Monday, January 9, 2017

On The Word "Deserve"

Like "lifestyle" the word "deserve" has come to be grossly misused, overused and abused, replacing many another word and concept in the process – and consequently, diminishing the average person's already vanishingly small ability to think.

The word "deserve" properly refers to those things that have actually been earned (like an award recognizing particular accomplishments). To say one deserves something is to make an indisputable moral claim on their behalf. However, the term is being used with mind-numbing regularity in place of words like "want," and "need," and "right" (as in "have a right to"). Certainly we all have wants. (You might want a private jet.) We all have needs. (You need food and oxygen to live.) We all have rights of varying kinds. (Free speech is an inalienable human right, while someone might have a right to the inheritance of a particular property or the award of damages following some injury, given the laws prevailing at a particular time and place.)

The upshot of this is that one may want, need or have a right to the things they deserve – but they do not necessarily deserve the things they want, need or claim as a right. Yet, there seems an increasing insistence on dressing up want, need and right in the moralistic language of deserts. Take, for instance, the immediate cause of this post, which was my hearing an anchor on The Weather Channel say last winter that ski resorts in a particular region were finally getting the snow they "deserve." A ski resort's owners want and need snow because it enables them to operate their establishments, and a particular resort owner may have done the things ordinarily seen as meriting business success, but it is nothing short of bizarre to say instead that resorts "deserve" snow.

I suppose this particular butchery of the English language contains something of the tendency to view every outcome in a person's life as a matter of their own, personal morality – an idea very much in line with the self-help/religious ideas that have long enjoyed wide currency in the United States. There is, too, what Thorstein Veblen in his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class called the "habit of invidious distinction," because where there are the deserving there are also the undeserving.

It would seem that at the bottom of such things is a deeply conservative impulse to justify – and sanctify – everything as it is, not least the inequalities of wealth and the callousness toward the poor and disenfranchised that increasingly characterize American life. The CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are assumed to "deserve" their seven and eight figure compensation packages (even as they make disastrous decisions), while many vehemently deny that the people who perform the work without which their companies could not possibly remain going concerns "deserve" a living wage. Some people "deserve" megayachts, while others do not "deserve" health care – or even food and shelter.

In other words, the mind-boggling greed of some is not merely excused but justified on the grounds of what they "deserve," while the claims of others to having their most basic physical needs (and many would say, their most basic rights as human beings) met are dismissed on the very same grounds, which happens to be not the content of one's character, but the content of one's bank account, personal worth equated with "net worth." One person is "worth" fifty billion dollars and another "worth" nothing – in effect, worthless.

All of this is a revolting tissue of absurdities which only confuses and cheapens the idea of morality itself. But I don't think it's going away any time soon. If anything, the way the political winds are blowing, it seems likely the tendency will only get stronger.

On the Word "Lifestyle": A Postscript
5/18/12
On the Word "Lifestyle"
11/19/11

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Posts by Guest Contributors

Posts from guest contributors are listed by contributor, presented below in alphabetical order.

Isa
Guest Post: The Best Superhero Movies on Netflix
9/7/16

G.I. Joe

Listed below are my posts on the G.I. Joe franchise.

G.I. Joe and James Bond: A Few More Thoughts
12/12/16
Of G.I. Joe and James Bond
9/7/16

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: The Baroque Arsenal, by Mary Kaldor

New York: Hill & Wang, 1981, pp. 294.
Originally published on NADER ELHEFNAWY, December 17, 2013.

In 1981's The Baroque Arsenal, Mary Kaldor wrote of recent generations of high-tech weapons, like the M-1 main battle tank, the F-111 and Tornado fighters, and the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. She also wrote of the institutional arrangements that necessarily go with such weapons--the organization of armed forces around systems like these, and the military-industrial complexes that grow around their development, production and servicing.

Kaldor argued that the phenomenon emerged from the interaction between the conservatism of military establishments, and the dynamism of the industrial enterprises which today meet their needs. Military services, she argued, are prone to stick with established systems and established missions, but business is prone to continually offer the "new and improved" to win new customers, and keep old ones, in a competitive commercial environment.

The resulting pattern was, in Kaldor's view, a problematic one, driving military-industrial complexes to treat the "perfection" of such weapons as an end in itself, and in the process develop them past the point of diminishing returns--gains in performance, and the value of new features, coming at disproportionate cost. The increasingly complex and expensive systems produced in this way tend to be logistical nightmares, at once demanding and unreliable; increasingly vulnerable to newer, cheaper, simpler types of weapon; and irrelevant to the genuine security environment; while crowding other items out of defense budgets--weapons acquisition meaning less money to go around for personnel and training, for instance.

