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Yglesias on Oaxacan Poverty

[ 124 ] July 3, 2011 |

In a post where there’s only a 99% chance he borrowed the link from me without giving credit, Yglesias comments on the same Guardian post on indigenous education in Oaxaca that I did. Except he really doesn’t seem to understand the larger forces at work here:

Obviously, the dilemma here is real. Not only does formal education improve one’s earning potential, so does better transportation and communications connections to the outside world. And Spanish-language competence has a higher market value than Zapotec-language competence. So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty. After all, the authentic cultural tradition of indigenous peoples in southern Mexico involves being poor. That said, we do see in Denmark, the Netherlands, Flanders, Sweden, etc. that it’s actually quite possible for a country to become very much a part of the global economy while still retain [sic] a distinct language community.

The “cultural tradition of indigenous peoples in southern Mexico” does not involve being poor, in the way Yglesias seems to define it, unless we consider our definition of poverty to be something set in stone. Rather, for much of Mexican history, indigenous people were not particularly more impoverished than most mestizo Mexicans. The differences between Mexico or Guatemala on one hand and Denmark and Sweden on the other are legion. For one, there is the colonial legacy, which is only, you know, a gigantic factor in deciding poverty between nations in the present. Second, there is the issue of how specific nations have incorporated non-capital city language speakers into the state. In most of Europe, traditional languages or dialects were ground under the centralizing state in the early modern centuries, but the Mexican state has never had the ability to do the same. A second language and culture has sometimes survived in European nations, but even that is fraught with difficulty, as the ETA in Spain or anyone in Belgium might tell us. Mexico has had to begrudgingly accept its multi-lingual heritage because it never could force large majorities of its citizens to adopt Spanish as their language. The situations are totally different.

But more importantly, languages like Swedish and Danish are essentially irrelevant to the larger global economy because everyone in those nations operating within the global economic framework is speaking English. These people speaking Flemish or whatever don’t only speak that language. They also speak English, and possibly Dutch or French or Spanish or German or some combination of the above. People in the Mixteca may very well only speak Mixtec and maybe a smidgen of Spanish, and they’ve never had the opportunity to learn anything else. Western European nations have economic prosperity and educational systems unknown in Mexico, making the first language/central state language-second language/indigenous language divide relatively moot when it comes to economic success. The colonial legacy is gigantic here, as Mexico was long a nation where only a small elite received functional education and had opportunities for economic advancement. Even in the post-revolutionary period, real advancement was limited, even for non-indigenous peoples.

And by saying that “So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty,” is Yglesias essentially saying that “cultural preservation” has no value? As I mentioned in my own post, these are very tricky and tough issues. God knows I have no good answer. But even from a strictly economic perspective, certainly there is some middle ground here, with possibilities of bilingualism, tourism, systems of self-government, cultural programs, and remittances from the United States overcoming some of the entrenched localized poverty without completely giving up on cultural traditions. In any case, I don’t think you can make these overarching statements like Yglesias does here without a lot more factual understanding about Mexico than I think he has.

  • It might be more useful to attempt to discover what Yglesias does understand enough to make him useful in any discussion.

    • DrDick

      The contents of his own colon, as that is where his head seems to reside?

    • Malaclypse

      He understands how to be a sensible liberal, and what hippie to punch.

      • DrDick

        The answer to the latter question is obviously, “All of them!”

    • rm

      You can take the boy out of Harvard, but you can’t take Harvard out of the boy. There is a high premium placed on the cultural tradition of being able to pontificate without background knowledge, in some marginal cultures I could name.

      • Ch4rlie

        In the grand tradition of Yglesias-style nitpicking, and since you seem to be incredibly irritable today, it seems fun to piss you off more by calling you out for claiming that that Flemish speakers “possibly” know Dutch. I should hope so, since Dutch and Flemish are dialects of the same language, and are about as different as American and British English. You probably already know that, but hey, blogging is a messy medium that naturally produces occasional silly mistakes.

        I also think that you are wasting your time getting outraged at every half-baked thing Yglesias writes. If you want to write a Yglesias spoof blog a la Altmouse, go for it. But I think you have more interesting things to say than that and that maybe you should just strike him from your reading list for a while.

        Also, I’m reading Richard White’s Railroaded and would love to hear your thoughts. Can we has post on your expertise rather than MY’s ignorance? Thanks.

        • I’ve read the intro to White’s book and it certainly seems very smart. When will I have time to read the whole opus is another question.

          • Anderson

            Removing Yglesias-bashing from your daily round would liberate you for who knows how much reading!

            • hv

              Yglesias is just too darn sexy, gotta hit that!

  • DrDick

    The people in Catalunya are also getting restive and starting to demand greater autonomy. Scotland is also looking for more autonomy in Greqat Britain and you are seeing ethnic and linguistic revivals in Wales and Cornwall, which experienced a similar situation to Oaxaca. In Norway, the Lapps are proving a bit troublesome as well.

    • ptl

      It’s important to distinguish between linguistic revivals, “ethnic”/revivals, and demands for devolution/autonomy, linked though they may be. Wales has won the linguistic battle/war, but is less inclined towards political autonomy than Scotland. If you want a linguistic success story, a dying and suppressed language now strong and growing, look to Wales.

      Catalonia “getting” restive? :)

      • DrDick

        I suppose I should have phrased that in terms of a revival of restiveness. They seem to episodically run hot and cold on these issues.

        • When I was in Barcelona, I needed directions so I asked someone who appeared to be a municipal employee. I greeted him with buenos dias and he replied “bon dia.” When my question, again in Castellano, clearly indicatedthat I was a tourist, he replied in castellano.

          I tend to use That experience as a paradigm as to the language schism in Catalunya or Cataluña, depending on where one stands.

