Category Archives: Book Reviews

Tuesday Poem: “A Charlatan’s Orbit,” a novel by Zireaux

Works by Zireaux.

Works by Zireaux.

This week’s “Tuesday Poem” is my novel-in-prose, A Charlatan’s Orbit, which is now available in print and on Kindle.

I should probably be making a bigger fuss about it. The book was picked up by an ardent and capable agent two years ago, and presented to some leading publishers in Australia. None of them, however, committed to the novel — which, in their defence, is neither set in Australia nor has anything really to do with Australia.

I nearly forgot about it; moved on to other things. I’d written most of A Charlatan’s Orbit when I was much younger (my first novel, in fact), then, following this agent’s advice, revised and updated it for publication. Over the years I’d almost grown accustomed to the book’s slippage into obscurity, which is one of its themes in fact: the spectre of artistic obscurity in our changing literary landscape. It seemed almost fitting that no one would ever read it.

But then again, with the book having come so close to publication, “bucking in its chute” as a narrator of mine once put it, it also seems a pity for A Charlatan’s Orbit to remain as nothing more than a manuscript in my writing room; so I’ve followed the necessary steps and, with this post, release it into the wild.

Make of it what you will.

A Charlatan's Orbit - A Novel (Pre-release Review Copy)

A Charlatan’s Orbit – A Novel. Now available in print and on Kindle.

A Charlatan’s Orbit – A Novel
by Zireaux
6″ x 9″ (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
Black & White on White paper
424 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1482019278 (CreateSpace-Assigned)
ISBN-10: 1482019272
BISAC: Fiction / Literary

On September 15, 2009, the chairman of a major New York publishing house is found shot to death in his bedroom. Nearby, in the chairman’s study, lies the manuscript of A Charlatan’s Orbit, by one of America’s most successful and prolific novelists — Randall Ray.

The manuscript, Ray’s 98th and final book, is unlike any of his previous works. Part memoir, part confession, it describes Ray’s curious life — from his charmed childhood in California, to the strange cruelties of small-town India, to the financial and artistic pressures of New York City, and finally to a mysterious island where he now lives with an antique pistol, defending himself from angry natives.

But most of all, the book reveals the surprising truth behind Ray’s stardom — a truth which not only changes his legacy forever, but which exposes his passions, his duplicity, and ultimately the series of murders that have allowed A Charlatan’s Orbit to be written and published at all.

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Part II: The Mountain and Muhammed – “Genocidal Gentility”

Experts from New Zealand were consulted to help mummify the head Jeremy Bentham.

Experts from New Zealand were consulted to help mummify the head of Jeremy Bentham.

“Do you know about bitcoin?” asks Assange to Schmidt — a rare question from him during their several hour exchange. “I do not,” replies Schmidt.

This was mid-2011. Bitcoin had been operating for almost two years. As the meeting wore on, Schmidt and his comrades were treating Assange like an alien life form, a visitor from another galaxy with the secrets to the universe in his easy-to-caricature head:

      Schmidt: I actually have like five hours more technical questions.

      Malcomson: I know! Because it’s like one thing, and then there’s more.

      Schmidt: How would you architect this, how would you architect that…?

Part of this giddiness is flattery, of course. Cool business cajoling. They’re fuelling the storyteller’s fire (every storyteller needs a pourer of wine, as H.G. Wells discovered). But the tone is also one of camaraderie, philanthropy, shared interests. In fact, for all of Schmidt’s fogginess about such Internet drivers as TOR, BitCoin, hash-tree coding, phone-to-phone encryption (anything Google can’t seize control of), one feels that Google should be paying Assange a hefty consultancy fee, such is the value of the information received. Schmidt, however, is a businessman. If he knows the price of Assange’s brain, he also knows how to manipulate an exchange in his favour.

One piece of information Google did know more about than Assange was just how often — and for what reasons — the US government was requesting Google to provide information about its users. Particularly about Assange and WikiLeaks. Assange is curious about this. He formulates his only question of the day: Can you tell me if the US government has requested information about me from Google? Schmidt is cagey in reply: That would be illegal, he says. Assange counters that the government requests are just as likely to be illegal under the First Amendment.

Schmidt considers. “So your specific request is that Google argue legally that Wikileaks…be informed if they are named in a FISA [request]?” asks Schmidt.

“Yes,” says Assange.

“Okay,” says Schmidt, ducking the authority of his own position, passing the proverbial buckhorn knife to the next player on the great American card-table of personal freedom. “I will pass that along [to our general counsel]. And we’ll see what comes back!”

Such a benign, sharp and quiet little technocrat, our Mr. Schmidt.

i. Heir to Revolutionaries

Julian Assange, by contrast, is heir to a long line of gifted, passionate, freely educated and well-intentioned young men — mostly men, it seems — who, in their ability to glimpse behind the veil of Empire, return as revolutionary intellectuals to share what they’ve discovered. Men like Iran’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Quichao, men who’d once meet in the coffee houses of Paris, Tokyo, Calcutta to discuss the latest political theories and global affairs. Most importantly, they were as savvy as — even better versed in the workings of Empire than — the figures most central to imperial control. Gandhi knew his British law at least as well as Lord Mountbatten. The Australian-raised Assange not only freely traveled around the Internet in the late 1980s as part of his “ethical hacking” group, the “International Subversives,” but he was traversing the firewalls of the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defence, NASA, Citibank, Lockheed Martin and many other citadels of international might.

What to do with such people? Invariably they are demonised. After the Chelsea Manning leak, arguably one of the most important leaks in modern history, a New York Times reporter described Assange as looking like a “bag lady.” Vogue described him as someone who clearly “hadn’t bathed in several days.” Another article in the Times, reminiscent of British ethnocentrism in its rule over India, insinuated that Assange didn’t know how to use a toilet.

Civilization vs. Savagery. New World vs. Old. The lines are drawn, the sides divided. Techies, according to the Internet powers, can be smart and clean and faithful; but “hackers” lack hygiene. Non-techies, meanwhile (most of whom today, by 1990s standards, would be considered technological wizards), are the innocent village farmers who must take a side, “with us or with the enemy;” or become extinct. Most of these civilians, of course – even the ones whose photos and friendships and once private affairs are feeding the profits of their rulers — will join the ranks of fashionable geekdom. They will praise social media sites like Facebook and Ello just as the 19th century Indian sycophant, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, praised the overlords of his culture:

“The most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen,” proclaimed Khan about the British Raj.

The scale of Google’s deception is so large that to challenge it is to feed our shared reality into a psychological shredder. There’s no question that Google was founded on massive copyright infringement; if its spiders could read the words “no index” in a robots.txt file, such crawlies could just as easily read the long-accepted copyright symbol “©,” which essentially means the same thing. But what authority, what lawyers, prosecutor, public representative at the time could have made the connection?

"The Empire of the Singularity depends on micro-decisions too fine for any categorical imperative." - Zireaux

“The Empire of the Singularity depends on micro-decisions too fine for any categorical imperative.”
– Zireaux

By the time the issue of copyright infringement was legally questioned, Google had already benefited from the ruse, moving on to new, more profitable deceptions. Today the slightest slight-of-hand can bring Google tens of millions of dollars while influencing just as many brains. Assange points to a very rare hyperlink Google placed on the sacred white turf of its homepage on September 10, 2012: “Live! Secretary Kerry answers questions on Syria. Today via Hangout at 2pm ET.” (View an archive of the page). To Assange, apart from advertising Google Hangouts, the link represented Google’s unprecedented chumminess with the Obama administration. “The Obama administration was trying to drum up support for US airstrikes against Syria,” writes Assange, and Google was becoming one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in America, quickly surpassing such military contractors as Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas. Google had transitioned from flouting copyright law to helping shape the policies of government.

ii. A Micro-fine Print

Such influence is brazen, ballsy, but overt and relatively easy to pinpoint. Google’s most sinister cheats, however — sinister for being so calculated — are usually obscured in the mundanities of interface design, a tweak to functionality, a change of terminology that would make a legislator’s head spin faster than Apple’s beachball of death. There’s that impossible-to-find privacy setting; that extra click to completely log out of your Google account (even after “signing out”). That hint, that hover, that piffling piece of policy. As with all empires, such bureaucratic arcana — hidden, overlooked, impossible to regulate — determine the course of history. The subjugation of our species is written in a print too fine for humans to comprehend.