The great historical example of such weaponry is the combination of age-of-sail thinking and Industrial Age hardware in the battleship of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These ships, Kaldor notes, rapidly grew larger, more heavily armed and armored, more complex and more costly, even as their usefulness became increasingly questionable in the era of the torpedo, the submarine, the aircraft--with these ships reaching the apex of technical sophistication and price, and at the same time, practical disutility, during the Second World War.

Kaldor also argued that spending on Baroque weapons not only represents an unwise use of finite defense funds, but has significant macroeconomic implications, because these weapons tend to be the products of "declining" sectors--steel and steam engines already in this state during the battleship's heyday. Government spending on them (which those industries, of course, will encourage) keeps a country overinvested in such sectors at the expense of the newer, "rising" industries that can maximize growth (oil, electricity, chemicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), disadvantaging them in the competition for scarce resources like high-quality engineering skills. Making matters worse, a pattern of government support permits the firms in those older fields to remain profitable even while they are losing their edge, letting them avoid modernizations that would otherwise be forced on them by market competition. In short, a preoccupation with such systems is likely to mean a combination of bloated, obsolescent, uncompetitive declining sectors, and underdeveloped rising sectors, reflecting and reinforcing a formerly leading nation's economic decline--as, Kaldor notes, ultimately proved to be the case for Britain.

Looking at the world circa 1980, Kaldor contended that the course Britain followed as Baroque military superpower and declining economic power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was being repeated by the United States, and also the Soviet Union. Each remained committed to fielding large forces of increasingly large, sophisticated and costly tanks, aircraft and warships, even as precision-guided munitions made them all increasingly vulnerable--while the associated automotive, aerospace and maritime industries made their economies more reflective of the priorities of the World War II-era than the missile age. Additionally, each appeared economically stagnant in comparison with powers less invested in such forces and technologies (like Japan).

Making matters worse, the prestige of the superpowers, and the eagerness of their industries and governments for export revenues (e.g. lower post-Vietnam defense spending in the U.S. making these a needed substitute for diminished government funding), drove them to export the tendency to developing countries like Brazil and Iran via sales of modern weapons and the associated infrastructure. Those countries then went on to replicate the associated practices at home (like military-industrial complexes of their own), which weighed more heavily on their smaller, weaker and less developed economies, to the cost of international economic development.

Kaldor's argument is an intriguing one, and would seem to have since been validated by the industrial decline of the Soviet Union and the United States through the 1980s, and also by the frustrated developmental path of countries like Brazil, which invested heavily in a defense industry that never delivered anything close to what was hoped for from it. Still, her case is not without its weaknesses, particularly her discussion of the relationship between Baroque weapons and economic decline.

One such error is the mistake of overstressing the conservatism of military acquisitions policies, and in the process overlooking the conservatism of defense contractors. The reality is that defense contractors tend to be large, established businesses prone to prefer "sustaining" innovations to disruptive ones, and which also exercise considerable influence over military preferences through such mechanisms as the lobbying industry, and the revolving door between business and government. It is also a mistake to overlook the extent to which defense needs support rising sectors and new technologies. The battleship did represent yesteryear's technologies (steel, coal, steam, shipbuilding), but newer technologies as well during the years of its decadence (oil, electricity, even analog computing).1

Where the issue of national decline is concerned, it seems worthwhile to note that not only Britain, but its economically more vigorous competitors, the United States and Germany, also went in for large battleship construction programs at the end of the nineteenth century. Of course, the effect of those programs may have been negative in all three of their cases, each country forgoing a measure of growth because of that policy, but clearly it did not suffice to derail the development of Britain's rivals. This indicates that while such policies do play a role in national economic decline, they are only one part of the way in which a high defense burden tends to drag down leading economies--which also tend to be afflicted by other problems (like Britain's reorientation away from production toward finance in those same years).

Likewise, it is worth pointing out that while many countries which had appeared to be on promising development paths in the 1970s ultimately saw their progress collapse, and that a preoccupation with Baroque weapons may well have played into this (as in Brazil's case), the success stories have hardly been exempt from the "Baroque weapon" syndrome--such as South Korea, today the builder of the world's most Baroque tank (the Black Panther).

