Song for the New Breed

No UN office here

Rory Stewart‘s The Places in Between, an account of his walk through Afghanistan in 2002, is every bit as good as critics say it is. (I can’t remember the last time when I read a book that proudly announced that it was a “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover, but publishing is a tough business.) That it is worth reading for anyone who wants to seriously understand the region, what it means to travel, or man-dog friendship is unquestionable. It is also worth reading for the few but trenchant words it offers up to so-called development specialists who seem to populate places like Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Balkans. One wonders if they will be flocking to the Maghreb next.

In light of what’s happening there and watching Western news organizations try to make sense of it, I’ll quote Stewart’s footnote from near the end of his extraordinary travelogue. The parts of the book that barely mention the West at all are the best parts, of course.

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and conducted countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t, their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly the population would mutiny.

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.

This is an excellent summary of everything I have seen and heard of development experts in two years in the Balkans, and two more years of attending school with many who aspired to be development experts.  What must one do to understand a people?  Walking staying in their houses, speaking their language, and walking with them is a start, Stewart seems to be admitting, although even that barely scratches the surface.  I’ve long been impressed at the long view that the British Crown took in sending young men to India in the 19th century.  Our 21st-century development agencies and governments typically send people out on two-year rotations.

To be fair to development experts, I should mention that for awhile I made a living teaching the local employees of international businesses how to understand monolingual English-speakers who made zero effort to learn or speak in a local language, and for whose sole benefit department-wide meetings were often translated, despite everyone else having a common tongue.  There is no monopoly on loutishness or cultural imperialism, but it can also be said that these monophones demonstrably added value to the company that they put through so much grief.  If they didn’t, they lost their jobs.

Can the same be said for the would-be architects of the new quasi-protectorates?

A side recommendation: I had heard for some time that there was a book out by a Scotsman who had walked across Afghanistan, but the New Yorker’s (paywalled) portrait of Stewart cemented my interest in this remarkable and powerful book.  Ian Parker’s portrait is recommended as well.  Read both with a strong cup of sweet tea on the side, and perhaps listen to PJ Harvey’s veddy English album afterwards.

Friday AM briefs


There’s way too much news this week, from the Libya to the milleproroghe, from Macedonia’s electoral crisis to the role of social media in the events that have shaken the Arab world.   Fini’s proclamation that the PM was not ‘anointed by the lord’ may hint at the beginning of the end on this side of the Mediterranean as well.

Look for a more thorough weekend update as your chronicler has other deadlines to meet this mild Friday morning.

For those who’ve spent time east of Apennines, ponder this bit from the Economist’s review of David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples.

Italy’s north-south divide remains gaping, too (though, as the author says, there is a less well known east-west divide either side of the Apennines).

Getting Clowned

Italy's man-made aircraft carrier

This week’s l’Espresso features Berlusconi getting ‘clowned’ (as old school hip hop might have it) by the US, via the leaked Embassy cables.  Coverage is running in English as well, and the magazine promises to publish more than 4,000 cables this week.

It’s interesting to see this perspective, and to read it in English, but as is usually the case with Italian journalism, it is so heavily politicized that’s it difficult to know what to make of it.  Published by the same group that puts out the daily la Repubblica, both publications are rabidly anti-Berlusconi.  That is the first issue.

The second, which is more interesting, lies in how Italy sees the US and how the US might see Italy.  There is a component of Italian society that is extremely distrustful of American materialism on both the political left (PCI) and right (MSI), both in some ways informed by Catholicism.  Berlusconi made it acceptable to flaunt wealth, especially if it was made by dint of ingenuity — one reason why the American press, even on the left, is much less reflexively anti-Berlusconi that similar British publications.  In Italy, Berlusconi’s self-made image and aggressive pursuit of material goods give him (and the city he comes from) an American flavor.  Whether heartland Americans would be able to forgive his amorous pursuits or turn a blind eye to rewriting of Italian laws at any opportunity is unlikely — Berlusconi is entirely an Italian creature who could not have come to be or could not have survived in any other political reality.  But in Italy, there is something American about him, as far as Italians see America.

As for how Americans see Italy: Italy’s key position in the middle of both Europe and of the Mediterranean has made it strategically important since at least the time of Thucydides and probably longer.  The local particulars have varied, of course, and in the last century the existence of West Europe’s biggest communist party set the tone for US-Italian relations from the post-war period until the Berlin Wall fell and with it the First Italian Republic.  Interference from a great power in such a valuable piece of real estate is perhaps not welcome, but certainly not unexpected.

