Saturday, August 23, 2014

Complications

No sooner do I run into (and begin reading) one book on the 2008 financial crisis than I run into another, contrasting one: How Markets Fail by a New Yorker writer named John Cassidy.

As a reporter of facts Cassidy is streets and streets ahead of Matt Taibbi . . . Wall Street seems to be his beat (he also wrote a book on the prior Wall Street fiasco, the tech bubble) and he actually understands a bit of what lies behind the alphabet soup of financial offerings (RMBS, CDOs, etc.).

He also understands a lot of the economic theory and mathematical work behind the new Wall Street. To Taibbi it's easier just to write it all off as fraud, but to anyone who knows anything about the recent history of risk analysis, the 2008 debacle is a fascinating mixture of error, fraud, greed, negligence, mystifcation, arrogance and incompetence.

But untangling all these strands doesn't make for quick and easy propaganda, and elicits more mixed emotions than Taibbi's righteous anger.

Cassidy does a very good job of both explaining each strand, and giving us a good sense of the motley fabric they made when woven together.

I've read a number of books about Wall Street and its changing culture: from the establishment, WASPy, "white shoe" firms to the emergence of the Jewish up-and-comers, to the macho "big swinging dicks" who emerged in the 1980s, to the rise of the quants in the 1990s. One thing that struck me is reading Cassidy's book is the fundamental vulnerability Wall Street firms suffer from as remnants of several of these cultures fail to come together. Wall Street these days is built upon the foundation of mathematical analysis, but is run by people with big dicks--which is why Wall Street has suddenly taken such an avid interest in politics--those swinging dicks don't have much when it comes to finding new bits of margin to work, but they can create new ones by initiating government actions that work to their advantage.

The irony of our situation today is that government, far from being irrelevant to economics, has become one the last means of manipulating the outside world to gain particular advantage.




A curious sidelight to Taibbi's take on the Wall Street disaster . . .

For Taibbi, the big thing about the financial crisis is that it provides an opportunity to stoke the rage of the lower orders. His expression of sympathy for the Tea Party is based first on the fact that they are dissatisfied enough to utter the word "revolution," but also on the fact that they are a force for instability, which he hopes some sort of revolution from the left could take advantage of. "The worse things get, the better" for revolutionaries.

And, at first, it seemed he might have it all his way--no one could explain how the financial crisis could have happened, no one could explain the financial instruments involved. But this was mainly because the American press corps is almost incredibly stupid. When you laugh at the malapropisms on Tea Party placards, or the fact that Americans can't do math, or the fact that they can't find a foreign country on a map. you should realize that journalists come from these people, and in terms of native intelligence they by no means leave them in the dust. As someone who has worked directly with folks from a journalism school which was, by a long stretch, the worst at the university (the warehouse for not-bright athletes and not-bright wanna-be athletes), and as someone who covered a fairly specialized beat for a while (science) I can tell you: I'd much much rather teach a scientist how to get a story and write than teach a journalist how to think critically about a science story. The first is possible. The second, generally, is not. Whenever they are told an issue is too complicated to allow for a snap judgement, they are certain you are covering something up. Complexity simply does not exist for the well-trained doltish journalist. Complexity is the new opiate of the masses as far as they are concerned.

Taibbi isn't dumb, but the fact that most journalists are was very convenient for someone who would have liked to boil down the financial crisis to mere criminality. Bad things happened, and those people were there, those people are bad, let's get 'em.

But trying to string together Taibbi's story--what motivated these evil people to crash their own money making machine? Certainly not robbing the poor. Given the choice what greedy robber robs the poor? You rob the rich when you can, because as Willie Sutton said about banks, "that's where the money is."

But Taibbi's half-story wasn't the only one out there. Adam Davidson of Planet Money had a story which hung together a bit better as to how the financial debacle happened:

Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s the amount of capital in the world went up a great deal--more than doubled. A lot of this money was sovereign capital, pension funds and other really big individual pools of cash. A lot of the directors of what to do with those big pools of cash were under instructions both to get some interest for it and to keep it almost absolutely safe. The usual recourse for these folks was the US Treasury Bill. But after 9/11 the US central bank had been keeping interest rates quite low and T-Bill rates were pathetically low. This combination of circumstances: lots more capital and the low rates offered by the traditional obvious resort made for a huge demand for alternative AAA-rated investments. This huge demand meant that Wall Street stood to make loads of money placing this excess capital. But they needed places to put it. There were plenty of options for that portion of the money that could go toward riskier investments, but not so for the money that had to go to AAA-rated investments.

Thus the intense pressure bankers put on the ratings companies to rate the top tranche of CMOs AAA. While this was perhaps justified when there were loads of low-risk mortgages in the pool, it certainly wasn't when they were all subprime--all high-risk. There was a great deal of money to be made in offering a more AAA-grade investments, the bankers and the ratings companies would benefit from the fees of these transactions.

