2008/12/12

How to write about war

Somebody had left many boxes of books on the sidewalk on 76th Street between Fifth and Madison, and as Susana and I were walking back from our run in Central Park we stopped and scooped up a bunch. One was a very famous war novel that I had never heard of until our friend Hazel in Carboneras urged it upon us, Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong (London: Hutchinson, 1993). Another was a collection of short stories by Saki, pen name of Hugh Munro, whom I remembered from the delightful, chilling surprise of reading "The Open Window" long ago in high school.

I don't know how I had missed Birdsong -- a quick search on the 'net revealed that it has been a best-seller, there's been talk for years about a movie, and it has even inspired tours of the battlefields that figure in it. It really is a gripping read, especially those horrifying scenes from the trenches of France in 1916 and until the end of the Great War two years later. These are preceded and then intertwined with a kind of love story -- though "love" is an imprecise description for British infantry officer Stephen Wraysford's obsession with a vacuous, self-centered and dimly remembered Frenchwoman. No matter. Even the flightiest characters (including Stephen's Isabelle) are depicted convincingly. There is also a later story, set in 1978-79, about Stephen's granddaughter's search for mature independence and information about that grandfather. All of it clearly and sensitively related, though it is only the two terrible bloody years in France that really matter. Faulks has chosen to remind us of this war which (as his characters say and almost all real-life contemporaries said over and over) unleashed destructive forces so much greater than its predecessors -- including the cruel and bloody Boer, Russo-Japanese, and Balkan wars that immediately preceded it -- that it changed the world.

So it seemed an odd coincidence to find in the same serendipitous heap of books on the sidewalk of 76th Street the short, poetic piece, "Birds on the Western Front," in Emlyn Williams' 1978 edition of Saki's Short Stories.

The other stories here (there are about 60 in the book, a small sample of Saki's voluminous output) are mostly clever, extended jokes, playing on and confirming a public school Briton's class prejudices. They are often annoyingly sexist, in the light, silly manner of situation comedy. In fact, what gives pleasure in reading Saki is the absurd situations leading to startling outcomes (as in "The Open Window"). The characters are simply caricatures, and they all talk alike, however devious their intentions. But-- "Birds on the Western Front" is something else.

The frivolous, supercilious Saki was perhaps a cover for a somewhat more serious Hugh Munro, foreign correspondent (1902-1906) and author of serious-sounding tomes on Russian history and the pre-1914 turbulence elsewhere in Europe. In 1916, at the age of 46 (rather old to serve), he joined the British Army (Royal Scottish Fusileers) and was soon killed in a trench in France. "Birds", which must have been written just weeks or months before his death, ingeniously describes trench warfare without looking at it directly. Instead, it is about the birds whose natural habitat has been destroyed by cannonade, bombs and machine-gunning, but still must find some scrap of something for nesting and carrying on the only life they know. This is a marvelously effective denunciation of the war, still fresh even after the angry sentimentality of Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” has begun to grate.

I wonder if Faulks was thinking of this short piece by Saki when he chose the title "Birdsong." If so, then maybe what he meant to suggest (with Saki) was that even through the worst horrors, life persists.

Here is my plot summary of and further comment on Birdsong, and rather less on Emlyn Williams' edition of Saki's Short Stories.

Photo of Ancre (France) after the battle from this website.

Holiday message from Roy Blount

This is too good not to share. I endorse the sentiments.
I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
President
Authors Guild

2008/11/29

Crunching numbers, saving people

Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Paul Collier deserves -- and has received -- great credit for developing a method of statistical comparison for identifying the very poorest countries and estimating the costs of such poverty to them and potentially to all of us (short life spans, HIV and other devastating diseases, political violence that spreads beyond their borders, etc.). He and his co-researchers are especially keen on finding correlations between such wretched conditions and various geographical, demographic and historical factors, and comparing them to countries which share many such characteristics but that have broken out of poverty -- most notably, India and China, still beset by many problems but developing.

Very briefly: Collier has identified 58 countries, together comprising about 1/6 of the world's population or nearly 1,000,000,000 people, which are not only extremely poor, but which are not developing at all -- that is, they are experiencing no economic growth whatever. He declines to provide the full list, but in the course of the book he names several: most are in Africa, others include "Haiti, Laos, Burma [Myanmar], and the Central Asian countries, of which Afghanistan has been the most spectacular" development failure.

These are all places caught in "traps" of: recurring civil conflict, an abundance of a single natural resource whose exploitation (mostly for the benefit of outside corporations and the local corrupt elite) causes neglect of all other productive areas, being "landlocked with bad neighbors," and/or suffering "bad governance in a small country."

His question: How to get these countries out of the "traps" of undevelopment and get their economies growing?

Aid doesn't work, because too much of it is eaten up in corruption and inefficiency -- though without it, people's lives would be even worse. Collier gives several woeful examples, but also singles out a few heroes who have struggled to limit or end corruption, for example in Nigeria and Uganda.

Military intervention could work very well in those places wracked by civil war and terrorism, if only the richer countries dared to use it and if they avoided the disastrous misuse in the U.S.'s spectacular and self-defeating deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other African countries are themselves too poor to intervene effectively in Sudan, for example, or the Congo, and would need the troops, arms and logistical support of richer countries. To be seen as legitimate, such intervention would have to come at the invitation of groups in the country or region that had wide popular support. And without raising any suspicion that the intervenors' true goal was to seize natural resources, e.g., oil. Unfortunately, in Collier's view, the U.S.'s bungling in Iraq has given intervention such a bad name that when the French, for example, send troops to a civil war zone, they are ordered to stay in barracks when the fighting breaks out. And we all remember the passivity of the Dutch UN troops in Srebrenica. UN troops in the Congo also seem to be more concerned for their own safety than that of the populace.

"By contrast, the British intervention in Sierra Leone [in 2000], Operation Palliser, has been a huge success. It has imposed security and maintained it once the RUF [rebel movement] was disposed of. The whole operation has been amazingly cheap," Collier writes (p. 127). Another example that seems to me to have been very positive (though I think Collier would disagree) was Cuban intervention in Namibia and Angola, saving both countries from far worse fates -- but of course that occurred during the Cold War, which distorted everything and made all sides' motives suspect.

"So we should intervene," says Collier, "but not necessarily everywhere. Sierra Leone rather than Iraq is the likely future of intervention opportunities in the bottom-billion countries. Look at the contrasts between the two situations. In Sierra Leone our [i.e., British] forces were invited in by the government and hugely welcomed by the local population. In Sierra Leone we could not be accused of going in for the oil, as there wasn't any." (pp. 128-9)

We also need to change laws and charters in the developed world, for example, banking secrecy regulations that permit corrupt dictators to steal their countries' wealth and hide it. (He has much more to say about laws and charters, including a proposed charter for world democracy.)

Finally, he proposes "trade policy for reversing marginalization" -- ending, for example, protective tariffs for European and U.S. agricultural interests that make it impossible for African cotton producers, etc., to compete in the only lucrative markets.

There's a lot of good stuff here, and Collier and his team keep on producing more such pointed analyses. Check out the Paul Collier home page. His statistical work is a good starting point for finding solutions, but it is only a starting point. To understand phenomena such as massive corruption, suicidal terrorism (such as in Mumbai this week), and the consequences and contradictions of rapacious global capitalism requires much more than number-crunching. The "traps" he lists are not all really comparable phenomena, though the statistical method showing only their numerical consequences make them appear so. Being landlocked with few natural resources is a geographical and historical phenomenon. As Collier sagely remarks, the reason so many such countries are in Africa is that, in other parts of the world, territories that are landlocked and have few resources don't become countries -- so that is a historical political problem, dating from the way colonial powers carved up the continent.

