Review of “A Man in Full” by Tom Wolfe

July 31, 2012

In my review of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” I mentioned the importance of time and place in a Tom Wolfe novel.

“A Man in Full” takes place in Atlanta in the ’90s. Atlanta is an interesting choice. It is the epicenter of The New South, which itself seems to represent the new America in many ways.

Before getting to the story lines in the book, it’s necessary to briefly summarize Wolfe’s explanation of how Atlanta works.

The entire power structure of the city is black. The Mayor is black, the chief of police is black, the city council is virtually all black, etc. (Wolfe actually runs through a list that’s too long for me to type). The city is also about 70% black.

Nearly all of the successful businesses in Atlanta, however, are owned by white people.

This situation, in which all the power is in the hands of one racial group while all the wealth is in the hands of another racial group, would appear to be unstable. What’s most interesting about Atlanta, is that it is stable, albeit very precarious. The stabilizing force is a group of light-skinned, successful, well-educated blacks that are referred to once in the book as “beige half brothers.” I’m going to keep using that term, because it’s awesome.

These beige half brothers invariably attended one of a few black-aristocratic colleges (generally Morehouse for Wolfe’s characters). They sit between the blacks and the whites and keep the peace. They do this in a way that is undoubtedly corrupt but that seems to fall short of outright bribery, as one of them puts it in the book, it’s not as simple as:

“You (i.e. whites) got the money, and we (i.e. blacks) got the power. We want some money.” . . . . “It’s more like: ‘You build us day-care centers, youth centers, health clinics, parks, swimming pools–so we can say to our constituents, “Look what we brought you”–and we’ll see about doing something for you.’ That’s the way it works out.”

As we saw in “Bonfire,” Wolfe is no fan of democracy. The beige half brothers get money from the whites, which they use to buy the black vote and stay in power. With this “get out the vote money” the beige half brothers channel the power of the black community and the wealth of the white community into the (relative and always precarious) stability of Atlanta.

There are two main story lines in the book. The first is set up to be a perfect microcosm of this power structure. The second is meant to criticize some of the excesses of The New South more generally.

In the first story line, the daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest men (Elizabeth Armholster) accuses a young and very successful black Georgia Tech football player from the poorest part of Atlanta (Fareek Fannon) of rape. Roger Too White, the beigest of half brothers, is recruited by the mayor to stabilize this potentially disastrous situation.

In the second story line, the real estate empire of one of Atlanta’s richest men is crumbling due to his excesses. His excesses are debt and divorce.

Let’s turn to each of the major characters for the rest of the story.

Charlie Croker

Charlie Croker is the sort of guy that built the New South and he’s the main character in the book. As the book begins, his commercial real estate empire is falling apart because he over-built and he can’t attract enough tenants to his new building to make his loan payments.

This fact is a big problem for him, but it’s a bigger problem for his bank. (As Wolfe is writing, banking in the South is taking off – think Bank of America and Wachovia and Sun Trust, etc.).

Charlie is a good old boy. He was a football start at Georgia Tech. He married a well-connected woman and they started a family. Not long before his business problems, he divorced his wife.

The contrast between this book and “Bonfire” on divorce is very interesting. Even though characters had problems with their marriages in “Bonfire” there wasn’t much divorce. In contrast, in this book, everyone is divorced (with one exception, which we’ll get to in due course).

Croker’s character is fantastic (and basically impossible to summarize). His failings, as I’ve said, are debt and divorce. He also doesn’t seem to be able to adapt to the new politically correct world that invades Atlanta as Atlanta becomes more cosmopolitan. For example, he brings a (jewish) businessman to his plantation (yes, he has a plantation!) in hopes of getting the businessman to rent space in his office buildings. His political incorrectness doesn’t go over well with the jewish businessman. At one point, Charlie and his friends are making jokes about a march for AIDS (for example, “Glory me-I got the HIV!”).

(As an aside, gays pop up in relatively unfavorable situations in this book (at the art exhibit, bribing the mayor), “Bonfire” and “Charlotte Simmons (more in a separate review).” I think Wolfe’s take on gays is that they seem to work closely with the media to control the discussion/debate. Perhaps the best way to get Wolfe’s viewpoint on the subject is to read “Ambush at Fort Bragg.”)

Croker’s debt problems are used by the beige half brothers to help resolve the rape case in a way that keeps order in the city. In the meantime, Croker realizes that his life is unsatisfactory and becomes a follower of Epictetus.

