‘Brief Candle in the Dark,’ by Richard Dawkins

November 29, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Brief Candle in the Dark,’ by Richard Dawkins

Some lumbering robot, this Richard Dawkins. “Lumbering robots” was one of the ways in which this scarily brilliant evolutionary biologist described human beings vis-à-vis their genes in “The Selfish Gene,” his first and probably still his most influential book — more than a million copies sold. (His atheist manifesto, “The God Delusion,” has sold more than three million.) We’re essentially a means of physical and, more important, temporal transportation for our genes, he explained. They can live on for eons after we take our own inherited genes and mate with those of that handsome boy behind us in the ­movie-ticket line who ended up sitting next to us or the ones belonging to that pretty girl whose change we picked up by mistake at the newsstand and with whom we then had an apologetic coffee. And so on down the line. Our lines. Dawkins has also called us “throwaway survival machines” for our genes. But only, I think, to make a biological point.

In all of his work — including this new memoir, “Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science” (a sort of sequel to “An Appetite for Wonder,” about his early life) — Dawkins himself gives the existential lie to the notion that if we are here for any reason, we are here primarily, maybe exclusively, to provide Uber service for our genes and, just a little more altruistically, for the genes of those biologically most closely related to us. Because his genes don’t know anything about him and he knows just about everything about them.

In “Brief Candle in the Dark” — a title that I have to admit made me say, “Oh, please!” — Dawkins gives us a chronologically helter-skelter account of his grown-up research, discoveries, reflections, collaborations and controversies (especially about religion), along with reports on his appearances at various events, debates and conferences. So many events, so many conferences. He has become what Yeats calls himself in “Among School Children,” a “smiling public man.” (Though not always smiling, in Dawkins’s case, especially when it comes to his atheism.)

“Helter-skelter”? The book is “organized” achronologically, with, for example, sections devoted to the author’s academic progress, culminating in his appointment as Oxford’s first Charles Simonyi professor of public understanding of science; a chapter about his publishing history; another about “Debates and Encounters.” “If you don’t like digressive anecdotes,” Dawkins tells us, “you might find you’re reading the wrong book.”

Here is Dawkins describing Jane Brockmann’s experiments with the burrows of the female digger wasp, which he used to demonstrate the principle of evolutionarily stable strategy: “We need ESS theory whenever it happens that the best strategy for an animal depends on which strategy most other animals in the population have adopted.” Here he is three pages later introducing at some admiring length his Oxford University student Alan Grafen, who helped with the math of the digger-wasp-burrow study. A page later, still nominally among the wasp burrows, we find a Monty Python-esque description of the Great Annual Punt Race, in which the Animal Behavior Research Group rows against the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology.

Dawkins’s tributes to teachers, colleagues, students and public figures mingle with fairly extensive reprises on and further thoughts about the scientific research and philosophical positions he has developed in his 12 previous works. (They are all still in print, Dawkins tells us, presumably with a little blush.) There is his tribute to one of his “heroes,” the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar, admired “as much for his writing style as for his science.” And another to David Attenborough, brother of Richard, a “marvelous man.” And to Susan Blackmore, a “briskly intelligent psychologist.” Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, with his “intellect, wit, lightning repartee.” And so on.

These encomiums and credit-givings complement Dawkins’s persistent efforts to leaven his recollections with humor, applying a generally light touch: “An agent was a good thing to have,” and Caroline Dawnay “was a good representative of the genus.” “The snort of a pig-frog . . . may affect another pig-frog as the nightingale affected Keats, or the skylark Shelley.” Together, these mots — bon and otherwise — and Dawkins’s acknowledgments of the talents and the contributions of others to his life and work add up to a kind of self-­effacement campaign. The crucial element in “self-effacement” is “self.” Self-effacement is not the same as modesty or humility — it is an effort of will, not a unitary psychological state. Nevertheless, that Dawkins mounts this campaign in “Brief Candle in the Dark” is surprisingly sweet, and admirable. That he loses the battle is in no way shameful. If anyone in modern science deserves to regard his or her own contributions with pride, even with triumph, it is Richard Dawkins.

The sections of “Brief Candle in the Dark” that deal with religion and atheism are middle-aged if not old hat to anyone who knows anything about the public Dawkins, along with Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Christopher Hitchens. But they are still entertaining. The often long passages that involve pure science are sometimes difficult and thus, sadly, require short shrift in a book review. “Natural selection, at each locus independently, favors whichever allele cooperates with the other genes with whom it shares a succession of bodies: And that means it cooperates with the alleles at those other loci, which cooperate in their turn.” But work on them and they become, as you might expect, cogent précis of Dawkins’s life’s work, and vastly illuminating: “Animals are islands in this hyperspace, vastly spaced out from one another as if in some Hyperpolynesia, surrounded by a fringing reef of closely related animals.” “If one identical twin were good at three-­dimensional visualization, I would expect that his twin would be too. But I’d be very surprised to find genes for gothic arches, postmodern finials or neoclassical ­architraves.”