"The Natural Resource Trap," i.e., being "too rich" in petroleum, or diamonds, or some other valuable commodity, is not a geographical fatality at all. What makes such natural wealth a "trap" rather than an asset is obviously a problem of the way markets are organized and who has the means to exploit someone else's wealth. Bolivia under Morales, for example, is working to turn its natural gas into an asset.

But if we can think along two or more tracks at the same time, keeping in mind the statistical correlations that Collier and other investigators generate while also thinking broadly and deeply about markets and other social process in the manner of, say, Ulrich Beck, Alain Touraine and others, we may seriously address these problems.

One minor quibble: The cover declares the book a winner of the "Lionel Gelber Prize for excellence in writing on international relations." It seems to me that the writing would have been more excellent had Collier found a better metaphor than "traps" to describe those difficulties and had he not repeatedly referred, with no apparent irony, to landlocked countries as "missing the boat" (of development).

2008/11/18

Dominican tragedy

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (San Cristóbal, 24 de octubre de 1891 - Santo Domingo, 30 de mayo de 1961), supreme ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination 31 years later, continues to mark the lives of Dominicans, including those brought up far from the island and even those born after his death -- for example novelist Julia Álvarez, born in New York in 1950, and Junot Díaz, born in Santo Domingo in 1968 and brought up in New Jersey.

Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning book,The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007) is, in its structure, a classic tragedy. Óscar de León, a.k.a. Oscar Wao (an ignorant classmate's pronunciation of Oscar Wilde) is more than a fat, nerdy kid from New Jersey who is also (we are given to understand) an extraordinarily gifted science-fantasy writer. He is also the bearer of a terrible hereditary curse, the fukú, which strikes him down right at the moment when he is on the verge of triumph: he has finally got laid, and he has completed or nearly so his magnum opus -- which however disappears before his survivors can publish or even read it.

The fukú in Oscar's family was unleashed when his grandfather, a cautious but prosperous dark-skinned doctor in a small Dominican city, dared to defend his family's honor by keeping his beautiful eldest daughter out of reach of Trujillo, whose favorite sport was deflowering virgins not so much for the sexual thrill as for the excitement of humiliating their fathers and brothers. The doctor's tremulous defiance leads to a series of disasters, including his imprisonment, the deaths of his wife and two elder daughters and the abandonment of the third, the infant Belicia, who is taken in by a family that so mistreats her that she is left with terrible burn scars on her back and even more terrible resentment against -- well, just about everything. The fukú is powerfully reinforced when Beli turns into an extremely sexy teenager (big ass and tits, combined with dark skin that Dominican men associate with voluptuousness) and falls hopelessly in love with The Gangster, a hit man who, it turns out, is married to a daughter of Trujillo. The furious wife sets thugs on Beli, who try and nearly succeed in beating her to death. Hustled off to New Jersey by her protectress, an aunt she calls La Inca, Beli becomes the angry, embittered mother of Lola and Oscar, transmitting the fukú by belittling her daughter and driving Oscar to retreat into his fantasies, his writing and voracious eating.

When Beli finally Oscar off to La Inca in the Dominican Republic, he too falls hopelessly in love with an impossible partner: a prostitute who is married to a very jealous cop. Trujillo is dead by now, but the fukú of his spirit lives on, in the atrocities of police who know no law can touch them. The fukú is a national curse, taking revenge on anybody who seeks to love freely and generously. In short, the faceless minions of the fukú, dressed and armed as policemen, kill him.

All this is told by Yunior, another aspiring writer who lusts after Lola but can't stop himself from screwing other women (and thus sabotaging his relations with Lola) and becomes an odd-couple companion of fat Oscar. Yunior's speech is a mix of English, Spanglish and weirder locutions from the science fantasy literature that he, Oscar, and Junot Díaz seem to know very well.

This was not a lot of fun to read, however. At least for me. Oscar, until the very end of the book, is a colossal bore: a grotesquely fat momma's boy, so passive you want to shake him -- which is what Yunior tries to do, at least sporadically. And Oscar's inner life, his imaginary world, is populated by science fantasy novels which, if you don't know them, amount to simply puzzling references to what must be imaginary planets, heroes and evil-doers. His older sister Lola, who gets a chapter all of her own, is more attractive, a rebel against her mother, but we don't get to know her well and her rebellions don't much matter to the story. The only truly interesting characters, ones who actually take action and make things happen, are the once tortured and now despotic Belicia, a monster you can sympathize with, and the fukú, a malevolent spirit with a truly nasty sense of humor, tempting and destroying the innocents. The good things about the novel: a strong portrait of the adolescent frustration of a nerd, the gross but sometimes clever Spanglish rap of Yunior, and the reminder of true grotesque brutality bequeathed to that small country by the dictator Yunior persistently calls "the Failed Cattle Thief." The painfully detailed destructions of beatings to near-death or even death by rogue cops are based on real incidents that still occur -- we know, something like that happened to someone close to us.

In Díaz's vision, the fukú seems to have swallowed the whole country in hopeless corruption. For a view of a more buoyant, happier Dominican Republic where people are creating things and finding solutions to problems -- though still watching out for unpredictable and potentially violent cops -- check out my
Estampas dominicanas: pequeño álbum hablado (in Spanish), a report on a week's adventures mostly among architects and writers, in Santo Domingo and La Vega (we were there in 2001 for the IV Seminario Erwin Walter Palm de Arquitectura y Urbanismo de América Latina y el Caribe, at the UNPHU). And then there's all that fiction by Dominicans living and writing within the country, in Spanish -- the fukú, though usually unnamed in those other works, is nevertheless frequently present. No one has been able to escape completely the curse of a dictator who killed so many, stole so much and humiliated a nation for more than thirty years.

Junot Díaz's website.

Other good fiction about the Dominican Republic and Trujillo's long shadow includes:
And the most famous of them all, a novel that Junot Díaz seems to be measuring himself against (his character Yunior frequently refers to it in sarcastic tones),

Photo: Death mask of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, from website
30 de mayo de 1961: Ajusticiamiento del Tirano

2008/11/11

Cautionary tales & historical theory: 2 by Diamond

Having been greatly stimulated by Jared Diamond's earlier book, Guns, Germs and Steel (see below), I was eager to read this newer one -- Diamond, Jared. Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books, 2005. But, as you'll see from my notes, I found it disappointing .

In Collapse, Diamond relates cautionary tales of societies that thrived and then collapsed, contrasted to some that still survive, to identify recurrent causes of collapse. In all the cases selected, the main cause (according to him) was the society's misuse and exhaustion of material resources, esp. forests, aggravated in some cases by aggression from other societies -- which is hardly surprising. And he warns us of comparable dangers (but are they really comparable?) to our new, global ecosystem. Stories include Easter Island, the contrasting experiences of 3 dissimilar S. Pacific islands, the Anasazi, Maya, Viking settlements (Greenland, a failure; Iceland still going strong), Japan (Tokugawa success in forest management), Rwanda (Diamond blames environmental stress more than ancient enmities for the genocide of 1994), Haiti's poverty v. the Dominican Republic's much better management of resources (he credits Joaquín Balaguer especially), China, and Australia (still functioning, but precarious because overexploiting poor soil and little water). These tales are all more or less interesting (China less, Greenland more, because the information is less well known), but they don't add up to anything much beyond a reminder that the prosperity of global society requires much better husbanding of resources.

After his "Guns, Germs and Steel," which presented a coherent and audacious theory explaining Europe's rise to preeminence, this is a pious hodgepodge. Here are my notes on the earlier, stronger book:

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Random House, 1997. 1999 Norton paperback.

