Monday, December 24, 2012

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

White Teeth impressed me above all for its marriage of the realistic and fantastic.

From early on, we get a heavy dose of the fantastic: Darcus Bowden's perfect recumbency, Samad and Alsana Iqbal's epic wrestling bouts, Horst Ibelgaufts' epistolary clairvoyance, the metronomic consistency of Archie Jones' cycling.

I am also inclined to look at the just so story of Archie and Samad's wartime service together in this light.

The realism comes especially in dialogue -- notably Situations With People Saying Awkward Things, which Smith really sinks her teeth into.  Among these, the scenes with Poppy Burt-Jones and the Chalfens particularly stood out.

Smith has a sense for telling and memorable metaphor, whether homely or erudite.  Archie's first encounter with Clara is a true display of metaphoric virtuosity

And not only was she the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met.  Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelled musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favorite clothes.  Though she was disorganized physically -- legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system -- even her gangly demeanor seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant.  She wore her sexuality with an older woman's ease, and not (as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past) like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it, or when to just put it down. (20)

Putting "exceptionally elegant" at the end of that penultimate sentence took me aback at first, but now I feel that it is just right -- it gives the the sentence a smooth and languid feel that "seemed exceptionally elegant to Archie" would not.

This metaphor, describing how Irie dug into the documentary fragments of her family history, also struck home for me.
She laid claim to the past -- her version of the past --  aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. (331)

Another thing that stands out is Smith's cleverness and creativity with language -- I'm thinking of Niece of Shame, or gently mocking acronyms like KEVIN and FATE -- and the sense of joy in invention that I get while reading her.

Even though the novel starts out with Archie and Clara, and devotes much attention to their story, Samad and Irie are its real emotional center. The exemplify the spirit of frustrated striving, which is subdued in Clara (who rather gets lost in the plot) and absent altogether in Archie.

Magid and Millat Iqbal's diverging paths are a clever, implied riposte to Marcus Chalfen's deterministic project, as is Archie's willed randomness -- and yet ... Archie isn't comfortable allowing a flip of the coin to be decisive when it really counts, and there is a kind of common ground in the opposed ideological fervor of Magid and Millat (though Magid really sees people, their individual wants and problems and feelings, in a way that Millat doesn't)

Although at the most obvious level the novel is about immigrants struggling to find a place in England -- or about blowing up the whole idea of a sense of place that keeps them from fitting in -- the way that women are an afterthought to the plans of men, and fight to assert themselves, is just as important a theme.  It is shared even by as unlikely a figure as Hortense Bowden, who aspires to a bigger role with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

While we were discussing this novel, LTG made this acute observation : Zadie Smith's novels are about encounters between people, about connections, most of which are missed connections

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: Chapter 10, "Reappraising Power"

In this chapter, written in 1976 (16 years after the original publication of his book), Neustadt reconsiders his account of presidential power in light of the record of more recent presidents. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he declines to reconsider his account much, because he thinks that he got it right the first time. Nevertheless, he lists six areas in which he would at least change his emphasis.

First is the way that  two previously unremarked factors -- perceived legitimacy and the loyalty of subordinates and followers -- can affect the president's ability to exercise power.  A loss of legitimacy harms a president by making the the officials he works with more like the public at large.  Instead of basing their willingness to work with him largely on his professional reputation and only secondarily on his public prestige (and then only among that part of the public that makes up their own constituency), they become directly and immediately influenced by the loss of prestige. Neustadt explains that the loss of prestige that creates a crisis of legitimacy comes about because of a presidential credibility gap -- a clear disparity between his words and his actions, or the results of his actions. Nor is this enough -- Truman, for instance, suffered from a credibility gap, but not from a loss of legitimacy.  In order for a credibility gap to yield a perception of illegitimacy, the president must be seen, like Nixon, to have created the gap by deliberate acts of deception.  But then, Neustadt notes, Johnson, too, had a credibility gap created by his own deceit about Vietnam without this leading to a crisis of legitimacy.  Neustadt doesn't provide an answer to that puzzle.

