Book Notes: Master of the Senate

I completed the third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. Here’s my review of book #1 The Path to Power.

It’s another epically long but epically engaging account of one of the most influential political actors in American history. In this book-cover-mastervolume, we learn about the institution of the Senate and how LBJ transformed a lethargic, obstinate body into one that did his bidding — eventually, that bidding included key civil rights legislation that is now part of his legacy. Johnson’s relentless ambition is on display as always. With respect to civil rights, you’re left unsure what his actual principles are — i.e. how much he truly believed in the cause of equal rights for blacks or whether it was sheer political expediency (an aspiring President needed support from the north) that drove him to action. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter since he got the job done. He got it done because of his knack for understanding people and exploiting their insecurities; for brokering compromise among his Senate colleagues; for kissing the butt of power brokers; for courting the media and feeding them memorable zingers; most of all, it was his knack for simply working hard and never giving up on his ambition.

It’s a remarkable book. Feel free to skip the more detailed blow-by-blows of less important Senate battles. Do not skip Caro’s description of Johnson’s character and his relationships. My highlights from the text are below. Bold font is my own. Most of these sentences/paragraphs do not appear consecutively but they do appear in this chronology.

Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side—name all of Alabama’s sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?—and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?

But these Leaders were not Lyndon Johnson. “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me,” he was to tell an assistant. “I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”

Power corrupts—that has been said and written so often that it has become a cliché. But what is never said, but is just as true, is that power reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, he must conceal those traits that might make others reluctant to give it to him, that might even make them refuse to give it to him. Once the man has power, it is no longer necessary for him to hide those traits.

It was, thanks to him, a bill that the House could also pass, and that the President could sign—the first civil rights legislation to be added to the statute books of the United States since 1870. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 made only a meagre advance toward social justice, and it is all but forgotten today, partly because it was dwarfed by the advances made under President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. But it paved the way—its passage was necessary—for all that was to come. As its Leader, he made the Senate not only work, but work toward a noble end.

Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”

DURING THE GILDED AGE—the era of its greatest power—the Senate sunk from the heights of public esteem to the depths. Its inertia was a subject of public ridicule—“The Senate does about as much in a week as a set of men in business would do in half an hour,” one newspaper correspondent wrote

THEN, AT HIS INAUGURATION on March 4, 1933, the new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declaring that “This nation asks for action, and action now,” summoned Congress into special session. If there was a single moment in America’s history in which the slow slide of power—now in its fourth decade—from Capitol Hill to the White House suddenly became an avalanche, so that, for decades thereafter, governmental initiative came overwhelmingly from the Executive Branch, with the legislature only reacting to that initiative, it was that session—the session that lasted a hundred days, and was so significant a landmark in the nation’s history that it became enshrined as the Hundred Days, the session in which a President proposed, and proposed, and proposed again, in which he proposed the most far-reaching of measures—a session in which Congress scampered in panic to approve those proposals as fast as it could. Should Congress fail to provide immediate action, the second Roosevelt

For almost two years beginning in September, 1934, the high-ceilinged, marble-columned Senate Caucus Room was the chief rallying point for isolationist sentiment in the United States,

 The Senate vote for the Neutrality Act of 1937 was an overwhelming 63 to 6. In October, 1937, with Japanese troops now pushing into North China, with the fascists winning in Spain, with Germany having reoccupied the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty and with Germany, Italy, and Japan having formed a military alliance, Roosevelt warned that if totalitarianism rolled over one country after another, America’s turn would eventually come.

But when Britain, alone, beleaguered, asked for help to keep fighting—fifty or sixty overage World War I destroyers to combat Nazi submarines—Roosevelt feared the Senate mood hadn’t changed, at least not enough. “A step of that kind could not be taken except with the specific authorization of Congress, and I am not certain that it would be wise for that suggestion to be made to the Congress at this moment,” he told Churchill.

