Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

Two words, “who cares?” Put it down and walk away. I was looking forward to reading it, but sadly, this book is boring and self-centered with no redeeming qualities. I pushed myself to the 65 page mark, where our “intrepid” writer is bedding fellow travelers and loaning them money on day one of his adventurous jaunt into Brazil. The plodding, detail-infested, pedestrian tale is too reminiscent of my own travel writing to take any pleasure in.

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What It Takes

For the past three weeks I’ve been reliving the 1988 Presidential campaign and working my way through the 1,000 pages of this book. Unbelievably good and highly recommended; learned about this one from Richard Norton Smith, on C-SPAN.
Random highlights:
* Junior (“W”) Bush was instrumental in turning the tide for his dad– insisting he take another look at those negative ads
* Dukakis was always “correct” – nothing morally astray about him. He’d never stoop to running a negative campaign, which in the end was what America wanted, the political bloodlust.
* Gary Hart was a front runner, and then, Monkey Business with Donna Rice. He drops out of the race. Months later, he gets back in. His second attempt vastly different– a team of 10 instead of hundreds, no money, just pushed onward by sheer will.
* Dick Gephardt seemed the blandest character given a lot of ink in the book. And in the Epilogue he rises to prominence as House Majority Leader. His Iowa team was in disarray, so he took the campaign on his back and won it.
* Jesse Jackson briefly makes an appearance in the book, most memorably after he wins Michigan and comes to console Gephardt, where Dick weeps in his arms for half a minute
* Al Gore’s appearance in the book was even briefer, one memorable scene where his hand is picked up and held aloft by the North Carolina Governor (Terry Sandford), and Gary Hart grabs Gore’s other hand to join in the spotlight but Gore drops Hart’s hand
* Joe Biden’s mess of trouble with plagarism, the Dukakis campaign handing over tapes of Biden played side by side with the British guy who originated the comments (“I come from a coal mining family” etc.). Dukakis throwing John Sasso off his campaign for the tape leakage. (“It’s not correct behavior.”)
* Gore was the one to bring up hints of Willy Horton, the parolee who raped on furlough, during a debate with Dukakis. Bush’s white men later took up the scent and hammered the point home during his 1:1 fight with Dukakis.
* Joe Biden leaves the campaign none too soon, and is sunken by an aneurysm in his brain, operated on in the nick of time to keep him alive.
* Bob Dole is one of the stars of this book– I have much respect for the old coot, pulling himself together after near paralysis, dozens of operations, learning to walk again, working so hard to get where he was.
* Kitty Dukakis’s tragedy of drug addiction and later alcoholism, from removal of the spotlight.
* Joe Biden, always addicted to the deal, showing up at midnight to tour some new house he wants by the light of his car headlights. The loss of his first wife, Neila, days after he wins the Delaware Senate seat for the first time.
* Dick Gephardt’s medical struggle with son Matt’s stomach tumor in the 1970s, his law firm puts Dick in charge of finding a new health insurance policy that covers catastrophic events, after the policy is signed other associates find that maternity coverage was axed from the plan to make room for Dick’s catastrophic insurance.

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What are your strengths?

Psychologists created a test that tells you the positive things about you, an anti-DSM test. You have to register on the site (free), but it’s quick and easy.
Take the strength test.
My own results are hardly shocking:
Your Top Character Strength
Love of learning
You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.
Your Second Character Strength
Curiosity and interest in the world
You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.
Your Third Character Strength
Social intelligence
You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.
Your Fourth Character Strength
Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.
Your Fifth Character Strength
Self-control and self-regulation
You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.
Character Strength #6
Humor and playfulness
You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.
Character Strength #7
Appreciation of beauty and excellence
You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
Character Strength #8
Capacity to love and be loved
You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.
Character Strength #9
Fairness, equity, and justice
Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.
Character Strength #10
You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.
Character Strength #11
Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness
You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.
Character Strength #12
Zest, enthusiasm, and energy
Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