In the second story line, it turns out that Elizabeth probably didn’t get raped. She probably wanted to start something with the star athlete but had second thoughts after she was naked on his bed. It turns out that Charlie started seeing his wife under similar circumstances. I could say a lot more on this issue, but it’s the basis of Wolfe’s next novel, so I’ll leave it for now.

Roger Too White

Roger is Wolfe’s quintessential beige half brother. He enjoys fashion, architecture, the symphony(!) and he thinks Booker T. Washington was on to something. As Wolfe points out, supporting Booker T. Washington is basically like supporting George Wallace.

In short, Roger is civilized. Unlike many of his fellow beige half brothers, Roger isn’t comfortable pandering to lower class blacks – at least not until gets a taste for controlling the power of Atlanta.

Through Roger’s character, we learn of the ways that Atlanta really works. He finds the real workings of the city distasteful, and yet as the story progresses, he finds it increasingly difficult to resist the power.

The book ends with Roger considering a run for mayor, which struck me as a very pessimistic – almost tragic – ending. If Roger Too White can’t resist the pull of racial-polarization and pandering, it’s unlikely that any black (no matter how light) can.

Conrad Hensley

Conrad Hensley is a young man who works in a warehouse that stores food for one of Charlie Croker’s companies. When Charlie runs into trouble, Conrad loses his job and one disaster after another follows.

The best way to think about Conrad is to imagine the guy that would be most screwed if Matthew Yglesias were put in charge and allowed to implement all of his policies. Conrad gets a girl pregnant while he’s in high school. There’s no abortion though, Conrad doesn’t even just leave. Instead he stays with the girl, marries her (stays married!), and drops out of school to try to support his family (what an idiot!). Obviously this fails!

Conrad ends up in prison, miraculously escapes and winds up in Atlanta working directly for Croker. Conrad introduces Croker to the writings of Epictetus and they eventually hit the road together preaching on behalf of Zeus.

Ray Peepgass

Peepgass works at the bank that loaned so much money to Croker. Peepgass isn’t the sort of guy who could build a successful business but he hopes to use some (semi-)legal trickery to profit from Croker’s downfall (the 21st Century version of a carpetbagger, perhaps).

In the meantime, Peepgass is going through a very messy divorce. He will potentially owe much more than he makes in child support and alimony. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find him very sympathetic.


Stop what you’re doing

July 31, 2012

. . . and read nydwracu


July 30, 2012

– Human waste shuts down public transportation in SF.

– GBFM reviews “The Book of Man”:

And so you can see that William Bennett is a Judas, selling out Jefferson, Virgil, and Homer, all for a few fiat dollars and short-lived fame. Nay–he is worse than Judas, as at least Judas was paid in Silver, while William Bennet is paid in fiat debt for his soulless, ignorant debauchery

Leftover women in China.

Obviously, policymakers don’t make mistakes. If they did, we’d all be screwed.

– Mr Roach on Friedrich List.

– Fritz on liberty and society.

Delenda est Carthago notes, “I think the diversity dogma is intrinsically appealing to children, or at least children living comfortable middle-class suburban lives.” I’ve often wondered if too much bubble is a bad way to raise kids.

– VDH on California:

In around 1960, rural California embraced modern civilization. By that I mean both in the trivial and fundamental sense. Rural dogs were usually vaccinated and licensed — and so monitored. Homes were subject to building codes and zoning laws; gone were the privies and lean-tos. Streets were not just paved, but well-paved. My own avenue was in far better shape in 1965 than it is now. Mosquito abatement districts regularly sprayed stagnant water ponds to ensure infectious disease remained a thing of our early-20th-century past. Now they merely warn us with West Nile Virus alerts. Ubiquitous “dumps” dotted the landscape, some of them private, ensuring, along with the general code of shame, that city-dwellers did not cast out their old mattresses or baby carriages along the side of the road. It seems the more environmental regulations, the scarcer the dumps and the more trash that litters roads and private property.

