Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jeanne of Arc

Jhesus-Maria, King of England, and you, Duke of Bedford, who style yourself regent of the Kingdom of France, you, Guillaume de la Poule, count of Suffort, Jean, sire of Talbot, and you, Thpmas, sire of Scales, who call yourselves lieutenants of the Duke of Bedord, acknowledge the summons of the King of Heaven. Render to the Maid here sent by God the King of Heaven, the keys of all the good towns which you have taken and violated in France. She is here come by God’s will to reclaim the blood royal. She is very ready to make peace, if you will acknowledge her to be right, provided that France you render, and pay for having held it. And you, archers, companions war, men -at-arms and others who are before the town of Orleans, go away into your country, by God. And if so be not done, expect news of the Maid who will come to see you shortly, to your very great injury. King of England, if you do not so, I am chief-of-war, and in whatever place I attain your people in France, I will make them quit it willy-nilly. And if they will not obey, I will have them all slain; for I am here sent by God, the KIng of Heaven, body for body, to drive you all out of France.

(Joan of Arc, Orleans, March 22, 1429.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

The New Class, Palin and Obama (Note to Peter Berkowitz)

Peter Berkowitz once asked me how I made the transition from a fairly radical (if mostly intellectually radical) leftism to a center-right position, rooted in the defense of American democratic sovereignty abroad and a modestly libertarian conservatism at home.

The answer is that sometime during the course of the 80s and 90s, I looked at the left, my friends and confreres in America, and concluded that we were promoting a ‘left authoritarianism’, under the conjoined banner of rights and therapy: which is to say, what certain people think is good for you, promulgated in the essentially unanswerable language of ‘rights talk’.

So the importance of conservatism (leaving aside the usual issues about rational economic policy and national security) is largely that I am anti-New Class. Anti-the elite left ‘helping professions’, who come armed with law and therapy - the power of the prosecutor to make you and your kids better people! The leftwing, feminist hysteria of the 1908s and 90s over child abuse has never ceased to rankle me, and might well count as the thing that drove me out of the left (note to Peter). Waco certainly had an effect. Ever since dropping out of the Mormon church many, many years ago, I’ve never had the faintest sympathy for social conservatism as a set of substantive positions - but I also could not abide the idea of a bunch of creepy social workers (bearing, once again, the therapeutic nostrums of the helping professions but armed with the legal authority of the prosecutor) telling my much more socially conservative Mormon sisters how to run their lives and the lives of their families.

There are many ironies and subtleties to New Class analysis. One is not so subtle, however - it is, in fact, central. The rewriting of New Class doctrine by American neoconservatives that took place during the 1980s and 90s was a huge intellectual mistake (as we at Telos noted at the time, not that anyone was listening). Irving Kristol’s book on American neoconservatism in the 1990s claimed that the New Class divide was between, on the one hand, the intellectuals, the professionals such as lawyers whose livelihoods consisted of navigating the divide (more precisely: holding monopoly access to the divide) between public and private, government professionals in the “helping professions,” media professionals, etc., and, on the other hand, business people.

That proposed division, putting professionals and government bureaucrats on one side, and business people on the other, was flat-out wrong. It was wrong for all the reasons that the late Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final works, particularly The Revolt of the Elites and, for that matter, David Brooks noted in another sort of way in his hilariously on-target Bobos in Paradise. Many business people, many whole categories of business people - people in finance, private equity, all sorts of businesses - are entirely New Class in their cultural and professional and social orientations.

The problem, however, is not with elites, or with the idea of elites, as such. I am not in the least bit ‘anti-elite’, anti-elite as such. I’m not a populist. I’m an intellectual and an elite and a believer in representative democracy. That a society, governed by representative democracy, needs elites is beyond issue. The question is, what kind, and what should their relationship be to those whom they govern?

Palin and Obama cast that issue pretty squarely on the table, and they put it on the table for the next generation in American politics, once the Bidens and McCains have passed from the historical stage. Obama is a classic New Class elitist, by education, outlook, everything. So is his wife. Their professional lives have consisted in - community organizing? please - the elite management of the poor and, of even greater importance today, management of, but also production of, communalist tensions through multiculturalism and identity politics. That’s what the New Class does; that’s what it exists to do. Along with, to be sure, extracting rents for managing social conflicts that it also has much interest in creating.

Palin represents not just another sort of America, but another sort of American elite. Not very elite, in her case, let’s be clear. She is not an intellectual, obviously: so what? It’s overrated, I can tell you. She doesn’t have an Ivy League education, or even a degree from one of the great public universities.

