>Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects: A Review, Part II

The fact that the two main candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary were a woman and an African American were a welcome sign, Chomsky acknowledges, that the country has managed to get at least somewhat civilized. Still, we cannot expect the joy from this reality to keep us perennially blind to the numerous ways in which Obama has not been living up to his promise. Chomsky reminds us that “Obama’s message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ offered a virtual blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes.” And write we did, only to be disappointed in most of our expectations.

Chomsky points out that we do not elect politicians based on what policies they will promote. Rather, we vote for whomever presents us with the best PR campaign. Of course, we conveniently forget that after our candidate gets elected s/he will have to pay for the expensive campaign by servicing corporate interests and screwing us, the hardworking folks who put them in power. This is precisely why politicians have been working so hard to destroy the education system in the US. If you keep people in a state of permanent ignorance, you can feed them soap operish melodrama instead of real political discussion. Gossiping about Bristol Palin’s engagement and gushing ver the puppy Obama bought for his daughters is much easier than educating oneself on what it is that the Congress does and what the Supreme Court is responsible for. (As I discovered to my complete horror last semester, none of my 80 students had the slightest suspicion of what the role of SCOTUS might be).

The biggest disappointment of the Obama’s presidency has been, of course, his Economic Advisory Board. As Chomsky points out, it was packed by the poeple who engineered the economic crisis and then bled the government dry to compensate themselves for that. Chomsky is right, of course. I remember this sinking feeling I experienced as soon as Obama surrounded himself by criminals like Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers (a vile prick, if there ever was one), Timothy Geithner, Alan Greenspan, etc. It was the best indication we could have received that the only change we could expect would be for the worst. Of course, even Obama’s feeble attempts to rein in the robber bankers immediately resulted in threats to withdraw funds from his future campaigns. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with us, the voters, to educate ourselves about what the candidates actually stand for and insist that they carry out the will of the people. As good as this plan sounds, something tells me we have neither a hope or a prospect of it working out any time soon.

Chomsky offers a very bleak but an undoubtedly correct vision of Obama’s position on warfare and torture. As we all remember, a lot of Obama’s supporters preferred him to Hillary Clinton because of his opposition to the Iraq war. Understandably, we also believed that his position on torture would be in opposition to the barbaric practices adopted by the US starting in the 80ies. Chomsky departs from this hopeful attitude that has blinded many of the American progressives to the sad realities of Obama’s real position on these issues. What Chomsky says in this part of this book is something that no one wants to hear. However, his analysis in this part of the book is unassailable. After all his anti-war and anti-torture rhetoric, Obama has failed to deliver any actual change in these areas.

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>Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects: A Review, Part I

>I’m not usually a huge fan of Chomsky but his new collection of essays Hopes and Prospects is really good. The first part of the book deals with Latin America. Chomsky outlines the colonial past and present of Latin American countries and their valiant efforts to rid themselves of neo-imperialist domination by the United States. He states correctly that today’s struggles of Latin American countries (Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela) to oppose the depredations of the US-inspired version of globalization offer hope for the rest of the world.  He is also absolutely right in pointing out that “Latin America is not merely the victim of foreign forces. The region is notorious for the rapacity of its wealthy classes and their freedom from social responsibility.” Here, Chomsky echoes Eduardo Galeano’s classic work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent that decades ago offered a brilliant analysis of how Latin American power elites sold out their own countries to the predatory forces of the US neo-liberalism.

Chomsky states that the drive to imitate their Northern neighbors in ostensible consumption of Westernized goods and services has been the main cause of Latin American failure to achieve real as opposed to formal independence from colonial domination. Today, Chomsky points out “Latin America has real choices, for the first time in its history.” And this is great news for the entire planet.

In the second part of the book, Chomsky analyzes the influence that the imperialist mentality in the US exercises over the discussions of the US military presence in Iraq. I was particularly pleased to see that Chomsky decided not to follow in the footsteps of most liberal commentators in their refusal to see that Russian imperialism is in no way “better” or more justified than the US imperialism. Chomsky qualifies Putin’s actions in Chechnya as “murderous”, which they most definitely are. I only wish that more progressive analysts dared to depart from the tendency to praise everybody who opposes the US regardless of the atrocities they perpetrate. It is definitely right that the US imperialism and Russian imperialism should be discussed together since there are glaring similarities between them.

