Is the Government a Machine?

I’ve had a running argument with a coworker on the subject of qualifications.  We both are or were Bernie supporters (it is a long time until November), but he likes to point out that Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates in recent memory, and I always take issue with that.  Then the other day the great Louis C. K. weighed in with a bit in which he compared Hillary to a qualified airline pilot, Bernie to the guy who wants the plane to stop at every house, and Trump, I guess, to the random asshole who wants to grab the controls and do barrel rolls.  I’m honestly interested if anyone wants to help me with my problem understanding qualifications.

First of all, when someone says that Hillary’s qualifications are the best, I have a hard time seeing how that’s not the same thing as an endorsement.  Yet my friend maintains that it is not the same thing, and that I should recognize her qualifications despite supporting the other candidate.  We’ve argued round and round about how years of experience in the Senate should be weighed against executive branch experience in the Department of State and in the White House.  It doesn’t help that I don’t actually know much about what the Secretary of State does.  In any case, it seems to me like the notion of qualifications is, in this case, so subjective that it makes as much sense to choose a president based on ideas as on years spent in various branches of government.  It makes sense to choose someone with a DDS to work on your teeth.  The notion of particular qualifications in politicians makes less sense to me.

Louis C. K.’s bit included a phrase that, I think, clarifies some of what I am concerned with.  He said that the government is a “dangerous mechanism”.  A plane, no doubt, is a dangerous mechanism.  But is our government a mechanism?  A plane is something that takes off and goes to a certain place.  Is that what our government does?  The government is powerful; the government is dangerous.  Where is it going?  Others (Calvin Coolidge?) have compared the government to a business. Perhaps what the government does is too important, too much its own thing, to compare in such a cavalier way with a plane or a grocery store. 

Unfortunately, I have to use analogies to back this up.  The notion of a government as an airplane, or a ship, to use an example that surely goes back at least to Plato, reminds me powerfully of arguments over the mind and the brain.  Is the mind like a clock, a piece of biological mechanism, evolved in a clearly material way, and no different from the dead matter surrounding it?  From certain directions this notion seems incontrovertible, and yet we always seem to lose something when we stop talking about souls and ideas.  Perhaps a countervailing and equally distorting tendency exists in descriptions of the world in terms of mere information.

I want to resist the tendency, which seems to me inherent in the notion of qualifications, to deciding political matters in a reductive, mechanistic way.  This reductiveness could manifest itself in checking boxes like “Department of State, worked in”, or in drawing lines that say “it’s over, time to support x candidate”, or in drawing conclusions like “taxes up, bad”.  What suggests itself to me is a Tocquevillian vision of American greatness resting upon the combined efforts of millions of mediocre, unqualified citizens participating equally in the business of running the country.  Yet how are millions of engaged citizens different from a bureaucracy?  This post is really not about who to vote for, but about how we decide, and about what analogies help us make our decisions.  I want to know what people think about this highly appealing and funny idea of the nation as a machine.


Spring Follows Summer

I’m still around, I haven’t given up books, and I feel a little guilty about not sharing my thoughts recently. I thought I’d pick up again with something light.

I’ve been reading Don Quixote for almost a year now. It’s occurred to me that there are classics everyone gets even if it’s hard to say what they are about. The baggiest Dickens is melodrama with some good characters, some bad, and some ridiculous. Middlemarch is similar. Don Quixote, however, is about a crazy man playing at chivalry, but I don’t understand it. It’s funny when the ingenious gentleman attacks a bad poet, or when Sancho is tied up like a turtle between a pair of shields and trampled. Yet I hear others are appalled by the violence. Is it comedy or tragedy?

At the beginning of Chapter 53 of the second part, Sancho’s governorship is drawing to its close, and we read that “To imagine that things in this life are always to remain as they are is an idle dream… everything moves in a circle: spring follows summer, summer the harvest, harvest autumn, autumn winter, and winter spring…” This is explicitly credited to the fictional narrator Cid Hamete Benengeli in the midst of a flight of mock eastern philosophizing. It’s funny enough for the double take alone. Despite this it has, according to Samuel Putnam, provoked real debate between those who would let it stand and those, including the Spanish Academy, who would emend the text.

I would love to know of similar cases where a passage in the work of a great humorist has given rise to a such a grammatical controversy boiling down to “did he mean it or not?”  I think that even if it is a mistake, it should probably stand.  And what of the end of Sancho’s rule?  His farcical battle is followed by a resignation worthy of Cincinnatus.  Will I ever understand Don Quixote?

Numero Zero

Umberto Eco has published a new novel.  According to my schema, Numero Zero has at least one thing going for it: it’s written in the first person.  It’s also his shortest novel by far.  The idea behind the book is intriguing enough that I could wish that it were longer, but I doubt that it would ever really have gotten where it is headed.  Numero Zero reads like a sketch of an Eco novel that has been entirely taken over by a longwinded character.