        • ptl

          well yes, their enthusiasm and activism does vary.

          • ptl

            aaarrrggghhh that should have “nested” as a reply to drdick.

            • hv

              (it did! you’re just below Randy Paul who did the same)

              • ptl

                Ah — I see it now :)

                thank you

    • Pyre

      And in southern France the resurgence of Occitan (Langue d’Oc, Provençal, the Troubadours’ tongue) continues apace.

  • HyperIon

    I was gratified to see the grammar error at the end of the excerpt. The guy apparently doesn’t proofread his copy. The sign of a lazy writer. But you are criticizing MY, the lazy thinker. Which is another of his short-comings. *sigh*

  • John

    You’re never gonna make it in blogging with such thin skin.

    My opinion of you started pretty high: Associate of the LG&M crew and all. You’ve since worked diligently to erode that opinion. Well done.

    • Put this in a museum. A genre classic.

      • Quality concern trolling!

        • Esp. as it should be your taste in music that erodes one’s opinion of you!

    • Anderson

      What, John? You’re not enjoying the Labor, Guns & Money blog like you once did? Has something about it changed?

  • Ragout

    Loomis writes “languages like Swedish and Danish are essentially irrelevant to the larger global economy because everyone in those nations operating within the global economic framework is speaking English.”

    Which I think is essentially Yglesias’ point. The Swedes and the Danes have learned second languages, industrialized, and integrated into the global economy, while still preserving their traditional culture (at least in some sense). It seems to me that Mexican Indians face very similar issues: if they learn Spanish, develop their economy, and so on, what will be become of their traditional culture?

    Looking to Europe for analogous situations isn’t perfect, but these types of analogies are what social science is all about. I certainly don’t see a better way of answering the question about the future of Indians’ traditional culture.

    • Maybe not looking at Europe.

    • DrDick

      As Erik noted, the situation in Oaxaca is not at all comparable to Sweden or the Netherlands. The Swedes and Dutch industrialized themselves, whereas the Native peoples of Oaxaca had capitalism imposed on them as part of the colonial process. They had and have little or no control over the process.

      • Anonymous

        Japanese colonial practices in Taiwan and Korea.

        • shah8

          That was me.

      • gimmeliberty

        A good point, Shah8, there’s always the East Asian example. Many capitalist countries and subnational groups (even in Europe) had capitalism imposed on them, so I’m not sure why the Mixtecas are sui generis. Capitalism was a massively (culturally and physically) violent process during the 18th and 19th centuries even in the most industrialized countries – just take the enclosures in England! But nobody pines for the grinding poverty and lost cultural norms of the Tudor era. I’m a Latin Americanist (although I know relatively little about Mexico) and at least as often as I hear complaints about disappearing indigenous cultures, I hear indigenous people complaining about how foreigners romanticize traditional cultures that are mired in poverty, when actual communal concerns revolve around access to jobs, education, and a larger piece of the national pie. This is not to say that traditional culture has no value (and I don’t think Yglesias argued that at all, so I’m annoyed to see Erik once again misrepresenting the argument), just that people usually choose what they perceive as better lives over traditional culture, and they usually associate material goods with better lives. I for one would be really annoyed if some well-meaning post-colonialist tried to make me keep kosher and took away my XBox. In other words, value traditional culture, but not over the imperative of improving human lives in a manner compatible with the desires if individuals and communities.

        Finally, all this immature ad hominem against Matt Yglesias once again speaks much more poorly about this community than it does Matt Yglesias.

        • DrDick

          Nobody said that the Mixteca, or more properly the Zapotecs in this example, are sui generis. Erik’s point is that Yglesias’s example of Sweden and the Netherlands are not appropriate, not that there are not other examples. While Taiwan and SE Asia are certainly much better, they still differ in important ways. Most significantly, they cast off the colonial yoke and their real economic development and industrialization occured after they were independent and more in control over the process. As I note elsewhere in this thread, Wales is a rather better example and in Europe.

    • Ragout

      Granted, there may be more closely analogous situations outside of Europe, for example in Latin America. But I don’t see Loomis making that argument. As far as I can tell from these and other posts, Loomis thinks there’s never anything to be learned from this type of analogy, because each situation is completely unique. I think that’s foolish.

      DrDick makes that same type of argument. Sure there are differences that make any analogy imperfect, but are they really important differences? Mexico may have had capitalism imposed on it by colonialists, but industrialism? I don’t think so. And saying that Sweden industrialized itself, as if “Sweden” was some kind of unified actor, is also silly. Presumably Sweden, like every other country, had different social classes who fought over many aspects of industrialization. I’m not at all convinced that these are important differences that keep the analogy to Europe from being very useful.

      • DrDick

        You seem to have trouble following this argument and the clear English used. I never referenced “Mexico”, but rather the indigenous peoples of that country. They are very different entities. “Mexico” pretty much means the Blancos and Mestizos, who did indeed impose capitalism, with its subsequent industrialization, on the indigenous peoples who had no choice or control over the process. This contrasts strongly with the Swedes and Dutch. Nor does my argument essentialize either of the latter groups as you imply.

        • Ragout

          You’re wrong to suggest that the indigenous people of Oaxaca have seen all that much industrialization. That nonsensical claim was what made me think that you were talking about the country as a whole.

          And your claim that “Swedes and Dutch industrialized themselves” remains laughable. Some people owned factories, and other people worked in them. Just like in Mexico.

          • DrDick

            Again, you are not following the argument. Please pay attention to what I say and not to the voices in your head.

