Books

The Last Man struggles for the sake of struggle

Tuesday, 5 March, 2019

Francis Fukuyama is touring the world promoting his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Sounds very much like the right book at the right time. Fukuyama is best-known, of course, for The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which grew out of an essay in The National Interest magazine in 1989, and in which he argued, controversially, that the global spread of liberal democracy and the associated Western lifestyle might herald the end point of socio-cultural evolution. Or, in his own words:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

As mentioned, this was, and remains, hugely controversial, but what’s been overlooked in all the heated debates since is the message of the fifth and final chapter of The End of History and the Last Man. Published almost three decades ago now, it anticipated so much of what we face today. Snippet:

“But supposing that the world has become ‘filled up,’ so to speak, with liberal democracies, such that there exist no tyranny or oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle? Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, they will struggle against that just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.”

The National Interest


Sérotonine sells

Wednesday, 9 January, 2019

On average, a French novel sells around 5,000 copies. In comparison, Sérotonine, the latest work by Michel Houellebecq, sold 90,332 hardback copies in its first three days, according to L’Observateur.

Houellebecq’s publisher, Flammarion, took a calculated gamble with an initial print run of 320,000 copies but it looks as if it’s going to pay off handsomely. Sérotonine is being published in German, Spanish and Italian this week and it will appear in English in September. «Mes croyances sont limitées, mais elles sont violentes. Je crois à la possibilité du royaume restreint. Je crois à l’amour.» — Michel Houellebecq.

Michel Houellebecq


Houellebecq on farming in Ireland and France

Tuesday, 8 January, 2019

After a publicity tour for his novel Platforme, which was published in 2001, Michel Houellebecq was taken to court in France for inciting racial hatred, so he moved to Ireland for several years and lived on Bere Island off the west coast of Cork. The rugged landscape there has much in common with rural Normandy, the backdrop to Sérotonine, his latest novel.

The protagonist of Sérotonine is Florent-Claude Labrouste, a European Union agronomist. Coincidentally, Houellebecq worked as an agronomist before he took up novel writing and this fact gives substance to his observations of rural life. Although he lives in Paris, Labrouste spends considerable time in the countryside and, while he sympathizes with farmers, he knows he’s powerless to halt the decline of their traditional way of life. “Where there are now slightly more than 60,000 dairy farmers,” he notes, “there will be in 15 years 20,000. In short, what is taking place with French agriculture is a vast redundancy plan, but one that is secret and invisible, where people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed.”

As with the farmers on Ireland’s smallholdings, the farmers of Normandy are caught between the rock of agribusiness and the hard place of the European Union, with its unending regulations that make their miserable lives even more miserable. In a Satanic Mills description of a modern poultry farm, Labrouste notes that the “300,000 or so inmates, plucked and emaciated, struggled to live among the decomposing cadavers of their fellow chickens.” On entering these vast white-meat factories, the first thing the visitor notices is the birds with their “look of panic and incomprehension, who don’t understand the conditions into which they’ve been dragged.” The link in this section of Sérotonine between the luckless chickens and France’s farmers, despised by Brussels bureaucrats and uncared for by the urban elites who demand premier Calvados and the urban masses who demand cheap food, is obvious. Struggling, panicked and desperate, the small farmers of France have nothing to lose when they don those gilets jaunes.

More Sérotonine here tomorrow.


Book of the Year 2018

Thursday, 27 December, 2018

Weighing in at 1.5 kilogrammes, Churchill: Walking with Destiny is a heavyweight. The index runs to 60 pages, the author’s notes to 37 and the bibliography to 23. But size alone isn’t everything so Churchill: Walking with Destiny is our Book of the Year for reasons other than sheer volume.

There have been more than 1,000 previous studies of Churchill’s life, the publisher helpfully warns readers, so anyone intending to add another tome to the heap had better have something original to offer readers. Andrew Roberts has. His access to and analysis of previously hidden materials is what makes the difference. Then, there’s his storytelling. This is from the pivotal year of 1939:

“Churchill dined with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Antibes in January. The Duke, wearing a kilt of the Stuart tartan, argued vigorously against Churchill’s recent articles opposing Franco and in favour of a Russia alliance. ‘We sat by the fireplace,’ recalled Maxine Elliott’s nephew-in-law Vincent Sheean, ‘Mr Churchill frowning with intentness at the floor in front of him, mincing no words… declaring flatly that the nation stood in the gravest danger in its long history.’ The Duke was eagerly interrupting whenever he could, contesting every point, but receiving — in terms of the utmost politeness so far as the words went — an object lesson in political wisdom and public spirit. The rest of us sat in silence: there was something dramatically final, irrevocable about the dispute. Churchill had discovered beyond doubt how fundamentally unsound the ex-King was about the Nazis. He remained respectful throughout this ‘prolonged argument’, but did point out to him that ‘When our kings are in conflict with our constitution, we change our kings.'”