Especially bright is the light thrown in summary on replication and adaptation and connectedness, not only biological but cultural, especially in the concept of the “meme” — a word coined by Dawkins to describe images, phrases, references, pieces of music, that are themselves replicated and then spread virally throughout the world’s cultural consciousness. The meme is at best, I think, a metaphorically baggy analogue to the gene, but it serves the purpose of emphasizing the recursiveness and interrelatedness of our experience of the world.

Sometimes you get the feeling that ­Dawkins sees — and believes we should see — everything as connected to everything else, everything affecting everything else, everything determining and being determined by everything else. In fact, in “Brief Candle in the Dark,” he recursively recites something pertinent to this point that he wrote in “Unweaving the Rainbow,” about the compatibility of art and science: “The living world can be seen as a network of interlocking fields of replicator power.”

In his marveling at art and music and the accomplishments of his predecessors, in his sense of wonder, unspoiled — in fact amplified — by science, Dawkins proves we’re not in any way reducible to mere lumbering (or any other kinds of) robots for our genes. Even though the price of our ability to learn and marvel is death, and our genes have at least theoretical immortality, they’re really but tiny vehicles for our own wonder.

Daniel Menaker’s most recent book is a memoir, “My Mistake.”

A version of this review appears in print on November 29, 2015, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: In His Genes. Today’s Paper


Burma’s General Ne Win–A Political Biography

November 26, 2015

Book Review

General Ne Win–A Political Biography

NeWin-200Robert H Taylor, General Ne Win: A Political Biography, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)

Reviewed by Frank Milne

Ne Win, the dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1988, looms large in the nation’s modern history and memory. With historic free and fair elections – the first in 25 years – having just taken place, one wonders what he would think of the country today.

As he died while under house arrest in 2002, we can’t ask Ne Win about his nation’s political transformation. However, in Robert H Taylor’s General Ne Win, we are provided with an illuminating and important study of one of Burma’s most controversial political figures.

This excellent biography addresses Ne Win’s career and his place in Burmese political movements in the 20th century. It is a thoroughly researched account of the period. There is less information about his personal life and views outside politics, as he left no collection of papers, and contemporary accounts were mostly written by those who had fallen out with him.

I served in the Australian Embassy in Burma for two separate periods (1963–65 as Second Secretary and 1982-86 as Ambassador) which book-ended the Ne Win period. The earlier period was gloomy, as the economy was dislocated by wholesale nationalisation, political opponents were jailed, political parties banned, and the press strictly controlled. Burmese officials went to ground, and contact with foreigners was restricted.

I had one opportunity to meet Ne Win at a small lunch he gave for the Australian Foreign Minister Paul Hasluck in May 1965. His conversation over lunch was genial but general, though he did not conceal his low opinion of the Burmese people’s capacity for sustained effort, and the need for a firm government hand.

Ne Win was not simply a general who staged a coup d’état as a road to power and fortune. His lifelong commitment was to the unity of Burma and its independence from foreign political or economic control. In the 1930s, well before his military career, he was politically active in the nationalist association Dobama Asiayon pursuing independence from British colonial rule. He was one of the Thirty Comrades trained by the Japanese, to form the nucleus of the Japanese-controlled Burma Independence Army. This later became the Burma Defence Army, which in 1945 turned to the allied side against the Japanese.

In the internal upheavals before and after Independence in 1948, Ne Win, now one of the senior figures in the new Burmese army, played a major part in defending U Nu’s socialist government against ethnic insurgents, and Communist rebels.

Taylor’s book provides a rigorous account of the roller coaster ride that followed.

In 1949, now supreme commander of the armed forces, Ne Win was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home and Defence Minister, but resigned his ministerial positions in 1950 to concentrate on the armed forces.  His brief cabinet experience gave him distaste for party politicians whom he regarded as preferring self-interest above the national interest. This jaundiced view of politicians was shared by his subordinates in the Army for the next 50 years.

In 1958 a split in the ruling party led to a constitutional crisis. This was resolved in 1959 by Ne Win taking charge as caretaker prime minister to restore order before new elections.  Ne Win ensured that the army remained politically neutral, but was not prepared to let the communists come to power, when it seemed that U Nu was prepared to make concessions to win their support. His nonpartisan and technocratic government provided a period of stability, but the 1960 elections won by U Nu’s Union Party did not provide a lasting solution.