The end result is that the mentality of the Baroque weapon has been bad for a nation's economic health, for its effective defense planning, and for overall national well-being, but declining powers--and developing powers which fail to develop--are prone to be doing much else wrong. And that makes all the difference between the powers that suffer most from this policy, and their more vigorous competitors, who have generally not been immune to the fascination of the Baroque weapon.

1. In fairness, Kaldor acknowledges that defense spending does prop up new sectors, but leans toward a view that this support is limited rather than foundational--for instance, providing critical markets in the early stages of a product's life--and offers computers as an example. However, in discussing this subject she neglects to mention ENIAC and SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), the NLS (oN-Line System) and the ARPANET (the precursor to today's Internet), all military initiatives that seem not only to have provided markets for computing technology, but directly driven important innovations.

XXX (Spy Film Series)

Listed below are my posts regarding the XXX spy film series. Not whatever else you might be thinking about.

Xander Cage Actually Returns
12/21/16
The Return of Xander Cage?
9/26/12

Xander Cage Actually Returns

I'd like to have been able to start off this post by saying "And now for something completely different!" from the previous one. But it's really just slightly different--instead of a '50s-era British spy series that can in hindsight seem stodgier than Bond, I turn now to one of the 21st century's more notable attempts to update 007--the XXX series.

Four years ago I considered the prospect of Xander Cage's returning to the screen, and declared the then development hell-trapped film a longshot.

Of course, the film did get made, and is now about a month away from release. And on seeing the trailer, it looks that, unlike a belated revival of another spy film franchise (2014's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), the filmmakers not only stuck with the star and the version of the series associated with him (we still have Vin Diesel in extreme sports-themed action), but laid out the cash to keep it from looking cheap.1 At the very least, XXX3 looks like a satisfactory follow-up to the preceding film.

I might add, too, that popular taste may be swinging away from the gritty to the flamboyant in its spy thrillers, if successes like Kingsman and Spy, and the performance of the recent James Bond and Mission: Impossible brands are anything to go by.

Still, the studio didn't exactly rush to get XXX3 made--apparently waiting until after the explosive grosses of not just the colossal hit Fast and Furious 6, but the billion-dollar take of Furious 7 before pushing on with all steam ahead. (Hollywood was actually quicker to get the Riddick movie out, maybe because it felt safe taking the low-cost route with another Pitch Black rather than a proper follow-up to Chronicles.) And even so, a January release date doesn't scream confidence for anything but Oscar contenders and Navy SEAL-themed shoot 'em ups clearly pitched at one side of the country's political divide--with XXX3 neither of those things. (Certainly it's a strong contrast with the release of the first film back in the summer of 2002, before much of this film's target audience was even born; or even the borderline summer release of the riskier follow-up on the last weekend in April 2005.)

All the same, I'm less confident than before in my assessment of this movie's chances, and left wondering--Will this late gamble on the audience's desire to see Xander Cage return prove wrong-headed, prove to have been a valid way of extracting a little last profit from another old name, or pay off big, like James Bond instead of Jack Ryan? What do you think?

1. Peter Hartlaub's favorable review of Shadow Recruit remarked the "thrifty set pieces and smaller ambitions" of a movie where "bank transactions and tense conversations push the action forward."

My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12
The Return of Xander Cage?
9/26/12

Slow Burner and '50s Britain

The plot of William Haggard's Slow Burner centers on a British program to develop civil nuclear power in the hopes of scoring a major economic coup.

While nuclear energy has never stopped being topical, this idea was especially so at the time because in the '50s the British government really did bet heavily on its scientists achieving a breakthrough in civil nuclear power, both for the sake of cheap domestic power, and as a source of export income with which to achieve a healthy balance of payments (as a country dependent on massive food and energy imports, while its manufacturing and financial position slipped).1 The object of those hopes was the Magnox reactor, which never justified such a confidence (the world generally preferred the American pressurized water reactor, today still the mainstay of civil nuclear power), but the expectations do come to pass in Slow Burner, specifically in the titular, very different technology. A nuclear power source compact enough to be installed in a suburban attic and packed up and driven about in the boot of a car, it put Britain twenty years' ahead of the rest of the world--the only way, the book says, that the British economy was not twenty years behind it.

