Mimsy: Books

The First Casualty—Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

The First Casualty seeks to fill two needs: to catalog the failures and successes of war reporting since it began as a recognizable form, and to analyze its failure to engage news viewers into ending war.

As a catalogue of press behavior and roadblocks in the major wars from the Crimean war to Vietnam, this is an extensive and useful tome. But analyzing the press’s failures and censorship’s failures, it gets lost. Even transparency seems to end up a failure when it comes to war reporting… but he never ventures beyond a superficial analysis. At the end of the Vietnam section, he repeats an earlier claim that perhaps the problem in Vietnam was the lack of censorship: journalists could go anywhere and interview anybody, but because the journalists would also print anything said, people were afraid to talk to them. So is one solution to bring back censorship? And one other potential solution: what was needed was a novelization of the war, to fictionalize it.

Vietnam, in Knightley’s telling, was an extremely transparent war. Almost any reporter could go and almost anyone could be a reporter. All you needed were two news organizations saying they’d buy your stuff, and the military would give you free transportation to Vietnam, semi-free C-rations (technically the military said they would keep track of rations and would want reimbursement, but according to Knightley they didn’t do so), and accommodations. Knightley’s main complaint is that having all those correspondents, especially the new film correspondents, tended to make it look like the war was under control. The problem with Vietnam in his view is that the sum of the facts did not equal the total of the war. It needed some fictionalization to make it more truthful.

Ultimately, is this book an argument that novelizations of wars should have equal or greater precedence that fact-based reporting? It seems a silly conclusion, especially given the lengthy section on Evelyn Waugh in Abyssinia, and yet, there it is given primacy of place in the final section. Reading the title and subtitle—The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker—I perhaps expected too much from this book. It wants to have it both ways and for the most part succeeds. On the one hand the war correspondent lies by showing war as exciting and dashing. On the other hand aren’t these reporters a dashing bunch of devil-may-care fellows!

Echo House—Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

I was worried, in the first few chapters, that Echo House would not live up to my expectations after reading The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert. It does. This is, in fact, very much a novel-length story from that collection, populated by the kind of people who can say, with a straight face, things like:

“If only the American people were as good and competent and compassionate as their government.”

This is a story of the political elite, the very elite, one of the men behind the stage pulling strings. His very name—Axel—says that he is one of the men other men pivot around. Like most of Ward Just’s short stories from Flaubert, however, it is also filled with sadness.

In fact, if someone were to describe the book to me, I would not expect to enjoy reading it. But I did: Just is a very good writer, the rare writer who can make sad Stranger-like protagonists interesting to read about.

Washington is a town of secrets, favors, and people who know where the favors are buried.

“You’re a lucky man, to know people who repay their debts.”

And he takes his characters seriously. When he writes about the dangers of communism, the insidious spread of Soviet hegemony and the leaking of freedom from the world, the perspective he writes from is one that believes it. Yet when a Pole warns a practical man that their estimates of Soviet oppression and mass murder is low by a factor of four, and the hearer disbelieves it, attributes paranoia and irrationality to the man, Just does not let his 1996-era knowledge that the Pole is right color his treatment of the practical man’s perspective.

The bulk of the story is about the people, however, not about the politics; the politics—the lead character is, as far as I can read between the lines, part of the initial group that started the OSS and continued it as the CIA—is there only as a backdrop to the semi-generational story. The book starts with Axel Behl’s father, and ends with his son, all living at Echo House. From some perspectives Axel is the main character; from others, his son Alec is the main character; the sense of Alex as a person is often filtered through Alec’s view of the man.

There are crises, but they’re all in the background, moving from decade to decade, generation to generation. It’s a great story, and beautiful to read.

Advise & Consent—Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

If you crossed The Three Musketeers with House of Cards, you’d have a bastard child who looked a lot like Advise & Consent.

And the writing truly is brilliant. I will not reproduce it here, because it would be too much of a spoiler, but the ending of Brigham Anderson’s Book (the story is divided into four “books”, one for each of the Senators who make up the main characters) is hauntingly beautiful. I read it several times, and had to rest before going on to the final section.

There were many nights I stayed up far too late because I just couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly given recent news, one of the underlying conflicts is, when are immoral past deeds hypocritical and when are they irrelevant? The real underlying theme is, how best to serve? What does it mean for a necessarily flawed person to be a servant of the people?

The basic idea is that rising star Robert J. Leffingwell has been nominated for Secretary of State after the previous Secretary announced his resignation. Leffingwell is a modern man, he thinks we’ve been too hard-line with the Soviets—the book was published in 1959 and appears to take place in the sixties—and that is why they’ve been too hard-line with us. He recognizes that there are no winners in a nuclear war and wishes to avoid a nuclear war at all costs.

But the argument devolves into the very modern one that there is no choice between appeasement and war, there is nothing in between conducive to a lasting peace and the betterment of mankind.