The reasons why European whites acquired the "guns, germs and steel" with which they decimated and subdued all other peoples are (according to Diamond) due entirely to accidental geographical advantages: a wider variety of minerals in Eurasia, including the rocks necessary for an efficient stone-age technology necessary as a first stage of development; the availability of easy-to domesticate, highly productive plants and animals enabling people in Mesopotamia to become farmers and produce enough of a surplus to build cities, long before anybody else; and the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent, with a wide swath in the same latitude with a long growing season and plenty of rain, so that crops developed in Mesopotamia could also be grown as far as western India, all across northern Africa and across southern Europe to its western edge; the absence of major physical barriers also facilitated transfers of inventions (whether in agriculture or devices such as the wheel, practices such as weaving, etc.).

The book's great success ("over 1 million copies sold," the cover proclaims) is mainly because Diamond weaves a coherent story through a huge subject, all human history, that is a plausible alternative to the naïve race theories still current. The problem for many scholars is that the coherence seems too facile, neglecting the complexities of many developments over the millennia and (according to some of those scholars) getting many particulars wrong.

The other reason for both the book's popularity and many scholars' impatience is that Diamond repeats his essential points over and over. This makes it hard to miss them, which must be convenient for the distracted undergraduate, but is wearisome for the attentive reader, especially one who is already familiar with many of the arguments.

2008/11/07

Getting to know the O

Two ways to understand the character and abilities of our president-elect: first, on his character and the influence of his upbringing in Hawaii, you will want to watch this new video, scheduled for release in January:


There's a longer, 37-minute preview on Barack Obama Hawaii site.

Secondly and equally important, you will want some insight into how he acquired and how he has used the sharp political skills learned in his years as a "Chicago pol." These stories from the Washington Post will help: Barack Obama: An 'improbable' journey into history by Sharon Cohen, and especially this great investigation by Eli Saslow, From Outsider To Politician.

2008/11/05

Yes we could!


Last night at friends' place in SoHo we watched the returns on all the channels -- even the Cobert-Stuart silliness, but mostly CNN -- with breaks for a delicious supper prepared by our hostess. We cheered vocally or silently as the Obama tally rose, while outside, as soon as he'd hit the winning number of 270 electoral votes, all Hell broke loose. Or Heaven. Or just terrestrial Exuberance. It was after midnight, after McCain's gracious and responsible concession speech and then after Obama's almost calm but elated appearance before millions of noisy fans in Chicago's Grant Park, after elegant Michelle in black and red and those pretty girls, after Joe Biden and his wife and son and little blond grandchildren and his tiny, grinning mother, after Jesse Jackson's tears and scenes of jumping and shouting before the cameras there in Grant Park and in Rockefeller Center and in front of the White House, and after a last glimpse of the subdued and somber faces at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, we smiled and hugged and said goodnight to our friends, and went out into the unseasonably warm SoHo night and the knots of buoyant revelers. It was like a second Halloween, but with patriotic rather than witchcraft themes. A young women all covered in red and white tinsel pirouetting on the subway stairs, on the subway platform a man of maybe 30 grinning and spinning for cameras to flair his kilt fashioned from the American flag. Those two and most of the others were all white, but with them was a young black woman whose glee was all in her loud voice rather than her costume, and five or six others who joined in the revelry. This crowd seemed to have snowballed, with a core group raising chants -- "Yes we can!" and then, as though just realizing what had happened hours earlier, "YES WE DID!" One girl leaned far forward from her seat into the subway car aisle and fairly screamed, "Now the great thing is you can go to foreign countries and not pretend to be Canadians! It's OK to be American!"

Yeah. That's how we all feel. We now, for the first time in at least 8 years, feel proud of this country. "It's OK to be American!" In fact, we're damned proud that we and our countrymen proved all the forecasts of a racist boycott so wrong. We've elected the best man, and his color just shouldn't matter. Except that it does, in a good way. It does matter that we, all of us, have shown that we can get beyond our racial anxieties, even if we haven't made them go away entirely -- because that will take a lot more work, and a lot more equality of opportunity.

The guy in the flag urged us to join them at Union Square as they ran from the 6 train to continue on the express to the real uptown, to Harlem, to party all night. He and the little group around him were all white, but they knew they'd be welcomed tonight in black America and they wanted to join the fun. We grinned and wished them well.

See also this good essay by Mark Engler, The Day After: Keeping Obama Accountable

2008/11/04

Literary practice

Long before the Internet, my friend Karla and I used to exchange quirky and silly letters, she from San Francisco and I from New York. She always made her envelopes from colorful magazine pages, careful to find an appropriately allusive or absurd, image. We also went to a lot of trouble crafting our prose, each glad to have the other as audience for our literary practice.

I miss those weird images. But nobody fabricates paper envelopes for snailmail anymore, so I now have to look for her strange humor, her insights beamed intensely at some unexpected corner of experience, in her web page, Rabbits, Toyen, and so forth. And instead of typing up a letter and stamping it, I'll answer her comment on my blog (on re-entry to New York, below) here.

Yes, it's true, I'm back at work on a novel I worked on for a couple of years and then put aside for a couple more, after trying and failing to get an agent to represent it. It's now much better -- story easier to follow, the conclusion more satisfying -- and this time, if I don't engage an agent, I intend to publish it myself. My aim is to finish the revision before we leave New York (mid-December), because as soon as we get back to Spain I have to focus on finishing an entirely different book, one that's under contract, on a history of the built environment (architecture and urbanism) in Latin America.

The novel's working title is A GIFT FOR THE SULTAN. Here's the premise: In the summer of 1402, the stand-in emperor of besieged Constantinople, the nephew of Emperor Manuel II (who is off in Western Europe seeking aid), secretly sends a delegation to the Ottoman sultan with the keys to the city, a rich tribute of silks and gold, and a 13-year old princess -- Manuel's bastard -- for the sultan's son's harem, and this surrender package is entrusted to a dashing and violent Ottoman gazi (part bandit, part holy warrior) to deliver to the sultan. But before the gazi and his gang can complete delivery, the sultan and his horde are destroyed by Timur-i-Link ("Tamerlane") -- so the caravan of Greek-speaking, Christian urbanites and their treasure, including the young princess, and the rough Turkish horse archers led by the gazi are suddenly missionless in the mountains of central Anatolia, which has suddenly become infested by panicked deserters and survivors of the sultan's military disaster. And then... Well, that's what I'm working on.

It's all true, except the princess -- I made her and the gazi up, though both are plausible. Manuel II did in fact have bastard children (we even know the name of one of them, Zenobia), his nephew Ioannis did attempt to surrender in Manuel's absence, and the plot did in fact fail because of Timur's victory. (Christopher Marlowe's most famous tragedy is about some of these same events, but his version is much more fanciful.) Marriage of Christian princesses to Turkish chieftains had in fact become frequent in Constantinopolitan diplomacy, and gazis as wild as my guy were also real. What I'm trying to imagine is the relationships between frontier Muslim Turks and sophisticated Christian urbanites in this tumultuous period of confused and diffuse alliances.


2008/10/25

The larger effects of Obama

The well-known Spanish-language journalist Fidedigna Fuentes has just interviewed me on the larger meaning of the Obama presidential campaign, for the journal Iberomundo. There I try to explain the phenomenon to readers from Latin America and Europe, who are both puzzled and fascinated by these developments. You can read the interview (that is, if you read Spanish) on the blog of my colleague Baltasar Lotroyo. Ms. Fuentes titled the piece, “¿Presidente Obama? - EE.UU. y el mundo”.

