This is an essay, read by Adiche on audio, concerning her upbringing in Nigeria and what she noticed in America after moving here to live and work. ItThis is an essay, read by Adiche on audio, concerning her upbringing in Nigeria and what she noticed in America after moving here to live and work. It strikes me as a perfect kind of essay to give American teens in school to read/listen to because they can then discuss her ideas in the context of "this American life."
She is clear that one doesn't have to be angry, or wear un-sexy clothing to be a feminist. A feminist is someone who allows every person, whatever their sexuality, to use all parts of their personality and skill set. She was a wonderfully rich speaking voice and speaks slowly and clearly enough that even unfamiliar ideas have time to catch hold before the next sentence comes up.
Best of all, Adiche is a black woman explaining why we are not talking now about human rights, or black rights, or any other kind of rights. We are focussing today on women's rights, and she keeps eyes on the prize. Worthwhile.
Just realized Adichie had done a 30-minute TED talk of this in 2013, from which the audio script is drawn. She has remastered and smoothed the talk since this time, but the essence is here, and she is a lovely spokesperson for women's rights.
So glad this has caught fire. It goes without saying that around the world nations and cultures are yearning to hear this message.
I have posted a clip of the 45-minute remastered audio version of this talk on my blog.
We may not be in a post racial society but I tell you what: when funky, funny Phoebe can tell us what white people do that makes her crazy, and why shWe may not be in a post racial society but I tell you what: when funky, funny Phoebe can tell us what white people do that makes her crazy, and why she doesn’t want to be anybody’s token black friend, I think we’ve moved the needle since the last century. I remember the first time an African man told me that the only pictures he’d had taken in his years of graduate school were those taken by a Singaporean man who knew how to get the camera to register his skin color and expression. Robinson says something similar here: maybe it’s best if we first acknowledge a color difference before we declare it doesn’t matter.
Robinson does plenty of things in this “breakout book deal” but the thing that drew me in was the chance to learn, unfiltered, how black women had such dope-fantastic hair while white folk have to make do with boring thin stuff that flies away and looks pretty much the same everyday, no matter what we do to it. I first learned a little about the time and energy and money serious black hair coiffeurs require in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, but now I think I get it. And no, I don’t think anyone should have to do this so that other folks will love them more. It is, however, an art form, another art form that black folk have created, perfected, and strutted.
Shonda Rhimes, in her book Year of Yes, tells us as a teen she tried to get her hair looking like Diana Ross every morning before classes. Oh girl…I did the same thing with some magazine model or other whose look was so far from mine that a million years of evolution wouldn’t have changed that difference between us. It is definitely not worth the effort. And the “creamy crack” or “crack cream” (break me up, girl!) sounds positively dangerous. Forget it immediately. Get a wig if you want to toss straight hair so much and definitely don’t subject yourself to chemical burns. Come on. If that is what’s required, f- them. I wouldn’t do it. Who the heck is calling the shots here?
When Robinson describes a bedroom scene where the woman is wearing an elastic do-rag to protect her afro and she insists that a real man would still get a boner regardless, I laughed all right. But then it occurred to me that is the definition of drop-dead sexy: strong and sexy, when black womanhood doesn’t even need to fling her hair around to get to home base. She commands the stage. I’m impressed. Personally, I’d kill for the simplicity of a close crop and call it quits. But I ain’t no Phoebe Robinson.
Jessica Williams, Phoebe’s “werk wife,” writes the introduction to this book. Williams was a writer/correspondent on The Daily Show and now the two perform standup at various locations in Brooklyn and work a podcast (WYNC) called 2 Dope Queens. Robinson had a vision of where she wanted to go and to that end began a blog called Blaria in 2014. When the Robinson and Williams standup routine started to take off, a new piece in the NYT tried to keep track. Robinson also has a talk-show style podcast she started last year called Sooo Many White Guys. She's angling for Oprah's job, and I think she's becoming a worthy successor. She certainly has drive.