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The Limits of Power

I’ve been mired in political history books lately, and I blame my fascination on Bill Moyers’ Journal, where I also encountered Bacevich. His book is a scathing commentary on today’s Washington, where everything is broken. And it’s not just Washington’s fault, it’s our fault, the citizenry. We’re too accustomed to cheap imported goods and gas guzzling cars to want to change our lifestyle. We don’t want sacrifice; we don’t volunteer for the military. We accumulate debt and chill out while the young poor men of this country fight our imperial battles.
“The chief attribute of the existing system (Washington)… is dysfunction.” (p 71)
Bacevich has a deep respect for Reinhold Niebuhr, quoting him widely in this book. I’ve already got Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History on hold at the library to devour soon.
Bacevich, quoting Niebuhr, ” One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.” (p12)
President Jimmy Carter’s July 15, 1979 pivotal speech on energy sealed his re-election defeat simply because he asked Americans to focus once again on old values instead of worshiping consumption. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” “We’re at a turning point in our history… one path… leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” Carter then outlined a six-point program to end dependance on foreign oil: quotas on imported oil, reducing oil used for power generation, create a new government agency to complete key energy projects, and have the American people practice conservation. Sacrifice just might be a good thing.
Well, Americans wanted no part in that, so elected Reagan in a landslide. While paying lipservice to reducing government size and spend, the government under Reagan grew astronomically, deficits skyrocketing and bureaucracies swelling.
While no Bush fan, Bacevich gives him a pass, partly excusing his actions as no different than any of his predecessors for the past 60 years. We simply want to impose our American way of life on the world, whether or not they want it. “Freedom must prevail everywhere.” The ideology of national security “provides policy makers with a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that, whatever concrete interests might be at stake, the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.” (p 77)
Ever heard of Paul Nitze and NSC 68? I hadn’t. NSC 68 was written by Nitze for President Truman in 1950 in response to Soviet development of nuclear technology and the Chinese Communist Revolution, widely seen as one of the “foundational documents of postwar American statecraft.” (p 107) Nitze outlines three options: isolationism, preventive war (nuclear first strike), or a more rapid build-up of American power. The first two options were thrown out, isolationism equated with giving up, and preventive war rejected as morally corrosive and repugnant. And thus began the permanent militarization of American policy. This document “has become a model to which members of the national security elite have repeatedly turned… He demonstrated the advantages of demonizing America’s adversaries, thereby transforming trivial concerns into serious threats and serious threats into existential ones. He devised the technique of artfully designing “options” to yield precooked conclusions, thereby allowing the analyst to become the de facto decision maker. He showed how easily American ideals could be employed to camouflage American ambitions, with terms like peace and freedom becoming code words for expansionism. Above all, Nitze demonstrated the inestimable value of sowing panic as a means of driving the policy-making process.” (p 113)
Paul Wolfowitz took Nitze even further, by legitimizing the concept of preventive war. In the days following 9/11 all the talk turned to how we needed to root out evil from the corners of the world, and Wolfowitz immediately began the drumbeats to take out Saddam Hussein. While Iraq had done nothing to directly target the US, they became the focus of our aggression and occupation.
“Americans can no longer afford to underwrite a government that does not work. A condition of quasi-permanent crisis stretching across generations has distorted our Constitution with near-disastrous results. To imagine at this juncture that installing some fresh face in the White House and transferring the control of Congress from one party to the other… will make much of a difference is to ignore decades of experience. Yet if presidents have accrued too much power, if the Congress is feckless, if the national security bureaucracy is irretrievably broken, the American people have only themselves to blame. They have allowed their democracy to be hijacked. The hijackers will not voluntarily return what they have stolen.” (p122)
“The chief remaining function of Congress is to ensure the reelection of its members, best achieved by shameless gerrymandering, doling out prodigious amounts of political pork, and seeing to the protection of certain vested interests. Testifying to the spectacular effectiveness of these techniques, in 2006, 93 percent of senators and representatives running for reelection won. The United States has become a de facto one-party state, with the legislative branch permanently controlled by an Incumbents’ Party.” (p 69)
“The Congress may not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.” (p 70)
Why the Draft is a Good Idea
We have no antiwar movement, but if we got the draft, it would “animate large scale protest, alter the political dynamic and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to retain their seats will define their wartime responsibilities as something more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House. In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrain the warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.” (p140)

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I should just adopt a policy of not reading any book that includes multiple pages of “Advance Praise” for itself. Not sure how I got this one in the queue, but it arrived quickly, and was quickly read. The usual fare of social psychology– loss aversion (we continue to bid over $20 for a $20 bill if we might have to pay our bid as a runner up), being too invested in a decision and having it cloud your judgement (the KLM crash on the runway of Tenerife), the ability of objects and setting to frame our valuation of something (Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the subway), the pressure of being the lone dissenter.
Not much ground breaking here. Move along.

Continue reading “Sway”