2008/10/18

Impressions on re-entry

We landed at Logan Airport on October 9, just over two years since we had left the States for Spain. And then on the 14th we got to Newark Airport and New York City, which had been our home for the previous 30 years or more. Nothing seems to have changed. It feels like it always did, but maybe a little better because we're older and freer and because the weather has been so exceptionally good. We plan to be here until December 14, when we return to Madrid and then to our new home in Carboneras, Spain (for pix, see blog below for October 13).

We had lots of reasons to return. We have to get our possessions (mostly books) out of storage and decide which to ship to Spain and which to give away, arrange for the shipping, settle some accounts (financial, not personal grudges), apply for official Spanish residency (you have to do it from your home country), and see old friends. And we just wanted to renew the feel for the place and get a sense of what's happening in this country in this year of turmoil and, for us Obama supporters, exceptional hope. And of course to vote. The reason for going first to Boston was the 45th reunion of my Harvard graduation class. That's Harvard Square in the photo above. In better shape but still recognizable as the place I used to cross a dozen times a day 49 to 45 years ago.

Our Harvard and Radcliffe re-uners all lodged at a beach-side resort inn in North Falmouth on Cape Cod, close to Woods Hole which I'd never before seen. This was a very gentle way to return to the U.S. The trees were all turning beautiful colors, the Atlantic air had an enlivening smell, the New Englanders were all full of smiles and greeted strangers with a bright "Good morning" of "Afternoon" as the case called for. The area felt much as it did when I first arrived at Harvard 49 years ago, only without all the freshman anxiety. I saw many good friends from the past and made a few new ones, and also we got to spend some time with my older son and his family, in nearby Walpole. Then on to the Big Apple, for more serious affairs.

The news from Wall Street (not to mention from Afghanistan, Guantánamo and many other places) has been alarming, but our on-the-ground experience so far has been altogether normal, calm and pleasant. The subway is still ugly, noisy and crowded, but efficient. The people all involved in their personal projects but quick to respond to any new interruption -- much quicker than, say, people normally in Carboneras. We like New York culture, that quickness, that ability to turn one's attention to a new event, quickly appraise a situation and react and, unless it's really exceptional (9/11, for example), immediately drop it and turn one's attention to something else. It's what we expect in big cities, including Madrid or Buenos Aires, but here people are especially quick. Not necessarily smarter than smaller town people, just quicker to react and -- a true virtue -- quicker to drop something that doesn't deserve more attention. In Carboneras (pop. 7000), as in many other small towns I've known in the U.S. and in Latin America, nobody ever drops anything, no matter how trivial, hanging on to grudges and remembered favors for years or even generations. People seem always to be looking back instead of to where they're going. Maybe because they don't think of themselves as going anywhere. Here, it's "What have you done for me lately?" Or more accurately, "What are you going to do for me now -- or what can I do for you?"

So why, you ask, do we choose to live in Carboneras? Because it is so comfortable, comforting even. Not just the climate and the sound of the waves (we're on the edge of the Mediterranean), but also because the slower pace of life has its virtues. People don't respond to you instantly, and they also don't turn away from you to some other matter instantly. Slow to accept, but also caring and concerned once they've made the attachment. And by now, after two years of continuous residence, following earlier extended stays, we have become very strongly attached to many people there. We know their children's names, ages and interests (and are careful to get appropriate birthday and First Communion gifts), their own concerns and desires, and we get together with many of them just for the pleasure of it and not for any business or professional concern, far more frequently than we ever did with friends in New York.

And when we feel an urge for the hecticness of urban life, we can always go to Madrid, just under 600 km. away, where we have a tiny apartment right in the center. It's not New York, but it too has busy people, full cultural agendas (with theaters and concerts much more affordable than in NYC), and a highly varied multi-ethnic population (Africans, East Europeans, Latin Americans et al.) with their varied cuisines and rhythms and dress.

But now we're in New York City and looking to take full advantage of its opportunities in these two months, not just to settle our pending affairs (old business) but also to advance our writing and intellectual projects (facing forward, into the future). Susana has to prepare a lecture she's scheduled to give a week from Monday at Notre Dame University and I have to finish the re-write of the novel I've had underway for a long time. And we both have to make progress on the book we have under contract on the history of the built environment (architecture and urbanism) in Latin America. The bookstores and the New York Public Library will be a big help here. So now that we are settled into the apartment we've rented on the Upper East Side, and have got our Internet connection adequately established, we have to get to work. And of course, see old friends, and shows (last night we saw the Icelandic circus version of Woyzeck at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a wildly inappropriate, amusing and terrifying version of Georg Büchner’s surreal tragedy which deserves a separate blog), and galleries, and generally have a good urban New York time.

2008/10/15

Algarrobico & the perils of decentralization

In his latest blog entry, Winnipeg-based urbanist Christopher Leo asks, URBAN GROWTH AND MULTI-LEVEL GOVERNANCE: ARE STRONGER LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ALWAYS THE ANSWER? Here Chris examines examples of successful planning in Ontario that challenge his usual enthusiasm for decentralization.

As I told him, I'm glad to see that he continues to rethink his positions, keeping from getting locked in a box of his own devising. Anyone who has been watching urban misdevelopment in Spain is aware of the perils of extreme decentralization of authority. In our immediate vicinity, our little town (pop. 7000) of Carboneras has been making national headlines over a hotel allegedly (and I believe in fact) constructed on protected parkland and onto the supposedly protected coast. Aspects of approval authority are split among municipality, provincial government (in this case, province of Almería), and the Junta, or regional government, of Andalucía (a region covering seven provinces including Almería), above all of which is the national government and its several, sometimes bickering, ministries.

Here in Carboneras, town hall appears to have fiddled with the map of the park boundaries so as to evade regulations, with the connivance of the provincial government, and granted all the necessary permits for a hotel developer (including participation of George Soros) to build the monster. What was in it for the locals was, first, opening up more of the surrounding parkland to their own development projects (hotels, golf courses in this waterless land, luxury summer homes), and secondly (useful for political purposes) the employment opportunities the new hotel would supposedly bring (the wives of fishermen could become chambermaids), as well as the shorter-term building contracts of local companies. So they tore into the mountain and built the multistoried hotel on Algarrobico beach, practically up to the water line.

Only Greenpeace and a local pro-ecology group raised a cry while this thing was going up. Finally, when the structure was all up and they were just finishing the interiors, planning to open for business this past summer, the central government took notice. In a whole series of court decisions (each one challenged and requiring a new hearing) the whole operation has been declared illegal, the junta (Andalucian regional government) swallowed its embarrassment and demanded the thing be torn down, and found provisions in Spanish law saying they did not have to compensate the builders because their permits (never before challenged by the junta) were all illegal. Carboneras town hall, the mayor in particular, refuses to admit defeat however and they and the developers are still mounting challenges.

For a video of the Greenpeace action (12 August 2007) where they painted the word "Illegal" (ilegal in Spanish) on the façade of the hotel, see this article in El Mundo.

On a personal note, Susana & I are now in New York City, until Dec. 14, so I'll be reporting from here when I get a chance. The interruption of my blogging was due mainly to having to give all our attention to finishing the building project in Carboneras (see previous blog for photos) and getting ready for this trip.

2008/10/13

Our castle in Spain

Buzón
Our 8-unit condominium, designed by Susana Torre with the collaboration of Carboneras architects DA-3 Estudio (Carmen Alcaide, Paco Caparrós and Enrique Bejines), is now (nearly) completed. Click on image to see 17 photos taken last week by Chantal Le Lièvre.

2008/09/15

European v. American political consciousness: II

Here's another response to my friend Don Monkerud's query, about differences in political awareness and attitudes between Europeans and people in the U.S. This from Dan Bessie, in France:

Without doing a long sociological study, I believe that greater European political sophistication (and less idiocy - though there is certainly plenty to go around, witness Le Pen in France, right wing quasi-fascist nationalism in the Serbian countries, etc) has to do with a number of factors:

1. They have a longer and more recent association with working class struggles than do Americans. Though much weaker than they once were, socialist and communist parties are both in power in several places (socialists in Spain), communists in a few hundred cities throughout France, Italy and in other countries, and most European countries have unions that still exert far greater influence on economic events than is true in America.

