Monday, August 30, 2010

Facebook Is Over

Phuket Island, Thailand

I have started a Facebook page.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Exile of Moscow, Or Why The Careerists Win

Phuket Island, Thailand

To celebrate the ninth anniversary of his newspaper, the editor downed several Viagra and attempted to screw nine Russian prostitutes in nine hours.

We are not talking about the New York World, although that would be a sight -- the bearded, mustachioed Joseph Pulitzer, flushed red by the impotence drug, perhaps with a dangling monocle, lifting himself sweatily off Galina and turning ravenously toward Tatyana in a decrepit Soviet flat.

Instead, we’re talking about The Exile, the expatriate English-language paper which somehow managed to publish in Moscow from 1997 until the Russian government forced its closure in 2008.

The Exile was obscene, fascinating, grotesque, truthful, juvenile, penetrating and awesome. It highlighted the worst aspects of the New Russia -- the thieving elites, the drunken domestic violence, the provincial poverty, the clueless Western development experts -- and it was all covered by addict loser journalist wannabes who were on the ride of their lives.

One feature reported murder/suicides and was called “Comma Self.” (Think about it.) The Exile engineered pranks in the best tradition of Spy magazine, like the time they dressed an intern as a rock star and walked him into the most exclusive VIP rooms in the capital. And editor Mark Ames wrote the prostitute reviews (called Whore-R Stories), among other content.

The history of The Exile is the topic of this rollicking online-only Vanity Fair article by James Verini. If you haven’t read it, if you know nothing about The Exile, please read it right now, and enjoy the next fifteen minutes of your life. I can wait while I watch the willowly anchor-ingénues on the France 24 news channel.

* * *

Wouldn’t you have loved to be there?

Publications are like music and fashion. They exist in a moment in time, and, before you know it, the moment’s over. Too rapidly, it becomes difficult to describe how it felt, then impossible to reconstruct what happened, then who cares? I’m glad that Vanity Fair found the dimes to pay at least one writer to capture the Exile experience.

But the story of the Icarus flightpath of The Exile is also the story of why permanent outsiders fail and why careerists win.

Now that the music has stopped, what does Ames have to show for it all? Not much, from outward appearances. At the time the VF article was written, Ames lived in a Brooklyn sublet while contributing to The Nation and MSNBC, and that can’t be more than utility and falafel money in New York City. The successor site, The Exiled, can’t be particularly profitable, either. Worse, it sucks. Involuntarily divorced from the satyricon of modern Russia, where every news report or drunken outing was a vein of inspiration and material, the publication’s been reduced to Ames and other leftist cranks complaining about America.

Some of those complaints are valid – in particular, Ames’ criticisms of journalism. To Ames, professionalization warps journalism. Instead of speaking truth, the careerist foreign correspondent files dispatches which conform to two sets of norms, the strictures of the local government (because violating those can get you deported) and the more powerful rules of what topics, tones and angles are acceptable back in the newsroom (because breaking those rules can harm your career).

Ames makes this point about unwritten speech codes – which is also a favorite topic of Salon’s Glenn Greenwald – in this snippet from Ames’ nine-tyolka fuckfest article:

Here is the real mean, ugly truth: everyone who is “anti-prostitution” in fact hates prostitutes. They say they want to end prostitution -- but what they mean is they don’t want prostitutes to exist, because prostitutes offend them.

And they do their best to make them not exist. Even homeless people, many of whom are so insane and filthy as to barely even rank as higher primates, are treated far more humanely, with far more compassion, than prostitutes are. Witness the Western reporting done from Moscow during the two recent brutal coldsnaps. All of the media’s sympathy was focused on the plight of the homeless. The fucking homeless! Why? In my eyes, they don’t even rank up with stray dogs, not even close. Prostitutes, on the other hand, are struggling, sane, functioning people. And they had to work the
tochkas in the brutal cold. Did you see one story about how whores survived the freeze? No. Because prostitutes don’t exist. A journalist could have lost his job if he did a piece on the whores in the freeze, treating them with compassion as just people working a difficult job. It was just safer to report on those poor, poor homeless people.