“… They cry surrender or they cry war; they try to prevent us from discussing the other possibilities that still exist, the only possibilities, it seems to me, of ever achieving that genuine peace they are always yapping about.”

The fictional Senator from the sixties who said this could have been discussing President Obama’s arguments about Iran.

Interestingly, the book, written while Eisenhower was president, got some things right and some things wrong. The White House is in the second term of Republican President Eisenhower’s successor, who was a Democrat—just as happened in real life. The Senate Majority Leader, also a major character, is Democrat as well. In the elections of 1958, likely while this book was being written, Democrats drastically increased their control of the Senate and the House. So extrapolating a Democrat as President was probably not a stretch.

The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert—Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

I’ve had this book on my want list for so long I can’t remember where I heard about it. I finally found it at Lamplight Books in Seattle, and from there it went into my to-read pile for five months.

I pulled it off the pile two weeks ago because I just finished the first draft of my own novel about Washington, DC, so I’m looking at how other authors have handled the town and the political class that inhabits it.

I was immediately drawn in to Ward Just’s semifictional strata. These are some of the most depressing stories I have read in a long time. They are stories of old hands moving in and out of power, provincial progressives never quite accepted by the political class, always looking at power from the margins.

Other descriptions I’ve read say that it’s about the quest for political power, but that’s not quite right. Most of these people have either already quested for it and succeeded, or have quested and failed. In either case, they’re now on the other side of the hill, the downward slide. Superficially, they don’t think they deserve it, deep inside they know they do. It’s a lot like Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library for the DC class.

If there is any common theme in these stories, it is about the addictive draw—and futility—of maintenance. That is, in fact, the title of one of the stories.

He was obsessed by the weather in Vermont, being a connoisseur of bad news.

Then there’s the story of a man who befriends a local celebrity—a local Vermont weatherman—shooting up the heroin of the closeness to power T.H. White spoke of—all the while the weatherman himself is about to lose his job to a younger, prettier, more vacuous member of the new generation. She doesn’t even know how to convert between Fahrenheit and Celsius! She cares nothing for our Canadian friends across the border!

These are statesmen who don’t trust each other, for whom talking is the same as acting, who deceive their wives as blandly as they deceive the public or the enemy. And often as successfully.

The human voice travels at 740 miles an hour and listening to them in the evenings was to gain a fresh perspective on the science of ballistics.

Honestly, it’s a work I’d love to not love, these are people I’d really rather not care about. But the writing is phenomenal, and it makes it all worthwhile. If you’re looking for beautiful, stylish prose to wind out your autumn reading with sadness, I doubt you’ll go wrong to add Ward Just to your library.

For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko—Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Mike Royko remains funny as hell, and I laughed a lot while reading this collection. But the problem with a collection like this is that it juxtaposes articles that the author must have hoped would never be juxtaposed. Consistency was never one of Royko’s qualities.

For example, in 1968, when an anti-Israel nutcase named Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy, Royko blamed it on violent movies. In 1981, when Nancy Reagan blamed Hinckley’s assassination attempt on violent movies, Royko blamed it on Reagan.

Not all of his contradictions are reprinted. For example, when Bush chose Dan Quayle there’s an article on the horrors of a vice presidential candidate who was a draft dodger, in which he shoots down the idea that the zeitgeist of the sixties was for draft dodging; but they don’t reprint his later article absolving Clinton of draft dodging because, after all, the zeitgeist of the time was for draft dodging. It makes Clinton a sixties guy, and is a “badge of honor”, not a minus.

But get past that, and he’s still a brilliant writer for his time, joking about high rises, race relations, and especially Chicago politics.

Reading this now, while Donald Trump is high in the polls, it becomes a little easier to understand why Trump is high in the polls. A lot of people like Daley-style politicians who speak unfiltered and openly graft. I can easily see Trump saying something like “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

And despite complaining about Daley a lot, Royko liked that style, too. He complained about the son—and then when the same came around to run for mayor, he supported him.

In fact, one failing Royko might have had is that he was so steeped in Chicago-style politics he had no idea that winning isn’t the only thing in politics.

In November of 1995, in preparation for the 1996 presidential election, he wrote an article about how Republicans had voiced so many worries about Colin Powell’s disagreements with Republican principles that Powell decided not to run for President against Clinton. Powell, Royko correctly writes, was a sure thing that year, there was pretty much no way he could have lost. However, while I don’t actually know much about him, simply because he didn’t run and get scrutinized, the way Royko describes Powell, the guy was practically Bill Clinton without the draft-dodging. Name a conservative position and, according to Royko Powell was on the Democrat’s side, from abortion to quotas to gun control1.

Eugenics and Other Evils—Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
G.K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Those of you who read Neil Gaiman may recognize him as Fiddler’s Green from Sandman.

Chesterton’s complaints in this pre- and post-Great War book could easily be re-used today almost verbatim. On the one hand, you could take this as evidence that people will always complain about progress in the scientifically-managed state; or you could recognize that there will always be those who seek to better mankind by enslaving him, by attempting to regulate the very thoughts of men and take up in the mantle of enlightened government control of the individual’s health, personal economics, and interpersonal relations.