I walk each night around the farm. What is the weirdest find? A nearby alleyway has become a dumping place for the rotting corpses of fighting dogs. Each evening or so, a dead dog (pit bulls, Queensland terriers) with a rope and plenty of wounds is thrown up on the high bank. The coyotes make short work of the remains. Scattered about are several skeletons with ropes still around their necks. I suppose that at about 2 a.m. the organizers of dog fights drive in and cast out the evenings’ losers. I have never seen such a thing in 58 years (although finding plastic bags with dead kittens in the trash outside my vineyard was a close second). Where is PETA when you need them? Is not the epidemic of dog- and cock-fighting in central California a concern of theirs? (Is berating in Berkeley a corporation over meat-packing a bit more glamorous than running an education awareness program about animal fights in Parlier?)


July 27, 2012

– Macroresilience on demosclerosis

– More from hbd chick on Ron Unz. There’s also lots more from Occidentalist. And Audacious Epigone.

– There should be more writing on girl game.

– A call to break up big banks.

American politics is tribal, whether you are or not.

The three branches of USG

July 27, 2012

You’ve undoubtedly heard that the US government (USG) has three branches. You’ve probably also heard that they are the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch.

It’s true that USG has three branches, but they’re not executive, legislative and judicial. At some point in the distant past, executive, legislative and judicial functions may have been meaningful, distinct and in control, but no longer.

Just for fun, let’s assume that USG still has three branches. What are they and how did they replace the old ones?

Branch 1: The Cathedral or Why John Roberts is a Giant Vagina

The Cathedral is Moldbug’s term for the combined workings of the media, universities and certain parts of USG.

Let’s try to understand the way the Cathedral works through the recent Supreme Court decision on healthcare.

Everyone knew that Obamacare was headed to the Supreme Court. Everyone knew the issues involved. As best I can tell, no one predicted the actual outcome of the case. The text of the Constitution and the various amendments is not that long and it’s been around for a while now. The issues are litigated constantly. There are thousands of law professors, court commentators and lawyers. In a functioning legal system, the result should have been quite predictable. In a moderately broken legal system, many of these interest parties should have predicted the correct outcome by mere chance. Only in a legal system that is totally FUBAR would the result be unpredictable to everyone.

It appears that 5 of the judges initially believed the healthcare law was unconstitutional as going beyond the power given (by “The People”) to Congress in the Commerce Clause. However, through some force, Judge Roberts’ mind was changed (pardon the passive for now) and an entirely unpredictable and new interpretation of the law came into being even though it was (of course) hidden in the Constitution and amendments for quite some time.

What was this force that changed Roberts mind? It appears that Roberts’ changed his mind because the Cathedral was able to exert so much pressure on him that he changed his view. Those of us on the reactionary side should thank Roberts for changing his mind in such an absurd and transparent way. The complete charade that is the modern legal system is undeniable.

In one of those links, Professor Somin notes: “it is very sad that the highest-ranking judge in the land valued reputation more than his duty to enforce the Constitution. If fear of criticism by hostile politicians and pundits can deflect the Chief Justice from doing his duty, that does not bode well for the future.”

Indeed, it’s more than sad. Criticism from hostile pundits, politicians, and law professors is effectively the force that determines what is legal and what is not. Is anything checking the power of this force? Who controls this force? To whom is it accountable? No one will ask these if we pretend the men in robes are still actually in control.

Branch 2: The Bureaucracy or Who Actually Governs

I’ve written on this topic at length, but here’s a short summary.

Many people, your humble blogger included, are permanent members of USG. Our jobs include functions typically considered to be executive, legislative and judicial. New “governments” are elected and we keep our jobs. We massively outnumber the temporary government (i.e. elected and appointed officials) and we’re effectively immune from their whims (thankfully).

Let’s again look at the healthcare bill. Where did it come from? At some point, someone must have sat down in front of a blank Word document and starting typing some stuff that turned into (at least a section of) the healthcare law. Who was this person? How did he or she get to such a powerful position? As best I can tell, no one actually knows. Behold, the genius of modern USG.

The healthcare law has been declared Constitutional, but it’s also worth remembering that we don’t really know what’s in it yet. This is, of course, true for all large pieces of legislation (it’s a bit scary that the good professor’s understanding of American government is stuck sometime in 19th Century – or earlier). Who will decide what’s really in the law?

Once the law is actually put in place, and conflicts arise, who will resolve these conflicts?

The last three paragraphs ended with questions. Here’s another one, what if there is only one answer to all those questions? That is, what if one entity writes laws, decides what the laws say later on, enforces the laws, and interprets the laws after they are implemented. Such an entity would hold all the actual power of government. What if we didn’t even know which people constituted this entity and what if we had no control over this entity? Surely, that couldn’t happen.