Why did Churchill loathe the Nazis and their appeasers from the outset? According to Andrew Roberts, the young Winston had seen Islamic fundamentalism at work in India and Sudan and what he observed there was “a form of religious fanaticism that in many key features was not unlike the Nazism that he was to encounter forty years later. None of the three prime ministers of the 1930s — Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain — had seen true fanaticism in their personal lives, and they were slow to discern it in Nazi Germany. Churchill had fought against it in his youth and recognized its salient features earlier than anyone else.”

Churchill: Walking with Destiny


The eleventh post of pre-Christmas 2018: November

Sunday, 23 December, 2018

Frederick Forsyth was 33 when his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, was published in 1971. The story of how the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) hires an English assassin to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle became an international bestseller and gained the author fame and fortune. On 14 November, here, we welcomed Forsyth’s latest novel, which is very much about modern espionage.

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What if the most dangerous weapon in the world is not a nuke in a backpack but a 17-year-old boy with a brilliant mind, “who can run rings around the most sophisticated security services across the globe, who can manipulate that weaponry and turn it against the superpowers themselves?” That’s the premise of The Fox, the new thriller from Frederick Forsyth. Born in the year of the Munich Agreement, when British, French and Italian leaders agreed to Hitler’s demand for the German annexation of the Sudetenland, Forsyth has grown up in a world that has experienced its share of evil in his 80 years. The latest manifestation, in his latest novel, is the Vozhd, a Russian word meaning “the Boss” or, in the world of crime, “the Godfather”. When Forsyth was 15, the old Vozhd, Joseph Stalin, died. The new Vozhd is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and one of his prized assets arrived in Russia in 2013, having fled from Hawaii. Snippet:

“When defector and traitor Edward Snowden flew to Moscow it is believed he carried over one and a half million documents on a memory stick small enough to be inserted before a border check into the human anus. ‘Back in the day’, as the veterans put it, a column of trucks would have been needed, and a convey moving through a gate tends to be noticeable.
So, the computer took over from the human, the archives containing trillions of secrets came to be stored on databases… Matching pace, crime also changed, gravitating from shoplifting through financial embezzlement to today’s computer fraud, which enables more wealth to be stolen than ever before in the history of finance. Thus the modern world gave rise to the concept of computerized hidden wealth but also to the computer hacker. The burglar of cyberspace.”

The Fox

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The review of the year as posted by Rainy Day ends tomorrow with the twelfth post of pre-Christmas 2018. The subject is the street-fighting man, then and now.


The fourth post of pre-Christmas 2018: April

Sunday, 16 December, 2018

The winner of the FT and McKinsey Business Book of 2018 Award was Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. His brilliant account of the spectacular rise and scandalous fall of Theranos, the high-tech blood-testing company, raises questions not only about the culture at this particular start-up — valued at more than $9 billion at one point — but of Silicon Valley and its sycophants, who boost every “breakthrough” as if it were the Second Coming. Accepting the award, Carreyrou said that readers of Bad Blood should note that the “move fast and break things” tech doctrine doesn’t work very well “when lives are at stake.”

Continuing with our review of the year, our post on 12 April was about the totally fraudulent Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos.

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If you think Mark Zuckerberg is having a tough week, consider the (mis)fortune of Elizabeth Holmes. Remember her? The CEO of Theranos was the poster girl for all those who bought and sold the delusion that a photogenic founder was an essential first step on the road to unimaginable riches. And, sure enough, gullible investors and sycophantic media beat a path to the golden door in the Valley in the hope of turning blood into treasure. And they ponied up an incredible $1.4 billion along the way.

Zuckerberg may have been on the hot seat, but Holmes is in deep water. Consider the letter she recently sent to shareholders regarding the company’s looming default on a $100 million loan. Snippet:

“The most viable option that we have identified to forestall a near-term sale or a potential default under our credit agreement is further investment by one or more of you. In light of where we are, this is no easy ask. However, given your support of the company over the years, we wanted to provide this opportunity before we proceed too far down the current path.”

Holmes is a fraud, but one has to admire (almost) the chutzpa of “this is no easy ask”.

Miss Fortune

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Tomorrow, here, the fifth post of pre-Christmas 2018 is from May and its title, Seán Sa Cheo, refers to the risky business of climbing mountains in foggy conditions.