[Footnote: She is above all a cultural product of the Western United States; the land-grant universities and colleges where my father spent all his life. Idaho native and former Clinton domestic policy advisor Bruce Reed, a genuine Democratic centrist who seems, alas, unlikely to have a big place in the New Obama Order, has written the very best thing about why Democrats run a big risk in condescending to her. His article in Slate, ostensibly about Sarah Palin, is one of the most touching essays I’ve read in a long time, because it’s obvious that it is indirectly a love letter from Bruce to his own wife. Very, very cool.]

But Palin obviously is not Fred Flintstone, either - as though Fred Flintstone were chosen by lot from the masses to lead the masses; she has political skills and smarts and a view on large issues that affect many lives. Let’s face it, I don’t think any of my intellectual colleagues in academia or me, for that matter, could get elected governor of anywhere, or dogcatcher, or anything else. We don’t dream of being elected; we dream of being appointed, and when we dream of ‘appointed what?’, it is usually Czar or maybe Grand Inquisitor.

But unlike me or my confreres in the academy, Palin has an organic, extra-political connection to the people she proposes to govern, whether in Alaska or the United States as a whole. Everything about her says, I’m one of you. Not the whole citizen of the planet thing that Obama’s New Class persona uses as a way to elide the question of his relationship to America and Americans, except as Redeemer, but a representative of the people of whom she is indeed representative, but among whom she must be, in virtue of the office she seeks, also an unapologetic elite. The question for contemporary elites is no longer whether they have, but instead whether they believe they actually need, a rootedness in and among the people whose lives they intend so thoroughly to govern. This is the question that Lasch posed ironically in The Revolt of the Elites (playing on Ortega y Gasset’s Revolucion de las Masas). Lasch answered, ‘not any more’; in classic New Class fashion, they aver their expertise instead and say that it is enough.

But the answer, I should hope, is still surely ‘yes’. A representative democracy needs elites who are both elite and expert and even wise, but also rooted in the place and among the people they propose to lead. Palin’s “rootedness” is not at issue. The question for her, instead, is whether she has (lacking the ponderous, yet often pointless credentials of the contemporary elites) that which is genuinely necessary to lead and manage an enormous, modern political economy, as well as a polity out among enemies in a dangerous world. The common man does not. Fred Flintstone does not. Does she?

The modern Democratic party has wobbled, since Woodrow Wilson at least, between its intellectual pretensions and its working class roots, through Dewey, Stevenson, etc., etc.. But it has tipped over today, and not just into elite management, the ‘expert’ management of society that its progressive wing has always proffered, sometimes for good against populist sentiment, but frequently for bad, in all the ways that Jonah Goldberg notes in Liberal Fascism - as a justification for left-authoritarianism. Today, however, it has tipped beyond that into New Class ideology, the seemingly unassailable combination (which is to say, the intellectual cul-de-sac) of therapy-law managing people who are increasingly broken down into identity communities, and whose relationships are then run (we call it ‘community organizing’, among other things) from the top by New Class elites. That’s Barack and Michelle Obama, even if you leave aside all the creepy cultish stuff. The Democrats are the party of the New Class, for as far into the future as I can see today.

For the Republicans, however, the question is still (for the moment) an open one. What remains most open, in the future of politics and ideology for the party, is the way in which it comes to grips with the necessity of elites in a Republic, in a republican form of government, in a representative democracy. It has its New Class temptation, to be sure - its name is Mitt Romney. Conservative New Class analysis, however, because it has mistakenly exempted business people from the category, cannot see Romney for the managerial therapist that in reality he is. For that matter, it cannot see, either, that what passes as evangelical religion in the United States has long since made God into a cipher interpreted by the Twelve Step Program; the God of the evangelicals turns out to be ‘as interpreted’ not by his prophet, but by our therapist.

At the other end, however, without a theory and practice of elites, the temptation to disastrous and, let’s be clear, often evil populism always looms. Obviously this has always been true: this is largely why we have representative republican government, not direct participatory democracy. New and not worked out for Republicans (and conservatives more generally), however, is what this means today, in a world in which New Class experts - free floating not just in the United States but, in a globalized world - propose to run the planet while they float untethered, unrooted, deracinated, unattached, but always highly paid, in the jet stream. What is the theory of elites, what is the theory of popular participation and democratic legitimacy? How to describe the difference (a difference we currently recognize, if only in an intutitive, inchoate, and untheorized way) between the “leadership” of the republic and its citizenry, on the one hand, and the “management” of a mere “economy” and its mere consumers, on the other?