And once the bankers had achieved the acquiescence of the ratings companies, they basically had there hands on a AAA-making machine. They just needed mortgages to serve as the basis of the bonds, and once reasonable legitimate mortgages weren't enough the pressure came down to get anyone they could into a mortgage. Brokering crap mortgages would not have been a big business unless there was somewhere for the originator to dump them, and Wall Street was providing that dumping ground and were screaming for more crap mortgages to put into it, because they were selling them on and making plenty of money doing so.

But, firms that had moved those AAA tranches easily found it hard to sell some of the riskier ones, where demand wasn't as strong, particularly at the end of the real-estate bubble. So they held on to them-But, warehoused them in hopes they could eventually move them to less risk-averse investors.

But that day never came: real estate prices began to decline, default rates turned those lower tranches into worthless holdings, and heavily leveraged firms were suddenly in a world of financial hurt. Hence Lehman and all the dominoes that fell afterwards.

Not that there wasn't criminality here. There was. But this is a richer explanation, both in terms of a variety of factors coming together--capital glut, greed, criminality, highly leveraged companies, naive or complicit borrowers, etc.--and in the range of behaviors it explains fairly well.

Taibbi says he makes a villain of Goldman Sachs because villains bring readers, but he also does it because his story won't hang together without some villainous figure who more or less crashes the ship of state out of pure malice. The alternative provided by Adam Davidson doesn't require the cartoon character: all you need is the normal run of human failure and vice.

But Davidson would not go unanswered. A couple of Taibbi's associates, Yasha Levine and Mark Ames, with whom Taibbi had wrote and edited The eXile in Moscow, took Davidson to task for some ethical conflicts, some of which were not really his. That Planet Money had a single underwriter in the financial industry (Ally) is a matter for NPR, not Davidson personally. The underwriting is through NPR, not through Davidson or the production company. It's an issue, but it's not an issue with Davidson. Davidson's on-air "mugging" of Elizabeth Warren sounds very much like a rising star getting a bit too in love with his own press clippings. And it does sound as if he's getting a bit too close to his Wall Street sources, absorbing not just their information, but their sensibilities as well. But that was about a year of press clippings after he introduced the theory I sketch out above.

Credit to them, Levine and Ames don't make any bones about why they dislike Davidson:
Although Davidson's segment was praised for making the murky world of finance easier to understand, his framing of the subprime housing debacle served another purpose: It let Wall Street off the hook for its role in rampant criminal mortgage fraud and predatory lending.
"This was a crisis that was caused by willing participation of every single person. Nobody was coerced," said Davidson's co-producer and partner in Planet Money, Alex Blumberg. "And there was fraud. But that was not what caused the crisis. What caused the crisis was something bigger and more systemic that required the involvement of everybody at every step."
This evasion-by-exaggerating-the-complexity strategy is one that Davidson and Planet Money have deployed often to whitewash and deflect the role of criminality in the housing crisis. . . . Davidson provided a narrative frame that comforted the American Establishment at a time when it badly needed comforting, and was duly rewarded for his services [with a Peabody, among other things].
I'm not at all sure I'd have used Blumberg's phraseology to describe the crisis, but he did so in an interview with the Chicago Tribune not on the show. Having listened to much of the actual series at this time, I don't attitude is all that important either to it either. Far more important were the tales of out-and-out fraud and hearing from some of the victims, for instance, an African-American family who were robbed of the home they had nearly paid off by a predatory second-mortgage vendor. I think what Blumberg is getting at with the Tribune is that bubbles, by their nature require broad participation--everyone in the housing market has to assent to the huge spike in housing prices. A LOT of people participate in and condone the fraud in one way or another. But there is no lack for folks in the series who went well beyond assent and condoning--they ripped people off, they victimized people and spent the money on five-figure nights out with "B-list celebrities." And of course there were those a bit higher up who enables, and even commanded those men. We hear from them as well.

But the trouble that Taibbi, Levine and Ames have with Davidson's story is not whether it is true, it is whether it is useful. And for some reason ANY complication to the story vampire squid of Wall Street is to be extirpated.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Simplicities

I'm way behind (beyond, even) the curve on this next book, but I've never worried too much about contemporaneousness (see, for instance, my review of The Culture of Narcissism from 2004).

I'm reading Matt Taibbi's Griftopia. You'll be relieved to know I won't be going into the history here too much, except to say I am surprised at how much praise Taibbi's reporting got back in when the crisis was on. He often tells us how mind-bendingly hard it is to understand many of the financial transactions he mentions, but his mind seems pretty well-ironed: he hasn't really tried to understand them. Instead he seems to assume that any financial transaction whose workings are not immediately transparent is "a Ponzi scheme." Much like "savages" in old movies assume any complex technology to be witchcraft.

It doesn't have to be this way. While a lot of math goes into some of these hedges and insurance schemes, they can be absorbed and explained by regular humans. Planet Money (a nice bit of work here) did far far better than Taibbi does. Taibbi doesn't really even try.