            1) I never claimed that the indigenous peoples had been directly industrialized. The arguments about economic development, however, hinge on industrialization to create good paying jobs. Their lives, however, have been directly impacted by industrialization and generally in ways that are harmful to them. they were also directly incorporated into the capitalist world system, largely as commodity producers, by the conquest. They have exercised no control over that process, which is controlled by outside groups. These groups required them to abandon their traditional cultures and languages in order to fully participate, while simultaneously largely excluding them from full participation (by law until 1910).

            2) My point, which you seem to resolutely ignore, is that it was Swedes and Dutch who controlled the development of capitalism and industrialization in those countries (indeed Dutchmen were at the forefront of establishing capitalism in the first place). I did not say or imply that all Swedes or Dutch controlled this, that is something you insist on interpolating when it is not there. This stands in stark contrast to the situation of indigenous peoples in Mexico. Capitalism and industrialization was developed in Sweden and the Netherlands by people who generally shared the same culture and language as the rest of the Swedes and Dutch.

            I really do not see what is so difficult about this, other than the fact that you do not seem to want to acknowledge that the situations are different and that colonialism has had a largely detrimental impact on indigenous peoples around the world.

            • Ragout

              You say “I never claimed that the indigenous peoples had been directly industrialized.”

              But previously you said “the Blancos and Mestizos, who did indeed impose capitalism, with its subsequent industrialization, on the indigenous peoples”

              You’ll have to forgive me for being confused.

              But the larger point is: so there are differences, what makes them important differences? I think that if the various Mexican Indians were to learn Spanish in greater numbers and incorporate themselves into the modern economy, they’d be able to preserve their culture about as much as the Swedes and Danes have preserved their culture.

              You’ve pointed to differences, but made no argument about why they should affect this claim about cultural preservation. For example, it may be true that elites in 18th and 19th Century Sweden and Denmark spoke the same language as the factory workers and peasants. But this may have made it easier for them to stamp out the traditional culture of the workers and peasants, not harder.

              • DrDick

                I think that if the various Mexican Indians were to learn Spanish in greater numbers and incorporate themselves into the modern economy, they’d be able to preserve their culture about as much as the Swedes and Danes have preserved their culture.

                So if they abandon their own languages for Spanish, they can preserve their cultures as well as the Swedes and Dutch, who did not abandon their own languages?

                The differences are, as I have said repeatedly, about control over the process. The Swedes and Dutch collectively were in charge of the processes of development, though not all were equally in charge. It is also not the case that elites simply imposed their wills on the masses. While the latter had less agency than the elites, they also shaped the processes. The end result was distinctively Swedish and Dutch. The same can be said of Japan in the 19th and early 20th century.

                By contrast, the indigenous peoples of the Americas did not have much of any control over the processes. They were forced into capitalism by the Spanish conquistadors or other conquerors, who also set the conditions under which they were incorporated. The Spanish (and English and French), along with the Mestizos later, also actively prevented them from full participation and maintained them in a marginalized status, at least as they were identifiably indigenous. that remains largely true to this day. The conquerors also systematically deprived them of all or most of their best lands and other resources, generally without compensation.

                The Swedes and Dutch got and still get to choose what language they work and trade in, as well as the culturally based rules governing that work. The indigenous peoples have no choice other than to abandon their cultures and languages if they wish to participate fully in the economy and accompanying prosperity.

                • ptl

                  The differences are, as I have said repeatedly, about control over the process.

                  Yes. The Welsh are better, as an example, than the Danes — though still, far from ideal

                  Worthy of note is the 19th century suppression of Welsh in some schools (the institutionalised punishment of pupils who spoke it), at the instigation of middle class Welsh speakers, to make pupils more employable. Wales has fought back successfully, of course, reversing the decline.

                • DrDick

                  I would agree about the Welsh.

                • Ragout

                  “So if they abandon their own languages for Spanish”

                  I had in mind that the Zapotec and other Indians would learn Spanish as a second language, just as many Swedes speak English. Learning Spanish would make them richer, less marginalized, and give them more political power. The benefits of learning Spanish are so great that I’m sure the Zapotec are already learning it and will continue in the future.

                • DrDick

                  Ragout –

                  But the Swedes and the Dutch did not need to learn another language to enjoy those benefits. They may now have learned English as a second languages, but that was not a prerequisite of acquiring the benefits of capitalism or industrialization. Still not a good comparison.

                • Ragout

                  The Dutch had to learn Dutch! They used to speak several languages, such as Frisian, as well as many dialects. To some extent this is still true today. The process of forming a national language out of local dialects happened in most European countries and typically involved outsiders imposing their language on the locals (e.g., Dutch on the Frisians, French on the Provencals, English on the Welsh). So its not as different as you claim.

                  Similarly, most Dutch speak English and German today, because they are a small country with a lot of trade. I don’t know how far back this multilingualism goes, but Holland has been a small country with a lot of trade for centuries, and I doubt they ran their empire solely in Dutch.

        • “Blancos”? Um, that means “targets” not persons of (northern) European descent, who are usually referred to here as “güeros”. To say indigenous persons cannot (or did not) adapt to “subsequent industrialization” overlooks that liberalism (in the 19th century sense of industrial development and political tolerance) was a Zapotec… Benito Juárez.

          The problem has not with being an indigenous language speaker, but with lack of education in states like Oaxaca (remember the teachers’ strikes there?). And, with a lack of decent text books in indigenous languages. Other than Nahuatl (now required in Federal District schools), there just aren’t texts for subjects like math, and computer science. Nor, even a decent Zapotec wikipecia.

      • “As far as I can tell from these and other posts, Loomis thinks there’s never anything to be learned from this type of analogy, because each situation is completely unique. I think that’s foolish.”

        No–the comparisons have to be relevant and historically grounded. Comparing Mexico to other colonized nations could be interesting. The Philippines for instance would be a fascinating comparison because it also deals with a multiplicity of languages in the interior.