Amid growing political unrest and dissension, and concerned for the future of the Union if U Nu were to grant greater autonomy to the ethnic minorities, Ne Win took power in a sudden and largely bloodless coup in March 1962. He did not follow the policy of his previous caretaker government, but embarked on a new socialist revolution and a one party system under his leadership – The Burmese Way to Socialism.

Though he was not a Marxist, and indeed was strongly opposed to the Burmese communists, he regarded Marxist methods as a useful means of establishing the control needed to get the easy-going Burmese people to become self-reliant, develop the country and protect their own culture. He was above all concerned to protect the integrity of the Union of Burma against foreign and domestic challenges.

By 1982 Ne Win had handed over the Presidency to San Yu, though he remained a controlling presence as Party Chairman. He no longer had any contact with foreign missions. The socialist revolution was then running out of steam, and its first rigours were somewhat relaxed, but the economy was at low ebb. The ethnic insurgency rumbled on in the background, though the communists, now confined to the northern border area, now longer posed a serious threat.

In the epilogue summing up Ne Win’s career, Taylor notes that the Ne Win revolution was not bloody but it was admittedly not cost-free. On the credit side he suggests that Ne Win did create a nation with the resilience from its own resources to withstand over 20 years of economic sanctions. He succeeded in his principal foreign policy aim of keeping Burma out of external entanglements and free of foreign political and economic influences, although at the expense of opportunities foregone.

He was prepared to accept the cost of rejecting foreign loans or assistance that came with strings. He did not want Burma to be enrolled in either side in the cold war, with the risk of exposing the country to the sort of great power conflict which ravaged the countries of Indochina. He was equally suspicious of Chinese intentions and the potential for United States interference. He carried his policy of neutralism to the extent of abandoning the non-aligned movement when he considered it had abandoned its founding principles.

His economic policies were not successful. Taylor points out that many social indicators such as literacy, infant mortality and basic health care improved under Ne Win. However such improvement might well have been greater under a more pragmatic economic regime. Partly because of the insurgency, expenditure on the Armed Forces greatly exceeded the funds devoted to health and education. Whether a more flexible government might have been able to negotiate a better and less expensive settlement with the ethnic minorities without breaking up the Union is another question. But Ne Win normally preferred the stick to the carrot.

Taylor notes that by persisting in failed policies long after it became clear that they had failed, the government did less than it could have done to reverse Burma’s economic decline. He suggests that Ne Win knew the policy of Socialist autarchy had failed, but feared the alternative of re-engaging with the world economy, partly because those around him were averse to change and those he had to work with had been cut off from knowledge of the new ideas and new developments in economic theory and the sciences by the country’ self-imposed isolation.

He also feared that the Burmese people, despite cajoling and coercion, might not resist the temptations of a new foreign economic invasion. But a more productive economic policy would surely have been possible without harmful foreign entanglements, if the government had been prepared to listen to better advice.

Despite Ne Win’s genuinely patriotic intentions, the end result of his regime was to keep Burma in a time warp for over 40 years, from which it is only now starting to emerge. The consequences of his political career, make Taylor’s book a must read.

Frank Milne was Australian Ambassador to Burma from 1982-86.


Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman

November 26, 2015

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman


Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything

Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

by Christopher Riley


In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway — a suburb of New York – in May 1918, but his path in life was forged even before this. “If he’s a boy I want him to be a scientist,” said his father, Melville, to his pregnant wife. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, he’d taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus, and in his last year of high school won the New York University Math Championship, shocking the judges not only by his score, but by how much higher it was than those of his competitors.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

Such talents led to him being recruited to the Manhattan Project in the early Forties. Together with some of the greatest minds in physics in the 20th century, Feynman was put to work to help build an atom bomb to use against the Germans before they built one to use against the Allies. Security at the top-secret Los Alamos labs was at the highest level. But for Feynman — a born iconoclast – such control was there to be challenged. When not doing physics calculations he spent his time picking locks and cracking safes to draw attention to shortcomings in the security systems.

“Anything that’s secret I try and undo,” he explained years later. Feynman saw the locks in the same way as he saw physics: just another puzzle to solve. He garnered such a reputation, in fact, that others at the lab would come to him when a colleague was out-of-town and they needed a document from his safe.

Between the safe cracking and the physics calculations, the pace of life at Los Alamos was relentless. But for Feynman these activities were a welcome distraction from a darker life. His wife, Arline, who was confined to her bed in a sanatorium nearby, was slowly dying of TB.

When she died in the summer of 1945, Feynman was bereft. This misery was compounded, a few weeks later, when the first operational atom bomb was dropped on Japan, killing more than 80,000 people. His original reason for applying his physics to the war effort had been to stop the Germans. But its use on the Japanese left Feynman shocked. For the first time in his life he started to question the value of science and, convinced the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust, his focus drifted.