Working out this relationship in a way that can be defended intellectually, but is also accessible politically, is the current intellectual task of conservatism in America. Whether, of course, it knows it or not.

All that said:

I am supposed to be finishing a book chapter on where American conservatism is, or should be, going. For the record, it is not done yet.

In some respects, this was always an odd assignment for me, since I am a johnny-come-lately to conservatism, and am not sure exactly how much applies to me ... social conservative, very far from it; national security conservative, yes, emphatically; libertarian conservative, yes, but not in that crazy Ayn Randian mad, mad way. I suppose that means I fit one classic, if otherwise empty, definition of a ‘neoconservative’ - someone who mostly favors Republicans, but only started doing so since the mid-1990s.

That, by way of autobiography with respect to suggesting ‘where American conservatism ought to be going intellectually. Because, when I think about what actually draws me to conservatism, it starts with a profound distaste for the elite intellectual class of which I am a part.

It is what drew me, for example, to the radical critical journal Telos, to Paul Piccone and Russell Berman: a deep suspicion of what it described as the New Class management-domination of the rest of America, through a therapeutic language that barely concealed an authoritarian agenda.

(It is an authoritarianism premised, as the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once wrote in a marvelous late 1980s essay in Telos, on the proposition that the “problem” of the poor, and a “problem” of social management since extended to include all the non-rich, anyone who might not share New Class social and political sentiments, is not one of class, at least not in the usual marxist sense, but instead that, in the sense of the market-therapeutic professionals who propose to manage them today, they exhibit the “poverty of flawed consumers”).

You can read New Class ideology pretty much straight up in Clinton’s It Takes a Village, as I pointed out in a review in the TLS in the mid-1990s. I wrote about some of this in a lengthy but - if you’ll forgive me - really quite good review essay of several books on the New Class and the new ‘market professionals’ and why lawyers were so professionally unhappy in the Columbia Law Review in 1996.

So I think.

On the other hand, no one to whom I have ever described this project - even as a book chapter - has ever agreed. They all think it is thin and doesn’t amount to anything other than a political slogan: “leadership.” I therefore call upon the spirits of Telos, including its gazillion ex-editors of every political stripe, and the guiding force of Paul Piccone, may his soul rest in peace, to help me better articulate this. Because I also think that the root intellectual sources for this lie not in American conservatism, but in the Telosian critiqe of the “wholly administered society” from back in the 1970s and 80s.

And yet no one, on the left or right, among my most respected friends, thinks there is much to this, and certainly not as an (“re” - let’s be clear) animating project for American conservatism.

This skepticism has inhibited, I admit, my intellectual confidence in my ideas and has slowed down my writing. But I must admit that the emergence of Obama and, today, Palin, frankly makes me think, once again, that I’m right.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Public trust societies and kinship societies

Huntington famously argues that a clash of civilizations is underway, and locates it as a clash of religious traditions, Christianity and Islam. But it seems to me more correct to think of a clash, less of two universalist religious traditions, than of two fundamental organizational principles, kinship societies and those limited number of societies that have managed to establish, however incompletely, social organization on the basis of public trust that goes beyond ties of kinship. Those ‘public trust’ societies in one sense define modernity, but some of the core conditions predate modernity by centuries - monogamy and out-marriage, to start with.

Monogamy is a necessary, although obviously far from sufficient, condition of a society that is both egalitarian and free: a society in which a group of males has no real access to sexual reproduction is not an egalitarian society, by definition, nor a free one, and that inequality in reproductive access is tied to every other form of economic inequality. And that is to speak only of the men. From this standpoint, the fact that Christianity, for reasons that appear to me, at least, historically and even theologically quite contingent, favored both monogamy and out-marriage over cousin marriage, however much honored only in the breach, sets it apart as a form of social organization.

Modernity in some sense starts with those preconditions. The development of a social ethos that accepts the idea that individuals have fiduciary duties in the abstract, that do not pertain solely to those who are members of extended family groups - even where those extended family groups are as much or more socially, rather than genetically, defined - is what gives rise to the public trust necessary to modern Western society and the modern democratic state: that the state, and its officials, will treat people neutrally, without regard to kinship or other pre-modern markers of identity. Without that trust, the result is the form of the state, but an animating principle quite at odds with it. It is the marker of the rule of law and, it increasingly seems to me, the real line of division between societies today.