2. Europe has seen two world wars rage across it. Hardly anyone here, including the British, who were bombed extensively, has been untouched by it. Fascism never touched America in the same way, in spite of the number of American deaths during WW II.

3. Large numbers of Europeans travel internally, speak more than one language (several in some cases), and thus have developed a much broader international outlook than that developed by the more or less continuing provincialism of the vast majority of Americans.

4. European media is much more open to being critical of leaders than is American media. American media fears not having access to a candidate. If, for example, the corporate owners of American media conglomerates should let too many of their reporters and commentators really nail McCain-Palin on the issues and on their lies, and, heaven forbid, they should get ELECTED, they might not have ACCESS. So their motto is, I believe, "don't bite the hand that might feed." (Since access is their bread and butter.) Most European commentators are fairly open in their political views (not all, but many more than in the States. During the last election I was in the UK when the results were coming in, and commentators on almost every station were saying substantially the same thing - "What's going on with the Americans? They must be nuts to vote for that guy Bush again.")

5. And yes, far fewer Americas travel than Europeans (though again, a lot of Europeans travel internally).


Europe is not without problems. TV watching is big and addictive here just like there. There are almost as many dumb programs (but a much higher number of quality programs as well). This (France) is also very much a consumer society. But it's someone less focused on big splashy cars and huge TVs (though there are those as well) and more on things like family vacations, seeing that the kids are well prepared for college and careers, etc.

Most Europeans are aghast that America doesn't have a national health plan in place. Here (in France and most of Europe) it's taken as a national RIGHT. Most also know that in terms of overall quality of life - health care, education, environment, standard of living, all the other things that go into making up "the good life," that America (contrary to what most Americans believe) is not #1 (Actually, France is). America, depending on which report one reads, is either #3, 4, 5 or 6 in line).

Are we happier living in Europe? On the whole, yes. But neither Jeanne nor I were unhappy in America.

Our greater happiness, I guess, comes more from what we do than from the actual conditions of life. Because the conditions of our lives here are more or less the same as they were in the States, in terms of standard of living. Some things are much less expensive (health care, for example: Jeanne had to pay about $6000 per year for an "ex-pat" policy for major medical in California. And that one had a $5000 deductible PER INCIDENT. Since she's a member of the EU (as are all Brits), she gets the same health benefits she'd get in the UK - which is about 80% (like Medicare), and spouses, even if they're not EU citizens, get the same benefits. To make up the difference we pay an annual "top up" policy of about $1500 for the BOTH of us. When we go for a doctor visit (GP) we pay a flat 23 Euros. (about $32). More for specialists We get about 75% of that back from the top up plan. Except for a very few things, all medication is included in the top up plan, so it's virtually free.

Food in restaurants are more expensive in general. Food in supermarkets is about the same, but there are a lot of items that the French consider "essential" that are very low in cost (bread, wine of course, canned veggies, etc). Gas is very high (about $7.00 a gallon).

We left the U.S. for a number of very specific reasons:

1. Why do the same thing all our lives? (That's one thing that was very important for us.)

2. Jeanne has family in the UK and she can see them more often. (You can literally fly from here to the UK for as little as about $2.00 sometimes - plus taxes, bringing it to about $25.), because a low cost Irish airline, RyanAir, would rather fill seats in the off season than have an empty airplane, since they fly back and forth to several French airports several times a day.

3. We are central to lots of places to drive to. Barcelona, about 7 hours, Paris about 6, etc, etc. (We've been to Spain once since we've been here, are going again in October, and have also been to Paris and Berlin. Aside from about three trips to the UK and two back to the States - which is getting very expensive now for air fare).

4. We like France a good deal. We live in an area of gently rolling hills, farms, small quaint villages, very friendly people for the most part, and etc. Lots of nature (France is more than 40% forest land).



2008/09/14

Shh! Don't think about the colossus

The crash of the construction industry with its bankruptcies and now soaring unemployment, the air disaster in Barajas last month (where we lost a good friend), the absurd and cruel distortions of the judicial system (people kept in prison because the judge forgot they were there, others never sent there although they were condemned and go out to commit more crimes, the divvying up of judicial slots to party loyalists), the constant arrivals of half-dead, and sometimes dead, would-be immigrants on the coasts -- Spaniards have a lot to think about these days. But there is one very big thing that they have been trying not to think about for nearly 70 years. And if, by misfortune or carelessness, they did think about it, they were afraid to mention it. Now -- seemingly all of a sudden -- people are daring to speak, mass graves are being dug open and analyzed and those long-silenced events are being treated as news, and to lots of Spaniards the wartime and post-war atrocities of Francisco Franco's troops, allies and government are news.

What took so long? Fear works, as we've seen in post-war Germany, post-dictatorship Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and other places. It works to silence people, sometimes because the trauma of extreme violence has left them in a state of semi-shock, unable to pronounce the horrible truth even to their own children; and sometimes because of fear of the consequences to those children if others know what happened to their parents. It has worked more thoroughly for longer in Spain than in those other countries, because the Franco fear regime lasted so much longer, almost 40 years: from the first massacres on June 18, 1936, until some months after the death of the monster in November 1975.

"Don't mention that! You'll just open old wounds!" protests Rajoy, leader of the Partido Popular. No, say the survivors and grandchildren of the massacred, our wounds have never healed and never will until we know just what happened to our loved ones and where their remains are now. It's a lot like Srebrenica, multiplied many times all over the map of Spain. Today's El País includes such a map, showing the location of known mass graves. Presumably there are many others yet to be discovered. The sons, daughters and grandchildren, plus other truthseekers -- including prominent historians and novelists like Dulce Chacón, Manuel Rivas and others -- have been pushing for years for an accounting, have coaxed terrified oldsters to murmur their horrid memories, and have formed associations pressuring local, regional and the national institutions for their records. Now finally a judge, Baltasar Garzón, after pursuing Pinochet, the Argentine generals and other miscreants abroad, has ordered the armed forces, the police and the Catholic Church (which knows more than it lets on) to open its archives.

If you want a comprehensive story of the Spanish Civil War, with a balanced treatment of the atrocities on both sides and ample demonstration that the White Terror was many times more brutal than the Red Terror, not just in numbers of victims but in the deliberate cruelty, you could do worse than read Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain. I may have more to say about this book later. Especially important is his argument about the role of the Communists -- the Republic could not have survived without them, but also could not survive with them in the leadership.

Illustration: El coloso, long attributed to Francisco Goya but now thought to be by another hand.

2008/09/11

Unsophisticated Europeans

One of my American friends has the impression that Europeans are much more "politically sophisticated" than Americans, and he has been asking me and other European residents why. So after pondering and writing up a response, I decided to post it here, because other people may be interested in joining the discussion.

Voters in Rome salute their victorious mayor, Gianni Alemanno, in April.

I don't think Europeans generally are more sophisticated politically than Americans, though they are more aware and respectful of other countries -- for pretty obvious reasons. Countries are smaller, the foreigner is much closer. "Respect" doesn't mean "like" -- but it's a starting point. Every family in Carboneras (the southern Spanish town I live in) has at least one member who worked for years in France, or Germany, or Holland or some other country. A surprising number of barely educated people are bi- or even trilingual, just because of life experience. Those people tend to be tolerant and open-minded toward all other cultures, which is good.