He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.

William Hurt as Richard Feynman in a BBC drama based on his role in the Challenger disaster report

His other method of relaxation in those years was music; his passion for playing the bongos stayed with him for the rest of his life. Physics had slipped down his list of priorities, but he suddenly rediscovered his love for the subject in a most unexpected way. In the canteen at Cornell one lunchtime he became distracted by a student, who had thrown a plate into the air. As it clattered onto the floor Feynman observed that the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. It made him wonder what the relationship was between these two motions.

Playing with the equations which described this movement reminded him of a similar problem concerning the rotational spin of the electron, described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. And this, in turn, led him to Dirac’s theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED); a theory which had tried to make sense of the subatomic world but had posed as many questions as it answered. What followed, Feynman recalled years later, was like a cork coming out of a bottle. “Everything just poured out,” he remembered.

“He really liked to work in the context of things that were supposed to be understood and just understand them better than anyone else,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who sits today at Feynman’s old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. “That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition – an insight into what was really going on.” Applying this deep insight, Feynman invented an entirely new branch of maths to work on QED, which involved drawing little pictures instead of writing equations.

Richard’s sister, Joan, recalls him working on the problem while staying with her one weekend. Her room-mate was still asleep in the room where Richard had been working. “He said to me, ‘Would you go in the room and get my papers, I wanna start working’,” she remembers. “So I went in the room and I looked for them, but there was no mathematics. It was just these silly little diagrams and I came out and said, ‘Richard, I can’t find your papers, it’s just these kind of silly diagrams’. And he said, ‘That is my work!’” Today Feynman’s diagrams are used across the world to model everything from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the motion of planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos.

Applying them to QED, Feynman came up with a solution which would win him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. Almost half a century later QED remains our best explanation of everything in the universe except gravity. “It’s the most numerically precise physical theory ever invented,” says Carroll.

Discovering a law of nature and winning a Nobel Prize, for most people, would represent the pinnacle of a scientific career. But for Feynman these achievements were mere stepping stones to other interests. He took a sabbatical to travel across the Caltech campus to the biology department, where he worked on viruses. He also unravelled the social behaviour of ants and potential applications of nanotechnology. And he was active beyond the world of science, trading physics coaching for art lessons with renowned Californian artist Jirayr Zorthian. (While at Caltech he also began frequenting a local strip club, where he would quietly work out his theories on napkins; he found it the ideal place in which to clear his head.)

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early Sixties, Cornell invited him to give the Messenger Lectures – a series of public talks on physics. Watching them today, Feynman’s charisma and charm is as seductive as it was 50 years ago.

“He loved a big stage,” says Carroll. “He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally.”

Recognising this ability, in 1965 Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create and the accompanying textbooks still represent the last word on the history of physics. The lectures themselves were brimming with inspiring “showbiz demonstrations” as his friend Richard Davies describes them. Most memorably, Feynman used to set up a heavy brass ball on a pendulum, send it swinging across the room, and then wait for it to swing back towards him. Students would gasp as it rushed towards his face, but Feynman would stand stock still, knowing it would stop just in front of his nose. Keen to capitalise on these talents for engaging an audience, Christopher Sykes made his film for Horizon. “He took enormous pleasure in exploring life and everything it had to offer,” remembers Sykes. “More than that, he took tremendous pleasure in telling you about it.”

In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

A series of operations kept Feynman alive and well enough to work on one final important project. In 1986, he joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the entire crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought bureaucratic intransigence and vested interests to uncover the cause of the accident: rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that failed to work on the freezing morning of the launch. At a typically flamboyant press conference, Feynman demonstrated his findings by placing a piece of an O-ring in a glass of iced water. But the inquiry had left him exhausted. With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988.

His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’” Twenty-five years after his death, thanks to the web, Feynman’s prophecy has more truth than he could ever have imagined.

Christopher Riley is a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln. His film ‘The Fantastic Mr Feynman’ is on BBC Two on Sunday.

Thanks Loess74

The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science

November 22, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science

by David Leonhardt*


ChicagonomicsHe believed that government had a crucial role to play in a well-functioning economy. It should finance and run good schools, as well as build roads, bridges and parks, he argued. It should tax alcohol, sugar and tobacco, all of which impose costs on society. It should regulate businesses to protect workers. And it should tax the rich — who suffer from “indolence and vanity” — to help the poor.

