The definition of literary failure

It can’t get much worse than this:

We spoke about a scene at the end of the film, when Dovlatov has had yet another story rejected and has failed even at conformism, unable to produce a minimally suitable poem for a trade publication for Soviet oil workers.

Ouch!

Sergei Dovlatov was a Russian author who was unable to publish in the Soviet Union and only achieved recognition after emigrating to the US in 1979. Here’s a trailer for the movie that the article is talking about:

Being an unpublishable writer in the Soviet Union:

In “Dovlatov,” German, Jr., presents that feeling of trauma with a tinge of romance—the poetry readings in cramped living rooms, the accumulation and discarding of both lovers and vodka bottles with equal listlessness, the long, uneventful, repetitive days with nothing to do but debate art and literature—a black hole that sucks up one’s energy and best years.

Lincoln on disunion

A couple days ago I posted about a provocative article in New York Magazine envisioning the peaceful breakup of the Union. Lincoln’s thoughts about the prospect of carving up the United States are pretty interesting, if not entirely applicable, in this context. Here’s an excerpt from his Second Annual Message to Congress dated December 1, 1862, when America was in the throes of the Civil War:

A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.” It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part. That portion of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and it is not well adapted for two or more. Its vast extent and its variety of climate and productions are of advantage in this age for one people, whatever they might have been in former ages. Steam, telegraphs, and intelligence have brought these to be an advantageous combination for one united people.

In the inaugural address I briefly pointed out the total inadequacy of disunion as a remedy for the differences between the people of the two sections. I did so in language which I can not improve, and which, therefore, I beg to repeat:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other.

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them, Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

There is no line, straight or crooked, suitable for a national boundary upon which to divide. Trace through, from east to west, upon the line between the free and slave country, and we shall find a little more than one-third of its length are rivers, easy to be crossed, and populated, or soon to be populated, thickly upon both sides; while nearly all its remaining length are merely surveyors’ lines, over which people may walk back and forth without any consciousness of their presence. No part of this line can be made any more difficult to pass by writing it down on paper or parchment as a national boundary. The fact of separation, if it comes, gives up on the part of the seceding section the fugitive-slave clause, along with all other constitutional obligations upon the section seceded from, while I should expect no treaty stipulation would ever be made to take its place.

But there is another difficulty. The great interior region bounded east by the Alleghanies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets, and which includes part of Virginia, part of Tennessee, all of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Territories of Dakota, Nebraska, and part of Colorado, already has above 10,000,000 people, and will have 50,000,000 within fifty years if not prevented by any political folly or mistake. It contains more than one-third of the country owned by the United States–certainly more than 1,000,000 square miles. Once half as populous as Massachusetts already is, it would have more than 75,000,000 people. A glance at the map shows that, territorially speaking, it is the great body of the Republic. The other parts are but marginal borders to it, the magnificent region sloping west from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific being the deepest and also the richest in undeveloped resources. In the production of provisions grains, grasses, and all which proceed from them this great interior region is naturally one of the most important in the world. Ascertain from the statistics the small proportion of the region which has as yet been brought into cultivation, and also the large and rapidly increasing amount of its products, and we shall be overwhelmed with the magnitude of the prospect presented. And yet this region has no seacoast–touches no ocean anywhere. As part of one nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to South America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco; but separate our common country into two nations, as designed by the present rebellion, and every man of this great interior region is thereby cut off from some one or more of these outlets, not perhaps by a physical barrier, but by embarrassing and onerous trade regulations.

And this is true, wherever a dividing or boundary line may be fixed. Place it between the now free and slave country, or place it south of Kentucky or north of Ohio, and still the truth remains that none south of it can trade to any port or place north of it, and none north of it can trade to any port or place south of it, except upon terms dictated by a government foreign to them. These outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting and to inhabit this vast interior region. Which of the three may be the best is no proper question. All are better than either, and all of right belong to that people and to their successors forever. True to themselves, they will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line. Nor are the marginal regions less interested in these communications to and through them to the great outside world. They, too, and each of them, must have access to this Egypt of the West without paying toll at the crossing of any national boundary.

