November 12th, 2011


November Books 9) I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

As I had hoped, an excellent novel rounding off the Tiffany Aching series, with a surprise appearance from someone we last saw much earlier in the Discworld stories. It deals with some pretty heavy subject matter in Pratchett's trademark combination of humour and profundity. Some day soon I shall go back and read all four Tiffany novels in sequence.

Excellent final quote from the author on the importance of history:
It is important that we know where we come from, because if you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.

November Books 10) Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

This is a brilliant account of the 2008 US presidential election, concentrating particularly on the Obama/Clinton dynamic (since that turned out to be much more important and durable than the Obama/McCain dynamic). The authors claim to have got detailed accounts from campaign insiders of key conversations and exchanges right up to the level of the candidates, and it rings true without revealing anything about the two key personalities that I had not already guessed. (It seems to have been published as Game Change in the USA.)

Three aspects of the narrative really struck me.

First, that the candidates themselves tend to be pretty flawed human beings. Successively the Edwards and McCain campaigns crashed to disaster largely because of the personalities of Edwards and McCain themselves, unwilling to adapt to the discipline necessary to keep their teams motivated and to avoid gaffes to the press. Both Obama and McCain suffered serious wobbles in the last few weeks before the election due to the indiscipline of their running-mates. All of those individuals had previous won elections for public office, so it is surprising that Edwards and McCain were not able to deal with the demands of the presidential campiagn. I can cut Biden and Palin a bit more slack, as the vice-presidential slot is much more peculiar, and perhaps Edwards is explicable because he was in complete denial about the state of his marriage. But McCain's behaviour is just bizarre.

Second, and linked to the first point, the peculiar desire of the media - particular the US media - for spectacle rather than story means that any electoral campaign is vulnerable to a single killer moment. Occasionally - as with Hillary Clinton's tearful interview in New Hampshire, which it is pretty clear won her the primary there - it works to the candidate's advantage. Much more often, of course, it reacts to their disadvantage, as Rick Perry is discovering.

Third, and also linked to the first point, the fact that the US system is so very candidate-based rather than party-based makes the professional campaigner's career much more volatile and much more based on personality. That has consequences for how campaigns work internally. Staffers are jockeying not only to get the credit for getting their candidate elected, but also for positioning in the victorious candidate's administration and/or for a better-paid role in the next campaign. It can also be much more difficult to tell the candidate home truths about their own performance, compared to the situation if both candidate and staffer are beholden to a political party structure rather than staffers being utterly dependent on the candidate's whim. It also feeds into the dependence of the campaigns on continual fund-raising.

In the end, Obama won because his fundamentals were sound; he had a good narrative in the first place, he was disciplined about sticking to it, and he was fortunate in both the character of his opponent in the general election and the economic circumstances which made Republicans unelectable in 2008. Clinton was unlucky in that her narrative was almost as good and her discipline equal to Obama's, but her campaign team was less coherent (for the reasons given above) and she carried unfair negative baggage in the shape of her husband. McCain lost because he deserved to. (The authors are surprisingly sympathetic to Sarah Palin, and blame McCain for choosing her without sufficient forethought and exposing her on the national platform without adequate preparation.) An excellent book from which I learned some interesting things.

November Books 12) The New Face of Digital Populism (Demos study)

This short book, published by Demos and mostly written by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, presents the results of a large and detailed survey of Facebook supporters of populist far-right movements in various western European countries, including the EDL and BNP in the UK and Vlaams Belang here. (Hungary's Jobbik was included in the original project but dropped for reasons not really explained.) The results are interesting in various ways. Supporters of such groups tend to have much less trust in the judicial system, their own government, the European Union and the mainstream media than most people do. But they also tend to have a belief in the political process (which is I suppose why they are in organised groups in the first place), usually motivated by concerns over immigration and perceptions of Islam. I wish (and I think the researchers wish) that they had also included a question or questions about the use of political violence; Norway was added to the list of countries surveyed after the Breivik attacks in June. There is an interesting discussion in the appendix of the methodology and ethics of conducting research among Facebook users, and also how to spot trolls and remove their answers. Worth a look.

November Books 13) Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

I've had a run of excellent reading over the last week or so, and thoroughly enjoyed Moll Flanders, or to be more precise The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, etc. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Her life is indeed one of "continu'd Variety", as she lurches from exploitative marriage to disastrous marriage to unwitting incest and back again, before breaking successfully into the business of petty theft, in the end being arrested almost by accident for a crime she had not yet committed. Defoe has her turn moralistic only at the very end, when she and the fourth husband (I think - I lost count) return to England "where we resolve to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived", and I sort of forgive that because one can read it as partly tongue-in-cheek, and also though a weak-ish ending it is stronger than the ending of Robinson Crusoe so obviously he was learning. I must also admit that she is rather unrealistically sanguine about the fate of her children, of whom we hear very little.

It's a fascinating pen-picture of England in the early seventeenth century, where urban social networks were small and intimate enough that you could steal from a shop at one end of town and sell your loot to their competitor at the other; where constables were aware enough of the rights of citizens under the law to be easily intimidated by a sharp-witted suspect; where people would invest wealth not only in hard cash ("which every one knows is an unprofitable cargo to be carried to the plantations") but also in jewels, silver plate, cloth and easily portable luxury goods. One thing that hasn't changed, which she reflects on bitterly in the gap between husbands two and three (I think - again, I had already lost count) is the differential social power between women and men, even allowing for economic factors; Defoe verges on feminism in a couple of passages.

Anyway, very strongly recommended, if you like "continu'd Variety"; and who doesn't?

Gibbon Chapter LXVII: The Beginning of the End

In this chapter, the carefully negotiated union of the eastern and western churches does not last, but the pressure on Constantinople is relieved for a few years by the Hungarians, to the north, and Scanderbeg and the Albanians, to the west. We end with Constantine Palæologus on the throne; but not for long. See also my notes on Siberian shamanism, life in India, transliteration, and Albanian geography.