What gets the cultural cycle of public trust going in society? I have no idea but certainly it appears to be a long term cultural fact, rather than a short term political creation. Samuel Pepys, for example, wrote his diary at what appeared to be the beginning of a long term shift in English political culture: a time in which offices were still heritable and for sale, but also at a time when officials - in vital public positions such as the Royal Navy - were also beginning to be held to account for corruption and fraud. By the Industrial Revolution, the culture of the civil service was taking hold, and with it an ideal of neutrality in dealing with alternating governments and with the public. The very notion of “honor” and to whom it was owed had shifted.

The idea of equality before the law, in matters related to integrity of person, is a very old one and found widely across cultures. The idea of equality in the distribution of the largesse of state favor, and that it is dishonorable for me as a publi official to favor me and mine over you and yours in the matter of state property and privilege, because it is a “public trust,” is a quite new one, and very limited in cultural scope. Yet it is the basis of legitimacy - even more the democracy - of the modern state worldwide. What we call a ‘failed state’, after all, is almost by definition that there is no concept of public trust, that it has been exhausted and depleted.

(Useful reading on this includes James Bowman, Honor; and Francis Fukuyama, Trust. Of course, if your view is that all societies are equally successful in their social and cultural arrangements, just different, but no one is better or worse, then none of this will make much sense.)

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

The new issue of the Times Literary Supplement has a fascinating, troubling review by Donald Rayfield of a new book on the history of the Caucasus. I think I nominate it, and the book, for most timely of the year. The Ghost of Freedom, by Charles King (OUP 2008).

[Western] romanticizing underlies attitudes to the new states of the southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, where a hard-headed desire to have a route for oil and gas that cannot be cut off by Putin and Medvedev is glossed as an aspiration to encourage European Union-standard human rights and democracy. The discussion of Georgia’s emergence from “failed state” status under a tired Edvard Shevardnadze, mired in corruption, like the account of Azerbaijan under its dynasty of ex-KGB Alievs, and of an Armenia run by violent nationalists and thinly disguised Soviet-style Communists, is more than competent. One would wish only for a little more cynicism: Mikeil Saakashvili may have the suave exterior of a Columbia University lawyer, but there are a lot of questions not posed, let alone answered here. The initial connivance of the Russians at the Rose Revolution, which got rid of the Ajarian warlord Aslan Abashidze as well as of Shevardnadze, two figures particularly hated by Putin, is unmentioned, and the mysterious sequence of murders and unexplained deaths of Saakashvili’s rivals and opponents needs to be discussed as proof of the continuity of a specifically Caucasian way of politics.

In a book dealing with “the ghost of freedom” one would expect a more thorough exploration of the Caucasus’s little Kosovos, where ethnic groups such as the Abkhaz and South Ossetians try to break away from a newly independent Georgia only to find themselves international pariahs, whose only refuge is a return to the Russian embrace. Here Putin’s salami tactics for reincorporating lost Soviet territory meet with no adequate or even intelligent response by the principal victims, for instance the Georgians, or from the European Union and United States who have already tied themselves into knots over the former Yugoslavia, and can only wring their hands as they see Russia, with the help of its heavily armed “peacekeepers”, turning Abkhazia back into its own private recreation zone. King ends with a vague hope that Europe’s “inexorable march” towards liberal values can proceed in the Caucasus, but not much of the evidence supports him. For over a thousand years the Georgians and Armenians have appealed to Europe for support as fellow Christians, as Europeans by culture, if not by geography, and after being strung along by Crusaders, by Louis XIV, by various Popes, by Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt and both Bushes, can still not believe that the answer they get will always be a perfunctory apology that deeper interests of state force the West to take sides with its major trading partners, not its cultural and spiritual brothers. Ghost of freedom, indeed. Given the present crisis, as Russia backs Ossetia’s separatists with bombs and shells, our politicians’ vacillations and our diplomats’ complacency may not be remedied in time, even if a group of experts were hurriedly assembled to follow up Charles King’s reconnaissance and produce and analyse in full the history of the Caucasus.

Monday, August 11, 2008

C.J. Chivers, NYT, offering a a page one opinion piece on Georgia

(Thanks Glenn, for the Instalanche, and welcome Instapunditeers.)