If the material is sometimes juvenile, well, juvenile can be funny. There is one thing that may eventually limit the range of the women, though: all their references for jokes relate to TV or movies. When it works, it’s very good indeed, but not everyone is so deep into popular culture, or have looked at it with such seriousness and depth of understanding. It is fascinating to watch Robinson deconstruct an old movie like a college professor does a piece of literature, but then our mind starts thinking…what else can this woman do that would be—less fun, maybe—but more important?
Then I remember what she is doing, desensitizing race relations, telling white folk what bothers black folk, sharing some intimacies and some vulnerabilities, and I realize she is doing exactly what she needs to be doing right now, and she is doing it funny, she is doing it sexy, she is doing it in braids, in long soft curls, in dreads, and in a bust-'em afro. She’s strong, she’s sexy, she’s outspoken, and she’s unstoppable now. I’m a fan.
Matt Taibbi is a helluva writer. Even if you don't agree with his political views, you might kinda wish you did…to see what he sees. He is really funnMatt Taibbi is a helluva writer. Even if you don't agree with his political views, you might kinda wish you did…to see what he sees. He is really funny, and it is inevitable that you will choke out a few guffaws against your will when he goes after someone you fell for, or settled for. Sucker. The only person Taibbi doesn't speak of in sarcastic or cynical tones is Bernie Sanders, who never tried to entertain us so much as educate, inform, and move us.
After the election in November last year, Taibbi wrote a last dispatch in which he heralds some of the thoughts he exercises in this book. Called President Trump: How America Got it So Wrong this article published in Rolling Stone gives you some idea of who Taibbi is and how he writes, in case he slipped your notice. He no longer works full time for that magazine, but has moved to First Look Media, working with Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras. His leaving statement from Rolling Stone is presented here.
Listening to Washington news today, I am getting the burning sensation in my belly again. Trump just had his first news conference (1/11/17) and listening to his incomplete sentences and careless way of speaking started my anxiety. What is he trying to say? Why should we have to have an interpreter? Who should be our interpreter? Breitbart? KellyAnne? My anxiety and frustration will kill me if I have to listen to this straight on. I am afraid I may only be able to view Trump’s presidency through a filter or in the rear view mirror.
Which brings me to Taibbi. Taibbi followed the campaign trail as much as he was able this time round, and filed reports that were meant to dovetail with the illustration work of Victor Juhasz. This book, after the preface in which Taibbi takes a long view, is a collection of his dispatches from the 2016 campaign trail, following a long tradition beginning with Hunter S. Thompson.
In these dispatches, Taibbi makes comment on events as they unfolded, recognizing that the anti-truth candidate might win but still reiterating that he "can’t." It may be too soon for some of you, scarred from that campaign as you are, to even consider laughing at the unbelievable thing we as a country did in electing Trump. But some say to jump right back on the saddle, and Taibbi is a great trail leader.
Taibbi admits, despite his writing eight years earlier a book about a post-truth society based on fake conspiracies and exemplified by Fox News called The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, that even he did not foresee that a charlatan like Trump could hijack an electorate that voted twice! for Barack Obama, and which had led movements in racial parity and same sex rights. Therefore, while he is critiquing the “childlike” crowds that throng to Trump rallies, faces turned like believers to the clarion call a of television evangelist, throughout the year preceding the vote Taibbi can’t believe this clown can possibly win.
He is disbelieving but accurate and very, very, funny in describing the absurd Republican debates fielding seventeen candidates for president. Clearly some folks weren’t getting the memos, or, as we had surmised for some time already, were refusing to go along with the Party hierarchy. Well, they reaped what they sowed: confusion.
But what Taibbi does very well indeed is show us how long we have been living with our heads in the sand while small indignities were perpetrated upon us, e.g., Fox News Channel the only news network available on some cheap cable packages when free public television was not; news networks hiring attractive airheads who all ask the same questions and parrot one another until we get less accomplished in an hour of watching than if we’d had the TV off, etc. We were victims but we didn’t rise up.
