Thursday, January 11, 2007



Well, I have some good news and bad news (or vice-versa, depending on your perspective I suppose). The bad news is that I’m closing up shop here at Legal Fiction. The good news is that I’ve been graciously invited to join Obsidian Wings and will join Hilzoy and the gang as of today. So for the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting over there.

I’m very excited about joining Obsidian Wings — it’s a great blog and I’d encourage everyone to follow me there. For those who don’t read it, it’s got a lot of characteristics that I (and I hope you) find appealing in blogs — it’s thoughtful, it’s welcoming of other views, and legal posts are not uncommon (for a nonlawyer, Hilzoy’s legal knowledge is a bit scary).

But that said, it’s of course sad to leave here after three years. Since I’ve already had an embarrassingly premature retirement once, I’ll spare everyone the violin songs this time around. But I did want to explain why I’m moving, given that my output will significantly decrease going forward.

The bottom line is that I need more time than I have right now and joining a group blog will help on that front. My long-term goal is to be a law prof and it’s time that I focused my efforts on more academic-style writing. And for that matter, I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at magazine articles and even a few fictional pieces. (So if you see an article somewhere in the months ahead that looks like it’s been plagiarized from this blog, don’t be too quick to accuse the poor guy of foul play.)

But it’s not like I’m abandoning blogging — I don’t think I could. That’s why I’m grateful to Hilzoy for taking me in. But I won’t be posting as often as I do now because I’m going to make a concerted effort to do some other things, like sleep and even (god forbid) morning exercise.

I will of course leave this site up for as long as the Google servers are humming (which I’m guessing will be a while). And who knows, if professions change and I no longer need to mask my secret identity, then maybe I’ll move back here.

But anyway, thanks to all — I’m not going to get all sappy, because I’m not hanging up the cleats for good. So please do follow me over to Obsidian Wings.



I'm busy at work, but here are some very quick thoughts on the speech.

First, I agree with Kevin Drum that there's nothing new here. We have, after all, been clear-and-holding, training Iraqis, and promising to build stuff for years.

Second, the biggest substantive gripe with Strategy 2.0 3.0 4.0 5.0 is that it depends a lot on the Iraqi government, military, and police. I mean, take a look at these proposals:

The Iraqi government will appoint a military commander and two deputy commanders for their capital. The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts.

When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort, along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations; conducting patrols, setting up checkpoints, and going door- to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.

. . .

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November.

To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.

To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend 10 billion dollars of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs.

To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year.

All of these plans depend, first, upon another sovereign government actually adopting them and, second, executing them. And the military aspects of the proposals require the cooperation (and competence) of the Iraqi military and, gulp, police force.

Taking a step back, there's a conceptual problem here. It's not really accurate to conceptualize the current situation as helping "the government" fight the anti-government people. In a civil war/sectarian conflict such as this, assisting any part of the government is essentially taking sides. Deploying the police for instance doesn't so much help the government as it helps certain Shiite factions who have overrun the police force. That's what makes this so quagmirish. At this point, in 2007, any action is necessarily "picking sides" so long as there are no inter-ethnic coalitions or "vectors."

Third, my more cynical view of this is that the administration is out of ideas and is just running out the clock.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007



I'll have more to say about the "surge" and the constitutionality of Kennedy's bill, etc., later. But for now, I just want to draw everyone's attention to these passages in today's Post, which are just mind-boggling.

In going for more troops, Bush is picking an option that seems to have little favor beyond the White House and a handful of hawks on Capitol Hill and in think tanks who have been promoting the idea almost since the time of the invasion.

. . .

Although the president was publicly polite, few of the key Baker-Hamilton recommendations appealed to the administration, which intensified its own deliberations over a new "way forward" in Iraq. How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.

As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton.

Two things. First, Bush is choosing an option that has zero support from anyone except those who have consistently been wrong about pretty much everything relating to Iraq. Military officials, Middle East experts, and foreign officials are all opposed because they don't think it will work. And that makes sense given that the underlying problem today in 2007 is not so much a lack of security, but a sectarian civil war that is ultimately a political problem.

