September 30, 2011

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, September 2011

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

(Out of sequence because I didn't get around to posting on the weekend.)

Despite how it looks, I actually put most of my reading time this month into a most wonderful mathematical book, but a review will have to wait until I am completely finished with it.

W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South
An intelligent and (in several senses) liberal white southerner's attempt, in 1940, to explain not just how his fellows think, but how they came to think that way; along the way, he engages in a lot of debunking of the then-received story of the South. It's persuasive in many respects, but I am utterly incompetent to speak to how much of its argument might have been superseded by later historians. (The link above is to a reprint with a recent introduction, but I read an edition that seems to be from about 1960.) Three things strike me about it, read at a distance of seventy years and a couple of cultural zones:
  1. The transformation of the South has been absolutely immense. Cash clearly did not expect lynching to end any time in the foreseeable future; something like the Civil Rights movement dragging the country, protesting, into an profound moral renovation wasn't even in contemplation. And, on a sheer material level, places like Atlanta, or the Research Triangle, never mind suburban northern Virginia, have been transformed out of all recognition since Cash wrote. Yet some of the cultural patterns persist, and not always just the most obvious ones.
  2. I'm tempted to say that Cash's descriptions of "Negroes", and, relatedly, his evaluation of Reconstruction, were enlightened for his time and background, but he strikes me as the kind of man who would have rejected that as condescending. So, I'll say instead that much of what he says about these matters, especially about the mentality of black southerners, is deeply disappointing, not just for its content but also its thoughtlessness, the way it flouts his own manifest intellectual standards. (Likewise, it grated, after a while, that when he spoke of "the South", without qualification, he meant its white inhabitants, though he knew perfectly well that numerous black people had been there the whole time, and were not just biologically but also culturally akin to the white people.) It's a sobering reminder of what, within living memory, was acceptable opinion, and this from someone whose contempt for the Klan, Jim Crow, and the whole pathology of "nigger-baiting and nigger-hazing" (his phrase) seems based equally on their stupidity and their wickedness. And I don't feel any intrinsic superiority to Cash, quite the contrary; I had the advantage of having grown up after a successful revolution, in an environment which took for granted that the Civil War was about treason in defense of slavery, and that Frederick Douglass was my home state's greatest son. This makes me wonder what I am blind to.
  3. Above everything else, the man could write.
Dana Priest and William Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
An amplification of their outstanding series of articles, and databases, in the Washington Post. It's journalism of a very high order, requiring an immense amount of focus and time, about a very important and almost entirely negative development, viz., the creation of a vast, unaccountable, national surveillance state, complete with a social base in the form of a massive network of contracting firms, a military-intelligence-industrial complex. This serves no detectable, legitimate public purpose, and appears to be predicated on the proposition that there is no cost to pursuing false positives. It does, however, help erode civil liberties and democratic accountability here at home (going hand in glove with efforts to maintain irrational fear, and propagate racist idiocy), encourage counter-productive initiatives abroad, and contribute to the more-or-less-corrupt enrichment of private persons at the public expense. No good has come of it, and it's hard to see how any could.
— Something Priest and Arkin make clear in passing is that this sort of highly compartmented secrecy is really very bad for problem solving. It reduces the number of people who can contribute to solutions; it reduces their diversity; it makes it harder to learn from others. Perhaps most insidiously, it makes it harder to learn from one's own mistakes, by removing incentives for recognizing them.
One point Priest and Arkin do not press, though they could have, is that it is very dubious that such secrecy actually hides things from enemies, as opposed to the people supposedly being served. Anything reporters for the Post can find, and largely from public sources at that (e.g., job ads), could presumably be found by a foreign government's intelligence services. (Though they may find it more efficient to just buy members of the US apparatus.) Similarly, when the US launches drone attacks in other countries, these are not exactly secret in those countries, and they are certainly not secret from those attacked.
The biggest weakness I find in the book is that the national surveillance state is not just a post-9/11 growth. It is an extension of the national security state assembled for the Cold War, with many of the same organizations playing many of the same institutional games, both in the government and in private industry. This continuity is not explored, and I wish it had been.
It's idle to speculate about the future of this complex of organizations. The point is to either get rid of it, or re-direct it to ends which are actually worth achieving. But the political-economic obstacles to doing so look immense: no one participating in it now has any self-interested reason to want to shrink it or even reform it, and what politician wants to run on a platform of "doing less to keep us safe from terrorists"? (Perhaps the best that could be hoped for would be containment, and letting "Top Secret America" be gradually undermined by neglect, demoralization, Baumol's cost disease, and the attractive example of an open society in real America.) The situation would be even worse without the work of Priest and Arkin.
Patrick O'Brian, The Mauritius Command; Desolation Island; The Fortune of War; The Surgeon's Mate; The Ionian Mission
I am being very gluttonous with re-reading these books, yes.
"Elsinore itself? The very Elsinore? God bless my soul: and yours too, joy. A noble pile. I view it with reverence. I had supposed it to be merely ideal — hush, do not move. They come, they come!"

