rivkat: Dean reading (dean reading)
([personal profile] rivkat Dec. 23rd, 2016 11:07 am)
Vicki Constantine Croke, Elephant Company: A Brit goes to Thailand to work for a British teak company, with all the advantages of a colonial power, and ends up devoted to the elephants that do a lot of the heavy lifting, connecting with them more than with most people. In WWII, he first tries to keep elephants out of the hands of the Japanese, then leads teams of elephants to construct bridges for Imperial troops. Sold as a WWII story, though most of it isn’t set during WWII; one ends up with a sense that elephants are far more interesting than most of the people involved.

Daniel Levin, Nothing But a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful: Levin, a lawyer who does international deals/development work, writes about corruption, incompetence, and power hunger among the elites in the US, Europe, Africa, Russia, and China, though his main interest is building financial systems in Africa. Nobody of significance comes off very well (Levin allocates himself mostly the sin of excess credulity), and I’m sympathetic to his warning that “imposters and masqueraders could hurt us more than thieves and thugs, because they knew how to work our own weaknesses and aspirations to their advantage.”

On property regimes in Africa, he quotes a cynical but persuasive take: “nobody will register his property, if it means that he could be taxed on it. And nobody will agree to be taxed on a property, if the state does not provide basic services and infrastructure, such as clean water, roads, sewage, schools, hospitals. It’s that simple. Forget about property rights.” If that’s correct, then the rule of law can only arise in rich societies, or societies whose citizens accept less today in return for the promise of more later—but why should they accept that promise without evidence that it might be delivered on? If all they’ve seen so far is corruption, then the bargain seems fake. Still, if as Levin contends everyone everywhere is corrupt, then, why do we have the rule of law anywhere? [One might suggest that only at the levels where “deals” are “done” is the US corrupt, at least for now—what I saw in private practice was never anything like what he describes.] He hammers home the point with an anecdote about a “well-connected person in Angola, with whom we had a success-based arrangement. As soon as the deal closed, we transferred the fee he was due to his bank account. This fellow later told me that in his thirty years in business, I had been the first person to honour my financial commitment to him.” Levin does not ask how this well-connected person had survived to date.

His diagnosis of neoliberalism’s failure in Russia—that privatization hastened the collapse of the economy into fiefdoms—seems hard to dispute. Levin’s account of what he heard about Putin decades ago seems prescient, but then again he was writing in 2016, so his memories of how his contacts promised that Putin would annex territories on the theory that they were really Russian all along might be twenty-twenty hindsight. Also, though he portrays members of Congress as universally dumb as well as only concerned with power, I’m pretty sure they aren’t all stupid, though it’s definitely hard to get a man to accept something as true when his paycheck depends on believing the opposite. Meanwhile, Russians are political geniuses, literally playing chess while we’re playing checkers. There’s an extended metaphor about castling—“a move you make early in the game in order to set yourself up for the endgame,” and Levin suggests that one of Putin’s most prominent opponents was always in Putin’s pocket for this reason, set up to switch and support him in his invasion of Ukraine. One of his contacts then says that “the moment to be really scared is … when those in power replace chess with a game that has no rules.”

China, meanwhile, is also corrupt, but in different ways expressed with less in the way of metaphor—“imperfections with Chinese characteristics,” as Levin reports one of his contacts saying. One businessman says that he’s not working with the Chinese military, as the Americans fear in blocking his acquisition of a US company: “If we were really connected to the PLA, we would not need to buy this company. We would just hack its computers and steal its technology.”

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage: Senators who stood against the popular will, often including the will of their own states, in causes good and maybe not so good—Kennedy was extremely forgiving of various men who wished to preserve the Union by putting off the question of slavery to another day. Here’s Kennedy, writing words that we perhaps find hard to believe today: “The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people—faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect [those] who will exercise their conscientious judgment—faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.” I guess we’ll see whether we have that true democracy any more.

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: This is a bit different for a book about power. Scott argues that it’s mainly disorganized movements of pissed-off people that produce political change; leadership generally comes only afterwards, and often doesn’t have much of a clue what the ordinary people in the movement want. I’m in deep agreement with him that a radical wing is necessary for moderates to look worth compromising with, and I certainly understand his point that government power tends to accrete without additional payoff after an initial important intervention. But I wanted to be more hopeful after I finished than I was.

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: The American Revolution has been canonized by Americans as the good one, the non-messy one. In fact, it was a civil war among British whites, and drew in numerous other nations, notably the Indian tribes whose land the colonists coveted; British sympathy with Indian rights was one of the grievances the colonists had. Taylor explores the various tensions in the colonies—mostly the rebel ones, but a bit into Canada and the Carribean—and how the Revolution fit into that larger story.

Susan Smally & Diana Winston, Fully Present: A book advocating mindfulness practices and suggesting ways of achieving mindfulness through short meditative exercises. A lot of suggestive but not conclusive science about the potential benefits for health and well-being, acknowledging the limits of the data, and enough practical advice that I’m going to try a few. Being fully present in the moment and in my body is not my strong suit, but maybe that’s itself reason to try.
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