Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”

mortality-chart

I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

The Tiger Mother post (with thoughts from The Great Stagnation)

Everyone online has an opinion about Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother article, otherwise known as the tongue-in-cheek “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The essay says all work and no play makes Jack (and Jill!) a good student. A grad-student friend said she applauds the Tiger Mother and thinks her students are lazy and would be much improved if they’d been raised by Tiger Mothers.

I wonder, though, especially since reading “Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?” in Slate. The article describes one of the potential “anti-Tiger” positions: Americans might be better at leaving more space for spectacular failure and spectacular success, then reaping the successes. I would add one other point: I went to a Seattle-area high school that was about 25% – 33% Asian and saw a lot of the Tiger Mother causalities, including the ones who are probably now in therapy, the ones who learned to hate learning, and so on. If my parents had been tigers, I don’t think I would’ve turned out so well because I have too wide a rebellious streak and was utterly indifferent to school work of any sort until I was about 16. Now in many ways I’ve superseded the tiger cubs who burned out, at least as measured by conventional measures of status and respect.

I suspect there is no “right” way, and how people turn out is more random than not. Some of the research I’ve seen indicates that parents don’t have as much control over their children’s future as many parents think, although I can’t find any direct links at the moment. See some discussion here and here from Marginal Revolution.

Finally, I think some of the Tiger narrative’s resonance with the larger cultural is linked to the decades-old idea that the U.S. is somehow losing its educational prowess or falling from some educational golden age. But it looks like American Kids Aren’t Getting Dumber; They Were Just Never That Smart. For much of the United States’ history, the smartest thing smart people around the world could do is move to the United States. So lots of smart people came to the U.S. by default. We got lots of dividends from immigration throughout history because the United States’ political institutions worked pretty well when most places were languishing under autocracies; we managed to avoid destroying ourselves, as Europe did during World Wars I and II and Japan did during World War II; we got a lot of smart minorities who fled Germany before World War II; big oceans and good relations with Canada and Mexico protected and continue to protect the U.S. from immediate threats, which means we can spend ludicrous amounts of money on military technology. There are probably others I’m not considering. But, as Cowen points out in The Great Stagnation, the rest of the world has a relatively easy playbook to catching up to the major Western democracies. Now they’re doing so, which means our “smart and ambitious immigrants” advantage might be drying up and making the rest of the world more attractive—and the world is likely to get more competitive, by some definitions of competitive.

So we get fertile soil for Amy Chuas (notice the plural), whose writing can feed the sometimes justified anxiety a lot of people who simply read the news or live in the economy are already feeling. Others are probably just saying, “Do we really need this much materialism?” (see, for example, Stumbling on Happiness), but the answer on the political level appears to be yes. Chua bridges the individual and political whether she realizes it or not, and the potent combination of two make her so attractive both to people of the anti- or pro-Tiger Mother crowd, as well as to the meta commentators like me.

Keith Richards’ Life and what the world used to look like

I skimmed Keith Richards’ memoir Life, which might be of interest to virulent Rolling Stones fans and people interested in how to live despite ingesting massive quantities of poisonous substances in search of altered states (answer: luck). Although most of the memoir is forgettable, this passage stands out because it describes a kind of insanity that feels completely foreign and bizarre to me:

It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.

Must be gratifying to be the most dangerous rock band in the world. It’s also astonishing to imagine that a rock-and-roll band could marshall this kind of attention; these days, the youth who were rebelling in the 1970s have grown up and assumed the reins of power, such that rock-and-roll has grown up with them, becoming rock-and-roll instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now it’s no longer subversive, so we have to turn our attention to other topics, like rap, but even that doesn’t inspire so much fear as Richards says the Stones did; rap is regularly reviewed in the New Yorker. Today, nothing is worse than being square. Almost anything goes. 1975 looks bizarre from the perspective of someone born after it: what was all the fuss about? The real question is what subjects generate all the fuss today that will be the same way in the future. I could generate a list of them but choose not to, per Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say,” but I bet regular readers could imagine a few things that might end up on the list.

