The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

Man, this book is one weird little kettle of fish. Starting with a faintly apologetic prologue from its patron, who seems a bit confused as to how Orwell reached the conclusions he reached. I’m a bit confused too, and I’m not sure Orwell was clear on it himself.

The first half of the work is really very good, making the best use of Orwell’s reporting skills to deliver a stark and fairly harrowing view of lower-class life in a dreary mining town. There are occasional digressions into what appears to be his main point in the second half of the book, but for the most part this section is both emotionally effective and well-observed.

But it all runs off the rails when Orwell abandons report and takes up the form of a manifesto. Having explored the sad lives of the working classes in Britain, Orwell is prepared to deliver a report on what socialist movements have to do in order to actually get this class onboard: namely, jettison all those supercilious academic types. I can admit a certain amount of sympathy with this viewpoint, despite being a supercilious academic type myself. There’s certainly a sort of intellectual evangelist out there (which I have particularly noted in the realms of free software, atheism, vegetarianism, and polyamory) whose arguments for how much superior their beliefs are get enrobed in such a thick layer of smugness that they lose the sympathy even of their own allies.

I’ve always marveled at the way that the poorer states and classes in America — particularly the ones who would benefit most from a strong social welfare system — time and again vote against those who would implement it. There are a lot of complicating factors (especially in America, where race and guns muddy the issue a lot more than they do in Britain), but there’s definitely an image-management issue on the left, which somehow has been successfully spun as the left wanting to “tell people what to do”, presumably in that unbearable supercilious way of theirs*.

Now, if I knew how to deal with this problem, I would be a Democratic Party strategist and not a math professor, but I’m pretty sure Orwell is on the wrong track. Orwell’s solution appears to be to excise enough from the progressive agenda to no longer represent actual progress (actually, on rethinking, maybe the actual Democratic strategists figure Orwell had the right idea). To provide a quick list of the people Orwell thinks do more harm than good in the party, here’s a good contemptuous quote:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

Lest you think I’m unfairly highlighting a particularly absurd litany, later he gets mad enough to list the dilettantes of socialism again, and refers to
that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat.

So, what does Orwell hold up as the true perils to the movement? Fruit juice. Sandals. Feminism. The first two are honestly bewildering and perplexing; the third is reactionary but I can at least see why he might view feminism as alienating to the salt-of-the-earth types.

But what Orwell seems to miss completely is that a political movement can’t be made exclusively of the lower classes, not without actual violent revolution. Political activity is basically a middle- and upper-class predilection, and these classes take a wider view of “progress” than purely bettering the lot of coal miners (although, yes, coal miners are on the agenda). He also doesn’t seem to recognize that progressive purposes are interlinked: that pacifism can and should coexist with a focus on social welfare, because funding is finite and wars are expensive. To say nothing (unlike the patron, who really rips into him for this) of birth control as a significant part of empowering the lower classes to take charge of their fortunes.

So it’s not clear to me why Orwell really thinks that the party has to ruthlessly trim the effete intellectuals away from their ranks. He wants his party to be full specifically of miners, or whom he says:

It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small… but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.

Ahem. Goodness. I can see how that might appeal to a certain sort of person, but it’s a very poor criterion for admission to participation in the cause of Socialism.

* Admittedly, this doesn’t explain Newt Gingrich, who remains popular among anti-intellectuals despite radiating intellectual smugness without the mitigating factor of actually having something intelligent to say. back.

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Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, by Glynis Ridley

I first experienced my colleague Glynis Ridley’s flair for historical research and exposition at our Faculty Research Forum, which is the best kept secret on campus (an open but intimate lecture, with often fascinating subjects and alcoholic refreshment. This Friday: Covert anti-Zoroastrianism in the Talmud!). Fairly recently Dr. Ridley spoke about Jean(ne) Baret, a fascinating figure who deserves her own full entry after I read that book.

Anyways, I was favorably impressed with both Dr. Ridley’s exposition and her skill in selecting interesting topics, and I was not let down by her first work of general-audience nonfiction, Clara’s Grand Tour, which is about a delightful adventure that merged zoology, fashion, philosophy, art, theology, and plain old-fashioned show-business, in a tale which, nowadays, is relegated to the status of a footnote.

