March 2005
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Month March 2005

Book #14: A Place So Foreign, and Eight More, by Cory Doctorow

I needed a bit more relaxation this weekend, after struggling through some of the more abstract chapters of math background in Penrose’s Road to Reality. So I grabbed Cory Doctorow’s A Place So Foreign and Eight More from its sad, neglected place in my “incoming” stacks. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’d been intrigued but ultimately unsatisfied by Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s first novel and the source of much Net fascination over “whuffie” economics. I think my mediocre reaction to D&O ultimately led to Place So Foreign languishing in the to-do pile for so long (Amazon reports that I bought the book in Oct 2003, so that’ll tell you how big the “incoming” stack has gotten…).

Not all of these short stories grabbed my attention, but at least two are gems. “To Market, To Market: The Re-branding of Billy Bailey” is a superb story about a world where elementary school kids fashion self-images as “brands,” seeking sponsorships from companies who get the benefits of viral marketing. Fasincating — though scary — idea, and incredibly well done.

But the best story of the lot is “0wnzored” (with zeros, in case your font doesn’t show the difference). A fast-paced tale of bioengineering and the frontiers of hacking, the story immerses you in Silicon Valley/tech industry geek culture. I felt overwhelmingly nostalgic for 1996 reading it.

OK. Back to serious reading, including Levy’s Original Intent and the Founder’s Constitution, as well as finally getting to the physics chapters in Penrose….

Book #13: Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties, by David Kusnet

I picked up Kusnet’s book after reading his New Republic article on the Inaugural speech. Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Clinton, Dukakis, and Mondale, is well-placed to comment on how Democrats continue to “get it wrong” when speaking on the issues. Speaking American is an older book, from right before the 1992 elections, and this was the book’s real attraction. Kusnet was writing at a time when Democrats had last won the White House in 1976, and had fielded two lackluster candidates in a row. Clinton’s magical ability to connect with people on both sides of the aisle was yet unknown to most of us.

And Kusnet’s message was that Democrats had been getting away from their roots, and were losing the middle class through a lack of populism. Dukakis was the epitome of this problem — perceived widely as an Eastern elitist, he failed to convince the middle class that he firmly grasped their interests, mostly because the rhetoric of the Democrats since McGovern had drifted towards talk of the poor, rather than the working middle class.

I won’t go through the details here, because in fact I read the book to anchor some thoughts I hope to post on Progressive Commons. Suffice it to say that in looking at a wholly unrepresentative sample of Democratic speeches from the 2004 campaign, I think we’ve learned some of the lessons Kusnet discusses but not all, and Kerry in particular was unable to project the right image even though he said many of the right words.

Book #12: Murphy’s Gambit by Syne Mitchell

I wasn’t going to blog about Murphy’s Gambit, by Syne Mitchell, because it’s more "snack" reading. But Will Baude and others are blogging everything as part of the 50 Book Challenge, so I’ll fess up to guilty pleasures as well. Basically, my brain hurts after prolonged exposure to radiation Richard Rorty, Roger Penrose, and Richard Posner, and I needed something fun. Morgan’s book was kind of disappointing, so I picked up Murphy’s Gambit yesterday, which I believe is Mitchell’s first book. It’s "hard" science fiction, which more than ever means fidelity to real physics, along with gory descriptions of the same. MG is set in a future where twelve large corporations control human colonization of the galaxy, with tight control over the only means of quickly moving between inhabited systems. Humans are divided into floaters (those who live and are adapted to zero-gee conditions), and the rest of "grounder" humanity. You can guess who is oppressing whom here. At any rate, it’s a fun book and I recommend it along with Mitchell’s more recent books ("Technogenesis" and "Changeling Plague").

Recent Wines: Tempier 2002 and Servin 2002 Chablis Les Pargues

Only a couple of notes this week.  I tried the Domaine Tempier 2002 regular bottling this week.  Although I revere Tempier, buy Tempier every year and am rarely disappointed, the 2002 is definitely a tougher vintage, and less pleasing than any vintage in memory (possibly stacking up like 1994).  This is likely due to the disastrous conditions prior to the 2002 harvest, which wiped out the southern Rhone Valley and wreaked havoc throughout Europe.   Who knows, the single vineyards may turn out better, given more rigorous selection and smaller production.  I feel bad writing this, since Tempier is probably my one "indispensible" wine, but I gotta be honest about my reaction to the 2002 regular.

The real gem this week was a bottle of Domaine Servin 2002 Chablis I bought on a whim from Whole Foods.  The wine is from the lieu-dit of Les Pargues, which was formerly a premiere cru vineyard but is now declassified.  So this wine is technically an AOC from a named lieu-dit, which leads to better-than-average quality at an incredibly reasonable price.  Whole Foods has the wine at $18 retail, less with case discount.  The wine, which is bottled unfiltered, is lush and full on the palate, with a lemon cream nose punctured by massive minerality.  No kidding — this is real Chablis for less than $20.

Book #11: Market Forces, by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan’s new novel, Market Forces, came in from Amazon last week, and I needed a break from non-fiction. I’d been a huge fan of his first novel, Altered Carbon, and (apart from the ending) Broken Angels, his second book. Market Forces, I’m sad to say, was good but nowhere near Morgan’s best work.

