Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Selections of the Month: Hitchens, Ridley, Narnia, and More

Ten recent or recently-pondered texts have left me with England and/or industrial progress on the brain:

•Christopher Hitchens' highly entertaining memoir Hitch-22 contains, I think, numerous veiled hints that he is capable of deceiving himself and others -- "keeping two sets of books," as he says more than once, though I do not doubt any substantive details of the tome.  Rather, it seems that he's long been suspicious of his own motivations. 

He's moved sort-of rightward politically while clearly still loving his leftist past and most of his old allies (though he never thought highly of Bill Clinton in their Oxford days -- and he mentions that a note he jotted by the phone at someone's apartment in those days saying "RING IRA," meaning hippie-era Brown alum and Clinton ally Ira Magaziner, led to some questioning by police worried about possible Irish terrorism links).  He may be hinting at an attraction to sadomasochism when he laments his early introduction via cruel British boys' schools to the strange connection between pain and pleasure (he's the man who correctly predicted that British conservative Paul Johnson would be found to be a sadomasochist, which I had taken to be disapproval, but he may still have been spotting one of his own -- and he admits at one point that O is one of his favorite fictional characters). 

Atheism alone does not a leftist make, obviously, but Hitchens, despite his increasing acceptance on the right, does take the time to denounce religious social conservatives, especially hypocritical ones, as in my favorite footnote in the book: "[W]henever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch.  Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite."

He surprised me with his two-page defense against charges of alcoholism, a defense that frankly is not all that convincing and is built largely around his assurance that he can stick to a regimen (one mid-morning drink, wine with lunch, no drinks in the afternoon, at least a half bottle of wine with dinner, and then drinks in the evening if conversation warrants -- but he gets a lot of work done, he stresses).  He also notes he is not fascinated by lesbianism or sports, but I think he's spent enough time in war zones to earn his traditional-male credentials anyway, even with his frequent references to slight bisexuality in youth. 

Unless you oppose humor, politics, history, and well-turned phrases, you'll have to read this book and follow Hitchens through his disillusioning trip to Cuba as a young socialist, his father's sound effects-based comedy routines, his literal spanking by Margaret Thatcher, his visits to authoritarian hellholes blessed by communists and Catholics alike, his discovery that he's Jewish, and his growing love affair with the U.S., where he now lives (for some time to come, we hope). 

As he describes his mutating and sometimes disappointing friendships with leftist intellectuals such as Edward Said, one interesting point he makes by way of defending his contact with neoconservatives is that, regardless of what one thinks of their handling of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the thinking of the neocons is not a mere continuation of the amoral foreign policy pragmatism of figures such as Henry Kissinger, of whom Hitchens has written harsh condemnations.  On the contrary, the neocons were really engaged in the moralization of a foreign policy long guided by mere national self-interest, elevating global concerns such as freedom and universal human rights in a way that greatly encouraged some of Hitchens' long-suffering pro-democracy colleagues in Iraq. 

You can question the practicality of military intervention but whether you are a neocon, libertarian, or Trotskyite, you should not fall into the leftist cultural-relativist trap of thinking that morality and rights stop at our own border.  Hitchens is too cosmopolitan to make that mistake.  He also mentions a Turkish joke, suitably creepy coming from the society that exterminated so many Armenians, which I think nicely captures the coldbloodedness of thinking that the murderous things a society does to its own members are merely an "internal affair": What did the trees say when the axe entered the forest?  At least the handle is one of us. 

•The fact that Hitchens' memoir (early on) features strange goings-on at school and frequent references to British class anxiety (which helped make him a Marxist) compensates somewhat for the lack of these things in the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, by the way.  I've never been a fanatical Potter fan -- I haven't read the later books -- but I've seen all the movies, and while it's neat that they get more "serious" and venture out into the real world as they go along, I missed
Hogwarts, I admit.  The fact that quidditch is now ostensibly being played in the real world does not help -- not until the brooms actually fly, until which time, it's just juvenile pretend.

•In other misfit-at-school fictional news, the graphic novel I Kill Giants does a nice job of depicting a deranged and awkward teenage girl drifting into a world of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy to cope with trouble with Mom and with bullies.  My thanks to Dan Raspler for recommending it.

•If there's one thing that'll do wonders to shake up a class structure like England's -- despite what the Marxists might tell you -- it's capitalism, and Peter Mathias's The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of England 1700-1914 (second edition) has the cold, hard stats (to the extent he could reconstruct them circa 1970) on how the peasants became well-off modern laborers.  Along the way, he debunks the claim that enclosure was a net loss for the poor by showing how much productivity and wealth increased as a result, lengthening the lifespans of the poor by making food and fuel more readily available.  He also notes how few technological advancements were wrought by theoretical science and how many were the results of commercial experimentation (thus capitalism), theorized about only after the fact.  As he summarizes it, "Most technical change in Britain (military technology apart) took place in a commercial context where profitability was a condition of existence.  Advance therefore became analogous to a process of 'commercial Darwinism' as well as 'technological Darwinism'."  Increased lifespans in the nineteenth century even appear to have been more closely correlated to improved food production than to medical and hygienic innovations. 

