Friday, March 24, 2017

On Traveling

Each trip (to Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Peru, Morocco, Burma, India, Russia) was thoroughly prepared for with advance reading and orderly itineraries, and then preserved—usually by his wife—in photographs of buildings and cities: pyramids, temples, mosques, streets, columns, ruins [...]

One of my father-in-law’s busy, ephemeral projects fell out of a book about Greek history. A single sheet of paper, with notes written in his careful hand. The date was 2/1/95, and the notes were preparation for a trip to Greece: “History of Ancient Greece. Jean Hatzfeld and André Aymard, N.Y., Norton 1966.” Under this heading were lines in English:
  • Greeks establish themselves during second millennium BC: Greece, Black Sea, Asia Minor, Islands, S. Italy.

  • Common language and tradition but very divided. Hellas = culture, civiliz. (“Hellenes” does not come until 800 BC. “Greek” is Roman.)

  • Geographic identity between Greece and Western Asia Minor: the sea is due to a subsidence which broke up a continent of recent formation and whose structure was very complicated—fjords, deep bays, mountains, capes, islands.
"Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law’s library." by James Wood

The one thing I really love about it, that maybe is a little bit weird, is I think that a lot of what is great about travel is focusing your attention on a place in a way that is not necessarily related, actually all the time, to being there.

Often times, when I’m traveling somewhere, part of why I learn so much about the place I’m going is that I’m thinking about it, I’m reading about it as I’m there watching it. A lot of it is the mustering of other kinds of attentional resources, watching movies, or documentaries, or consuming other kinds of culture from it before.

There is more than just the seeing. Sometimes people feel like the learning about a place is just going and seeing it. For me, I find that a lot of the benefits of travel are actually about things that I could have done even if I haven’t been there, but I would have never focused on in the same way, and with the same intensity, for the same period of time.
Ezra Klein on Media, Politics, and Models of the World

Monday, March 20, 2017

Бодлогын өгөгдөхүүн

Few places seem to matter less for the West than Mongolia. Policy makers in Ulaanbaatar have tried hard over the years to develop their “third neighbour” policy in a bid to escape the hard geographic reality of being perpetually sandwiched between two great powers, China and Russia. However, there are few buyers in the West for the role of Mongolia’s “overseas neighbour.” The Bush Administration at least kept an eye on this sparsely populated expanse of territory the size of Western Europe (Bush even turned up in Mongolia in 2005 for an unprecedented, if short, visit). Under Obama, the country has simply disappeared off Washington’s radar. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not even looked that way on any one of her frequent Asian blitz-tours. And who cares? After all, Mongolia is basically peripheral to Western political and economic interests. Even BBC World News, in a recent online piece, confused the country with China-administered Inner Mongolia.
"Mongolia between Russia and China" by Sergey Radchenko

Let’s face it, Mongolia is the end of the earth as far as they’re concerned. Here is a country which when I went there was the largest land-locked country in the world. In the United States, it would stretch from New York to Denver, from Minneapolis to Dallas, with a population of two and a half million people. It is the least densely populated country in the world. And between Russia and China. How much more forgotten and obscure can you be in terms of the rest of the world?
Secretary Baker played such a key role” by Ambassador Joseph Lake

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Seeing Things as They Are

The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.
"Churchill's Greatness" by Leo Strauss

Facts are better than dreams.
from Winston Churchill's "The Gathering Storm"

“Nice guy” and “role model” have become synonyms in sport but a role model is someone who shows you how to move through the world as it is.
"The devil and Roger Federer" by Janan Ganesh

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
They barely had an idea of their original civilization. They had the Koran and its laws; they stuck to certain fashions in dress, wore a certain kind of cap, had a special cut of beard; and that was all. They had little idea of what their ancestors had done in Africa. They had only the habit of authority, without the energy or the education to back up that authority. The authority of the Arabs--which was real enough when I was a boy--was only a matter of custom. It could be blown away at any time. The world is what it is.
from V. S. Naipaul's “A Bend in the River”

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Focused Discipline

President Obama and President Clinton had some things in common, but they also had respects in which they were very different. President Clinton was unlikely to begin a meeting on schedule, but he was even less likely to end it on schedule, so you were likely to get a little more than your allotted time. President Obama, meetings could begin early and so you needed to be in your office and ready to come downstairs in case he wanted to begin a meeting early. You had better be pretty sure that you were able to say what you had to say quickly because when your time was over, your time was over, and he was going to move on.

President Clinton was less than 100 percent certain to have read your memo. But if he hadn’t read it he would read it as you summarized it for him, and he would master it very quickly. President Obama was virtually certain to have read your memo and to have read it extremely thoughtfully.

President Obama brought a focused discipline. He didn’t want to talk about things that the President didn’t need to get involved in. If his economic advisor couldn’t figure out the difference between subordinated debt and preferred stock, he certainly didn’t think it was his job to help. President Clinton was prepared to try to do his job, but was also prepared to offer you a tremendous amount of advice on how to do your job.