IN A SINGLE FLASH, the flash of bombs, the policy of the Senate of the United States was exposed as a gigantic mistake. The failure of the world’s most powerful nation to lead—or in general even to cooperate—in efforts, twenty years of efforts, to avert a second world war must be laid largely at the door of its Congress, and particularly at the door of its Senate. That has been the verdict of history.

power of committee appointments within the Senate, passing resolutions that committees would be chaired by members of the majority party, that members of committees be carried over from Congress to Congress, that rank within each committee be determined by length of service in the Senate, and that the most senior member of the majority party would automatically become chairman. Thereafter, party caucuses drew up lists of committee appointments; the Senate as a whole simply accepted them. A senator’s rank on a committee was therefore determined by one qualification, and one alone: how long he had sat on it.

As disgust with the Senate’s ineptitude intensified after the war, a hundred critics focused on the seniority system as a major culprit. Columnist Ernest K. Lindley wrote in 1949 that “it has been condemned in recent years by almost every authority or impartial observer of Congress.”

OF ALL THE AREAS in which the Senate failed America, it failed most memorably on the issue that was the single most important issue of the time: race.

Says one extremely conservative Republican congressman, “Politically, if we disagreed, it wasn’t apparent to me. Not at all.” In fact, no one really knew Johnson’s heart because he seldom fought for an issue or even expressed a definite opinion about it.

EVERY STAGE of Lyndon Johnson’s career had been marked not only by pragmatism but by what is, in a democracy in which power is conferred by elections, the ultimate pragmatism: the stealing of elections. 

“What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing: if you don’t, you’re as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn’t there, and no chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win your case for you.”  Exhibiting his penis to his roommates, Johnson called it “Jumbo”; returning to his room after a date, he would say, “Jumbo had a real workout tonight,”

Nervous and restless, he couldn’t seem in public to stop moving, and among the movements was an inordinate amount of scratching: of his chest, of his stomach—and of areas not generally scratched in public. He was constantly pulling his trousers lower, either in front or back, while complaining about his tailor’s failure to provide him with sufficient “ball room,” and he was continually, openly and at length, scratching his rear end—quite deeply into his rear end sometimes.

Years later, Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter who had just begun working for Johnson, was summoned to the President’s bathroom in the White House. Watching Johnson, “apparently in the midst of defecation,” staring at him “intently, looking for any sign of embarrassment,” and “lowering his tone, forcing me to approach more closely,” while “calculating my reaction,” Goodwin realized that he was being given a kind of “test.” Goodwin passed—and so had many of the staff members to whom Johnson had given the same test during his years in the House of Representatives.

Johnson defined what he meant by that: “I want real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window and stand up and say, ‘Boy, wasn’t that sweet!’ ”

“The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you,” Johnson said. “The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.”

As with all his talents, he had analyzed it himself. “I always liked to spend time with older people,” he would tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, and, besides, spending this time had a purpose, even when he had been a boy. “When I was a boy, I would talk for hours with the mothers of my friends, telling them what I had done during the day, asking what they had done, requesting advice. Soon they began to feel as if I, too, was their son and that meant that whenever we all wanted to do something, it was okay by the parents as long as I was there.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic. Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition.”

Under the leadership of Richard Brevard Russell Jr. the Senate was indeed the place where the South did not lose the Civil War.

After a while, the conversations no longer took place only in Russell’s office. Russell would be drafting a committee report, or reading over one that he had assigned Johnson to work on, and there might be more work to do on it. Or there might be a line of questioning to be worked out for witnesses in the next day’s hearings. Johnson would be helping. Why didn’t they finish over dinner? he would suggest. Lady Bird had dinner waiting for him. It would be no trouble at all for her to put on another plate. It would make things easier all around. “You’re gonna have to eat somewhere anyway,” he would say. And after a few such invitations, Russell accepted one.

And after Spring arrived, occasionally, in the late afternoons, Lyndon Johnson would make another suggestion, one to which Russell always responded with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Asked years later what drew the two men together, Russell mentioned first the sport he loved. “We both like baseball,” he explained. “Right after he came to the Senate, for some reason we started going to the night baseball games together.”

LYNDON JOHNSON’S MAIDEN SPEECH was delivered during one of the century’s most bitter civil rights battles, for Truman’s dramatic 1948 election victory—after a campaign during which his commitment to civil rights never wavered, a campaign, furthermore, in which black voters played a newly important role in key northern cities—had combined with the Democratic recapture of Congress and the arrival on Capitol Hill of aggressive civil rights advocates like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas, plus a rising public outcry against Jim Crow, to give liberals confidence that the long-awaited day of social justice was at last at hand, that Congress’s Southern Bloc could no longer stand in its way.