As several folks have noted, Taibbi is pissed off and writes that way, which is occasionally refreshing, but he often uses the visceral to cover up the basic lack of content--the vacuousness of a simplistic text dealing with a subject he readily acknowledges is deeply complex.

And the book isn't really empty. It's full of intent. Taibbi is writing propaganda--his goal is to elicit what he considers to be the appropriate reaction to this situation, not to explain it to you and let you do the reacting.

Which brings me to an irony I savored while reading Taibbi's book. The opening chapter is about the Tea Party, which Taibbi is, of course, largely contemptuous of, though he tries to seem like he's on the side of the more-or-less little guy, as most Tea Party rank and file are.  But nearly everything Taibbi says about the Tea Party, can be turned around and said about Taibbi just as truthfully.
Common sense sounds great, but if you’re too freaking lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide—if you haven’t mastered the whole concept of breathing by the time you’re old enough to serve in the U.S. Congress—you’re not going to get the credit default swap, the synthetic collateralized debt obligation, the interest rate swap, etc. And understanding these instruments and how they were used (or misused) is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money in the last decades as normal capitalist business and seeing the truth of what it often was instead, which was simple fraud and crime. 
For the Tea Party, common sense; for Taibbi, truth. Because his truth doesn't involve actually understand (or at least not conveying an understanding of) synthetic collateralized debt onligations. It just involves evaluating them properly by Taibbi's lights: as theft. But really that's not much better than the Tea Party's blind heroization of the capitalist.
Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate will power to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power. On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widespread longing for simpler times and simple solutions—just throw the U.S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake. For immigration, build a big fence. Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education. At times the overt longing for simple answers that you get from Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.
Well, the world may be about complexity, but Taibbi certainly isn't about explaining it all to us. Just throw some real leftist populism at a problem and everything will be copaesthetic. For Wall Street, just arrest some people and make everything else simple again. In place of experts who actually might understand all that complexity, let's impose populist answers.
What voters don't realize, or don't want to realize, is that the dream was abandoned long ago by this country's leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.
In place of immigration and cultural decay, we have Taibbi's To Third World  in a Handbasket crisis.
The engine for looting the old ghetto neighborhoods was the drug trade, which served two purposes with brutal efficiency. Narco business was the mechanism for concentrating all the money on the block into that Escalade-hungry dealer's hands, while narco-chemistry was the mechanism for keeping the people on his block too weak and hopeless to do anything about it.
In place of the vast, decades-long Kenyan Obama conspiracy, we have the elitist conspiracy for each and every sociological problem.

And in place of "the constitution" as a shibboleth we get the "ponzi scheme" as our empty, but hopefully inspiring signifier.
[Michelle] Bachman has a lot of critics, ut they miss the genius of her political act. Even as she spends every day flubbing political SAT questions, she's always dead-on when it comes to her basic message, which is that government is always the problem and there are no issues the country has that can't be worked out with basic common sense . . .
There's more than a little admiration in this description, and, in fact, the Tea Party is more than a little bit the model for this chapter as much as its subject.
 . . .thirteen million Tea Partiers [believe] the Obama health care plan . . . is the first step in a long-range plan to eliminate the American free enterprise system and install a Trotskyite dictatorship.
And funny you should mention Trotskyites, because they were much on my mind in portions of this book--the contempt for small truths in the face of and to bring home the big one (class warfare); the need to create a sense of crisis and deep wrong to mobilize the revolution . . . Taibbi seems to be using the same propagandistic methods of the right to advance a (to him) more revolutionary, but also blinkered and manipulated movement to the political fore.

I'm not red-baiting here: I think socialism and communism are pretty much normal parts of the political spectrum. There's no dishonor in believing in them. What I do like to point out, though, is the complex and deeply disingenuous game revolutionary parties play in heightening crises rather than seeking solutions to them. And the truth (what Taibbi claims to stand for) is usually an early casualty in the drive to revolution. And I think that Taibbi knows the complex truths as well as Planet Money or Paul Krugman does. He just finds it inconvenient to his activism.

Vodka Party anyone? Stronger stuff than tea, yes, but I'll not be joining.


Saturday, August 02, 2014

American Foreign Policy Nonsense Syndrome



We'll call it FoPNoS or Fopnos for short.

Americans seem to think of the area of foreign policy as a realm of voodoo where arcane masters can ensure that every outcome is our preferred outcome.

And it isn't just Americans who can't find Syria on a map who think that turning Syria into a Utopia of liberal, western-sympathizing Arabs is just a matter of moral courage on the part of the President. It is supposedly informed sources as well. Like the editorial page editor of the Washington Post: "We have witnessed as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide," says Fred Hiatt in a recent editorial (here).

The narrowness of perspective and the shortness of memory here are almost charmingly naive, until one considers how uncharming and hopefully un-naive an editor at the Washington Post ought to be.