Taibbi helps, along with giving us a few laughs, to chart the train wreck that was the election and pinpoints moments when the cake-icing edifice melted and started to slide off the steaming heap it was hiding. For me in particular, he makes me wonder how we will manage without news organizations worthy of the effort of reading/listening to them. Traditional newspaper outlets have been under stress for many years now, and their ranks are decimated. TV news, you already know, are terrifying in their ineptness & self-satisfaction.
I listened to the audio production of this book, produced by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Rob Shapiro. Shapiro has just the right amount of incredulity and snark in his voice to accentuate the disbelief and horror in Taibbi’s tale of woe.
On my blog I have posted a short clip of the audiobook for you to sample....more
This is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short storiThis is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short stories and novels in English in the American tradition but from traditionally silent participants in our nation’s pageant: immigrants and people of color. These voices began speaking up some time ago, but if you looked at the award lists until recently, people of color weren’t often on them. That has changed, and right now, before cultures become indistinguishable from one another in the wealth churn, the special character and individual voice of different groups is our bounty to reap.
Nguyen just wows me with his capture of the immigrant experience from so many different directions in this collection of stories. Not only is his language clear and expressive and to the point, his stories are rounded and fulfilling. They tell us something, like dispatches from a new world.
A section called “The War Years” has a story that is not actually about the war we usually think of. We’re in L.A., in Little Saigon, in a grocery store where we breathe in the smell of dried cuttlefish and star anise in the crowded aisles. Father (Ba), mother (Ma), and Long (do I need to say?), a thirteen-year-old for whom school, even summer school, felt like a vacation, worked there every day, even Sundays after Mass.
Ma is the real deal: waking everyone up in the mornings, keeping house, making meals, counting cash. She owns seven pastel outfits, and with makeup and a squirt of scent (gardenia), she is ready to man the cash register. We hear the scratch of her nylons as she rubs one ankle against the other. She knows the margins on every item in the store, even the 50-lb bags of rice in the loft above kitchenware.
Mrs. Hao visits the store regularly to ask for contributions to “fight the Communists,” but Ma thinks that fight is over. She follows Mrs. Hao home one day to confront her and discovers a fight that is all too real.
The story is so richly told, its depths just keep churning up new insights. And yet it is not alone. “The Transplant” introduces us to Arthur Arellano, a man with several overlapping and reflexive problems—problems which influence each other. Despite “transplant” bringing to mind “immigrant,” in this story the word has a more literal meaning.
The characters in all these stories have complex problems, complex attachments, complex lives. In “Someone Else Besides You,” a thirty-three-year-old man lives with his father after his own divorce, but his widower father, despite his own proclivities for mistresses, is constantly urging his son to pursue the former wife. See what I mean? Complex.
One story, “The Americans,” depicts a twenty-six year-old woman who has been teaching English in Vietnam for two years already, living in a town that also hosts a nonprofit engaged in demining. She invites her parents to visit, to meet her boyfriend, to see her housing, her life. The email inviting them is addressed to Mom and Dad, but James Carver, recently retired as a commercial airline pilot, knows it is mostly meant for her mother, who dreams about Vietnam's “bucolic” countryside. “He knew next to nothing about Vietnam except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.”
Nguyen conveys the silent, withheld anger and confusion that men can often exhibit: an inarticulateness that keeps them angry without them even knowing exactly why. James was so proud when his son graduated from Air Force Academy, but he marks his own decline from that moment: he felt he was growing stupider rather than wiser as he aged. That was just the moment that the torch passed, and it is a new world, not his own. If he could speak his fears, he’d find he was not alone: the world could still be his, he’d just be sharing it.
His daughter Claire is just like daughters anywhere, thinking they know more than they do, speaking and acting so carelessly, so casually hurtful.
“Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feeling to him.”
Being a parent is tough stuff. One has to have the hide of a rhinoceros.