(Update: Dear Mr. Chivers. I’ve gone back and read some of your earlier reporting, which is excellent. So why don’t you ignore all the rude things I say below, and quit wasting your time writing the kinds of things that get the cross-x I give it below. Why, in the midst of the world potentially changing in a genuinely strategic and dangerous way, are you writing pointless opinion pieces, pieces which I or anyone else might agree or disagree with, while channeling - not Kremlin operatives, not Georgian generals but ... anonymous USG flunkies, likely from the State Department, with some or another ax to grind. This requires your genuine, hard-won, value-added Russia and Central Asian reporting skills? You have the skills to go gather new, actual facts, and you waste your time on this blather. I realize this is what the Times values, and this is how you get on the front page. But please be aware that there are some NYT readers - even paying subscriber readers - who would actually like to read brand new facts, gathered out in unlikely, difficult places. The test of a good, well-reported piece, Mr. Chivers, is that I wouldn’t be able to say anything about it: a painfully simple logical argument, not subject to the kind of logical questions I raise below, and facts that you have found out that no one yet knows. I don’t suppose it will wind up on the front page. But I would read it and I bet a lot of other people would too. Why don’t you do what you are specially in a position to do, and go out and research and report something in this moment of crisis? I mean something not obtained in the eternal circle-jerk between NYT reporters and USG officials eager to leak something. You can put all your brilliant analyses and opinions in the book later - I promise I’ll buy it. But in this moment of crisis, why not do some original reporting? Like you used to do? You used to be quite good at it, you know.)

The last time I had occasion to think about NYT’s Moscow bureau chief C.J. Chivers was by reason of his reporting on the latest UN conference on small arms controls. I put that post up at Opinio Juris, here. My basic point was that Chivers’ reporting was soft-ball at best, took whatever UN officials had to say at pretty much face value, and didn’t offer relevant qualifications to the narrative he and UN officials seemed together to accept. Dave Kopel, at Volokh Conspiracy, had more to say, here.

The NYT has a front page article by Chivers, a “news analysis” offering, In Georgia and Russia, a Perfect Brew for a Blowup, August 10, 2008. I haven’t posted this to OJ, because it’s frankly not worth it, but it is still an annoyance. Midway through the article, Chivers informs us that:

The risks were intensified by the fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.

In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.

But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.

At senior levels, the United States helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.

Georgia, meanwhile, began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and American firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, new convoys of vehicles and stockpiles of ammunition.

The public goal was to nudge Georgia toward NATO military standards. Privately, Georgian officials welcomed the martial coaching and buildup, and they made clear that they considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for “national reunification” — the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control.

All of these policies collided late last week. One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.

Does Chivers really want to tell us that the United States “helped militarize the weak Georgian state”? What is the evidence for that? The fact that the US helped reequip the Georgian military and helped train it? Mr. Chivers, cf. militarize - it doesn’t mean training and weapons merely. It doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. It means systematically remaking the state under military domination. Is that really what you mean? Really? Again, what is your evidence for this remarkably strident charge? Besides the supply of American equipment and training?

After all, US policy around the world has been training of military forces in democratic states so that their militaries would operate in a more professional and disciplined fashion - particularly in matters of human rights. As I noted in my OJ post, here, the Georgian military was in desperate need of such professionalization going back to the days that led to the current conflicts. It was, in my personal experience at Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s, a militia army, extremely abusive and undisciplined in pretty much every way. The US “helped militarize” the Georgian state by seeking to raise its military above those standards. Good God, the horror.

To precisely what in what the US taught do you take exception? You say that the United States “helped rewrite Georgian miilitary doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.” You say this with a certain hint of dark things. Wow. How horrible - the fundamentals of battle. Who would have thought?

So what are you suggesting? Come on, be straight about it. What exactly do you think that American training said or did that was objectionable? Are you, for example, suggesting that US forces trained Georgian forces in abuses, of the kind of Abu Ghraib? What? It’s not good enough to drop a dark suggestion that training in basic military skills is somehow wrong. You actually have to say what’s wrong with it. If your point is that this led Georgian political elites to assume that the US would back them in a fight with the Russians over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, fine, or that the US failed to disabuse them of that possibility in order to keep them in Iraq, fine too - but that’s a completely different argument from saying that Americans trained Georgians in perfectly respectable military skills that any army needs, including respect for the laws of war, and implying that there was something sinister about it. Those latter possibilities, while entirely possible and in my speculative estimation likely, require premises going beyond simply saying that the US trained the Georgians. I’m speculating; you’re telling me you’re not. But what you offer in way of evidence consists of the fact of training and equipment - consistent with any number of other policies and explanations - and some anonymous sourcing.