The image was summarized in Healy’s lead paragraph, which said that “the junior United States Senator from Texas maintains the most rigidly one-track mind in Washington. Johnson is entirely preoccupied with the science of politics, which for him is an exact science and one which he has mastered superlatively.

Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was a capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power—an institution that no one else thought of as having the potential for any more than limited political power—and to see in that institution the potential for substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power; and, in the process of transforming it, to reap from the transformation substantial personal power for himself. Lyndon Johnson had done that with the White Stars. He had done it with the Little Congress. He had done it with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And now the eyes of Lyndon Johnson were focused on another institution: the Senate of the United States.

The episode almost became one of America’s gravest constitutional crises. “It is doubtful if there has ever been in this country so violent and spontaneous a discharge of political passion as that provoked by the President’s dismissal of the General,” Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rovere wrote. “Certainly there has been nothing to match it since the Civil War.” “The homecoming of the legendary MacArthur was like nothing else in American history.”

Few emotions are more ephemeral in the political world than gratitude: appreciation for past favors. Far less ephemeral, however, is hope: the hope of future favors. Far less ephemeral is fear, the fear that in the future, favors may be denied. Thanks to Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson now had, at least to a limited extent, those emotions on his side in dealing with senators; he had something to promise them, something to threaten them with.

Lyndon Johnson’s sentences were the sentences of a man with a remarkable gift for words, not long words but evocative, of a man with a remarkable gift for images, homey images of a vividness that infused the sentences with drama. A special interest group—organized labor in Texas, say—was never merely weak, it was “not much stronger than a popcorn fart.”

AS SOON AS THE LBJ RANCH was in good enough shape to be shown to journalists from Washington and New York, Johnson began to invite them down, because he wanted to use the ranch to create a picture of himself in the public mind—the picture of a self-made man who had pulled himself up in life by his bootstraps, of a man who, no matter how high he had risen, still had his roots firmly in his native soil. He wanted his image to be that of a westerner, or to be more precise a southwesterner—a Texan; a true Texas image: a rancher with a working, profitable ranch.

At the bottom of Humphrey’s character, as Johnson saw, was a fundamental sweetness, a gentleness, a reluctance to cause pain; a desire, if he fought with someone, to later seek a reconciliation, to let bygones be bygones, to shake hands and be friends again. And to Lyndon Johnson that meant that at the bottom of Humphrey’s character, beneath the strength and the ambition and the energy, there was weakness.

Hubert Humphrey was trying to use him, just as he was trying to use Hubert Humphrey. Lyndon Johnson knew that. But he knew something else, too. If two men were each trying to use the other, the tougher one would win—and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the tougher.

FOR A MAN WHO LOVED and idealized his “Southland” as deeply as did Richard Russell to be told to his face that no southerner could be President was, in Goldsmith’s phrase, a “visceral blow.” He “had indeed known, rationally, that he could not be nominated. Before campaigning in the North, however, he had not heard political leaders … tell him to his face that he was obviously the best-qualified candidate, but that they could not support a Southerner.” As George Reedy says, “It’s one thing to know something academically; it’s another to have it hit you in the face.” 

THE LESSON OF RICHARD RUSSELL’S DOOMED, quixotic campaign of 1952 was not lost on Lyndon Johnson, for whom it had the deepest implications. After all the acknowledgments that Russell was the best qualified candidate for the presidency—acknowledgments that had come from the North as well as the South—he had received virtually no northern votes at the Democratic Convention; the fact that he had never had a realistic chance of winning his party’s nomination, much less the presidency, had been made dramatically clear.

And this hard fact created for Johnson the most difficult of dilemmas. Being linked with the South would keep him from rising beyond the Senate. Yet being linked with the South was the only way in which he could rise within the Senate.