If we start unpacking some of Hiatt's statements in this editorial it quickly becomes apparent that naive is actually just the word for his view on what foreign policy is and what it can hope to accomplish and what it has and has not accomplished in the past. First, to argue that Obama's foreign policy is one of "disengagement" is to say "my perspective runs as deep as the administration immediately prior to this one." From a historical perspective, Obama has been more or less normally engaged with the rest of the world. 

Yes: He won election on the promise that he would disengage us from the essentially pointless war the prior administration had blundered into. And that means some things--essentially he ran on a platform that said "It is more important to get out of Iraq than to stay there for several decades while they try to puzzle out how to govern themselves."

That is an attitude the American people fully endorsed. Why? Because they don't really care about Iraq qua Iraq, and they never have. And let us consider the alternatives here . . . the clear implication of Hiatt's piece is that American military presence in Iraq would ensure that, much in contrast to today, all would be well. And we can't help but grant that things were pretty stable after the surge.

But when we consider what has become "The Legend of the Surge" we should remeber that the surge was exactly that--it was a temporary increase in troop levels. Without increasing the capacity of our military (i.e. a draft), troop levels were bound to decline back to the levels more like we saw in 2005, when Iraq was pretty much on the road to where it is today. American troops were useful in keeping things from getting completely chaotic, but the country was clearly on a path to out-and-out civil war . . . and what effect would THAT have had on our domestic political situation?

Iraq is not now a potential stable democracy. Full stop. At no point in the recent past has it been, in spite of the bullshit spouted by neo-conservative Kool-Aid tipplers. By toppling Sadaam Hussein, we set in motion a process that more or less left us with a dog's breakfast of options. Handing power to the Shiite thugs and getting the hell out was probably one of the better ones from our perspective. Staying there and suppressing any Sunni opposition the Shiite thugs might engender for the next several decades really seems an inferior option to me, and, certainly, the American people made it quite clear that wasn't an option they were interested in pursuing.

Are things going to go badly in Iraq? Yes.

But that's kind of like asking if the human rights situation in Iran is going to be dismal. Of course it is. But how, exactly, do you propose to improve on this situation. Things go badly in the world. Sometimes things go badly in the world and it's your country's fault because the prior administration was run by morons. But things going badly in Iraq isn't an argument against policy there--it is simply a consequence of the situation there. Critics are either delusional or deeply dishonest to think that merely pointing to Iraq's difficulties as enough in itself: they have to sketch out their alternative, and what their alternative does is put us in the middle of that civil war. As a participant. One should keep that in mind.

When ordinary citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world unexpectedly began agitating for democracy, the West might have responded as it did after World War II (with the Marshall Plan) or the fall of the Berlin Wall (with a commitment to a Europe whole and free). If the United States had taken the lead, Europe and America together could have offered trade, investment, exchange and cultural opportunities to help bring the region into the modern, democratic world.
But for Obama the tumult in Egypt and elsewhere was a distraction, not a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The West responded timidly and inconsistently, and the moment was lost.
This is almost laugh-out-loud funny. The so-called "Arab Spring" is, no doubt about it, a historic moment. But the idea that stable, western-leaning, democratic governments could easily be built out of these street protests is, frankly, beyond absurd. The liberal element was important to these protests, but expecting the liberal element to be a central part of any democratic government in these areas is akin to expecting the United States to bring to power a political party dominated by transvestites in 2016.

Liberals in these countries represent a small, exotic-seeming, and in many quarters, hated, minority. They aren't going to be the basis of your political status quo without massive and continuing outside intervention. Not just monetary intervention either. I'm talking about shock-and-awe violence followed by occupation followed by a long, bloody, popular insurgency against the foreigners and their domestic sympathizers, who will all be rounded up and executed en masse the minute we withdraw support. Anyone who believes otherwise is, to be frank, an idiot.

The model behind Hiatt's assumptions here seems to be Poland or the Czech Republic. These countries did indeed represent a great opportunity when the Berlin Wall came down. Why? Because they had spend decades under actual or de facto occupation by the Soviet Union. The focus of their nationalist aspirations was the hatred of our traditional enemy. Running into our arms was the natural and popular strategy to ensure the end of oppression at the hands of the Russians. But what happened in Russia, where there was a considerable force of Western-leaning liberals (certainly a more considerable one than in Syria, say), but where WE were the popular, traditional enemy? The liberals and their "foreign values" were marginalized and a confrontationalist regime emerged.

The "Arab Spring" will naturally release a period of power struggle and score-settling, and one of the great figures against whom scores must be settled is . . . us. The Arab Spring is not going to result in the Tunisian version of the Polish government, no matter what we do. Where "The Arab Spring" manages to overthrow the last vestiges of the old oppressive regimes, we can expect chaos. Bloody chaos. Where it doesn't, we can expect, at best, an ugly and slow evolution toward a new status quo that is less dictatorial. We can't expect a whole lot of love from any regime that reflects the feelings of most people in those Arab Spring countries.

