Wednesday, January 29, 2014

David Brooks 2.0

Amy Chua is at it again, trying to pass reactionary racial theory off as new and exciting with bad statistics and her Ethnic Lady Creds.

This time, it's not just the Tiger Moms and Dragon Ladys coming to take your jobs but a whole host of the brown and forgotten! Indian immigrants swarming the IT field, African immigrants crawling out of poverty within a single generation, and some other anecdotal ethnic success stories. All tied together with a 21st century retread of Social Darwinism even less scientific than the original.

See, immigrant families tend to think very highly of themselves. Don't ask for evidence here, they just do. And, thinking highly of themselves, they force their children to succeed as otherwise they will shame the family. You may hear echoes of Chua's previous and equally spurious work, but don't pay any attention. This is about how all the really successful people in America are from marginalized minorities, like Jamie Dimon and Rand Paul.

"Wait!" I hear you say because I work for the NSA. "That makes no flippin' sense!" Indeed it doesn't, which is why Chua also includes an inferiority complex about how Asian students pull in As but still lack confidence because of all the small wiener jokes. "But that still doesn't -" Stop questioning Tiger Lady!

And what can we draw from all of this? That anyone can win at life through hard work, of course! Sure, you were born into a lower socio-economic class than those who run the country but if you forgo any sort of fun and hate yourself enough, you too can score big in the SAT! Just like all the brown people!

Despite all her airs of smashing the conventional wisdom, there is nothing unconventional about Chua's central point. This is the up by the bootstraps fantasy of Adam Smith, with even less thought paid to those who can't afford boots or had their boots repossessed by fraud-ridden banks. These exhortations to use "grit and determination" are the same spouted by the comfortable middle management class since the first mill worker asked why the boss gets twice as much pay for everyone combined without ever working on the floor. The only difference now is the fearmongering - "The wogs are comin' for ya cuz yer weak!"

Even a Tory would find such an approach hackneyed and crude.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Serious Business

It's easy to get caught up in nonsense news. Since American culture runs on narcissism, we usually mistake electoral antics for important events.

Like Bridgegate. Chris Christie is a swine so it's gratifying to see his presidential ambitions unraveling over something so stupid and petty, but how much impact does it have in the grand scheme of things? Americans - and those in the NYC-New Jersey area in particular - live under the delusion that their every thought is of profound importance to the world. It's how we got presidential politics that play more like the fight for Homecoming Queen than a serious consideration of how to steer the world's biggest empire for the next four years. If it were, we'd probably be hearing much less about and much much more about how Saudi Arabia could start World War III.

This goes back to last year's flap over US intervention in Syria. Everyone with a brain said it was a stupid idea for various reasons - we'd be helping al Qaeda, you can't just bomb Arabs into peaceable suburbanites, all that stuff we should've figured out ten years ago - but what got less stateside press was how the other regional players were being even more stupid.

The Saudis don't exactly like the Assad regime but, unlike the Israelis, they don't really have a mad-on for rubbing him out. The Syrian war is a convenient dumping ground for young and restless Saudi kids - and convicted murderers - who could stir up trouble in The Kingdom. So they "encourage" these youths and cons to take up global jihad, keeping them occupied in far off lands. Who cares if the world burns in the process?

Putin cares, for one. And so do the Iranians. Israel says it cares but their agenda syncs up with the Saudi agenda so frequently - anti-Assad, anti-Iran - that their antagonism is suspect to say the least...

The thing most Americans don't understand is that Saudi Arabia is really just a very wealthy North Korea. It's the personal fiefdom of a single family who know things like modernity and women's suffrage exist but hey, their House so their rules. Their very regressive rules which would make the state of women in Game of Thrones look like a triumph of feminism - and they get away with it thanks to their massive oil wealth. They get away with a whole bunch thanks to their massive oil wealth and it's reportedly making them cocky.

Getting back to Putin, the big unreported story of 2013 is that one of the bajillion Saudi princes supposedly threatened to set Sochi ablaze if the Kremlin didn't stop it's support of Assad. Really!

"I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future."

“...Chyo ty pizdish?”

It's the "controlled by us" that really gets me. It's certainly been a suspicion that the Saudis were funneling cash to the Chechens - because they funnel cash to every Sunni militia - but to come right out and say "they're our posse" to the leader of a nation that's suffered almost twenty years of Chechen terrorism? Not just say it but use it as leverage in negotiations!? There's ballsy and then there's balls-out insane!

And Putin hasn't been the most stable despot as of late. He's never been a nice guy but he was at least a competent and patient autocrat. But last year, French intelligence was worried a US strike in Syria would prompt Putin to hit Riyadh in retaliation. What happens after that isn't too hard to imagine - America responds, 'cause the Saudis are our "friends" and things quickly go from heated words at the UN to a shooting war in Europe until one side or the other figures "Fuck it!" and just rolls out the nukes.