As his chauffeur on some of those trips puts it, “It was like he was having discussions with himself about what strategy had worked or hadn’t worked,” when he had tried to persuade someone, “and what strategy he should use the next time.” And not just discussions. Behind that closed office door, Lyndon Johnson would be playing out a conversation: what he would say; what the other senator would say in response; what he should then say—“He would be in there rehearsing, doing it over and over, trying to get it right,”

For all these reasons, Lyndon Johnson didn’t move against Joe McCarthy until the time had come when moving wouldn’t hurt him, and when he did move, he stayed sufficiently behind the scenes so that his own alliance with the Texas reactionaries would not be weakened.

“I see nothing wrong” in such “trickeries.… Lyndon Johnson knew that the illusion of power was almost as important as real power itself, that, simply, the more powerful you appeared to be, the more powerful you became. It was one of the reasons for his great success.” 

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The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider

A striking section of Elizabeth Warren’s memoir is about advice she says Larry Summers once offered her:

After dinner, “Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes. “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

This gets at one reason why powerful people tend to become less intellectually honest as they accumulate power: they begin protecting fellow insiders instead of speaking truth.

At various points of my life, in various contexts, I’ve been an outsider and I’ve been an insider. As an outsider, I relish the opportunity to think independently and speak my mind. But as Summers suggests, my outsider status relegates me to the margins of the “conversation.” As an insider, I tend to feel muzzled — i.e. countless blog posts drafted and then deleted. But I have the most impact on the world when I’m on the inside of a power structure, exerting influence.

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

Product Hunt Podcast and AMA

I did an hour long podcast with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. Embedded below. We cover a range of topics. I also did a text-only Ask Me Anything on the Product Hunt site where we cover a lot of ground as well. That link has the full transcript.

Also check out Tyler Cowen’s interesting AMA on Product Hunt as well. I asked him a question about reading books and he had an interesting reply.

Burning Man 2015: Impressions and Lessons

“Burning Man is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” – Elon Musk

I’ve heard variants of this sentiment from many friends over the years. So I’ve intended to go to Burning Man when the opportunity presented itself. 2015 was that year.

I should preface my impressions of Burning Man with one important qualification: I was only on the playa last week for 24 hours total. Due to the last minute decision to go, I didn’t have time to prep, arrange proper sleeping accommodations or fix my schedule to enable a proper multi-day stay. All I brought fit in a school-sized backpack which contained two Whole Food sandwiches and some cliff bars. I “slept” in a friend’s mid-size rental car. Most important, I didn’t have time to go to any of the famous lectures, classes, and other one-time events that tend to require a bit of pre-planning over a few days. So me commenting on Black Rock City (the name of the pop-up city that the festival represents) is like someone commenting on what a major city is like based on a short layover in the airport in between flights.

Me on the playa

Me on the playa

All that said, I did spend a full dozen hours walking around amid dust storms during the day and night. I did talk to a bunch of burners. I did check out dozens of camps and art installations and I did my time on an art car. I think I earned the right to have at least a few impressions.

First impression? Awe. The awe was felt most acutely at night, standing atop an elevated platform at the “altitude camp,” looking out at the city beyond. It really is a city: 80,000 people who have set up tents and RVs and camp sites, with their pop-up structures and art installations. At night, the lights on each camp shine for as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of driving to Las Vegas and seeing all the hotel lights as you approach the city. Except at Black Rock City the lights go on forever and ever in every direction.

Anyone with libertarian sympathies can’t help but be in awe of the scale of self-organization and self-reliance. Tens of thousands of people show up, build an entire city, and then take it all away, not leaving a trace. To be sure, there is a central power structure — the founder and a “committee of six” who make key decisions — along with some full time staff in San Francisco and a $10mm+ annual budget. But there are also thousands of volunteers who, in my conversations with them, did not appear to be all too coordinated with the powers that be. And of course 95% of the work that makes Burning Man what it is — the art structures, the supplies, the events, and so on — is voluntarily offered and coordinated by the 80,000 participants who derive meaning, not money, from their efforts.