Which leftist economist was this? None other than Adam Smith, the inventor of the “invisible hand” and the icon of ­laissez-faire economics today. Smith’s modern reputation is a caricature. He was a giant of the Enlightenment in large part because he was a careful and nuanced thinker. He certainly believed that a market economy was a powerful force for good. The exchange of goods and services, as he explained, could lift living standards and free 18th-century Europeans from the tight strictures of tradition and government. Yet he did not have a religious faith in the market. Smith was a classical liberal, in the European sense of the word, who emphasized the essential equality among human beings.

Lanny Ebenstein’s mission, in “Chicagonomics,” is to rescue not only Smith from his caricature but also some of Smith’s modern-day acolytes: the economists who built the so-called Chicago school of economics, chief among them Milton ­Friedman. From their home base at the University of Chicago, these economists became influential around the world. They provided much of the intellectual ballast for the free-market revolution of the late 20th century. They advised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, became gurus to reformers in post-Communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere and inspired others in China, India and the rest of Asia.

Milton Friedman

As the list of their protégés makes clear, Friedman and his allies were politically conservative, pushing against state control of industry much as Smith had. But Ebenstein argues that the message of the Chicago school has nonetheless been perverted in recent years. Many members of the Chicago school subscribed to “classical liberalism,” in Ebenstein’s preferred term, rather than “contemporary libertarianism.” Classical liberalism manages to grasp two different ideas: The state’s economic role can — and often has — ­become too large, but that does not mean its role should be as small as possible. Indeed, the state can become marginalized to the point of undermining the larger goals that Smith, Friedman and others championed, including freedom, prosperity and equality.

Ebenstein, the son of a political scientist who taught briefly at the University of Chicago, has written 10 books on economic and political history, including biographies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With this book, he joins a group of detractors of modern-day American conservatism who are sympathetic to many of the ideas of conservatism but harshly critical of how it is now practiced.

“Contemporary libertarianism too often denotes cranky obscurantism, intolerance, irrelevance and, frankly, poor scholarship and the manipulation of data, although these are not always the case or unique to it,” he writes. “There is no reason to compromise on anything. They are utopians working toward and often living in a mythical land, ‘Libertania.’ ” Anyone who watched the House Republicans devour their own leaders — and prevent Congress from functioning — will recognize the description.

The radicalization and nihilism of much of modern American conservatism is worrisome for many reasons, not least the important role that actual conservatism has played in recent decades and could play today. Friedman, after all, was a deeply creative thinker who shaped numerous policy successes, as did many of his brethren. (Although, Ebenstein notes, Friedman himself tilted toward zealotry in his later years.) The rise of market economies in Asia has led to perhaps the most rapid and widespread decline in poverty in human history. Friedman also argued for the end to the military draft, for flexible currency exchange rates and for a negative income tax to combat poverty, which became the earned-income tax credit.

Dani RodrikDani Rodrik, a Harvard economics professor, has written a much less political book than Ebenstein has, titled “Economics Rules,” in which he sets out to explain the discipline to outsiders (and does a nice job). Yet in surveying the larger “rights and wrongs” of economics, to quote his subtitle, Rodrik has diagnosed the central mistake that contemporary libertarians have made: They have conflated ideas that often make sense with those that always make sense.

Some of this confusion is deliberate. By pushing for less government, regardless of the situation, contemporary libertarians act as a kind of lobbyist working on behalf of the affluent. Less government tends to mean lower taxes for the people with the most money to lose to taxes. Less government also means cuts to schools, and health-insurance and retirement programs on which the affluent do not depend.

But not all of the analytical errors of libertarianism are so cynical. Some stem from the honest intellectual mistake of confusing a good idea with the good idea. Because Rodrik’s focus is economics, he frames this mistake in terms of theoretical models, which are a central tool of both social science and natural science. Rodrik compares them, somewhat impishly, to fables, but he means the comparison as a compliment to both.

“What are economic models?” he asks. “The easiest way to understand them is as simplifications designed to show how specific mechanisms work by isolating them from other, confounding effects. A model focuses on particular causes and seeks to show how they work their effects through the system.” A fable, similarly, trades complexity and comprehensiveness for a clear but still true lesson.

The trouble comes when economists — and the rest of us — try to make such a lesson universal. Universality has its place in the physical sciences but rarely in the social sciences. “We cannot look to economics for universal explanations or prescriptions that apply regardless of context,” Rodrik writes. “The possibilities of social life are too diverse to be squeezed into unique frameworks.”

The lure of universality is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon, of course. The left and center suffer from it, too. Liberals, for instance, can slip from believing that government is often necessary into believing that it is inherently effective — and defend public schools and anti-poverty programs that ill serve the poor. Centrists sometimes leap from the reasonable judgment that neither political party has a monopoly on the truth to the unreasonable one that the truth on any one issue lies roughly halfway between the extremes.