Chomsky then segues into what I consider the weakest part of the book: the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As usual, Chomsky’s analysis of the issue is one-sided and biased. Israelis are all villainous nationalists and religious fanatics, while the Palestinians are without an exception languishing and tolerant victims. While Chomsky is right in suggesting that the Israelis do everything they can to make sure the conflict continues, he forgets to say that so do the Palestinians. When he describes the Israeli “information campaigns to instruct the world on its errors and misunderstanding, arrogant self-righteousness, circling the wagons, defiance . . .  and paranoia,” he avoids mentioning that this exactly the pattern adopted by every single nation-state with a very weak and diluted national identity (Russia is a great example of precisely this kind of paranoid nation building. Closer to home, so is the US.)

Chomsky’s discussion of nuclear proliferation is powerful and convincing, and I believe everybody should read it because it touches on some of the most important issues we confront today. The only objection I have to this part of his discussion is Chomsky’s insistence that there is no need to fear a nuclear attack from Iran because that would be suicidal and self-destructive. Chomsky forgets that these same statements were made about Germany 70 years ago: “Germany would not start a war, that would be suicidal and self-destructive.” And then a few years later: “Germany will not open up a second front, that would be suicidal and self-destructive.” We all know how those predictions went. Countries often act in completely self-destructive ways, which should be well-known  to Chomsky.

Starting from Chapter 9 of Part II, Chomsky offers a brilliant analysis of the 2008 presidential elections and the job Obama’s presidency has done since then. He points out correctly that both Democrats and Republicans are considerably to the right of the American population on many major issues, both international and domestic. Hence, it is not surprising that Obama’s tepid efforts to defend his intentions to introduce some kind of change don’t convince Americans any longer. Chomsky talks about how the American people have been brilliantly manipulated into being suspicious of public welfare programs that would be of invaluable use to themselves while supporting the “nanny state for the rich.”

>Tana French’s Faithful Place: A Review

If you haven’t read Tana French’s  In the Woods and The Likeness: A Novel, then now is definitely the time to start acquainting yourself with this great author. With every new novel (and this is her third one) Tana French is showing signs of a creative growth that are nothing short of remarkable. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of her Faithful Place: A Novel and I’m happy to report that this novel will not disappoint either French’s fans or her new readers who are only now discovering her work.

Tana French is one of those really gifted female writers who seems self-conscious of her literary talent. As a result, she hides her capacity to write good novels behindsthe mask of a detective novel writer. Sure enough, there is always a murder in her novels, and the main chracter is some sort of a plice officer. However, people who come to her novels in search of a straightforward murder mystery often leave disappointed. French’s gift lies in writing about life, about the daily trials of being human. So if you want a murder mystery that will keep you guessing ntil the last page who the killer is, French is not your writer.

Tana French’s writing is beautiful. She has a way of describing modern-day Ireland that will leave you completely enamored of this fascinating country. In my opinion, nobody creates more powerful descriptions of today’s Dublin than this writer. French’s sentences are always beautifully constructed, the characters are incredibly well-crafted, and the plot lines are engrossing.

The best thing about Tana French for me is her capacity to create a very unique first-person perspective in every one of her novels. Each book is narrated in a voice that is very unique and absolutely unforgettable. Faithful Place: A Novel is very different in terms of its first-person narrator from French’s previous two novels. Her fans are used to this author creating very endearing, complex characters whom you cannot fail to admire. In this new novel, however, we encounter a very different kind of character. Francis Mackey is not an extremely attractive character, to say the least. He is self-involved, selfish, and often very mean. He tortures his ex-wife to punish her for moving on after their divorce, he is mean to his aging mother, and he thinks nothing of hurting his little daughter’s feelings just to run off and investigate an old girlfriend’s disappearance, he is a pretty lousy father, and a horrible brother to his siblings. He thinks nothing of intimidating and ssaulting witnesses, even when the witness in question is an overworked mother of three. He has been obsessed with his former girlfriend Rosie for twenty years and has never been able to get over her apparent desertion. In short, Frank is a character one is hard pressed to like.

It’s is a mark of a very good writer, however, to be able to make one’s readers care about the main character who is as difficult to admire as Frank Mackey. Tana French achieves that and more. The book is an absolute pleasure to read. As much as you might want to get to the solution of the mystery of Rosie’s disappearance and Frank’s painful relationship with his family, you will still want to linger over each beautifully written sentence.

