Violence; A few cheerful thoughts 

In light of all the ongoing violence in the news, I thought I would finally get around to writing about a book by Randall Collins, Violence; A Microsociological Theory (hereafter VAMT). Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the face-to-face interactions that build up into what we call society. I wrote earlier about his book Interaction Ritual Chains.

To recap the foundation of his theory: We spend our lives engaged in interaction rituals, most of which Collins calls “status rituals,” these being involved in group membership and position. Much of what we do has a constant subtext that runs,

“We are members of the same group, right?”

“Yes, we are, and these are our relative status positions in that group.”

This happens every time we interact with another human being. Through this group solidarity we attempt to extract what Collins calls “emotional energy,” that positive, energizing, affirming sense of self. By the time we reach the end of childhood we are firmly patterned to seek this group solidarity with everyone we meet. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as we are a species that has survived on the strength of our gregarious nature.

This is why Collins’s book VAMT tells us that everything we thought we knew about violence is wrong. Popular media (films, television, books, what passes for news) tell us that interpersonal violence is a constant threat, that it is easy for even ordinarily peaceful people to devolve into violence, that violence is contagious, and that humans are naturally predisposed to violence.

On the contrary, Collins proposes that this impression exists because of the demands of narrative drama and sampling bias. “Nothing happened” doesn’t make the headlines and peaceful cooperation never sold tickets.

Certainly, Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine are not vacation spots right now. However, even organized violence is affected by the problem of status ritual.

Collins observes a natural resistance to interpersonal violence. He observes two things. One, most personal confrontations devolve into bluster and display rather than overt physical violence. These verbal standoffs don’t make the news, of course. Compare “Man stabs roommate in argument over TV remote” vs. “Two men trash talk each other in dispute over TV remote, one finally hands it over.” Two, only a small percentage of people are both willing and competent to commit violence.

After watching hundreds of hours of film and video of mob violence, as well as studying photographs, police records and personal accounts, Collins finds that in a riot by 10,000 people, about 9,900 will be standing back watching, 75 will be close to the action shouting, and 25 will actually be fighting and breaking things.

The same goes for soldiers at war. Historically, large numbers of soldiers end up being essentially spectators, rarely using their weapons. A minority actually fire, and only a percentage of those actually fire effectively. When interviewed, soldiers in a platoon all agree on which of their comrades are the aggressive ones. An interesting fact that I will get into later is that soldiers firing crew served weapons, where a group of soldiers cooperates (heavy machine guns and mortars, for example) fire more consistently and competently than soldiers with individual weapons. The U.S. military has spent considerable time and effort on training individual soldiers to actually fire their weapons consistently in combat.

Bringing us into the news, police officers act in a similar way. Most officers rarely draw their sidearms, rarely fire them, and rarely, if ever, get a physical force complaint against them. A small percentage of officers draw their weapons often, get into physical confrontations regularly, and accumulate complaints of excessive force. Again, as with soldiers, everyone in their group can identify them as the aggressive minority. As with soldiers, the percentage of people in this group is in the low single digits.

On the other side of the law, street gangs have a few members who are the enforcers. The other members will fight if absolutely necessary, but there are always one or two violently charismatic individuals who are the go-to guys.

Collins describes the buildup to violence as one filled with confrontational tension. The tension is between the desire of an individual to win a conflict and that person’s lifelong practice of establishing group solidarity with others. To attack someone physically is the ultimate expression of rejection from one’s in-group. It goes against our social programming. In order to fight, individuals have to go through a set of rituals to break through this barrier. They also generally have to have an audience that supports the idea of fighting.

On a topical note: Having read VAMT, reading about a police officer in Ferguson calling black protestors “fucking animals” was both unsurprising and illuminating. It was an indication that the virtually all white police force had long since identified the black population as an absolute out group. No need to overcome confrontational tension before violence when there is no such tension to begin with.

In VAMT Professor Collins also introduces the concept of the “forward panic.” We are all familiar with a backward panic. It’s the disorganized rout of a group of people rendered weak by fear. The opposite effect happens when a group prepares itself emotionally for physical conflict and then encounters weak resistance or none at all. The group is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Two examples at the opposite ends of the scale: The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese army in 1937 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991.

In the case of Nanking, the Japanese were expecting the level of resistance justified by the defense of a major city and prepared for a major battle. When the Chinese army collapsed after token resistance, surrendering in large numbers, the Japanese broke through the barrier of confrontational tension with a huge amount of energy.  What resulted was what Collins calls a moral holiday. The slaughter and mistreatment of both soldiers and civilians was akin to mass insanity on the part of the Japanese and took weeks to run its course.

In the case of Rodney King, he had led the police on a high speed chase before offering token resistance to arrest by multiple officers. Keyed up and ready for a fight, perhaps even a gun fight, the officers unleashed hugely disproportionate force on King, several of them beating his prone body with nightsticks. A supportive audience of fellow officers stood around and witnessed the event.