Any expectations or hopes for the Arab Spring countries that are more sanguine (as in hopeful, not bloody) that this are hopelessly naive. Libya shouldn't be judged against Poland. Libya should be judged against reasonable expectations for Libya, which frankly can't be very high from a domestic tranquillity standpoint and can't be very high from a fulfilling American national interests standpoint. There WERE no opportunities on those fronts. If you thought differently, you really have been wasting your time and privileged access down there, Mr. Hiatt.

Or, maybe he hasn't been. Maybe he's more or less returning the favor of all that privileged access by parroting whatever bullshit his neo-con friends choose to feed him while they're picking up the bar tab.

Now THAT seems like a more realistic scenario.

Monday, June 16, 2014

More on Catch-22

The important observation to make about the narrative of Catch-22 is the centrality and tremendous gravity of trauma. A few ugly, awful, dehumanizing, bloody experiences dominate the narrative. They aren't always talked about directly, and in fact the novel spends a lot of time rather elaborately and obviously NOT talking about them, but it becomes obvious that these incidents are the dark stars around which those stories that do get explicitly told revolve.

Living ourselves in a slowly-emerging post-war era, we are more than a little familiar with stories of wartime trauma, how that kind of trauma can be excruciatingly hard to deal with, how often it results in dysfunction, abuse and suicide long after the incidents themselves have seemingly been put behind those that experienced them.

Catch-22 telling a story that both desperately wants to be told and desperately wants not to be recalled. Scenes like (especially) Snowden bleeding to death in the plane over Avignon and Kid Sampson being accidentally obliterated are for most of the book obliquely referred to touchstones, dark stars around which the explicit stories revolve.

In a way, Catch-22 is a wholly different response to Hemingway's "iceberg theory" and its inherent suspicion of words. Hemingway's suspicion of BIG words is, of course, almost definitional of his writing style and of his era. Many recall the famous passage in A Farewell to Arms to this effect:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor,courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
But it wasn't just big words that Hemingway and his protagonists distrusted. Hemingway cultivated a style that emphasized what it omitted:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. (Source)
That iceberg dignity is what Hemingway strove for. The central fact of Hemingway's life and times was the experience of World War I. That experience is also central for many of his protagonists. But many of his great war-related stories barely mention the war, and his protagonists seem to make it their business to drive thoughts of it out of their minds with mundane ritual. 

It is easy to see Hemingway and his protagonists as suffering from what we'd call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Hemingway's "Iceberg theory" can be seen as simply a rationalization of avoidance, the refusal to remember or be reminded of traumatic experiences, a classic PTSD symptom. But it is also a more philosophical expression of a mistrust of words, of explicitness, to express the truth about the seven-eighths beneath the surface. To attempt to bring those truths and traumatic experiences to the surface was, inevitably, to make them into lies.

As PTSD therapists often relate, words and narrative help veterans structure, normalize, and contextualize horrific experiences and allow them to move on with normal post-war lives.  But for Hemingway PTSD might be said to represent a more appropriate, though highly impractical, response to horror. 

Trying to talk directly about such experiences, while perhaps a practical necessity for those who have to remember them, is domesticating what can never be truly domesticated. 

Hemingway's goals as a writer weren't to return to normalcy, it was to try to somehow speak truthfully of these experiences. Talking through these things meant going from avoidance to lying. That's the danger of words & stories: they can give a false sense of control and normality and acceptability to that which is not controlled, normal or acceptable.

But through implicitness, Hemingway thought he might be able to make the reader understand something true about the War. Heller, I'd argue, makes the same observation about the fundamental hostility between explicitness and the truth behind trauma, but responds to it with a radically different technique. Instead of the spare, economical prose from which the explicit has been merely excised, Heller chooses to give us vignette after vignette, in an order which is non-chronological and indirect but which allows us to gradually come nearer the truth until, finally, it is given to us.

Though he was quick to remark its apparent lack of form, Norman Mailer clearly recognized the technique behind Catch-22's structure. As Mailer read, he could perceive the narrative "building upon itself" and that the book eventually "becomes substantial." The result is that "Heller is carrying his reader on a more consistent voyage through Hell than any American writer before him . . ."(from "Some Children of the Goddess")

There is, of course, an oppressive air of manliness to Heller's and Hemingway's (and Mailer's) war stories, but war is NOT the only source of the "iceberg" kind of trauma. And war is not the only experience or institution which lends itself to this sort of agglomerative story-telling. Another is the family.


In fact, this sort of storytelling is common wherever we gravely doubt the ability of telling to convey an experience or situation, or where we doubt the reader/listener's ability to perceive or properly appreciate the experience behind the words. When children try to tease out family secrets or stories they are not yet old enough to hear, they are often merely told lies, or to shut up. But sometimes we are told true stories. Stories that give us a bit of what they "deserve to know." Stories that obliquely approach what they definitely aren't to know while, ultimately, avoiding them . . . and over time they may hear a lot of these. The sanitized story of why Uncle Paul was in prison. The story of how your grandmother went senile quite early. The story of how Uncle Paul was able to fix things when you were in a jam. The story of your aunts on the reservation in Oklahoma. The story of your bad brother. And so on . . . and over time a much broader picture emerges of a family with certain challengers and certain ways of responding, all of which you were to be shielded from as a child.