>Immaturity and the Housing Bubble: Review of Edmund Andrews’s "Busted"

Andrews is a long-standing reporter for the economics section of the New York Times. This is what makes the story he tells in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown so scary. Andrews’s book presents two closely connected stories: the history of the creation of the US housing bubble that started the current economic crisis and his personal story of getting into an incredible amount of debt in the years that led to the collapse of the housing market.

This is a book that needs to be read, even though it will make you lose your faith in humanity for a long time to come. Andrews analyzes in great detail how the lending institutions gradually became more and more driven by the desire for instant profit without stopping to think for a second what will happen long term. The author also brings to light the incredible, mind-boggling stupidity of Greenspan, Bernanke, and Co. He demonstrates how corrupt and dishonest the Bush Jr. administration was.

None of this, however, is very new. At least not to me. From the moment I moved from Quebec to the US, it became obvious to me that the housing prices in this country were ridiculously over-inflated. I saw my friends and colleagues pay really insane, seven-figure prices for poky little apartments in Manhattan or run-down bungalows in Connecticut and immediately realized that this was the game I would never agree to pay. Mortgaging away your life for the next 30 years in hopes that the bubble will get even bigger and the price of your house would magically grow seemed like a genuinely stupid proposition even for someone like me, who at 27 was woefully ignorant about economy. Today, when I understand the workings of this country’s economy and politics a lot better, I am even more reluctant to participate in this insanity.

What really bothered me in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown was not the story of the housing bubble. It was the story of a nearly fantastic immaturity. Immaturity on both sides, the lenders’ and the borrowers’. Those who handed out completely unsecured loans to people incapable of ever paying them off and those who accepted loans they could never even imagine paying off. Andrews was one of those who accepted. And accepted. And accepted some more.

The immaturity and total intellectual impotence of this man – who, once again, writes for the economics section of The New York Times – is mind-boggling. He decides to take out a loan to buy a half-million dollar house. As a result, he knows that his entire paycheck will go towards his alimony payments and the mortgage with not a dime left over for the bills. Of course, he hopes that his new wife will make enough money to cover all of their living expenses. Nothing would be all that wrong about this picture, if it weren’t for one tiny detail. His new wife has been a house-wife who hasn’t worked a day in the past 20 years. Besides, she is accustomed by her former husband to living the life of luxury. She didn’t even do any work around the house because her first husband paid for a housekeeper. On top of that, Andrews gets this woman to move to a completely different part of the country. Then, he expects her to find a well-paying job – with no skills, no connections, no experience of being an employee – and start paying all the bills: “We had both assumed she could earn enough for us to get by. We didn’t have any idea how she would do it; we were both simply sure that she could do it.” It is incredible to encounter such profound intellectual impotence from any one over the age of 12.

This is not the weirdest thing about Andrews’s relationship with Patty, the woman who eventually became his second wife. He left his first wife and proposed to Patty before Patty and he had ANY kind of a relationship. They hadn’t even as much as kissed, let alone had sex or lived together. And these are not some horny teenagers. These are people who are almost 50 at the time. During marriage counselling, Andrews and Patty discover that they do not see eye to eye on 90% of issues discussed. This, however, does not suggest to them that it might make sense to postpone the wedding until they actually get to know something about each other.

Andrews’s path to penury begins when he takes out a sub-prime mortgage on his new house. Over the next few years he gets so far into debt that you couldn’t dig him out of it with an excavator, just to keep the stupid super expensive house. And you know why? In his own words, “Even though it was all about buying a house in the suburbs, it felt vaguely exciting, edgy, and a little gangsta.” When a balding, paunchy, white gentleman in his late forties is motivated to take out an impossible loan because he wants to feel “gangsta”, of all the stupid things, you know that something is seriously wrong here. And this is supposed to be a well-educated upper-middle-class individual, who works as a journalist, for Pete’s sake!

In order to climb out of the financial hole he has dug for himself, Andrews tries every crazy borrowing practice out there. He runs up a staggering credit card debt, empties his pension account, and even hits up for money his elderly mother. There is just one thing he doesn’t do: try to cut down the costs. Andrews goes through his wedding to his second wife in throes of a panic attack over mounting bills and huge debt. After that, he proceeds to pay the caterers that were hired for the wedding. Of course, the idea that people who can’t pay the electricity bill might be able to do without a catered wedding never crosses his mind.