Of course, it’s not just Google. Take the recent iOS 8.1 upgrade. The upgrade turns the Siri dictation feature — which previously translated voice to text — into a listening device. All voices floating into Apple’s iCloud. All voices feeding into the leviathan of a supposedly greater good (a more accurate and homogenised translator) that would send shivers through the bones of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham; while, perhaps, tantalising the ghost of Immanuel Kant to blog a listical: “Seven categorical imperatives in the new digital age.” If we don’t agree to Apple’s terms, the function is denied us. Either accept the conditions of an artificial overlord, or you wither into silence and isolation; the sacrificial ant amongst the onward marching colony of civilisation.

We’ve always suspected this would happen, machinery’s monarchy. What’s far more difficult to convey, what’s far more astonishing is the sheer triteness of the duplicity (for which Assange employs Arendt’s “banality”). It’s an alluring, playful, user-friendly, technical, yet genocidal gentility — as dangerous to our existence as even the most radical, carbon-coughing, school-invading, ebola-spitting terrorist cell.


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Tuesday Prose: The Mountain and Muhammad – A Review of “When Google Met WikiLeaks” by Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s publisher, OR Books, asked me if I’d like to review Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. I said I would and waited for the review copy to be served, which it was. My return volley, however, has been hampered by a stiff-kneed schedule, and even when I took my swing, the target felt soft, my stroke ungainly. When Google Met WikiLeaks is not a significant book – more of a republishing of previous material. But the issue it addresses is vital to our times, and Assange is one of the few people capable of approaching it with intelligence and insight.

I present the review here in three parts:

downloadWhen Google Met WikiLeaks
by Julian Assange
220 pages, September, 2014
OR Books

Part 1

Amidst the recent outcry over the mass release of celebrity flesh on our cell phones, the actor and funnyboy, Seth Rogan, expressed both sincerity and solidarity: “Posting pics hacked from someone’s cell phone is really no different than selling stolen merchandise,” he tweeted.

We can forgive the comedian for missing the nuances of techno-judicial scholarship. Nobody hacked Jennifer Lawrence’s cell phone. It was her iCloud account that was compromised. And the pic-as-merchandise analogy, in fact, was addressed and dismissed over fifty years ago by such brilliant thinkers and economists as Hal Varian, George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Spence and many others. We can no more stock a traditional market with digital goods than we can power our automobiles with dreams.

But Rogan is right to seek a handhold in real world analogies. The Internet always seemed so big and borderless; but it was never infinite. It was never unconquerable. From the comfort of your private captain’s quarters (study, basement, bedroom), you could steer your journey wherever you wanted — cruise the currents of a telnet link, spelunk the depths of a subterranean SSH network. Self-driven, solitary; no timetable or paperwork or formal meetings; no need to hold a single conversation.

And yet the sense of discovery you felt when stepping onto some isle of remoteness, with its treasure buried deep in a directory tree, was both real and chimeric. Footprints — just as Crusoe discovered — were already there. Tracks, roads, pathways, the frontiers of your journey had been laid by others. However far you traveled, you were always connected. The Internet was, by nature, shared.

If celebrities feel outraged over the Internet’s obsession with their private parts, so too will non-celebrities for those private parts obscuring the urgency of more important spills — the pesticides and sludge, for example, that are choking the Great Barrier Reef. How many Taylor Swifties must we read (he asked hashtaggingly) for every announcement of a scientific breakthrough?

At first the overcrowding of this shared webspace seemed purely technical; the Internet’s 32-bit IP address system wasn’t large enough to offer refuge to every brain on the planet (let alone every thought in every brain). There were speed issues, security holes, the obsoleting force of Moore’s Law. But the biggest limitation, it turned out, was something all too familiar in the history of Empire: namely, the tendency of its inhabitants — and therefore its developers — to push forth narrow, deceptive, traditionalist, clan-driven ideologies over such things as diversity, openness, clarity, intellect, equal rights, democracy. A lack of imagination, to put it simply.

i. Landfall

One of the most significant dates, a turning point really, in the battle for imperial control over the Internet was April 19, 2004 — the exact same day, incidentally, 234 years earlier, that captain James Cook spotted Australia, the Terra Incognita of the Southern Hemisphere, and a discovery that would forever alter the future of its indigenous people.

Now, centuries later, it was the arrival of Wall Street upon the shores of the Internet’s largest continent,, that threatened the online natives. In the eight hours of frenzied trading between 9am to 5pm, Google raised $1.67 billion dollars of euphemistically “public” capital (there’s very little “public” about an IPO), thus positioning itself as the spine from which the Internet’s latest incarnation — a sort of sticky-cloudy Frankenmonster — would start to kick and grow.

There are other important dates, of course; other defeats and victories. For example, six years later, on April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks would release its famous “Collateral Murder” video, shaking the Internet out of its stupor, holding a mirror up for the Western powers to examine their own psychopathic tendencies. Many dates; many salvos. The launch of the TOR Project, a privacy-protecting network, on September 20, 2002. The launch of BitTorrent the following month. The world’s very first “tweet,” March 22, 2006. The publishing of Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, in November, 2008. That fateful day in Hawaii when Edward Snowden decided to pull back the curtains on America’s National Security Agency.

However we look at the Internet’s history, Google and WikiLeaks are two of its leading players. No wonder, then, that the Australian intellectual-in-exile, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, would consider his meeting with Eric Schmidt, the CEO and Chairman of Google, a subject worthy of serious contemplation. Schmidt and the director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, had requested to interview Assange for a book they were writing, its vintage Soviet-era working title, “The Empire of the Mind.”

The interview was held in June, 2011. The place was the house of Assange’s friend, Vaughan Smith, in rural Norfolk, about three hours northeast of London. Assange was under house arrest at the time, a tracking beacon clipped around his ankle as a condition of his provisional release from jail, although his politico-criminal status adds little to the interview’s gravitas.

The meeting’s historical merit had none of the personal injury or sense of redemption found in, say, Nelson Mandela’s face-to-face encounter with P.W. Botha in 1989; or the meeting of revolutionary minds in, say, Fidel Castro’s visit with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem in 1960. Perhaps Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral offers a closer comparison; or Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong, but only in terms of the great cultural divide being crossed (with none of the germinating results).

“I was intrigued that the mountain” — that is, Google — “would come to Muhammad,” writes Assange in a 50-page thought-piece, which, along with previously released material concerning that historic meeting in Norfolk, appears in Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. We can ignore his self-casting role in the Muhammad cliche; Assange’s point is that, as frail and ankled-snared as Fabritius’ goldfinch, he felt weak and isolated compared to the $200 billion behemoth that was Google at the time, its “playful logo,” as he put it, “imprinting on human retinas just under six billion times each day, 2.1 trillion times a year.” An interesting choice of words, the playful logo, the mechanical retinas, the rhetorical calculations. Emotions cast as market symbols. Machinery as optometry. Neither Muhammad nor the mountain, in this one-day encounter amidst the Norfolk idyll, comes off as very human.

But still, Assange appears the less corrupted of the bunch. There’s an endearing, sometimes hard to believe, naïveté in his belief that the emissaries of Google might actually value Assange’s input into their proposed book about “the empire of the mind;” or indeed, that such a book, written by men assigned to the task of increasing their company’s share price, could possibly contain anything other than buzz-speak and the latest Silicon Valley platitudes. “The scholarship was poor — even degenerate,” writes Assange about the astonishment he felt when he finally read Schmidt’s and Cohen’s book two years later.

ii. The Emperors of the Mind

Empire of the Mind would change its title to the more prognosticatory, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (see my review of it here). “[The book] did not seem to fit the profile of Schmidt, that sharp, quiet man in my living room,” observes Assange. “Reading on I began to see that the book was not a serious attempt at future history.”

Turns out the quiet man in Assange’s living room (Vaughan’s living room, in fact) was more shrewd than sharp. The audio of the encounter has been available online at least since my review of Assange’s Cypherpunks in October last year, and the complete transcript is republished in When Google Met WikiLeaks. The meeting is a distressingly one-sided affair. Assange is one of those people who speaks in careful, well-constructed sentences, coolly rallying together a very large force of well-behaved words, trusting them to act according to their job descriptions. If he appears overly loquacious in his effort “to guide [his listeners] into my worldview,” as he puts it, it’s because his worldview is both compelling and complex; but also because his encounter with Google was, in his mind, less a meeting than an interview. And as the interview subject, he assumed he was “expected to do most the talking.”