L’Espresso’s coverage is interesting, but it seems basic misprision of the trade of diplomacy flows through it.  After CGIL-led strikes paralyzed FIAT in 1954, American ambassador (and virulent anti-communist) Clare Booth Luce voiced concern to FIAT managing director Vittorio Valetta that communism was continuing to grow in Italy despite millions of dollar in Marshall Plan aid.  What right the ambassador had to manage FIAT is disputable — but that the Marshall Plan aid to Italy was an incentive to stop the flow of communism from the east is not.  That a half-century later Ambassador Ronald Spogli should seek concessions from Italy — a larger base at Vicenza to house the Army’s African Command —  for example is part of the game of diplomacy.  But instead l’Espresso says that “the White House has essentially the same vision as Mussolini: Italy is a natural aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.”  Of course it is; that is a lucky accident of geography.  Invoking Mussolini’s comment —  which was originally intended to explain why fascist Italy had not build an aircraft carrier — adds an unnecessary level of histrionics to the argument.  But this goes with the territory of Italian journalism, whether it’s written in English or its own language (where it reads better, incidentally).

Regardless, I look forward to the rest of their coverage.

I thought it was the USA…

…or just another country?

Damn lies? Or statistics?

I’m not sure what’s more depressing — the amount of ‘worst’ categories that my adopted country is in, or the amount of ‘worst of the worst’ categories that my native country is in. But something about the data seems off to me — was this chart assembled by the paper of record or actually by the IMF? I don’t doubt that other industrialized nations routinely outperform us; some of these categories are quite well-documented (healthcare availability, life expectancy, income disparities) but all the same, this reeks of a certain school of woe-is-me-American declinism that’s of limited use, if not simply tiresome. But: statistics are interesting, as long as one understand their uses and abuses.

Intuitively, I’m not sure what to make of Italian food security being at the same level of Israel (who, incidentally, did not get the dark red ‘worst of worst’ mark that the belpaese did).  Unscientifically, it’s hard to believe that anyone starves in Italy — but much easier to believe that many families find it hard to ‘make it to the end of the month,’ to translate the Italian phrase.  Rising food prices play a role in that, but according to a recently-unveiled Euripes report (quoted here on MSN),  public debt and the cost of energy and housing are the main culprits.

Mortgages and rents are not affordable for two out of five Italian families, and 40% of households have difficulties in paying rates and fees. A worrying picture emerges when you compare the data of 2011 with the previous year: 40% of Italian families has trouble paying their mortgage, compared to 23.2% in 2010, and 38.1% have trouble paying rent, versus 18.1% in 2010.

Friday AM Roundup

What’s great about Friday morning?  Having the Economist placed at your feet.  And even though this is a blog, sometimes it takes having the paper placed in your hands to do a good scan.

Tying together all the threads

Premesso’s not-quite week in review, drawn from the weekly of record:

1. On February 15, La Padania interviewed Pier Luigi Bersani, PD secretary.  (Shown elsewhere on this blog with his sleeves rolled up.)

Salient quote: Va anche bene che il governo rimanga nell’ambito del centrodestra. “It’s also all right if the government stays center-right.”

Is el Senatur sharpening the knife?

English language coverage.

2. As the holes in the immigration walls get harder to plug, shifting from Ceuta and Melilla to Lampedusa to the Greece-Turkey land border, Greece talks of suspending the Dublin Convention for asylum seekers.  The Economist’s Charlemagne comes out with the following sound idea: “A painful compromise might be tried: if Greece wants to suspend Dublin II, it should accept a temporary suspension of Schengen and the return of border controls.”  Me likey.

3. The Oscars: “this year’s awards are less relevant than ever.”  More need not be said, except that Hollywood need to keep looking to that export market.

4.  In Lexington, Obama’s handling of Egypt gets a look.  Much howling and gnashing of teeth from John Bolton, Niall Ferguson and Michael Scheuer, among others.  But maybe No-Drama Obama was the Decider?

Obama is said to have been more certain in private that Mr Mubarak’s jig was up than America’s public pronouncements (especially those of Hillary Clinton, his sometimes behind-message secretary of state) let on. He flatly rejected the Israelis’ analysis that the Egyptian president could hang on and that America should do everything to help him. Mr Obama’s conversation with Mr Mubarak on the evening of February 1st is said to have been the toughest between an American president and an ally since Ronald Reagan’s scolding of Menachem Begin during Israel’s bombing of Beirut in August 1982.

5. In Schumpter, the uneasy art-business axis is examined.  Damien Hirst is one shrewd businessman.

Damien Hirst was even more audacious. He not only realised that nouveau-riche collectors would pay extraordinary sums for dead cows and jewel-encrusted skulls. He upturned the art world by selling his work directly through Sotheby’s, an auction house. Whatever they think of his work, businesspeople cannot help admiring a man who parted art-lovers from £70.5m ($126.5m) on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed.

And following in his footsteps in Venice, perhaps the Zero Group?  Stay tuned.

Minetti on CNN

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Minetti’s English is not the issue.

Someone claimed she was near-native, which is obviously not true, but she speaks English much better than many a company head, tourist operator, receptionist at one of the few blue-chip firms, or other people who are expected to deal with the non-Italian public. Of interest is the lack of understanding that accepting money or having sex with a senior political figure might engender even a whiff of impropriety.

Broadening the categories of ‘care’ and ‘help’ and reducing the idea that accepting a politican’s money could be for ‘one thing [sex] or the other [altruism]’ helps to do away with the whole category of ‘truth’ or even ‘reality.’ I could be sitting here typing this, or, per Decartes, I could be a brain somewhere on the matrix, kept charged up as a human battery.

But these are tested methods of obfuscation that any adolescent is familiar with, and thus less interesting. What is interesting, and perhaps harder to explain, are to what degree the twin notions of bella figura and buonismo inform these four minutes and twenty second of spin. For the unitiated, bella figura is a concept that pervades and informs every aspect of Italian life. (Coming from Washington, arguable one of the world’s worst-dressed cities, this can be quite refreshing.)  Literally “beautiful figure” refers to the importance of appearance in all things — often to the total exclusion of everything else.

There are many examples of it in literature through the ages, but to keep it grounded in something that our gnat-like attention spans can comprehend in 2011: “You are really an Italian. All fire and smoke and nothing inside.” That’s Rinaldi to Frederick in Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms.

How does this relate to Minetti? Check out her smile, even when being pressed by the interviewer on very unpleasant questions that imply that she might’ve taken money for sex. It doesn’t waver. This is fundamentally different from the stiff upper lip that we Americans have inherited from our Britsh forebears, and it’s also different than the sunny “how are you?” at the grocery that has frustrated generations of visitors to our shores. As Rinaldi implies, the bella figura is not fake, but merely superficial.

Buonismo is harder to translate but more salient to understanding what goes on in this interview. Literally “good-ism”, you could term it “good-sportism.” Minetti is forced to put her bella figura on display here because the interviewer is most certainly not displaying buonismo.

In Italy, TV presenters and journalists are usually expected to abide by the unwritten law that no interview should actually leave the interviewee worse off in terms of social capital after its conclusion that before.  Otherwise, what is the point of agreeing to one?  Of course, if a journalism won’t comply simply out of buonismo, then the fact that the PM owns or controls all the major stations can certainly affect their bontà or goodness, but that’s another lesson.

Note Minetti’s obvious discomfort at being pressed on a couple of lines of questioning. Perhaps she is not used to the very direct manner of the Englishman, or perhaps she dislikes a certain judgmental tone in his voice.

But they are the only points in which her implacable facade cracks ever so slightly. At 3.31: “How much money did he give you?” the interviewer asks in a surprising show of unfriendliness — let’s call it malismo. Her eyes widen; she looks off to the right as if physically struck, and squints when she answers evasively. “That’s a detail which I wouldn’t go into… it doesn’t matter. That’s not the matter.”

Having dismissed this uptight Englishmen, she recovers her smile. Again at 4.12, in another show of malismo, he is asking her about the character of her relationship: “Not an improper realtionship, a sexual relationship?” The language is important here — in the mind of Minetti, what’s improper about sex with the most powerful man in her country? Everything she has grown up with — much of which has been made by this man — tells her that it is not only proper, but virtuous.

So again, a physical recoil — we are in the land of drama and gesutre here, so not totally unsurprising — and a stammer. “I wouldn’t go in those details – those are private details — private details.” She looks off awkwarrdly, and the clip ends.

Meanwhile, the language police have superimposed over her face in these telling moments a handy list of exactly how many errors she has made in speaking: four very minor ones in three minutes (one of which I would actually dispute — I heard ‘music room,’ not ‘group’ at 2.09) Outside of the comment section, there is no other analysis.

Castigating the leader for his infelicities only opens the opposition — which by now should number far more than the traditional, and traditionally impotent, coalition centered around the colorless and reviled PD — to accusations of being dour old spoilsports. Focusing on sex detracts from the very real issues — most notably low growth, high youth unemployment, educational reform, a powerful coalition partner who woud throw out one of the few groups actually contributing to growth, and the lack of youth or women in postions of power — at hand.

At this point, don’t be surprised if your more free-thinking English or American friends miss the point, and after a good howl at the fact that none other than porn star Rocco Siffredi is going on the record to admire the Cav’s stamina, stop to wonder why on earth anyone is so scandalized. It is, after all, Italy, and one thing that we Anglo-Saxons love about Italy is that it has always been much less inhibited than our comparatively stuff countries. Rocco Siffredi on TV doing a (genuinely funny) potato chip commerical or inventive Southern entreprentuers calling their pepper conconcations “Calabrese viagra” is certain not to change, and what sourpuss would will it so?

But some of the biggest social damage that 17 years of Berlusconismo has done to the country has been its continued insistence that bella figura is not being everything but the only thing. Minetti is all fire and smoke and little else. Here today — gone tomorrow, but the negative effects, now half a generation deep, will persist for as long as the whole generation ravaged by those effects remains in their late-attained adulthood.

Nitpicking over the English of a pawn like Minetti misses the point entirely. Which, given the Italian left’s own obsession with figure belle and otherwise, is entirely expected.

Berlusconi’s Steganography

Yesterday the FT ran the following photo, shot by AP photographer Riccardo de Luca, above-the-fold in its Europe edition.  The unspoken message is clear: you’re old, and it’s time to leave.


Even in a recent broadcast, Berlusconi seems old and tired — his hair obviously dyed, the wrinkles showing.  My personal distaste for him notwithstanding, I was surprised to see chinks in the Cav’s armor.  He maintains an almost fanatical control of his image in press — which is not hard when one owns or controls most of it — but some quick searches turned up some amusing old photos.  Most are not worth commenting on, unless you’re really curious about how he looked with a full head of hair, except one.

Small and powerful

Italy in the 1970s was an incredibly dangerous place where kidnappings — especially of wealthy industrialists and their families — by the Mafia were common.  This photo is a fascinating scorchio — a snapshot — into the mind of the man who would be king, and who knew as much, three decades ago.  The pistol on the desk is surely no accident, especially if, as the Daily Mail reports, he spent two hours on the photoshoot.  It’s intriguing to wonder what it means, especially given the claim that he packed heat in event of a Mafia kidnapping.

The gun is there, but it is on the table.  It is not pointed at anyone, and it is not on his person — a tacit signal in a carefully-coded language that Berlusconi is a man with whom the syndicates could truck with, rather just extract a one-time payment from by dint of force.

Pure speculation — but what is certain is that the year after this photo was taken Berlusconi would found Fininvest and join Propaganda 2.  Over the next five years, he would earn 113 billion lire, €58.4 million in today’s currency, in transactions obscured by “endless financial Chinese boxes…entirely unfathomable to outsiders” and “bizarre businesses…set up under prestanomi (nicknamed accounts with dummy holders),” in the words of Tobias Jones.  Around the same time, he hired Vittorio Manago from Sicily to work as a groundsman at Arcore, who died a decade ago in prison doing time for a double murder and drug trafficking.

Suspicion, as the saying goes, is the antechamber of truth.

Remembering to Forget

It's air-conditioned.

Growing up,  no annual pilgrimage to my grandmother’s native Cape Fear was complete without a trip to the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant‘s visitor center.  Nothing seemed strange about this habit at the time: they had educational and interactive exhibits, complete with a stationary bike you could ride to see how much human power it took to keep a light bulb illuminated.

Fun for all

The question of what to do with the spent fuel rods was cheerfully resolved in a few words: they’d either be put underwater, or buried underground for years until they presented no more problems.  Colorful diagrams showed glowing-red rods harmlessly cooling in tanks of water.  Just like that.  A stunning PR achievement, at least for a child, who would leave wondering why the whole world wasn’t more like Cape Fear.

Michael Madsen, a Danish filmmaker, provides a powerful explanation as to why in his remarkable film Into Eternity.

The Big Dig

Addressing an advanced civilization hundreds of thousands of years in the future is a popular heuristic tool, especially when writing about public policy.  Rarely is it applied in a sustained and literal way, but Madsen does just that for the entire hour-and-a-quarter running time of Into Eternity.

He provides an intimate look into the construction of Onkalo, an enormous facility four kilometers beneath the surface of Finland that will serve as final resting place for all of that country’s nuclear waste.  To insure responsible decontamination, it’s meant to last for 100,000 years.  To give some perspective into human civilization’s time on the planet, the Pyramids at Giza are generally thought to have been built starting in 3200 B.C.  Five millennia, versus 100.  If its successful, Onkalo might last longer than anything that humanity has yet constructed.

Mind-bending?  It’s supposed to be, and Madsen’s narrations, deadpanned as he strikes matches and lets them burn down, gives a sense of the fleeting nature of our time and energy that we expend so casually.

However, the main point of Into Eternity, by Madsen’s own admission, is not to make a polemic about clean energy or nuclear waste, but to evaluate the extreme long-term consequences of actions that we undertake today.   It’s a long view on mankind that is increasing rare in our world of 0.002 second searches, ever-faster processor speeds, live updating, tweetfeeds, and instantaneous newscycles.  Moreover, it’s a view that tries to make some sense of our epoch by saying what makes it different from other epochs.  From the above-linked interview, which is worth reading in full:

[C]athedrals and burial sites … have all been made in a religious context. But Onkalo is purely, sort of profane, there are no such concerns involved in the facility. And in that way, this is a pure expression, at least, of our time in the Western world. There is no religious understanding of reality any more, as I think has been significant in all previous epochs. I think that is significant about our time.

Pretty ambitious for a 75-minute film about a nuclear waste storage facility.  But it works.

Beyond that, the film has a plaintive and contemplative quality that matches the gravity inherent in the task of the scientists, policymakers and theologians who are puzzling out the problem of nuclear waste.  The photography is otherworldly; the soundtrack well-done (including tasteful use of Kraftwerk), and Madsen’s narration haunting.  If you can’t see it in its extremely limited two-week U.S. run, I strongly urge you to watch it by any other means.

I found A.O. Scott’s New York Times review to be sober and compelling, but Dennis Overbye’s writeup on that paper’s science blog is another matter.  Although broadly a decent piece, I take umbrage with his comment that “it might seem crazy, if not criminal, to obligate 3,000 future generations of humans to take care of our poisonous waste just so that we can continue running our electric toothbrushes.”

Of course it’s crazy, and perhaps criminal.  But the point that Overbye misses that Madsen and some of the Posiva scientists try to drive home is that it’s not a matter of dalliances like electric toothbrushes.  Our consumption of energy is literally in everything we touch, do or make.  Energy production and consumption informs and suffuses every part of our lives, and everyone shares some part in the responsibility for the disposal of its byproducts.

As Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, a theology professor who sits on the National Council for Nuclear Waste in Sweden (that fact alone is worth pondering – American religion seems to find more use in histrionic political debates; it’s hard to imagine a theology professor sitting on a national scientific council in the U.S.) has it,  “this is something which ought to be the responsibility of all citizens, irrespective of whether they like nuclear power or not.  Linking the issue of nuclear waste with nuclear power could easy divert attention from the material which we have and must somehow handle in a responsible way not to harm future generations.”

One thing I like about Houellebecq is his distaste for the near-religious proselytizing of environmentalists, but there is a difference between electric toothbrushes and providing drinking water and heat.  The rapid pace of development in India, China and Brazil highlights this even more.

As the stationary bicycle at the Brunswick plant shows, producing energy is hard.  This film highlights what is hardest of all about it.

Lelemore Lelemore

If you find recent write-ups on the doings at Arcore too much to bear lately, then get your day started right with this hilarious Grease parody. Warning: not only do you have to follow the news and Italian, you have to know have Italians interpret/hear English. There’s enough code-switching in this for a linguist’s wet dream. You don’t have to know much about Grease.  Hat-tip: Zoomata.

If you want to see the original, it’s here.

Now, while we’re at it, how about a Super Breakout-style bunga-bunga game?

Now: can we get some of that Egyptian and Tunisian action on this side of the Mediterranean, please?