These family stories sometimes have some ultimate deep dark secret, some particular bit of forbidden knowledge, but more usually they are just stories of how hard, unjust life can be and how compromised it makes us. Truths most of us would like children to find out only in due time, after having heard and considered and absorbed and, yes, laughed at a host of tangential stories.

Heller mimics this sort of agglomerative storytelling. A storytelling that does not have a chronological order, but which does have important points of reference, only gradually and eventually revealed, which gives structure to the whole.
The narrative style is NOT merely arbitrary. And it is not just authorial whimsy (as, I fear, much of Middlesex is mere whimsy). Heller is taking a story-telling technique straight from the tellers of war stories, as he told one writer regarding the genesis of Catch-22:
"conversations with two friends . . . influenced me. Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them very seriously. . . .The first one told some very funny stories about his war experiences, but the second one was unable to understand how any humor could be associated with the horror of war. They didn't know each other and I tried to explain the first one's point of vie to the second. He recognized that there had been lots of graveyard humor, but he could not reconcile it with what he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents in it came to me."
(From Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, by Tracy Dougherty, p 175)

Clearly Heller saw more to the war stories of the first man than "graveyard humor." He appreciates the gravity with which the second man considers his experience, but he saw humorous anecdotes as a legitimate way of approaching, slowly and indirectly, the experience of war. The motive in such storytelling is not so much to protect the reader from the truth, but to protect the truth for the reader.

This approach is not only commonplace in oral storytelling. Many, many mysteries, for instance, are built on the story of a young person's building a deeper, secret, usually familial story, one seemingly random anecdote or fact at a time. In the end the last piece of the puzzle, the centerpiece, reveals the significance of all.

There is a center to Catch-22, or perhaps "are centers" around which the oblique narratives are organized. The trauma of Snowden's slow death and Yossarian's helplessness before it is an obvious one. But the effect isn't one of "all is revealed." It's a lot more subtle, and far more true to life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Catch-22



Yesterday I tried to begin Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex for the second or third time. Today I was flipping through my LibraryThing account and decided to have a go at reviewing Catch-22, one of my favorite novels; a novel which I've read a half-dozen times and taught at the college level three times.

This coincidence has got me thinking a lot about my preferences and prejudices as a reader. I hadn't given Middlesex a try in a long time, so I forgot what it was that made me give it up and sell my copy, in spite of its obvious appeals to someone like me: written by a fellow somewhat-alienated urban-ethnic; focused on a city (Detroit) that I'd love to know more about; unafraid to delve into issues to which our forebears were oblivious and/or out-and-out hostile (alternative sexuality).

Unfortunately Middlesex also prominently bears the mark of cutesy, self-indulgent, pointless post-modern authorial whimsy: that overwrought/underthought quality we see in so many novels today. And Middlesex has more than a whiff of the generic "varieties of ethnic experience" novel of which Oprah and her fellow club members seem to be so fond. Most of these books strike me as pandering: some cynically, some innocently. None of this is fair to Eugenides or Middlesex, of course, but it does accurately reflect the climate of suspicion as I opened the book.

Given that context, it didn't take much to return Middlesex to the shelf: one of Eugenides' very first cutesy gambits, the character named "Chapter 11." After about a half dozen repetitions of this name, I was done.

So if my tolerance level for cutesy jokes & tricks is so low, how come I love Catch-22 so much? How could I love a novel literally structured around a cutesy trick: a random, non-chronological narrative sequence; or one filled with cutesy jokes--Major Major Major Major; Chief White Halfcoat, the Indian beneath whose home oil is sure to be discovered; the intricate, blinkered schemes of Milo Minderbinder, etc. etc.

As for these more minor, incidental characters and episodes in Catch-22, I'd say they're better than the run-of-the-mill contemporary novel because they're actually funny rather than being simply ostentatious or goofy (though Heller does rather push the envelope). But the really important difficulty for me ought to be the seemingly willful oddity of its narrative structure.

Well, the fact is that the narrative structure did pose a problem for me. I started Catch-22 a half-dozen times before I got further than twenty pages in, and I only managed that with the strong encouragement of a friend (thank you Erik Dussere, that was a real gift!). Once I got "over the hump," once I came to accept the non-linear nature of the book as the price of admission, things flowed along nicely: I laughed out loud, I appreciated the horror, distortion and absurdity of life on Pianosa, I felt a strong of kinship with Yossarian's kind-hearted misanthropy.

All that made me like the novel. But it didn't make me love it. What made me love it was the logic behind the seemingly arbitrary structure. A logic that many readers, even some highly perceptive readers, seem to overlook. Evelyn Waugh thought Catch-22 to be "totally without structure." Norman Mailer wrote that Catch-22 was like "yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone." (As we'll see later, Mailer had more to say about what the structure of Catch-22 was and did than this passage seems to imply.)