A flight of duck wheeled overhead, large powerful heavy swift-flying duck in files, and pitched between the castle and the ship.

"Eiders without a doubt," said Stephen, his telescope fixed upon them. "They are mostly young: but there on the right is a drake in full dress. He dives: I see his black belly. This is a day to mark with a white stone." A great jet of white water sprang from the surface of the sea. The eiders vanished. "Good God!" he cried, staring in amazement, "What was that?"

"They have opened on us with their mortars," said Jack. "That was what I was looking for." A puff of smoke appeared on the nearer terrace, and half a minute later a second fountain rose, two hundred yards short of the Ariel.

"The Goths," cried Stephen, glaring angrily at Elsinore. "They might have hit the birds. These Danes have always been a very froward people. Do you know, Jack, what they did at Clonmacnois? They burnt it, the thieves, and their queen sat on the high altar mother-naked, uttering oracles in a heathen frenzy. Ota was the strumpet's name. It is all of a piece: look at Hamlet's mother. I only wonder her behaviour caused any comment."

But also: What the Hell did I really understand about these characters when I was twenty and first read the books?
ObLinkage: Jo Walton on the series; for instance, on Desolation Island, leading (via P.N.H.) to a link excerpting the extraordinary passage about the sinking of the Waakzaamheid.
John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades; The Last Colony; Zoe's Tale
Sequels to Old Man's War, but I read them with great enjoyment after a gap of four years, having forgotten the details of the first book. Primarily this enjoyment came from Scalzi having a reasonably clever story, and making me care much more about the characters and their fates than I thought I would. But he also handles changes in his characters' internal perspectives deftly (and they do change), and manages to be matter-of-fact about their post-humanity not because he hasn't thought it through, but precisely because he obviously has. The last two books pull off the neat trick of telling the same story from two points of view, without being redundant.
There is a nice essay to be written about how thoroughly this set of books subverts the premises of Starship Troopers, while at the same time having so clearly learned from Heinlein, somewhat as with Panshin's Rite of Passage. (To a lesser extent that's also true of the relation between these books, especially The Ghost Brigades, and the loathsome Ender's Game, though there Scalzi is not, thankfully, even trying to push the buttons at which Card pounds.) ROT-13'd for spoilers: Fpnymv unf perngrq n fpranevb va juvpu bayl gubfr jub cnegvpvcngr va gur zvyvgnel, svtugvat ntnvafg nyy znaare bs nyvraf sbe gur rkcnafvba bs uhznavgl, unir nal erny fnl va tbireazrag, naq ner gur bayl barf, fhccbfrqyl, jub pna snpr gur uneq gehguf bs gur fvghngvba naq znxr gur arprffnel qvssvphyg qrpvfvbaf. Naq ol gur raq bs gur frevrf, guvf cbyvpl unf yrq gb vzzrafr pngnfgebcurf naq irel arneyl gur rkgvapgvba bs gur fcrpvrf, which does tend to take the glow off the idea. (It also reflects paying some attention to the experience of the 20th and for that matter of the 19th century, unlike some people.) But, again like Panshin's book, this series is not a simple satire or deflation of Heinlein; I think it would be deeply enjoyable for someone who had never encountered or even heard of the latter.
Errata: In chapter seven of Ghost Brigades, for "heirarch", read "hierarch" throughout.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Commonwealth of Letters; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; Writing for Antiquity; The Continuing Crises

Posted by crshalizi at September 30, 2011 23:59 | permanent link

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