Second, and more inexcusably, if the NSC official is correct, Bush is picking this option out of vanity and spite simply because the Baker Group didn't offer it.

All in all, it sounds like a promising strategy. After all, if history has taught us nothing else, it's that military strategies with no empirical basis adopted out of pride and vanity are usually phenomenally successful.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

LEDEEN TO TROOPS: "Stop Being Lazy" 


You know, the audacity of this line is suprising even considering it's coming from Michael "N'er Right" Ledeen ("The Surge and Its Critics"):

[Another] excellent recommendation is to dramatically increase the number of embedded Coalition soldiers. . . . Note that an increase in embeds doesn’t necessarily require an increase in overall troop strength. We’ve got lots of soldiers sitting on megabases all over Iraq. They should be out and about, some of them embedded, others just moving around, tracking the terrorists, hunting them down. I don’t know how many guys and gals are sitting in air-conditioned quarters and drinking designer coffee, but it’s a substantial number. Enough of that.

Wow. You should read the whole stupid essay, which concludes that the solution is regime change in Syria and Iran. But "designer coffee"? Wow.

Monday, January 08, 2007



As I hope everyone knows, Memeorandum is a blog aggregator (and an excellent one). The way it works is that it displays a prominent story or blog post and then lists all the blogs that are linking to that story. Inevitably, there’s a story or post that the Pajamas Media bloggers cluster around (e.g., Malkin, Protein Wisdom, Powerline, etc.). I generally skip over the Pajamas cluster because these sites, like black holes, are so dense that they absorb light and intelligence. I can’t risk losing either. (Yes, I know not all of them are technically “Pajamas” certified, but it’s a useful genre label).

Despite my best attempts to ignore the daily Pajamas cluster, I kept seeing Jamil Hussein stories pop up again and again, day after day, week after week. Based on the tiny pieces of stories excerpted on Memeorandum, I even saw that Michelle Malkin was going to Iraq to investigate. Although that definitely piqued my interest a bit, I still tried to ignore the story. My general rule is that the importance of a given story is inversely proportional to the percentage of Pajamas Media bloggers in the cluster. Thus, if a story is only being linked to by Malkin & Pals, there is an approximately 0% to 0.03% chance that it has merit.

I’ve been out of loop for a few days, and so I’m late to all this. But it was with great glee that I read this Steve Benen post informing me that, shockingly, there actually was a Jamil Hussein after all. And apparently he’s now facing arrest for talking to the media, presumably from the heightened media exposure caused by the Pajamas bloggers. Well done guys.

But as happy as this story made me — and let's be honest, it gave me a warm, satisfying glow deep within my soul — there’s actually a serious point here. Glenn Greenwald basically gets to it, but his rhetoric is so over-the-top that you have to distill the good pieces out. (I admire the effort and research that Glenn puts in, but he would be a more effective persuader if his tone were more measured -- I mean, the facts and blockquotes are devastating even without editorializing.) Anyway, in between his rhetorical hot coals, Greenwald systematically lists a number of outrages and non-stories that turned out to be completely inaccurate. It’s a good list — and a telling one, particularly given that these people pride themselves on watching the watchers (or, if you prefer, watching the detectives).

The interesting question here is whether there is a more structural explanation for why these people are always — and systemically — wrong. I mean, it’s fun to blame everything on their being idiots. But there’s a more interesting — and more accurate — explanation here.

In my opinion, their wrongness is a function of their ideological approach to the world. And I mean that in a philosophical sense. Like other nationalists throughout history, they interpret the world through the lens of their own idees fixe. Ideologues like them approach the world not as empiricists but as advocates. They don’t survey the phenomena around them and derive fact-based conclusions. They survey the external world for data points that reaffirm their pre-existing views.