Without ever sounding polemical or deviating from the simple messages of his charts and graphs and lists of newfangled machines and changing production rates, he also manages to debunk the notion of the "Protestant work ethic," showing instead that it was but one species of the gains to be had from tight-knit, trusting communities of any ethnic or religious type.  And he notes the routine failure of attempts at cartelizing to prevent prices from falling (and living standards thus rising).  If businessmen were often praised as heroes in the nineteenth century (instead of depicted as villains as they are in the skewed literary and philosophical sample emphasized a century later as historically significant from the Victorian era), it was because people could see with their own eyes how industrialized commerce was improving people's lives radically, while places forced to stick to agriculture (such as Ireland) routinely suffered famine after bad harvests, as all of humanity had for millennia.

(Mathias also derails the notion that railroads were the key to the industrial revolution, simply by showing that much of it occurred before the railroads were completed.  A smart, well-informed, and tall but imperfectly libertarian econo-blogger once tried to convince me that the railroads were proof that laissez-faire alone wouldn't cut it, since only subsidized railroads could have gotten bauxite out of the hills.  I wouldn't bet against humans' ability to get things done without government, even in far poorer times.)

•Of course, no matter how many millions of lives you save or improve through industry and technology, intellectuals who barely grasp what work is will always be there to tell you it was all a big mistake and that things used to be communal and wonderful.  And it's not just socialists on the left who'll say so but also, for example, the nineteenth-century Tories, who lamented the loss of old, agrarian, quasi-feudal ways.  And it's really from that idyllic sense that the real England is still a place of forests and feudalism that we got, in mid-twentieth century, Narnia.  But I will not deny that Narnia is a beautiful idea, and I hope the roughly $200 million earned by the latest film adaptation from the series, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is deemed sufficient to make more films.  Two more, assuming they do them in the sanest order, and we get to see the Narnian apocalypse in The Last Battle, which I will go see even if the dialogue is bad and I'm the only one in the theatre. 

To boost sales, they might consider having Eddie Murphy do the voice of the talking donkey who sets himself up as a false Aslan and leads Narnia astray.  They could also work in some sort of ass/Aslan pun to make it "edgy" (C.S. Lewis is dead and can't object).  And I recommend, if they get it out by December 2012, using the ad campaign to tap into the absurd paranoia that Mayan prophecies predict the end of the world then: "In December 2012, the end of the world is Narnia."  Might as well play all the angles. 

(The next version of Superman is supposed to be in theatres that month, too, which would make it sort of a Jesus vs. Nietzsche holiday season.  I admit Aslan could take Superman, due to Aslan's divine Jesus-lion powers, but it'd be cool to watch them fight anyway.  Superman would be all like "I can't let you destroy Narnia even though you created it, Aslan" and Aslan be all like "Your father could not prevent Krypton dying, noble Kal-El, and at this time of judgment, you cannot prevent my children from -- " BOOM! and then like Aslan gets a fist right in the snout and Superman he look all angry and Aslan is like his feet's all up in the air clawing and stuff, but then he could probably turn Superman into salt or something, I suppose, even though that's cheating.  Also, though, they could have Lex Luthor team up with the White Witch and maybe make Turkish delight with Kryptonite in it.  General Grievous should also appear.)

•Sorry, fan fic happened for a moment there.  But the important thing, in the real world, is that a vigorous debate has taken place in recent decades over how to prevent central planning from destroying the spontaneous, organic social orders on which civilization actually depends.  One instantiation of that debate was the panel, featuring the sad-seeming and stereotypically dry/befuddled socialist urban planner/writer Richard Sennett (who looks a lot like Larry David -- and at least shares the common Chicago-intellectual appreciation for Aristotle) and the crustier yet spunky and civilization-affirming New York Post writer Roberta Brandes Gratz (author of The Battle for Gotham) at the New School on November 10th about the historic scuffle a half-century ago between master urban planner Robert Moses and activist and spontaneous-order-defender Jane Jacobs (as it happens, the panel took place exactly one week before I saw the likes of Myron Magnet and Heather Mac Donald chatting about urban policy at the twentieth anniversary party for City Journal). 