Ames is correct. According to the speech codes of modern journalism, certain topics are safe, some are "edgy" (but actually safe), a few are career killers. Imagine what would happen to a newly hired journalist at an establishment media outlet who proposed the following story ideas: a sympathetic profile of a survivalist leader of an eastern Oregon compound; a trend piece on how women who forsake higher education in order to marry and have children before age 25 are happier and healthier than their peers; a piece non-judgmentally reporting the popularity of blogs which discuss a possible genetic difference in IQ among races; an article about discrimination against home-schooled children at spelling bees; an opinion piece arguing that Israel is an imperialist project and that its Jewish citizens should move to Western democracies.

Actually, we know what happens to journalists who voice that last opinion. As Ames told VF, “It’s kind of terrifying being back here. I find the rules here suffocating. Here there are so many horrifying layers of décor and piety.”

Ames’ fate has to be understood in contrast with that of his erstwhile colleague, Matt Taibbi. The son of an establishment journalist, Taibbi has been accused of working at The Exile to accumulate alterna-cred before selling out. Certainly, Taibbi’s reaction to the VF reporter—“Who are you? What have you ever written? Fuck you!” – is rank careerism, equating notoriety with quality.

But the unavoidable fact is that Taibbi now works at Rolling Stone and has an audience of millions, while Ames is still Ames, only older. (Taibbi also has issues with establishment journalists, side stepping the question of whether he is one.)

The great power of the careerists is that they and their institutions define respectability. In media, they also (still) (usually) command the largest audiences. So, if your journalistic career doesn’t punch any of the establishment tickets -- if you don’t attend a prestigious journalism school, if you don’t accept a sought-after internship, if you don’t work at a hip and trendy outlet when you’re young and a respectable one when you’re older, and, most importantly, if you don’t cover the approved topics in the authorized manner -- you can end up living in a Brooklyn sublet while editors pay lip service to your iconoclasm but no will give you an actual job.

Because it’s only occasionally about results or talent, and it's always about playing the game.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Can't Get This Tune Out Of My Head And, If You Watch The Video, Neither Will You

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Review of Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve 2010).

Imagine reading 400 pages of this:

I forget now where I watched the lengthy tirade in which Fidel Castro ended all Utopian babble about Cuba following a different course from the sclerotic Stalinists in the Kremlin, but I think it was in the same pink-façaded Hotel Nacíonal where Graham Greene’s sadistic Captain Segura once received a cold blast of soda-water in the face and shouted “Cono!” before he could stop himself.

Or this, in which the “we” includes Edward Said:

Together we debated Professor Bernard Lewis and Leon Wieseltier at a once-celebrated conference of the Middle East Studies Association in Cambridge in 1986, tossing and goring them somewhat in a duel over academic “objectivity” in the wider discipline.

Two of the truths about Christopher Hitchens are that he is a generally gripping writer but that his work is uneven. Many of his later Minority Report columns for The Nation read as if they had been dashed off in the back seat of a town car ferrying Hitch from CNN’s Washington bureau to his flat in DuPont Circle. Some of his short books – pamphlets, really – are light weight, and one of the surprises in reading his 1990 work Blood, Class and Nostalgia was noticing how clunky it was. Hitchens’ writing became more graceful as he aged.

In light of the fact that Hitchens is gravely ill, it’s tempting to grade his memoir Hitch-22 on a curve, but that would be unworthy and would evince a blunt, vodka-scented rejoinder from the man.

I almost missed the best part of the book. I was tempted to skip the early chapters about his parents and to start my reading at the point when Hitchens begins his education. Fortunately, I scotched that lazy plan, because the chapters devoted to his unfulfilled bohemian mother and his taciturn Royal Navy father are miniature histories of post-war Britain as experienced by one couple.

How disheartening it must have been for the British in the early 1950s. The nation had stopped the spread of Axis armies, cajoled the reluctant giant across the Atlantic into the fight and then helped build the peace by founding the United Nations and the Bretton Woods monetary system.

The British deserved a good life, with spacious tract homes and color televisions and affordable new motor cars and fun. That’s really the best word. After seven years of warning and wheedling and fighting and dying, the Brits were entitled to some fun.

It didn’t happen. Rationing continued until 1954. Many consumer durables were beyond the reach of ordinary workers, and a single-family detached home with a private back yard was an unimaginable luxury. Color photographs of the time may as well be black and white, for all the drabness of the clothes and houses.

Meanwhile, the Americans quickly recovered from a post-war recession, and the Yank economy popped like a champagne cork. Germany rebounded in the “economic miracle” called the Wirtschaftswunder. The former colonies enjoyed the invigorating, hopeful days of independence. The world was moving forward with gusto, but the island that made it possible was stuck in place.