Christ, it’s not that hard. Tell us straight what you you think is wrong with US policy. Is it the content of training? Is it the the bare fact of training? Is it an implied deal of training for the US going along with a Georgian move to re-take the territories? These are not the same thing, but you conveniently treat them as though they are - and, in particular, without managing quite to say so, imply sinister things about the bare fact of training and its content, as a way of casting suspicion on US conduct, rather than Georgian interpretations of it. As for the US re-equipping the Georgian army, if that’s wrong, one obvious implication is that it would somehow be better if the Georgian republic were unable to defend itself against Moscow - maybe that’s true, maybe not, but surely you would admit that this is a rather Moscow-favorable interpretation of things, offered by a Moscow bureau chief, and that simple argumentative obligations, not offered as narrative, would require that you at least acknowledge the possibility and state why that is not the case. Might I trouble you to do that?

Look: what you’ve offered us is an argument, masquerading as a narrative news story. I’m very interested in arguments, especially on a policy topic as difficult and fraught with risks as this, and I don’t doubt that you have important things to say. But if you want to offer an argument, then, well, argue it. Make claims and then explain the evidence for your premises. You offer us a narrative story that is, let’s be honest, very Moscow-centric, backed by a couple of unnamed US government sources. The last one you cite, the one American “official who covers Georgian affairs,” sounds like possibly he or she has an agenda or two. Is that possible? Might you tell us about it? But the fundamental point is that if you actually set out to argue your case, it wouldn’t look anywhere near as convincing as the narrative you spin out, because you might have to consider weaknesses in your own position. It would be a lot harder to rely on anonymous sources. A decent editor would query the use of inflammatory and unwarranted language like “militarize.”

I’m fine with the NYT becoming an 80% opinion paper, heck, 95%, since that’s what it is already. But in that case, offer the opinion pieces as arguments. My fifteen year old daughter just finished an elementary logic class this summer - strikingly, one of the most important parts of the class was the discussion of why straw arguments were bad, and the obligations in argument of charity in presenting an opponent’s position and fidelity in offering it. The fundamental problem with the journalistic media style is that, offered in place of argument, presenting opposing views, alternative explanations, anything to the contrary, simply disappears. Doesn’t fit the narrative. For heaven’s sake, if you’re going to argue, then argue.

Mr. Chivers, I don’t doubt you have important things to say about the Russia-Georgia war. So why don’t you report the facts, unadorned, and if you want to argue your opinions, then do so in an plainly stated, argumentative way?

(ps. To finish out the apparent agendas, I suppose I should add that what Chivers means by “militarization” is that Georgia supported the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. As he says (bold added):

[T]he fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.

In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.

But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.

Is it a “fact” that the US “helped militarize the weak Georgian state”? This sounds like an opinion to me. It might be a reasonable one - I think what Chivers says next is almost certainly correct, that the Georgians perceived the situation as a quid pro quo, but that too falls into the category of opinion, even if informed opinion, at least on the evidence presented: it is not shown, instead it is used as a premise in the rest of the argument - assumed, in other words.

It is likewise quite another question whether the US, which has had a long term policy of assisting places like Georgia with training and equipment, for reasons that long predate Iraq or Afghanistan, also saw this as the quid pro quo. Chivers would have to establish that this would not have been US policy in any case. Not exactly what I associate with, um, facts. The implication, in any case, that Chivers wishes to draw from this is that the weak Georgian state was “militarized” by the fact of US military assistance - as though there were no independent reasons why the US would not have undertaken this - and the “proof” of this is ... Georgian military support for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lovely.)

(pps. Remarkably, dear readers, I am one of the dwindling out-of-NYC home subscribers to the Times. I pay for it, I don’t just read it online. Even more remarkably, I am actually a NYT shareholder, oy vey - shares I bought a while back because, as a finance professor in my day job, I thought it would help if I owned a few shares of a company I frequently use as a class test case to give me a personal reason for keeping track of the company finances. Still, I didn’t imagine when I bought it that the stock price would fall this far ... For that matter, I’ve written for the Magazine a couple of times. I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether the content really has an effect on the financial decline of the Times; there are arguments both directions, in that the greater opinionizing , if it really is that and not simply more noticed opinionizing, might have the effect of reinforcing the core audience as a niche product. And the conditions of the industry are disastrous for reasons that reach beyond any single newspaper. But I do agree with Glenn Reynolds and others that the best financial strategy for newspapers, including the Times, is reporting of facts and not simply offering opinions. The web is filled with people with opinions who frankly write as well as any NYT writer. Any ass with a law degree can do what I did here, and simply closely read what was written; I did what an editor should have done. What we don’t have is independent access to facts. Pity that the Times seems to reached the point where “reporting” simply means calling a government source and saying, hi, you want to leak? For that matter, I suspect Chivers is probably a pretty decent factual reporter on the ground in the many places from which he has reported, possibly even an outstanding one, but you’d never know - the problem is that factual reporting is not especially valued by his employer, and does not seem to be the ticket to the front page. More’s the pity. Mr. Chivers, I apologize for being rather rude in this post. But at some point exasperation trumps - who was it, Dorothy Parker, who got it best: What fresh hell is this?)