That last point has a particular relevance to modern American politics, and to the problems Ebenstein describes. While all political ideologies (not to mention all human beings) are susceptible to over learning a lesson, the damages from that mistake come mostly from the right half of the spectrum in the United States today. The political right has spent five years wrongly predicting hyperinflation and, in the process, kept the federal government from doing more to combat unemployment. There are similar stories about climate policy, tax policy, health care and even voting rights and voter fraud.

Reducing complex issues to their essence is unavoidable. The alternative is an often paralyzing level of detail. Rodrik cites a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” about a mythical empire in which the mapmakers could not tolerate any oversimplification.

Ultimately, they created a map as large as the empire itself, which is no more useful than a map consisting of a single tiny dot — or an economic philosophy that offers only one answer, no matter the question. As Rodrik says, quoting an adage often attributed to Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

*David Leonhardt, a writer and editor at The Times, previously wrote the paper’s Economic Scene column.

A version of this review appears in print on November 22, 2015, on page BR25 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Market Correction.

Book Review: Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power

November 10, 2015

Book Review: Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush’

by Jim Kelly


ORG XMIT: S0347542918_STAFF 1-18-1999.. Former President George H. W. Bush stands next to his son, Governor George W. Bush, at the Governor's mansion in Austin, Texas on 1-18-99. [ bush41 ]

George H. W. Bush is unusual among modern American presidents in that after he left the White House in 1993 he never produced his own full-scale autobiography. True, he co-wrote a book about his administration’s foreign policy with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and then allowed a collection of his letters and diary excerpts to be published. But he showed no interest in writing the kind of doorstopper others have given us, nothing on the order of “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” “Ronald Reagan: An American Life” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life.” Even Hillary Clinton, who may yet be president and thus get her own chance to add to the genre, has already written two thick memoirs, either of which, if you accidentally dropped it on your foot, might leave you limping.

It is a measure of Bush’s shrewdness that he cooperated so extensively with Jon Meacham on “Destiny and Power,” allowing his biographer not just access to his diaries and family members but sitting for a series of interviews from 2006 to 2015. Meacham — an executive editor at Random House, a former editor of Newsweek and the author of “American Lion,” a well-told account of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 — amply rewards his subject’s trust by producing a deeply empathetic, often moving book about the former president and what Bush calls the L-word, his legacy.

Book on G. W.H. Bush

How does the reader fare in this affectionate transaction between president and biographer? Surprisingly well, since Meacham’s access and lack of ideological fervor allow him to paint Bush the man in unusually subtle colors. Bush, called “41” by friends to distinguish him from his son, the 43rd president, emerges from this book as more ambitious, more anxious and far more emotional than commonly perceived. He could easily give former House Speaker John Boehner a run for his money in the Kleenex sweepstakes.

Bush, who is now 91, also comes across as an acute and often witty observer of other people’s quirks; his anecdotes of touring Asia with Bill Clinton may be the most hilarious description of 42’s charm and egotism (“He talks all the time,’’ Bush 41 notes. “He’s just shameless”) I have ever read. And thanks to Meacham’s adroit questioning, Bush drops his customary refusal to second-guess his son’s administration and offers a devastating critique of Vice- President Dick Cheney, an analysis that carries special weight since Bush himself served in that office during the Reagan years.

Raised in privilege, Bush is known to be allergic to introspection, and try as he might, Meacham unearths no “Rosebud” moment that illuminates what propelled Bush throughout his career. Perhaps it really is as simple as what Bush, in his telegraphic style, tells Meacham: “My motivation’s always been goal . . . you know, to be captain.” Pressed further, Bush is not exactly expansive: “Whatever you’re in. Be No. 1.” Bush’s father, Prescott, served as United States senator from Connecticut, but Bush did not inherit the political bug so much as the itch, as Meacham puts it, “to serve, to make his mark, to be in the game.” Despite his self-effacing style, Bush never doubted he was the best man for a job, whether it was as president of a Texas oil company, a twice-elected congressman (and failed Senate candidate) or in résumé-building positions under Nixon and Gerald Ford: United States ambassador to the United Nations, America’s envoy to China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Meacham’s admiration leads him to glide quickly over some of Bush’s more controversial decisions, like his nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Meacham is toughest on Bush for insisting in 1987 that he had been “not in the loop” on the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages deal, a lie that clearly appalls the author. But even then Meacham writes more in sorrow than anger, describing the incident as “unworthy of his essential character.”