This he did. One gets the sense that Assange had visualised in great detail his contribution to Schmidt’s and Cohen’s book before their arrival. “I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given,” he says, crediting his interviewers — Schmidt, Cohen, Lisa Shields (Schmidt’s partner at the time), and Scott Malcomson (a speechwriter and communications wonk) — with his command performance. But as an exercise of empire-building, Assange is outplayed, outmanoeuvred in every way during the idyllic Google-chat, except perhaps in terms of honesty and honour.

When The New Digital Age appeared two years later, in April, 2013, and he found none of his worldview in its pages, Assange would review the book for the New York Times. The result is a review as clear-sighted, articulate and awakening as anything the Times has published about the Internet — and Google — in many years.

Titled “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil,’” the review eviscerates Google’s dysto-Gogolian vision; and rightly so. Publications such as The New Yorker and Slate, with the smarts and credibility to land a knock-out blow to such New Digital nonsense, delivered sycophantic softies or stayed out of the ring entirely behind disclaimers such as, “The editor of The New Yorker’s website is the co-founder of a company funded in part by Eric Schmidt;” or “Eric Schmidt is the chairman of the New American Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate.”

Google must know a lot about the future of technology, the reviewers and talk show hosts so spinelessly conceded, because, well, Google owns the present. But if that’s the case, why did Assange seem to know so much more about the Internet’s future than the Chairman of the Internet’s largest property?

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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “The New Digital Age” — Conclusion

The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
336 pages, April 2013, Knopf.

Part V: Guys and Dolls

At the heart of the new Empire’s endeavor – the manifest destiny of the modern age – lies the silly Pygmalion project of building a machine as smart as any human; thus proving ourselves equal to our own creator. It’s a male, egocentric obsession; a form of female envy perhaps, women being more intimately familiar with the creation of sentient beings; but some would say the same of male novelists, sculptors, artists and scientists of any kind. The difference here is one of application. Small minds exploiting works of genius for their own puny, cowardly desires. Jeeves is a brilliant creation. A real butler, who seeks to behave like Jeeves, is not. And then there’s the issue of exclusivity. Ownership. If you’re going to create A.I., you want the right to be its master, help it grow, control it, take pride in your progeny, receive its support in your old age.

Intelligence itself sounds like a noble pursuit. It was Alan Turing, with his Turning Test, who first gave the male computer engineers and their stunted egos* the blonde and bosomy dimensions for their AI desires. A machine that can think, that was intelligent, explained Turing, could converse with a human test subject, via teleprinter (as opposed to sign language, winks, body odor, emoticons), in a way that was indistinguishable from a typed conversation between two human beings. From the 1960s onward, the case for “thinking machines,” with its code-talking mathematicians, would become as much a confidence trick, as prone to boom-bust cycles as any default-swapping credit derivative scam. Philosophers would try to reason with their homunculus-adoring peers across campus. What is “thinking,” they would ask. What is intelligence?

But the much bigger question, posed by some very shrewd communications theorists, was – what is a machine? The HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey could be achieved in two ways: A group of computer scientists developing an A.I. Prometheus, or a large population of thinkers, scientists, artists, mothers, engineers, school teachers, people with knowledge in a wide variety of categories using new algorithms of communication – Collective Intelligence (CI instead of AI) – to produce a single, vastly intelligent output. Voilà, HAL. A machine in appearance; a machine in its extension of our human shortcomings (particularly our limited memory; our inability to be like President Clinton and instantly recall some personal detail about every campaign supporter we’ve ever met); a machine in its electric, non-organic lifeblood; but human in its ability to make intelligent decisions. The algorithms that allow intelligent decision making, it turns out – the tweaking of various factors and heuristic values such as trust, reputation, influence, factual record, limitations of powers, anonymous peer review and so forth – could be as complex and difficult to create as replicating a single human brain. But I doubt it. Because we’ve done it before.

In fact, such algorithms were written in just 116 days – at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia over two hundred years ago. And as I write these words, those very algorithms are threatening to malfunction, and America is caught in what the pundits call a “constitutional crisis;” or what social network developers would call “a gaming of the system” (preventing laws from taking effect by crashing the network). One hundred and sixteen days isn’t bad for the design of such an advanced social network – a network that has survived as long as it has, having served roughly 130 million registered users in the last US presidential election. By comparison, Twitter took about the same time to code (four months), and although it reached the 130 million figure in just four years, it offered nowhere near the sophistication of collective intelligence – let alone representative democracy — a fact which says less about the brilliance of America’s Founding Fathers (however estimable) than about the short-term business demands of Twitter. Rapid returns on investment. Brand-building, registered users, acquisitions, speculation, an IPO in seven years – this is what’s hailed as “innovation” these days, and yet for the founders of one of the world’s largest online communities, this was as far as the future extended. Despite such grandiose visions, the merchants of Empire are amazingly short-sighted.

And narrow-minded, incompetent, slow – and terribly anti-democratic. This tyrannical tendency is especially stark in The New Digital Age. Must we wear Google glasses? Do we have to? Yes, if we seek to be enfranchised in future-making. Ditto the Roomba. De rigueur, it seems, those little round robot vacuums. Schmidt and Cohen — our high-earning Abbot and Costello — write almost entirely in the future imperative tense. Things, according to them, “will be.” Life for the urban professional will orbit around a morning routine of perfect coffee (nothing changes). Why is it that whenever the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley talk about some amazing new invention, they always relate it to how it helps San Franciscans do the things they like to do? Hello, Siri. Where can I find the nearest dim sum restaurant? (Do these entrepreneurs ever cook for children?). Oh, and some tacos from the Mission District flown in on drones.

The New Digital Age is so badly written, so littered with sloppy thinking, ridiculous examples, contradictions galore. Although things “will be,” the Internet, we’re told, is still unpredictable and out of control. You can feel the writers’ ache here; we know more than you, they seem to say. But oh, if we could only know it all! Which leaves our duo of quack-doctorates to beguile us with their tawdry trinkets. More coffee, Roombas, curtains that automatically open in the morning, more cunning advertisement models, and why don’t we transform the lives of a few impoverished schoolchildren in Africa; provide tracking technology to some token oppressed females in the Middle East?

Empire is the language of blindness. It is (as Twain saw it) a con-man’s tool of trade to befuddle, outwit and create a distance between master and subject. It can require years of cross-cultural adjustment for someone like Gandhi, who studied law in 1880s London, to not only decipher the obfuscating code, but to translate it back home. The new forces of empire may look different, but they’re equally slippery and arcane. While it might sound commonplace to talk of Silicon Valley as the capital of this new empire, it’s taken a long time for people to realize it.

Change or stasis? The scales must be calibrated, and Empire does the calibrating. To outsiders, a country like Bangladesh can appear nothing more than a divided and destitute “basket case” (Henry Kissinger’s diabolical label). Epiphany comes when the smart, successful, Harvard educated CEO is confronted with the deaths of Bangladeshi factory workers who’ve allow him to keep his high-powered job. To these factory workers, meanwhile, Rabindranath Tagore — whose poetic mastery is little appreciated beyond the subcontinent — is a towering figure. And epiphany comes again, like a wind changing direction, when the selfless, socially conscious husband, finding refuge in some spiritual hermitage, is berated by his abandoned wife and children and awakens to his own greed — a greed for that most costly of possessions: Mental peace. (“Conscience gets expensive,” says Saul in Breaking Bad).

So the next time a Silicon Valley techno-entrepreneur bubbles with enthusiasm at how the world is changing so fast, ask this person-with-a-99%-chance-of-having-testicles exactly how much money has been wasted in the development of voice-recognition systems when the world has so many natural devices (that is, humans withe ears and brains) capable of recognizing voices, or helping you locate your precious dim sum, or delivering your tacos on foot; and why we still find it so difficult to solve important, time-sensitive problems such as how to stop a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico when the world is filled with so many brilliant, reputable, networked minds, and the technology to allow fast, collaborative super-intelligence has existed for several decades now. “Inducements which will make the individuals do desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do,” wrote the economist Friedrich Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society, “this constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science.”

Over sixty years since those words were written, and at this stage of the Internet’s development, with so many inducements to click and shop and share another photo of you food, it shouldn’t take 87 days to gather, filter, prioritize the necessary knowledge to cap a gushing oil well. But then again, who needs a clean environment when clever little robots will vacuum our floors?