Our national strife springs not from our permanent part; not from the land we inhabit: not from our national homestead. There is no possible severing of this but would multiply and not mitigate evils among us. In all its adaptations and aptitudes it demands union and abhors separation. In fact, it would ere long force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost. Our strife pertains to ourselves–to the passing generations of men–and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one generation.

Tried and found wanting

 

General James Mattis growing stronger meme

The steady decline of the US military is getting mainstream attention with the publication of a scary new report by a panel of national security experts:

The United States has lost its military edge to a dangerous degree and could potentially lose a war against China or Russia, according to a report released Wednesday by a bipartisan commission that Congress created to evaluate the Trump administration’s defense strategy.

The National Defense Strategy Commission, comprised of former top Republican and Democratic officials selected by Congress, evaluated the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which ordered a vast reshaping of the U.S. military to compete with Beijing and Moscow in an era of renewed great-power competition.

While endorsing the strategy’s aims, the commission warned that Washington isn’t moving fast enough or investing sufficiently to put the vision into practice, risking a further erosion of American military dominance that could become a national security emergency.

At the same time, according to the commission, China and Russia are seeking dominance in their regions and the ability to project military power globally, as their authoritarian governments pursue defense buildups aimed squarely at the United States.

Full report here.

The Heritage Foundation came to similar conclusions in a report released last year.

This is really bad, the product of decades of neglect. I don’t think it’s too late for Trump and Mattis to turn things around. But time is running out.

Peaceful divorce

US partition red blue

Image by Dicken Schrader (Source)

It’s time to talk about peaceful national divorce. A clever article in New York Magazine maps out a scenario of political devolution in which the US is carved up, amicably, into multiple federations of states, leading to the effective breakup of the Union. You have to read all the way to the end to understand what author Sasha Issenberg is driving at, but suffice it to say that the law of unintended consequences has a field day.

What I find interesting is that the idea of devolving power to states and localities has supporters across the political spectrum:

Even if they don’t use the term, states’ rights has become a cause for those on the left hoping to do more than the federal government will. Both Jacobin and The Nation have praised what the latter calls “Progressive Federalism.” San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera has called it “the New New Federalism,” a callback to Ronald Reagan’s first-term promise to reduce Washington’s influence over local government. “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address. At the time, Democrats interpreted New Federalism as high-minded cover for a strategy of dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs. Now they see it as their last best hope for a just society.

Calexit has been in the spotlight in recent years, and according to a Reuters survey cited in the article, nearly one-quarter of Americans support the idea of their respective states breaking away. Given the intensely polarized nature of today’s politics, I would not be surprised if that number grows, as more people decide that a mutually agreed breakup is preferable to staying in a toxic relationship.

Of course, dissolving the Union creates a dizzying array of problems. The most obvious of these is that the various pieces of the former USA might go to war with each other. The danger is also geopolitical. At the cost of over 600,000 lives, the Civil War ensured peace on the North American continent for over 150 years. From the 17th century to the early 19th century, the European powers had fought a series of wars on North American soil. A divided continent could once again become a playground for foreign powers, as the smaller and weaker states that replace the US fall under the influence of China, Russia and the EU.

China’s global development empire

China development AidData

China’s global development footprint, mapped according to commitment size (Source: AidData)

The College of William & Mary has put together a handy map of China’s global Marshall Plan:

This online web map by AidData, a research lab at William & Mary in the United States, pinpoints the location of thousands of Chinese-funded development projects across the globe using data from AidData’s Geocoded Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset released September 11, 2018.

With more than 3,485 Chinese Government-financed projects in 138 countries and territories, this dataset is the most comprehensive source of public information ever assembled on the locations and attributes of Chinese development projects worldwide.

Those 3,485 projects implemented between 2000-2014 are worth a total of $273.6 billion in official financing. By way of comparison, the actual Marshall Plan in Europe totaled $12 billion (or $100 billion in 2016 dollars).