        Sweden? Not so useful.

        • Lurker

          I believe that Eastern Europe is a good place for comparison. Unlike Sweden and Netherlands, almost all present-day Eastern European countries were, during their industrialization, part of larger empires, which used German, Hungarian or Russian as the language of administration. In this respect, comparing Oaxacans to, say, Estonians of the 19th century is relevant. In both cases, there is an agricultural nation which is being governed in another language.

          The process for creating nations started from elementary schooling in the native language. Gradually, the high-school level became available, typically as a result of long and intertwined bureacratic wrangling. Often, the first form of that was the ability to study the native language as a foreign language in a school that was otherwise conducted in the language of the empire.

          The creation of a middle class speaking the native language was the key to political change. (The actual requirement for the creation of the Eastern European countries was the destruction of German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires in the WWI.) It was the middle-class-lead private demand for native-language newspapers, literature and education that lead to the formation of the native political class.

          As long as the only route to personal advancemnet requires complete change of language, it is impossible for the native group to mount any kind of succesful political action. Politics, as any product, requires consumers willing to buy it. This means a well-off middle class.

  • John

    Oh what the heck. I’ll bite.

    “So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty,” is Yglesias essentially saying that “cultural preservation” has no value?

    (emphasis mine) Is he saying that? Obviously not.

    In any case, I don’t think you can make these overarching statements like Yglesias does here I mistakenly attribute to Yglesias because I like to burn strawmen.

    • Marc

      Do you work for him?

      Jesus, Yglesias has a long tradition of writing posts which amount to “I don’t value , so I see no reason why it should exist.

      He’s the ultimate lazy blogger, of the kind who can’t even be bothered to Google a subject before he writes about it.

      Sometimes his intuition is useful, sometimes not, but he’s always uninformed regardless of topic.

      • Marc

        Apparently items in brackets just don’t show up; that should be “I don’t value this thing, so I see no reason why it should exist.”

        • gimmeliberty

          So if I can put words in your mouth, your point is, “Yglesias didn’t say it this time, but he says it often about other non-related things and so I’ll just stick it onto the end of his argument and now doesn’t he look silly for making this statement that he didn’t actually say?”

          Yeah… silly.

      • John

        Yglesias has a long tradition of writing posts which amount to “I don’t value , so I see no reason why it should exist.

        Citation needed.

        • dangermouse

          No it isn’t.

        • DocAmazing

          Citation for long tradition?
          Precision trolling!

          • Holden Pattern

            My personal favorite of the genre a while back was when someone demanded to see proof that “senior citizens on fixed incomes can’t afford their property taxes when the value of their property goes up radically” was a significant argument used for Proposition 13 and similar laws. They were asserting that argument was not important, that people didn’t really make it.

          • Harry.The.Hat…

            Precision trolling!

            Translation:”He’s not agreeing with me!”

    • DrDick

      is Yglesias essentially saying that “cultural preservation” has no value?

      It would appear that when it comes to non-European peoples, the answer is yes. Wonder if he feels the same way about Jewish culture and Yiddish or, likely in his case, Ladino?

      • Aaron

        [full-throated agreement! further insinuation of imperialism and cultural supremacism!]

      • gimmeliberty

        Jewish culture, Yiddish and Ladino are almost dead precisely because assimilating with the dominant culture led to greater economic opportunities and a higher standard of living. You may be shocked to learn this, but your local reform JCC is not traditional Jewish culture. There were no JCCs in Polish shtetls. What we have done well is adapt our culture so that it takes on a new form consistent with capitalism, assimilation, and higher living standards. I for one am glad my great-grandparents left the shtetl in search of a better life, and found it, even though I don’t speak Yiddish except for the really funny words.

  • Aaron


  • The Mixteca situation is not without precedence or even reasonable modern analogy. Alaska is still home to many indigenous linguistic groups. The varying degrees of success in cultural preservation seem mainly due to geographic isolation – and difficult living conditions. On St. Lawrence Island (basically island Siberia, the SLI Yupik people still have a strong linguistic base and cultural tradition; the tribes that live in the fecund and delightful Inside Passage speak English almost exclusively and have a cultural tradition maintained by expert practitioner/artists, often funded by government grants. Even the SLI Yupik, however, are moving away from their traditional lifestyle, and most of the younger people speak English. And who can blame them? Digging for fossilized ivory (not traditional but a major economic activity for the SLI Yupik) and stripping seaweed is honorable work, but not everyone wants to do that. Or live there. Villages all over Alaska are dying as the young people move away for economic or cultural opportunity.

    You can’t have both cultural isolation and a modern economy/lifestyle. And that’s ok! But we have models for various ways that indigenous cultures can engage with the modern world – and to claim that only an expert on the Mixteca or Mexico could possibly have thoughts on the subject is a little silly.

    Ugh, did I just defend Yglesias? How did that happen?

    • DrDick

      The situation in the US and Canada are directly comparable and the outcome has been the same. The indigenous peoples are not allowed to enjoy the benefits of the modern economy without the destruction of their cultures. Again, it is all about who controls the process of incorporation into the capitalist world economy. Those who control the process get to keep their cultures, those who do not are required to sacrifice them or live in poverty.

      • That’s the thing, though: Yglesias’s point about poverty being an indigenous tradition is, while somewhat inartfully phrased, not really wrong. The traditional lifestyle is without modern accoutrements: without all the trappings of what we consider not-poverty. You can’t both valorize a traditional hunter/agricultural lifestyle and also consider it poverty/negative/a thing to be avoided.