If it were to happen, there would be no checks and balances – at least not in the traditional sense of checks and balances that operate across executive, legislative and judicial functions. If this were the case, and if the legal system was not acting as a check on federal power (see Branch 1 above), then we’d have a government of effectively unlimited power (subject only to random Supreme Court decisions that may temporarily limit power in certain areas and not others).

Branch 3: Political Parties or Why Smart People Write Propaganda

Our Constitution, which supposedly describes how our government works, doesn’t mention political parties at all. This is odd, since the defining feature of American politics is that there are two parties and only two parties.

When you first come to DC, this is the first thing you learn. Again, there are two parties and only two parties. You have to pick one. You can get by in the bureaucracy for a while without picking one (everyone will assume you’re a Democrat), but most “non-governmental” positions require you to pick sides right away (unofficially, of course). Law firms in DC are generally allied with a party. Reporters obviously are. Etc.

You can say you are a Democrat, or you can say Progressive, Liberal, Socialist, Centrist or a few other labels, but in DC, these all mean Democrat. Anything else means Republican. It’s almost always safe to substitute “Democrat” for “Independent” which is the generic third party term used by lobbyists, for example.

(This seems to be a lesson that libertarians stubbornly refuse to learn. They say they’re libertarian as if that means something different than Republican – which it certainly doesn’t to anyone that matters in DC. This lesson was a difficult for your humble blogger to learn when he moved to DC and considered himself a libertarian. Some of the mainstream libertarians that refer to themselves as “liberaltarians” or some such nonsense seem to have internalized this lesson without really learning it. What they want is to be considered Democrats in DC – like all the cool kids – while not being forced to identify as Democrats outside of DC. Is it possible to sell out but not sell out? Good luck with that. Anyway . . .)

The theory of checks and balances requires, for example, that the legislature checks the power of the Executive, etc. In reality, members of the legislative branch are more loyal to their party than they are to their branch. The self-limiting theory of government only works if a Congressman is more concerned with the power of Congress than with the electoral success of his party. Which do you think he’s more concerned with?

It’s easy to see that people in DC who exercise power are rabid supporters of their party above all else. Every time a new party claims the Presidency, for example, members of his party change their mind about all sorts of things (e.g. executive power). This is an odd phenomenon that I still find off-putting and confusing.

Pundits write articles that are perpetually available on the internet. Depending on which party is in power, all their arguments change. Everyone pretends not to notice that pundits’ opinions change every four years. This sort of writing is – of course! – propaganda. The average pundit is then best understood as a propagandist for a political party.

The healthcare law is another good example of this. The Heritage Foundation originally invented the idea of the individual mandate for healthcare.

Republicans duly supported the requirement while Democrats opposed it. Later things changed and everyone changed their minds.

I rather enjoy reading Democratic propagandists, like Matthew Yglesias, more than Republican ones. Frankly, the Democratic propagandists are much better at writing propaganda.

Anyway, if you’re considering a career in journalism, I bet you could rise to the top of your field quickly if you understand that you’re writing propaganda. You’d have to be careful, of course, to hide the fact that you’re writing propaganda, but be sure to write propaganda nonetheless.

Concluding Remarks

These branches interact in ways that effectively guarantee that the Republican Party loses. The Cathedral is a monolithically Democratic institution. The permanent government is at least 95% Democratic.

Again, the effect of this can be seen in the healthcare law. Judge Roberts was more swayed by the Cathedral than by his Republican allegiance. He thereby upheld a law that was written by and gives tremendous power to the bureaucracy. Even if party loyalty had won out in this case, the permanent government isn’t going anywhere. They’d take over healthcare sooner or later.

Randoms of the day

July 26, 2012

– hbd chick on Ron Unz on IQ.

– Average Married Guy lists some things he’d like to teach his kids.

Science is slowly catching up to HL Mencken.

– Someone once asked me to summarize my political philosophy in one sentence, and I said: “You can’t fix stupid.” Alkibiades made me think of that again today.

– Unamusement on Judge Garaufis.

– Shall we can check in on South African genocide? Still ongoing, apparently.

Review of “Park Chung-Hee” by Chong-Sik Lee

July 25, 2012

I must admit that before reading this book, I knew basically nothing about Park Chung-Hee or frankly about Korean History more generally.