...So there is in fact some significance to the Christie implosion. Imagine that back-scratching nutter trying to deal with the Saudis, the Israelis, the Iranians, and the ever more pissed off Putin. Even that dipshit Rand Paul would be a better option.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

America is NOT Rome

I really wish I could just post about books or indie games every week on this blag. But no, the rest of the world just won't stop being stupid...

Today's misery comes from a recent piece in Politico where a Rob Goodman tries to draw parallels between contemporary Congressional gridlock and the "fall of the Roman Republic." Less an article and more a long-form ad for his non-history book on Cato Minor, Goodman argues that if we don't get ourselves straightened out, our republic will fall too. Somehow.

To make his point, Goodman takes one look at history and says "See ya!" Using Cato to illustrate ancient Rome with all the nuance of a coloring book, he presents a nation in the grip of legislative gridlock where the proscribed elections are suspended in terror of Caesar rolling onto the Capitoline Hill on a wave of popular support. Where the bold if dumb as a brick Cato valiantly denounces the land redistribution plans that would reward returning veterans, as their love of Caesar might become a "constituency for military tyranny." Where such things as "elections" and "liberty" are never explained in the context of Rome but left to linger as self-evident precursors of the modern antics of Ted Cruz and company.

"What the cac is 'gridlock?'"
It's hard not to see Goodman making some connection between the Roman Cato and the American Cruz. Indeed, they're more similar than even he admits - both stonewalled attempts to spread the wealth of their respective nations to the masses while championing the privilege of their own oligarchies. But even that's a shallow reading of history. While Cruz and the Tea Party are - like it or not - a distinctly populist band of reactionaries, Cato was first and foremost an aristocrat. He wouldn't have been caught dead with the plebs that make up the Tea Party and he sure as hell wouldn't have bothered couching his opposition to Caesar in some "for the people" nonsense. Because that sort of faux-populism espoused by the elite was simply not a concept in ancient Rome.

In presenting such a shallow reading of history - really, any undergrad would  get an F for writing this crap - Goodman does harm to the ghost of a good point he has kicking around in this long demonstration of ignorance. American Conservatives are just as driven by postmodern identity politics as Napa Valley hippies, if not more so, and a big part of that identity is just the sort of apocalyptic rhetoric Goodman sees coming from Cato - whether it did or not:

"Envisioning decline is addictive. It offers us the chance to imagine our times as extraordinary and to cast ourselves in heroic roles to meet them. And the thrill demands a higher dose of doom each year."

And that's the only real truth to be had in Goodman's blather. Rome did not fall with Cato and Caesar. Rather, the Republic transitioned to the Principate - and not even until after Augustus had put away the rival Marc Antony. Augustus was an "emperor" because that's the only English word that conveys the sense of power he held. Really, his actual title translates to "First Among Equals," sitting in the Senate and holding enough simultaneous titles to be a de facto dictator without any of the bad press. The transition from the Principate to the Dominate marks a much more obvious historical example of an empire's slide into decadence and that didn't happen for another hundred and eighty years. And that century-plus period had ups and downs from Nero to Marcus Aurelius.

One of the few things even Gladiator got right...

What implications could this have for 21st century America? Good question. Goodman doesn't offer an answer and neither do the comments - that cesspool of contemporary discourse. Rather than offer any interpretations of their own or at least challenge Goodman's risible reading of history, the readers of Politico would much rather use this article to kick off another round of digital pissing contests where all the libertarians can complain about the Big Bad Gub'mint and the progressives can fire back defensively. Because even after steamrolling through two presidential elections, American progressives still can't put up a fight.

Which makes them damn lucky to be living in a time where their enemies are such tremendous cowards. Libertarians are only a threat to you if you're alone at night and black. Both Caesar and Cato had "military constituencies" - men with swords - backing them up, as did every other important gasbag whose memoirs are available two millennia later. Because that's the other glaring difference between America and Rome which Goodman and his readers won't talk about: people killed and died over their disputes as a matter of course. For all their Second Amendment bluster, no conservative or libertarian has the discipline to make serious war against the "tyranny" they always bitch about when a Democrat's in the White House. Doing so not only takes courage and effort but presents the risk of dying horribly. Horrible, honorable death is not part of the political identity of any American.

The American republic isn't going to fall. The Roman republic didn't fall back in the day, it just reorganized the oligarchy. Business as usual will continue - and that should be depressing enough.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


As far as years go, 2013 was fucking terrible. Everyone got so stupid it broke the federal government and made Miley Cyrus a household name. CERN researchers report the Higgs Boson divided itself by zero to get away from all this bullshit.