* Most so-called “computer scientists” are in fact simply engineers, programmers, typists, translators, careerists, speakers of code, narrowly educated and wouldn’t know a scientific discovery if it singed them with a Bunsen burner. In fact, attempts to do actual science are usually met with resistance. A friend of mine spent seven years completing his PhD program in Computer Science at New York University. His conclusion: “Computer science is not a science.”

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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “The New Digital Age” by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
336 pages, April 2013, Knopf.

Part IV: The Harpoon and the Pageantry

Whether the coffee house intellectuals are hackers, techies, revolutionaries, pseudo-artist, real artists, philosophers, rebel leaders, traitors, activists, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, journalists, whistleblowers — the real matter of Empire is twofold: (1) Classification and (2) Decision-making. The first, classification, addresses such questions as, who are you? To what category do you belong? How do we define these categories? Religion? Clan? Ethnicity? Language? Gender? Lifestyle? Place of residence? Education? Career? Status? Are you more of a film or a television person? Stewart or Colbert? Did you like Breaking Bad?

The second matter, decision-making, addresses the issue of governance: How will the Empire be conducted? Does it occupy? Enfranchise? Convert? Hold elections? Appoint? Mobilize? Terrorize? Collectivize? Penalize original thought? Reward cheerleading, optimism, innovation, wit?

As a communications device, the Internet* — the engine driving what’s often referred to as the Information or Digital Age — is unique in the range of possible answers it enables to these questions. It’s the first communications device that can categorize information in an almost limitless manner, storing, tagging and meta-tagging our every thought and profile, and then – the honest, naive gossiper that it is – innocently presenting this information to whoever has the keys to it (an increasingly elite group of people, some might suggest). Equally impressive is its ability to replicate a single thought, definition, sex act, emoticon, meme, cat photo, YouTube video of a sloth on a motorboat in Costa Rica, and to deliver it to multiple sets of eyes. Instantly. Simultaneously. And exponentially — so not just the thought, meme, photo, video, but also our reaction to those things, stored, replicated and retransmitted in real time.

Should one expect the men and women (mostly male charioteers, alas) to whom the Digital Age has provided a livelihood to grasp the full range of possibilities here? History, as we’ve discussed, says no. The printing press, the steam ship, the railroad, the telegraph – we have our interests, we choose our tool. With the Internet, too, what paltry protest there’s been over the most powerful and revolutionary technology the world has seen being controlled by the clean white-hatted techies and their captains of capital! Everyone else complains, “How rapidly the technology advances,” and “I can’t keep up with it all,” a befuddlement which, of course, is music to the tech industry’s ear-buds. It’s assumed this narrowly defined group of people — computer scientists, engineers — is most suited for the job; that they care the most; can most quickly advance the technology. The opposite, however, is likely true. The industry’s greatest ambitions, it turns out, have produced the most trivial results. Its privileged position has created a club of cool elitism that has set back human development by several decades.

One such white-hatted builder of Empire, travelling the world, peddling his prophecy, is the Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt. The sheer banality of his vision is evidenced most recently by his book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, which he co-wrote with the equally myopic and mediocre-minded Jared Cohen, who is, ironically, tellingly, director of something called Google Ideas. Perhaps more worrisome than the book itself (so bleak, so mechanical in its mulflisme) is the amount of instant attention it received via the Internet – including reputable publications that preferred to issue disclosure statements than miss out on the hype. Here’s the The New Yorker: “The editor of the New Yorker’s website is the co-founder of a company funded in part by Eric Schmidt.” Here’s “Eric Schmidt is chairman of the New America Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate.”

Needless to say, both these publications took the book seriously. “Surprisingly clear-eyed and sober about the inevitable destructive uses of technology,” said Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, who I suspect was being polite; while George Packer (yes, same George Packer) chimed in with, “I salute them for that.” (You can listen the interview here).’s Elizabeth Weingarten, meanwhile, allowed this scheming pair of profiteering prophets (or “futurists” as Silicon Valley anoints its fortune-telling frauds) to speak directly to Slate’s audience through video conversations and a lengthy web discussion. And oh how earnest they all appear.

Schmidt and Cohen, of course, say nothing about the most significant features of the New Digital Age — classification and decision-making. These, in their minds, are pre-defined, unchangeable, part of the manifest destiny in which they operate. So be it. Never mind that the invasion of the Google search engine into our laptops (and our language) owes far more to the influence of Stanford University than to the likes of Schmidt or Cohen. Or look at Wikipedia. Not a single profit-seeking shareholder helped transform a simple interactive website into a global trove of 30 million articles in 287 languages

Money, money, money. Google has over 1600 institutions and mutual funds to feed. But however many millions of people feel the financial ripples of Google stock, it’s still a minority of those impacted by Google’s product decisions and their structuring of global information. “Every day Google answers more than one billion questions,” proudly boasts Google’s “About Google” page, “from people around the globe in 181 countries and 146 languages.” It’s a familiar circumstance, too familiar; same DNA markers, same Empire with which Al-Afghani wrestled, and Melville described in the Pacific Islands, and Twain encountered during his 1895-96 world tour in Australasia and South Africa. In the annals of intellectual attacks, how does Empire continue to get away with it?

First comes the harpoon and the pageantry of ambition. Google – like other great adventurers before it — seized possession of property that was previously shared and commonly owned. It gobbled up (or “cached”) creations which meant different things to different people. In return for this cache of property seizures, Google offered a miraculous indexing service. It did this without asking anyone, without consent from the indigenous authors, a good portion of whom, with vague notions of protecting value, had posted copyright symbols at the bottom of their web pages. The Google boys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are smart cookies; yet their engine, which could interpret the “do not copy” code of a robots.txt file, refused to acknowledge the universal “do not copy” symbol that had protected copyright for over a hundred years. (Tweaking the Google crawler to recognize this symbol, I should note, would have been easy enough for me to code myself).

Of course few people really questioned the Google invasion, because Google was admirable, impressive, well-meaning, apparently harmless and humanitarian and seemed, in some ways, divine. Much like the lordly, admirable, benevolent disposition and big-buckled Cromwell boots of Captain Cook. Google’s imperial tendencies only revealed themselves in the undemocratic nature of the company’s decision-making – inevitable given the wide gulf between the financial ambitions of its sponsors and the more communal, altruistic, almost spiritual activity of its content creators. Today, the attitudes of these “first Internet people,” if you will, would seem as quaint as the communist arguments of Mishra’s subjects, or even – further removed in time – the Dreamtime of Australia’s aborigines. There was a time, a fertile, innocent, idealistic time, when Cyberspace seemed infinite, untameable, like land to the native inhabitants before the Conquistadors. But there were always boundaries – or at least ways to define boundaries – because there are only so many brains in this world and you can’t have swindlers, you can’t have Empire, if you can’t set boundaries.

Though loved by all, Google’s decisions, however, were managed by a few. It had patented its page ranking algorithm (named “Page Rank” after Larry), and the regular refinement of the algorithm was purely an in-house affair. The only voting that would ever take place — at its annual shareholders meeting — occurred long after Google had not only conquered most of the New World territory known as cyberspace, but had forever altered the way our minds perceive the accessibility of knowledge (which itself would radically transform our behavior). This exclusive band of voters, of course, were financial investors. No matter how divine the face of Empire, money is its lifeblood; and thus began the occupation. Revolts, massacres, and all the other sordid affairs of Empire would follow – including the mindless mimicry of philistines (look no further than David Pogue of the New York Times for its fullest, most imbecilic incarnation), and suddenly a book like The New Digital Age receives accolades from those who (like Packer) should really know better.

* By “Internet” I mean the most basic TCP/IP protocol of data packet switching and connectivity that ARPANET began developing in the 1960s and which allowed computers to exchange data. Computers speaking to each other without geographic limits. Nothing is more fundamental to the technology than that. The rest of it – email, the web, the dotcoms, social media, search engines, smart phones and so forth — is less about the shaping of technology than a slow shakedown of its users.

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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “Cypherpunks” by Julian Assange

Cypherpunks by Julian Assange

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet,
by Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman
186 pages,
November 29, 2012, OR Books.

Part III: Rats in the Opera House

Fraudulence, masculinity (the books in this review are almost exclusively male affairs), a redefinition of boundaries and distance (keeping itself as far as possible from threats), a convoluted language, a purposeful opacity, a false sense of superiority – these are some of the salient characteristics of the otherwise protean creature called Empire.