There are other moments of bizarre provincialism too:

When I was growing up, the idea of leaving England was pretty much remote. My dad did it once, but that was in the army to go to Normandy and get his leg blown off. The idea was totally impossible. You just read about other countries and looked at them on TV, and in National Geographic, the black chicks with their tits hanging out and their long necks. But you never expected to see it. Scraping up the money to get out of England would have been way beyond my capabilities.

Although many people today no doubt feel the same, the rise of deregulated air service makes leaving virtually any industrialized country within the reach of a large proportion of the population. Not everyone, to be sure, but it’s much more normal now than it once was. Many fewer find the idea “totally impossible.” It’s easy, at least for me, to forget what the past was like. I think we all have a tendency to assume that the present is “normal,” along with whatever our situation is, and the past different. Then I read about someone who “never expected to see” a foreign country and remember that the time and place I live in is very different from those others have lived in. Such moments are the most revealing part of Life. The book made it on the New York Times bestseller list. Prediction: a large number of copies hit the used book market within six months. If you want to read the book, wait and snag a used copy cheap, or get it from the library.

The Novel: An Alternative History — Steven Moore

Novels really start when an important technology (the printing press) allows novelists to respond to one another.

Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 is a very alternative history that points even more than most histories of the novel to the question of what defines the genre. But it answers that question with less satisfaction: a novel is any prose work of some length that is what we would now call fiction. But the idea of fiction / nonfiction weren’t particularly well established until the late eighteenth century, as discussed in some of those conventional histories, like The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding and Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott.

Without that epistemological distinction, critics lack the intellectual scaffolding necessary to really talk about fiction: you have a muddle of stuff that people haven’t really figured out how to deal with. In The Disappearance of God, J. Hillis Miller puts it differently: “The change from traditional literature to a modern genre like the novel can be defined as a moving of once objective worlds of myth and romance into the subjective consciousness of man,” but he’s getting at a similar idea: the “objective worlds of myth” turn out not to be as “objective” as they appear, and the “subjective consciousness of man” reevaluates those worlds of myth. We get at distinctions between what’s true and what’s false based on our ability to recognize our own subjective position, which the novel helps us do.

Moore discusses these issues, of course: he notes the standard history I’m espousing and his reasons for doubting it:

And today our best novelists follow in this great tradition [from Defoe, Swift, and Richardson to the 19th Century realists through Joyce and Faulkner to the present]: that is, realistic narratives driven by strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.

Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE […] and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages.

That’s on page three. I’ve responded to the philosophical and intellectual aspects of what I think problematic, but there’s another issue: Moore’s argument ignores the technological history that enabled the novel to occur. I’ll return to my first paragraph.

Without the printing press, it’s wrong-headed to speak of novels. They couldn’t be sufficiently read, distributed, and disseminated, to enable the “speaking to each other” that I think of in fiction. There wasn’t a “creativity revolution” along the lines of the runaway Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century (see, for example, Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, which I discuss at the link). Books didn’t react enough to other books; that’s part of what the novel got going, and this aspect was enabled by the Industrial Revolution and the press. The two are fundamentally linked.

Some works that we would now classify as fiction definitely were written or compiled, as Moore rightly points out, but they didn’t gain the epistemological distinctions that we grant novels until much later, and novels evolved with a mass reading public that could only occur when novels were mass-produced—produced in numbers that allowed them to be read and responded to by other writers. Claiming that early quasi-fiction forms are novels is like saying that a play and a TV show are the same thing because both rely on visual representations of actors who are pretending to be someone else. In some respects, that’s true, but it still misses how form changes function. It misses the insights of Marshall McLuhan.

He almost gets to this issue:

Sorting through the various ancient writings that have come down to us on cuneiform tablets, papyri, scrolls, and ostraca (potsherds or limestone flakes), it is not difficult to find prototypes for literary fiction and what would eventually be called the novel. What’s difficult is sorting prose from poetry, and fiction from mythology and theology.

But the problem of sorting deserves more attention. Until it can be discussed with greater depth, it misses essential features of the genre. Accounts of the novel need to take two major issues into their reading: a technological one and an intellectual one. The technological one, as mentioned, is the invention and improvement of the printing press, without which the sheer labor necessary to produce copies of novels would have prevented many writers from working at all; you can read more about this in Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change The second is the growth of subjectivity and the acknowledgment of subjectivity in fiction, as also discussed above. Without those technological and the intellectual facets, I don’t think you really have novels, at least in the way they’re conceived of in contemporary times.

