Tag Archives: history

The Changing Nature of Conflict

Buried  in a stack of boring institutional documents, I came across some paragraphs that could have been printed in The Economist:

The nature of conflicts has changed markedly in the late part of the twentieth century. The state-against-state model is becoming the exception: of the 56 major armed conflicts registered in the decade 1990-20005, only three were of an interstate nature; all others were internal conflicts, even though in 14 of them foreign troops were engaged on one or the other side. Moreover, while the first half of the century was dominated by warfare between rich states, most contemporary conflicts take place overwhelmingly in the world’s poorer countries, with Africa and Asia accounting for the greatest number of internal conflicts in the past decade.

Civil wars and conflicts are indeed a major cause of development failure in the developing world, a point that is increasingly being emphasised by aid donors and international agencies. Easily tradable natural resources -particularly minerals- can be used to finance warring parties, instead of nurturing development, and “development efforts are not only halted or damaged, but actively targeted and undermined”.

Technology has always been used to renovate and diversify the array of weapons and other means of violence used in conflicts. Arms-rich conflict areas and state disruption fuel the dissemination of weapons of all kinds, and the deadly violence of conflicts appears to have escalated with technology. However, the spread of small arms is also having devastating effects in disputes over land and pastoral issues, even within countries that are not considered to be in conflict.

[...]

Internal conflicts, be they of an ethnic or revolutionary nature, or associated with a failure of the state or disruptive changes in regime, emerge where politically organized groups, national, ethnic or other minorities, or warlords and other violent elements in society, rebel against governments, often also fighting among themselves. This pattern of conflict makes it increasingly difficult to identify who are the protagonists, and which are the lines of authority through which to seek to mediate and put an end to the conflict.

In this new environment it becomes difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Combatants are no longer uniformed soldiers under state control. Nor are the combatants the main victims of conflicts: peaceful citizens -women, children, and the elderly- become the major target (possibly 90% of the victims) of the warring parties.

In addition to those killed or wounded, up-rooted populations run to millions – about 22 million in 150 countries by the end of 2001, including refugees and asylum seekers outside their home country, as well as returnees and others.

The international mechanisms that had been developed to control, prevent and resolve conflicts were created to deal with the conventional state-state model of conflict: they have great difficulties in adjusting to the new patterns of collective violence, which mostly takes place within a sovereign territory, with the responsibility of the government being sometimes unclear. At the same time, however, many of the current conflicts have significant regional and international dimensions and implications. Even though the’zone of turmoil’ is largely located in developing countries, the industrialized ones are not entirely insulated.

The distinction between intra-state and inter-state wars is therefore no longer straightforward. Most wars occurring within a single state tend to transcend its boundaries – affecting neighbouring countries, or with some external or transnational parties located far away from the site of the struggle. Negative spillovers to neighbouring nations result from collateral damage from nearby battles, severance of input supply lines, disruptions to trade, heightened risk perceptions by would-be investors, and resources spent to assist refugees.

In most cases, people flee across immediate borders, sometimes destabilizing entire regions, leading to further conflict and more refugees. Accelerated flows of refugees and asylum seekers, escalating costs of international or regional peace-restoration and maintenance efforts, international terrorism and destabilisation of the global economy affect all nations, rich or poor, close to or far away from the war scene. 

As Tyler Cowen would say, ‘interesting throughout!’

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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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Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

In the middle of Snowden’s course on epidemics is this phenomenal one-off about the Tuskegee experiment. Here’s three things I didn’t know:

1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis

Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. [...]

In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.

Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.

2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects

This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.

Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. [...]

In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. [...]

Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.

3. This study was not a secret

There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?

In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.

In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.

I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.

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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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Newspapers Are Terrible

This week I’m reading Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism’. I should have known better than to read anything with the author’s giant face displayed on the cover, but here we are.

News is a relatively recent, made-up human commodity. It is designed, copied and passed on in a tradition that goes back only a few hundred years. Almost all reporters are imprinted after a while with the sense of how news stories read, but they didn’t get this from their DNA. There may be inquisitive and persistent people, but there are no ‘born reporters’.

Charles Reiss, former political editor of the London Evening Standard, told me he was struck how, sitting at the back of some interminable, tedious committee of MPs he and rival hacks suddenly found their pens moving across their notepads, all at the same time. Barely conscious of why they were doing so, they had restarted a shorthand note of what someone was saying. Why? Years of listening to political language and being able to spot the unexpected nuance.

This is one of the unremarked-upon structural weaknesses of our current media landscape. Have you ever read a speech, watched a debate or seen an event in full, before it was chopped up, interpreted and re-packaged as news? Your impressions about what is notable about it are inevitably different than the groupthinky interpretations of the press corps.

Try watching a presidential debate this year without watching CNN or reading the newspaper afterwards. For you, a citizen, the news will be the things the candidates said that will impact your life. Higher taxes, fewer buses, a war with a faroff country in which a relative or friend might participate. To the journalists watching, news is simply where a candidate deviated from the script. Marr’s journalists aren’t furiously writing legislative changes in their notebooks, they’re counting gaffes.