This sympathetic approach allows Meacham to draw out Bush on the most emotional moments of his life and tell them with dramatic verve. In 1944, when he was 20, during one of the dozens of bombing missions Bush flew as a naval aviator, his plane was hit and Bush ordered his two fellow crewmen to “hit the silk!” After hours of bobbing about on a life raft in the Pacific, Bush was rescued by a submarine, but the other crewmen were never found. Decades later Bush teared up as he told Meacham, “I wondered — wonder still — whether I did all I could.”

The worst tragedy of Bush’s life was the death from leukemia at age 3 of his daughter, Robin, his second child. Neither George nor his wife, Barbara, had even heard of leukemia when their doctor in Midland, Tex., gave them the news, and what followed was months of painful treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. George W. was 6 and Jeb less than 1, and they stayed at home in Texas with their father while Barbara remained in New York. Bush sobbed as he discussed Robin with Meacham, and admitted that the grief remained so deep that “normally I push it away, push it back.”

Bush has never been accused of eloquence, and on two occasions when he did utter memorable phrases, they backfired. The colorful description of Reagan’s tax proposals as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican primary campaign nearly wrecked his chances of becoming Reagan’s running mate that year. His pledge at the 1988 Republican convention, “Read my lips: No new ­taxes,” may have helped him into the White House, but when the threat of a government shutdown two years later forced him to backtrack, the reversal cost him dearly.

Yet one time his choice of words set the course for the singular achievement of his presidency, and it was unscripted. After Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in August 1990, the administration and its allies were at a loss on how to react. Options were still being bandied about when Bush, arriving from Camp David on a Sunday afternoon and frustrated by the diplomatic shilly-shallying, announced to reporters: “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” Such an adamant statement shocked even his closest advisers. “Where’d you get that ‘This will not stand’?” Scowcroft asked. “That’s mine,” Bush replied. “That’s what I feel.”

This was Bush at his best: decisive, in charge, imbued with a mission. Can you be a born leader but not an effective president? That is the central question of the one-term Bush presidency, and Meacham tiptoes around a definitive answer. The flagging economy did not interest Bush as much as foreign policy did, and his hatred for campaigning to win a second term culminated in a disastrous ­presidential-debate performance against Clinton and Ross Perot, in which he stumbled over answers and looked at his watch. Meacham makes a persuasive case that Bush’s persistent health problems (his thyroid medication for Graves’ disease needed constant adjustment, and he had bouts of atrial fibrillation) contributed to his defeat, sapping his energy on the trail and making him snappish and cranky.

Bush took the loss hard, awash with those lifelong fears of letting down people who depended on him and of leaving a mission unaccomplished. “God, it was ghastly,” he told Meacham. “Your whole life is based on trying to accomplish stuff, and losing hurts.” But what also stung was who he lost to: a man he considered a “draft dodger” for avoiding service during the Vietnam War, an observation Meacham is too polite to say would dog Bush’s own son. So much for “duty, honor, country,” Bush wrote in his diary.

History has a way of making what happens look predictable in hindsight, but given Bush’s decisive drubbing by Clinton in 1992, it remains remarkable that eight years later George H. W. Bush would become, as Meacham puts it, “the only president since John Adams to see his son also win the ultimate prize in American politics.” Nearly all of Bush the elder’s friends thought the more studious Jeb had a better shot at the Oval Office than George W.; even James A. Baker, the secretary of state, had once jokingly described the older son as a “juvenile delinquent, damn near.”

Meacham interviewed both father and sons about the perception, and George W. is the most forthright, acknowledging he was a “cutup” and “irreverent,” uninterested in putting down roots. “It’s totally different from Jeb, who falls in love early and gets married in college and has babies early. He’s just a different kind of person.” His father is more succinct, using a barnyard epithet to dismiss “the whole idea that Jeb was the favorite one because he was more knowledgeable. . . . I thought Jeb had a better chance to win than George.” The 1994 gubernatorial elections in Texas and Florida settled the question, at least around the Bush dining room table: George W. won, surprisingly, and Jeb, just as surprisingly, lost. (Jeb would prevail in 1998 and serve eight years. Stay tuned to see if George H. W. Bush outdoes Adams on the offspring-in-the-Oval-Office front.)

Bush 43’s two-term presidency is the subject for a different book, but Meacham deftly sketches what the son learned from his father’s tenure, which included maintaining his conservative and religious base and above all projecting a vision. Meacham explores in depth how some of these lessons shaped Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, including how much he consulted his dad (more than he admitted, Meacham implies) and that contrary to some reports there was no daylight between the two men on the decision to oust Saddam Hussein militarily.

Where Meacham breaks new and startling ground is reporting how needlessly harsh Bush 41 thought the rhetoric was, including Bush 43’s characterization in 2002 of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” And for that tone Bush 41 largely blames Dick Cheney, defense secretary during his own administration and a man Bush 41 believed had grown more hawkish over time, perhaps because of the influence of his wife, Lynne, who, Bush 41 speculates, is “a lot of the éminence grise here — iron-ass, tough as nails, driving.”