President Obama was focused on how, whatever particular issue was being discussed, related to the rest of the issues in his Presidency and the rest of the factors that were present in any political situation. President Clinton was focused on those things, but was likely also focused on things he had read somewhere or conversations he had had at some point in the past. I remember his once telling the Secretary of the Transportation at substantial length about new developments in environmentally friendly concrete and how that needed to be considered. President Obama’s approach was a more sharply focused approach.
Conversations with Bill Kristol: Larry Summers
"He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”
"Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone"
You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”
"Obama's Way" by Michael Lewis
Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Mr. Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs.

“He tested his ideas in classrooms,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of, “Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?” as Mr. Hutchinson put it.
"Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart"

Addendum: Letters to President Obama + Obama's class Current Issues in Racism and the Law ("Taking Professor Obama's Class") + "Breaking the War Mentality" by Barack Obama (1983)

The Most Complete Man

[Obama] was certainly one of the most complete man I'd ever met.
Junot Diaz
For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.

People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.

[I started to read Shakespeare] tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. It gives me a sense of perspective.

I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly “Song of Solomon” is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His “A Bend in the River,” which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.
Transcript: President Obama on What Books Mean to Him
A dark view of humans, a certain resignation to the imperfectibility of things, is what marks literature out from the idealistic arts [...] It is there — more than anywhere else — in Naipaul, whose circuitous route to Britain via India and Trinidad does not show up in cosmopolitan pieties but almost the opposite: an unsentimental attitude to developing countries, a commitment to the culture he has fought to join.

Graham Greene detected a “splinter of ice” in the heart of a writer. There is sometimes a shard of the cold stuff in an immigrant, as well. To endure the upheaval, to brave the new, to make a success of it all requires (or inculcates) some of that sub-zero Naipaulian attitude. They cannot allow themselves to become nothing. This sentiment is not always captured by the immigrant fiction of the past decade or two, which comes in jaunty multicoloured dust jackets and seems to showcase diversity as an end itself, as if any actual migrant ever has that in mind.

For more than a century, anglophone literature has thrown up masters who look slightly askance at the modern world and its sensibilities. It is not a political conservatism, as such [...] It is something more like a sceptical habit of mind and a preference for dismal truths over well-meaning lies (which is what political correctness often amounts to).

[A] writer must believe that human nature is universal and more or less unchangeable. Most non-conservative schemes — social-democracy, the wilder edges of identity politics — are efforts to refine or deny that nature through bureaucratic tinkering.

As the arts despair of the world, it may fall to novelists to do more than vent. Theirs is the only medium with the scope to air complex ideas, which is why film adaptations feel so diminished. It also has unique conservative pedigree. Do not wait for a film, album or image to do justice to our times. A novel might.
"In praise of literary conservatives" by Janan Ganesh
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

[...] Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.
President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II
Whatever our current travails, we now have a literate president capable of coherent discourse, but too many other politicians are devoid of syntax and appear to have read nothing. Aggressive ignorance in aspirants to high office is another dismal consequence of the waning of authentic education.
"Get Lost. In Books." by Harold Bloom (2008)

Addendum: Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Mistakes We Have to Make Up

Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p.3

Dream that is Very Real Nevertheless

A national dream need not, indeed may not be clear-cut and exact. [...] For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called "the American Way of Life." No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless, perhaps more real than that equally remote dream the Russians call Communism. These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.
from John Steinbeck's America and Americans, p.41

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Tuesday Morning Blues

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"Only the question of Outer Mongolia remained"

The Qing state continued to grant Chinese merchants licenses to trade throughout Mongolian territories, and this trade continued to be dominated by several large firms based in Shanxi province that manipulated exchange rates between Mongolian raw materials such as fur, hides, and wool, and Chinese finished products such as tea, house wares, and luxury goods. Their control over these rates allowed them to claim that with each transaction, the Mongolian purchasers had acquired further debt. This drove down the cost of the raw materials, while simultaneously increasing Mongolians’ debt. Debt was commonly distributed throughout the banner, causing many Mongolians to submit petitions to Qing officials pleading for the reduction of their financial burdens.
Sara L. Jackson and Devon Dear. "Resource extraction and national anxieties: China’s economic presence in Mongolia." Eurasian Geography and Economics (2016): 1-31.