        • DrDick

          It is also wrong in terms of the peoples of Oaxaca, who historically were quite wealthy and powerful prior to the Spanish Conquest (even by the standards of the Spaniards of the time). Their poverty is completely an artifact of the Spanish conquest and subsequent marginalization and impoverishment of the Indians. Many of the Indians in the United States were also relatively prosperous and healthier than their European counterparts at the time of the conquests here. By choosing traditionally hunter-gatherer groups in a largely marginal and difficult environment, you are stacking the deck in Yglesias’s favor.

          • Ed Marshall

            The Aztec Empire had stolen everything (including half the Mixteca) by the time the Spanish Empire found them.

            • DrDick

              The Aztecs never conquered the Zapotecs, nor most of the Mixtecs. Even if they had, the Aztecs left the people in control of most of their resources and they would still have been as or more prosperous than the average European of the time.

              • Ed Marshall

                Being the kind of idiot who will troll Jstor over silly, historical questions (I just threw that out there, it isn’t really important if the Aztecs robbed them before the Conquistadors), I find academic arguments about how *much* the Aztecs were able to conquer them. Arcane debates about what it means that their calendar was reset to the Aztec, but moved 12 years. Aztecs recorded the conquer of certain Mixtec cities, but there is some lack of physical archaeological corroboration (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how difficult it is to find that sort of evidence).

                • DrDick

                  As you say, it really is not relevant, as the Aztecs were not nearly as efficient at despoiling their conquests as the Spanish were. I read and took a number of classes on MesoAmerica in graduate school, but that has been more than 20 years ago.

          • Aaron

            There’s a fallacy of equivocation here: when you say “the pre-Colombian people in Oaxaca were wealthy” what you mean is they had developed a wealthy civilization, with industry, natural resources, large armies, etc. But the vast majority of the people propping that civilization up were engaged in subsistence agriculture, which we would today call “impoverished.”

            Now, I’m not prepared to say “pre-Colombian Oaxacans” were anything in particular; I’m not even nearly an expert on the subject. But your objection doesn’t hold water.

            • DrDick

              They were absolutely no different from the Europeans in this regard, so I do not see your point.

              • Ed Marshall

                That wasn’t what I learned in a Mesoamerican history class, and I’d like to see something better than a wikipedia map say otherwise.

                • Ed Marshall

                  shit, hit reply in the wrong place, sorry.

                • DrDick

                  I suggest you read Whitecotton’s The Zapotec. FWIW, he was one of my professors.

                • hv

                  If you don’t like the info in Wikipedia, it is easier to amend it than disparage it.

              • Aaron

                Sorry, here’s the takeaway of that poorly-formatted post. My point was that the assertion that Oaxacan peasant farmers are representatives of a “culture of poverty” (however inartful I think that phrase is at conveying what I think MY means here) is not inconsistent with the claim that pre-Colombian Oaxaca was a wealthy society. Instead, current peasant farmers are representatives of the culture traditions of past Oaxacan peasant farmers. They’re living the way their ancestors lived because the government-military-state-religious apparatus that actually possessed the wealth of Oaxaca (however vast or meager it may have been) was violently overthrown by Europeans.

                • DrDick

                  Again, they are actually more impoverished now, for a variety of historical reasons I have articulated below. At the same time, by choice, they practice a cultural tradition and speak a language which is in a direct line of descent from their pre-Hispanic ancestors, but which is not the same as that pre-Columbian past. The available historical and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the lot of peasants in the MesoAmerican empire states was better than that of either European peasants or of the current indigenous peoples. Again, the Spanish conquest and their forced incorporation into the capitalist world system, as well as appropriation of their lands and resources by the Spanish, left them with few choices about what to save from the past and even less about what to accept from modernity.

          • Well, no, marginal and difficult really doesn’t describe the rich environment of (non-arctic) Alaska, at least not in comparison to any other self-sustaining community. However, you’re not comparing traditional self-sustaining groups to other traditional self-sustaining groups; we’re talking about an indigenous people and modern industrial society. And if you look at traditional lifeways of indigenous peoples, you’re always going to find markers of what we consider poverty. Beating clothes with rocks instead of washing machines. Weaving baskets instead of picking up a set at Target. Lack of indoor plumbing.

            Then there are the questions of what is valuable, what is culture, etc etc.

            • DrDick

              By comparison to either southern Mexico or the eastern US, Alaska is a very marginal and difficult environment. That is a major reason the population has largely been small and widely dispersed. That is not to say that the peoples there did not do well, or even thrive in the case of the Tlingit or Aleut. My only point is that the environments I mentioned are much more abundant (even for hunter gatherers) and provided much more to the peoples who lived there before the arrival of the Europeans. At the time of the conquest of Mexico, the Zapotec were wealthy by European standards.

              • At the risk of sounding flippant, so what? Again, aren’t we comparing indigenous groups to modern industrialized society? Would the average pre-Columbian Zapoteca lifestyle be considered not-poverty today? I mean, the average European peasant lifestyle from the era would be considered horrendous poverty today. But we rarely bemoan the dreadful paucity of Anglo-Saxon women beating laundry against rocks.

                • DrDick

                  I think we are talking past each other here. At the time of the European conquests, the Zapotecs were at least as prosperous as the Europeans (FWIW, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was the largest and most spectacular city any of the Spaniards had ever seen. Indeed, it was larger than any city in Europe.) Likewise, the Indians of the Southeastern US (my own specialty) were more prosperous and healthier than the average European (European elites were wealthier). Reported crop yields for the Indians were also equal to those of the European colonists. By contrast, at no time since the Mesolithic would the Native peoples of Alaska have been considered as prosperous as the Europeans. Therefor, the current poverty of these groups is more marked and different than in the case of the Alaskan Natives. It is a question of unequal development and deliberate marginalization of the Indigenous peoples in Mexico and the lower 48.