How much reading will 2 or 3L law students do?

Rick Hills, over at Prawfsblawg, asks the question, how much reading will 2L or 3L law students do in a weekly seminar? Fifty pages a week too much?

Professor Hills teaches at NYU. I’m surprised that no one in the comments so far has remarked on what students outside the top 10 law schools do in their second and third years, at least if they are in sizable cities - viz., work as many hours as they can somewhere. It helps to be in DC, of course, but my students at American try to work at least half time, as permitted by the rules, and in many cases I am sure work far more than that. At paid jobs with law firms, if they can get them, or else at internships with government agencies. Their motivations are partly to reduce debt, but also because, at least in DC, clerkships with firms or internships with government agencies are hugely important ways of getting jobs.

This takes a large toll on class preparation. I put up with it in large part because I can see from years of watching that these positions matter in getting jobs. My students are not in law school as grad school - I wish they were, but they’re not. I don’t think they go out as well prepared academically for practice as they would if they put their focus on their classes - and I think students at schools, even in my same tier, where such positions are not available have an intellectual edge in important ways for the practice of law, because they focus more on class. But it is hard for me to fault my students and, in fact, I don’t.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Bright Lights, Big City

Huh. I remember that I have read a Jay McInerney novel, Model Behavior, from the late 1990s, and Bright Lights, Big City seems identical, as far as I can tell. I enjoyed Model Behavior in a guilty pleasures mode, mostly because it fit into a very particular genre of male fantasy novel that is the male equivalent of chick lit - the novel of manners in which the hero is some version of an intellectual or writer or anyway nothing very manly or hunky or rich or famous or powerful, but somehow gets the model or actress or some-such, of whom he is obviously completely unworthy. She leaves him but then, of course, comes back to him. Or they break up and get back together. The fantasy point is that she would be interested in the first place. In McInerney’s novels, the model seems to want to get married when in fact she would be looking to trade up. But you see what I mean about the equivalent of chick lit. I also find intriguing, as a fantasy point or maybe it’s just something from a now-gone era, that the New York young writer of fiction, short stories, novels, etc., seems like a figure of sexy up and coming power and consequence. Writers? Who are we kidding? Girls these days are not foolish enough to fall for boys who studied literature in college, rather than economics, unless said male is already known to be headed to Yale Law School. Other examples in this genre include the movie Notting Hill which, contrary to all wisdom, is not a chick flick at all but a male fantasy, and of course the very great, in its own sweetly wrong, wrong way, AA Gill, Starcrossed. I started into Bright Lights, Big City at the Stanford gym, on the cross-trainer, at 20% O2, which seems about right. But what is this thing for first person, present tense fiction?

ps. Okay, it all becomes clear, now that I have finished reading BLBC at the gym, and have launched into Less Than Zero. I didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink, didn’t have the money for either of those two things, and didn’t really know anyone who did all that cocaine in the 1980s. Less Than Zero is a bore, even as reading on an exercise machine; I can sort of imagine that it shocked people when it came out in the mid-1980s, but the complete absence of anything below the surface save for some dated psychoanalytic schlock that was dying even as this was being published is just ... dull. Someone at the bookstore commented to me in the checkout line that Ellis is a better writer than McInerney. Not as far as I can tell - at least McInerney tells a rather sweet romance, plus more of the lost-mother psychological schtick; Ellis is just dull. Not sure I’ll manage to finish Less Than Zero. I saw a $2.50 Dover edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther in the bookstore, too, maybe I’ll reread that. Same general trend, more content.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Francisco Goldman and novels of the 1980s

Taking a little break here from writing away on my US-UN relations manuscript. Took a stroll over to Stanford Bookstore, where I was suddenly seized by a desire to read a couple of novels that supposedly characterized the 1980s. So I bought Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero.