The technical skill manifest in this story is breathtaking. We are never explicitly told the man is black, married to a Japanese woman while stationed on Okinawa. Their children have grown up loved by their parents, but confused about their identities and disparaged by their schoolmates. James has endured a lifetime of confusion, including his job flying a bomber jet. Unspoken, unresolved resentment is the minefield.
Nguyen’s stories are feasts of insight, generously shared. We’re lucky folk, to have such a talent writing for us. The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel out last year, was a big novel in every sense. He shows us here he can write engaging, enduring short fiction, and his nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has likewise garnered critical attention. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has received residencies, fellowships, honors, awards, and grants from a wide range of admiring and grateful organizations....more
Storytelling and cooking may have something in common—imagination—but they also have a similar way of feeding people, and doing it well can be positivStorytelling and cooking may have something in common—imagination—but they also have a similar way of feeding people, and doing it well can be positively inspiring. Leonardo Lucarelli reminds us that good chefs use very, very sharp knives in the mastery of their craft, and good writers learn the same skill. Lucarelli says repeatedly he did it all “for the money,” while we laugh uproariously as he waxes eloquent about that meal he prepared--alone--for 250 capoeira enthusiasts in the hull of a rusty old ship with no kitchen docked beside Rome in the Tiber…
There is some special delight in listening to a man at the top of his career as a chef in a country known for spectacular cuisine and flamboyant male displays tell us how, by bravado, native (naïve?) talent—but no training—he goes from zero to one thousand in a matter of years. And he continued to manage it, learning on the job, telescoping years of trial-and-error into moments of insight literally seared into his memory...and his hands.
He is arrogant, abrasive, acerbic…and that is just the A’s. Lucarelli began cooking as a teen, when meals his mother left at home for his brother and himself needed a little massaging to be exciting. He cooked for friends, and the first gift to his first real girlfriend was bread, wrapped in a napkin, four corners tied together. (It had been his fourth try, and was the only loaf not obviously wrong somehow.) Taste and presentation: he knew it might have something to do with winning hearts. Though that early attempt failed, his gradual emergence as a rock-star in the kitchen gave him plenty of opportunities to bedazzle the ladies.
Drugs go along with sex & rock & roll, and there are hair-raising moments in this memoir when we are not entirely sure Lucarelli is going to escape with his faculties intact. The momentum he achieves in his writing contrasts with the stumbling advancement of his career as he tangles with the law, makes poor choices in work and in life, wrecks his motorbike…everything revolving about an important friendship with Matteo, the grounded center of who he really was. Matteo was an ‘on again-off again’ roommate in Rome, Lucarelli’s alter-ego. A reprinted email from Matteo late in the book shows us Matteo’s talent seeing, feeling, and speaking truth, and how important he was to Lucarelli’s sense of himself.
It always interests me when “bad boys” discover their inner homebodies. Lucarelli was no exception, and truthfully, the portion of the memoir devoted to his life after rockstar status was some of the most interesting and affecting of what he chose to share. Lucarelli shows us that everything we learn can be used in the next gig, and how teaching cooking skills may have rewards that equal or exceed chefdom when the pros and cons of each are laid side-by-side.
It is not just food or cooking that is so interesting about this memoir, however. Lucarelli reveals insights into the economics of modern Italy from his earliest mention of anti-globalization demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, reminding us that discussions revolving around these issues are not new and have been viewed as critical for many years in countries other than the United States.
More striking even were his revelations about the fluid nature of restaurant employment: under-the-table payments to all restaurant staff, even chefs, to avoid tax; direct wage payments from the night’s take; lack of contracts or protections for staff; the precarious position of most owners when it comes to loan sharks or bank loans. It seems there is no safety. What a remarkably poor investment, one might conclude, unless owners know something investors do not.
Taxes. It is hard to discover from just one memoir how widespread the practice must be, but one cannot but note how commonplace avoidance appears to be for those making even small incomes in Italy. In the United States, poor and middle-class wage earners generally pay taxes while the wealthy exploit investment loopholes that result in little or no tax payments. Tax avoidance may, in the end, be most responsible for both the exuberant display of, and the eventual destruction of, western ‘values.’