Neustadt notes that he had been criticized for not taking sufficient account of the loyalty of subordinates as a factor extending presidential power.  He responds that this loyalty doesn't matter, because nothing important can be accomplished without the cooperation of  other powerful figures with competing interests and constituencies.  Indeed, he implausibly insists that the loyalty of subordinates can only result in a check on presidential power due to the bad publicity from zealous overreaching!  In the first place, this overlooks that loyal subordinates may have positions -- like secretary of a cabinet department -- which otherwise would be occupied by individuals who would need to be persuaded to cooperate with presidential initiatives, since they would tend to take the views of the particular constituency that they served.  Moreover, since a president and the core of his staff can only focus on a few issues at a time, a multitude of loyal subordinates permits the president's agenda to be pressed forward on a broader front, even if the gains are incremental.  This should have been clear even in Nixon's time, but it has become especially conspicuous in the ideologically focused Republican administrations from Reagan onward.

Second are eight institutional changes in the presidency.  For the most part, the institutions in question were not formal, legal requirements, but customary practices.  Briefly, presidents since Eisenhower had found it ever less necessary do a number of things that were once expected, but they have been constricted by a few new formal. legal restrictions on their actions.  First, presidents were no longer expected to meet other leaders, like cabinet officials and Congresspeople, at their request.  Second, they were not expected to make themselves available for press conferences regularly and frequently. (This reflects the declining influence of the print media vis-a-vis broadcast media, since the press conference really served the need of writers who needed copy).  Third, presidents didn't need to consult as much with cabinet secretaries, since recent White Houses had built up their own policy-making apparatus independent of the departments headed by those officials.  Fourth, presidential consultation with his party's Congressional leaders was no longer as exigent, since  the party caucuses in Congress were far more fractured and the leaders had less authority than they did in the past.  Fifth, presidents had increasingly been able to dispense with the custom of consulting luminaries from both parties in times of crisis. On the other hand, presidential discretion had been limited by laws requiring Congressional approval for budget impoundments and engaging military forces in hostilities.  In both cases, however, the effect was to return the balance to where it was before presidential assertions of new powers. In addition, changes in election law had forced presidents seeking re-election to make an earlier commitment to a run.  On balance, these institutional changes had tilted power further in favor of the presidency. so that other power-wielders were even less the true peers of the president.

Third, and in contrast, the policy environment had changed in ways that increased a president's burdens.  First, the greatly increased scope of government had created a new set of powerful and largely independent agency chiefs.  At the same time, economic stagnation and increasing natural resource constraints had made the performance of private economic actors even more vital to the president's purposes, and established or reinforced the position of corporate executives and labor union leaders as sharers in power who needed to be succored.  Finally, the existence not just of nuclear weapons, but of a rival with second-strike capability, had put uniquely irreversible decisions in the president's hands, while robbing him of any peers with whom he could really share this burden (except, perhaps, for his adversary at the head of the Soviet Union).  At the same time, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to minor powers had made managing the relationship with the Soviet leadership more prone to accidents and unplanned escalation.

Fourth, the negative examples of Johnson and Nixon, in particular, make Neustadt try to specify with more exactness the role of confidence in successful exercise of presidential power.  Both of these presidents retreated to self-indulgent isolation, which in the end dulled their sense for making effective use of power.  In his original account, Neustadt had described confidence as the result of a combination of experience and temperament.  Neustadt ponders whether Johnson and Nixon had the right amount and quality of experience, but Nixon's experience seemed at least adequate, and Johnson's nothing short of extraordinary.  He leaves off with a diffident suggestion of importance of being a winner for confidence.  With respect to temperament, the crucial issue Neustadt highlights is dealing with frustration in the accomplishment of their aims.  Johnson and Nixon both depended for their confidence on accomplishing a somewhat outsized set of ambitions in office (domestically for Johnson and in foreign policy for Nixon).  At the same time, both were prickly and unable to make light of themselves.  As a result of this combination, they were both particularly poor at dealing with frustration.  Neustadt never explicitly makes the connection between this inability to deal with frustration and the retreat to an imperial presidency, but in any case I think it is at least plausible.