Moreover, the implications of this for Britain's economic life are repeatedly underlined within the story, so much so that the characters worry that the thief might be running West as much as East, and seem more concerned about the implications of losing perhaps their only prospect for a healthy balance of payments than they are about the Soviets upsetting the Cold War balance of power. Indeed, it is Britain's economic predicament that Sir Jeremy Bates has in mind ("Fifty or sixty million . . . and food, at the level of subsistence, for perhaps forty"; manufacturing plant "a generation out of date") when he thinks to himself that a "man who could consider going abroad, selling his knowledge, was worse than a danger, worse than an apostate" (114).

The point comes up in smaller ways, too--a burglar enlisted by Colonel Russell's people for an illegal black bag job told that if things go badly he could be resettled where he likes in the Sterling Area.

Sterling Area? he wonders, surprised by the qualification.

Yes, he's told, because just now dollars are hard to come by.

Next to this any menace from the Soviets in the book appears vague, shadowy.

Unsurprisingly, a good part of the book's interest for me was in its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain, capable of surprising in such ways.

1. While it doesn't say much about the government's specifically nuclear ambitions, David Edgerton's Warfare State nonetheless has a good deal to say about British policy regarding R & D in these years, and the view of some of its critics that it was too devoted to big-ticket prestige projects (of which the Concorde supersonic transport was another example).

My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard
12/18/16
Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Un-Bond: William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell

I remember that when reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels I was struck by how much the character and his outlook, his associated image of glamour, the basis of his existence as a globe-trotting British agent (policing the Empire in its last days, playing junior but more skillful partner to the Americans in the Cold War contest) was very much a product of a particular period that has since passed. This has been so much so that novelists working in the series, less able to rely on brand name and flashy filmmaking than their cinematic counterparts, have in recent years so often seen no option but to go back to those days--Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd taking Bond back to the '60s, Anthony Horowitz taking Bond all the way back to the '50s (or in the case of Jeffrey Deaver, starting with the character again from scratch in the present day).

Still, Fleming's creation has held up considerably better than Haggard's, and his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell, head of the imaginary Special Executive.

Russell, like Bond, is a formidable ex-military counterintelligence operative; like Bond, handsome, suave, urbane; like Bond a man who enjoys good food, drinks and the other luxuries. Still, his version of luxury is different. Instead of the dated image of jet air travel and casinos, there is the even more dated image of the club, the country house, enjoyed by this old officer with his regimental moustache and pipe. Bond might brood about the taxi driver's manner, but Russell never has occasion to, appearing to exist untouched by the changes of the world surrounding him.

Indeed, at times Haggard's characters can almost seem caricatures (at least, to an American rather sensitized to "stage Englishmen" by terrible Hollywood writing). This is particularly the case when Haggard writes figures like Sir Jeremy Bates in Slow Burner, with the following line exemplary: "it was barely four. It would be unheard of for Sir Jeremy Bates to leave his office at tea-time" (116); or better still, when Sir Jeremy Bates comes home after a drunk to a valet who offers no question or comment:
Confound and damn the fellow! His lack of interest was an insult. A gentleman's gentleman--the convention had survived, the convention of the English manservant, secret, uninquiring, impersonal (111-112).
It is much the same with William Nichol, who after nearly getting run over by a would-be assassin in a big truck, and losing his hat, takes a cab because he "was not a man to walk hatless in London" (127).

Such things are even more evident in their social attitudes, the bigotry and snobbery fiercer and more bluntly expressed. While Fleming wrote many a foreign villain, he generally eschewed depicting treachery by Britons. The French unions may have been a Soviet fifth column in Casino Royale--but the British unions (even the Jamaican unions), however much Fleming disliked organized labor, were in the end no traitors to the nation.

Many a scientist can be counted among Fleming's villains--but scientists as such were not presented as a perverse lot.

Not so with Haggard, who condemns the lot as untrustworthy because their affinity for reason makes them a bunch of damned crypto-Communists; and when the traitor is exposed, the scientist is indeed a man of "the far, far Left," while also being "no gentleman," not solely as a matter of his birth but his "character" in his dealings with his wife.1 (And that is not only all we know about him, but, it seems in Haggard's rather old-fashioned view, all that we need to know.)

All that makes it seem less surprising that there was never a Colonel Russell film franchise--and why, even apart from the lack of a movie franchise to keep him on people's minds, the books have slipped into comparative obscurity.

1. "Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies" (58)--a prospect the narrator clearly regarded with horror.

My Posts on William Haggard
12/18/16
My Posts on Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis
2/5/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12
Two Reviews: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks and Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver
11/1/11

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon