August 31, 2006

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2006

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Thomas G. Pavel, The Spell of Language: Poststructuralism and Speculation
Translated by Linda S. Jordan, with the author, from Le Mirage linguistique; also published in translation as The Feud of Language: A History of Structuralist Thought. Basically, an attempt to answer the question of why mid-century French thought became so taken not just with the idea of language, but with certain thematics aspects of one particular approach to language which was already being surpassed in linguistics itself. Basically: it was an attempted "modernization of the human sciences", which were felt, for reasons Pavel goes into, to be comparatively backwards in France. (This would be stronger, I think, if he could point to other efforts in this direction, contemporaneous with the beginnings of structuralism, even if he couldn't say why those failed to thrive.) Erudite about a wide range of scholarly fields, often very shrewd (see especially chapter 6, "On Discretionary Intellectual Behavior"), but in places over-written in much the same style as the authors critiqued, and sometimes rhetorically over-stated. Recommended if you care about structuralism and its spawn.
Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq
How we got into this goddamn mess, and just how hard it will be to even start to act in ways which won't make things worse. (He only hints, though, at why the Army was so resistant to learning about counter-insurgency.) Depressing as hell, but strongly recommended.
Some bloggers have been upset that Ricks wrote much more "on message" stories for the Washington Post (e.g., his 2003 profile of Wolfowitz, not at all like the portrait in Fiasco, has been singled out for criticism) at the time all this was going on. (If you want to follow this polemic/flame-war, start from here and work backward through the links.) I'm prepared to offer at least a partial and cynical defense. It's clear, from his excellent earlier book on the Marines, that he wants to like the US military, but isn't naive about it. He wrote a remarkable joint story with Anthony Shadid from 2 June 2003, in which Ricks went on a patrol through Baghdad with a US Army unit, and Shadid followed behind talking to the Baghdadis; this doesn't leave you with the illusion that it's all going to go swimmingly and the boys will be home by Christmas. So my guess is that he felt there was just no way he could continue to work on the story, without filing the kind of pieces he did; they were the price of access. Even the Wolfowitz profile ran in parallel with a profile of General Zinni, in fine anti-this-war-now form, making it reasonably clear to any reader which man knew what they were talking about, without actually saying that one of them had his head in the clouds, if not up his ass. It's depressing, and disturbing, that an excellent journalist at a major American newspaper felt he had to employ such Aesopian (not to say Straussian) devices, yes, but am I in a position to say he was wrong?
Frank J. Sorauf, Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities
A well-written look at how the campaign finance system actually worked between the post-Watergate reforms and 1992, when the book was printed. A lot of this was quite eye-opening: it's surprisingly hard to find evidence that PAC donations affected roll-call votes, for instance. Incumbent members of Congress, according to Sorauf, were already much better electoral bets than challengers, and had been for decades, which is why the former found it much easier to raise money than the latter, though money had a much higher marginal impact on challengers' ability to get votes than it did on that of incumbents. So (to gloss over a lot of Sorauf's nuances) campaign donations weren't so much bribes, to get politicians to do things they wouldn't've otherwise as tribute, to keep the contributors from being shut out of influence. (Who was it who said that "If you can't take their money, drink their whiskey, sleep with their women, and vote against them anyway, you don't belong in Congress"?) — I used the past perfect tense because the book ends with the 1992 election, and that as an epilogue; it was frustrating to repeatedly find Sorauf making a good point, and then wonder what had happened in the last decade and a half.
Update: John Burke, in e-mail, remembers the "If you can't take their money" line as originating with Jesse Unruh, and Wikipedia agrees, so that must be right. (Wikipedia quotes the saying as "If you can't take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women, and still look them in the eye and vote against them, you don't belong here", i.e. in the legislature.)
Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East
Capsule introduction to the unhappy experiences of the Middle East with interventions by western powers over the last two centuries, and some reasons why the latest self-proclaimed liberators of Baghdad could expect to be received with some skepticism, whatever their actual intentions. Written in mid-2003, and pretty much borne out by events.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur

Posted at August 31, 2006 23:59 | permanent link

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