Tag Archives: history

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner review – it’s a history of the CIA!

I have finished reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. I found it to be a very odd book.

On the one hand, I have no fault for Weiner’s research. Since I’ve been following the CIA for a while, much of it was known to me, but seeing it collected in one spot was moving – the CIA has done so much evil.

On the other hand, Weiner doesn’t follow his research to the obvious conclusion: that the CIA never worked, and never will, that people operating in secret cannot be trusted, and secret services are a threat to democracy and global stability. Which is to say, the CIA should be shut down for the good of the United States and the world.

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Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

One of the things vexes me as a writer is how quality gets constructed. How do humans decide what they like and dislike? The simple answer is “we like what’s good.” Slightly less simple, but only slightly, is “we like what we like.” But the longer I think about the subject, the more I think that perhaps the most significant factor in determining quality is a person’s internal narrative. I also believe that how we decide what we like and dislike is intensely important because unless we understand the origin of our internal narrative – and how outside forces shape it – we diminish our intellectual freedom and harm our communities.

Which brings us to io9‘s article, pithily entitled, “Wine Tasting is Bullshit. Here’s Why.” It is useful for my purposes because it is a survey of other articles that discuss the problem with wine tasting. In none of the articles does the idea of “narrative” come up, but I firmly believe that’s the underlying issue.

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The ass-kissing sycophancy of Ron Chernow’s Titan makes it altogether unreadable

About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.

The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”

No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!

Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!

He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.

In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.

From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?

Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.

Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.

Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.

I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.

In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.

If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)

It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.

And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.

When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)

When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.

At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.

But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.

When biographies say one thing but describe another: Chernow’s Titan

As y’all might know, I’m a pretty critical reader, so it is very hard to read biographies of wealth.

I’m reading the a bio of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, by Ron Chernow. Like the bio of wealth I read before it, about J. Paul Getty, it is awful, full of prattling about willpower and concentration while describing mere ruthlessness and opportunity and ignoring chance.

So, Titan wants to present Rockefeller as a genius – a man of rare intellectual ability, concentration, and willpower, who brought an empire into being out of nothingness. But the actual story doesn’t seem to support that analysis.

John D. Rockefeller was, without doubt, a hardworking and skilled businessman. There are a lot of those, though. The narrative of his success, as told in the book, is stated to be one of genius but the events tell a different story. Titan tells of a talented businessman who, in his youth, started a commodities business on the eve of the Civil War. The remarkable success of his commodities business wasn’t due to any particular or unusual talents of Rockefeller, but his good luck to be a Cleveland businessman during the Civil War. Ohio was the breadbasket of the Union Army, and people who bought and sold foodstuffs made a lot of money. Rockefeller did not anticipate the war; he simply went into what he thought would be a profitable business, and before the war, it was profitable but not remarkable.

Then during the war, flush with cash from profitable wartime commodities trading, a man came along looking for funding for oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, less than a day away from Cleveland. Rockefeller, at the time, did not think very much of the oil industry, which hadn’t taken off. He was simply a local businessman in the nearest city of note who happened to have a lot of money due to circumstances beyond his control. Rockefeller knew nothing about the oil business, then, and didn’t think it would amount to much, just a side business to his commodities trading.

This is not the origin story of genius. Unlike the man who intuited that Pennsylvania petroleum could be refined into a cheap illuminant (in this case, kerosene), Rockefeller didn’t have the vision of a future market in mind. Unlike the Yale professor who discovered the refining process, Rockefeller did not have the scientific acumen to process raw petroleum into finished products. And unlike the engineer who figured out how to drill for oil, Rockefeller added nothing to the extraction.  He was just there with money.

As I said, one dollar is much like another, and one businessman is much like the other.

But at no point in discussing the origin of John D. Rockefeller’s origin does Chernow admit that chance played a big role in the creation of Standard Oil. Despite his numerous descriptions of the various ways that chance played a role in creating Rockefeller’s wealth, the book presents this advance as not primarily luck but unusual abilities. I believe this is to retain the narrative that the intellectually undistinguished Rockefeller nevertheless has some unique quality – a genius – that justified his incredible wealth. The other story – the one where a talented but mostly unremarkable businessman found himself in the right place at the right time – is far less heroic, after all, and makes business success seem more like circumstance than ability. The narrative of that circumstance is more important than ability is contrary to capitalism’s ideology, and is avoided in the United States.