Here’s where Marr completely misses the point of his own book:

Because of its problems, one could simply try to opt out of the news culture. I know people who barely read a paper and who think most broadcast news is mindless nonsense. I think, however, they are wrong. They might go through their weekly round, taking kids to school, shipping, praying, doing some voluntary work, phoning elderly relatives, and do more good than harm as they go. But they have disconnected themselves from the wider world. Rather like secular monks, they have cloistered themselves in the local. And this is not good enough. We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a tiny part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.

Notice how he never answers the question of whether newspapers, as they currently exist, are the shimmering informers of democracy that they could be. It’s objectively the case that a populace needs accurate information to vote and participate in a true democracy. But the media landscape that we have fails consistently to provide us with the information and tools we need.

Check out Marr’s own example of how newspapers distort the news:

Take the great British paedophilia panic. The number of child sex murders in Britain carried out by a stranger is roughly static, about five to seven a year. The number of convictions or cautions for sex crimes involving children has fallen in recent years. An exhaustive study of the statistics on the abuse of children reveals only that we have no knowledge at all of how widespread it is: ‘The number of children sexually abused each year in England and Wales lies somewhere between 3,500 and 72,600. In other words, a detailed analysis of the statistics produces such a wide margin of possible error that no published figures can provide the basis for reliable assumptions, let alone sensible policy-making.’

Yet the number of stories about pedophiles has rocketed since the mind-1990s, particularly in the tabloid press. The effect has been enormous, not only on the government legislation on sex crimes, and onl the treatment (or lack of it) for pedophiles, but onl the way families live their lives–How much children are allowed out by themselves, how worried parents are about the internet, how suspicious society in general has become about men who work as Scout leaders, in youth groups, for swimming clubs and so on.

In other words, our chimpanzee brains like to be fed grisly anecdotes in which children are kidnapped and murdered. If there aren’t enough real ones to go around, we’ll settle for panic about ones that have already happened.

Apply this principle across all of the challenges we as a polity confront—economics, crime, abortion, hunger games, global warming—and you have a severe distortion of what’s actually happening ‘out there’ and what we think is happening. The institutions we’ve entrusted to inform us have ceased interpreting their mandate beyond entertaining us.

Journalists like Marr will always tell you that journalism is the first draft of history. Unfortunately, the journalists we’ve got never pause to write a second one.

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Stuff I Didn’t Know About the Great Depression

Last week I read Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. It describes the leadup to the Great Depression through the directors of the U.S., British, German and French central banks. It begins with the debate over World War I reparations and follows all the interest rate hikes, speculation orgies and gold standardizing that led the world to the stock market crash in 1929.

The main thing I didn’t know about the 1920s was that pretty much everyone saw the stock market crash coming:

One is led to the inescapable but unsatisfying conclusion that the bull market of 1929 was so violent and intense and driven by passions so strong that the Fed could do nothing about it. Every official had tried to talk it down. The president was against it, Congress too; even the normally reticent secretary of the treasury had spoken out. But it was remarkable how difficult it was to kill it. All that the Fed could do, it seemed, was to step aside and let the frenzy burn itself out. By trying to stand up to the market and then failing, it simply made itself look as impotent as everybody else.

Another thing I didn’t know was that amateur stock market speculation was basically an American phenomenon:

Though the size of the British stock market was comparable as a percentage of GDP to that in the United States ,the average British person preferred to bet on sports and left the stock market to the City bigwigs, while in France and Germany the size ofthe stock markets was tiny. Thus the crash did not exert the same hold on the psychology of European consumers and investors, and the effect on their economies was correspondingly less traumatic. 

Someone needs to write the history of sports betting in Britain. I literally cannot fathom a more useless way to spend one’s time.

In the 1920s, all the major economies were pegged to the gold standard, and the supply of gold was crucial for the health of their exchange rates. As usual, I was much less interested in the economics than the logistics:

Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy–a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton–that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to ‘earmarking’ the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simple re-registering its ownership.

Thus the decline in Britain’s gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank.

It’s a 564-page book, and I took away three factoids. Sounds about right.

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My Years With General Motors: A Roadmap to an Obsolete Destination

I forget why, but last week I read My Years With General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan, the guy generally credited with taking GM from the 1920s hodgepodge of bickering car companies to the 1950s unified, profitable Godzilla we know, love and bankrupted.

My Years With GM was published in 1963, three years before American auto sales began their steady decline. Sloan was CEO from 1923-1956, so the book deals mainly with the string of wins the auto industry racked up between WWI ending and the Greatest Generation moving to the suburbs.

The book is apparently considered a classic, and it’s fascinating not only for its sober principles of corporate governance, but for how much of a fucking dinosaur it is. The world has profoundly changed since people like Sloan ran it, and there’s no better embodiment of this change than a 50-year-old book describing a 90-year-old company.