Park is credited with leading South Korea’s economic advancement in the latter part of the 20th Century. As is so often the case with a leader who turns a poor country into a rich country, he is also vilified for restricting the freedom of the citizens of the newly-wealthy country. The economic advancement of South Korea shouldn’t be underestimated. The country went from being behind Nigeria into being on the G20. Or as the book puts it, within the lifetime of many Koreans now living, the per capita GDP in South Korea went from $100 to $20,000.

Park grew up in a Korea that was part of the Japanese Empire (for roughly 40 years Korea was part of Japan, that obviously ended in 1945). He eventually overthrew a South Korean government that was installed after WWII. The US had decided that Korea would be “freed” following WWII, but none of the allies (besides perhaps the Chinese and the Russians) were paying much attention to Korea. The result was rather confused, as should be from the ensuing weirdly managed Korean War. Park eventually created some kind of order from the chaos of the post-war plans and the Korean War. Park was assassinated at the end of 1979.

In the interim Park had to recreate a sense of nationhood that the Japanese had tried to wipe out for 40 years and to create a new sense of nationhood for South Korea. For quite some time, South Korean policy was so focused on reunification with the North, that it didn’t really bother building its own economy.

Park seems largely to have followed the Japanese model for economic growth, which favored an export-heavy economy that is dominated by large conglomerates.

The book is, honestly, pretty boring. It would be interesting if more was focused on Park’s time leading the government of South Korea, and less was spent on Park’s early life. Hopefully, someone will at some point rescue Korean history from the Dryasdust.

Review of “The Map and the Territory” by Michel Houellebecq

July 25, 2012

I’ve been meaning to read some of Houellebecq’s work (in translation, of course – I went to public schools, after all) for quite some time. I plan to read more of it.

This book is about an artist who is quite successful. At some point, the artist meets and connects with Michel Houellebecq, which is interesting and it allows Houellebecq to portray himself in the novel.

Once you get about two thirds of the way through the book, Houellebecq is brutally murdered (with emphasis on the “brutally”). The rest of the book deals with the murder investigation.

His portrayal of France accords well with the one I’ve gotten from French people who are being particularly honest. Basically, they’re not optimistic. Without tourism, they’d be screwed, and you can only coast for so long on tourism. Houellebecq criticizes vagrants, sluts (his word), the fact that his country is being invaded by eastern Europeans, the huge number of Asian tourists, the smoking ban, assisted suicide, etc. He seems preoccupied with the death of any sense of French-ness.

Anyway, that’s all the literary criticism I’ve got for the day. The book is worth reading for only Houellebecq’s descriptions of himself, which were hilarious.

Review of “The Naked Sun” by Isaac Asimov

July 25, 2012

This is the second book in Asimov’s Robot Series. The first takes place on Earth, which is over-crowded, robot-phobic, and (like Asimov) agoraphobic.

This second book takes place on a planet (Solaria) that has been settled by humans. This planet is set up to be the complete opposite of Earth. Its human population is low and people live far apart from each other (in fact, they avoid physical proximity at all costs). The planet has a huge robot-to-human ratio. And people basically live a life of luxury on the back of robot labor.

The dichotomy between Earth and Solaria reveals certain weaknesses in both societies. Asimov seems to be saying that you can get over-populated, overly dense, overly disconnected from the outside, overly suspicious of technology but that you can also be under-populated, too isolated, and too open to technology.

Since the book is ultimately a detective story, with a detective from Earth solving a murder on Solaria, Asimov also seems to be suggesting that human nature is what it is. Despite the vast differences between the societies, a person from Earth still understands what people on Solaria think and how they act.

The mystery also involves someone who is trying to weaponize robots. This is difficult given that the laws of robotics seem to prevent robots from harming humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible.

Review of “The Complete Robot” by Isaac Asimov

July 25, 2012

I’ve decided to read a bunch of Asimov books (I’ve only read Caves of Steel until now). The general consensus was that I should start with this book, which is a collection of short stories dealing with robots.

Some of the stories (particularly the Bicentennial Man) are much better than others. They are interesting to read together though.

With respect to robots, Asimov sets up his own ethical system – the three laws of robotics, which are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

At first, this seems like about the most objective, clear cut and straightforward ethical system that one could hope for. But, through all the stories, you begin to see that nothing in ethics is quite so simple.