Pajamas Media doesn’t have a monopoly on this problem. Indeed, it’s unclear whether our brains are even capable of perceiving things outside of an ideological lens of some sort. But not all lenses are created equal. And the thing that comes through in reading the Pajamas crowd is an extreme Manichean nationalism coupled with a persecution complex. As nationalists, the Malkin crowd embraces America with an almost-infantile devotion (my daddy can do no wrong). The world around them is also very easily divided into good and evil, American or not American, Muslim or not Muslim, and so on. On top of all this (and intertwined with it) is the persecution complex that is so central to the conservative evangelical political movement. To the Pajamas nationalists, the paranoia manifests itself as media bias — everywhere, at all times — in the same way that James Dobson sees a constant, unending assault on Christianity.

There’s a lot of interesting psychology here. The Jamil Hussein story is a classic “Howl” — an outrage generated by cognitive dissonance rather than objectively-justified grievances. As the entire world knows, Iraq has degenerated into civil war with thousands of sectarian killings each month. Rather than come to terms with that (and the more general failure of the war they supported), the Pajamas crowd focused on a single story to demonstrate that the AP was so biased that its reporters resorted to using a fabricated source to exaggerate the sectarian crisis (followed by an editorial conspiracy of course).

In sum, for reasons part political and part psychological, the Pajamas crowd sees the world as they want to see it rather than as it is (or at least more so than other people do). They pick out things that reaffirm their views and ignore the rest. The thing is, though, when you approach the world that way, you’re obviously going to make a lot of factual mistakes. And the Pajamas crowd does that in spades — as Glenn’s post makes painfully clear.

On a final note, this is a big reason why the planning and execution of Iraq were so mind-bogglingly off-base. The planners approached the data as advocates rather than as empiricists. And it shows.

[UPDATE: One of the best parts of Glenn's post is in the updates where he points out that the Pajamas crew signed on Michael Ledeen, a long-time friend of this blog. Ledeen promptly "broke" the story that Khamenei was dead. Readers of LF will be shocked to learn that the opposite of what Ledeen said actually turned out to be true. The man is literally never right - it's downright eerie.]



As expected, the Israel-Iran post stirred up some strong objections in the comments. So let me try to spell out my views on Iran policy in a little more detail and with a little less snark.

Lots of people have their pet Iran theories. America and/or Israel should do this, or threaten that. They should discuss this, or bomb that. And so on. But before we can entertain any of these theories, we have to answer an antecedent question — what threat, if any, does Iran really pose? That’s the fundamental question upon which all else rests.

In other words, the question about what should be done with Iran is essentially a question about what Iran is. For instance, if Iran is in fact a nuclear terrorist threat incapable of being deterred, that calls for a certain type of response. If not, a different response is in order. (For the sake of argument today, let’s assume that threats to allies like Israel should be seen as threats to America.)

The reason then that I recoil from talks of military strikes is that I, perhaps naively, don’t view Iran as a fundamental threat — to the United States or to Israel. It’s true, I don’t see Iran as a Best Friend Forever (and thus I wouldn’t abandon contingency military plans or "trust but verify"), but I don’t see them as an inevitable threat that cannot be stopped, but can only be preempted.

At this point, you may agree or disagree, but the precise question is whether or not this particular perception is accurate. Thus, the first question is not “what should we do?” but “why should I see Iran as an inevitable deadly threat?” You can’t just proceed to justify tactics (like nuclear strikes) that only make sense under a certain assumption.

There are several reasons why I think Iran is not the inevitable enemy they're made out to be. First, and most importantly, Iran craves to be “of this world.” They want to be respected, they want to participate in markets, they want to be rich, etc. Particularly pre-Iraq (and even now, though to a lesser extent), they’ve sent strong signals that they crave a normal relationship with the United States (and with our money).

And it makes sense why they would. The U.S. and Iran — unlike, say, the U.S. and the Islamic Courts in Somalia — have a lot of potential shared interests. They both want stability in the Middle East. They both have a strong interest in stable oil markets. They share a common enemy in Sunni jihadists (that’s a biggie).

In addition, the Iranian public (particularly the massive youth demographic) is the most modern, most stable (i.e., wealth/education distributions), and most pro-Western in the Muslim world. Finally, Iran has substantial (though often overstated) leverage with the Iraqi Shia (more SCIRI/Badr than Sadr/Mahdi). Given our needs in the Middle East and Iran’s desire to be “of this world,” there’s room for a deal here.