Milan (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The novel begins, like Foucault’s Pendulum, with a man in fear for his life.  Then we find out why.  In this case, the main character is a writer, a self described loser (and losers “always know much more than winners”) who seems to have caught a minor break when he lands a strange ghostwriting job.  He must write a history of a newspaper which will never print its first issue.  Though our hero is in on the ruse, there is small ensemble of journalists working on the paper who are not.  One is Maia, a sympathetic woman with whom the narrator strikes up a relationship.  Her strange conversational habits almost become a plot point, before unfortunately being dropped, as far as I can tell.  Another is Braggadocio, whose name is explained by his grandfather’s being raised in an orphanage where bureaucrats handed out surnames at whim.  He is the longwinded one, by means of whom a sort of plot is carelessly ladled into the book like soup into a small bowl.

Two of Eco’s three good novels, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana are more or less autobiographical.  Now he has a trilogy.  Loana revels in a boy’s view of Italy in WWII, partisans meeting pulp fiction.  Foucault is the intellectual Italy of the sixties, where shrewd publishers meet at smoky, zinc topped bars.  Finally we have Numero Zero, a nihilistic, slightly cracked satire of Italy corrupted by Berlusconi’s media, or some forerunner thereof.  It’s too bad I never managed to read more of Eco’s Hot Wars and Media Populism.  The conversations of these unfortunate hacks, and their cynical conclusions on the irrelevance of journalism are interesting enough that I may reread some of them.  But Numero Zero hardly feels like a complete novel.


Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

Magnitogorsk, or the Romance of Soviet Industry


Behind the Urals was published in the United States in 1942.  The author was John Scott, an American who spent about ten years working and studying in the Soviet Union.  Scott says that when he left college in 1931, he was pessimistic about his opportunities in America and interested in socialism.  He seems to have liked what he found in the USSR, but it was not propaganda work, which he was offered when his Russian was up to speed, or membership in the Communist Party.  It was building.  Scott arrived in Moscow equipped with a certificate in basic welding; ten days later he was on a train to the new city of Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, on the western edge of Siberia. 

Magnitogorsk was named for a geological anomaly: a mountain of iron ore so concentrated that it attracted the compass needles of early prospectors.  It had been worked before, but Scott arrived at the same time as an unprecedented push to exploit the region’s resources.  He was put to work in subzero temperatures welding structural iron and piping for one of four enormous new blast furnaces.  At the same time, in addition to blast furnaces to extract iron from ore, the Magnitogorsk combinat was developing coking facilities to feed the furnaces, open hearths to convert iron into steel, and rolling mills to shape it.  With the assistance of German and American engineers, the Soviets intended to build a copy of the giant steel mills of Gary, Indiana.  The only things lacking were coal and anything above the barest means to feed and support the thousands of workers. 


The Ural River basin, by SaphronovAB (?) and Materialscientist, CC attribution share alike, via Wikimedia Commons

When Scott began, he shared a room in a barracks with his supervisor.  They burned stolen railroad ties to keep warm and their meals were rationed.  Scott saw a rigger fall off the scaffolding and helped to take him to the unheated hospital.  He saw another worker frozen to death, and mentions many burns and cases of frostbite.  He himself was burned severely enough to require two weeks of convalescence.  Scott emphasizes that one of the reasons that people worked so hard despite atrocious conditions and frightening politics was that certain things really were getting better.  Scott, at least, had a choice as to whether to stay or leave.  From the very beginning, he attended school at night, along with most of his fellow workers.  His first course of study covered Russian, mathematics, and a lot of history and dialectical materialism.  They were serious about political indoctrination.  Later he was able to enroll in a metallurgy program.

Scott married a woman he met at school.  Masha was one of fourteen children born to an illiterate peasant couple back west.  A passage concerning the couple’s trip to see her parents and the warm welcome Scott received despite his broken Russian and strange life choices is, to use a cliche, humanizing.  In Magnitogorsk, Masha was working as a secretary and studying math; eventually she became a high school teacher.  Phrases like “expanded opportunities” don’t seem to do it justice.  In an astonishing passage, Scott describes meeting the operator of a blooming mill: “She sat in a white cabin with large double glass windows directly over the rolls of the mill, and operated a score of control buttons and a dozen foot pedals.  One set in motion the rolls which brought the ingots to the mill; another regulated their speed; several more controlled the large mechanical fingers which turned the ingot over…”  She was another peasant, who took the course in operation because she was sick.  Her nervous concentration is jealously guarded by the other workers, who are hoping to set a record by rolling out one of the eight ton ingots in under a minute. 