It’s not just what it’s about, but how its about it. Here’s all the reasons Sloan’s book would never get published today:

  • It’s written for adults. Today’s business books are required to be punchy, simple and interrupted by headlines and graphics every 13 words so businessmen can read them on airplanes. Getting to Yes, as much as I enjoyed it, has the grammatical intricacy of IKEA instructions.
  • It’s long. My Years With General Motors is a positively literary 522 pages. It’s full of intra-company memos printed in their entirety, and contains precisely two charts, both of which contain financial info printed at squinty font size. Even the fucking title is a warning that Sloan is not going to make this easy for you.
  • It’s not about the author. Sloan spends precisely half a paragraph on his biographical details on page 19, and never mentions himself again. He doesn’t write about his wife or his hobbies or his hometown. He never uses childhood anecdotes to illustrate his management style. No sentence begins with ‘like my dad always told me…’ or some such. This book is free of folk wisdom. Most modern business gurus put their own narrative at the center of their business success, and it’s jarring to read an entire book that never breaks character.
  • It glorifies profits. Sloan is famous for coining the phrase ‘the business of business is business’, and you get the feeling that if he had to sum up his life’s achievement in two words, he would say ‘shareholder value.’ Much of the book deals with Sloan’s dedication to making return on investment the sole criterion for which GM projects were developed and assessed. Considerations like community development, environmental sustainability and GM’s role in relation to the obligations of government are literally never mentioned.
  • It doesn’t give a shit about employees. Part of Sloan’s sniper-like focus on profits is also reflected in his evident lack of interest in substantively addressing the aspects of management that deal with the human species. The only individuals mentioned by name in his book are executives, and issues like unions, wages and working conditions are described exclusively as macro issues to be calculated on the basis of costs, never categories that contain actual people.
  • It contains no recommendations. Sloan describes his experiences at the company like he’s writing a police report. He never generalizes, he never uses the second person and the words ‘how to’ do not appear in that order for the duration. Sloan just describes what he did at GM. If there are any lessons, it’s up to you to find and apply them.

I don’t know if  executives are more enlightened nowadays or if they’re just better at faking it, but at least the business community gestures at the fact that companies are made up of people, and that they impact their consumers, communities and host governments.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Sloan’s book is that I totally fucking loved it. I started it not expecting to finish, but there’s something about Sloan’s peculiar mix of Don Draper and Harry Truman that made me want his monologue never to end. I never quite agreed with his worldview, but at least I got a tour of it while it lasted.

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Don’t mistake politeness for acceptance

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I'm reading Edmund White's 'States of Desire: Travels in Gay America', which I found in a bookstore outside of Sydney for $2. It was written in 1980, the final year of un-ballasted gay hedonism. It opens with a passage about L.A.:

The almost Oriental politeness of the West Coast is one of its distinctive regional features, in marked contrast to the contentiousness of the East Coast. On e may grumble at a television performer out West but never at someone appearing 'live'. So few human contacts in Los Angeles go unmediated by glass (either a TV screen or an automobile windshield), that the direct confrontation renders the participants docile, stunned, sweet.
[...]
The polite friendliness of Californians is an ambiguous quality. Within the first ten minutes a visitor is showered with affection and familiarity, but that may be as close as one is ever likely to get to someone out West. This openhanded but superficial civility, linked to an obdurate and profound reticence, is precisely the granite wedge that all those hostile forms of California therapy are trying to dynamite. There is, however, a great public if not personal benefit to be derived from uniform good manners. People are able to cooperate. They can accomplish things.

This reminds me of Seattle, how everyone you meet is instantly welcoming and impressed with you, but that's as far as you ever get. Denmark has poured some bitter black coffee into the sweet cream of my West Coast superficio-ductions, but I still catch myself doing this.

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I also liked this part about a New York acquaintance moving out to LA.

His tenement pallor is giving way to a tan. His monologue pauses occasionally now for reflection or even for listening, and he has discovered in California that politeness I have mentioned, which he mistakes for acceptance.

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I'm only on page fucking 21, and I can't stop quoting this thing:

'The real problem here,' [He's now quoting a gay psychotherapist in LA] 'is that smart people don't know each other. In a large nomadic population such as the gay group in this city, the rules must be kept very simple. In Los Angeles the one rule is sexual display and curiosity. Even the most brilliant man, once he is at a party, will succumb to the general vapidness. From nine to five these people are bright, clever, grownup, but after five they become emotional morons. At parties there are no serious conversations and little real warmth. People arrive an hour late (a sign of hostility) and leave saying it was a terrible bore. Of course they were disappointed; what they needed was companionship but what they thought they wanted was sexual adventure.'

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You have to resist the impluse to nostalgize this period in contemporary gay life. It's tempting to reclaim the pre-AIDS period in 'those were the days' terms. But they weren't, objectively. A lot of these men were profoundly damaged. No one was out of the closet. The cops openly harassed gay bars and assaulted patrons. Legal and civil rights were nonexistent, as everyone in this book would discover in the next decade. Still, it's hard to not to find a wistful sigh on every page. 

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Maybe ‘the end of history’ just means we forgot it all

Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books:

We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.

There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav ("partisan") terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher's London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.

No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists— using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States.

[...]

But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland's Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers "European Extremism" (or "Christo-fascism," perhaps?)…and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.

This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with "Islamofascists," "extremists" from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant "Islamistan," who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy "our way of life"—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.


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