              • Sorry to reply here, couldn’t reply below to your comment re: talking past each other.

                Which, I agree; I think we are! I will happily stipulate that you know more than I ever will about Indians of the Southeastern US (and likely several other related topics). So if you say that pre-Columbian Natives of the region were richer than Europeans, then they were; I love learning things! I just am confused as to where that applies to the comparison of indigenous groups and modern industrial society. My support of MY’s ‘traditional poverty’ thing was not in support of his language, but the concept that historical levels of convenience/education/medicine/etc are nothing like modern industrial levels. Again, the average Zapotec peasant has nothing like the conveniences and education of a Canadian wage-slave. Are you saying that the destruction of culture/imposition of poverty is already a done deal with the Mixtec and so we can’t talk about cultural protection/disappearance anymore? (That seems not a likely thing you’d say, I just don’t understand where we’re headed here.)

                • DrDick

                  I would not say SE Indians were richer than Europeans, but at least some MesoAmericans were. The point would be that, given that Yglesias is talking about Oaxaca (MesoAmerica), Alskan Natives make a poor comparison. Yes the average 16th century European peasant would live under the worst sort of third world conditions by today’s standards. On the other hand, given comparable levels of development in many areas (no real development of metalurgy in the Americas), there is no reason why MesoAmericans could not have achieved a level of development comparable to that of at least the modern Mexicans while retaining their own distinctive (though transformed, just as ours is) cultural traditions and languages, if they had been allowed to control the processes of modernization.

        • Aaron

          Well, I think you can do both, but to some extent you’re either forced to choose between the two, or forced to adapt these concepts so as to create something new under the sun.

          Which was pretty much Matt’s point.

          • Ok, I guess you can. It’s just not reasonable to do so. Also it feels very paternalistic, doesn’t it? “Oh, those poor Natives! We should make sure they can keep their culture, even though it’s kind of squalid.”

            • Aaron

              That’s the argument dynamic I always see played out, anyway.

              Globalization opponent: “You want to destroy this indigenous culture by forcing them to abandon their traditions, and sell themselves in service of capitalism!”

              Globalization advocate: “Well, YOU are ennobling suffering and scheming to keep them in poverty so as to maintain their ‘culture’ as a museum set-piece!”

              Third-world poor person: “Hey, kind of dying of malaria here. Could either of you help me out with that?… Hello?


              • Yes! Honestly, I don’t have a ton of patience for Rich Man’s Burden stuff, where we wring our hands because Natives buy shoes at a store instead of each individually brain-tanning leather and sewing mukluks. Modern conveniences are convenient! Of course some (many) indigenous peoples are interested in having them. Then there’s the problem of encouraging harmful practices by venerating/commidifying culture (see: The Karen in Thailand).

          • DrDick

            In theory you can do both, but indigenous peoples do not generally control the terms of their articulation with the world capitalist system and so have fewer options. The option to retain and modify their own culture while accepting and incorporating what they want from modernity (as the Japanese did) is not normally among their choices. Those choices are generally abandon your culture and perhaps prosper (though not on an equal footing with the dominant society) or keep your culture and remain in poverty created by the appropriation of your resources and your social marginalization by the dominant society. Which is largely the point that Erik and I have been trying to make and which contrasts strongly with MY’s rather facile formulation.

  • Julian F

    I’m confused.

    Your arguing that “there’s a middle ground, with possibilities of…overcoming entrenched poverty without completely giving up on cultural traditions.”

    Yglesias position is that “it’s actually quite possible for a country to become a part of the global economy while still retain[ing] a distinct language community.”

    What’s the difference?

    • asdfsdf

      I agree. Yglessias’ point was a bit muddled, so I think Erik disagreed with one part of it while simultaneously and unintentionally agreeing with the other. Perhaps the contrarianism was prompted by his annoyance at the non-attribution?

      I’m still not exactly sure what “poverty is part of their culture” means, exactly, but I also suspect that Yglessias would lose readers if his posts were longer and more in depth.

      • Aaron

        I took it as meaning something like “traditional cultural practices are bound up in a method of subsistence which creates what modern capitalism would label ‘poverty.'” An example would be “hand-weaving is a part of Oaxacan culture; hand-weaving is inefficient when manufactured goods of higher quality can be bought by wages derived from selling one’s labor; therefore inefficient hand-weaving traditions contribute to low levels of material wealth and consumption in Oaxaca, AKA ‘poverty.'”

        Now, I have no idea if this was what Yglesias meant, as he’s pretty vague here. But it makes a certain degree of sense, and is in keeping with what his general attitudes are about poverty and consumption. Principle of charity, and all that.

        • Aaron, you keep writing things I totally agree with, including “BLOGFITE”. Also you seem to be more succinct than me. I am outsourcing all my future comments to you. (Unless you feel that would be a terrible imposition on your native culture.)

          • Aaron

            Yes! Comparative advantage.

    • L2P

      The disagreement?

      Yglesias argues that the oaxacan’s culture, essentially, is based on “being poor.” In a nutshell, he argues that indigenous cultures are fated to be poor unless they westernize; thus, all they can keep is their “language community.”

      Erik (and most smarter people) think this isn’t true. The French, for example, didn’t have to give up all of their culture except for their language to compete in the global community.

      In any event, how are the Oaxacan’s supposed to keep their language AND compete in Matty’s stupid world? They need to learn Spanish, and integrate fully into Mexico, before they can even START to learn English or Chinese or something and integrate into the world market. In the next 25 years or more. How is their culture supposed to survive that? I can even spend an Yglesias-level of thinking on this to see it’s hip-deep in idiocy.

