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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Filed under America, Books, Serious

‘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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Filed under America, Books, Journalism

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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Filed under Germany, Serious