Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Politicians and Historical Ignorance

Rick Santorum, in an interview some years back:

"Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships."

The comment has mostly been criticized in the context of the dispute over same-sex marriage. What struck me was the profound historical ignorance it implied, assuming Santorum actually believed what he said. 

One can argue about whether or not any historical society had something equivalent to same-sex marriage—but Santorum included in his description of what every society was based on "monogamous relationships." Monogamy is, historically speaking, more common than polygamy, but polygamy was an accepted form of marriage not only in the Islamic world (where it still is) and in China through most of its history—two of the world's great civilizations. It was also an accepted practice in Old Testament judaism, the society on which all three of the major monotheist religions are based.

Santorum does not, however, have any monopoly on historical nonsense. 

Gingrich: "I think Jefferson or George Washington would have strongly discouraged you from growing marijuana, and their techniques for dealing with it would have been rather more violent than the current government."

Most of the current crop of candidates could be excused for that one, but Gingrich, before he got into politics, was a professional historian and has  written alternate history novels set in 19th century America. Yet he apparently does not realize that marijuana only became illegal in the U.S. in the 20th century. Or that, in the 18th century, hemp was an important commercial crop—and both Washington and Jefferson grew it.

Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, he doesn't actually connect what he says with what he knows.

To be fair, it is not only Republican candidates who appear to be strikingly ignorant of historical facts. It was, after all, our current Vice-President who, in a televised interview, claimed that:

“When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed.”

Thus demonstrating that:
1. He didn't know who was president in 1929.

2. He thought television was widely available in 1929—ten years before the first presidential speech to be given on television.

Readers are invited to provide additional examples.



At 9:40 PM, January 10, 2012, Blogger en said...

If President Obama allows himself to talk about the Great Depression, we'll be able to see some decent display of historical ignorance and economic illiteracy.

At 11:27 PM, January 10, 2012, Blogger jimbino said...

It also needs to be pointed out that there is NO model for Modern Amerikan Marriage to be found anywhere in the Bible.

The main Biblical lesson about marriage seems to be a celebration of turning water into wine.

St. Paul, the inventor of Christianity, famously wrote that it is much better to stay single than to marry.

At 1:06 AM, January 11, 2012, Blogger Joseph Ward said...

Great post!

At 4:34 AM, January 11, 2012, Anonymous martin said...

Jefferson and Washington not only growed marijuana, but probably smoked it too:


At 8:39 AM, January 11, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to be fair to Santorum, because he is a bit of a religious boob. However, in most of human history monogamous marriage was the norm, outliers like kings and religious leaders notwithstanding.

This is true because of a few simple facts:

1. there are about the same number of men and women in the world
2. Keeping a wife and child is a gigantic commitment of resources.
3. Throughout human history the large majority of people were exceptionally poor (both in absolute and relative times.)

Just because King David or the Prophet Muhammad had a tribe of wives does not mean that that was how they rolled down in Nazareth or Medina.

At 9:18 AM, January 11, 2012, Blogger Milhouse said...

The Biblical model of marriage is not monogamous, but it is by definition an arrangement between one man and one woman. A man can be in more than one marriage at a time, but each of those marriages is a separate entity. And it's by definition assymetrical; marriage is a transaction by which a woman is bound and exclusively dedicated to a man.

At 11:03 AM, January 11, 2012, Anonymous RKN said...

More than any other candidate I suppose it would be entertaining to watch Gingrich debate Obama, but that remark about grass serves to remind us that he's merely another republican authoritarian who favors continuing the dismal war on drugs. No different than Obama, evidently.

At 11:13 AM, January 11, 2012, Anonymous Daublin said...

Biden's view about separation of church and state, which you've already posted on:


At 5:19 AM, January 12, 2012, Anonymous joeftansey said...

"1. there are about the same number of men and women in the world"

This is by virtue of birth ratios, not reproduction ratios. There are about the same number of male and females in chimpanzee groups, but they do not all reproduce equally. Ever hear of Alpha males?

"2. Keeping a wife and child is a gigantic commitment of resources."

Not if you externalize costs onto the social body. See: tribes.

Also, in poor countries, people try to have lots of kids specifically BECAUSE they are poor. Because while they're a net drain for their childhoods, they're able to work and take care of you as adults.

"3. Throughout human history the large majority of people were exceptionally poor (both in absolute and relative times.)"

But if the alpha males aren't poor, and they're in the minority, then polygamy becomes even more probable.


There are apparently a lot of successful countries that practice polygamy.

At 11:34 AM, January 12, 2012, Anonymous Andreas Collvin said...

Appealing to ignorance, by the degree of romanticizing and distorting history, seems like a key ingredient for success; probably justified by the belief that you have to reach high enough to make a change - to fit whatever winds are blowing - by dictating personal 'liberties'. Hilarious. Libertarianism stands strong against this, since the aforementioned arguments would be nothing but void.

Refering to the founding fathers again and again, when you are definitely not interested in approaching their ideas, is just cheap, whether you actually think they were right or not...

At 10:57 PM, January 14, 2012, Anonymous Alan said...

Rick Santorum is hopelessly ignorant, but I would also have to disagree with Mr. Friedman: although monogamous marriages have been more common than polygynous ones throughout history, the insistence that marriage can only be monogamous is the rarity and the perversion, found almost exclusively in societies influenced by the Roman example.

In Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas and even pre-Christian Nordic and Slavic societies, traditional societies allowed polygyny. Moreover, it was often a necessity. Although males and females were born in roughly equal numbers, males were much more likely to die young. Between wars, hunting accidents, and greater susceptibility to disease, there were often more women than men - and they needed husbands. I have read of quite a few cases where women outnumbered men two to one or better, and after the War of the Triple Alliance R. B. Cunninghame Graham found villages in Paraguay where women outnumbered men thirteen to one. In such circumstances, how could a society not accept polygyny? The alternative would be disaster.

At 12:07 AM, January 15, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

Alan writes: "Although males and females were born in roughly equal numbers, males were much more likely to die young."

Do you have any data to support that claim? It strikes me as unlikely. Prior to modern times, the most dangerous thing done by a large fraction of the population was childbirth. Some men went to war--most women had several children.

At 7:45 PM, January 15, 2012, Anonymous Alan said...

(Part 1)

David -

Any time I want to have an idea of what humanity is like in the absence of modern civilization, I turn to David Livingstone's "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa". A professor of history at a university in Botswana once told me that this book is the "bible" for historians of southern Africa, but it occurs to me that any historian or anthropologist - or in fact anyone wanting to understand human nature - should read this book, not once but at least twice in succession.

Livingstone noted the fatalities common in hunting, political intrigues within the tribe, and war between tribes. Although men are physically stronger than women, genetically males are weaker - that is, more susceptible to disease - and boys are more likely to die in childhood in the absence of modern medicine.

IIRC, Livingstone noted while traveling in Angola that girls outnumbered boys 5 to 1 in official records, though concedes that this was doubtless greatly exaggerated because of a local regime that taxed boys but not girls. Nevertheless (it has been years since I read the book) I seem to recall that he noted that women were more numerous than men among some tribes - though admittedly, he was present shortly after a war of conquest. Still, based on what the locals told him he estimated that such wars swept through the country at least two or three times per century, so this would be a frequently recurring pattern.

I'd also recommend Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham's book "A Vanished Arcadia: The Jesuits in Paraguay, 1607-1767". Cunninghame Graham notes that the Guarani Indians settled in the Jesuit reductions for protection from slavers from neighboring Argentina and Brasil, but that there were tensions because they did not like Jesuit interference in their lives - and in particular Jesuit opposition to polygyny. When pressure from the slavers let up, the Guarani frequently vacated these settlements so they could resume living according to their own customs.

(continued - have to make separate posts)

At 7:46 PM, January 15, 2012, Anonymous Alan said...

(Part 2)

I agree that it would be nice to have more solid evidence, which should also include such things as suitability of mates, but I am not sure that such a study has ever been attempted. Some diseases and parasites affect men and women differently, as with the famous case of Toxoplasma gondii, which affects women by making them warm and affectionate and affects men by lowering their intelligence and making them appear scruffy. Even where the raw numbers of men and women are equal, women may well prefer to share a good man than settle for one who would only be a burden to them. There is something similar going on among American black women, where a large number of black men are considered unsuitable due to being either in prison or in and out of prison, and where polygyny has reportedly been on the rise - though far more common is single motherhood.

I would also note that the difference in numbers would not have to be great to make polygyny popular. There are many examples where women outnumbered men by at least two to one following a war, and even thirteen to one in a village visited by Cunninghame Graham in 1870 - but even a ratio of 1.1 to 1 would firmly establish a need for polygyny in any broadly egalitarian society that would not consign excess women to being mistresses, concubines, or prostitutes.

The Romans demanded monogamy primarily for economic reasons, and excess women were mostly either mistresses or prostitutes. That is not a model that any fair-minded society would want to follow - not rigidly, at least - and it is notable that monogamy was a teaching of the Roman church, but is not required anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, the oldest state church - continued by the Ethiopian descendants of the Aksumite empire - allows polygyny, as do many other African churches that accepted Protestant Christianity in the 19th or 20th century but could find no Biblical reason to discontinue this traditional practice.

"Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa" and "A Vanished Arcadia" are both available online from Project Gutenberg.

At 7:53 PM, January 15, 2012, Anonymous Alan said...

(Part 3)

And after posting the above, I realized that you specifically mentioned the greater likelihood of boys dying young.

I think Livingstone noted this, but I have forgotten a lot in the 15 years since I read him. However, I think the same is true even today, due to the lack of redundancy among certain genes on the Y chromosome.

Due to the differences in the sorts of activities traditionally undertaken by males and females, I would expect greater mortality among boys in most pre-modern societies.

At 2:31 PM, January 16, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am not really sure i would call ancient china a "great civilisation." lets just say that the emperors of china tried REALLY hard to be as bad a north korea or 1984's Air Strip One. millions died building the wall and the canals and this is when the population of the world was tiny. ancient china was quite the opposite of great, horrible.

At 1:55 AM, January 25, 2012, Blogger Quentin Langley said...

An American Muslim blogger has argued that Islamic marriages do indeed meet Santorum's definition of "one man and one woman". This is also true of historic Mormon plural marriage. In both cases a man is in several separate marriages, each comprising one man and one woman. That these marriages are in parallel rather than in series (as Gingrich's marriages have been) does not alter their basic structure.

To take an an obvious example, if a man engaged in a Mormon plural marriage dies, what is the ongoing relationship between his wives? Answer: none. They may, of course, be co-owners of property and may have ongoing commitments to children, but they are not married to each other. Each was married to one person, now deceased.

None of this is to suggest that either plural marriage or gay marriage should be banned. But in his historical assertion, Santorum was not wrong.


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