In the period between the Spanish-American war and Woodrow Wilson’s taking the global stage in 1919, America appeared the rightful heir to the British Raj. And in many ways it honored that inheritance. But Empire is its own beast, aloof from the collective wisdom, aloof even from the idea of nationhood. The Harvard historian Niall Fergusen has referred to the US as a “reluctant empire,” citing the country’s inability to replicate its democratic institutions overseas. But since when has Empire ever replicated the things it claims to most cherish? Today the weed, if we must, of Empire is as strongly espaliered around the globe as ever (but forever threatened by its overgrowth), and yet it’s no more rooted in American ideals than the East India Company was to Kipling’s poetry, or to the British burden of chivalry.

American-sprouted, true. American-enabled. American-flavored. But it’s the same familiar invasive creeper of Empire that’s taken root around the globe throughout history; and it looks something like this:

Tendencies to homogenization, universality, the whole of human civilization being turned into one market, mean that you will have normal market factors such as one market leader, one second, a third niche player, and then stragglers that don’t make any difference at all, for every service and product…massive language homogenization, massive cultural homogenization…the transnational surveillance state and endless drone wars are almost upon us.

Remove the words “surveillance state” and “drone wars” from the above quote and it could have been al-Afghani speaking. But here the intellectual freedom-fighter is Julian Assange, doing his best – with his men’s club of fellow intellectuals – to expose the great Mountebank of modernity in his book of dialogues, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.

Mind you, Assange recorded and published these thoughts many months before Edward Snowden released his top-secret documents about the mass surveillance programs conducted by the US and British governments. In other words, Assange has known the true scale of the National Security Agency’s monitoring activity all along, or at least he saw it coming. Now, just a few months later, the idea of a “transnational surveillance state” sounds almost benign, like a sports team, or something a reputation management company (see could use in a jingle: “We’ll keep you sailing straight / in the surveillance state.”

A cypherpunk, according to the world’s only Encyclopaedia remotely capable of defining such things, is “an activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography as a route to social and political change.” In other words, the cypherpunk fights firewalls with firewalls, countering the Empire’s unintelligible “saltire murrey” with some “nombril points on a dancette indented.” Like the leading anti-imperialist intellectuals of the 19th century, Assange has travelled to the other side, mingled in chat rooms with intellectuals from around the world, learned the language of the oppressor. And as with those minds who remade Asia, the vastness of the territory Assange’s mind has crossed – with its precise, laborious insight – is most easily measured by the reaction against it.

“He looked like a bag lady coming in,” explained Eric Schmitt, security correspondent of the New York Times (not to be confused with Eric Schmidt who is executive chairman of Google, although the two men share, you might say, the same offices of today’s Empire, as we’ll soon see). “Dingy khaki sports coat and cargo pants,” continued Schmitt with the fashion acuity of a cub-reporter from Vogue, “old tennis shoes, socks that were collapsing around his ankles…clearly he hadn’t bathed in several days.” One article in the Times, reminiscent of British ethnocentrism in its rule over India, portrays Assange as someone who doesn’t know how to use a toilet. Clothes, cleanliness, eating habits, sexual behavior – these are timeless indicators of class and caste, allowing cruelty to cloak itself in humanity, to declare itself the defender of civilization from savagery. And thus, with the Empire out-witted and exposed, one of the world’s most respected Indian lawyers was caricatured as a “half-naked fakir in a loincloth” – a guise he cultivated and embraced – when he attended the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931.

Civilization vs. Savagery. New World vs. Old. The lines are drawn, the sides divided. Techies, according to the New Empire, can be smart and clean and faithful; but “hackers” lack hygiene. Non-techies, meanwhile (most of whom, by 1990s standards, would be considered technological wizards), are the innocent village farmers who must take a side, “with us or with the enemy,” or become extinct. Most of these civilians, of course – even the ones whose photos and friendships and once private affairs are feeding the profits of their rulers — will join the ranks of fashionable geekdom. They will praise social media sites like Facebook just as the 19th century Indian sycophant, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, would have done: “The most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen.” The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Perez, could hardly contain himself. “The men that lived in caves didn’t forecast Zuckerberg,” he said in a recent interview with David Samuel. “Karl Max never forecast Zuckerberg. [Zuckerberg] made a revolution with a billion people.”

This, of course, is philistinism. That renowned dissector of philistinism, Vladimir Nabokov, once posited, in his essay on Madame Bovary, that while it appears in every epoch in history, philistinism seems more in evidence during times of revolution.* If so, the Internet revolution has certainly lived up to Nabokov’s expectation, with young entrepreneurs from around the globe gravitating to Silicon Valley in the quest to achieve — not art, not great architecture, not scientific discovery — but the most profitable advertising models ever invented, while, at the same time, “changing the world” and being good people (“Do no evil,” pontificates Google). In other words, these pillars of society are no different than the pompous, ignorant, rank-conscious philistines of Flaubert’s great novel. “When technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals, there’s no smirk or wink,” wrote George Packer in the New Yorker.** One of the entrepreneurs he interviewed spoke of his Silicon Valley colleagues in this way: “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

It’s also Empire. And the irony is that for all their efforts to change things, the behavior of the young world-changers merely replicates the champions of Empire in times past. Arrogance and ignorance. The illusion of a higher calling. An echo-chamber where decisions are made in an unreachable realm. (Among its many achievements, Google will rank as the first major American company in the modern age without published contact information or a customer service phone number). The white-man’s burden of the British Empire has become the IT entrepreneur’s burden today. “Conscious of their burden,” writes Mishra about the white proponents of Empire, “[They] changed the world forever, subjecting its great diversity to their singular outlook and in the process reducing potentially rich encounters with other peoples and countries to monologues about the unassailable superiority of modern Western politics, economy and culture.”

Meanwhile, more phenomenal than Facebook has been Wikipedia; and more rebellious and potentially world-changing has been Wikileaks. Yet trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, running for political office in Australia via a Skype link, Julian Assange, our modern day intellectual exile, reminds us of General Pak, trudging along the railroad tracks, finding it increasingly difficult to participate in the politics of Empire. In Cypherpunks, his conversation about Internet freedom with his fellow revolutionaries, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman, is right out of the anti-imperialist days when intellectuals such as al-Afghani, Quichao and Tagore – disenfranchised from Westminster Abbey — discussed global politics in the coffee houses of Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Cairo.

In the last few pages of Cypherpunks, Assange expresses a clear vision of what the new Empire will look like: A gleaming citadel of totalitarianism — “a result of various elites in their own countries lifting up together, off their respective population bases, and merging.” All communications will be recorded, monitored; everything will be tracked, “and alongside this, people are going to be buried under the impossible math of bureaucracy.” This last bit, by the way, this “impossible math of bureaucracy” (like the arcane language of Jim’s escutcheon), will sound eerily familiar to survivors of the British Raj. The British bureaucratic system was the Internet of its day. What started as a brave new enabler of long-distance travel, exploration and trade eventually congealed into a maddening fiasco of forms.

Assange compares the new Empire with a visit he once made to the Sydney Opera House, having “smuggled himself in” to see a production of Faust. During intermission, “there amongst all this lonely palatial refinement,” he noticed a water rat that had somehow crawled out of the harbor and into the Opera House’s interior. The slick and slimy creature was “leaping on the fine linen-covered tables and” — think Templeton at the fairgrounds in Charlotte’s Web – “eating the Opera House Food…having a really great time.” Unclean but clever. Forbidden yet somehow managing to indulge in the same delicacies as the most privileged of theater goers. “It will only be a high-tech rebel elite that is free,” concludes Assange, “these clever rats running around the opera house.”

A telling parable. What the rat can’t indulge in, however – and in this way the rat and the majority of the glamorous opera patrons have much in common – is the beauty of Faust itself.

* “Flaubert,” wrote Nabokov, “considered that his age was the age of philistinism, which he called muflisme. However, this kind of thing is not particular to any special government or regime; if anything, philistinism is more in evidence during revolutions and in police states than under more traditional regimes. The philistine in violent action is always more dangerous than the philistine who quietly sits before his television set.”
** “Change the World,” by George Packer, New Yorker Magazine, May 26, 2013.