The story begins with a daring Dutch entrepreneur, Douwemout van der Meer, who undertook the extremely risky business proposition of importing a young, tame rhinoceros from India named Clara and exhibiting it for money. Van der Meer was either very lucky or very clever, because the European track record on importing and sustaining rhinoceros was pretty dismal, but he kept her alive during a fairly strenuous tour schedule for 17 years.

Historical references to the spectacle abound, but chronologies detailing the journey between cities and nonpublic events are rare. Ridley’s work is an engagingly well-written stitching together of a tremendous number of references, many of them explicitly cited. She presents a moderate amount of conjecture (particularly as to routes taken between cities) in the form of fact, but the suppositions which are particularly daring extrapolations (such as the contention that rumors of Clara’s death were deliberately spread by van der Meer to drum up publicity) are presented as plausible but hypothetical; no academic dishonesty here!

I was impressed by the stitching together of what was a fairly discursive and threadbare set of primary sources into an engaging narrative. Certain aspects, such as Clara’s state of health when not extremely abnormal, and the entire itinerary after 1751, are admittedly fragmentary, but the story is patched together not by considering Clara so much as a particular physical beast with particular travels and properties, most of which were not written about, but through the lens of the actual writings that exist, which record Clara as a social and cultural phenomenon, or, how the experience of having a rhinoceros present convulsed society wherever Clara went. One of Ridley’s primary emphases is on Clara’s effect on zoology and anatomy: most contemporary conceptions of the rhinoceros’s anatomy were copies (or copies of copies) of an extremely inaccurate woodcut by Dürer, and their understanding of rhinoceros behavior, diet, and physiology based on equally inaccurate reports of Pliny, and Clara’s tour led to greater promulgation of accurate information. She likewise convulsed the art world at the Meissen Porcelain factory, the world of fashion in Paris and Venice, and was even the subject of political machinations, as her hospitality was provided in a show of power by the Electors of Hesse. It’s a fascinating story, and one with enough peculiar events highlighted in each stage of the tour that, even viewed from the present day when anyone in a major city can view a rhinoceros any time they want, the story of trooping a rhinoceros around every city in Europe in turn never feels monotonous, but rather conveys the enthusiasm and excitement which different people all over Europe would have felt about the coming of such an extraordinary sight to their town.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis

I suppose we have seen and will see many books about the CDS-instigated collapse of the financial world, but this one takes the pleasantly realistic tack that although foreseeing the collapse was neither pleasant nor widespread, it definitely was possible to see the end coming, and to make a lot of money doing it. Here it strays into mildly troublesome territory, characterizationwise, because the heroes of this story come out as half Cassandras, half Robin Hoods, and there’s a real question as to their defensibility. The Big Short hits the Cassandra angle rather hard, highlighting cases in which the investors (particularly Eisman), meet up with CDO managers and ask trenchant questions prognosticating doom. The overall feel of the characters as drawn is that, having found a seemingly obvious flaw in the long-term viability of CDOs and CDSs, went around trying to find someone who would lay their fears to rest and tell them, “no, that won’t actually happen, because…”. But they never found anything convincing after that “because”.

The investors central to the story are presented sympathetically (except for Burry, who comes across as an arrogant, contemptuous solipsist and even his diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome does not really redeem his character presentation), which is a bit distressing historically, since all these bizarre financial products came into being as a result of people shorting them, which suggests that, even if they were going around telling people how catastrophic these products were, they were serving as architects for the crisis by providing demand for and actively encouraging harmful financial behaviors. Oddly, this aspect of the culpability for the financial meltdown isn’t explored at any length in the book. Otherwise I’d recommend it, as it’s an engaging and well-written exploration of the crisis as seen by some of the few people who can claim with certainty to have actually known what was going on.

See also: Wikipedia.

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer

Bob Altemeyer is a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, and The Authoritarians is, first and foremost, a report on his research. So pretty much every chapter is a report on several roleplay scenarios, surveys, and other human-behavior studies, in addition to a contextualization of those same studies and their results. It’s a popular-audience tome rather than an actual formal research report, so it’s readable, long on 21st-century contextualization of the observed behaviors, and short on experimental protocols.

From the aforemenetioned popular-audience perspective, it does ot a certain extent seem like Altemeyer’s saying the same thing over and over: namely, that there is a significant subset of the population psychologically predisposed to behave stupidly. He doesn’t come out and say this, of course, but his (research-justified!) contempt for what he calls “high RWAs” comes through, and the indictment of their critical faculties and independence of thought is pretty damning.