Yvonne and Eric Hitchens, meanwhile, were falling backward. “The Commander,” as Hitchens refers to his father, bravely piloted flotillas of supply ships through Nazi-patrolled Norwegian waters to support his Soviet allies. When hostilities ended, the Commander was declared redundant and entered upon a meager, itinerant existence as an accountant for hire. Yvonne accepted for decades the provincial life of a Navy wife; she yearned for a cosmopolitanism that would mostly be denied her, but she resolved to bequeath a life of wider horizons to her elder son, Christopher.

Enduring what must have been great personal pain – accepting that her dreams needed to be sacrificed for her lower-middle-class son to have any chance of advancement in the U.K. – Yvonne saved enough money to send Christopher to an English boarding school. The goal was to matriculate him at one of the ancient British universities, the institutions which certified young men as gentlemen or, at least, as the cleverest sons of the landless.

It’s at this point that Hitch-22 begins to disappoint. The chapters about Hitchens’ years in boarding school are boring. You’ve read it before: the inspirational tutors, the sadistic prefects, the furtive homosexuality and masturbation.

Hitchens more than fulfilled his mother’s aspirations. Not only did he attend one of the storied universities, he was accepted to Balliol College, Oxford – a ticket into the English Establishment.

Hitchens became a Trotskyite, participated in the student movement of 1968 and moved in the same circles as an American Rhodes Scholar named Bill Clinton (who loved to stuff his face with hash brownies, hence the excuse that he “didn’t inhale”). There were murmurings about the future president:

I didn’t much like what little I knew of Clinton, and this may have had something to do with my suspicion that he, too, was trying to have things both ways. Someone was informing on the American anti-war students and reporting their activities to Mr. Cord Meyer and the CIA desk at the London embassy in Grosvenor Square (we knew this because the fools once approached the wrong guy as a recruit, and he blew the whistle), and I am not the only person who has sometimes suspected that it was Clinton who was the snitch.
Hitchens’ political awakening is when the book becomes a snooze. The Left – then, as ever – loves to snipe about recondite topics, usually with appeals to obscure authorities. Hitchens recounts these debates in overlong detail. One example, regarding a reactionary professor he cames to rather like:

One of them, the late David Levy, later quite a celebrated conservative intellectual, was certainly the first protofascist I had ever met, and I would often almost literally pinch myself as he burbled gaily on about Charles Maurras and Action Française, about the beauties of Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain, and sang the words of the Mussolini anthem “Giovinezza.”
Another example:

I went to see Daniel Singer, the late disciple of Isaac Deutscher, who from his apartment near the Matignon was himself a single-cell headquarters for anything to do with the Polish-Jewish-Marxist diaspora.
Too much of the book reads like that, rosters of names that mean something to someone but probably not to you. I’ve tried to identify the most obscure historical event mentioned, and it’s a tie between “the Silesian question” and “the Corfu Channel dispute with Albania.”

My biggest problem with the autobiography is that Christopher Hitchens never explains how he became Christopher Hitchens. A transfiguration from Navy brat to trans-Atlantic celebrity must have consumed a ferocious amount of ambition, but Hitch completely avoids the topics of what he wanted to become and how he did it. It’s not even clear why he became a journalist, other than that he realized in youth that he didn’t have a novelist’s talents. (He’s also hazy about his personal life; I surmised from a few scattered references that Hitch has been married twice, with one son and perhaps two daughters, but none of that’s clear.)

I began to suspect half-way through that Hitchens was hiding the nakedly opportunistic aspects of his character. Somehow, he manages to befriend half the public intellectuals in London, New York and Washington. Somehow, he’s always having dinner – there are a lot of stories about dinner -- with eminent professors, editors and revolutionaries. Somehow, his circle of friends includes the most gifted writers of the time. Was all this by happenstance? Or is Hitchens a collector of garlanded company, one of England’s most successful male social climbers?

I do not for a moment believe his Horatio Alger tale of the obscure wittle journalist who just happened to be asked one day by Graydon Carter to write for Vanity Fair. You get to the big leagues because you desperately, violently, monomaniacally want to, and Hitch-22 would have benefited from more self-revelation about our hero’s motives and fewer postprandial gabfests with Eastern European samizdat publishers.