Fifth, Johnson and Nixon's misadventures inspire Neustadt to amend his advice about how a president can use his assessment of his own stakes of power to make judgments about the soundness of policy.  He finds that Johnson and Nixon had missed the risks to their power issuing from the deceptive Vietnam War buildup and Watergate, respectively, but not because they failed to consider how their power would be affected.  Johnson rejected the alternative policies of disengagement or openly and fully declared engagement because he thought that they posed greater immediate risks for him.  Disengagement could damage both his professional reputation and public prestige if Vietnam were 'lost' to Communists.  On the other hand, open and formal approval of a large buildup could create restraints on his ability to pull back later if he wanted, and would also give Congress an excuse to cut back the Great Society programs he was eager to start.  The risk that his intervention would fail to turn the war around in a few years, and that its scope would disrupt the economy and distract his government from implementing new social programs, seemed relatively remote in comparison.  For Nixon, the temporary setbacks to his power from leaks weighed large, while the longer-term risks to his standing and prestige from domestic spying -- and covering it up -- failed to register. To rectify such shortcomings , Neustadt recommends that presidents should also, at least sometimes, make the do-ability of a policy -- what it would take to implement it -- as a source of clues for political risk.  This kind of backward mapping of goals to means would, in Neustadt's opinion, have immediately made clear to Nixon the folly of the anti-leak agenda which eventually led him into Watergate.  Backward mapping would also have shown Johnson the inadequacy of the escalation he was about to embark on as a means of achieving the ambition of a divided, peaceful, prosperous Vietnam.

Sixth, Neustadt concedes that he had neglected to pay sufficient attention to how presidents use their White House staffs. Here he sees a difference between Democratic and Republican presidents.  Democratic presidents, with the partial exception of Johnson, had looked at White House staff as responsible for looking after their own political interests, and to a lesser degree their partisan interests.  They strictly divided this personal staff from institutional staff of executive agencies and kept it relatively small.  They did not seek to make the White House staff into an administrative layer overseeing the government.  Instead, they kept executive agencies like the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the National Security Council functionally separate so that they could maintain a role as independent sources of advice.  Rather than managing the government, these White House staffs managed the choices that their presidents had to deal with.

The way that Democratic presidents assigned duties also ensured that their staff got the broadest possible overview of their president's interests, opportunities, and risks. They tended to divide duties by the type of work -- e.g.,  press relations, speechwriting, drafting legislation, being a liaison with Congress -- rather than by program or subject matter.  This meant that the president had many possible sources of advice on any issue, and that his advisers all had a broad outlook on the challenges facing him.  In essence, it seems to me  that this arrangement tended to rectify the presidential predicament identified by Neustadt in earlier chapters -- that a president has no advisers with his own breadth of responsibilities and constituencies.  They were uniquely prepared to both frame his choices according to his personal perspective, but also to bring other perspectives to bear.

Republican presidents did not really distinguish between personal and institutional staff. They tended to see their task as an executive administering a unified organization, and the White House staff as in effect a top level of management of the entire government.  This was what even Democratic administrations had claimed was needed in plans for administrative reform, however different they were from this in practice. 

Neustadt does find it a hindrance that the function of White House staff was re-invented with each change of partisan control of the White House.  However, he sees the trend in the use of White House staff moving away from the Democratic model he clearly favors, and towards a larger staff viewed more as super-administrators than broadly involved, functional helpers.

Finally, Neustadt reflects upon the fact that the presidents have unprecedented responsibility, although under increased constraints, while finding ever-greater difficulty finding true colleagues among members of Congress with whom to share this responsibility.  Presidents face this difficulty finding partners because of the increasing frequency of divided government (so that the leaders of Congress are adversaries rather than colleagues) and because of the weakened position of leaders in an increasingly fragmented Congress.
He considers the prospects for restoring the balance between what is asked of the presidency and what it can provide in these circumstances.