Superficial discussions of the narrative structure of Catch-22 always seem to emphasize the absence of structure--that the significance is in the absence of linear chronology. We read that it mimics the chaos of war, or "the worst excesses of modern bureaucracy." But what became apparent to me as I got fairly deep into the novel was that there was nothing arbitrary or cutesy or merely absent about the structure of Catch-22. It was in fact intricately planned and carefully structured to achieve a certain effect and to mimic, I think, a certain kind of informal storytelling that we probably don't really think of as storytelling. In fact, it is a kind of storytelling that rises out of a deep reluctance to and a radical skepticism of putting experience into words.


(to be continued)

(The above owes quite a bit to Robert Merrill's "Structure and Meaning of Catch-22," which is available in several places and forms online.)


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Irish Pub: Authenticity

http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/a/a-pint-of-plain/9780802717016_custom-2e27df9041137ce3d1e2243349aa5c92f0fa18c6-s6-c30.jpg 

Have waded about 100 pages into Bill Barich's Pint of Plain and, well, I can't help but be a bit disappointed by it. Barich is from a school of writing that seems to think that tiresome disingenuineness is the key to the reader's heart. First rule: Always pretend to partake of the cliches and oversimplifications that no doubt define the worldview of your audience. Second rule: gently, oh so gently, allow yourself to be disabused of these erroneous ideations through hard experience. And we end up . . . pretty much where the intelligent reader started out as far as interpretation goes.

There are a lot of valuable facts, figures and anecdotes passed along along the way though, so I'm not complaining too much. But all of this would have been much better for everyone had Barich simply been honest from the start.

Barich's book is about the search for the "authentic" Irish pub, based on the pub in the Quiet Man. Now that's more or less like looking for the bar from the first Star Wars movie. If that's your standard of authenticity, you'd better start your quest by finding a better standard. But Barich doesn't. The false ideal is easier to live with that trying to explain what it is that makes for a fine, real-life pub.

Now, I think the Quiet Man is an OK movie. My father, from an big Irish-American family with lots of Irish connections, hates it. But good or bad, it's sentimental fluff and it makes no bones about it.

Barich does, in fact, find some nice pubs along the way, but they never seem to quite measure up to the fiction (of course) and so don't require any too-extensive explanation.

And everything, apparently, has to live up to the false ideal or authenticity test. Here he is watching music in a pub in Temple Bar:
The group . . . didn't engage in patter. They just leaped in and and ran through each tune two or three times, although in the old days they might have done six, eight or ten repetitions. The guitar sounded wrong . . . and the group's air of weary professionalism, along with the mikes and the stacks of CDs for sale robbed the performance of any spontaneity, but the music still had a curious effect upon me.

The "authentic" performance Barich lusts after here is a traditional Irish session. But sessions aren't performances. They're jam sessions more or less, with musicians joining in on tunes they know, learning ones they don't, comparing notes of different variations of melodies, engaging in shop talk and occasionally participating in a really rousing set that falls together more or less spontaneously. Sessions, by definition, aren't done for audiences. They aren't performances--they are ways for musicians to try out, show off and hone their traditional music chops. The more a musical event tilts toward an audience, the more folks who show up to listen and the more the pub promotes it as a session, inevitably the less it partakes of these more musician-oriented qualities.

Stumbling into a good session is nice--I've seen good ones in the states and in Ireland. It is a special kind of musical experience. But so was seeing Seamus Egan at the Philadelphia Irish Music Festival. The traditional Irish session IS NOT by any means the only or the most genuine Irish musical experience against which all else must be measured. To take it as such is, well, deeply ignorant.

I am sure someone once told Barich that a real session was the "real thing." Just as someone told him there was a great deal of difference between Irish Guinness (the real thing) and all other Guinness (the pale imitation). But that is not how these things work. Foreign Guinness is in some cases a different drink altogether than your pint of plain. No one drinking Foreign Extra Stout is going to mistake it for a 200 calorie, dark yet light, creamy pint. They aren't the same thing and each is its authentic self. If you refuse to experience the merits of something because you can't quite decide whether it is truly "authentic," well, your are crippling yourself.

Barich quotes at some length from a marketing study which describes "authenticity" as "an attribute not inherent in an object, and is better understood as an assessment made [by a particular person] in a particular context." Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, in other words.

Barich, understandably rejects this idea more or less out of hand, but it deserves a moments thought. The Authenticity the marketeers are talking about is the authenticity that consumers claim to experience or not experience. There is no set standard for what makes something "authentic." It could be who makes it, it could be its history or provenance, it could be how and whether it has been used, the manufacturing techniques employed, the ingredients or some combination of any number of standards. There are often competing standards of authenticity for a single product or experience.

There is a cult of authenticity in the West. Authenticity is more or less a fetish. Observe Barich, for example. He launches on a quest for the "authentic" Irish pub, and is almost fooled by several seemingly, but not actually authentic pubs--pubs that have been contrived to appeal to his sense of the authentic, pubs that seem "authentic" but which actually are just the compromise reached with a past generation's contemporary reality which we now see as old enough to be authentically traditional. But Barich clearly enjoys some these pubs, but once he finds out their "inauthentic" roots, he must reject them and seek further.

But Birchall's is authentically itself, as is McSorley & Sons, a pub with a whole load of specially brought-in bric-a-brac to entice just such sentimentalists as Barich. He fell for it and so what? He liked the place. I'm curious as to what drew him aside from the decor. But as Barich keeps finding out more about what is "authentically traditional," the goalposts keep moving, and the reader quickly begins to lose interest in what's "authentic."

What would be interesting is a good long look at what's good in a pub. I'm hoping that Barich soon wearies of the authentic himself and let's himself thoughtfully enjoy a few fine but inauthentic pubs, of which there are still a few in Ireland.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Enduring Stupidity of American Foreign Policy Discussion

President Obama recently gave what was hyped as a "major foreign policy" statement before the graduating class at West Point this past week. Given the strong realistic streak in Obama's overseas maneuvering to date, I thought that this would either be a huge redefinition of terms or a complete and utter non-event. It turned out to be the latter.

This has given a lot of folks who are otherwise critical of Obama, both left and right, a chance to be further critical of him. And it gives me the chance to point out that it was pretty stupid to set himself up for this fall.

Unless somehow his message of extreme moderation somehow slips through the chorus of mostly nonsensical caterwauling and reaches the public. It is possible.

What amazes me about foreign policy discussion in this country is the extent to which it is dominated by people who utter little that isn't complete & utter bullshit. I've written before (mostly here and here) about the essentially theatrical attitude many purportedly expert commentators take toward foreign policy; where foreign policy is all about cutting a figure, creating an image that is pleasing to the American public (and, allegedly, one that is terrifying to our enemies), whatever the reality behind it.

This is essentially a cynical attitude: Americans know little about the rest of the world and don't care to know very much. The *reality* of our involvement vis-a-vis the rest of the world is not something they are likely to become cognizant of, at least in the short term. The image of a forthright and defiant American President, gazing off into the middle distance with a light wind rippling his hair. That's something that'll reach them. Albeit briefly.

Obama's hairstyle is not the only thing that makes him ill-suited for this role. He had his chance to rework this image after his own predilections after he was elected. He had, after all, did a bang up job of reworking our image of presidential candidate over the prior year. But there was a pesky financial crisis and ensuing recession to deal with, and he always seemed a bit . . . mmm . . . ill at ease with the purely theatrical elements of politics. His middle-distance stare always had an element of "I wish I were anywhere but here" to it, rather than the "I really LOVE me, and so should you!" or "They really LOVE me, and so should you!" that we see in leaders who have really mastered the art.

At heart, Obama is a tinkerer and improver. A realist. A man who hates stupidity and waste and who has had plenty to do just unwinding the commitments left to him by the prior administration, which came to be defined by stupidity and waste.

Translating what he really feels about foreign policy--that he doesn't hold with any religious mission at the core of American foreign policy, that he doesn't hold with fomenting paranoia (and the ensuing overseas commitments) as a civic distraction, that he realizes America is not omnipotent and intends to behave that way--telling that truth would require confronting a whole host of contradictory feelings America has about itself. That we can do anything!; that we're terribly and unjustly overburdened. That we're the best!; That we've been in decline throughout living memory! That everyone needs to do what we say!; That we don't feel like making any sacrifices.

The usual talking heads we see complaining about the Obama foreign policy and mostly would-be directors of a much better political/theatrical presentation than currently on offer. They are interested in *exploiting* these contradictions in our attitudes.

Someone we don't like ruling Syria? Well how can Obama possibly let that happen? He is weak!

But this is a very easy complaint to make. The suggestion being that a "strong" President never has to live for long with anything he doesn't like. But is this true? Of course not. And when asked particularly about what they are suggesting ought to be done, the essential actions are always either in the past or nebulous in the extreme. Apparently Obama didn't sacrifice the right chicken to the right God or something, and if he had Bashir Assad would have been smothered in his crib as an infant. Or something. I can never quite figure out what is being suggested.

Which is nothing new, except for the fact that journalist who cover this sort of thing seldom push the questioning to the point where real answers must be forthcoming. In fact, they are complicit in mystifying foreign policy because that give their sources (and they themselves) an aura of privileged knowledge (however nebulously presented) for access to which we are dependent on them.

When in fact, foreign policy is largely about learning to lose well. It's about acknowledging where you can't win or can't win without undue risk. It's about scooping up an easy win here or there and putting your effort and taking your risks where they really matter. It's about playing a high stakes game. It isn't primarily about principles and it isn't theater. There are disagreements about how that high-stakes game should be played, about whose bluffs should be called when; about when risks are justified.

But those who image of foreign policy seems to be Wagnerian bellowing from the "World Stage"--well, there's a reason they aren't at the table, even in their childish imaginations!