Second impression? Hardship. Dust storms make challenging those mildly important tasks of breathing and seeing. Dust particles pollute your lungs and eyes; wind bites at your face and chafes your lips. The desert climate means you sweat during the day and shiver during the night. Pilots who charter planes to Burning Man call the area “Afghanistan.” What’s remarkable about Burning Man, as others have said, is you have some of the nicest people on earth populating one of the most inhospitable places on earth for a full week. And because you’re not allowed to buy or sell anything on the playa, all you have to deal with this hardship is what you bring with you, including food and water and face masks and lotion for chafed feet. Oh — and your cell phone won’t get service, so forget about calling your loved one for help. There are several moments where you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I come here?” Then you see a Pacman art car driving around in the desert night and you think, “Oh yeah, to see that.”

Third impression? The values. Radical inclusion. Radical self-expression. Leave no trace. A gift economy. They’re stated values but as we all know, stating values is easy. After all, one of Enron’s core values was integrity. Walking the walk on values is harder. Best I could tell, the Burning Man values really do permeate the behavior of those who attend. The Burning Man values are good values: the world would be better if more people adopted them.

Would I go back for longer? Yeah, I’d go back. I’d sleep in an RV. I’d coordinate in advance with friends to meet up. (Because of how you must dress to deal with the wind and sand, and the sheer scale of the place, serendipitous social occasions with friends doesn’t happen unless planned.) I’d schedule time to go to different lectures. And I’d spend at least 3-4 nights in order to get the full experience. To do it this way, it’d be expensive. Several thousand dollars, probably. I get the irony in that. As one friend put it, Burning Man is, in a funny way, an homage to capitalism: it’s sufficiently expensive to participate that it’s people spending their fruits of capitalism to participate in what otherwise feels like a non-capitalistic experience.

I’ve said it before after certain trips and I’ll say it again here: awe is an amazing emotion. Burning Man induces awe: at human creativity, at people’s willingness (including your own willingness) to push themselves amid harsh conditions, at the power of cultural norms and values to shape an entire population. Burning Man is worth seeing for yourself. I know there’s more for me to see.

From Communal to Individual. From Future to Present.

Two paragraphs that I think capture the current milieu quite nicely, by Lionel Shriver in the book of essays Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

To be ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lowercase gods of our private devising. We are concerned with leading less a good life than the good life. In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy. We shun self-sacrifice and duty as the soft spots of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture, or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and we’re not especially bothered with what happens once we’re dead. As we age–oh, so reluctantly!–we are apt to look back on our pasts and question not did I serve family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat? We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but would whether they were interesting and fun.

If that package sounds like one big moral step backward, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from 60s catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upsides. There has to be some value in living for today, since it any given time today is all you’ve got. We justly cherish characters capable of living “in the moment” — or, as a drummer might say, “in the pocket.” We admire go-getters determined to pack their lives as much as various experience as time and money provided, who never stop learning, engaging, and savoring what every day offers — in contrast to dour killjoys who are bitter and begrudging in the ceaseless fulfillment of obligation. For the role of humble server, helpmate, and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model of womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful. Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

books_feature-18968While traveling to Africa a few weeks ago, I read Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Theroux is probably America’s most famous travel writer yet I had not read any of his books until now. Dark Star Safari was excellent and I recommend it for anyone taking a trip to the giant continent. It’s the travelogue of his overland journey — car, bus, animal — from the northern tip of Africa to the bottom.

He does it on the cheap: he reports from wretched-smelling train cars, rat infested hotel rooms, and dusty, poor villages where clean water is nowhere to be found. I read portions of the book in comfortable hotels or cars in Tanzania, often whizzing by the abject poverty. Theroux doesn’t make you feel great about that, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Theroux lived in Malawi back in the day and he doesn’t mince words when he returns and finds the poverty just as bad, the aid programs just as ineffective. Foreign aid diehards should be prepared for tough medicine from Theroux who at one point says that the only people who can fix Africa’s problems are Africans themselves.

The writing is lovely. His descriptions vivid. Below are my Kindle highlights. (And here is my post from 2009 about Theroux road trip in America and my own road trip impressions.)

Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history. The guide says “papyrus” or “hieroglyphic” or “Tutankhamen” or “one of the Ptolemys,” and you say “Yup.”

One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.

Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.

The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesalike mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away.

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease. Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure. Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic. Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use cell phones, send faxes, log onto the Internet, buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

That was my Malawi epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion.