Constitutional change to increase the president's power would be one way to align power and responsibility again, but it could only pass under circumstances of such urgency that the reform would be redundant. A presidency which strategically withdrew from some of the responsibilities of presidential clerkship -- letting cabinet offices and other officials bear the burden -- would also restore the balance of power and aims, but Neustadt doesn't believe that such an approach would be sustainable -- the demands for presidential intervention would be too insistent in the end.  Another solution would be a president empowered by a charismatic personality able to mobilize direct personal support through television. Finally, an increase in party unity could give the president more useful partners.  This could come about either because of institutional reforms like a Congressional budget process giving greater authority to leadership, or because the growing nationalization of political issues will create a more unified party.  If party nominations nationally are determined to a greater degree by the same national issues, then the president will have greater scope to intervene in order to makes sure his allies are nominated.  Neustadt concludes that the most likely and workable solution will be a combination of a charismatic president with increasingly nationalized party politics.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary: Chapter 4, "The Light and the Dark"

 After presenting his cricketing resume without false modesty or bravado, the opening paragraphs lay out a predicament: the young James had to decide which club he would play first-class cricket for.  What follows is a sharp sketch of how colonial Trinidad's divisions of class and color mapped onto its cricket establishment.  Each club had its place and significance in the island's social divisions.  James' choice came down to the two middle-class black clubs -- Shannon, whose status was tied to the professional achievement and aspiration of its members, and Maple, whose status was wrapped up in lighter skin-color and established position.  The decision was particularly pointed because, though Maple's captain sought him, James personally was dark.  He recognized his choice had political significance, but ultimately decided on narrowly personal grounds -- a number of his friends were with Maple, and so he joined them, too.

Despite the quasi-political tension and the fierce competitiveness it produced, the atmosphere in club matches was collegial and even chatty.  James reprises a number of  in-match conversations.  Among these, an exchange with Constantine, the eminence grise of Shannon cricket, captures the friendly tone recollected by James pretty well.

Constantine, a privileged person, especially with me, between overs would discuss my play freely.  'You played back to that one?'  'What should I have done?'  'Jumped at it, of course.  That's the second time Ben has been on since you were in.'  'Suits you.' (62)

Its place as the representative of the the rising black middle-class inspired Shannon.  They played with singular intensity and self-discipline. They had by far the best line-up of bowlers, and were relentless in the field. 

Constantine told me one day, in the only reference he ever made to it: 'If you had joined us we would have made you play cricket.'  He meant as an international player. The remark was a tribute to Shannon, not to me.  Years afterwards, in a quite insignificant friendly match in Lancashire, I was standing at short leg when some batsman played an uppish stroke in my direction.  Not one county cricketer in three could possibly have got to it, and in any case friendly is friendly.  So I thought, until I heard a savage shout from Constantine who had bowled the ball.  'Get to it!'  I recognized the note.  It was one Shannon player calling to another.  (63)
Constantine and those in his camp saw Shannon as a model for West Indian cricket. They wanted West Indies to have a black captain who could make use of the striving spirit of Shannon to create a winning side.  To this, young James had countered with the view that the captain should be the best man, whether back or white, as if, in the context of the West Indies, the captain's race would have had no effect on the style and cohesion of the squad.

At this point, James calls out critics who think that race has no place in cricket.  He divides these into (1) those who have benefited from the privileges of being light-skinned, but now want the book closed on that chapter as if had never been written, and (2) those who sympathize with discussing race and cricket, but merely as an exorcism of personal traumas so that they can then be forgotten.

James insists that his experience of cricket was no trauma, and meanders into a series of wistful memories about the cricketing scene in Trinidad.  The hunger for play that produced so many spontaneous matches.  The accessibility of  international players, both to play against and to talk cricket with.  The way that cricket bound together people who were otherwise strangers.