      But that’ typical of him. Free markets solves all problems. I hope the market hits him with a ton of bricks some day – like his whole industry disappears when he turns 40, and he spends the rest of his life working at Starbucks hoping to hell he gets to be an assistant manager.

      • Anderson

        The French, for example, didn’t have to give up all of their culture except for their language to compete in the global community.

        Poor example. The French didn’t start “poor,” and in fact 100 years ago a majority of the “French” in France didn’t speak French as their first language. French cultural imperialism began at home.

      • Malaclypse

        I hope the market hits him with a ton of bricks some day

        The whole point of a Harvard education is learning to avoid the consequences of the free market.

      • UserGoogol

        What do you mean the French didn’t have to give up their culture? Of course they did. Since the Industrial revolution, French culture has developed artistic styles and social norms that would utterly shock a Frenchman from a few centuries ago. The same holds of every economically developed country on the planet.

  • Bill

    So, I know this is really minor, but is it necessary for the unsupported link-stealing accusation at the beginning of this post? It comes across to me at least as petty and doesn’t add anything to the argument, except to make Eric seem like he has a chip on his shoulder. Or an inferiority complex.

    • Why not? Yglesias has acknowledged the error, in his inimitable fashion

      [UPDATE]: Apologies, I neglected a hat tip to Erik Loomis who’s decided to “disagree” with me in a very nasty way despite the fact that it’s not clear what we’re supposed to be disagreeing about here.

      • Bill

        Fair enough. Still does seem a rather juvenile opening to me, but then no one asked me

        • It was juvenile- and could have been handled more rhetorically artfully, but MY behaves this way quite a bit. In rare cases where he posts later in the week or day about previous screwups- he never acknowledges the 50 commenters who provided correction or important source material. Now that he has created a situation where people that comment there are so shrill and even nasty, he can play the tone card in argument, as he does with Loomis. See- Loomis was nasty in his post

    • tmv

      Seconded. Also, I’d rather read a polite, measured disagreement that wins by points instead of oh-my-wounded-ego sniping. But then nobody asked me, either. *Shrug*

  • Chris Dornan

    How to make something that is really quite simple somewht muddled and overly-complicated!

    (The suggestion at the top was very uncool, BTW.)

  • Lurker

    As a member of a minor, yet industrialised, language group, I’d like to chime in.

    We Finns became industrialised only in the late 19th century. At that time, the language of education, administration and commerce was Swedish. Most literature available in Finnish was spiritual. However, from the 1870’s onward, we had a rather large number of Finnish schools, with a consciuous effort by certain Finnish scholars and scientists to produce the technical, scholarly and scientific vocabulary necessary to use the Finnish language in non-agricultural or non-spiritual settings. During the next few generations, the Finnish-speakers were, little by little, able to take over the leading positions of the society and to make the Finnish language pre-dominant. However, all educated Finnish-speakers could speak Swedish extremely fluently, as that was one of the main subjects at school.

    One of the key points is the development of the language. You can’t become a part of the modern world, while preserving your own culture unless your language includes vocabulary necessary to discuss modern technology, society. law and commerce. Can you write a memo about ISO 9001 quality management in Oaxacan? If you can, you can also administrate your quality management in Oaxacan. And you can have Oaxacan as the internal working language of your company. However, if your language does not have the vocabulary, and the schools teaching that vocabulary to the children, you are bound to use anouther language which is a better tool for the problem.

    • HarryTheHat..


      Certainly all of this matters.

      The whine here is that impoverished people are at a disadvantage. However the things that keep them disadvantaged are the same things the liberals don’t want to change. Instead of asking everyone to be on ONE STANDARD for commerce, law, etc., they celebrate diversity and that includes language.

      And the same issues appear when discussing culture. Liberals cannot seem to bring themselves to state that some cultures simply do not serve their people well. “But it’s their culture and we must honor it.” is the response and instead of attacking the problem, they wish to do end runs to try to fix it by giving massive amounts of foreign aid. It’s the ignorance of the left that keeps these people poor.

      Diversity doesn’t promote economic cooperation and commerce.

      Only because the US leads does the world have a defacto language standard.

      • Lurker

        Here, I believe you have an internal contradiction. Is it not the US conservatives who wish to have multiple “laboratories of democracy” within the US, also known as “states’ rights”?

        In the US, “commerce, law etc.” are definitely not on a single standard. A Floridan attorney cannot argue in a New York court. And please don’t get me started on the US standards, which are simply out of line with the rest of the world. Why on earth can’t you use ISO/IEC and SI units as all other civilised peoples?

        Of course, you have to abandon certain areas of culture in order to industrialize. E.g. hand-weaving might be a great hobby or a method of producing luxury-products for the rich. As a method of everyday clothing fabrication, it is clearly outdated. However, this does not mean that one needs to accept the American or main-stream Mexican culture as a ready-made suit. Instead, one can have the local mass media and the law that reflects the local tastes, community values and the cultural traditions of one’s culture. In order to do this, you need to have native people speaking native language as engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, civil servants etc.

        • HarryTheHat..

          Pick a language, any language, but just have one. Expect ALL to learn and use it when doing business and interfacing with government.

          That is not too much to ask and it would solve a whole lot of these problems.

          • MAJeff


            • Harry.The.Hat…


              Good to see you again. How’s the husband?

      • DocAmazing

        Apologies for troll-feeding, but this is too rich to pass up. This dipshit is crediting the US with standardizing world trade through the use of the English language. Pop quiz, hotshot: which country has yet to adopt the metric system, forcing all nations that export to it to utilize nonstandard and weird measurements like “inches” and “ounces”? Travel to any other country and enjoy the use of a logical, decimal-based set of weights and measures, then come back and tell me how may pounds are in a hundredweight or how many inches in a mile.