I never read any of this stuff when it came out. I wasn’t interested - not sure I am now, but got curious because people I knew kept referring to the 1980s in terms of those novels, even though none of the references seemed to have any relation to my life during the period. I think I was the right age - I was 25 in 1980, when I finally got around to starting college at UCLA. I was a somewhat older student who didn’t have any money, had been working for a couple of years as a teamster on a loading dock in the grimy part of downtown LA until it closed in 1979 and moved out to Victorville, had spent a couple of years as a Mormon missionary who hadn’t really been sure about going to college at all ... reading the back covers, I don’t think Less Than Zero had much to do with my experience in LA. No mistake - I loved LA, lived in a gritty, dangerous part of Hollywood for a couple of years, then moved to Venice and Santa Monica when I started in at UCLA - I’ve always loved LA. But I never saw anything of the glamorous, moneyed, fast young LA set when I was young and lived there. Same in NYC a decade later, after law school and the beginning of my adult life on the East Coast.

One reason I thought about these novels was (a shining example of the Anderson coup-de-nonsequitur) thinking about the novels of the Guatemalan-American writer Francisco Goldman, an old friend who most recently published a nonfiction account of the murder - really, the investigation or non-investigation into the murder - of Archbishop Gerardi in Guatemala in the late 1990s, The Art of Political Murder, out September 1 in paperback. It’s a marvelous book, and it made me go back to Frank’s novels and (continuing the weird brain connection saga) think about what Frank said to me in the 1980s about novels and novelists.

He - Frank - said, I don’t want to be like Them. Meaning Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis. Frank, a well regarded rising young writer in 1980s New York, was then working on his first novel, a sprawling marvelous thing called The Long Night of White Chickens, a combination Latin American fabulism combined with a New York Jewish coming of age story. Sound weird? Well, it works, read it. Also, quite apart from anything else, it’s the best riff on what the world of do-gooding, nongovernmental organizations working in bad places in the world is like, even twenty years later.

(Why is it, by the way, that no one has written a decent novel featuring an NGO worker? Besides this one, I mean, something dating from the 1990s and beyond? The ones that are out there are either filled to the brim with sugary, soupy romantic claptrap about the Heroic NGO worker, preferably a handsome French surgeon with MSF, sawing away at the leg bones of landmines victims in an improvised field hospital, Gaulois cig dangling from mouth, or else preternaturally but understatedly beautiful, marathon runner, disciplined bodies of the Good GIrls of the Left, triaging bags of rice and flour, or digging up the bodies of the disappeared, always Grimly Serious ... cf. Michael Ondaatje. How about, for example, a novel in which the MSF French surgeon accidentally, but hilariously, amputates the wrong leg?)

I was a young associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, and Frank used to call me up in the middle of the afternoon and read sections he was writing to me aloud as I stared out into the canyons of Wall Street and didn’t think about international tax law.

Well. Frank had a touch of envy in talking about the glitter writers of the period, Ellis and McInerney - who wouldn’t, fame, fortune, movie deals? But, he said, I want to write prose that is not about glitter, not a form of consumer shorthand. Also, he said, I’m not really interested in chronicling the lives of spoiled rich kids in New York. The Long Night of White Chickens certainly wasn’t that. But afterwards I noted a shift in his prose style. His subsequent novels shifted away, it has always seemed to me, from the exquisite formations of sentences that threatened, unless one was a very attentive reader, to overwhelm at the level of metaphorical detail, the actual narrative, to a simpler, less adorned style that emphasized the story.

It seemed to me right. Much plainer, quieter prose, much more story. It was a brave shift for a novelist looking to make a name, in an era in which glittering, high octane, sparkling surface prose seemed to count for a lot. But The Ordinary Seaman, in particular, simplifies a lot, while the historical The Divine Husband is a kind of combination of the two. And those are wonderful novels.

Frank has had recent tragedy in his life. He married a young woman I never had the privilege of meeting, Aura Estrada, a young Mexican writer studying at Hunter in New York; she died at age 30 in a tragic beach accident in Mexico a year ago. Frank is setting up a memorial writing fund in her name, the Aura Estrada Prize, and there is a fundraising dinner for it in New York in September 2008; Jean-Marie and I are on the dinner committee, but on account of my teaching schedule, Jean-Marie will be there but I won’t, alas. But I certainly wish it all the best in creating a scholarship in her name.