By the time his child is born Scott has gone from practically camping in the freezing construction site to living in his own apartment in a city with street cars, theaters, and stores that are almost passable.  He and Masha even have a maid.  In the summer of 1933, Scott took a trip around the Urals.  The Soviets were scrupulous about things like vacation and overtime pay.  (Scott connects the purge of the late thirties with administration in a general sense, suggesting that they were too advanced in it for their own good.)  On his way, he witnessed the aftermath of a train wreck in which the rails were rerouted around the fallen engine, which was too heavy to move.  In Sverdlovsk, he saw the basement where the Romanovs were killed, and in Chelyabinsk he saw the giant tractor works that was presumably a major customer of Magnitogorsk steel. 

In a short time the tractor factory would be redubbed “Tankograd”.  Heavy industry is never so romantic as when it stands as the great bastion of a battered empire, as it did by 1942.  By then the Nazis had taken Kiev and Kharkov, they were within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow, and Leningrad was heavily besieged.  That the Soviets were able to keep fighting must be partly down to the efforts of Scott and his comrades, and the country’s ability to relocate workers, machines, and whole industries to the railroad and power grids behind the Urals. 


T-34s roll off the assembly line, image from RIA Novosti, CC attribution share alike via Wikimedia Commons

Scott published his book at a time when attitudes towards the Soviet Union had not yet hardened in this country, because of our alliance against fascism and our own struggle with the Great Depression.  Now, for equally obvious reasons, they have hardened, though I don’t know if this is a good thing.  I doubt most Americans keep in mind the scale of the fighting that the Soviets endured in what we think of as our good war, not to mention the catastrophe of WWI and the ignorance under the Tsardom that left some of Scott’s coworkers studying their letters and numbers into their forties. 

It’s a bad problem and this book is a one sided look at it.  Scott knew about the starvation of millions in Ukraine, but doesn’t ask whether the food that supported him and his comrades in the Urals in the winter of 1932 and 1933 might actually have been stolen from those starving millions.  He instead refers to them as casualties in some vague kind of economic warfare.  Similarly, it’s a shock to find out that by some accounts, thousands of American workers just like Scott were unable to escape the great purge of 1938. 

Scott was actually able to take a vacation in the United States around 1937, and he writes compellingly of the disorientation of returning to an economy suffering from a surplus of production and the comparatively trivial concerns of well off people facing unemployment.  When he returned to Magnitogorsk he found he was out of a job, but he continued to live there for some time, before moving to Moscow to work in translation and journalism.  He was separated from his wife and children for some time, but all of them got to the United States before the war.  He seems to attribute this and the marked deterioration in conditions for Magnitogorsk workers entirely to the exigencies of war.  Background information on Scott is spotty, but I have to wonder if he got out only because he was a spy (not that I’d venture to guess for which side), and accordingly, how much of this gripping story is just made up.

To follow: Where I found Behind the Urals, and how do we know what we are reading?

Guantanamo Diary


This looks a little like the flag but these bars actually cover up a poem by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantanamo Diary.  Sometimes the redactions in this work appear to concern details of military interrogation programs and the people who carry them out, but at other times, like this, they are harder to fathom.  I suspect the poem was blacked out because the censor couldn’t be quite sure what it meant.

Slahi is a Mauritanian held at Guantanamo Bay.  He turned himself over to Mauritanian authorities for questioning in 2001 and was illegally rendered, as they say, to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally our base in Cuba.  Slahi took part somehow in the war in Afghanistan against the Communists, when, to speak very loosely, jihadis were still good guys in our book.  Unfortunately for him, the situation had changed by 1999, when he admits to discussing his experiences with people who were later linked to the 9/11 attacks.  In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released on habeas grounds, but he remains imprisoned pending some sort of appeal.  He has never been charged in court, but to the extent that there is a legal case against him, it appears to hang on those discussions of training in Afghanistan, which could be characterized as recruiting.  For different reasons, most people, including Slahi, don’t care to dwell on other admissions resulting from enhanced interrogation or torture.

In 2005, Slahi wrote what would become Guantanamo Diary; it was published, in censored form and after heavy litigation, in 2015.  In that sense it’s an important new book, but the fact that Slahi is still in jail makes it seem horrifyingly long in coming.  They say the book is a bestseller, but if it is, it’s not the kind people talk about much.  It’s not easy to write about; I’m afraid that I’m being over scrupulous about a topic that should occasion a lot more outrage or something.  It’s an interesting bind.  One might have hoped that a book like this wouldn’t exist in a powerful, law abiding society.  And indeed there are all kinds of ways to explain it away: There are arguments that downplay the violations of human rights and emphasize the threats that we face.  I think a lot of those arguments boil down to that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, not to be taken lightly, that justice is the advantage of the stronger.