But they are no more likely than ordinary Americans to have any coherent, critical understanding of the Big Issues that they are always being asked to vote on. Global warming, nuclear energy, national immigration policy (even people who have been emigrants themselves are likely to panic about "too many immigrants", esp. when the economy tightens), national economic policy, religion in schools (as hot an issue in Spain as in the U.S., with the difference being that here the Church -- which still has a big hold -- is on the defensive while in the U.S. the churches are on the offensive, trying to gain privileges like those the Catholic Church enjoys in Spain). The irrational right has been able to mobilize huge demonstrations to demand, among other things, the repeal of the law to teach basic citizenship (mainly tolerance of religious, racial and sexual differences) in the public schools, because only the Church has the right to discuss morality (and the Church's teachers should be paid by the State, i.e., all the taxpayers, whether religious or not). In the last legislature (2004-2008), they accused Zapatero of "destroying the family" because of laws recognizing homosexual marriage, abortion, etc. Now those same people -- a very large minority -- are outraged because a judge (Baltasar Garzón) is requiring ecclesiastical, state and military authorities to open their records so that families can find out when and how their loved ones were murdered during the civil war and Franco-ist postwar years, and where they are buried. None of this is sophisticated.

Before you overpraise the sophistication of European voters, it would be good to analyze the recent votes in Italy. Show business trumps argument. Berlusconi & Co. have blamed all the country's problems on the Gypsies, and now that they've forced a census, they are surprised to find that there aren't that many of them. But no matter, it just feels good to send your cops out to beat up a couple of Gypsy kids or to egg on the crowds to burn down a Gypsy homestead.

2008/08/25

Alternatives: Cuba tries to make a socialism that grows

But can it succeed? The Cubans have proven so resilient and Cuban institutions so resistant to joining the "There is no alternative" crowd, that they may just make this work. It's a small economy, but its methods may again -- as they have been repeatedly through the 1960s and 1970s -- be a model for other low-income countries. From the Financial Times: A revolution to repair: New friends come to the aid of Raúl’s Cuba By Richard Lapper

2008/08/23

Alternatives to and within capitalism

Baumol, William J., Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm. Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Baumol et al. start from the common premise that, since the collapse of the Socialist bloc, "There is no alternative" ("TINA") to capitalism, by which they mean an economy where “most or at least a substantial proportion of its means of production -- its farms, its factories, its complex machinery -- are in private hands, rather than being owned and operated by the government." (p. 62) Socialized ownership of the means of production and central planning collapsed with the Berlin wall, and what they call “precapitalist” economies, as in Afghanistan and Somalia, where the only property rights are those defended by warring clans, are just not viable.

But, the authors insist, there are at least four alternative forms of capitalism, some much better at promoting growth and prosperity than others.

"Oligarchic” capitalism, where a few rich families own everything that produces wealth and make sure nobody else gets any, is “bad” capitalism. Not just because of its unfairness, but because the oligarchs are too ignorant, too indolent and too self-occupied to invest in anything productive. Of course, they really don't have a lot of margin -- after their country club dues, luxury estate management, imported automobiles, foreign vacations, and other obligations of their class, they have to spend much of their country's wealth on army and police to shoot, beat or intimidate those pesky peasants who want to change things -- which, as we have seen in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam and other places, can get very, very expensive if those rebels are serious, well-organized, and can get funded somehow.

“State directed” capitalism, where the state picks sectors or even particular firms to favor (e.g. by subsidies or high tariffs against competing imports), hasn't proven efficient either. A major historical example was the "import substitution" policy promoted by Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch for Latin America. The problem is that governments -- being run by human beings with their own interests and prejudices and corruptibilities -- are not very good at making such decisions. Most likely, the minister of the economy will pick the companies run by his brother-in-law. Or, even absent corruption, the inertia of bureaucracy (and pressure from interest groups) will keep the government supporting a sector whose growth potential has passed.

"Big firm" capitalism, free from the strictures of government, is better (for promoting growth), since big firms have the capital and need to invest. But they tend to be cautious and (with a few exceptions, like Bell Labs in the old days and Apple today) discourage innovation.

"Entrepreunerial" capitalism -- meaning the kind that breaks into the market by inventing new technology or new marketing techniques -- is the real hero of this book. But the wild-eyed entrepreneurs can survive and grow only if they get the backing of capital from big firms, until they turn into big firms themselves. When that happens, they either have to make special efforts to keep the innovation going (e.g., Bell Labs or Xerox) or look outside to back and buy rights to inventions made by new entrepreneurs. That kind of marriage (big firm/small innovator) is what has given the U.S. economy its dynamism in recent years and is the best bet for other economies seeking to grow.

In the real world (as the authors recognize), every economy has some mix of the four forms. The U.S. (like France and other economies) protects its agribusinesses ("state-directed" capitalism), and "big firm" and "oligarchic" systems are sometimes hard to distinguish. (E.g., the big business families of Italy, or the Fords in the U.S., where business power is hereditary.) The important question is which form prevails.

Baumol et al. also lay out four elements (they like that number) that they think are necessary to encourage such big firm/small innovator successes:

1, ease of forming or abandoning a business (if a company cannot declare bankruptcy if things go wrong, then the risks may be too high for anybody to start up in the first place);
2, rewards (they mean big money payoffs) for ”socially useful entrepreneurial activity." They specify "socially useful" to exclude such entrepreneurial activity as cocaine production and distribution, hedge-fund manipulation and other big money-making enterprises.
3, economic growth should be favored over redistribution of existing wealth -- which sounds like, Let the rich get richer as long as they invest in things that will make us all richer.
4, continuing incentives to companies to innovate and grow.

The most important thought I took from the book was what they call their “fundamental proposition”:
that economies are complicated systems that cannot be reduced to one or two central driving forces, and cannot be turned around by applying one or even a few of the policy prescriptions various development economisys or institutions have recommended over the years. (p. 59)
In sum, I found the book useful in clarifying categories (such as those four types of capitalism), though its arguments are too general and abstract, and say too little about the political forces involved, to explain much about the current world recession, or the surge in the price of oil, or what's at stake in the Georgia-Russia conflict (we know economics is a big part of it, but just how?) or other issues.

I'm not convinced that "There is no alternative," that growth and prosperity are impossible unless all major means of production are in private hands. We'll have to see if China, for example, can continue to innovate with its mix of capitalism and socialism. Or if Hugo Chávez's "Twenty-First Century Socialism" (which so far appears to be another mix of state-ownership and private enterprise) matures and survives. But it is obvious that there are many alternative systems within capitalism.

2008/08/21

So who's “white” in the U.S.?

Interested in “race” issues in the U.S.? Read this and laugh (except it's all true).
From AP comes the news that by 2042 whites will no longer be the majority ethnic group in the United States…

What does this mean? Historically, not a damn thing.
Primary Sources: The 1940 Census on "White"

2008/08/17

Summer readings: authors' bugaboos

I should have mentioned in my note about Axel Munthe's Story of San Michele the frequent appearance of Death, seen as a wise and ancient professional, a colleague of the doctor who has final disposition of the cases Munthe cannot save – including Munthe himself. There are other fantastic or phantom visitors, including an ancient goblin and Munthe's own younger self, but Death is clearly the most important of them. I assume that, as a physician and psychiatrist, Munthe would admit that these beings are really nothing more, and nothing less, than projections of his own fears and premonitions, rather like my own fantastic partners (described here). Such projections compartmentalize persistent concerns (death, or professional anxiety, or whatever else is driving you nuts) and may aid their creator to deal with them rationally. Unless and until you come to believe that they really have an independent power over you, as too often happens. But Munthe appears to me to have been too rational to let that happen.