It’s an interesting and absorbing read, but not without its problems. It seems in many ways to be confirmation of things which disgruntled liberals like myself already think they know, so despite that warm glow of self-satisfaction, I’m not sure how much I learned from this. It’s short on good explanation for the roots of high-RWA attitudes, nor a cogent plan for combatting them.

But it’s an interesting read, and it sheds at least some light on the peculiar way authoritarians think, and the substantive differences between the psychology of right-wing leaders and their followers. I’m not sure this did much to expand my actual knowledge, but it’s good at sharpening and clarifying the thoughts, like any good orderly and well-justified presentation of facts can be.

See also: online (free) edition.

Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

Bringing Down the House is a book which swept nonfiction booklists a while back, and as an MIT graduate, I found myself occasionally asked if I knew “those guys” (I didn’t; they were before my time, and in different social circles). I only had a vague idea of what those guys actually did, so I finally read the book to find out.

It is enjoyably written and a fair page-turner. It’s apparently been to a certain extent exaggerated and simplified for drama and readability, which is a bit of a pity, but it at least stays on the right side of verisimillitude. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, but does explain enoguh that we feel as clever as the folks in it (a side note: Vegas actually loved this book, because it brought in waves of rubes who figured this was easy). It’s well-written and entertaining. The MIT connection is sort of unusual, to my mind, and I’m glad to have read it for that reason alone: the circles I moved in at MIT were pretty damn clever but a lot more flamboyant about it. It seems almost mercenary, when compared to a really clever hack, to do this kind of thing. But, hey, it’s a place of many cultures and many perspectives, and I bet even many folks within my culture would disagree with my assessment.

See also: Wikipedia.

War is a force that gives us meaning by Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges was a war correspondant for decades, so apparently he knows a hell of a lot about war: how it destroys people, howw it changes cultures, how it remains an attractive proposition even to those it’s destroyed. War is a force that gives us meaning is a distillation of his experiences and observations, and as such is a pretty good all-audiences treatise on war. It focuses on the Bosnia-Herzegovina war, which is a pretty shrewd move, inasmuch as there’s a lot the average American doesn’t know about it, and there are no obvious good guys (pretty much all of the belligerents were guilty of heinous war crimes). So as a narrative and as memoirs it was eye-opening and interesting (not to mention well-written). As an actual sociological statement, though, this book felt like it was saying things which have been said before many times. Its organization was laudable, presenting numerous examples of every thesis, but in the end I can’t see this book really changing anybody’s mind, or giving anyone except the extremely ill-informed a better understanding of war as a sociological phenomenon. But it’s an excellent and a thoughtful presentation of the nature of war in the latter half of the 20th century, and it’s an absorbing read, so it’d be time well-spent for anyone with interest in the causes and effects of modern warfare.

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is an interesting slice of Hungarian culture. What fascinated me, reading the story, is how screwed up the society it describes is, which is actually far more interesting than the fairly incompetant antihero who exposes Hungary’s complete dysfunction. It has fascinating trainwreck qualities, watching Ambrus make absurd, ridiculous mistakes, staying too long at jobs, spending his money completely conspicuously, and leavign a trail any idiot should be able to follow. Actually, it almost seems that one of the primary reasons Attila Ambrus escaped the police so long was their assumption that he was far cleverer than he was: if they’d thought to ask cab drivers if they’d shuttled a robber away from a bank, or made discreet inquiries at casinos about big spenders who don’t seem to have actual means, they’d presumably have gotten their man earlier (or maybe not, on the latter: it may well be that the casions were full of big spenders whose fortunes were of dubious origin, probably mostly drug dealers). So in many ways the reaction of the country was far more interesting than Ambrus’s shenanigans. Althoguh he too is an interesting character study in self-destruction: the aforementioned screw-ups, and his constant wasting of money, seems to point up a self-destructive personality, or at least one that subconsciously wanted to be caught. This actually makes a lot of sense in light of Ambrus’s claimed need for attention. On that front, it seems that getting caught actually made him happier — his story’s out now, and he’s gotten his notoriety. And it’s a story worth reading, partially for his own wacky character, but also for the wacky character of the setting. Early-90s Hungary was a weird place going through capitalist growing pains. The peculiar cult of the robber-hero, and the police’s fumbling helplessness, is a part of that story.