In short, we need to opt for a “China strategy” rather than an “Iraq strategy” in dealing with Iran. I’ve explained this before, but the point stands. Economic engagement with China has done more to keep China honest (both economically and militarily) than any military strike could ever have done. I mean, imagine what the world (and the global markets) would like right now if, instead of recognizing China, Nixon had bombed them instead (Ledeen: “Mao is a madman that can’t be reasoned with . . .”).

Fine, you say, but what about their nuclear weapons program? To be clear, I’d much prefer an Iran without nuclear weapons to an Iran with them. But, given the shared interests discussed above, I don’t think it would be the end of Western civilization if they got them. Frankly, the fact that unstable, unreliable Pakistan has nuclear weapons is far more frightening to me (and far more threatening to Israel).

Again, this goes back to my assumptions about the nature of Iran. Iran, remember, is not a stateless terrorist group. It is a large, regionally powerful, rational country that is perfectly capable of being deterred by the threat of annihilation (just like the far more powerful USSR was). If Iran bombed Israel, or handed something off to Hezbollah, it would be wiped off the map (as would Hezbollah).

As for Ahmadinejad, well, fuck that guy. He should be a pariah for his grotesque statements regarding Israel. But remember that he has exactly zero power over Iran’s national military or foreign policy. It’s the equivalent of the Senate pro tempore mouthing off about foreign policy.

But, and this is key, Ahmadinejad may not always be irrelevant. Iran is at a critical crossroads — and the choices that it makes (and we make) right now will ripple on for many generations. Like George Wallace, Ahmadinejad’s strategy is to polarize and conquer. Loathsome, but not an idiot, A-jad knows that Iran could very well adopt a more pro-Western position in the decades to come. (Or to give him less credit, he just wants more power than he currently has). In either case, he can meet his goal by polarizing the “electorate” (which is similar to the political tactics of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and, frankly, Osama bin Laden). He not only wants to trigger a strong response regarding his anti-Israel statements, he probably wants the US and/or Israel to bomb Iran. Like Rove, he recognizes how external threats increase domestic political capital. Accordingly, he wants a very clear “Us” and “Them.” That’s the purpose of his nativist, nationalist, anti-Semitic bluster.

And it’s apparently starting to scare a few of the people that actually matter. According to this insightful post (via Nadezhda), the recent election in which A-jad’s allies lost resulted in part from the Khamenei’s stacking the deck against them. The theory is that Khamenei (the guy that matters) is getting a little worried about the upstart’s nationalistic power play and tried to cut his legs out from under him.

The broader point is that, at present, Iran is not the mortal threat everyone is making it out to be. But, if hardliners like A-jad assume (or re-assume) control, it could be. Under that scenario, different responses would be required. More critically though, the types of things that make this scenario more possible are things (idiot things) like bombing Iran or official leaks of nuclear strike plans. These actions (and threats) give the hardliners a domestic political bludgeon over those who would otherwise be inclined to “appease” the West.

In the years ahead, as we watch the Bush and Ahmadinejad administrations come to their respective sorry ends, the real question is whether the idiots will leave office before or after they have a chance to destroy U.S.-Iranian relations for decades to come.

Saturday, January 06, 2007



Hmm, I've been out of pocket for a couple of days, but this Times of London story seems potentially, um, newsworthy:

Israel has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons.

Two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear “bunker-busters”, according to several Israeli military sources.

Of course, who knows what to make of this. It could be a disgruntled whistle-blower. It could be a deliberate leak designed to intimidate (no doubt from the same people that brought us Israel-Lebanon II, a sequel as smart and intimidating as Rocky VII). Who knows.