Similarly, Hitch-22 won’t be landing on the syllabi of journalism schools, because Hitch reveals almost nothing about his methods. He doesn’t explain how he talks his way into so many parlors. We don’t know how he researches or prepares for interviews. He offers no advice to aspiring writers and no opinions about journalism as a profession. The most he lets drop is that he writes about 1,000 words a day, has never missed a deadline, and, per his agreement with Vanity Fair, must write on whatever topic Carter assigns him.

Hitchens’ best work is No One Left To Lie To, an indelibly vicious portrait of the Clintons in which every nasty shot is supported by shoe-leather reporting or library research. It’s a sustained work of punditry in which Hitch lays out why he hates the Clintons and why, after reviewing the evidence, so should you. A Long Short War provides the case for the Allied military operations in Iraq, and many of the essays in Love, Poverty and War are excellent.

Those are the books to read if you want a taste of the best of Hitchens. As for Hitch-22, I would recommend reading the two chapters about his parents, the one about Salman Rushdie and maybe any two additional chapters if the titles strike your interest. Unfortunately, that’s all I can recommend of what will probably be Christopher Hitchens’ last book.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Flight Review: Nok Air, Phuket to Bangkok, Roundtrip

Flights Reviewed: DD 7507, DD 7506

Nok Air is a good example of how one airline can use branding to charge different prices to different people on the same route.

Nok Air is a low-cost carrier which flies between destinations in Thailand using a variation of the Southwest and Ryanair models. The airline has a fun, bubbly personality – check out the colors on the web site – but the emphasis is on cheap fares for point-to-point travel. Nok Air uses interchangeable 737s, charges for meals and extras, and prices a one-way ticket between Bangkok and Phuket at about 2,500 baht (US$80).

Thai Airways International is a whole ‘nother animal. On the one-hour Phuket-Bangkok route, THAI operates the big machines -- the 747s and 777s – and offers a stripped-down variant of its generally excellent service. A one-way trip can cost anywhere from 3,000 baht (US$100) to more than 6,000 (US$200). And that’s after a recent push by THAI to drop prices in and out of Phuket. In June (before the push), I was shocked to see that THAI fares on the route were sometimes triple the fares on low cost carriers and substantially more than "boutique" carrier Bangkok Airways.

Here’s the curveball: THAI is the principal owner of Nok.

So Nok is an example of using a different brand to cater to customers at a lower price point. THAI ultimately gets its hands on three sets of passengers. Moneyed and middle-class passengers fly the THAI brand to the southern island, while cheapskates fly Nok.

THAI can also leverage international connections to charge a higher fare. When you fly THAI or another major airline into Bangkok, the additional hop to Phuket costs a premium. It would be cheaper to fly into BKK and transfer to Nok or AirAsia, but no one’s going to do that. After a long flight from Europe or North America, you want an effortless connection. You don’t want to shuffle bleary-eyed through immigration, find your luggage, go through customs, find the airline counter, check in and head back through security.

Now we get to the point of this post: My two recent flights on Nok Air were pleasant and cheap.

The flight to Bangkok cost 2,550 baht (USD$80) purchased online three days ahead, and the return to Phuket cost 2,150 baht (US$68) purchased online the day before. Walk-up fares could be purchased at Phuket and Don Mueang airports for about 2,500 baht. At Phuket International Airport, in particular, local carriers like Firefly and One-Two-Three Go were publicizing their walk-up fares. Phuket airport has the feel of a train station; you can turn up, ask for a ticket and, if your first-choice destination is booked, pick another destination in Southeast Asia.

My complaint about Nok Air’s website is that you have to affirmatively opt out of various add-ons. The web page pre-selects the purchase of travel insurance, an extra baggage allowance and a meal, so you have to de-select these offerings.

At the airports, everything went smoothly, although Thailand, a loyal ally of the United States, is also fighting the War On Bottled Water. The boarding pass is printed on thin cash register paper. New age music plays in the aircraft while you find your seat. The uniforms of the female flight attendants – and they were all women – were yellow and tight (see photograph).

A free snack was distributed after takeoff. Flying north, it was an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel stick filled with chocolate, and one of those see-through half-cups of water with the foil seal on top. Flying south, the same water was served with a different Auntie Anne’s pastry, this time an ear-shaped chicken pot pie with corn and carrots in the mix.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

The Alan Shadrake Trial in Singapore: A Legal Analysis