The other thing I’d like to note is that Moore is doing more a taxonomy than a history: it has brief sections on more than 200 books with relatively little analysis of each book. This lessens the depth of his book and makes it more tedious as we go from culture to culture without a great deal of discussion about what common items link novel to novel. But that’s part of the problem: proto-novels weren’t linked because their authors didn’t know of one another or of what made fiction fiction and nonfiction nonfiction. Moore is left with this basic shape for The Novel: An Alternative History by his material; in short, form undercuts argument. Too bad, because it’s an argument worth paying attention to if for no other reason than its novelty.

The dangers of over-reliance on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, courtesy of Ernest Gellner and Henry Farrell

Primitive man has lived twice: once in and for himself, and the second time for us, in our reconstruction. Inconclusive evidence may oblige him to live such a double life forever. Ever since the principles of our own social order have become a matter of sustained debate, there has been a persistent tendency to invoke the First Man to settle our disputes for us. His vote in the next general election is eagerly solicited. It is not entirely clear why Early Man should possess such authority over our choices.

That’s from Henry Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History. Today, we wouldn’t call the primitive man the primitive man because “primitive” it prejudicial and “people” usually used instead of “man” because it explicitly includes all humans. We would instead call “primitive man” the “pre-agrarian world” or “evolutionary times” and then continue from there. But the point Gellner is making about our habitual “reconstruction” of what that looked like, in large part for the prejudices of the present, is well-taken and worth remembering in the light of books like Sex at Dawn, The Mating Mind, or the entire oeuvre of evolutionary biology and psychology, which have undergone tremendous revision over the past three decades and will no doubt continue to undergo tremendous revision under the next three and beyond.

How we reconstruct that time and “invoke the First Man” should be remembered as a reconstruction and not as the last word; he shouldn’t necessarily “possess such authority over our choices” today, because what was good for people living before agriculture or before the Industrial Revolution may not be good for us now.

It helps to understand the kinds of things that influence us, but we need to be wary of cherry picking evidence to support whatever kinds of social views we already hold.

I’m reading Gellner thanks to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.

November links and Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe — Geoffrey Parker

* Books Briefly Noted: Geoffrey Parker’s Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe is another book more likely to be cited than read and whose abstract generalizations are vastly more interesting than the particulars in which they’re mired. The important generalization is that success often carries within it decadence and decline through rigidity, over-extension and arrogance, and such principles apply across a wide range of fields from the national to the individual. One is reminded of Beowulf, a poem usually read as a tale about eventual destruction of the mightiest warrior by the ravages of time and nature. Perhaps that is why we seek “happily ever after” in fiction: as a veil on or eliding against the inevitable.

The specifics regarding early modern and late medieval European machinations can verge on the scholastically tedious; this is a book best sampled like hors d’oeuvre, rather than a full dinner. Learning about the spread of the artillery fortress is much less interesting than its effects on warfare and statecraft. But the last chapter, which is on the nature of law and its uses as seen specifically through the prosecution of sexual crimes by sixteenth-century “Kirks,” or tribunals, in Scotland, says a great deal in a short space. This is not the only essay in Success is Never Final with little if anything to do with the putative topic, but such minor sins can be forgiven.

* Those of you who are following markets—or just paying any attention to any contemporary news media whatsoever—are probably aware that we’re in the middle of a financial crisis that might be the worst since the Great Depression. The best commentary so far, however, comes by way of Megan McArdle:

From a senior who majored in English:

“Is it wrong to feel schadenfreude about my classmates who majored in Economics to get “safe” jobs at Lehman and Merrill Lynch?”

I heard about it second hand, so I’m paraphrasing, but this gave me hope for America’s youth.

* XKCD represents graphically why you should avoid the Amazon Kindle.

* Richard Woodward at the Wall Street Journal attempts A Nobel Undertaking: Getting to Know Le Clézio, who won the latest Nobel Prize in literature. After reading Woodward, I feel pretty good about not getting to know Le Clézio well.