No objects I had seen in any African museum (Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Harare) could compare with the African objects in the museums in Berlin, Paris, or London. Of course, much of that stuff had been looted or snatched from browbeaten chiefs

Live Chat on Product Hunt Tomorrow

Erik Torenberg is a long time blog reader who’s become a friend.

After he graduated from college a few years ago, it’s been fun seeing him break into the Valley and make a name for himself. As part of the founding team at Product Hunt, he’s been rallying product makers of all sorts into one of the most active online communities in tech.

They just launched Product Hunt Live, a chat feature for authors and makers to connect with readers. I’m participating tomorrow — Wednesday Aug 19th at 11 AM PT. Join me there to ask me anything for an hour!

Visiting the Balkan Ghosts

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone's death year around 1995.

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone’s death year around 1995.

In his book Balkan Ghosts, a travel log and mini-history of the Balkan countries, Robert Kaplan writes: “The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.” It captured perfectly my reaction after reading the book and learning about the histories of Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, and various other neighbors. So much fighting over territorial, ethnic, or religious differences that appear to be so inconsequential relative to the bloodshed.

Much of the fighting has to do with perceived historical grievances. Kaplan writes:

Macedonia defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion.

I read the book because I was visiting Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia. I recently got back from the trip. Seeing the places in person, as usual, made me engage with history that I probably ought to have known but hadn’t prioritized knowing till now. Travel makes you do that. It also makes you keep up with a place in the news after you leave. 80% of The Economist used to be uninteresting to me; now, when I flip through and see one of the random articles about, say, Indonesia, I’ll read it, because I’ve been there.

Sarajevo was haunting. It’s a small and pretty city, especially the old town. And quite cheap. But to be in Sarajevo is mainly to see grave yards all around and to visit museums dedicated to a genocide that happened only 20 years ago. Normally, when you think of the horrors of history, you think of grainy black and white photos. The slaughter of Bosnian Muslims (by Orthodox Christian Serbs) happened in the era of color video and color photos. It was so recent that there are people alive right now in Sarajevo who are missing all the men in their extended family.

The Srebrenica massacre museum really emphasized Western negligence during the ordeal. The cowardice/incompetence of the U.N. peacekeepers was a surprisingly recurrent theme. After the U.N. declared Srebrenica a “safe city,” thousands of Muslim men gathered there, thinking they were safe. In fact, they made themselves a convenient target for the Serbian army who overpowered the hapless peacekeepers and executed 8,000 men and boys in 48 hours. The photo embedded to the right hangs on the wall as you exit the museum. You can’t help but reflect on the costs and benefits of humanitarian interventions.

After Sarajevo, I went to Belgrade. The Belgrade tour guide referred to the 90’s as a “terrible, sad time” where people on all sides made mistakes. He expressed remorse for the 1,000 Serbian civilians killed during the NATO air strikes. No mention of Muslims.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo maintain blockbuster tourist attractions. Sarajevo is prettier; Belgrade maintains a Soviet aesthetic. The Bosnians and Serbians I met were all hospitable and intelligent. In both places I think you visit for a history trip: to learn about Tito and communism, to learn about the Balkan wars, to try to keep up with who hates who for which ethnic or religious reasons, to try to figure out the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Here are Tyler Cowen’s impressions of Belgrade. We were there together at a conference. I, too, am very glad I made it to Serbia. And I hope there can be lasting peace in the region.

Full highlights of the Kaplan book below the fold. It’s a good book to read before a visit.

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Poem of the Day by Billy Collins

Litany by Billy Collins. Oh, the power of metaphor…

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

Impressions from an African Safari


I recently completed a six night safari in Tanzania (in addition to three nights at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro hiking around). I enjoyed the trip very much, in part because it was unlike any other travel experience I’ve had. Cities can blur together: I’ve been in a million churches, gone on a million city tours. Traversing the African Savannah is something else entirely.