For a while, Andrews’s family income rises to $200,000 per year. I don’t know about you, people, but for me this is a staggering amount of money. One could live like a king on half that amount. Still, Andrews cannot make ends meet. Even though the debt is growing and his interest rates become sky-high, he keeps spending on things that cannot possily be considered necessary expenses: cable telivision, HBO, beach house, Ipods, expensive clothes, the list is endless.

Andrews criticizes the irresponsible lenders virulently. He never stops to think, though, that those who criminally handed out unsecured loans were motivated by the same basic immaturity that got him into so much trouble: have fun now and assume that things will somehow work out in the end. These people, who are so immature that it makes my hair stand on end in horror, are the ones that got us into this mess. They mortgaged away our future, and their children’s and grand-children’s future because they wanted that Ipod, that house, that vacation right now and didn’t want to pay for them. Now, we will all have to pay for their lack of responsibility and their inhuman immaturity for decades to come.

[To be continued…]

>Struggling with Computers

>Technology doesn’t like me. Back at Cornell, I once managed to destroy both of our departmental copiers. And I did it twice. And it all happened in the space of an hour. So I was not very surprised to discover that over the winter holidays the hard drive of my work computer had “melted” (according to our IT specialist) for no apparent reason. I requested a new computer (which I am owed as per the conditions of my employment). The IT person reformatted the part of the hard drive that hadn’t melted, instead. Needless to say, it took the computer less than a week to stop functioning.

After I reported this disaster, it took the IT person until the day before yesterday to walk to my office with a new computer. Everybody knows that IT people have a tendency to get distracted very easily. Still, he did install a new, out-of-the-box computer on Wednesday. The next day (which ws yesterday) I came to work 2 hours early in order to prepare my classes for next week. My goal was to get all the work out of the way and have an uninterrupted 4-day-long weekend. When I came to work, however, I discovered that my “new” computer was dead.

Not only was I annoyed, I was also very bored. There is really nothing to do on campus at 7:30 in the morning if you have no computer.

When the IT person finally showed up, he started reinstalling (or whatever, I’m not good with the terminology) the computer. When I came to my office after teaching all my classes, I discovered that the computer was, indeed, working. The only problem was that something happened to the screen resolution and after five minutes of working on the computer I was on the verge of going insane. It turns out that the IT person connected a wrong monitor to this computer. How he thought I would be able to work on it is beyond me. We all know, however, that IT people have very weird ways of thinking about things.

Now he tells me that when I come back to work on Tuesday the computer will be in a working condition. Yeah, right. I’m so not going to work without bringing my own computer.

P.S. My home laptop also started acting up. But I think I managed to repair it. I won’t go into the endless story of how long and painful the process was but it kind of seems like it worked. I feel very proud of myself. Maybe now I should take the job of installing my office computer into my own hands.

>Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant: A Review

>A review from an anonymous guest blogger:

I must admit I was excited when I downloaded Living Oprah on Kindle. I was anticipating one of two things: either a very easy unpretentious read with humorous anecdotes (along the lines of Confessions of a Shopaholic) or more of an investigative account analyzing the Oprah phenomenon from a critical standpoint (along the lines of Selling Sickness).

Well, a few pages in I realized that the book was neither. It was just a big yawn of predictable jokes and the author failing to explain what the point of her project actually was. Is she a crazy Oprah fan? Apparently not (at least she says she isn’t, despite her countless recounts of how admirable, wonderful and inspiring Oprah is). Is she a critic ready to discuss openly the negative impact an Oprah-type show can have on its audience? Once again, hardly. Rather, the author positions herself as an intellectual who is above dressing up (sports bras and granny panties being her underwear of choice), an avid feminist (despite feeling a sense of trepidation before asking her husband’s permission to embark on the project and going as far as doubting that her marriage will last through the endeavor. Umm, dramatic much?) and certainly not a fame seeker (after an extremely long explanation of why she wanted to remain anonymous, the author concedes to revealing her name for the sake of being interviewed). I was confused! But worst of all, certainly not entertained.

I will give you a couple of examples. Even though I could go on and on, I do not want you to experience the same sense of boredom to which I subjected myself.

The author makes fun of Oprah’s suggestion that she purchase a pair of leopard-print flats. By making fun of it, all I mean to say is that she tells us she laughed at the suggestion hysterically. Ok, funny. Yet, further on in the book she falls in love with the shoes. Umm, I kept wondering: what was the point of that story?

