti­tu­tions took their pol­i­cy direc­tives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Mod­est Pro­pos­al.” We might veer dis­tress­ing­ly close to many a lit­er­ary dystopia in these times, with duck­s­peak tak­ing over all the dis­course. But some lines—bans on think­ing or non-pro­cre­ative sex, or seri­ous­ly propos­ing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, how­ev­er, to meritocracy—a term that orig­i­nat­ed in a 1958 satir­i­cal dystopi­an nov­el by British soci­ol­o­gist Michael Young—it can seem as if the polit­i­cal class had tak­en fic­tion as man­i­festo. Young him­self wrote in 2001, “much that was pre­dict­ed has already come about. It is high­ly unlike­ly the prime min­is­ter has read the book, but he has caught on to the word with­out real­iz­ing the dan­gers of what he is advo­cat­ing.”

In Young’s his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, what began as an alleged­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic impulse, a means of break­ing up hered­i­tary castes, became itself a way to solid­i­fy and entrench a rul­ing hier­ar­chy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and large­ly under its con­trol, by which it repro­duces itself.” (Wealthy peo­ple brib­ing their chil­dren’s way into elite insti­tu­tions comes to mind.) Equal oppor­tu­ni­ty for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actu­al­ly obtain in the real world, mer­i­toc­ra­cy’s crit­ics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “mer­i­toc­ra­cy.”

One prob­lem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA ani­mat­ed video above, is an ancient one, char­ac­ter­ized by a very ancient word. “Mer­i­to­crat­ic hubris,” he says, “the ten­den­cy of win­ners to inhale too deeply of their suc­cess,” caus­es them to “for­get the luck and good for­tune that helped them on their way.” Acci­dents of birth are ignored in a hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ist ide­ol­o­gy that insists on nar­cis­sis­tic notions of self-made peo­ple and a just world (for them).

“The smug con­vic­tion that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bot­tom deserve theirs too,” no mat­ter the his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances beyond their con­trol, and no mat­ter how hard they might work or how tal­ent­ed they may be. Mer­i­toc­ra­cy obvi­ates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or acci­dents of for­tune go I,” which pro­mot­ed a healthy degree of humil­i­ty and an accep­tance of life’s con­tin­gency.

Sandel sees mer­i­to­crat­ic atti­tudes as cor­ro­sive to democ­ra­cy, describ­ing their effects in his upcom­ing book The Tyran­ny of Mer­it. Yale Law Pro­fes­sor Daniel Markovits, anoth­er ivy league aca­d­e­m­ic and heir to Michael Young’s cri­tique, has also just released a book (The Mer­i­toc­ra­cy Trap) decry­ing mer­i­toc­ra­cy. He describes the sys­tem as a “trap” in which “upward mobil­i­ty has become a fan­ta­sy, and the embat­tled mid­dle class­es are now more like­ly to sink into the work­ing poor than to rise into the pro­fes­sion­al elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doc­tor­ate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his stu­dents “unnerv­ing­ly resem­ble my younger self: They are, over­whelm­ing­ly, prod­ucts of pro­fes­sion­al par­ents and high-class uni­ver­si­ties.” Once an advo­cate of the idea of mer­i­toc­ra­cy as a demo­c­ra­t­ic force, he now argues that its promis­es “exclude every­one out­side of a nar­row elite…. Hard­work­ing out­siders no longer enjoy gen­uine oppor­tu­ni­ty.”

Accord­ing to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tire­less first crit­ic and the­o­rist (he adapt­ed his satire from his 1955 dis­ser­ta­tion), “those judged to have mer­it of a par­tic­u­lar kind,” whether they tru­ly have it or not, always had the poten­tial, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “hard­en into a new social class with­out room in it for oth­ers.” A class that fur­ther dis­pos­sessed and dis­em­pow­ered those viewed as losers in the end­less rounds of com­pe­ti­tion for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imag­ine what he would have made of the expo­nen­tial extremes of inequal­i­ty in 2019. A utopi­an social­ist and tire­less edu­ca­tor, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Per­haps his new posi­tion gave him fur­ther van­tage to see how “with the com­ing of the mer­i­toc­ra­cy, the now lead­er­less mass­es were par­tial­ly dis­fran­chised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been dis­en­gaged, and dis­af­fect­ed to the extent of not even both­er­ing to vote. They no longer have their own peo­ple to rep­re­sent them.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michael Sandel on the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Pod­cast Talks About the Lim­its of a Free Mar­ket Soci­ety

Michael Sandel’s Famous Har­vard Course on Jus­tice Launch­es as a MOOC on Tues­day

Free: Lis­ten to John Rawls’ Course on “Mod­ern Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy” (Record­ed at Har­vard, 1984)

Piketty’s Cap­i­tal in a Nut­shell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

“Thou Shalt Not”: A 1940 Photo Satirically Mocks Every Vice & Sin Censored by the Hays Movie Censorship Code

The his­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood film before 1968 breaks down into two eras: “pre-Code” and “post-Code.” The “Code” in ques­tion is the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code, bet­ter known as the “Hays Code,” a ref­er­ence to Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers and Dis­trib­u­tors of Amer­i­ca pres­i­dent Will H. Hays. The orga­ni­za­tion we now know as the MPAA hired Hays in 1922, task­ing the Pres­by­ter­ian dea­con and for­mer chair­man of the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee and Post­mas­ter Gen­er­al with “clean­ing up” ear­ly Hol­ly­wood’s sin­ful image. Eight years into Hays’ pres­i­den­cy came the Code, a pre-emp­tive act of self-cen­sor­ship meant to dic­tate the moral­ly accept­able — and more impor­tant­ly, the moral­ly unac­cept­able — con­tent in Amer­i­can film.

“The code sets up high stan­dards of per­for­mance for motion-pic­ture pro­duc­ers,” NPR’s Bob Mon­del­lo quotes Hays as say­ing at the Code’s 1930 debut. “It states the con­sid­er­a­tions which good taste and com­mu­ni­ty val­ue make nec­es­sary in this uni­ver­sal form of enter­tain­ment.” No pic­ture, for exam­ple, should “low­er the moral stan­dards of those who see it,” and “the sym­pa­thy of the audi­ence shall nev­er be thrown to the side of crime, wrong­do­ing, evil or sin.” There was also “an updat­ed, much-expand­ed list of ‘don’ts’ and ‘be care­fuls,’ with bans on nudi­ty, sug­ges­tive danc­ing and lust­ful kiss­ing. The mock­ing of reli­gion and the depic­tion of ille­gal drug use were pro­hib­it­ed, as were inter­ra­cial romance, revenge plots and the show­ing of a crime method clear­ly enough that it might be imi­tat­ed.”

Seri­ous enforce­ment of the Code com­menced in 1934, and it did­n’t take long there­after for Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers to start flout­ing it. “Amer­i­can film pro­duc­ers are inured by now to the Hays Office which reg­u­lates movie morals,” says a Life arti­cle from 1946. Indeed, “know­ing that things banned by the code will help sell tick­ets,” those pro­duc­ers “have been sub­tly get­ting around the code for years.” In oth­er words, they “observe its let­ter and vio­late its spir­it as much as pos­si­ble.” Atop the arti­cle appears an enor­mous pho­to­graph, tak­en by Para­mount pho­tog­ra­ph­er A. L. “Whitey” Schafer, that “shows, in one fell swoop, many things pro­duc­ers must not do,” or rather must not depict: the defeat of the law, the inside of the thigh, nar­cotics, drink­ing, an “exposed bosom,” a tom­my gun, and so on.

For 1941’s inau­gur­al Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios’ Still Show, “Schafer decid­ed to cre­ate a nov­el­ty shot to satir­i­cal­ly slap at the Pro­duc­tion Code, the cen­sor­ship stan­dards of the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers and Dis­trib­u­tors Assn,” writes Hol­ly­wood his­to­ri­an Mary Mal­lo­ry. “His satir­i­cal image, enti­tled, “Thou Shalt Not,” dis­played the top 10 faux-pas dis­al­lowed by indus­try cen­sors, who approved every pho­to­graph­ic image shot by stu­dios before they could be dis­trib­uted.” When “out­raged orga­niz­ers pulled the image from the com­pe­ti­tion” and threat­ened Schae­fer with a fine, he explained that “all the judges were hoard­ing the 18 prints sub­mit­ted for the show.” Few of us today would feel so tit­il­lat­ed, let alone moral­ly cor­rupt­ed, by Schafer­’s image, but as film­mak­er Ais­linn Clarke recent­ly demon­strat­ed on Twit­ter, it may offer more pure enter­tain­ment val­ue than ever.

(via @AislinnClarke)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood Cen­sor­ship and the Rat­ings Sys­tem

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

The Essen­tial Ele­ments of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Info­graph­ic

When Stan­ley Kubrick Banned His Own Film, A Clock­work Orange: It Was the “Most Effec­tive Cen­sor­ship of a Film in British His­to­ry”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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