That is precisely what Chernow describes. It could have been any capable businessman with four grand in his pocket that started Standard Oil. Any at all.

Another example of how atrocious Titan is, Chernow never once considers that part of the reason that Rockefeller didn’t fight in the Civil War was that Rockefeller didn’t want to get shot. The possibility that cowardice might have been at the root of Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not brought up. It is an interesting lacuna.  When a possibility is unpalatable to a capitalist-loving audience, Chernow simply dispenses with it.  There is considerable irony because Chernow does acknowledge that Rockefeller had a selective memory.

The book is useful in the sense of providing the details of the life of Rockefeller. I’m capable of doing the interpretation on my own, and I have trained myself to see inconsistencies and contradictions, but the book is awful.

Lastly, I want to criticize editors, again. The problems in Chernow’s book aren’t subtle. He never demonstrates how, for instance, Rockefeller has more concentration than someone else. He consistently ignores alternate explanations for events in Rockefeller’s life despite them being obvious and plausive (such as Rockefeller being a physical coward as the reason he avoided fighting in the Civil War). But since Rockefeller’s business life is the center of the book, ignoring the extent to which chance played a role in Rockefeller’s business is particularly galling, editorially. If someone gave me a manuscript and said that Rockefeller succeeded due to the non-specific traits of “willpower” and “concentration,” but described success due to chance, I’d send the manuscript back. I’d say, “There is a disconnect between your description of Rockefeller and your description of his actions. It wasn’t genius or willpower or concentration that got him into the oil business, but happenstance – that he was flush with money from wartime speculation in commodities and someone happened along and convinced him oil would be a good side business. If Rockefeller had lived in a different time or place, if he had stayed in Owego, New York, instead of moving to Cleveland, or been born ten years later, we would never know about him.”

Once again, I find myself wondering at the usefulness of content editors if they miss what seems so obvious to me. At the bare minimum, it suggests that content editing does not improve a manuscript, but instead simply improves it for a specific audience – while, at the same time, moving it away from other audiences. Editorial decisions to ignore the role of chance in Rockefeller’s life to create the illusion of a capitalist genius formed by willpower sells to a different group of people than a book which openly admits that time and chance play a role in everything we do – and perhaps the biggest role.

Ayn Rand really stinks as a philosophy of history, as she ignores violence

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand

Moving on with reading Goddess of the Market, it’s even hard to read about Ayn Rand.

One of the things that distinguishes Rand is that she has a philosophy of history. As she sees it, individualists are the engines of creation. Thus, the success of the American enterprise (and, indeed, all human success, though she uses the sexist term “man” constantly, ugh) arises from individual risk-takers as exemplified by our frontiersman past.

Wealth does arise from exploitation and violence.  Not from a multi-century conquest of a large part of North America and its riches. Not as arising from the genocide of Native Americans to acquire North America. Not from the exploitation of slave labor.

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The Neocon Problem of Violence

firearm-409000_640Ayn Rand has a problem with violence. I think that all anarcho-capitalist ideologies (of which Objectivism is certainly one) have the problem of violence.

To the extent that anarcho-capitalists defend violence, they do so for purposes of individual and collective self-defense. But that’s not what I’m talking about, here. I’m talking about aggression, particularly violence as an adjunct of theft. I’m talking about, quite literally, legalized banditry.

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Starting some critique about Ayn Rand, oh, yeah, bab-ee, it’s AWN!

One of the central problems, I feel, with Ayn Rand’s work in general, and Atlas Shrugged in particular, is that she was a very black-and-white thinker.

To her, any “governmental coercion” equals the Stalinist USSR.

Of course, I have hindsight she doesn’t have, but it is also my experience that Objectivist-inspired neocons have a convenient and peculiar way of historical interpretation.

So, after World War II, the United States was as close to a socialist democratic republic that we’d ever get, from the New Deal to the Marshall Plan, Keynesian economics held sway. The highest tax rate was around 95% both here and abroad.

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