Collins observes that when equal forces meet face to face, neither turning aside, both with equal emotional energy, what usually results is a non-violent standoff. In mob violence, physical attacks tend to involve isolated, retreating individuals attacked by small groups. He expands on this in a useful article on his blog, “Tank Man, and the limits of telephoto lenses; or, how much can individuals stop violence?” 

His advice is that in a confrontation, your face, your eyes, and your voice are your best defense. Never turn away from a confrontation, because that allows an aggressor to avoid engaging with you as a person.* He notes that when police are in full forward panic mode, people who turn away and run are more likely to be beaten than people who non-violently stand their ground and attempt to verbally engage the police. That can re-channel the interaction into a status ritual.

*(Why did the Storm Troopers in Star Wars wear that utterly useless all-covering white “armor”? To deny them faces so they could be slaughtered by the heroes without qualm.)

Back to the crew-served weapons: The reason that these weapons are used more effectively by soldiers is a function of two factors.  The group solidarity in the face of confrontational tension reinforces the soldiers in their actions. As important, it allows the soldiers to focus their attention on each other rather than the enemy. Firing becomes less of a confrontation and more of a group effort. The marching formations and coordinated pike and musket drill of centuries past were similar in their group enabling power. Simply moving in physical coordination with others is a powerful status ritual.

Amidst all the violence we see in the news, it is reassuring to think that interpersonal violence actually requires quite a bit of effort to initiate. More than that, it requires a specific series of events to precipitate, and can be derailed at a number of points. Or, for that matter, prevented at a number of points. One of the main points of VAMT is that violence is not the inevitable result of culture, poverty, or childhood abuse. It is situational, and we can plan and structure our society to trend towards some situations and away from others.

Just to bring this into the topical realm, in light of the police shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, here’s a question: How many police officers do you know, and know well? If you aren’t a police officer or related to a police officer, the answer is probably zero. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that over the past few decades law enforcement officers have become an insular subculture. Cops socialize with cops; civilians –the rest of us – socialize with civilians. That goes a hundred-fold in communities such as Ferguson. I don’t have a glib answer for this problem, but I have an idea that it involves day to day social interactions. That’s what makes us see each other as allies rather than enemies.


The Anatomy of Revolution 

I just finished reading the book of this name by the late Harvard professor Crane Brinton. In it, he compares and contrasts four revolutions: The English Civil War of the 1640s, the American Revolution, The French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He finds many distinctive elements, but many commonalities. He strings these universals together on the theme of a fever, the course of an illness. (With no pejorative intent)

The prodrome to revolution is counterintuitive in several ways. It does not generally originate from what we’d call the proletariat. In each of the four cases the middle and upper middle classes are the movers. Nor does it tend to start in a time of economic losses. The grievances of the middle class come from a sense of advancing and then hitting a glass ceiling. They see an unjustifiable aristocracy above them gaining unmerited benefits such as relative freedom from taxation and government subsidies. For example, the core of the English opposition in the 1640s was the gentry, newly prosperous men of business who wanted a voice in politics equal to their economic force. Brinton describes them as not so much oppressed as “cramped.”

There are certain signals that Brinton sees in all these cases. One is defections from the aristocracy. Some aristocrats themselves lose faith in their own privilege and take up the cause of the lower classes. The intellectuals desert the rulers, refusing to continue to rationalize the status quo. The government becomes inept in maintaining its finances and providing services to the general populace. The response from the population is to form parallel organizations to do the work that the central government cannot or will not do.

Eventually these parallel organizations make demands on the government that, if granted, would amount to abdication. The revolutionary organizations engage in illegal activities that provoke the government into action. In the American colonies this took the form of the Committees of Correspondence, the local militias, and the state legislatures. The violent opposition to tax collectors and the stockpiling of arms were the triggers for the British armed response.

In all four cases the armed government response was ineffective or simply absent. Charles the First of England couldn’t muster enough competent troops and officers to beat the Parliamentary Army. The ministers of George the Third fumbled the initial response to American unrest with a provocative and yet feeble military presence, and then prosecuted the war in a disjointed way from across a six week ocean voyage. King Louis barely responded at all to the unrest in the streets of Paris, while his troops defected to the mobs. Russian Imperial troops refused to fire on the crowds, joining them instead.

Let me pause for a moment and ask if I am the only one thinking of Egypt. Stay with me.

Brinton compares the next stage to the crisis of a fever. Having overthrown the establishment, the revolutionaries have to decide on their own organizing principles and their program. There is an inevitable tendency towards centralization of power. The threat of counter-revolution and the jostling of factions provoke this.