* American Journalism Review argues that “A smaller, less frequently published version packed with analysis and investigative reporting and aimed at well-educated news junkies that may well be a smart survival strategy for the beleaguered old print product.” They should call such a beast a “magazine,” which could be a storehouse of useful or interesting information. Perhaps one based in New York would do well.

* Speaking of newspapers, see The New York Times recursively on Mourning Old Media’s Decline. A sample:

For readers, the drastic diminishment of print raises an obvious question: if more people are reading newspapers and magazines, why should we care whether they are printed on paper?

The answer is that paper is not just how news is delivered; it is how it is paid for.

More than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still derives from the print product, a legacy technology that attracts fewer consumers and advertisers every single day. A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it.

Ironically, by linking to this article I’m exemplifying the problem the article itself discusses. And the biggest issue actually gets saved until the end: “The blogosphere has had its share of news breaks, but absent a functioning mainstream media to annotate, it could be pretty darn quiet out there.”

The same is true of literary essays and analysis.

* Competent elites: happier and more alive? Maybe, but though I’m intrigued, I also can’t help think about sample size, cause/effect, and comparative problems. I might also title the article, “Competent elites: Happier and more alive and more arrogant?”

* How to lose friends and alienate people, global edition, courtesy of Clive Crook:

There has not been another attack – and Edward Alden, a former Washington bureau chief for the FT and now a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognises that foreign terrorists find it much harder to get in. The trouble is, so does everybody else, including people that the US needs. On balance, Alden argues, the new regime has done more harm than good even in narrow security terms, to say nothing of the wider human and economic costs. Few who read his compellingly argued and meticulously researched book will be inclined to disagree.

The cure might be worse than the disease. For more on related topics, see Schneier, Bruce.

* Although this has nothing to do with books, Freakonomics reports about the positive externalities of binge drinking for social security, among other unusual ideas.

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson’s war—the one in which Afghan guerillas fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s—was filled with bizarre alliances, unusual people, and extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the biggest of those in terms of height, influence, and unusual bearing was Wilson himself, a Congressman from Texas of no particular repute at the time who directed billions of dollars to Afghan fighters during the 1980s. I learned something about the specifics of Wilson through the eponymous movie, which is based on George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and I’m pleased to say that book and movie stand up well to scrutiny and time.

At first, Charlie Wilson’s War (the book) is gung ho to the point that I kept writing angry notes in the margins saying that much of what Wilson did—arm and train the mujahideen* fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to wage what they perceived as holy war against the Soviet Union—would backfire on us, as it has. For example, page five says, “It was his [Frank Anderson’s] great good fortune to have been in charge of the South Asian task force in the final years when his men, funneling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the mujahideen, had chased the Red Army, tail between its legs, out of Afghanistan.” It’s a bit triumphalist given what would come after 9/11, especially since there’s a non-zero chance of the same thing happening to the United States. The quote also demonstrates another persistent weakness of the book in the form of endless cliches, as here when we hear the original phrasing of something running with its “tail between its legs.” Nonetheless, Crile drops hints of this impending disaster throughout Charlie Wilson’s War but saves the bulk of the reverberation for the epilogue, which is perhaps too short but well-played and an important reminder of the law of unintended consequences.

At the time the proxy war in Afghanistan seemed to be normal business, since we—meaning the CIA, mostly—consorted with numerous rulers or groups who weren’t very nice or acting in our best long term interest, whether the Afghans in the 1980s, the Greek military junta, or the Shah of Iran. Charlie Wilson’s War tends to excuse this realpolitik somewhat, and the odd part is how, despite the book’s frequent notes about how what happened then would echo our current efforts in Afghanistan, it still implies that arming and training the Afghan guerillas to ultimately sow chaos in Afghanistan was fundamentally a good idea. Now we’re still fighting in Afghanistan, chiefly because, as Charlie Wilson’s War states explicitly, it’s not really a country in the way Westerners think of countries—it’s more like a time warp back to a tribal era that hasn’t existed in most of Europe since at least the 19th century and not in the United States since European colonizers showed up.