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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
368 pages, September 2012
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Part II. The Chariot Drive of Progress

Of course the boom-bust — or dupe-dust — cycle of American prosperity, where the morning’s hangover is never enough to chasten the next evening’s scam-party, would all be very cute and picturesque in a small town Mississippian sort of way if charlatanism wasn’t unrestrained by borders (and if America wasn’t the most powerful country on earth).

Empires are about enlisting subjects; and trickery likes to travel. In the 19th century, vast dominions of dupes were just a train ride away from savvy swindlers and their top hats. And for the patron of Calcutta’s coffee houses, London must have felt as near, yet as remote and powerful, as today’s Wall Street feels to the McDonald’s cashiers in Nebraska. Railways, steamships, the printing press, the telegraph – these at once compressed the world geographically (with the wonders of Cairo no farther from Trafalgar Square than a Thomas Cook ticket and a travel guide) while at the same time expanding the terrain of daily thought. Foreign realms and ideas not only influenced explorers and travelling merchants, but they started to permeate the brains of people who never left their hometowns.

In Moby Dick, as Ishmael prepares to set sail on his whaling voyage from Manhattan (December, 1840), the local newspapers are talking about the US presidential election between William Harrison and Walter Van Buren. But they are also proclaiming, in enormous typeface according to Ishmael, “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.” Such is the prophetic quality of great art. Afghanistan was never very far away from New York. America, as only Melville might have foreseen, would eventually take over those bloody battles, after the British and the Russians, and the relationship between Kabul and New York would become more intimate and more dangerous. The first Anglo-Afghan war left only one British survivor, or two if you count his beleaguered pony – the pair limping out of the Afghan desert and into the famous painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler (recently ekphrasticized in William Dalrymple’s book, The Return of the King). From that moment on, Afghanistan would become a kind a mysterious White Whale that would forever madden whichever foreign power was most obsessed with conquering it.

There were other moments in those years of colonial expansion when the bow of Empire would feel the shuddering ram of the White Whale’s head. The Sepoy Mutiny in India. Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. But military engagement, the harpooning, the spilling of blood, was merely the culmination of a much bigger story. Military victories offered more of a confidence boost than any actual resolution. What mattered – what always matters in Empire – had more to do with communications, with culture, language, education, wealth and status; and perhaps most of all, according to Pankaj Misha in From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia, the ideas of writers and thinkers, many of whom would experience some pained epiphanies of their own.

“Was the successful business-man the grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving?” chided one such intellectual, the Bengali poet and philosopher, Aurobindo Ghosh. “The British aristocrat, the American capitalist…these, I believe, are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads.”

Ghosh’s sarcasm might sound more humorous today if it hadn’t solidified into the ordinary; that is, if we didn’t find the same apotheosis, Homo businessmanius, in the modern worship of Zuckerberg and Tata; if a generation of Indian smart-phone programmers weren’t still bowing their heads to the Tony Starks of their imagination. But in Ghosh’s time, an alternative life, the life of the intellectual, of spiritual contemplation, of old world tradition, a life free of stock market theology was something entire populations were not only willing to consider, but to rally behind, even to die for. What would modernity make of us, they wondered? Should we live the noisy material life of British broughams and brandy; or can we choose a simpler, more contemplative lifestyle of dhotis and yoga in a Pondicherry ashram?

Ghosh is just one of a large supporting cast of poets, philosophers, novelists, political leaders and thinkers who provide the intellectual chorus behind the three main sopranos in Mishra’s book: The Iranian born Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Quichao, and the Bengali Indian, Rabindranath Tagore. Together their voices, rarely harmonious, provide an intellectual score for the drawn-out, colonial fin de siècle that occurred in the 19th and early 20th century across the region of earth that spreads between the Red Sea and the Pacific Ocean – a landmass which the ancient, eastward-gazing Greeks lumped together under the toponym of “Asia.”

Mishra uses this term “Asia,” along with its typical East vs. West connotations, as a kind of balancing pole to steady his delicate crossing of ideological divides. But he’d be fine without it. The vigour and vastness of his reading allows him to travel on firm ground, and any themes which unify his subjects have little to do with geography. On the contrary, what al-Afghani, Liang and Tagore have in common – to say nothing of Mishra himself – is not a sharing of culture or place, but rather it’s the seeking of greater understanding through experiences abroad.

For such is the nuance, contradiction, wealth of insight gleaned from a life away from home that well-known Imbibers of its active ingredient (often mixed with poverty and lost love) would quickly fill an A-Z list of brilliant artists and visionaries. Only in 1880ss Paris would the Persian-born al-Afghani awake to the shortcomings of both Islam and science; with Islam needing a reformation (himself as Martin Luther), and science unable “to satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal.” Only through his journey to San Francisco and New York in the 1903 did the Canton native, Liang Qichao, begin to see Americans themselves as victims of subjugation. “How strange, how bizarre!” he writes in the tone that would harmonize perfectly with Packer’s Unwinding. “The entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people.” And Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature – more an artist than a theorist – would find a far more brotherly reception in his long-distant journey to Carnegie Hall than in his much closer travels to Hankou or Beijing.

For all their anguish over foreign influences, the three great intellects in From the Ruins also shared a common frustration: The way their fellow countrymen, like today’s low-income Americans who support tax cuts for the rich, would often prefer to mimic their masters’ behavior than to challenge their authority. “The British rule in India is the most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen,” declared Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, an Indian Muslim working for the East India Company at the time of the Indian Mutiny. But this mimicry of European ways, argued al-Afghani, would only expose them to European rule; and Gandhi, Liang Qichao and just about every other intellectual in From the Ruins of Empire would concur. “We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot,” wrote Tagore, adding with a similar sense of self-blame: “We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot drive was progress, and that progress was civilization.”

Tagore, by the way, seems eloquent; his metaphors mostly creative, organic, trustworthy. Mishra is generous with sources and historical context, but without access to the original languages, it can be hard to know which thinkers to trust. Vulgarity can evaporate in translation (oh the liberation one feels residing in a country where one can’t understand the language!). Intellectualism, too, has its share of shysters; and in the early 20th century, millions of people would fall victim to cheap social metaphors: Chains and shackles. Foreign influences were weeds to be rooted out. Enemies were always cancers “metastasizing,” with unwelcome lifestyles becoming tumours in need of surgical extraction. In presenting these dull ideas as worth our consideration, From the Ruins of Empire can sometimes feel like a quaint relic from a bygone era.

But the book — vast, plodding, often magnificent – is written with the intensity of labour and undying sense of purpose we find in Korea’s impoverished General Pak, who, unable to afford the train fare, must trudge alongside the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway, hoping to represent his country at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (arriving too late, alas). An arresting image, this journey of Pak’s, especially as the railway became such a symbol of the colonial enterprise. “The railway, the life-giver,” wrote India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “has always seemed to me like iron bands confirming and imprisoning India.”

Liberating to some; bondage to others. A gourmet dining car filled with merry travellers hurtling from Paris to the exotic Orient; while a destitute General Pak is walking the other direction. This trudge against the prevailing English flow of expansion, wealth and conquest – this is the arduous journey on which Mishra sets himself and his subjects: Men poor in material possession (Afghani, writes Mishra, “surprised his Ottoman hosts with his meagre luggage”); men largely unrecognized in the English world; but men who are rich and powerful in intellect. In other words, neglected men, disrespected men, and yet men who, despite extreme hunger and the wise advice of female co-travelers, still refuse to stop and ask for directions.

The counter-forces, meanwhile — racism, greed, the might of the English language — are relentless. They need to be. Mishra’s “Asia,” after all, is home to sixty percent of the earth’s population. The imperial powers never had the numbers for a fair exchange of ideas. They required shiftier, more persuasive means to control the multitudes. Take, for example, the German-born entrepreneur, Paul Julius Reuter (Baron de Reuter). It wasn’t enough, we’re told, that in 1872 the Baron finagled a complete monopoly over the construction of Iran’s railways, roads, factories, dams and mines. Reuters news agency would carry on propagating what Mishra mildly calls a “filtered view” of Asia throughout the next century, amplifying its global chauvinism over local, more considered voices (Reuters was al-Afghani’s “bug-bear,” writes Mishra) and becoming a kind of Fox News commentator for the protection of European business interests.