        Any other bright ideas, Mr. Hat?

        • Malaclypse

          which country has yet to adopt the metric system

          That French system of measurement?

        • HarryTheHat..

          …which country has yet to adopt the metric system, forcing all nations that export to it to utilize nonstandard and weird measurements like “inches” and “ounces”?

          We (US), call the shots. They manufacture what *we* want and when we want metric, I guess we’ll have metric measurements. We set the standard (if they wish to enter our markets).

          And what DocDisappointing doesn’t mention is Microsoft and how they standardized the computer market with their operating system and office applications allowing business to utilize and communicate more effectively.

          • Lurker

            This is a little bit too simplistic. First of all, importing manufactured goods is not a winning proposition in the modern world. You manufacture in imperial units, the world buys metric, outside your immediate sphere of influence. You use IEEE standards, the world: the IEC. You use ANSI, the rest of the world: ISO. Yes, you will get products tailored to your needs but at what cost to your own economy?

            Another, much larger problem lies in the fact that the use of imperial units makes science education much harder. In the rest of the world, a pupil knows meters and kilograms intimately from his own experience. Going to SI units (1 J = 1 kgm^2/s^2) is much easier than jumping from the imperial units to the SI (or, if you wish to be antiquated in another typically American way, to cgms system) is much harder. Then, after learning the SI units, the American engineering student goes on to learn the imperial or semi-imperial units of his chosen field: btu/s, psi, acrefoot/hour, mg/mi.

            • HarryTheHat..

              Then, after learning the SI units, the American engineering student goes on to learn the imperial or semi-imperial units of his chosen field: btu/s, psi, acrefoot/hour, mg/mi.

              I;m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m describing how and why things are the way they are.

              The original whine was “Well, why have all the different states’ democracy experiments, then.” and the answer is simply because of the inherent nature of large governments to be corrupt, not to mention inefficient,…who needs or wants a strong centralized government?

        • hv

          Well, was it worth it, DocAmazing?

    • DrDick

      I would point out that, given the opportunity to do so, all languages evolve to deal with new situations and contexts. It really is not that difficult for them and the indigenous languages I am familiar with all have the vocabulary to talk about the modern world. I have listened to long conversations about auto repair, for instance, in Cherokee and Muskogee.

      • Lurker

        I agree with you. However, while the language adapts naturally, the pace of adaptation can be quickened considerably if new vocabulary is consciously created by the educated native elite. It is not enough to be able to discuss car repair. You need to be able to talk about the most technical subjects: mathematical sub-fields, medical specialties, etc.

        The professionals who know the vocabulary of such areas are (naturally) fluent in several languages as a result of their education. Their higher education has probably taken place in a major language. They must make a conscious decision to speak and write about their field in their native language. Such choice is personally irrational; the professional knows also major languages with a ready vocabulary. To use native language in professional communication requires innovation and a much greater effort. Such decision can only be based on patriotism.

  • kate

    After reading the original post and the comments, I don’t have much to add except a recommendation of the following works that all touch on many of the points made in the comments:

    1. Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California and Oregon, anthropologist Lynn Stephen

    2. Zapotec Women: Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca, by Lynn Stephen

    3. The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Nudzahui History, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries, historian Kevin Terraciano

    4. Politics, Identity, and Mexico’s Indigenous Rights Movements, political scientist Todd A. Eisenstadt

    • Lara

      These are great suggestions – I’d add The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma, by Angus Wright. It was first published in 1990, before NAFTA, but it has a lot of very smart things to say about how the economy of the Mixteca has been upended by industrialized global agriculture. Possibly relevant to the discussions above, Wright also mentions that in some cases, “the migration experience intensifies community and cultural values as well as attenuating them. Mixtecs are putting money back into their villages, not only in the form of private economic investments…but also in public improvements specifically intended to express a sense of gratitude and concern for the community” (pp. 107-8).

      • The Wright book is very good and one that I have used in my courses.

  • Walt

    Erik, you need to stay away from reading Yglesias. You build up a towering rage over totally innocuous posts. Yglesias writes lots of flame-worthy posts, but this isn’t one of them. The post restates the same point you made earlier in the week about the conflict between traditional culture and modernity (admittedly, you put it better), and then concluded on the vaguely optimistic note that countries with small language communities have successfully preserved their language.

    You seem enraged because his point is simplistic, but all of his points are simplistic, so unless you’re going to bore us to death with telling us why every single post of his is simplistic, it’s a waste of time to write posts like this until he makes a simplistic point in the service of evil (which he does from time to time).

    Not everyone can be an expert on everything (and Yglesias may actually be an expert on nothing), so unless you’re going to only blog on stuff that you’re an expert on — in which case you better delete that post you made about radiation from Fukushima the other day — the fact that a banal post doesn’t fully capture the complexities is just not worthy of the vitriol.

  • Yglesias is also a longtime member of the “Can’t Nelson Mandela fix it?” school of thought when it comes to any current issue in sub-Saharan Africa, so his not understanding cultural preservation is not very surprising.

  • dan

    I am so tired of this kind of half-baked colonialism baiting. Implying that under the Totonac everything was fine and no one was poor is laughable. Yes, colonial intervention opened up a huge crisis in Latin America, but it did not wipe out a particularly idyllic, peaceful, just, or fair way of life.

  • HarryTheHat..

    I’ve been to the state of Oaxaca many times as well as most all of the other states.

    Most that run their mouths have little experience with anything south of the border. They just like to sit in their ivory towers and flap their gums…as if they mattered.

    • hv

      DNFTT. :)

  • Been my experience that people from small linguistic groups, especially those in areas with several languages speak and understand several languages. It’s only in monocultures that you get people who are linguistically stunted.