At the most macro level, being in the wild among the animals brought to mind one phrase: state of nature. Every wild animal is simply trying to survive. Well, that, and trying to breed healthy offspring. To achieve these two goals, they’ll attack, ally, retreat, advance, betray, and coordinate. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to be on safari and not think of how similar we humans are to the animals in the wild. How so many of our base instincts are exactly the same as the cheetahs and vultures and elephants: we’re just trying to survive. And we like to have sex.

In the wild, it’s a brutal, Darwinian life. There’s always a chance the wrong predator comes upon them at the wrong time and it’ll be over in a poof. In such an environment, you have to always be on guard. We saw lions trying to sleep but every 10-15 seconds the would pop their heads up and look around carefully. We saw zebras standing in a special group formation with their heads turned in a certain way so that, between the four of them, every angle was covered in case an enemy attacked.

One of the best ways to survive in state of nature is to coordinate with your allies. Indeed, complex social hierarchies exist within every species in the bush to facilitate how they move across the plains, how they split up food, how they defend against an attack, and more. Seeing broad-scale coordination made for the most interesting moments on safari. One day, in Serengeti National Park, we witnessed extraordinary acts of coordination among lions and among buffalo. We were driving along and came upon a rocky hill upon which a pride of twelve lions were lying, about 50 yards from where our car stopped. Meanwhile, a little to the east, more than 300 buffalo were migrating across the low-cut grassy fields, presumably in search of water. The buffalo were walking together, two abreast, in a long line that stretched as far as the eye could see. They walked in a large troupe to make themselves more formidable to their enemies. Unfortunately for them, their route was taking them right next to the rocks the lions were perched upon. As the buffalo approached they smelled the lions and stopped. Lions are the strongest and most feared animals in the wild; it felt like every time we asked our guide about a given animal’s enemies, he answered: “…and Lions.” A lion beats everything. That said, even a large pride of lions can’t handle hundreds of horned, ~800lbs buffalo at once. So the lions didn’t attack. Similarly, while 300 buffalo could easily scare off a single lion a large pride was too much — they’d suffer too much loss — so they were scared as well. Both sides had teamed up and it led to a multi-hour standoff: they just sat there, staring at each other in a ready-to-fight position.

One of the lions slipped off the backside of the rock and departed the face-off. About 20 minutes later, about 150 yards away, there were loud animal screams that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had left earlier killed a zebra. Upon hearing the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the killed zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. When the lions arrived at the scene of the dead zebra, they began roaring and gently fighting with each other like all siblings do at the dinner table, eager for the bigger portion. Meanwhile, the buffalo formation near the rock formation ultimately turned around began to retreat. Well, most of them anyway. It had been a couple hours and we needed to drive on, but our guide predicted that one or two of the buffalo would be slow to leave the scene, or would simply ignore their leader’s advice to retreat. The lions would snatch that last, lonesome buffalo when his family/friends had gone too far ahead.


The state of nature is brutal. But it’s also a thing of beauty. Of course there’s the surface level beauty of bearing witness to a giraffe munching the green leaves of a tall tree or watching a zebra rolling around in the dirt to mark its territory or spotting an elephant nuzzling with a newborn baby elephant. More than that though, there’s simply taking in the fact that gazelles and giraffes and crocodiles and salamanders and leopards and a thousand bird species are all living together in one complex, interdependent ecosystem. We learned how every living organism in the African savannah eats a particular grass or animal, gets eaten in turn by some other animal, relies upon various flies or birds for cleaning, and so on. Pretty amazing.

Cecil the Lion is in the news. It’s upsetting in part because of this ecosystem interdependency. As described here, when poachers kill the most grand lions or the biggest-tusked elephants, they’re not just killing a single animal. When you kill a male lion, infighting in the pride will lead to the killing of other cubs. When the lion population declines, the population of wildebeests and zebras grows larger than normal. When there are too many wildebeests, there’s too much grazing of grass. This means less vegetation for the birds to eat, and so on and so forth. Millions of years of evolution has refined the food chain. You can’t mess with one part of it without messing with all of it. Here’s my previous post on what happened when wolves were taken out of Yellowstone.


The vastness of the parks of East Africa, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the decentralized coordination and allying among the animals, and of course the physical beauty of the animals and the landscape: all were sources of awe for me on the safari. Awe is a good thing and any trip that inspires it is a trip worth taking.