Tag Archives: books

Will I be pretty, will I be rich?

The program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, […] set up two years before the Final Solution: Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas’ others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate.

Questioned after the war, each one of those people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors.

The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job — and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty?

[…] Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair.

That’s from Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones‘.

Reading the novel’s first few pages (all of the above appears before, like, page 10. This book is Not. Fucking. Around.), I keep wondering if the post-WWII generation is the first in history to live with this understanding, that they might have acted monstrously if they were born in different circumstances.

I don’t know how previous generations and civilizations looked upon their history, but I doubt it was with as much guilt and apology as we do. From colonialism to slavery to segregation to 1980s shoulderpads, everything I’ve learned about history combines to form a sort of collective cringe.

I wonder if this began with the struggle to teach Nazism to the people who had survived it, fought against it, participated in it. When I learned about Hitler’s Germany, it was always with an acknowledgement that it could have been me on either end of the rifle or the gas chamber. I was asked to empathize not only with the victims, but with the perpetrators, in a way I wasn’t with other historical episodes.

Maybe it’s because the history is so proximate. Maybe it’s because the people committing the crimes, and dying of them, look like our friends, dress like our grandparents, write and talk like our movies. Maybe it’s because a whole society was at fault. Maybe you learn about the moral capsize of an entire civilization, and you just naturally put yourself inside it. 

I have no idea if this is genuinely new to the time or place in which I grew up. I don’t know if French schoolchildren in the early 1900s were asked to imagine themselves committing atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know if Spanish kids were told that it might have been them branding apostates during the Inquisition.

But I’m glad to be reading Littell, I’m glad we look at our histories this way. Honesty beats triumphalism, I hope. I wonder how it changes the way we think. I don’t know if it makes us guilty, but I certainly hope it makes us careful.

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Filed under Berlin, Books, Germany, Serious

White People Suck, 1866 Edition

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So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.

It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.

You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.

Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.

Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.

Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.

According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?

The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:

By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]

The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.

Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.

According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.

What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.

As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.

The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.

[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.

I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.

Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.

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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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The ’50s were terrible

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I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)

The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.

It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).

This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.

The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

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The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.

This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.

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The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.

More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighbourhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.

‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.

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Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege. 

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‘To return to her before she died–that would be the last thing ever required of him’

Two days after I stayed up late finishing Joshua Ferris's 'The Unnamed, I was surprised to see that it's been so widely panned in reviews.

I always feel humbled and tasteless when this happens, like I've been loudly wrong about some commonly known fact. Where I thought the book's desultory structure mirrored real life, the reviewers found it circular and out-petering. Where I thought the lack of scenic Oprah-scriptions was refreshing, the reviewers found it pedestrian.

But it was really good, honest! I think if it has a flaw, it's that it's not about anything larger than itself. The core plotline, a man being stricken by a disease that forces him to walk uncontrollably for hours on end, doesn't appear to be a metaphor for anything larger. The book doesn't say or reveal anything in particular. It's a straight line drawn from the premise to a logical end point. It pretty much asks, What would happen if this happened? and then proceeds to do so.

But that's not a bad thing, necessarily. It was realistic, and moving, and funny, and a nice way to spend the last few nights in soupy Copenhagen. Or at least I thought it was until I read the reviews.

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It’s rare to read a book that you hope will be turned into a movie

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Last week I finished 'Alone in Berlin', a novel written by Hans Fallada, a German dude, in 1947, right after WWII. It's vaguely based on a true story about a Fredreichshain couple who wrote anti-Nazi postcards and left them in hundreds of Berlin stairwells for years before being caught and executed in 1942.

I've been reading mostly nonfiction lately (much of it about WWII), and I had forgotten about the irreplacable function of fiction to answer the question 'What was it like?' The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich might put notches on the timeline, but it takes fiction to really walk you through the daily compromises of life under the Nazis.

The terror of the people who find the postcards is especially palpable. They risked death just by finding an anti-Nazi message in their building. If they leave the card there for someone else to find, they might be accused of distributing the postcards. But if they take it with them, they could be accused of writing it. It's a moral dilemma for a world without any morals.

The postcard-distribution scheme didn't come to anything, of course, either in real life or in the novel. It didn't galvanize Germans to rise up against their shitty leaders, or open up their eyes to the injustice of their regime. Almost all the postcards were immediately reported to the police and confiscated (after their discoverers were interrogated, of course), and the German couple who devised the scheme were executed without fanfare.