Behind this “filtered view” that started in Europe and morphed, in the late 19th century, into the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer in America, the beast of Empire would evolve, shape-shift, consolidate. If the intellectuals in From the Ruins of Empire really did “remake” Asia, it’s hard to see their handiwork now. If they helped describe the Imperial leviathan of their times, they may also have made it more difficult for future generations to recognize its mutations. Fifty-six years after India’s independence, the country’s top graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi was quoted in The Hindu newspaper as relishing the opportunity to work (where else?) for Google or Facebook – the emerging Reuters of the modern world. A century ago it was “British rule is wonderful.” Today it’s “all hail the iPad.”*

While From the Ruins of Empire sustains itself on the concept of East vs. West, the dichotomy appears to have run its course, and was never very accurate or interesting to begin with. Perhaps New World vs. Old World is more apropos. Or spiritualism vs. materialism. But even these dualities seem antiquated in this age of Zen-themed shopping malls and yoga-oriented in-flight services (while some of the world’s greatest spiritualists, from Wordsworth to Whitman to Blake, are products of a hemisphere which Mishra broadly paints “materialist”).

What’s far more interesting – and largely absent in From the Ruins — is the realization, be it through travel or introspection or the onset of crises, that one has crossed a divide without realizing it. Or that the divide is not as clear as one supposed. Indeed, the moment we apply the trickery vs. innocence filter of Twain’s (or of India’s equivalent, let’s say, the novelist R. K. Narayan), the boundary between East and West is quick to blur. Dukes and Kings in Mississippi. Swamis and Godmen in Tamil Nadu. Bernie Madoff and Glen Beck. Sai Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Supreme fraudsters have never cared a jot for where or when they were born.

*I recall a private conversation some years ago with a journalist in Hyderabad who expressed concern about the influence of Google in India. “But I can’t write about it,” he said, “because nobody wants to hear anything negative about Google.”

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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “The Unwinding” by George Packer

The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
by George Packer
448 pages, May, 2013
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Part I. Pained Epiphanies

ONE OF THE most fascinating plot-points in the story of America’s financial crisis of 2008 was not how, as house prices started to plunge, the tables turned against those who’d invested in too large a property, or in too many. Rather it was how the tables spun and rattled and leapt like something out of Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous séances in the White House – turning against lending agencies and lawyers, then big banks, Wall Street, the government itself.

At first the debt-ridden homeowners simply relinquished their assets. The documents for foreclosure looked official enough. The Law Offices of So-and-So, Esq., on behalf of Nationwide Lending, or Bank of America, or some other vast untouchable entity. They did owe money after all, these once so optimistic homeowners; and if they couldn’t pay, the sheriff’s office would pin a summons to their door, and that was that.

But something wasn’t right. The banks’ paperwork bore fraudulent signatures, phony dates, bogus seals. The original title deeds for the houses were nowhere to be found, because financial institutions had been trading them like monopoly cards, that is, an online version of monopoly, or rather, an online version of monopoly hosted by an eight-year-old. “America’s mortgages turned out to be a hoax,” writes George Packer in his tremendous new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Or, as one of his many carefully drawn subjects, a Tampa-based attorney named Matthew D. Weidner, sums it up: “Our entire system of property ownership is in chaos and turmoil.”

America has always produced some of the highest grade of hucksterism. Mark Twain captured the essence of this refinement in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through a pair of petty charlatans who call themselves the “King” and the “Duke.” Twain understood the trickery of language; how easy it was to dupe a provincial Southerner by taking on a royal title, or employing (and usually massacring) a phrase from Shakespeare. Even more insightful, at one point Tom Sawyer imagines a coat of arms for Jim, the runaway slave. Tom’s description of the fake escutcheon is so opaque, so impossible to decipher – a “saltire murrey,” with “nombril points on a dancette indented” – that it’s as if Twain wants us to understand: Here, reader, is what it’s like to be enslaved by gibberish.

And so the brows of America furrowed at “synthetic collateralized debt obligations” and “credit default swaps” while melting in dreamy infatuation at the snake-oil evangelists feeding off their confusion. One of the great puzzles about America’s democracy, according to Packer, is how in recent years the underclass have favoured policies that hurt them. “White people [who were] getting poorer every day voted for a party [the Republicans] that wanted to deregulate Wall Street and zero out of the capital gains tax.” Just how Americans can formulate such wildly incongruous dreams and convictions is a mystery which Packer sets out to examine.

He assembles the full gamut of shady dealers, suspects, victims, heroes, innocent bystanders, all involved in what becomes the American “unwinding” – a decline, an implosion — between the years 1978 and 2012. The investigation is meticulous and often reads like a police report written by someone with an ear for J.S. Bach (Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, knows how a few closely observed refrains can transform into a fugue of social events). Front doors, closets, refrigerators are opened and searched; a struggling family in Tampa eat cheap Wal-Mart pizzas, “Velveeta Cheesy Skillets and six Salisbury steaks for $2.28,” while cockroaches, the small infesting kind (as opposed to the larger breed which Oprah Winfrey claims to have kept as pets in childhood), are found in “the bathroom sink and the kitchen Tupperware, the air-conditioning ducts blowing the horrible smell of their poo throughout the apartment.”

Trailer parks and cockroaches. Assembly lines, picket lines, tobacco barns and canola oil; porches and pool halls, maids and mansions and private planes and the elegant offices of a lobbyist in Washington D.C.; truck stops, Tastee Freez, Backyard Burgers, Hot Diggity Dog – The Unwinding is an elaborate mosaic of an elaborate country viewed as a con-game. And on September 11th, 2001, a financial day-trader gazes outside his office window in downtown Manhattan to see what looks like a ticker-tape parade. Only — the shreds of paper are on fire.

To be American is to grapple with the quackery of ambition. Some, like Shawn Corey Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z, the rapper), who grew up in the Brooklyn projects selling cocaine and busting rhymes, are born hustlers, embracing their inner gangster, flaunting their guns, their diamonds, driving their BMWs straight into the Palace of Forbes. Some develop their guile over time. And some, like a four-star General named Colin Powell who showed up at the United Nations to peddle a fraudulent war, have their quackery thrust upon them.

The Unwinding is so effective at calibrating our fraud detectors, with alarms sounding every time Oprah enters the room, that it’s hard not to wonder if the book itself is a kind of artful dodge: A collection of Packer’s profiles made to look bulky, but ultimately unified by nothing more than the nationality of the subjects. Packer repackaged, so to speak. New, improved.

Possibly. But holding everything together are the fine details of disillusionment. And something profound, as well. “Empires decline when elites become irresponsible” is the banal observation of one of Packer’s characters, a congressman from Virginia. The Unwinding, however, is not just about irresponsibility, or about committing oneself to the latest self-help books only to wake up a few years later to discover the hoax (Packer alludes to the history of this tradition in America, from the popular 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, to the cassette tapes by Glenn W. Turner, “Dare to be Great,” which sold for $5000 a piece in the 1960s). Rather, The Unwinding captures the moment when the veil rips open and we catch a glimpse of the world; when our eyes de-scale and Jim, the runaway slave, sees Huck’s chicanery for what it is; and Huck sees Jim as more than a target for tomfoolery (“It made me feel so mean,” says Huck, “I could almost kissed his foot.”). It’s the pained epiphany that comes in a crisis. A once touted wisdom turns to gibberish, and authority descends into rancour…

…the din of shouting in town halls and on AM radio, cable TV, and the Internet; the hostile and anonymous commercials filling the airwaves, paid for by the coal and insurance companies and the Koch brothers; the entanglement of cash, interest groups and spinelessness on Capitol Hill; the strangely ineffectual Obama White House.

It’s that moment when a city’s tallest building starts to shake, and someone shouts for everyone to stay calm, the Fire Marshall is on his way, but you think like Packer’s day-trader did on that terrible day: “I’m not staying calm. I’m getting the fuck out of here.” As Packer sums it up: “In a crisis you realized that society operated without anyone knowing deep down what the hell was really going on.”

Read Part II

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The Survival of Hitchenism — To Christopher (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)

I never met Christopher Hitchens, but I once knew a doppelganger of his, a world away from England.

So similar were they — their body shape, their oratory styles, the deadpan facial expressions, their inability to produce anything of grace (dance, music, sport, nothing) apart from the astonishing fluidity of their speech — so similar were these two people that I’m inclined to consider “Hitchenism” as a kind of condition, a one-in-a-million genetic mutation, with a Hitchens holding fort in every metropolis.

