July 9th, 2006


July Books 4) The Age of Fallibility

4) The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror, by George Soros

Kindly sent me by the author, who of course I know through work anyway. To get a quick summary of his views, you could start with his New York Times interview here or his videoblog interview here. In effect, he is attempting to provide the American liberal tradition with a stronger intellectual base. He is disarmingly frank about why he does it:
To sum it up, I believe I combine three qualifications. First, I have developed a conceptual framework that has given me a certain understanding of history, and, in particular, what I call far-from-equilibrium situations; second, I have a set of firm ethical and political beliefs; and third, I have made a lot of money.
When you're in that position, you can write whatever you like, and it is therefore with some bemusement that the casual reader expecting a book on contemporary US politics will find that the first seventy pages actually address the nature of reality and its relationship to human thought, in order to better contextualise Soros' ideal of an open society. I'm not especially well placed to rate this in terms of academic content of originality; I never studied philosophy or politics, though I have been a practitioner of the latter, and I did scrape a little below the surface of the philosophy of science back in my historian days. However it seems sound enough, particularly his linkage with and development of the notions of Karl Popper. It is certainly an awful lot more convincing, as an analysis of human history, than Hari Seldon.

In the introduction he gleefully quotes Branko Crvenkovski as describing him as a "stateless statesman", but in fact he reveals a very strong sense of U.S. citizenship and even patriotism. His exploration of the question of "What's Wrong with America?" is that of a grieving insider. He worries that America is so busy trying to feel good that it has lost any thirst for knowing the truth. He thinks that America has difficulties dealing with death (and his own shorter time horizon, since he is now seventy-five, is a recurrent theme in the book). He is appalled at the way America's reputation in the world, and its ability to persuade others to its cause, have been destroyed by its own policy on the "war on terror" (a concept which he dissects forensically).
There is a confusion in President Bush's mind about what democracy means. When he says that democracy will prevail, he really means that America will prevail. But a democratic government needs to gain the backing of the electorate and that is not necessarily the same as the backing of the United States. The contradiction became evident in the recent elections in Egypt, and even more in Palestine.
He swipes also at globalisation and fundamentalist belief in the free market, and devotes a brief but intensely argued section to the question of energy and preventing global warming (a cause to which he says he was converted by Al Gore), but criticises the anti-globalisation Left's attacks on the WTO and various summits on the grounds that these are the wrong target: "The international institutions largely reflect the policies of the member states; it is the member states that have to be held responsible."

So, rather a thought-provoking little book; much less shrill, much more reflective, more prescriptive, and in many ways much sadder than what I've read of, say, Noam Chomsky. I think anyone who is seriously interested in fixing what's wrong with the US should try and get hold of it.

July Books 5) Fahrenheit 451

5) Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Having read Asimov a few days back, I thought I would continue picking through the chronology of Hugo winners that a) I haven't yet written about on-line and b) are on my shelves. It is therefore entirely by coincidence that I read this just after George Soros' book, which has extraordinary resonances with Bradbury's chilling vision of a future America addicted to interactive yet completely brainless television shows, fighting pointless yet very violent and highy visible wars, and rejecting intellectualism as a crime against the state; where firemen are the burners of books, not the savers of lives.
"Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?"
"No. Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it."
"Strange. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames."
Bradbury's brilliance is that once you swallow the (rather huge) premise, the plot works very well as a thriller. Montag is the classical sfnal hero rebelling against all he has been taught (and what a great role model - to rebel in favour of reading great literature!), and at every turn the bad guys, his own former comrades, seem about to catch up with him. The character of Clarisse, at the very beginning, is interesting too - partly that it is rather neat to put a teenage girl as the person who opens the central character's eyes, partly also because her ambigous demise sets the tone for much of what is to follow. (I take it that we are meant to understand that her uncle is the protagonist of Bradbury's short story, "The Pedestrian".) But Beatty, the fire captain, is also a more interesting character than I had remembered as well - Montag's flash of revelation (after murdering him of course) is that his boss "actually wanted to die", that his own belief in the burning of books was in the end not strong enough to sustain him.

Anyway, a great book, well worth the re-read.