Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Blog

Check out my new blog here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

De Soto on Cities

The primary problem is the delay in recognizing that most of the disorder occurring outside the West is the result of a revolutionary movement that is more full of promise than of problems. Once the potential value of the movement is harnessed, many of its problems will be easier to resolve. Developing and former communist nations must choose to either create systems that allow their governments to adapt to the continual changes in the revolutionary division of labor or continue to live in extralegal confusion--and that really isn't much of a choice...

Extralegal zones in developing countries are characterized by modest homes cramped together on city perimeters, a myriad of workshops in their midst, armies of vendors hawking their wares on the streets, and countless crisscrossing minibus lines. All seem to have sprung out of nowhere. Steady streams of small crafts workers, tools under their arms, have expanded the range of activities carried out in the city. Ingenious local adaptations add to the production of essential goods and services, dramatically transforming certain areas of manufacturing, retail distribution, building, and transportation. The passive landscapes that once surrounded Third World cities have become the latest extensions of the metropolis, and cities modeled on the European style have yielded to more noisy, local personality blended with drab imitations of suburban America's commercial strip. (De Soto, The Mystery of Capital)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tragic Beauty

For me, the word that best describes the novelist's view of the world is tragic. In Nietzsche's account of the "birth of tragedy," which remains pretty much unbeatable as a theory of why people enjoy sad narratives, an anarchic "Dionysian" insight into the darkness and unpredictability of life is wedded to an "Apollonian" clarity and beauty of form to produce an experience that's religious in its intensity. Even for people who don't believe in anything that they can't see with their own two eyes, the formal aesthetic rendering of the human plight can be (though I'm afraid we novelists are rightly mocked for overusing the word) redemptive...

I hope it's clear that by "tragic" I mean just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn't resolve into cant. (Indeed, the most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy.) The point of calling serious fiction tragic is to highlight its distance from the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture. The necessary lie of every successful regime, including the upbeat techno-corporatism under which we now live, is that the regime has made the world a better place. Tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost; that nothing lasts forever; that if the good in the world outweighs the bad, it's by the slimmest of margins. (Jonathan Franzen, "Why Bother?", How to Be Alone: Essays)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Framing Suffering

How is suffering, including that caused by sickness, best explained? How is it to be addressed? These questions are, of course, as old as humankind. We've had millennia in which to address--societally, in an organized fashion--the suffering that surrounds us. In looking at approaches to such problems, one can easily discern three main trends: charity, development, and social justice. (Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power, 153)


"So once again, an illiterate old Balti taught a Westerner how to best go about developing his 'backward' area," Mortenson says. "Ever since then, with all the schools I've built, I've remembered Haji Ali's advice and expanded slowly, from village to village and valley to valley, going where we'd already built relationships, instead of trying to hopscotch to places I had no contacts, like Waziristan." (Mortenson and Relin, Three Cups of Tea, 177)

Friday, April 16, 2010

DFW on the Redistribution of Wealth

Opinion: The mistake here lies in both sides' assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives' mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people's sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people. No one ever seems willing to acknowledge aloud the thoroughgoing self-interest that underlies all impulses toward economic equality--especially not US progressives, who seem so invested in an image of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate and Not Like Those Selfish Conservatives Over There that they allow the conservatives to frame the debate in terms of charity and utility, terms under which redistribution seems far less obviously a good thing. (David Foster Wallace, "Authority and American Usage", Consider the Lobster)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Culture of Charity

In society, I’d like to see more value placed on social impact and success than on good intentions or effective marketing or the severity of the need you’re claiming to serve. I’d like to see a fundamental change in ethics or culture around that. We still have the lingering effect of a culture of charity, which honors people for their sacrifice—how much they give and the purity of their motives. The word charity comes from the word “caritas,” which is Latin for love or compassion. We’re rewarding people for demonstrating their love of humankind, but we’re not often looking to see whether it has the intended impact. So I’d love to see an ethics change, so that we honor people for the impact they’ve had directly, or indirectly in choosing to support programs and organizations and individuals that have had impact, not just for how much they give or how generous they are. (Greg Dees, "The Past, Present, and Future of Social Entrepreneurship")