A difference, though, is that this Hitchens (the famous one) had the work ethic of an ox, the doggedness of a Tasmanian devil, and most of all, the good fortune to mingle with masters in London. I’m thinking of his New Statemen chums — Amis, Barnes, Fenton, and later McEwan, Rushdie, and many others. Coming from such a pedigree, the bar of political discourse in America can’t appear any lower; or more appropriately — pugilism instead of high-jump — the Americans wear kid-gloves compared to the bare-knuckled brawls in which Hitchens was trained. His method was simple. He would out-read, out-write, out-punch you.

A mediocre stylist, said Amis of Hitchens’s early days, and when it comes to literary output, I’d agree with that. Hitchens knew art better than anyone, but like an old eunuch gazing quizzically — and often admiringly — at another man’s genitals, he could never quite produce it himself. Besides, Hitchens showed that style is one thing, sitting in the chair and writing is another. It’s not enough to think original thoughts; you must be out there fighting for territory.

At The Nation, he ground out article after article, exciting, soldierly stuff. But he was speaking to readers. His real calling, it turned out, was speaking to listeners. Jumping into the noisy American political fray, he was right at home. A “news groupie” my narrator calls him in Kamal, Book One.

Now let us not disgrace a poem
with world affairs and those who choose
– like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam –
to be the groupies of the news.

Not sure I like seeing Rush Limbaugh and Chris Hitchens in the same disparaging tetrameter, but then again, that’s where we wanted Chris to be — right in Rush’s face.

I’m a hopeless talker. When it comes to articulation, I think of myself as one those people you occasionally see trying to walk multiple dogs. A tangle of leads. Hitchens’s verbal rhetoric was a single attack dog on a vastly extendable leash, relentless, ferocious, sometimes let loose completely; and people like me admired those fangs, the carnassial tearing apart of dopey belief. We appreciated the vigilance, the bite he gave to our occasional barking thoughts.

Once the jaws clamped down, that was it. He never let go.

When it comes to death, however, one has to let go. Although if anyone could win that argument, it was Hitch (which is another reason his death is so disappointing). Then again, if “Hitchenism” is really more of a genetic condition than a character — and I think it may well be — our species is evolving his direction anyway. Toward a braver kind of thinking. We’re right behind the charge he’s led.


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“99 Ways” — The A-to-Y of New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry
Paula Green, Harry Ricketts
and poets as credited
Vintage, Random House
624 pages, NZ$46.00

New Zealand! How much I love you!

And how much more I’d love you all to myself.

But let’s be real: There are over 80 anthologies and collections of poetry with you as a unifying theme. And now, with its 85 poems, 73 featured poets (including the editors), 25 poets talking about their work, 68 poet photos, 60 chapters, 624 pages and a gigaton of words, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry must be the largest and most magnificent collection of them all.

The “99” is actually – so the editors tell us in a rather limp handshake of a preface — “one of those symbolic numbers” (oh, one of those numbers) “which implies plenty while still leaving open the possibility of other options, other approaches.” The book, in other words, is not about some taxonomic accuracy, but rather, the editors ceremoniously conclude, it “aims to celebrate New Zealand writers, to inspire people to read poetry, to kick-start poetry conversations and to open rather than limit the way we approach a poem.”

Emma Neale

Hot: The ravishing Emma Neale. She writes well, too.

Just why a pair of talented poets like Ms. Green and Mr. Ricketts would want to compile – and more, write copious words for — a book with such a cocktail-party aim in mind is beyond me; although I suppose even the most brilliant physicists, when working at their particle accelerators, must order the morning’s doughnuts and color-code the office calendar. Worksheets to fill in. Creative NZ applications to lodge.

The non-committal, all-encompassing approach which 99 Ways takes, however, often reminds me of those national museums, or public libraries, that seek to make their collections more accessible to young people by using the latest audio-visual pyrotechnics (when what they really need is a good Egyptian mummy or a first edition Shakespeare). How vibrant and accessible, after all, is something that must be continually celebrated, inspired, kick-started to life?

Preservation, then. The poet as curator, restorer, not just of another poet, but of an entire national collection, as if poetry, or more specifically English poetry, were a vital organ in the nationhood of any English-speaking country. A flag, a founding father, a national archive, a flower, tree, bird – and yes, a poet laureate. This is fine. This is laudable, keeping the flame alight for New Zealand – but not a soldier’s work. We’re formed within a body first; the land comes later; the nation sometimes never at all, and as with our best generals, the poet’s honour — though nation-born — is battle-achieved. (Tell them Rudyard!). It makes no difference whose side you’re on.

Not that 99 Ways isn’t a celebration worth attending. On the contrary, the writing styles of Green and Ricketts are beautifully descriptive, authoritative, remarkably similar in their curator-like voices, if not occasionally logic-killing and Dancing-with-the-Stars in their praise, with Green the quicker-draw of poetic license (“so full of life,” writes Green of one poet’s work, “that it is magnificently larger than life.”).

Leigh Davis

Not: Hats on to the poet Leigh Davis.

The hallways of 99 Ways are clearly marked yet mindfully mazy. They intersect and interweave and often take us to rooms we thought we’d left behind but are happy to revisit. The historical wings (pages 128-199) are particularly impressive, as we’re carried on a smooth thematic ride from the New Zealand poets of pre-World War II to the practitioners of today. Fact is, our editors are dedicated to their task, they love their jobs, their passion is infectious, they’ve made their museum as large, as educational, as all-encompassing as possible – with special, instructive galleries featuring the greatest of English bards — and they’ve presented some remarkable New Zealand poets and poems, many of which deserve to be mounted beside masters from around the world.

Put simply, a weighty book, a reference book, a book worth owning.

My measure of great art? The degree to which it affects you directly, seizes you, holds you in time, injects its magic potion straight into your veins without a niggling nurse, or tour guide, or audio headphones. Occasionally in 99 Ways, too often no doubt, the editors seem to describe a monument of Kiwi lyrical achievement, only to show us, several pages later – when, with terrific expectation, we finally reach the relevant “boxed poem” at the end of the chapter – that their Mount Rushmore of a poem is really just a bronze of John Plimmer and his dog. Perhaps this is what happens when poets write about poets.

But this is troubling. Celebrations are fine as long as we don’t all end up singing karaoke. The keys to Sargeson’s shack, a place to sit, we don’t need more than that to feel his magnitude. The All Blacks are still “mighty” even when they play in stadiums no bigger than what you’d find in an average American university. But how deflating when the stadium is huge and the rugby is trivial.

As much as the mighty Allen Curnow may have wished otherwise, an original New Zealand voice is largely absent from the vaults of this country’s poetic treasury. Such a unique species of voice, it turns out, doesn’t settle long enough for us to net it with tradition. Green and Ricketts acknowledge this fact, and spend much of the book sourcing the different influences on our poetry – from the English romanticists to American modernists. There’s always a certain orderliness, civility, an excess of safety equipment in borrowed art forms. Like jazz music at Oxford, or rap in Auckland. (“Original artists, they / with music from the USA,” writes my narrator in Res Publica).

Which leaves us with what — a New Zealand school of poetry? A yearbook of sorts? If so, then let me say this: In the hot-or-not profile pics, Emma Neale — who is kept, ironically, yummily, in “The Kitchen” chapter of 99 Ways — receives a piping hot 350-degree oven-baked ballot submission from this blissfully married reviewer. A ravishing Sandy Newton-John she makes for the dashing Danny Travolta-McCormick.

Although, to be fair, the hotties are numerous in this book and the “nots” are disappointingly rare. Baxter’s photo is the most genuine and adorable, and the photo of the so-called “experimentalist poet” (what other kind of artist is there?) Leigh Davis, in a T-shirt and cap, is the most refreshingly unflattering. A measure of great poets: Those whose poetry survives despite — or even without — their mugs.

For all the ways into New Zealand poetry, the paths to becoming a New Zealand poet are (without dying first) conspicuously less numerous and seem to involve (a) courses of some sort, either at Victoria or Auckland University, (b) a formulaic approach to writing, like the “Poetry Tool Kit” on page 557 of 99 Ways, and, (c) most important of all, befriending the right people.

This, too, is troubling. And yet comforting at the same time. The bibliography of 99 Ways lists 233 books of poetry written by New Zealanders – from Fleur Adcock to Merlene Young, an impressive A-to-Y list of New Zealand versifiers. I say no more. However big they make you, darling, you’re never big enough for those who love you most.

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