Forsyth namechecks Snowden

Wednesday, 14 November, 2018

What if the most dangerous weapon in the world is not a nuke in a backpack but a 17-year-old boy with a brilliant mind, “who can run rings around the most sophisticated security services across the globe, who can manipulate that weaponry and turn it against the superpowers themselves?” That’s the premise of The Fox, the new thriller from Frederick Forsyth. Born in the year of the Munich Agreement, when British, French and Italian leaders agreed to Hitler’s demand for the German annexation of the Sudetenland, Forsyth has grown up in a world that has experienced its share of evil in his 80 years. The latest manifestation, in his latest novel, is the Vozhd, a Russian word meaning “the Boss” or, in the world of crime, “the Godfather”. When Forsyth was 15, the old Vozhd, Joseph Stalin, died. The new Vozhd is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and one of his prized assets arrived in Russia in 2013, having fled from Hawaii. Snippet:

“When defector and traitor Edward Snowden flew to Moscow it is believed he carried over one and a half million documents on a memory stick small enough to be inserted before a border check into the human anus. ‘Back in the day’, as the veterans put it, a column of trucks would have been needed, and a convey moving through a gate tends to be noticeable.

So, the computer took over from the human, the archives containing trillions of secrets came to be stored on databases… Matching pace, crime also changed, gravitating from shoplifting through financial embezzlement to today’s computer fraud, which enables more wealth to be stolen than ever before in the history of finance. Thus the modern world gave rise to the concept of computerized hidden wealth but also to the computer hacker. The burglar of cyberspace.”

The Fox


You’ll never be the drama critic for the NYT…

Sunday, 4 November, 2018

…If you’re a “deplorable,” that is. The author of Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, observes:

Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people because they can imagine a scenario in which they or their children might become rich, but cannot possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite. If you think about it that’s not an unreasonable assessment. A truck driver’s daughter from Nebraska might not have very much chance of becoming a millionaire — America has the lowest social mobility in the developed world — but it could happen. There’s virtually no way that the same daughter will ever become an international human rights lawyer, or drama critic for the New York Times. Even if she could get into the right schools, there would certainly be no possible way for her to go on to live in New York or San Francisco for the requisite years of unpaid internships. If the son of a glazier got a toehold in a well-positioned bullshit job he would likely be unable or unwilling to transform it into a platform for the obligatory networking. There are a thousand invisible barriers.

Bullshit Jobs


Welcome to the flesh parade! says Camille Paglia

Saturday, 6 October, 2018

“We certainly did not foresee that ‘booty pics,’ reducing women to their buttocks like Stone Age fertility totems, would become a wildly addictive genre of Instagram self-portraiture,” writes Camille Paglia, whose Provocations: Collected Essays will be published on Tuesday. Paglia wonders if the Instagram-driven exhibitionism that’s influencing both workplace wear and dating clothing is deepening the divide between men and women. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, she says:

“The current surplus of exposed flesh in the public realm has led to a devaluation of women and, paradoxically, to sexual ennui. A sense of appropriateness and social context has been lost, as with Ariana Grande wearing a sleeveless minidress with bared thighs to perform from the pulpit at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. That there is growing discontent with overexposure in Western women’s dress is suggested by the elegant flowing drapery of Muslim-influenced designs by Dolce & Gabbana and Oscar de la Renta, among others, in recent years.”

Paglia illustrates her point with an Instagram image of Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar aka Cardi B, a stripper who rose to fame on social media and then became a hugely successful rapper with the mixtapes Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Cardi B


Bubble Wrap, Barbed Wire and Bionic Eyes

Sunday, 6 May, 2018 0 Comments

All three are examined by Ben Ikenson and Jay Bennett in their work Ingenious Patents. Originally published in 2004, the book explores some of the most innovative of the 6.5 million patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office since Thomas Jefferson issued the first one in 1790. The updated issue has new entries on everything from the iPhone to 3G wireless to CRISPR.

Speaking of CRISPR, the full name of patent US No. 8,697, 359 B1 (PDF) issued on 15 April 2014 is “CRISPR-Cas systems and methods for altering expression of gene products.” This gene editing tool was developed at the University of California, Berkeley and further improved at The Broad Institute, which partnered with Harvard and MIT to work on multi-celled organisms. CRISPR can be used to modify crops and livestock, as well as to treat humans with ailments such as leukaemia, but the ramifications of genetic engineering are just starting to seep into the public mind. Along with the radical treatments for a variety of diseases the technology promises, come fears of what might happen when unsavoury scientists get their hands on CRISPR. Yes, it will be great to remove life-affecting diseases before birth, but it’s scary to think parents might be able to design babies to be faster, stronger or better looking. Only the rich could afford this, hugely increasing inequality. So the world needs to treat CRISPR with extreme caution.

Note: Following litigation, the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board decided last year that UC Berkeley would be granted the patent for the use of CRISPR in any living cell, while the Broad Institute would get it in any eukaryotic cell — cells in plants and animals.

Patents


All the Pretty Horses

Friday, 9 February, 2018 0 Comments

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Limerick horses