Given that, as Brandes Gratz made clear, Moses displaced some 1 million people from their homes in the name of his brutal and car-obsessed urban projects throughout New York City, it was reassuring that both panelists -- and nearly all the audience members -- seemed as though they have come to regard Moses as a monster.  Brandes Gratz noted that she's pleased to have some conservative and libertarian fans, but even on the socialist left, Moses' callous destruction of functioning black neighborhoods -- and the brazenly racist way he did things like place a frieze of frolicking monkeys on one of his Harlem projects -- should raise questions about letting any one man run roughshod over the life patterns and social networks of so many people so needlessly (Brandes Gratz herself sees her work as a sort of sequel to the Moses bio The Power Broker, showing how many businesses and homes that had no Jane Jacobs to speak up for them were crushed under Moses' bulldozers, sometimes by the deceitful means of leaving existing businesses out of planners' stats, the more easily to declare areas blighted, as still goes on in places like the Brooklyn Naval Yards and the condemned areas adjacent to Columbia, tragic legacies of Moses-style thinking). 

I have seen only one clumsy recent attempt in print to defend Moses -- in the conservative Weekly Standard, oddly enough -- and it seemed to offer no real justification for him beyond an amoral, disturbing love of power for its own sake -- of getting things done -- and of outsize historical figures (with the less than reassuring aside that at least he wasn't as bad as Le Corbusier).  By such barbarous, careless sentiments were the Romantics led to idolize Napoleon -- though one of the closest parallels to Moses may be the monstrous Ceaucescu in Romania, who bulldozed whole towns and countless old churches, herding the populace into denser urban centers to make them more manageable.  This way lie concentration camps.  The likes of Robert Moses must never happen again, and libertarians and conservatives should be the first to recognize that.  The panelists frankly called him fascist, and deservedly so.  I am almost tempted to pay an Apache transvestite to pee on his grave.  But the increasingly harsh judgment of history should be enough. 

•Far less fascistic though still sometimes vexing is present-day architect Frank Gehry, nicely profiled in New York Observer late last month, and all I want to say about him, besides reaffirming that his buildings are very bendy, is that it's amusing that when the elderly Gehry met the creator of Twitter, he confessed that he'd thought Twitter was something designed mainly for gay people, since they seem to talk about it a lot.  I will keep that in mind when my own manly tweets begin in the next few weeks, if plans hold.

•You will not be shocked to hear that I think we should leave urban planning, and everything else, to the market -- leading inexorably to progress and the day when we can all live in high-tech semi-virtual-reality splendor with neon-encrusted motorcycles and New Wave-influenced outfits, as in the fine Tron Legacy (which reminded me they might as well remake The Black Hole, since the original was bad).  

•Another England-linked book that captures the connection between commerce and progress like no other is Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (not to be confused with Tim Ferris's The Science of Liberty, both perhaps part of a much-needed trend toward recognizing that both science and capitalism are gradual -- and intertwined -- discovery processes vital to human flourishing, hampered by the misguided, anti-intellectual, and always cowardly impulse toward collectivism and mysticism -- though I must confess that while a friend of mine was at a book party for Ferris, I was watching Aslan do his God-kitty thing in 3D).  Don Boudreaux notes Ridley's engaging appearance on PBS's Newshour, but you have to read the book, which shows how commerce is not some late development in human history.  Rather, trade has been essential to our cultural and even biological leaps forward (not to mention our mere survival) since even before recorded history.  Now, thanks to the gains from free trade, we are enabled to live like monarchs.  (We also have spare time in which to do cartoons of things like Optimist Prime, pointed out to me by Austin Petersen.)

Ridley's book is the perfect synthesis of evolutionary psychology and free market economics, and if this is what it takes to get the PBS-watching set admiring the power of markets, it's a wonderful thing.  The book has been praised by White Man's Burden author William Easterly and ritually condemned by George Monbiot (who gets a lot of mileage out of Ridley's advisor role at failed British bank Northern Rock but scores no real philosophical, non-personal points), not a bad combo.  Considering that Ridley's immense task is literally retelling all of human evolution and history to show us the hidden role of capitalism, he makes it all seem quite effortless, marshalling exciting (documentary-worthy) evidence on every page about how newfound trade opportunities preceded periods of massive cultural advance and lengthened lifespan time and again throughout homo sapiens' development.

My favorite page is the more narrowly-focused 239, though (photocopy it and give it to all your worst-smelling hippie friends), on which Ridley quickly rattles off all the absurd consequences of trying to use currently-hyped "alternative energy" sources to replace oil.  Just for starters, he notes that supplying the energy needs of the U.S. alone would require solar panels (if you swing that way) the size of Spain.  Good luck, Gore fans (and latter-day anti-industrial followers of the nineteenth-century Tories).  I'll take capitalism and progress.  And now I'm going to go have lunch with an anarcho-capitalist, by gum.

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