On a possibly related note:

In 2011, for example, delegates to the annual session of China’s parliament debated a proposal to seek employment for as many as 100 million Chinese on the African continent. One champion of this idea, Zhao Zhihai, a delegate and researcher at Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Hebei province, said: “In the current economic climate, with so many of our people unemployed, China can benefit from finding jobs for them and Africa can benefit from our expertise in developing any type of land and crop.”

–Howard French, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

A ceremony skipped

Marine One Davos

Marine One heading to Davos

Tyler Rogoway at The Drive provides some intriguing detail on presidential transportation that sheds light on a recent controversy:

President Trump is taking a serious shellacking in the media and on social media for the cancelation of a planned trip to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The site is located roughly 55 miles outside of Paris. The optics of missing such an important event are undeniably bad and they play into other narratives about the President that are unflattering, but these types of decisions are not usually up to the President. The Secret Service and the White House Military Office who arrange presidential airlift with HMX-1 are the ones that decide to cancel helicopter or ground transportation for the President due to a wide variety of contingencies. […]

The massive footprint of the security and administrative apparatus that follows the American President around dwarfs anything else like it on the planet, much of which isn’t even visible to the casual onlooker. […]

Usually, a ground transportation option via the Presidential Motorcade (the anatomy of which you can read all about here) is available in the case that Marine One and its accompanying decoy helicopter and staff and press corps airlift aircraft cannot safely make it to the landing zone as planned. But a 55-mile trip is a long way for the sprawling Presidential Motorcade in a foreign country and there are a slew of issues that could slow or even stop such a motorcade from happening even if it was prepared as a contingency option.

There’s more at the link. It’s rather remarkable that any education person would think that the president skipped a high-profile, planned ceremony because “he didn’t want to get his hair wet.” How does that even make sense? The official reason cited by the White House was “scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather,” which could include, or cover up, a range of potential issues, including a terrorist threat. A lot of people have a tough time accepting that there are things they cannot know.

Fortune magazine sold

Chatchaval Jiaravanon

Chatchaval Jiaravanon

Fortune magazine has a new Thai owner:

Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon has acquired Fortune magazine for $150 million, in just the latest example of a U.S. business publication ending up in the hands of an East Asian buyer.

Be smart: The day might not be that far off when there are no major American-owned business publications at all. Even Business Insider is German.

Jiaravanon is a nephew of the famous billionaire and senior chairman of Thailand’s CP Group, Dhanin Chearavanont.

This continues a trend of Anglo-American media properties being sold off to Asian and European buyers. More from Axios:

The similar moves in the space:

Uzabase, a Japanese company, bought Quartz for about $100 million in July.

A mysterious Hong Kong-based group named Integrated Whale Media Investments bought control of Forbes magazine in 2014.

Lachlan Murdoch is openly wondering whether his father Rupert might sell the Wall Street Journal. Should that ever happen, don’t be surprised if that buyer, too, turns out to be East Asian.

I would add to that:

  • The Financial Times was sold to Japan’s Nikkei in 2015.
  • The Economist was sold to Italy’s Agnelli family, also in 2015.
  • Science magazines Nature and Scientific American are owned by Germany’s Holtzbrinck.
  • Book publishers Random House and Penguin – now combined as Penguin Random House – are subsidiaries of Germany’s Bertelsmann.
  • While we’re at it: the largest shareholder of the New York Times is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

It’s not necessarily clear that all of these publishers can maintain their intellectual independence under foreign ownership, especially given the very different attitudes towards press freedom in certain Asian countries. For example, I noted last year that Forbes – having been swallowed by Hong Kong’s Integrated Whale Media – apparently told the prominent China skeptic Gordon Chang they were severing their relationship with him and wiping out his archive of articles. (However, his articles are still available on the site, so I’m not sure what the deal is there.) And Fortune will have to tread very carefully in its coverage of a certain southeast Asian monarch from now on…