But if it's true, it's the kind of thing that would make Iran, you know, seek to develop nuclear weapons. And fast. I know Yglesias has been banging this drum, but it would do people well to step outside of the Good v. Evil lens and see these types of stories from the average Iranian's perspective. If a prominent wing of the party controlling the American executive branch is clamoring for a strike, and if Israel is doodling up a few "tactical" nuclear strike options against your country, the obvious response would be to support speeding up the country's efforts to develop a nuclear deterrent. And the secondary response would be to politically embrace whoever promises to do so.

Thursday, January 04, 2007



Via LGM, I see that the Rehnquist files have been opened and it appears that the Chief enjoyed the 70s. Here's an excerpt from the Legal Times (quote slightly amended):

The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist's Senate confirmation battles in 1971 and 1986 were more intense and political than previously known, according to a newly released FBI file that also offers dramatic new details about Rehnquist's 1981 hospitalization and dependence on a painkiller.

. . .

The FBI's 1986 report on Rehnquist's drug dependence was not released at the time of his confirmation, though some Democratic senators wanted it made public. But it is in Rehnquist's now-public file, and it contains new details about his behavior during his weeklong hospital stay in December 1981. One physician whose name is blocked out told the FBI that Rehnquist expressed "bizarre ideas and outrageous thoughts. He imagined, for example, that there was a CIA plot against him [and that the Tenth Amendment confers substantive rights; and that the Fourth Amendment was forged by Communist Black Panther Hessians who had hidden underground following the Revolution. It was strange because the Communist movement significantly predated the Black Panther movement - and Hessians were notorious racists. Rehnquist also started making outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament."]

The doctor said Rehnquist "had also gone to the lobby in his pajamas in order to try to escape."

More to come.



I started two posts tonight, both of which I disagreed with by the end (one was virtually complete). Thats how de bloggin goes sometimes.

So instead, I'll just direct you to Eric Martin's excellent post elaborating on Dominique Moisi's Foreign Affairs article, which discusses the role of shame in the Muslim world (cross-posted at American Footprints). Eric astutely views the hanging of Saddam through the prism of this "culture of humiliation." For those interested, back in my nicer days (pre-2004 election), I wrote about the role of Muslim shame too, and I tried to compare it to the collective mentality of the American South through history.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007



I just read the Decider’s op-ed today in the WSJ, and this sentence in particular caught my eye:

It is also a fact that our tax cuts have fueled robust economic growth and record revenues.

Note the word “record.” Given the massive tax cuts we’ve had over the years, I began wondering how exactly Bush could justify using that word. I mean, I knew it was wrong, but I was curious about what pretextual argument the White House could possibly be using to justify including that word.

Some quick googling reminded me that it’s not the first time the administration has suggested loudly declared that its tax cuts have led to “record” revenues. Check out this graph released from the Treasury Department from about a year ago.

From this, it looks like the tax cuts have been an overwhelming success, shooting revenues up past even Internet-boom levels. So what gives?

The trick they're using is that they aren’t adjusting for inflation in calculating revenues. Here’s the OMB table that explains what I mean (click on it for larger image):

The administration is using current dollars rather than constant dollars (i.e., dollars adjusted for inflation). In constant dollars (or especially as a percentage of the GDP), the tax cuts did not lead to “record” revenues, or even to positive ones. Our revenues are still lower than they were before Bush took office.

I've made this point before, but it’s just another example of how the conservative defense of tax cuts — at least the political defense of them — relies on disingenuousness and a presumption of ignorance. If you want to argue for tax cuts on the basis of fairness or efficiency, fine. But the primary defense you hear from elected officials — that tax cuts increase revenue — is just, well, a lie.

[UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan has more.]

Tuesday, January 02, 2007



NRO's Andy McCarthy, 2007:

I think the Iraqis can be deemed to have botched Saddam's execution only if we continue to indulge the fantasy that the popular elections the Iraqis have held signal the adoption of a modicum of Western democratic culture. When we do this, we are engaged in wishful thinking and the projection of our values.

By this, I don't mean to denigrate or provoke a debate over the democracy project. I think even if you are an enthusiast of democracy-building, it would have been utterly unrealistic — after such a short time and in the midst of vicious sectarian strife — to have expected much better than what happened when the Shiites Saddam had brutalized for a quarter-century finally had him under their total control for the stated purpose of putting him to death.