So what better time to discuss a war in which all the major players and their grandchildren have long since passed into the boneyard? That's right, it's the Thirty Years War! The biggest and bloodiest war fought on European soil that you hardly ever hear about because Americans get all their history from the Brits and Brits don't care when Continentals die horribly.

Specifically, we're gonna talk about The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson, a tremendous tome that tries to cover every last detail from the Defenestration of Prague to the Peace of Westphalia. At near 900 pages - not counting the copious citations - it's a daunting brick that consumed my whole summer and then some, riding crowded New York buses back and forth across Brooklyn.

I had a hardcover too, for menacing small children...

The Thirty Years War, like the best histories, begins some many many years before the subject itself, so that Wilson can provide the full context. Starting from the disagreements and peacemaking between the Holy Roman Empire and the rising Protestant movement, Wilson shows how longstanding political grievances and demands for self-determination interacted with the paranoia over the very real threat of the Ottomans, making for a very twitchy and easily riled Europe. By the time war finally arrives, Wilson has spent enough time painting the scene that the reader understands not only the stated reasons of the waring sides but also the broader economic realities driving them - from the debasement of Spanish currency to the struggle over federalism in the empire.

All of which could be gleaned from obsessive readings of Wikipedia. What makes The Thirty Years War stand out is Wilson as an author - he takes this massive lump of data and fashions it into an engaging and highly entertaining narrative. He retells the Defenestration of Prague with a skill that makes the events feel immediate, makes the terror of the defenestrated Catholics all the more real, makes you feel the same absurd glee they did when they somehow survived the landing.

He turns it into a narrative, is what I'm saying. Rather than a dry recitation of events, Wilson goes to great lengths to present the people involved in an engaging manner. The conflict between Olivares and Richelieu, Wallenstein's very modern rise to the head of society through mercantilism, these people and their actions - though hundreds of years gone - are presented by Wilson as vital and real. And all fleshed out through details from the gristly meat eaten by soldiers on campaign to an accessible and brief digression on how swiftly warfare evolved from medieval to modern through the course of the war.

Where it stumbles though is in the attempts to counter the popular wisdom. Wilson tries too hard to paint the conflict as not really being about religion, but about personal rivalries and petty politics and other comfortable, familiar grievances. Its a strictly modern interpretation of a time and place as rigorously sectarian as modern Syria.

Not that Wilson would draw such a modern parallel. For starters, Syria wasn't a thing when he was writing this a couple years back and he's ultimately too good to indulge in the sort of partisan flackery that makes up most of this blog. And despite his attempts, it still comes across just how much Protestant and Catholic rivalries drove the fighting - which where deeply wedded to both national and political identities. People feared Gustavus was going to march straight through to Rome and he may have been considering doing just that before he was struck by that musket ball.

"Hakkaa päälle!"

Speaking of, the legend of Gustavus is somewhat diminished in this telling. King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden, a hero to the Protestant cause and a revolutionary figure in the development of modern warfare, and Wilson appears reluctant to even mention him. He argues that the Swedes were hardly revolutionary in their tactics - a mix of smaller, more mobile guns alongside traditional pikemen - except that he goes on to show just how revolutionary they really were by handily defeating the Catholic tercios at Breitenfeld. So then her argues that their formations were less conscious decision and more desperate reaction to the ferocious Poles and Cossacks they usually fought - begging the question,"So what?"

Finally, the middle of the book devolves into a long slog. Historical figures come and go, winning a battle here and there before dying of gout, but leaving little impression. This isn't Wilson's fault though as post-Wallenstein the war does get pretty boring. The bombastic super conflict devolves into a lot of low simmering gang fights. Really this is more proof of Wilson's integrity as a historian - even though he writes a great narrative and the earlier chapters present an environment in which a war looks inevitable, he never tries to fit the madness of the Thirty Years War into some coherent and predestined event. As the later chapters show - just like the later years of the war - so much of the conflict and indeed all of human history is the haphazard and chaotic collisions of movements and forces beyond any individual's or nation's control. In fact, the way Wilson presents the Peace of Westphalia, one is left with the impression that all the major actors were just too tired to continue.

Wilson closes with an examination with the long term impact of this long term war. He shows how the diplomatic relations and rule of law that grew from the ashes out of expediency came to underpin modern international politics. Though again he doesn't argue that this was a natural outcome, merely what occurred. It's refreshing as the common assumption is that A naturally leads to B and how could it be any other way? Wilson, for all his attempts to recast the narrative, has enough intellectual integrity not to try and spin the Thirty Years War into a narrative for his pet causes. He reports the facts, and makes them into a great story.