The other discussion—a worthy one in Italy, just as it is in the United States—is the importance of immigrant labor, even illegal immigrant labor, in keeping restaurants afloat. Lucarelli even gives a somewhat impassioned defense of the illegals he has known that is well worth reading. These very issues we must consider when addressing our own problem of illegals in America.
P.S. One last thing that warmed my heart: When Lucarelli began working in restaurants and clubs in the early 2000's, it seems every menu contained several vegetarian options, and at least one vegan option. Mediterranean food is especially easy to 'veganize,' but more importantly, it wasn't odd, but obvious. Nearly twenty years later, American restaurants are limping half-heartedly (heart-attackedly?) into enlightenment. ...more
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think Shonda Rhimes is something special? She has got it all going on, creating TV characters (in a time frame tIs there anyone out there who doesn’t think Shonda Rhimes is something special? She has got it all going on, creating TV characters (in a time frame that would cripple most of us) for several shows that reflect the best and worst of ourselves. She is a genuinely interesting personality. So it was something of a shock to discover she is an introvert who would much rather stay home reading and writing in her PJs than get out there and take her place on stage.
But of course Rhimes is an introvert. How else could she find all those voices in her head, both in time and creativity? But the introvert part meant that Rhimes was refusing some “best time of your life” invitations to do things where she would be feted, admired, and all that, but she could also find people to admire. She decided, for one year, to say “yes” to invites that she would ordinarily eschew.
She was in a good position to do it. Though it complicated some aspects of her life, she had the family and financial resources to make up any shortfall. It was fascinating when she discovered her children are extroverts, and nothing like herself. She does that humble-brag thing, where she says something like “three hot-as-fire TV shows, three children, sleeping, eating, working, writing has been kicking my ass lately.” Yeah, girl. I bet. Harumpf.
But Rhimes is no humble-brag. Not very long after that she tells us about her struggles to do things that she isn’t as good at as TV shows and imagination, like living consciously, victoriously, really. Here she is, the most successful woman any of us can imagine, with a fun job with fun people in a fun city, and she is pulling in and shutting down, feeling old, getting fat. Good lord, what does that to us?
It’s like a disease. But I get it. It is easier, sometimes, to live in one’s imagination. I do it, too. Not even writing books, me, just reading them. One can do it in a balanced way, or in an unbalanced way. Rhimes is here to tell you (and you don’t have to listen, but then, well, good luck out there) how it feels to recognize and slowly heal that sickness. It might be a little like, “Hi, my name is Jennie, and I am an introvert,” but again, there are healthy ways to be and unhealthy ways, and most of us know instinctively which is which. When it gets bad enough, you might want a little Shonda to brighten your day. She’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s been there.
We certainly get a look into the way Rhimes speaks, and thinks, if we didn’t already get plenty of that through her characters. (We knew she liked red wine, for instance.) She answers for us things she really shouldn’t have to answer—like deciding not to get married. Maybe it helped her to write that part down, at least so she has some ready answers the next time someone comes to her with what she calls “Big Questions.”
Speaking of which, one of the more fascinating parts of this book for me was her response to the “Why is diversity so important?” question. I would never have thought to ask that question, and that is sort of the way she answers it:
"...one of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with 'Why do people need food and air?' and 'Why should women be feminists?'
…I really hate the word diversity. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare.
As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.
I have a different word: NORMALIZING.
I’m normalizing TV.
I’m making TV look the way the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out off the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.
…The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps then they will learn from them.”
There is only one thing that confuses me about this memoir: is introvert now “bad” and extrovert now “good”? Rhimes spent a year
“trying to be as cocky and immodest and brazen as I can. I’m trying to take up as much space as I need to take up. To not make myself smaller in order to make someone else feel better. I’m allowing myself to shamelessly and comfortably be the loudest voice in the room.”