The author makes fun of Oprah’s fans who nearly worship her and go into a frenzy at her shows. She attends one of the tapings and stresses and underlines endlessly how different she is from all those other fans. Yet, she describes the overwhelming feeling of excitement she, too, succumbed to at the show. Ok, what was the point of this story?

She seems to criticize Oprah’s suggestions to renovate, remodel and engage in other home-improvement projects. Yet, when she follows all these suggestions, she seems happy with the result.

She seems to criticize Oprah’s constant dieting projects. Yet is really excited to have lost weight and shares several pictures of herself in a bikini to prove the point.

The author tries to show that watching every single episode of Oprah alienated her from her friends and loved ones. In order to prove the point, she tells us about her family’s Thanksgiving dinner where she had to go upstairs to watch a taped episode of Oprah while her family was downstairs laughing and enjoying the holiday. Ok, again I am confused. What was the rush of watching the episode at that particular time? It was taped anyway. Well no, I do get it. It was a far-fetched attempt at creating drama and showing how hard the project was.

I forced myself to read the book to the end. I was curious to read the author’s conclusion. After all, she spent 365 days following Oprah’s every word of advice. So, is Oprah’s show a god-send or an evil creation? Is following Oprah’s suggestions detrimental or a great idea? But no, the conclusion is not about that. Actually, it’s not about anything. It goes on and on to tell us how happy the author is living her own life and not following someone else’s advice (again, despite the author’s countless examples of her million-and-one insecurities listed throughout the book). I have one word to summarize my impression of Living Oprah: blah.

From Clarissa:

I have to confess that I was the one to recommend this book to the reviewer (without having read it.) I’m interested in this type of books (although not enough to read them myself :-)) because they represent a curious social phenomenon. One of the prime examples of this phenomenon is Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. A blogger decided to follow Julia Child’s recipes within a year and blogged about it. The experiment was so successful that it turned into an inane book and an equally inane film based on it. Robyn Okrant decided to do something even easier and simply attached herself to the image of wildly popular Oprah Winfrey.

Many people decided to do something similar and start some kind of project that would later morph into a book over even a movie. This is the book equivalent of reality TV shows. For the most part, even when the original idea is not bad (like in Living Oprah), the authors lack even the most basic sense of humor and intelligence that are needed to make the project a success.

Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts.

People readily turn away from the unhospitable reality, where achieving fame and fortune requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, and plunge themsmelves into the world of make-believe, where they are entitled to everything just because. As a result, the publishing market will keep saturated with insipi books like Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.

>Using Puzzles in Job Interviews

Puzzles are the latest fad in the job interview process that the corporate world has taken on recently. A candidate for JP Morgan or Microsoft is subjected to a humiliating process of being asked to solve a really weird puzzle that has absolutely nothing to do with their area of expertise. Many people who have been through this type of interview compare it to hazing.

There are many examples of such puzzles. There is an entire book and website industry dedicated to preparing you for this type of job interview. The one you see on the left is particularly popular, although there are many others (How to Ace the Brainteaser Interview, The return of the brainteaser interview: puzzles that challenge your logical thinking are back. , Brain Teasers, Book of Puzzles & Brain Teasers, etc.). This is an example of such a puzzle:

Three men and one woman find themselves on a deserted island. They only have two condoms between them. How can these 3 men have safe sex with the woman?

Believe me, people, I am not making this up. This is an actual question people are asked during actual job interviews. I am not even going to address the entire set of nasty, hateful assumptions that inform this so-called puzzle. Like, who said these men are necessarily interested in having sex with this woman, as opposed to with each other. Or, why would the woman want to have sex with all of them.

The main question here is what is the purpose of making this type of idiotic puzzle the central part of the job interview process. Contrary to what Microsoft and Wall Street companies claim, the goal of introducing puzzles into the job interview process is not to find the most creative thinker among your candidates. The real purpose is to find the most obedient, robot-like one. No self-respecting person with a degree from a respectable university will tolerate being asked stupid, irrelevant, and often offensive questions like “How many piano-tuners are there in New York?” or “How to design a spice-rack for a blind person?” The goal of such companies is precisely to weed out self-respecting, intelligent candidates. All they need is employees who would obey any humiliating task they are given without questioning their bosses on the legitimacy of the assignment.