[T]he popular elections were not a cultural shift but simply the most efficient means by which the overwhelming majority bloc, the Shiites, were able to assume power[.]

NRO's Andy McCarthy, Jan. 31, 2005 (writing about the Iraqi election):

Americans owe their nation, their freedom, and a prosperity unknown in the history of mankind, to that election — the great election of November 1864. It bears remembering that today, as Iraqis take an enormous step toward self-determination and, perhaps, inject the microbes of democracy into the tyrannical dysfunction of our planet's most turbulent neighborhood.

. . .

The Iraqis . . . are inching forward with multiple cultures (some harboring ancient animosities), with a people who did not so much develop as a nation as they were stitched together by the victorious World War I powers' divvying of the Ottoman Empire spoils, and with no democratic tradition. In that light, their participation in a democratic election only months after Saddam Hussein's removal is nothing short of remarkable.

. . .

Today is a day to rejoice over progress that is historically startling. In far less than a century, it may transform the world. Or it may not. But as we watch this Iraqi achievement, this is a day for American pride and humility, not gracelessness and nitpicking.

Monday, January 01, 2007



Looking at the year in books, Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children got a lot of hype (NYT book review here). On balance, I liked it though I had problems with it. It's definitely worth the read though, even it's ultimately unsatisfying. It was almost a really good book, so I applied tougher standards to it. For those interested, Slate has a pretty good podcast of three critics discussing it. The critics point out (correctly) that the first half is very good (other than the intolerable first 15 pages), but that it gets weaker by the end.

But anyway, the issue I want to discuss with Emperor’s Children has less to do with literary criticism, and more to do with sociology. Specifically, Messud holds up a very dark mirror to well-educated 20-(and-30)-somethings who fancy themselves current or future members of the intelligentsia.

To provide an exceedingly brief description, Emperor’s Children takes in place in New York City in 2001. The three main characters are all Ivy-educated (Brown, I think) aspiring-intellectual types who are approaching 30. None of them, however, have very much to show for all their smarts and early promise. One of them has been writing a book for years that shows no signs of ever being finished. Another writes film reviews while working at temp agencies. Their love lives are all generally disasters. And so on.

The book is essentially a comedy of manners, and all the characters (including these three) are shallow and petty. Although the characters aren’t one-dimensional and have their sympathetic moments, it’s clear that Messud dislikes all of them. In this sense, it’s similar to Bonfire of the Vanities in which Tom Wolfe hated all his characters (but did a masterful job painting them).

There’s obviously much more to the book, but I wanted to focus on the gap between the characters’ intellectual aspirations and the reality of their lives and current jobs. I think one of the defining characteristics of younger, intellectually-oriented, well-educated professionals is a tendency to overvalue themselves and their potential for greatness (and I indict myself here). Although they do it silently, many of them think in their own mind that they will be — or certainly have the potential to be — a great intellectual. The next Hemingway. The next Walter Lippman. The next Hitchcock. There’s a similar tendency for those that eventually wander into more business-oriented fields. Everyone thinks they can be the next Rupert Murdoch or the Google boys.

The point is that everyone knows — just knows — that there is this latent greatness and brilliance lurking beneath. For this reason, these people often spend their 20s seeing their current job and career path as a just a fleeting moment on the way to eventual greatness — literary, film, political, journalistic, corporate, whatever. However, at the same time we nurse these self-assuring thoughts, our actions are often best summarized as a frantic attempt to gain financial security and status. These aren’t necessarily bad things in moderation. Life, after all, is a lot easier with money than without it and I’m hardly one to lecture anyone on that front. What’s interesting though is that this vision of future intellectual greatness becomes a way to justify your current action, whether it’s working 24/7 or not working at all.

This is one of the themes in David Brooks’ excellent Bobos in Paradise. The term Bobo stands for “bourgeois bohemian” (think investment banker wearing Birkenstocks). It’s been a while since I read it, but Brooks breaks down the jobs of the expensively-educated along something like an x-y axis, with the x axis being money and the y axis being bohemianism. An investment banker is an example of extreme money and no bohemianism, whereas a starving artist would be the opposite.