Still, in making this criticism I have the unfair benefit of hindsight: in the 1980s, a lot of contemporaneous accounts show that the fall of the Soviet Union was far from obvious. Plenty of people who lived then have said that the Soviet Union’s impending demise wasn’t obvious, and so to Wilson and others, the theoretical problem of the United States one day fighting against various ideological and other foes gathered under the cover of militant Islam probably wouldn’t have appeared nearly as compelling as the Soviet Union itself. Nonetheless, Wilson showed questionable judgment and a basic disregard for consequences in other foreign policy areas, as when he supported the Israeli Lavi fighter, even though the technology used in that fighter might have been exported to China since. Oops. But even if the geopolitical situation doesn’t always support Charlie Wilson’s War’s aw-shucks arguments, Wilson was still a hell of a guy to follow, even if he’s another example of a politician who disobeys the idiotic laws relating to drugs that his legislative body created and upholds till today.

What might be most notable about this book is what Crile doesn’t, and can’t, really know: why Wilson did what he did. It was so out-of-character that in a novel it would be almost unbelievable for a boozy, playboy Congressman to get fired up with such ideological and moral fervor, and only a satire could make it work, as in Christopher Buckley’s hilarious and apt Little Green Men or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. This is nonfiction, however, and for years Wilson passed millions and then hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Afghan fighters without anyone in the press noticing. To my eyes, at least, it’s not obvious what moved him beyond the surface reasons given. In addition, I have to ask: why Afghanistan? Why in 1983? The unknowable daunts us and Crile’s ability to explain. This is no slander on him, but rather a meditation on the vagaries of historical causation and what moves people to act in all the strange ways we do.

The book is not without fault. James Fallows wrote:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

Those issues are a small but persistent problem in Charlie Wilson’s War. The same lines of Kipling are quoted twice; Gust Avrakotos, Wilson’s CIA insider, is constantly being referred to as a Greek from Aliquippa ; we learn on page 33 that “[Charlie Wilson] now served on a committee that doled out the nation’s money: fifty men appropriating $500 billion a year.” On page 77, Wilson joins the House Appropriations Committee: “That move had made Wilson a player—one of fifty House members with a vote on how the government’s $500 billion annual budget would be spent.” Really? I had no idea. Crile says, “Diplomats are good at sensing which way the political winds are blowing […]” and that if Wilson had pursued traditional legislative means he, “would have been told in no uncertain terms to back off.” Later, we find out that “For all practical purposes, the Mi-24 Hind flying gunship […]” The depressing thing about these cliches is that they could’ve been easily avoided through better editing, and they detract from an otherwise good and worthwhile book that’s about politics and history, as well as the specific life and times of Charlie Wilson.

The narrative drive and sense of play keep one reading through minor problems, and quotes quotes from Charlie and his CIA henchmen Avrakotos liven the narrative with scatological and sexual metaphors. Charlie gets numerous perks and describes himself as getting one because “I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” Amen. And that Amen is for honesty over hypocrisy if nothing else. And Wilson had what appears to be honest conviction, something that most politicians, perhaps like their constituents, lack.


*This spelling follows the form of the book.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s war—the one in which Afghan guerillas fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s—was filled with bizarre alliances, unusual people, and extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the biggest of those in terms of height, influence, and unusual bearing was Wilson himself, a Congressman from Texas of no particular repute at the time who directed billions of dollars to Afghan fighters during the 1980s. I learned something about the specifics of Wilson through the eponymous movie, which is based on George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and I’m pleased to say that book and movie stand up well to scrutiny and time.

At first, Charlie Wilson’s War (the book) is gung ho to the point that I kept writing angry notes in the margins saying that much of what Wilson did—arm and train the mujahideen* fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to wage what they perceived as holy war against the Soviet Union—would backfire on us, as it has. For example, page five says, “It was his [Frank Anderson’s] great good fortune to have been in charge of the South Asian task force in the final years when his men, funneling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the mujahideen, had chased the Red Army, tail between its legs, out of Afghanistan.” It’s a bit triumphalist given what would come after 9/11, especially since there’s a non-zero chance of the same thing happening to the United States. The quote also demonstrates another persistent weakness of the book in the form of endless cliches, as here when we hear the original phrasing of something running with its “tail between its legs.” Nonetheless, Crile drops hints of this impending disaster throughout Charlie Wilson’s War but saves the bulk of the reverberation for the epilogue, which is perhaps too short but well-played and an important reminder of the law of unintended consequences.