Since Munthe, I had occasion to read a marvelous collection of short stories – a friend here in Carboneras happened to have a copy – by Carson McCullers, whose first novel had impressed me deeply. (See my note on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) This collection includes The Ballad of the Sad Café, where the author's bugaboo is not Death (which doesn't seem to concern her very much) but the dangerous sickness called Love. Marvelous book. Great descriptions of dreariness.

2008/08/16

Georgian blunders

The west shares the blame for Georgia

By Anatol Lieven

This article in the Financial Times is the most sensible I've read so far about this conflict.

Also see this by Gregory Djerejian in his blog "The Belgravia Dispatch." Well worth reading.

The un-empire

You may have seen this Mother Jones article on the Pentagon study of historical precedents for the supposed "American empire."

Don't Know Much About History

A nice, silly contract for those five authors. It may make amusing reading for the brass hats, but the smart ones (not all generals are uncultured -- Petraeus actually appears well read) will pay little attention. The U.S.'s global reach is actually of a very different order than any of the four supposed precedents, and each of them was fundamentally different from the others. The Roman empire is the only one of the four that offers any useful comparisons, but the likeness is also deceptive. I'll have to give this more thought, but here's a first impression: Rome extended its power from Rome itself, over many centuries, first conquering its immediate hinterland in central Italy and subjugating Etruscans et alii, then extending its frontiers until it ran into other empires to the south and east (especially Carthage) and more "barbarous" tribes west (Gaul, Hispania, Brittania) and north (Germania et al.), and Rome's internal transformations over those centuries including numerous civil wars, assassinations and other treacheries.

U.S. expansion has developed in the opposite way. Yes, the Eastern Seaboard states progressively conquered territories on their frontiers (e.g., in the war with Mexico and the "Indian" wars). But the larger, world-wide expansion of U.S. power was not generated mainly from Washington or New York or any other U.S. city, the way Roman power was generated from Rome. Instead, those other parts of the world have transformed the U.S. and created those cities (NY, LA especially) as foci for further transformation. Globalization, the collective force of people all over the planet (those huge immigrant streams, and then movements of capital), has produced many foci for concentrating and emitting its force (Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Quebec, Sydney, Johannesburg and others), places that didn't even exist before the modern (post-Columbus) era, each competing with all and all of them stimulating ever faster, denser relations of global power. The U.S. is the supreme product of globalization, not its original author.

This is just a rough statement of an idea I want to explore. My strong hunch is that the radically different origins and structure of U.S. power (compared to Rome and any other predecessor) foretells a radically different evolution and, ultimately, dispersion of that power. Dispersion rather than collapse is what I foresee.

2008/08/01

San Michele and a bygone era

Friends here in Carboneras lent me this once-famous book, a best-seller in the 1930s, translated into 45 languages.

Munthe, Axel. The Story of San Michele. 1929. Frogmore, St Albans: Mayflower, 1975.

Gossipy memoirs of a multilingual Swedish physician and psychiatrist (1857-1949), his patients -- who included Swedish and other royalty, many rich "hysterical women" and great numbers of the poor -- and of his building of his estate San Michele atop and among ancient ruins (including a palace of Roman Emperor Tiberius) on the isle of Capri. He was a good story-teller, interested not in documenting his life but in illustrating his philosophical and psychological notions by anecdotes. You would never know from this book that he ever married (he did, twice, and had two sons, one of whom performed heroic service for the British in WW II).

My favorite parts include the opening chapter, when 18-year old Munthe first discovers the ruins in the commune of Anacapri, and some of the chapters on his experiences in Paris, especially the epidemic among bored aristocrats of the imaginary disease "colitis" -- not (in Paris in the 1880's) the disease that goes by that name today, but something much more mysterious that could be blamed for the general feelings of malaise that afflict the rich and bored (at least, according to Munthe).

Here are scenes of San Michele today.

2008/07/30

2008/07/28

Unequal America

This article from Harvard Magazine asks why inequality of income distribution and life expectancy is so much greater in the U.S. than in other countries with a similar GDP.

Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide—and growing—gap between rich and poor, by Elizabeth Gudrais.

The author comes to no clear conclusions as to either the causes (historical? ideological? accidental?) or the possible remedies, but she gives us material to work with to come up with our own. Some of the proposed remedies, including stricter rules on campaign financing (so the favor-the-rich candidates don't get all the money), sound like timid steps in the right direction. A movement mobilizing greater numbers of the poor and non-poor to vote seems to me like the best way to change laws on who gets the tax breaks, which neighborhoods and which institutions get public funds, and so on. And that's the big reason for backing Obama, who is the only one currently able to motivate those folks on a national scale. (Not to slight Kucinich and others, who are working to do the same thing but whose reach is narrower.)

2008/07/27

An American in Carboneras


Watching the amazing and stirring Obama campaign from this little town in southern Spain has made me reflect once again on what it means to me, as someone who has been intensely interested and active in U.S. politics, to be living at this moment so far from my homeland. So, what can I do from here?

First, a bit of personal political history. I've been involved in political organizing since high school 50 years ago (I graduated in 1959), when I used the history club to set up public fora on issues including recognizing the People's Republic of China (a very touchy subject in those days). Later I was president of the Socialist Club at Harvard, organizing fora, debates, film showings (Sergei Eisenstein and others), and demos. And in the years since college, I've used my writings as well as various organizational efforts to "raise consciousness" and push events toward greater equality of opportunity.

But that was then. I was much younger (and more naïve), working in places (universities mostly) where I could reach students and others in personal face-to-face contact, and in an epoch where access to other (non f2f) communications were pretty much limited to print (ditto machines, mimeographs, offset if we were lucky) and sometimes radio (on underfunded, low-power stations). The other approach, harder to achieve and much more rewarding, was to get published in larger circulation periodicals or books.

Now I am who I am, a wiser (I hope) and much more fully trained sociologist, living in a small place far from the center of U.S. politics, in an era with Internet communications, including new forms invented every week (see blog below, on "knols"). So I think it is at least possible for me to be as involved politically as ever, even from here. I don't have f2f contact with American voters, but I do have as much technical access as anybody. And U.S. politics no longer belong exclusively to U.S. citizens. Spaniards, French, Germans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others don't get to vote in the United States in the formal sense of entering a voting booth and pulling a lever, but in mass demonstrations, opinion polls and other ways, they do "vote" in the basic meaning of that word, to "express a preference for a candidate or a proposed solution of an issue." (Etymology: Middle English (Scots), from Latin votum vow, wish — more at vow) And because our world is now so interconnected, any sensible politician will heed that vote.

All this reflection has led me to a new view of my country and its enormous power. The U.S.A. is commonly viewed as a purveyor of globalization, which of course it is, but more importantly, it is globalization's most extremely developed product. It is the most successful of the dozens of countries, all but Australia in the Western Hemisphere, refashioned from native peoples and native materials by successive waves of immigrants. The U.S., Brazil, and the others are "New Worlds" set in motion and built by forces from all of the old ones, those places where custom and tradition had more nearly congealed and opportunities for innovation were stunted. Of all of the New Worlds, the United States is where the collective force of all humanity has come together most densely and has been producing what up to now has been the greatest energy.

Much of that energy has been foolishly spent in the past eight years, but even in its Bush-whacked condition the U.S. still projects great power, partly from inertia (the power, economic, military and cultural, accumulated in years before) and partly because the country still receives power from abroad in many ways, including investments, immigration, and imitation. As we critics often say, the U.S. is undoubtedly a large part of the problems of globalization, from global warming and pollution to high food and petroleum prices, cultural banality to terrorism. But it is also, and for the same reasons, our best hope for solutions. This is something that Obama seems to understand very clearly, which is why so many people in Germany and other countries are "voting" for him in whatever ways they can. Obama has reawakened enthusiasm for the world-healing potential of American power. And that's why I'll do whatever I can, even from here in Carboneras, to encourage my compatriots to cast official, legally recognized ballots for him.

