Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 26th, 2013

George Packer looks at America’s decline

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An interview by Dan Oppenheimer in Salon:

Of all the compliments I’m inclined to pay to George Packer’s new book“The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” the one worth paying first is that it’s a pleasure to read, though not in the way I anticipated.

Packer is intelligent, explicitly analytical and happy to give himself plenty of word count to interrogate his subject from every angle. It’s a style he brings to his reporting in the New Yorker and to books like “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq.”

“The Unwinding” is complex and intelligent, but these qualities are coalescent rather than explicit. And the narrative space of the book is highly pressurized. The chapters are short. The sentences shoot forward. The descriptors come quick and sharp and loaded for bear. The perspective jumps from one protagonist to the next rapidly, with nothing connecting the many characters — knowns like Newt Gingrich, unknowns like struggling biofuels entrepreneur Dean Price — except for Packer’s masterful location of them within the larger drama of the “unwinding.”

“If you were born around 1960 or afterwards, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding,” writes Packer in his prologue. “You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition — ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

I spoke to Packer by phone for about an hour, primarily about two things. One was the challenge of finding a way to tell this huge story in a way that felt intimate and narratively compelling. The other was about what I sensed was a fierce moral indignation at the core of the book. Packer wasn’t just acting the reporter, telling all these stories about how America had changed. He was saying that something has gone very wrong in this country. People are suffering. And there are people to blame.

Describe the genesis of the book for me.

It began from the events of the financial crisis and the recession. I had the sense that America was going through a wrenching transformation and then the transformation didn’t really happen. A lot of the same problems persisted after 2008, and a lot of the same ways of thinking about the problems. So I began to think that we were in a longer period of decline. Not necessarily permanent decline, but decline over a longer period than we normally think.

Many books have been written about this, and many of them are good books. I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the policy debates about problems like inequality, polarization, the hollowing out of the middle class, institutional decay. Instead what I wanted to do was describe what it’s been like to live in America over the past generation, from the late 1970s to the present, which has basically been the period of my adult life. And how to do that? I wanted to do it in a way that was both panoramic and intimate. It would look at many different parts of the country, many different sectors of society, at people who had made it, people who had not made it, people who were struggling, celebrities, obscure people. I wanted to do it with a bias toward the human voice and the human face rather than the big historical trends and events.

So how did you arrive at this structure?

I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do when I started. I began to just go out and do a lot of looking and reporting, starting with Dean Price, the entrepreneur down in North Carolina who is one of the central characters in the book. I just kept traveling and reporting and absorbing people’s stories. Toward the end of this process, as I realized I was ending the gathering of stories, and the book was coming due, I began to panic because I honestly didn’t know how it all fit together. That was when my wife reminded me that I had actually come up with an idea at the very start of the process. That was to model the structure, loosely, on the trilogy USA by John Dos Passos, and to cut between all these characters, moving back and forth, from one to another, as they all passed through the same historical timeline.

I’ve been reading your stuff in the New Yorker for a long time, and have read “The Assassins’ Gate,” and it felt to me like this was very different not just in terms of the overall structure of it, but in the flow as well. You sounded like a different writer.

“The Assassins’ Gate” is a very tightly controlled story of the ideas that led to the war and the consequences of those ideas in Iraq, and there is no doubt about where it is going and what kind of groundwork is being laid. Whereas if you start reading “The Unwinding,” the first thing you encounter is a two-page prologue that’s more an overture than an analytical introduction. It doesn’t lay out a set of arguments, but evokes a set of concerns and a feeling. Then you encounter a kind of news crawl from 1978 that is a mashup of a bunch of different sources from that year — Jimmy Carter, the Ramones, “Animal House” — in order to give you a sense of what the collective mind of a year felt like. Then you meet Dean Price, this guy down in North Carolina, and you hear about his early years. Then in comes Newt Gingrich, and his story, which actually is very relevant to the late ’70s and early ’80s. Then you meet Jeff Connaughton, this guy who goes to Washington and works there for the rest of his career. It demands a certain amount of patience, and it puts a lot of pressure on each of these individual chapters to hold your attention.

If as a reader you ran into two in a row that were slow, you might be done.

You might be done, absolutely, and it’s a risk I’m taking. I’m just hoping the stories themselves, and the sense they are going to tell a larger story, are strong enough to hold readers’ attention. The book lives or dies by whether it gathers speed, intensity and meaning as it goes along.

How did you find the people who were lesser known but are really at the heart of the book, like Dean Price? . . .