Brooks describes (with rigorous empirical support of course) that both of these ideal types envy the other. The rich banker has bohemian envy (or guilt), while the artist has money envy. A Bobo then is someone who splits the middle. They have demanding, well-paying jobs, but compensate for their guilt and envy through conspicuous displays of bohemianism — decorating their apartment with primitive art, or listening to Phish, or conspicuously displaying certain books, or wearing Patagonia clothes, etc.

If Brooks’ observations are accurate, they have fairly disturbing implications for those of us who fancy ourselves individuals that don’t roll with the crowd. In essence, Brooks is saying that our personal preferences are not idiosyncratic but are merely functions and reflections of our specific cultural and socio-economic demographic. In other words, our preferences are no different than a dialect or any other non-individual social characteristic. Just as a sociologist could determine where someone grew up by their accent, a sociologist could also get pretty close to guessing our ethnicity, age, income level, education background by looking at our iPod collections and top ten album rankings (again, I fully indict myself here). In short, the dark part of Bobos is the realization that the things we consider most reflective of our individuality and intellectual-ness are instead socially-determined products of our specific demographic.

And that leads back to Emperor’s Children. Assuming you agree with the “everyone thinks they’re brilliant” theory, the really dark question is whether this too is simply a social characteristic — i.e., a mere reflection of our particular demographic, even if we can’t pinpoint the cause. Maybe it has something to do with the demographics of people’s colleges (which I’m not bashing, I loved college dearly and would not trade the experience for any sum), maybe it’s just a psychological need to distinguish yourself when surrounded by impressive people in the workplace. Who knows.

But the point is that perceptions of latent greatness may be socially-determined characteristics rather than objective assessments of reality. And even more disturbingly, these perceptions of latent greatness and brilliance may be crutches that delude people and keep them from looking at their own reality in the face (whether, again, that reality is too much or too little work).

I’m not sure what the implications of all this are. In one sense, it illustrates that, instead of dreaming high and thinking of doing great things, maybe we should focus our sights instead on more realistic game like family, community, local politics, etc. There was an interesting op-ed in the NYT maybe a year ago (link anyone?) on how people should stop seeing their jobs in romantic terms and see them for what they are, and what they have always been for 99.999999% of humanity — the way you make a living. One implication of this argument is that we should stop identifying ourselves with our jobs (my understanding is that Western European professionals are better about maintaining this separation). Also, to the extent that perceptions of latent greatness are materially affecting your career path, maybe they should be tossed.

Emperor’s Children doesn’t so much argue that aspirations should be tossed, but it suggests that unrealistic ones don’t lead to anything — they have no material affect on the world. Interestingly, Messud makes this argument with what I interpreted to be back-handed admiration for the 9/11 attackers. One of the main character’s boyfriends is an Australian moving to New York to start up a new “revolutionary” type magazine (but more of a Murdoch-type magazine than French Revolution-style). When 9/11 happens, he’s disappointed not so much because of the attacks, but because the attackers stole his show (the magazine was about to debut). While he was thinking about how to change the world through words, they acted and changed the world he was observing and writing about.

But to take a larger step back, there’s something terribly unsatisfying and depressing about all this. You could just as easily argue that tossing our aspirations is simply an apology for giving up. Indeed, the best argument I’ve heard against this “get real” view of the world comes from Catherine Keener’s character in Being John Malkovich:

The way I see it, the world is divided into those go after what they want and those who don't. The passionate ones, the ones who go after what they want, may not get what they want, but they remain vital, in touch with themselves, and when they lie on their deathbeds, they have few regrets. The ones who don't go after what they want... well, who gives a shit about them anyway?

That’s a pretty damn good argument. And so maybe the point is not so much to give up on dreams even if they’re unrealistic, but to make sure that they are true passions and not self-serving crutches and illusions.

HAPPY 2007 


Happy New Year everyone.

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