The premise is a dystopian future where “free market” economics and globalization has led to Western investment houses “investing” in global insurgencies, and running entire countries in the same fashion that Goldman Sachs might manage an IPO today. Executives at these investment houses practice a harsh social Darwinism in the most literal sense possible — gaining an account or promotion is the fruit of victory in combat with one’s peers. “Come to work with blood on your wheels, or don’t come at all” is the motto of the new corporate warrior.

Sadly, the gladitoral theme overshadows much else that might be interesting about this particular dystopia, and the book lacks the subtlety of Altered Carbon in projecting consequences of current social trends. Leaving this aside, however, Morgan continues to write in a fast-paced staccato style, reminiscent of early Gibson or Stephenson, and was a great diversion.

And it was a lot less daunting than the three massive volumes of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which continue to mock me from the “todo” stacks…

Book #10: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, by Richard Rorty

I’ve already posted quite a bit on Rorty’s books, and why they resonate so strongly with me.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is no exception. CIS serves as a book-length summary of his argument that if we deny a fixed, essentialist notion of human nature, we must see moral philosophers, social theorists, and much of literature as simply providing vocabularies and arguments for how societies can or should respond to historical contingency.  If we accept that moral philosophy cannot give us ultimate truth, but only good arguments to use in discussions with each other, and if we accept that science can tell us pragmatically how things work, but not what decisions we should make, then Rorty’s approach to liberal social hope is both necessary and compelling. 

For me, the most compelling section of the book is Rorty’s reading of Orwell’s dual accomplishments in 1984.  On the surface, and for the first two thirds of 1984, what Orwell is doing is redescribing totalitarian, Stalinist Russia.  This redescription is obviously meant to serve as a cautionary tale to those liberals who, prior to WWII, were fascinated with the fantasy (rather than the reality) of Stalin’s "worker’s paradise."  In Rorty’s view, Orwell’s first great accomplishment in 1984 was dispelling the myth that liberal social hopes depended upon the success of the Leninist-Stalinist social experiment.  He did so, not by demolishing Marxist theory or arguing (as Hayek would) that freedom and economic planning were incompatible, but by sensitizing his readers

to a set of excuses for cruelty which had been put into circulation by a particular group — the use of the rhetoric of "human equality" by intellectuals who had allied themselves with a spectacularly successful criminal gang.

If this is all that Orwell accomplished in 1984, then his critics would have a reasonable case that Orwell’s work will not age well, and along with most dystopic fiction, may be ephemeral in the literary sense.  Fortunately, in creating the character of O’Brien, Orwell ensures that 1984 will retain its value long after Soviet Russia has the same kind of historical immediacy to our descendants that the Kaiser’s Germany has in our time.  In Rorty’s view:

Orwell was not the first person to suggest that small gangs of criminals might get control of modern states and, thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever.  But he was the first to ask how intellectuals in such states might conceive of themselves, once it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future.  O’Brien is his answer to that question.

We are accustomed to viewing Stalin and his ilk as "moral monsters," men for whom the "natural" moral sense did not exist and who therefore represent an aberration.  And certainly such men are moral monsters, but the deep message of 1984 is that we cannot prevent such men from developing again so long as we solely consider them aberrations or deviations from a "natural" moral order.  For Orwell, in the characters of O’Brien and Winston Smith, is demonstrating the importance of historical contingency and the malleability of our world views given that contingency.  In Rorty’s view, Orwell’s importance is that he:

helps us see that it just happened that rule in Europe passed into the hands of people who pitied the humiliated and dreamed of human equality, and that it may just happen that the world will wind up being ruled by people who lack any such sentiments or ideas….The triumph of Oligarchical Collectivism, if it comes, will not come because people are basically bad, or really are not brothers, or really have no natural rights, any more than Christianity and political liberalism have triumphed (to the extent they have) because people are basically good, or really are brothers, or really do have natural rights.  History may create and empower people like O’Brien as a result of the same kind of accidents that have prevented those people from existing until recently — the same sort of accidents that created and empowered people like J.S. Mill and Orwell himself.

This is an important point, one whose relevance extends well beyond evaluating a specific, dystopian vision of society, or even our fascination for dystopias in general.  Rorty’s argument goes to the heart of why those who believe in the basic liberal project must reject the notion that there is a specific,  "natural" way to describe our efforts.  Rights-based discourse is powerful, but no more "natural" a way of describing liberal hopes than articulating specific and local reasons for our solidarity as people.   I take this point to be congruent with the notion (held by Berlin and Gray) that liberalism, in order to continue to grow and function in a multicultural world, must shed aspects of Enlightenment rationalism, in particular those parts which would suggest that there is a single, universal rationale for liberal hopes and projects.  Instead, what liberals must share is simply the realization that we are the lucky inheritors of a political tradition which is unique and valuable, but also the outgrowth of historical circumstances which may not repeat themselves everywhere in the future.  Part of our job as liberals is to stop assuming that liberal freedoms will always exist, or that democracy and liberal freedoms are synonymous, and that our task is simply to figure out how to win elections; instead, we must also consider how structural trends in our society and economy, historical accidents, as well as the discourse of our intellectuals, may serve to either perpetuate or snuff out the liberal experiment in melding freedom and equality.