In the book, the protagonist confronts his show-trial defense lawyer:

But the lawyer didn't leave, and after a long pause he said, 'Can I ask you what made you do it?'
'Do what?' asks Quangel [the postcard writer] cooly, without looking at the elegant lawyer.
'Write those postcards. They didn't accomplish anything, and now they'll cost you your life.'
'Because I'm stupid. Because I didn't have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it. That's why!'
'And don't you regret it? Aren't you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?'
Quanget cast a sharp glare at the lawyer, his proud, old, tough bird-glare. 'At least I stayed decent,' he said. 'I didn't participate.'
The lawyer took a long look at the man sitting there in silence. Then he said, 'I have to say, I think my colleague who defended your wife was right: You are both mad.'
'Do you think it's mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?'
'You didn't need the postcards for that'
'That would have been a kind of tacit agreement. What was your price for turning into such a fine gentleman, trousersand polished fingernails and deceitful concluding speeches? What did you have to pay?'
The lawyer said nothing.
'You see!' said Quangel. 'And you will continue to pay more and more, and maybe one day, like me, you will pay with your life, but you will have done it for your indecency!'

This is the central point of the book: That it wasn't only the decent who were persecuted, but also those who were insufficiently indecent. The cop investigating the postcard case is sent to prison for not solving the case quickly enough. Prison guards are fired for showing tiny clemency to the prisoners. You can see how, on a societal level, as soon as you roll this particular snowball down the hill, it becomes an avalanche.

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‘There isn’t an evolutionary explanation for why humans stick together after children are raised.’

Here's a cool interview about the state of marriage.

The author points out that, like pretty much everything else in the conventional-wisdom canon, the 50 percent divorce rate is a myth:

It has to do with how you look at the statistic. If the variables were constant, then a simple equation might work to come up with the divorce rate. But a lot of things are changing. And it is true that there are groups of people who have a 50 percent divorce rate: college dropouts who marry under the age of 25, for example. Couples married in the 1970s have a 30-year divorce rate of about 47 percent. A person who got married in the 1970s had a completely different upbringing and experience in life from someone who got married in the 1990s. It's been very clear that divorce rates peaked in the 1970s and has been going down ever since.

[…] There's the built-in incentive to identify crises. If you're a researcher you can study them; if you're an advocacy group you can get funding and support.

That last bit is really the heart of the problem. We see this in human rights circles all the time, researchers and advocates inflating their numbers to make it seem like 'their' issue is the real ticking time bomb in Africa or wherever.

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‘The plain truth about Sarah Palin’s autobiography—it is ridiculous and it is awful’

Once you get past the exhilaration of the rusty-bladed disemboweling of one of America's most loathsome polititainment figures, you realize that this is actually a really interesting review:

Something has happened to American culture that is even more worrying than a loss of literary discernment, and that is a loss of irritation with the sound of clichés.

and later:

The healthy desire for one’s leaders to empathise with ordinary people has been conflated with the desire for a leader who is an ordinary person.

 

What's really interesting is that the reviewer, before going all 'Finish him!' on Palin, feels the need to state:

I have no quarrel with the values Palin claims to hold dear. I am all for fiscal conservatism, hawkish defence, free markets, tax cuts and patriotism. God knows I am in favour of God. 

My objection is otherwise. The book is artless; it is juvenile; it is dull; it is vulgar; and it is above all phony. It does not seduce; it is not a guilty pleasure; it does not succeed in conveying universal experiences or emotions; it does not elevate. No character in it comes alive. Indeed it is so awful that it is almost impossible to find a single sentence in it that is not awful. […] It is neither trivial nor elitist to point this out.

You wonder how much criticism of ignorance doesn't get written or said because the author is afraid of being accused of snobbery.

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I love countries with a surplus of used bookstores

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Yesterday I bought a collection of Bernard Shaw one-act plays (fuck Dan Brown, plays are the best things to read on airplanes) and something called 'The Jewish Century'. Together they cost 8 Aus-bucks.

The Jewish Century starts out like this:

Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds. It is about pursuing wealth for the sake of learning, learning for the sake of wealth, and both wealth and learning for their own sake It is about transforming peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige, and dismantling social estates for the benefits of individuals, nuclear families and book-reading tribes (nations). Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish.

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The Jewish part I'm not so sure about, or at least I haven't read up to the author's justification of it, but the rest of that is a great description of the social history of this century. Eight Aussie bucks, man.

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