It is a system that might be symbolised by the telephone from headquarters standing by a man’s bed. He must have a relation to Government like his relation to God. That is, the more he goes into the inner chambers, and the more he closes the doors, the more he is alone with the law. The social machinery which makes such a State uniform and submissive will be worked outwards from the household…—G. K. Chesterton (Eugenics and Other Evils)

Chesterton says that he originally wrote this series of essays against eugenics and the pseudo-scientific state before World War I. When the greatest scientific state of all brought about the Great War, he put it aside, happy that his work was wasted now that people saw the outcome of eugenics, enlightened socialism, and progressivism—and rejected it.

…but men’s memories are unstable things. It may be that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt again to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes. There may be some whose love of slavery is so ideal and disinterested that they are loyal to it even in its defeat. Wherever a fragment of that broken chain is found, they will be found hugging it.

There were many times when I felt a sense of déja vu, or, I guess, déja revu. One of the most acute was reading about socialists then rhetorically asking, “what is liberty?” and then defining liberty so broadly that there isn’t any left.

Exactly the same effect which would be produced by the questions of “What is property?” and “What is life?” is produced by the question of “What is liberty?” It leaves the questioner free to disregard any liberty, or in other words to take any liberties.—G. K. Chesterton (Eugenics and Other Evils)

The Case for Democracy—Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Subtitled The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, the gist of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky’s book is in the introduction:

For many years, I have been asking myself why so many of those who have always lived in liberty do not appreciate the enormous power of freedom.

… in the free world, the competition of ideas and of parties flourishes, and allegiances are often based on a single common principle or purpose that struggles against a competing point of view.

Though generally healthy for a society, this competition can be quite dangerous if we lose sight of the fact that there is a far greater divide between the world of freedom and the world of fear than there is between the competing factions within a free society. If we fail to recognize this, we lose moral clarity. The legitimate differences among us, the shades of gray in a free society, will be wrongly perceived as black and white. Then, the real black-and-white line that divides free societies from fear societies, the real line that divides good from evil, will no longer be distinguishable.

This is what I meant when I wrote that, by ignoring the differences between the United States and Radical Islam, we fail to provide a choice between freedom and terror. Conservatives can’t understand why the left prefers to focus on their differences with conservatives instead of our differences with totalitarianism.

Sharansky ties most of his observations to his experience as a refusenik and dissident in the USSR. Dissidents were dismayed by the West’s inability to understand how frail the Soviet Union’s tyranny was. Most influential leaders in the West sought to actually strengthen the Soviet leadership, in the thought that this would improve peace in the world.

I first ran across the tendency of even non-traitorous politicians to think the Soviet economy was better than ours when reading about Edward R. Murrow, but even well into the eighties, politicians looked admiringly on the Soviet top-down economy.

The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time—Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Mike Royko is the proverbial study in contrasts. Pretty much his entire career was built on showing how government doesn’t work. Government is always captured by the powerful, not against the weak, because the weak don’t have anything worth taking, but against the middle.

“We’re supposed to take it on faith,” he said, about the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, “that this agency does its job.” He said the same thing in different words pretty much about every government agency that crossed his pen.

It isn’t surprising that Royko didn’t look to Republicans for solutions: at the time, Republicans meant people like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, who were more progressive—more for big government—than Democrats. But he should have known better once Reagan was elected instead of somehow claiming that Reagan was wrong, and that the system that produced Leroy Bailey’s Veterans Administration and John Karpowicz’s Chicago should be given more unconditional power.

Yes, the Veterans Administration hospital system, that the left was praising just a few years ago in order to push the ACA on us. Mike Royko knew it was a mess of government sloth over forty years ago. And the very next article in this collection makes fun of Chicago politicians who say that the city government works, when instead it ignores hard problems (crime) and hounds the middle class when they are victimized by either crime from below or crime from above.

Mind you, Leroy Bailey was when Nixon was president. When it came to Democratic politicians, Royko tended to be more forgiving of government corruption. In Whitewater Almost Too Far Out There, he argued that the Clinton scandals were just what everybody did, and that the “McGoofy Group” talking about it should just talk about baseball instead. And then, after Representative Dan Rostenkowski was convicted of felony graft and illegal use of taxpayer money, Royko wrote, in Rostenkowski’s Sin Was Not Changing with the Times that graft was really a good thing. It was how politicians got things done for the little person. Royko writes that “The rules keep changing. Things we could once say or think are now taboo.” Which, while true, misses the point: paying people for jobs they never do and taking bribes may be common in Chicago, but for the rest of the United States we realized it was wrong back when Tammany Hall was busted.

Royko himself realized it when writing about Republicans. Nixon, for example, deserved whatever he got for his own corruption, and “the Republicans” deserved scorn for attending the same lavish balls that Democrats had during the Carter, LBJ, and Kennedy years.

Older posts.