Yet not only does the book exist, it’s much better than one would expect, even darkly entertaining.  Slahi complains as much of the obtuseness and haplessness of his interrogators as of the barbarities they committed.  It is all of a piece: Investigators, admittedly working under tremendous pressure under hostile circumstances entirely different from an ordinary law enforcement action, refused to face up to the paucity of what they were actually turning up on some of these people.  Slahi was tortured in many ways.  The thing that shocked me the most was when he off handedly remarked that they were moving him around so that they could torture him and claim he hurt himself in transit.  It shocked me because this is exactly what police in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other American cities have been (plausibly) accused of doing.  What goes on in Guantanamo is not really foreign.

Much of the book is devoted to characterizations of Slahi’s guards and interrogators, and his sometimes warm relations with them.  They watched movies together, some taught him English, some would discuss theology.  Slahi asked for extra time to study a movie of Henry V, and complains privately that the Star Wars novels he was given weren’t very well written.  More than anything else, this book shows the reader the irrational expectations that we have for people who are subject to our suspicion.  We persist in treating prisoners in immoral and counterproductive ways because we expect them to be submissive, to be afraid of justice, to be both stupid and cunning.  We expect them not to show partiality for their countrymen and their fellow prisoners, because surely most of them are bad.  All I can say is that there have to be better ways of learning about the things that trouble us.

“See it, do it” is a motto I’ve been repeating lately.  It means don’t chat about what needs to get done, don’t put it on a list, but do it.  It applies  to household chores but it applies to reading as well.  I won’t stop making lists of books, but I do hope to be more decisive in picking up important books of the moment and in coming away with books to actually work on for all the time I spend standing in the stacks gawping.  I hope to usher in a new year of better blogging, but the motto also applies to this book.  I should probably spend months digging into the background of Guantanamo Diary and seeking out the reviews and official reaction; maybe I will get around to it and even post, but these are my thoughts.

Coming up: Magnitogorsk

The Life of Johnson, Cont.

It’s often bothered me that history books become more thorough as they progress through time, so that if one were to bookmark off each decade or century, one would observe a kind of exponential growth.  Almost everything works this way, so I guess there’s little fighting it.  I am less than fifty pages into the second of six volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and already Johnson is fifty eight.  Their first meeting is recorded, with charming precision, at the end of the first volume, May 16, 1763.  Boswell panicked: “I do come from Scotland but I cannot help it.”  He was twenty three, and Johnson fifty four.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to me just how much that is famous appears in this first volume: There is the dictionary, and the definition of oats, “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” to which Boswell records the reply, “And where else will you see such horses, and such men?”  Johnson gets involved with a hoax, the Cock Lane ghost, and Boswell is at pains to explain that Johnson wasn’t as credulous as some claimed.  So too to make clear that he wasn’t really sadistic in conversation; the insults are just too memorable.  And of course there is his refutation of Berkeley, which is better in the full telling than I remembered.  He does not merely kick the stone, but struck “with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it.”

Boswell’s lengthy descriptions of Johnson’s unusual person and mannerism, as well as his depressive turn of mind, make for a vivid account, both of Johnson himself and of Boswell trying to reconcile his partiality for his friend with biographical truth.  For example, in the course of describing nights in the public houses with Johnson, Boswell reports that he affected not to be troubled by cold and rain but adds, “The effects of weather upon him were very visible.”  Boswell takes mild issue with the melancholy of Johnson’s novel Rasselas, quoting Voltaire “Apres tout c’est un monde passable” but he admits that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” is, “in many respects, more than poetically just.”  What marvelous circumlocution.

It’s hard to imagine what we’d have if Johnson had been “entirely preserved” as Boswell speculated.  From the many years before Boswell met him, we might have learned more about Johnson the parliamentary reporter.  In his time, magazines carried highly idiosyncratic accounts, sometimes inventing speeches like Thucydides and sometimes hiding the identities of the speakers and even the real subject of debate.  There would be more about the nights when Johnson (despite being married, and to a much older woman) was so poor he spent all night walking around London with the disreputable poet Richard Savage.  Perhaps we would have more of the Johnson who knocked down the “impertinent” bookseller Osborne with a heavy book and throttled him. 

I have a long way to go in The Life of Samuel Johnson, and I’m rather looking forward to it, chronologically biased as it may be.  The Club, which at various times included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon, is only just getting started.  Then there is their trip to the Hebrides to look forward to.  I’m also looking forward to learning more about Boswell, who, at least in age, at this point in the narrative, I have more in common with.  If I am still curious about him afterwards, I could always read his journals.  These were only published in the twentieth century, and perhaps constitute one of the great recoveries of literary history.