Revolutionaries also tend towards a social or spiritual purity. Each revolution had an element of “the perfection of mankind” to it. In the English Civil War it was overtly religious In the American, French, and Russian revolutions it was more of the Enlightenment era phenomenon, overtly atheistic in France and Russia, deistic in America. In all cases, people were expected to embrace a revolutionary asceticism.

The moderates lost. Power shifted from the status quo conservatives to the revolutionary/reform moderates to the hard line revolutionaries. The extremists tended to have the most monolithic and loyal organizations, as well as the willingness to use violence, deception, and dirty tricks to achieve their goals.

Again I’m thinking of Egypt.

In each case there was a period of terror: Anti-Catholic massacres in England, mob violence and the expulsion of Loyalists in America, death sentence by accusation in France, and the violent suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union. Brinton acknowledges that the period of terror in the Soviet Union quieted down and bureaucratized, but never really went away.

In each case there was a cooling off, known as the Thermidor period in France. The extremists are better at taking control than ruling. The terror burns itself out and the worst offenders often do not outlive this period. Robespierre, the leader of the French terror, mounted the scaffold himself only a few years after his ascent to power. And let’s face it; people get sick of high standards of virtue. Humanity returns to the mean.

As do political structures. England and France returned to monarchy, albeit constitutional monarchy. The Soviet Union became an oligarchy approximately as oppressive as the imperial government that preceded it. The new United States, thankfully, had a local and state democratic tradition to revert to. What happened in three of the four cases is that the middle class, people with some property, with something to lose, looked at the extremists and the conservatives and chose stability over the new brotherhood of man. In the Soviet Union power was centralized much more effectively, and under a philosophy that did not postulate a middle class. Not that there was much of a middle class, percentage-wise, before the revolution.


Professor Brinton was humble and hesitant in his conclusions. His caveats take up significant space in the text. Still, I consider his propositions to be remarkably applicable to recent history. The Chinese went from the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Red Brigades to mixed state/private capitalism in just a few decades. Wherever I see revolution in this world I see the train of Crane Brinton’s thought being validated. Do you?

The Anatomy of Revolutions is considered a classic of political and historical analysis. It gets the Minor Heretic Seal of Approval.



Vegetarian in the Garden of Earthly Delights 

Credit where credit is due.

A few nights ago I attended a dinner sponsored by investment advisors, including my friend The Broker. (I always wonder what clues he would leave for Batman. Holy hedge fund!) The dinner was held in a private room at Juniper, the restaurant at the relatively new Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street in Burlington, Vermont. The Broker assured me that the vegetarian offerings would be far better than what I had at Kismet. He was right.

The aesthetic of the place was based on modern spare design with local, natural materials. The servers were professional in demeanor and casual in clothing. A bright green “Keep Calm and love Vermont” t-shirt was the uniform.

The menu has snacks, appetizers, “shares” appropriate for just that, sandwiches, and regular entrees.  I saw roughly ten things that I could feel good about, which is stellar vegetarian fare for most conventional restaurants.

My choices:

Half Pint Farm greens, beets, sharp provolone, watermelon. A decent salad of a good size. The watermelon seemed odd but actually worked.

Eggplant caponata, vegetable crudo, Castleton crackers. Good, dense caponata in a big ramekin. Plenty of scooping items. Castleton Crackers rate a “meh” on my rigorous cracker scale, but I don’t blame the management for trying to keep it local.

Hemp seed whole grain burger, arugula, carrot ketchup. An actual restaurant-made veggie burger with an interesting flavor and texture. The carrot ketchup was also interesting but not socks-knocking. It needed a little something to make it more than just orange. I liked having the arugala on the side so I could choose my level of greenery. The bun had some real texture and crust.

Lemon tart. Tart lemon custard in a shortbread-ish crust. Slightly difficult to attack with a fork, but tasty even as it crumbled. Strawberries and blackberries as well as whipped cream on the side. A success.

My dinner companions seemed satisfied with their meaty entrees. However, my main point is that vegetarians will not be disappointed at Juniper.


Good News for the Gluten Sensitive 

This is a short one. The science speaks for itself.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives bread dough its resilience. Without gluten, bread would be crumbly and would fail to rise. Protein levels in wheat vary from around 10% up to the high teens, with so-called “heritage” varieties, the oldest types, having some of the highest levels in general.

There are certain people, slightly less than 1% of the population, who have a specific allergic reaction to gluten called celiac disease. In celiac sufferers gluten causes inflammation of the cilia, the tiny hairlike projections in the intestines, which prevents them from absorbing nutrients. Celiac sufferers experience severe gastrointestinal symptoms and chronic malnutrition unless they eliminate all gluten containing foods from their diets.

Early in 2011 a researcher published a study establishing the concept of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. It was a set of less-severe gastrointestinal (and other) symptoms associated with the consumption of gluten. A cardiologist published a popular book (filled with errors of fact) on the subject later in 2011 and the idea took off.