Photo: A few Obama voters in Berlin. From the NYT.

New self-publishing possibilities

I've just discovered knol, a newly invented word which I suppose comes from "knowledge on line". It's all explained in the link I just gave you. Basically, it's a software program similar to Blogger but designed for posting longer articles that may be of more lasting interest. I'm intrigued by the idea, and expect that I'll be creating some "knols" of my own. In the old days, before Internet, I devoted a lot of time, energy and anxiety to writing queries and then articles to send out to editors at magazines and newspapers, and sometimes I would get published and paid, but more often I would not, and even when I succeeded (see my Notes & Essays for samples, or my C.V. for a more complete list), the pay was meager. For those of us who write for motives other than money, which (Dr. Johnson to the contrary notwithstanding) is almost everybody who writes seriously, this is an attractive alternative to sending articles to an editor. Maybe my first knol will be about self-publishing, what it has meant historically (I just read a life of William Cobbett) and what the new technologies may portend, for the publishing industry and for political and social thought.

Meanwhile, I'll keep blogging. I like the short, ephemeral form. Which may not be so ephemeral, since things posted on the Internet seem to last forever.

2008/07/26

McCain v. McCain

This guy is more confused than Bush (who doesn't pretend to know anything or need to know anything). Watch McCain claim then disclaim expertise on economy, and then watch him get everything wrong on what is supposed to be his strong suit, military policy. He gets the dates of the "surge" of U.S. troops and the "Anbar awakening" all mixed up, and talks with great concern about the Iraq-Pakistan border (huh?). Lots of stuff on YouTube. Here's a starter video:

2008/07/24

The ones we really need to be afraid of

Here is an intense narrative that will help Americans understand how the sophisticated youth of Pakistan (and probably other countries of the East and South) see us, and why we should worry. Very quickly and movingly told. Click on title for my synopsis and comment.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 1st ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

Thanks to Andrew Hull for recommending and lending me this book.

2008/07/21

Cantankerous crusader

An English friend here in Carboneras lent me this book about a crusading, cantankerous and extremely energetic journalist who had a lot to do with establishing the ground rules for pamphleteers, journalists and today's bloggers -- nearly two centuries ago.


Ingrams, Richard. The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett. London: HarperCollins, 2005.

This is a very detailed bio, focused almost entirely on Cobbett himself (1763-1835), his movements and his voluminous writings, to the point that it is easy to lose sight of the wider context and why any of it mattered. It did matter, however, tremendously. Cobbett's vigorous journalism taking on powerful figures got him into many troubles, including a 2-year jail term, but ended up helping establish truth as a defense in libel actions and thus widen freedom of press in England. His campaign for parliamentary reform was a major contributor to its triumph in 1832 (elimination of rotten boroughs and much else), and his reports on country life in his late collection of articles, Rural Rides, includes vivid portraits of rural life in England, Scotland and Ireland on the brink of the industrial-urban revolution.

It would probably be best to read this after something like E. P. Thompson, so as to get the context and analysis before diving into so much detail of one man's life and career.

Above: Caricature of Cobbett (standing on cart and waving copies of his newspaper to beat his drum) and fellow reformer Francis Burdett (sitting on cart and waving his hat) at the 1806 Middlesex election. Click on image to enlarge.

2008/07/20

Gypsies

In last Sunday's El País a Gypsy was featured on both the front page of the newspaper and the cover of the Sunday magazine, in two unrelated stories of people who had become accidental spokespersons, one in Spain and the other in Italy. One was Juan José Cortés (in center of photo at left, with his father and one of his brothers), a clothing merchant and Pentecostal minister in Huelva, Spain, who has become a prominent critic of the Spanish justice system, since his little daughter Mari Luz was murdered by a pervert who should have been in prison (but the judge, overworked or just distracted, had neglected to effect the sentence).

The other was 12-year old Rebecca Covaciu, originally from Rumania, who with her family had been chased from one end of Italy to the other, from Milan to Naples and finally to a secluded and secret rural area near Naples, provided by an anonymous Italian family who had read or seen on TV the family's tribulations.

The very articulate and determined Cortés was profiled and interviewed in the Sunday magazine, refused to make an issue of his ethnicity. He had never felt discriminated as a Gypsy, he said, though he thought that perhaps the Gypsies had "marginalized" themselves (by not participating fully in Spanish civil society). He himself has joined the Partido Socialista (an unusual step for a Gypsy), though he has no intention of running for office.

Rebecca's story is much sadder.
She and her little brother were beaten by thugs simply for being foreign Gypsies, and when her father went to denounce the beating, he was beaten by the police -- who, it turned out, were the very same men who, in civilian clothes, had beaten the children.

Gypsies in Spain don't suffer anything like the official discrimination encouraged by the Berlusconi government in Italy, which wants to fingerprint them all and herd them into ghettos. But Gypsies, here known as gitanos, are viewed with a mix of suspicion and admiration. The common view is that they are mostly petty thieves, unreliable and disinclined to steady work -- although every Spanish payo (the Gypsy word for non-Gypsies) I know recognizes that there are exceptions.

The negative stereotype is no doubt exaggerated, but there are real problems. In Andalucía, where more than half of Spanish Gypsies live, seven out of ten children drop out before completing primary school, which
makes it harder when they reach adulthood to find steady work. Almost half of those who do work (48%) are self-employed, far fewer than Spanish payos. (Actualidad Étnica) Why do the kids drop out? My guess is that in many cases they feel unwelcome in school, and have few role models in their community to encourage them to continue. And similar factors -- negative attitudes of employers, inadequate preparation and low expectations of job-seekers -- certainly account for the poor employment levels. But if anyone doubts gitano capacities to acquire the needed skills and make good, check out the impressive video of Acceder, an "affirmative action program" that has had great success in preparing gitanos in interview as well as work skills and getting tens of thousands placed in good, skilled jobs throughout Spain.

The admiration is for their lively, rebellious spirit, whose greatest expression is in their music, especially flamenco dance, guitar and percussion of palmas or cajón.

I've been puzzled by this strong Spanish ambivalence toward people that I have a hard time distinguishing from everybody else. Payos insist that they can recognize a gitano when they see one. I don't know. Most of them look like other Spaniards to me (check out the BBC's photos of European Gypsies in
Testimonios : Los gitanos "europeos", to see if you can identify them). They are believed to have originated in Northwest India, and yes, there are some Spanish Gypsies who look to me more like Pakistanis or Indians. The flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala", for example. But in the many generations since they first appeared in Spain in the early 15th century, they have mixed their genes with the local population so that in most cases (at least for me) its hard to tell, and except when performing, they dress like everybody else. Foreign Gypsies, mostly from Rumania or ex-Yugoslavia, are more identifiable -- they often don't speak good Spanish, travel in bunches and dress very colorfully. These foreigners, especially the conspicuous beggars, can be an embarrassment to the more assimilated Spanish Gypsies.

Anyway, the question comes up because there are several gitano families here in Carboneras, whom I'm learning to identify as I get to know them. They are clustered in particular sections of town, and those I recognize are either manual laborers or unemployed -- I suppose there must be some with white-collar and even executive positions, but then they cease to be visible as Gypsies. And the other reason for my interest is the stirring flamenco music --where many (though by no means all) of the outstanding performers are, or pretend to be, Gypsies. And I'm one of a little group of guys who get together to try to perform it and improve our playing, every Saturday at midday. Some of the guys I practice with may really be Gypsies. The others, like Federico García Lorca in his Romancero gitano, are admirers or wannabes.