I guess that is not quite clear to me. So this is the goal? To take up more space, to impose one’s will? I understand being happy in the world. I understand not backing down from who you are. I’m not sure why that has to drown out others. But I’m glad Rhimes feels better at the end of it. As long as she isn’t just making that up for our benefit.
Steve Bannon, now a senior advisor to President-Elect Trump, has a film on his resume that excited some folks, called In the Face of Evil. The film waSteve Bannon, now a senior advisor to President-Elect Trump, has a film on his resume that excited some folks, called In the Face of Evil. The film was apparently based on a book by Peter Schweizer—this book in fact. It took some doing, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of the film and I was surprised. It didn’t seem particularly kind to Ronald Reagan, but painted him as a failed actor with a single obsession in his entire life: the destruction of the communist political system. Now, with echoes of Reagan resounding in Trump's tweets ("Let the arms race begin!"), I wonder if the film doesn't tell us what Bannon will be advising Trump to do.
The film used set-ups for shots that one will recognize from old film classics like Metropolis (dark, brooding, shots of creepy overlords), Citizen Kane (dark, brooding shots of politicians with creepy amounts of power), and a couple others, so it seemed like a weird montage by a newbie director who wanted to remind viewers of more important films than his own.
After watching the film, I then wondered about the book: was it as ambiguous about Reagan’s obsession as I felt the film was? Schweizer’s book reads like ad copy from the 1950s, not a book on political affairs published in 2002, and the book precisely illustrates my unease with supposed ‘histories:’
"Along with their children Michael and Maureen, Ron and Jane [Wyman] lived in a beautiful home with a pool on Cordell Drive. He owned a splendid ranch near Riverside, and when he and Jane weren’t at the studio lot, they could be found playing golf at the prestigious Hillcrest Country Club with Jack Benny and George Burns. At night they often dined at the trendy Beverly Club."
Reagan was an executive committee member of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) which was accused in 1946 of being a communist front. Reagan instantly supported release of a statement denying support for communists which was opposed by the majority, leading to infighting and Reagan’s resignation. He was shortly elected to lead the Screen Actor’s Guild and became an FBI informant against his fellows in SAG. Wyman divorced him for “mental cruelty” when the two “engaged in continual arguments on his political views.”
Reagan became enamored of Arthur Koestler’s disillusionment with communism in 1948, when he read Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon and gradually conceived of
”the opportunity to combine his love of movies with his newfound mission to undermine communism. Why not use Hollywood films to undermine the Soviets?”
Ah, the wheels grind out opportunities. From 1959 through 1963 Reagan honed and developed his anti-communist message, and by the time he gave his “rendezvous with destiny” speech [also called “A Time for Choosing”] in front of a national audience in support of Barry Goldwater at the Cocoanut [sic] Grove, Los Angeles in 1964, he’d been delivering versions of the speech for two years already.
What I take away from this book and my haphazard attempts to fact-check is that it is detailed, fluently-written--even absorbing if one is interested in Reagan's intellectual prowess--narrowly-focused, one-sided, un-nuanced propaganda supporting Reagan’s monomaniacal zeal for democracy’s strength in light of the encroachment of communist ideas. Certainly watching the film of the book would take less time, and you would have to ask yourself at the end of it…what kind of men are these that praise Reagan’s strength in defying Russia before, and praise Trump’s cozying up to Russia now?
Is it the clarity of a single motivating idea, and appreciation of strongman attitudes and propaganda techniques that captures Schweizer's and Bannon’s imagination and support? Perhaps communism was the real bugbear, not Russia, and now that Putin is clearly a world-class oligarch in the tradition of democracies and colonial empires the world over, Putin is no longer the threat, but the partner.
There is no doubt that Reagan's arms race and inflexibility 'broke' the less-strong Russian economy. Perhaps Trump hopes to push Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea to the wall in the same way, through the threat of weaponry escalation. A bloodless kind of war, played economically. The deep cynicism needed for this tack misreads our opponents and reflects how the conservative viewpoint in America has developed under Republicans and the Koch brothers' influence.