Continue reading.

And by all means, read this review of his previous book. Let’s face it, he has been horribly wrong in his positions: his support for going to war in Iraq, which I remember as quite strong: he was a booster, and when he talks about the neocons having their way with the government’s direction, he doesn’t mention that they were able to do this because of strong media support (like George Packer) and the mainstream media’s failures—not only a failure to look for disconfirming evidence for the biggest decision imaginable, but even an active effort to minimize or suppress disconfirming information—and certainly no hard follow-up questions. Mostly it was support, and George Packer was among those cheering.

Second: his position that everything’s going to be okay in Iraq was horribly wrong almost immediately. He gives a lot of rationalizations and justifications for taking a completely wrong position, but here’s the fact: two big calls, two wrong calls. I think he should stick to straight reportage, which seems to be his strength.

In a word, I don’t cut him any slack. He muffed it, and that means he will most likely continue in that vein. Report the facts, Packer; let us decide what they portend.

Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2013 at 2:18 pm

Who’s the danger: Muslims? or Christians?

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Interesting post by Juan Cole at Informed Comment contains this information:

Christians as aggressors

Muslim countries invaded and occupied by Westerners since 1798: what is now Bangladesh (Britain); Egypt (France), much of Indonesia (Dutch); Algeria (France); Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad (France); Moroccan Sahara, Ceuta (Spain); what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan (Russia); Tunisia (France); Egypt, Sudan (Britain); Morocco (France); Libya (Italy); Palestine and Iraq (Britain); Syria and what is now Lebanon (France); Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain (Britain); Iran (Britain, US, Soviet Union during WW II); Iraq (US 2003-2011)

Number of Muslims killed by Western Powers since 1798: tens of millions

Muslims as aggressors

Western countries invaded, occupied by Muslims, since 1798: Turkey in Cyprus since 1974?

Number of Westerners killed by Muslim powers since 1798: a few tens of thousands, most in the Ottoman wars in the Balkans and WW I


Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2013 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Religion

Good signs regarding the new Pope

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Pope Francis must be driving the conservative wing of the Vatican (which seems to be 80% of the Vatican at least) crazy. I am very pleased to see that he derives some of his outlook from liberation theology, which is vital to Catholic countries, particularly those in Latin and South America where it first was voiced. Rachel Donadio has a good article in the NY Times:

VATICAN CITY — He has criticized the “cult of money” and greed he sees driving the world financial system, reflecting his affinity for liberation theology. He has left Vatican officials struggling to keep up with his off-the-cuff remarks and impromptu forays into the crowds of tens of thousands that fill St. Peter’s Square during his audiences. He has delighted souvenir vendors near the Vatican by increasing tourist traffic.

Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has been in office for only two months, but already he has changed the tone of the papacy, lifting morale and bringing a new sense of enthusiasm to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Vatican itself, Vatican officials and the faithful say.

“It’s very positive. There’s a change of air, a sense of energy,” said one Vatican official, speaking with traditional anonymity. “Some people would use the term honeymoon, but there’s no indication that it will let up.”

Beyond appointing eight cardinals as outside advisers, Francis has not yet begun making concrete changes or set forth an ambitious policy agenda in a Vatican hierarchy that was gripped by scandal during the papacy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, who resigned on Feb. 28, is now living in a monastery inside the Vatican.

But Francis’ emphasis on attention to the poor, and a style that is more akin to that of a parish priest, albeit one with one billion parishioners, is already transforming perceptions. He has chosen to live not in the papal apartments but rather in the Casa Santa Marta residence inside the Vatican, where he eats dinner in the company of lower-ranking priests and visitors. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2013 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Religion

Nutritional Weaklings in the Supermarket

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Very interesting graphic. I never buy white corn—if I can’t get yellow, what’s the point? But I see I should go for blue. In general, I do buy the darkest variants of any plant food: red cabbage rather than green, red kale rather than green, brown flax seed rather than white, and so on. The following graphic is by Bill Marsh of the New York Times with illustrations by Matt Curtius and accompanies an article by Jo Robinson, “Breeding the nutrition out of food“, which begins:

WE like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.

This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.

Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.” A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple has a staggering 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets. . .

Continue reading. I think it’s quite obvious that businesses do not make these alterations to our foods in ignorance: they simply don’t give a damn about the nutritional value of the food, since their total focus in the bottom line and increasing profits.


Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2013 at 12:20 pm

Interesting phenomenon

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For an explanation, and a run with quite a few more metronomes, see this article.

Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2013 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

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