Now there is a 10.5 billion dollar industry in the United States that fills entire sections of supermarkets with gluten free food. Any food item in the store that just happens to be gluten free is so labeled. Restaurants now carry gluten free options.

Jessica R. Biesiekierski, the researcher who performed that 2011 study on non-celiac gluten sensitivity, published a new study in 2013 with more participants and a more rigorous protocol. The results were a reversal of the previous study. Gluten did not cause symptoms in the individuals studied, and various biomarkers (signs of inflammatory response) had no relationship to gluten consumption.

Take a cue from the Japanese. They import 3.5 million metric tons of our wheat every year and consume wheat at a higher rate per capita than we do. They are less obese, healthier, and live longer. So be happy; have a bagel or some whole wheat toast. Maybe a plate of linguine arrabbiata. And stop worrying about gluten.


Vegetarian at the Abbattoir 

I’d like to change the pace with a negative restaurant review, plus a Philippic aimed at complacent, traditional chefs in general.  

In my experience, being a vegetarian at a restaurant is generally an exercise in diminished expectations. There are a few out there that focus on us as a demographic, and they tend to do reasonably well. Most, however, seem to view us as an afterthought; second class citizens of the culinary republic. I actually went to one chef-owned restaurant where the only thing on the menu I could eat was “frites” (expensive French fries).  Even the salads had meat in them.

I recently visited Kismet, an upscale restaurant in Montpelier Vermont. I later remembered that after the last time I had been there, a couple of years before, I had vowed to avoid the place. They just don’t seem to give a damn about vegetarians.

On my previous visit I had ordered a veggie burger. Kind of anomalous for an upscale joint, but then the fancy places have been elevating the burger to pretentious heights lately. What showed up was essentially inedible. First, it was a double stacked arrangement with three bun pieces, two burgers, and other ingredients. It was a normal burger diameter but it stood about five inches tall. It was suitable for a crocodile or a python with a dislocatable jaw, but not for a normal human mouth. Maybe the chef was being artistic in some Dadaist way, but it needed disassembly before consumption, and that’s not what a burger is about. Then there were the burgers, or to be more accurate, non-burgers.  They were half inch thick pieces of plain fried tempeh. Boring, unappetizing, and demonstrating no interest in, or mastery of cooking. I mean really, I was paying something like $17 for this, and they couldn’t mix up some kind of flavor-enhanced veggie burger? I gently noted to the server that tempeh wasn’t a burger, and that a burger should fit in the mouth of the species homo sapiens.

On my more recent visit to Kismet I ordered some kind of veggie and grain plate. Again with the plain fried slabs o’ tempeh. Add a dollop of plain rice, some unflavored steamed vegetables, a few canned condiments, and you have what I might prepare at home if I was pressed for time and filled with self-loathing. They managed to make fiddleheads unappetizing. It was a complete culinary face-plant. I felt a strange mixture of annoyance and actual embarrassment for the chef.

My dinner companion at Kismet had baked oysters and a ribeye steak and pronounced himself eminently satisfied. My appetizer was polenta fries, which were very good – crispy and chewy and slightly spicy. The chef was not incompetent, which made the abysmal main course that much more irritating.

Note to chefs: tempeh, and its blander cousin tofu, are not complete food items unto themselves. They are vehicles for flavoring and protein rich filler to be mixed with more interesting things. Pitching an unadorned slab of fermented soybeans at one of your customers is a gesture of contempt. No, I don’t have any recipe suggestions. You are, theoretically, professionals, and should know the full spectrum of your craft.

Yes, I know, *real* gourmets are eager to eat goat anus tartare on a bed of pickled larks eyeballs. Vegetarianism is for Buddhist ascetics and animal rights freaks who disapprove of plungering food down the throats of waterfowl. Throw a bowl of rice at them and move on to your real customers, the carnivores.

May I suggest that you are being lazy? Cooking with meat is like making jewelry with gold – the intrinsic characteristics of the material get you halfway home. Start with a good piece of steak, or swordfish, or some prime oysters, and even simple preparation will satisfy the customer. The grains and produce that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet lack the intensity and complexity of flavor that let you coast to victory with a little lemon butter. You need imagination and you need to work at it to surpass our quotidian home cooking. There, the oven mitt is thrown down.

Note to restaurant owners: I have noticed that when groups of people are deciding on a restaurant, there is generally a democratic vote, but with a veto option. If one person “hates that place,” then it gets dropped from the running. Quite often there is a vegetarian in the group, our veto power giving us more clout than our numbers would have you suppose. When one of our carnivorous friends suggests that we all dine at “L’Abbattoir Sanguinaire” we are going to suggest the place down the street. A friend of mine recently suggested either Kismet or a more vegetarian-friendly place nearby for lunch, and my response was predictable. Unless you run that place down the street, it’s past time for you to up your game.