I’d love to see the insights of others about the book or on Bannon’s film, In the Face of Evil. I hesitate to recommend either one, however, not finding the central ideas sufficiently complicated enough to explain or deliver justice in today’s complex environment. I learned to think differently, growing up, and to seek less autocratic solutions. ...more
This book was named among The Economist’s Best Books of the Year, but if you’ve ever heard that end-of-year podcast, you’d know that list is not exactThis book was named among The Economist’s Best Books of the Year, but if you’ve ever heard that end-of-year podcast, you’d know that list is not exactly discriminating. However, I did not know that when I ordered this, and I also did not know that The Economist also named Shambaugh's 2013 China Goes Global as Best of the Year. Frankly, I am not impressed, either with this book or The Economist’s list.
This book was actually a speech that Shambaugh had been schlepping around various outlets for a couple of years until he discovered that, with a little tweaking, he could actually sell it as a book. It is, thankfully, brief. That is the best thing that can be said about it.
Shambaugh is an academic who, although he has been studying China for forty years, has never actually put himself in the leader’s place, and therefore cannot adequately convey the feeling Chinese leaders must have of sitting atop an active volcano, knowing changes are necessary, and handling some while stomping out flames as their pants catch on fire.
Shambaugh is dismissive and arch when contemplating the difficulties and constraints facing China’s leaders, while not for a moment considering that every country, even the “free market” democracies in the West, are facing enormous issues with crippling debt, infrastructure, wage-gap, health delivery systems, education and innovation. I really hate his smug attitude.
Now that I have gotten that off my chest, it’s a wonder that we still have under-innovating academics like Shambaugh still peddling their tired lectures at universities and think tanks when the world has actually changed in forty years, and we can sit around and discuss, with innovation and rationality, what one would do if one were facing China’s issues, without the attitude. Since the West clearly doesn’t have it all worked out perfectly, why couldn’t we try to imagine a system that uses some state control and unleashes the creativity of the populace without allowing the wide gaps that appear in, say, America?
I find it astonishing that Shambaugh is worried China’s universities are not good enough or that China doesn’t have enough innovation. China is going to eat our lunch in twenty-five years, as anyone who has spent any time there will be happy to tell you. The entire economy has enormous vitality because these folks have known scarcity, and are extremely cunning in knowing how to get by. More than I have ever seen anywhere, it is a nation of entrepreneurs. The leaders’ problem stems from trying to keep it all under control.
Which is the best thing to address first? Deregulating the banking and financial system will cause a vast economic unbalancing, but not doing so is also a problem. Corruption may be endemic, no matter whether leaders are appointed or elected, or how free or tight the central control of the business relationships. Addressing it straight on, and sharing its devastating impacts via a freer press may actually bring more social goods.
The dissidents? They clearly care enough to speak out and see things that the center is avoiding. Rather than jailing them, put them to work coming up with solutions with the brightest poli-sci students, giving them real-life constraints and limited scope, e.g., a province may privatize their largest glass factory. What are the political, social, economic implications, and can it be done discretely within one province? How can the enormous job of introducing needed changes be done piecemeal if moving one piece shifts an entire economy?
Yes, China has to deal with rising expectations. Don’t we all? Shambaugh raises all the moving pieces China must address, but he seems out of touch. His lecture is drowning in very old-fashioned platitudes and attitudes towards “the communists” and he has no apparent enthusiasm for the experiment China undertook in their revolution and since. This is exciting stuff, folks, but you’d never know it from Shambaugh.
The most interesting observations were made by other authors that Shambaugh was quoting:
"Thus, I see China as currently stagnating in what scholar Minxin Pei very astutely and presciently described in 2006 (!) as a ‘trapped transition.’ In this wishful and visionary book [Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy], Pei…describes…economic foundation is inevitably constrained by its political superstructure. Without fundamental and far-reaching political reforms, China’s economy will stagnate and the regime may well collapse…I did not agree with his argument at the time, but have come around to agree with him now. The reason for my changed assessment is that China has changed in the interim."