Cheney “had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Bush says. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own state department. I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the president’s fault.”

Meacham shows a transcript of these remarks first to Cheney and then to Bush 43. “A small smile” crossed Cheney’s face as he read them. “Fascinating,” he said. He acknowledged that he did become more hard-line after 9/11, and insisted that the way he structured the office of the vice presidency, so unlike the way Bush did under Reagan, was because Bush 43 wanted it like that. “W. is the one who made the decisions. To the extent I was a consequential vice president is because that’s what he wanted.”

Bush 43 seems more taken aback by the comments than Cheney, insisting that his father “would never say to me, ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that.” It is hard to tell how stung Bush 43 is by these remarks, since he quickly adds that “in any event, I disagree with his characterization.” Yet Meacham wisely points out that by the second term Bush had clipped Cheney’s wings and become less bellicose. “Though they never spoke of it, then, Bush 41 and Bush 43 may have been more in sync all along than even they knew.”

“Destiny and Power” reflects the qualities of both subject and biographer: judicious, balanced, deliberative, with a deep appreciation of history and the personalities who shape it. If Meacham is sometimes polite to a fault, “Destiny and Power” does not suffer for it. His kinder, gentler approach succeeds in making George H. W. Bush a more sympathetic — and more complex — figure than if the former president had written his own doorstopper after all.

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time magazine from 2001 to 2006, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

A version of this review appears in print on November 12, 2015, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Patriarch. Today’s Paper





When the Facts Change: Essays by Tony Judt Review

November 3, 2015

When the Facts Change: Essays by Tony Judt Review

by Nicholas Lezard–The Guardian

Director of the Remarque Institute Tony Judt in 2002
Tony Judt


The title, as you may know, comes from John Maynard Keynes, and continues: “I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” This can be irritating when used by people who presume the high moral position but have not actually changed their minds. There are one or two big things, however, that the historian Tony Judt changed his mind about, and in this superb collection of essays, which consists mainly of substantial reviews from the New York and London Reviews of Books, we can track at least one of them.

Judt's Book

Judt used to be a Marxist Zionist, but then he changed into a social democrat, and one quite prepared to criticise Israel. In 2003 he wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books in which he said a state that founded itself on ethnic identity was an anachronism, and that “unless something changes, Israel in half a decade will be neither Jewish nor democratic”. He called for Israel to become a binational state, and consequently suffered a firestorm of denigration. Judt was himself Jewish, albeit not religiously observant. His widow, Jennifer Homans, tells in her introduction of the time he went to a bar mitzvah in New York and “was indignant and a bit offended, but mostly confused” when he arrived at the synagogue to find he was the only guest wearing a hat. “What kind of Jews were these?” he asked. This may not convince his detractors, but I find it touching nevertheless.

In 2009, a year before his death, he wrote an essay, published here for the first time, in which he abandoned his earlier idea as unworkable and possibly dangerous, coming down in favour of a two-state solution that was, he said, paraphrasing Churchill, the worst possible outcome, apart from all the others.

As for that other change of mind, the shift from Marxism to social democracy, that’s less remarkable, especially if you had been paying attention during the cold war. As wars go, it wasn’t that bad – if you were living in the west. Judt concedes this, with a penetrating eye for the realpolitik of the day, reminding us of how various crises over Berlin stopped with the building of the Wall, “when the Great Powers, whatever they said in public, heaved a private sigh of relief”. You may say that’s cynical, but it has the ring of truth.

Judt, it emerges, was unafraid of getting into a fight. He had no time for George W Bush and his administration, as several essays here attest; and, having been based in America since the late 1980s, was well placed to see what was happening on the ground, while still being able to see the wider context across the Atlantic; he was pro-European and able to translate his own doctoral thesis into French (France was a special interest of his).

There is a scathing review of Norman Davies’s 1996 Europe: A History. It’s one of those pieces where one historian has been set on another, as in a dogfight. When you read the sentence “Davies’s book displays evidence of wide reading and a real enthusiasm for its subject” you can tell that it won’t be long before the gloves come off and the knuckledusters go on, as numerous factual errors are exposed and – a nice touch this – the author under review is compared to Mr Toad (“the clever men at Oxford / know all that there is to be knowed,” etc).

Some of these essays seem very much of their time, and the ones dealing with US foreign policy under George W. Bush are particularly outraged – but Judt used his knowledge of the past to help us make sense of what’s happening now. And it is always worth reading a historian who does not have an ideological agenda but understands what it means to have one.