What the Mongols fear most is the attempt of the Chinese to colonize their country, and they see with alarm how the tilled fields of these thrifty agriculturists are already encroaching on the steppe.
“The People of the Wilderness: The Mongols, Once the Terror of All Christendom, Now a Primitive, Harmless Nomad Race” by Adam Warwick, National Geographic Magazine, 1/1/1921, Volume 39, p. 551


Энэ бол мөн л онц сонирхолтой торгон агшин. БНМАУ-ын Ерөнхий сайд Ю.Цэдэнбал БНХАУ-ын үндэсний баярт ганцаараа хүндэт (дээд) зочноор очоод цэргийн парад хүлээн авч байгаа түүхэн зураг. Мао Зэдун, Жоу Эньлай нарын дунд ёслон зогсоо бүрх малгайтай цэл залуу Ю.Цэдэнбал. БНМАУ-ын тусгаар тогтносон улс болохыг Хятадын ДИУ 1945 онд манай бүх ард түмний санал асуулгын дараа арга буюу хүлээн зөвшөөрөөд 1946 онд дипломат харилцаа тогтоосон бол 1949 онд түүний халааг авч шинээр байгуулагдсан БНХАУ нь БНМАУ-ыг шууд хүлээн зөвшөөрч Элчин сайдын хэмжээнд дипломат харилцаа тогтоогоод удаагүй байх үеийн гэрэл зураг энэ байна.
Д.Баярхүү - "Хоёр их хөрштэй тэнцвэр тогтоосон торгон агшин"

During the same conversation Liu Shaoqi added that the Chinese people allegedly are very deeply pained by the fact of Mongolia's secession from China. He noted that when the Soviet Union was celebrating the 300-year-anniversary of reunification of Ukraine with Russia, [some people] said in China that 300 years ago Mongolia already was a part of China and asked the question whether it could be re-united with China. The Chinese, Liu Shaoqi continued, consider Mongolia, like Taiwan, a part of their territory.
"Information Memorandum, 'About the Claims of the Chinese Leaders With Regard to the Mongolian People's Republic'," January 30, 1964, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive.

Chairman Deng: Yalta not only severed Outer Mongolia from China, but also brought the Northeastern part of China into the Soviet sphere. [Now] only the question of Outer Mongolia remained. We raised the question of Outer Mongolia, but the Soviets didn't respond [...]

Mr. President [George H. W. Bush], you are my friend. I hope you will look at the map to see what happened after the Soviet Union severed Outer Mongolia from China. What kind of strategic situation did we find ourselves in? Those over 50 in China remember that the shape of China was like a maple leaf. Now, if you look at a map, you see a huge chunk in the north cut away; the maple leaf has been nibbled away. I hope Ambassador Lord will show the President a map of China. It's very interesting.
"Memorandum of Conversation between George H. W. Bush and Chairman Deng Xiaoping in Beijing," February 26, 1989, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive.

Хамтдаа түлээ цуглуулбал гал өндөр бадарна. Хятад улс Монгол Улсыг оролцуулаад хөрш орнууддаа хөгжлийн боломж, хөгжих орон зайг олгоно. Та бүхнийг Хятадын хөгжлийн галт тэргэнд суухыг урьж байна. Галт тэрэг хурдан ч бай, удаан ч бай бид Та бүхнийг урьж байна. “Ганцаар явбал хурдан явна. Олуулаа явбал хол явна” гэж үг байдаг.
Монгол Улсын Их Хурлын хүндэтгэлийн хуралдаан дээр БНХАУ-ын дарга Си Зиньпиний хэлсэн үг. 2014 оны 8 дугаар сарын 22-ны өдөр.

This could well be just another period of Chinese charm that will be followed by another round of coercion. That’s certainly been the pattern of Chinese behaviour before, and it is difficult to see why Beijing would change now.
"China tries chequebook diplomacy in Southeast Asia" from Financial Times, Monday, November 7, 2016

Monday, October 31, 2016

That is Teaching

My greatest debt, though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who--in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke--broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum.
from Tony Judt's “The Memory Chalet

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Prayer is Not an Option

My advice, minister, is that you:

■ Disregard any debt sustainability analysis that assigns a greater than 50% probability to the occurrence of the second coming of Christ before the next bond maturity.

■ While avoiding unrealistic optimism, do not careen to the other extreme of soul-destroying despair. A request for financial assistance addressed to the executive board of the IMF should not begin with the sentence: “The last camel died at noon.” Panic is as infectious as yawning. So, however, is a sense of composure and control.

■ Once it becomes clear that the debt stock must be addressed, get on with it. Creditors may not like the prospect of having to write off a portion of their claims or defer repayment dates, but they positively loathe prolonged periods of indecision and dithering. Efficiency, discipline and fairness, even in carrying out a disagreeable task, will be remembered by markets long after the financial pain of a sovereign debt restructuring has been forgotten.

A sovereign debt crisis is just that: a crisis. It does not have to become a catastrophe.
"An open letter to the minister of finance of Ruritania" by Lee C Buchheit

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Only one idea per article

I once offered an editor an 800-word article. I told him various brilliant points I wanted to make. He pretended to listen patiently, and then said: “Most readers can remember only one idea from an article.” Just make one good point, he said, and buttress it with facts and anecdotes. If an hour later the reader can remember your point, that’s a triumph. Since then I have tried to make only one point per article, though not today.
Simon Kuper - Lessons from the Field