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!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Irish Pub: Drinking and the Irish

OK: More cliches.

The Irish are a bunch of drunkards.

Well, not really, but the Irish (I'm mostly of Irish extraction, btw. Obviously.) have had an interesting and complex relationship with booze. Alcohol is very much woven into a lot of Irish sociality. Whiskey is customary at get-togethers in Ireland much like vodka is in Russia. Just recently in Ireland I've seen the whiskey broken out on a few occasions when cousins or old friends meet around a kitchen table. And neighborhoods and villages have traded gossip and lamented and shared news and talked politics over pints in pubs.

There have, of course, been problems. The Irish journalist John Waters has written that “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”

The drunken Irishman like the Irish pub is a cliche, but not just a cliche. There's a truth behind it. During the long struggle for independence, Irish patriots often lamented their biblious countrymen. And the Irish middle class, even when they were not slavishly emulating the English middle class, went to great lengths to separate themselves and their customs from taint of alcohol. A whole host of problems seemed to go hand in hand with Irish drinking both in Ireland and abroad: unemployment and underemployment; gambling; domestic violence and other crime; prostitution; disease.

These aren't just sepia-toned 19th century problems, either: Irish drinking is on the rise in the 21st century, and many of these associated problems are still felt quite acutely. There's actually a bit of a moral panic going on about it in Ireland right now. (Perhaps symptomatic, but very well done, really: The Irish Times' Sobriety Diaries.)

Given all these historical and contemporary problems, you'll see in certain quarters a resentment that Irish social life should be so closely associated with the pub. Or that Irishness itself should be so associated with it. You'll see people who are saying "good riddance" to the pub.

I am not among these. While I fully recognize the problems inherent in tying social life and personal life so closely with dispensaries of alcohol, I also love and long for the sorts of "third space" pubs have always been at their best. And I also highly value the pleasure and the dis-inhibiting influence of communal drinking. These things are not to be discounted, I believe, even in the face of all the obvious problems that drinking leads to for many among us.

More later.

The Irish Pub

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/Paddy_Foley%27s_Irish_Pub_Dresden_2.JPG
Paddy Foley´s Irish Pub. Schandauer Stra├če 55, 01277 Dresden, Germany

I'm just back from a trip to Ireland, which was wonderful in a lot of ways and a bit worrisome in some others. One worrisome thing was the state of the Irish pub.

The Irish pub is something of a cliche here in America. Literally thousands of corporate and not-so-corporate bars play to the image of the Irish pub as the beating heart of the community; the center of boozy sociality and fun. I once worked for a man who made a fortune supplying bric-a-brac for these and similarly themed bars.

But there was a truth behind the stupid cliches: pubs in Ireland were often vital social centers for the communities in which they resided. Being in and participating in the din of conversation in a smoky, too-warm pub with a pint in front of you was always one of the highlights of any trip to Ireland.

But Ireland and its pubs have undergone many changes since I was there last in the mid-nineties. Ireland is, decidedly, part of Europe now. The economic boom I saw happening then has busted, and there has been a further boom and bust in the real estate market. Ireland is no longer a country remarkable for being mostly empty and is no longer remarkable for the number of its younger people working abroad. Those younger people stayed home in the nineties to take advantage of the economic good times, and after that prospects elsewhere were hardly sunnier than prospects at home.

The population, which had stayed at about three million for decades, is now steadily closing in on five million. The change is most obvious in Dublin, which has become a truly expensive cosmopolis, but every county in the Republic is seeing substantial rises in population.

I've lived in and visited many bustling towns--New York City, Philadelphia, London--but today's Dublin may well take the cake as the most harried-feeling of them. This is indicative of some great changes in Irish culture, but also of some lingering elements of the old Ireland.

One reason why Dublin is so harried is that the people seem to want to live up to their self-image of Dublin as a modern, bustling "world city." But another reason seems to be that the Irish feel that their current economic difficulties and austerity are their just deserts for having so enthusiastically embraced Mammon. Guilt is a far stronger current in Ireland's response to the economic travails of the last 15 years or so than America's. To be harried and hurried is a sort of ritual penance for having enjoyed wealth, for having central heat, for having borrowed money, for having used a credit card, for having eaten pate.

This guilt, played upon pretty nakedly by the government's "get working" campaign, shows how, in some ways at least, the new Ireland isn't so different from the self-hating Ireland of the past. (Irish self-hatred, while not a big part of the cliche-Ireland we see so often, is an absolute fixture of Irish literature and cinema.)

In the pubs, though, change is obvious. Older locals--the former beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of neighborhood sociality--are now beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of not much. Young folk don't frequent the locals as their elders did before them. This is partially because there are so many young folk around (the 15-30 cohort is significantly larger than, say, the 35-50 cohort), that they have developed a pretty strong generational consciousness. This big cohort also coincided with a number of great changes in Ireland--the growing realization that Ireland could be part of Europe, and not just a former part of the decaying British Empire; and the growing realization that Ireland need not be poor and backward, that Ireland could be a place where others came seeking opportunity, not the place that supplied cheap labor to construction crews in London and Irish-themed pubs in America.

Forgoing the traditional pub is, apparently, part and parcel of becoming the new Ireland. But the new Ireland is a bit soul-less, and, in many ways seems to partake a little too strongly of the guilt and self-hatred of the old Ireland. Slavishly becoming more European or more American upper-middle-class is really little better than slavishly becoming more English. In fact, in some respects worse.

The old Irish pub that I knew--with Guinness and strong lager as the near-exclusive beverages, with damn-near everyone smoking, with windows shut against fresh air (known in Ireland as a "draft) with a universal and absolute determination--was hardly a paradise. And it wasn't really "traditional" if what you mean by that is unchanging. The lager of the 80s and 90s was a change made in response to changing consumer preferences, as were the video game machines, the televisions, the formal music events, etc. etc.

The pub as vital social institution always meant that the pub changed with the society around it. And while Irish society pre-1990 changed more slowly than it seems to now, it was not unchanging. But the rate of change does now seem to be overwhelming the old institution, and some of the changes happening inside of pubs seem to be mitigate against its social role in a way that, say, the introduction of lager did not.

Can a genuine & distinctive entity know as an Irish Pub survive when the TV is omnipresent and always on? Can it survive when loud music makes conversation impossible? Can it survive when there is so little distinctive or communal about it? Can it be reinvented to fulfill more or less the same social role in a new social setting?

I've ordered a (seemingly pretty pessimistic) book called A Pint of Plain by Bill Barich on the history & decline of the Irish pub to help me along toward answering some of these questions and I'll be posting more here as soon as it arrives.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Political Theater III

Picking up on a theme I wrote about (wow!) ten years ago . . . the press and talking heads still seem to be obsessed with "signalling" and "messages" and "perceived weakness" as if global politics were Kibuki theater and not a pursuit of real, material advantages.

Part of this is because theater is something we all understand. We all watch TV and we all are familiar with the images of power and gamesmanship we've seen on shows like the West Wing. Very few of us are familiar with the real stakes in international politics and the cards in the hands of the multitudinous players. So it is far easier for us and far easier for our hired storytellers to tell the story of international conflict as a continuation of West Side Story, where there are no stakes to speak of, just posturing, pointless risks and revenge. Conflict boiled down to pure image is something we can all understand.

And there is another side to this as well. International politics, like poker, is about maturely accepting the right losses. For a long time the US had such strong hands that it seldom had to do this--we could chase most pots, because we had the good cards. Today, the good cards are spread around the table. We've still getting good hands, but we have be a bit more careful how we play.

This conflicts pretty seriously with our self-image, though. We usually think of ourselves not as a player at the table, but as above the game--as an officiator or policeman who governs the game. Well, we're not. We cannot control how other people play their hands. Which means that we will lose some pots. We have to accept this.

We also have to accept that the behavior of others is NOT a mere reflection of our behavior, of our "perceived weakness" or "perceived strength." The other players have hands that they can play and multiple interest groups and audiences to whom they are playing.

Did Putin invade Ukraine because he thought the US was weak? The way you answer that question isn't to ask "Well do I think we look weak?" The question is about Putin, about Putin's interests and Putin's perceptions. So, assuming Putin wanted to act to keep Ukraine within his sphere of influence, what had he to fear from the United States? Chest thumping from the President? I am skeptical that Putin actually fears that. Armed intervention? Well that's be something to fear, but clearly that has never been in the cards anyhow. Not under Bush, not under Obama. Sanctions? Well, only a moron would have expected these not to come, and they will. And as the Europeans begin to really consider what a belligerent and expansionist Russia means to their interests, we will see those sanctions get pretty tough, particularly if Russia pushes its advantage in the region (they're already there, we & the Europeans aren't) too far.

So why now? Because we look weak now? No:Because up until now, Russia had a compliant regime in place in the Ukraine. They had been using all sorts of covert means to ensure that was the case. Why didn't they intervene during the last pro-Western regime was in power--they did, refusing to sell gas to the Ukraine. But during the last pro-Western regime nothing of a lasting change was made as the pro-Western forces spent a great deal of time fighting each other.

Now the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement is on the table. That could turn into a lasting change of orientation for Ukraine. That changes things. That makes Putin willing to seize the pretext of constitutional crisis in Ukraine to take what he can, in spite of the risk of sanctions. Taking this opportunity has shored up his power base at home and may get him a naval base and, perhaps, in the end, a satellite country to his west. The cost for all of this will be more or less the same cost he'd have paid under Bush--sanctions and a more hostile posture from the US and many of its allies.

Under either President, the maintenance of that hostile posture would have been difficult--the Europeans have complicated interests and fears in regard to Russia. Under Bush that would have been compounded by the fact that they despised him and his chest-thumping. (See, for instance, the amount of cooperation he attained for his Iraq invasion).

Bush's approach would probably have been to loudly declare that any Europeans not going along with the strictest possible sanctions regime were miserable appeasers and we'd no doubt seen plenty of tiresome clips of Neville Chamberlain and "Peace in Our Time." We'd have looked like "leaders." Administration officials would have taken every opportunity to bask in their Churchill, but such an approach would have distracted the Europeans: their hate and resentment of us coming to the forefront just as we'd like them to be focused on their fear and loathing of Putin. Our image: tough guy defenders of freedom. Their image: vacillators. End result: Russia goes largely unpunished. So if image is your be all, end all. We win. But if the point is to discourage people like Putin from misbehaving . . . we haven't accomplished the goal, we've only covered over our failure with a lot of posturing.

Obama takes a quieter approach, and in this case that's all for the good. By NOT being the leader, by NOT calling attention to our brave opposition stance, by NOT calling any who disagree miserable appeasers, by NOT becoming the issue, he lets the Europeans concentrate on Russia and come to their own conclusions. And they are: Putin is scary.

Probable result: US image: lots of hand-wringing over not "leading"; European image:  determined; probable result: some pretty stiff sanctions, significant cooperation between US & the rest of NATO to stem the threat posed by Russia.

If you are concerned only about image, this is bad. We aren't leading (to a failed outcome), we're merely influencing (to a desirable outcome).


Always playing to our self-image is like going all-in on every hand in poker. It's a stupid way to play. Image is only one factor in winning at this game. Over the long haul you win by advancing your interest with reasonable expenditure of resources. That means walking away from some pots; that means letting the bad guys win sometimes; that means letting YOUR calculation of interest determine your behavior, and not being a predictable slave to some notion of credibility that is easily manipulated by the other players.

All of the hand-wringing over our "image" and how, apparently that's all that matters in foreign policy is hand-wringing by cynics (who know better, but who also know that most people DO NOT know better) and the many naifs who can only understand cheap melodrama, not actual politics.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The problem with The Trolley Problem

Opened the last Atlantic and finally read the piece I'd been putting off for some time--Robert Wright's essay on innate morality ("Why We Fight and Can We Stop" in the print version). I put it off because I often find Wright to be . . .umm, rather credulous, I guess is the phrase I want. He seems to believe strongly that information about the origins of a human trait is always immediately useful in guiding us as to how to deal with that trait. I think that's a hopelessly naive attitude, so I often find Wright's work to be more than a little patience trying. On the other hand, he usually deals with interesting topics and its often pretty productive in making me try to figure out why I think Wright (or his subjects) have got something wrong.

For instance in this piece Wright prominent features the work of Joshua Greene, who has helped make the Trolley Problem--an ethical thought experiment--famous. Here it is as conveyed by wikipedia:
There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?
There is a variation:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Many people opt to pull the lever but not push the fat man, in spite of the fact that the end results are the same. Some use this result to argue that human moral reasoning is essentially irrational, or that our moral reasoning has less to do with outcomes than it has to do with keeping ourselves above moral reproach:
. . . people who obey their moral intuitions and refrain from pushing the man to his death are just choosing to cause five deaths they won’t be blamed for rather than one death they would be blamed for. Not a profile in moral courage! 
But there is a big problem with this sort of thought experiment--they depend on the subject feeling a sense of certainty about outcomes (the five people in the car are definitely heading to certain death; the fat man's fall will definitely stop the train; the diverted train will definitely hit the one person on the track you divert to). Our life experience--the experience our brains have evolved to cope with--is all abut dealing with unexpected contingencies. We very seldom face situations where we know for certain what the consequences of our actions will be, and our natural suspicion when faced with the fat man situation is not that we'll have one death blamed on us--it's that we'll have six. That's how we think, even when told not to. We are beings who have evolved and grown up to deal with unexpected contingencies--we actually come to expect them in a way, and we tend to act modestly as a result. That's what the Trolley problem really points out. That's why we like Captain Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru dilemma (he cheated), because in life there are lots more contingencies, uncertainties and opportunities than there are in tests and experiments (experiments being designed to absolutely minimize all of these). By attempting to test real-world judgements with a controlled experiment, all the Trolley Problem does is reiterate the difference between experience and experiment.