At the time the proxy war in Afghanistan seemed to be normal business, since we—meaning the CIA, mostly—consorted with numerous rulers or groups who weren’t very nice or acting in our best long term interest, whether the Afghans in the 1980s, the Greek military junta, or the Shah of Iran. Charlie Wilson’s War tends to excuse this realpolitik somewhat, and the odd part is how, despite the book’s frequent notes about how what happened then would echo our current efforts in Afghanistan, it still implies that arming and training the Afghan guerillas to ultimately sow chaos in Afghanistan was fundamentally a good idea. Now we’re still fighting in Afghanistan, chiefly because, as Charlie Wilson’s War states explicitly, it’s not really a country in the way Westerners think of countries—it’s more like a time warp back to a tribal era that hasn’t existed in most of Europe since at least the 19th century and not in the United States since European colonizers showed up.

Still, in making this criticism I have the unfair benefit of hindsight: in the 1980s, a lot of contemporaneous accounts show that the fall of the Soviet Union was far from obvious. Plenty of people who lived then have said that the Soviet Union’s impending demise wasn’t obvious, and so to Wilson and others, the theoretical problem of the United States one day fighting against various ideological and other foes gathered under the cover of militant Islam probably wouldn’t have appeared nearly as compelling as the Soviet Union itself. Nonetheless, Wilson showed questionable judgment and a basic disregard for consequences in other foreign policy areas, as when he supported the Israeli Lavi fighter, even though the technology used in that fighter might have been exported to China since. Oops. But even if the geopolitical situation doesn’t always support Charlie Wilson’s War’s aw-shucks arguments, Wilson was still a hell of a guy to follow, even if he’s another example of a politician who disobeys the idiotic laws relating to drugs that his legislative body created and upholds till today.

What might be most notable about this book is what Crile doesn’t, and can’t, really know: why Wilson did what he did. It was so out-of-character that in a novel it would be almost unbelievable for a boozy, playboy Congressman to get fired up with such ideological and moral fervor, and only a satire could make it work, as in Christopher Buckley’s hilarious and apt Little Green Men or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. This is nonfiction, however, and for years Wilson passed millions and then hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Afghan fighters without anyone in the press noticing. To my eyes, at least, it’s not obvious what moved him beyond the surface reasons given. In addition, I have to ask: why Afghanistan? Why in 1983? The unknowable daunts us and Crile’s ability to explain. This is no slander on him, but rather a meditation on the vagaries of historical causation and what moves people to act in all the strange ways we do.

The book is not without fault. James Fallows wrote:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

Those issues are a small but persistent problem in Charlie Wilson’s War. The same lines of Kipling are quoted twice; Gust Avrakotos, Wilson’s CIA insider, is constantly being referred to as a Greek from Aliquippa ; we learn on page 33 that “[Charlie Wilson] now served on a committee that doled out the nation’s money: fifty men appropriating $500 billion a year.” On page 77, Wilson joins the House Appropriations Committee: “That move had made Wilson a player—one of fifty House members with a vote on how the government’s $500 billion annual budget would be spent.” Really? I had no idea. Crile says, “Diplomats are good at sensing which way the political winds are blowing […]” and that if Wilson had pursued traditional legislative means he, “would have been told in no uncertain terms to back off.” Later, we find out that “For all practical purposes, the Mi-24 Hind flying gunship […]” The depressing thing about these cliches is that they could’ve been easily avoided through better editing, and they detract from an otherwise good and worthwhile book that’s about politics and history, as well as the specific life and times of Charlie Wilson.

The narrative drive and sense of play keep one reading through minor problems, and quotes quotes from Charlie and his CIA henchmen Avrakotos liven the narrative with scatological and sexual metaphors. Charlie gets numerous perks and describes himself as getting one because “I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” Amen. And that Amen is for honesty over hypocrisy if nothing else. And Wilson had what appears to be honest conviction, something that most politicians, perhaps like their constituents, lack.


*This spelling follows the form of the book.

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