Monday, March 25, 2013

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

This is one of King’s shorter works. Only 264 pages in the paperback I read. Unfortunately, it takes King 100 pages to figure out whose story he’s telling.

Trisha rebuckled the pack’s flap before she could weaken, then wrapped her arms around it again. Now that she wasn’t thirsty anymore, what should she imagine? And she knew, just like that. She imagined Tom Gordon was in the clearing with her, that he was standing right over there by the stream. Tom Gordon in his home uniform; it was so white it almost glowed in the moonlight. Not really guarding her because he was just pretend…but sort of guarding her. Why not? It was her make-believe, after all.

Trisha is a nine-year-old girl who has gotten lost in the woods, and has been listening to a Red Sox baseball game on her Walkman to keep her from being too frightened. Tom Gordon is a closing pitcher for the Red Sox, and her favorite player.

What was that in the woods? she asked him.

She’s been seeing things in the woods—scary things; and is uncertain if they are real or just in her imagination.

Don’t know, Tom replied. He sounded indifferent. Of course he could afford to sound indifferent, couldn’t he? The real Tom Gordon was two hundred miles away in Boston, and by now probably asleep behind a locked door.

“How do you do it?” she asked, sleepy again now, so sleepy she wasn’t aware that she was speaking out loud. “What’s the secret?”

Secret of what?

“Of closing,” Trisha said, her eyes closing.

She thought he would say believing in God—didn’t he point to the sky every time he was successful, after all?—or believing in himself, or maybe trying your best (that was the motto of Trisha’s soccer coach: “Try your best, forget the rest”), but Number 36 said none of those things as he stood by the little stream.

You have to try to get ahead of the first hitter, was what he said. You have to challenge him with that first pitch, throw a strike he can’t hit. He comes to the plate thinking, I’m better than this guy. You have to take that idea away from him, and it’s best not to wait. It’s best to do it right away. Establishing that it’s you who’s better, that’s the secret of closing.

This comes on page 103, and it is both the moral of the story, and the first time I believe that Trisha is actually a nine-year-old girl.

Up to that point, you see, King doesn’t treat her like any nine-year-old girl I ever heard of. Or maybe he tries to, but her inner voice and the voice of the narrator are so intertwined and can’t tell them apart.

…when she got to be Pete’s age her face would probably be one great pimple if she didn’t lay off the sweets…

…she now looked back on her panicky plunge through the woods with the mixture of indulgence and embarrassment adults feel when looking back upon the worst of their childhood behavior…

…it had been a crappy day, all right, très crappy…

…her pack, of which she had hardly been aware up until now, began to feel like a large, unstable baby in one of those papoose carriers…

…at last, moving as wearily as a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work (she felt like a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work)…

These are all in the narrator’s voice—in the sense that they are not direct quotations attributed to Trisha or italicized words to depict Trisha’s actual thoughts—but they are all so close to Trisha’s point of view, and, to my way of thinking, so obviously connections and language that an adult mind would employ, that they really prevented me from getting into the story and seeing Trisha as King undoubtedly wanted me to see her—as a frightened nine-year-old girl in a whole lot of trouble. What did I see instead? I saw Stephen King, the aging novelist who has written one too many books that rely on the same narrative arc pretending to be a nine-year-old girl.

Here’s the absolute epitome.

She got moving again. Three quarters of the way down, a bug—a big one, not a minge or a mosquito—flew into her face. It was a wasp, and Trisha batted at it with a cry. Her pack shifted violently to her downhill side, her right foot slipped, and suddenly her balance was gone. She feel, hit the rock slope on her shoulder with a tooth-rattling thud, and began to slide.

“Oh shit on toast!” she cried, and grabbed the ground.

Oh shit on toast? That’s what a nine-year-old girl who’s lost in the woods says when she loses her footing and begins sliding down a rocky hill? Oh shit on toast?

King does sporadically use a technique that helps, putting the thoughts and expressions that more appropriately belong to adults in the echoed voices of adults Trisha knows.

…Of course, if pigs had wings, bacon would fly. Her father said that…

…At least she wasn’t going to die from the stings, or she’d probably be dying already. She had overheard Mom and Mrs. Thomas from across the street talking about someone who was allergic to stings, and Mrs. Thomas had said, “Ten seconds after it gut im, poor ole Frank was swole up like a balloon. If he hadn’t had his little kit with the hyperdermic, I guess he woulda choked to death…”

But he does this far too infrequently to make Trisha’s constant flashes of King’s own vernacular adult wisdom believable. It really was the most distracting part of the first hundred pages.

The second hundred pages are better, and I especially liked the climax, where Trisha confronts and defeats a wild bear—blurred by her disorientation after a few days of hunger and dehydration and King’s typical storytelling tricks—into perhaps a malevolent entity called the God of the Lost, by pitching her Walkman at it in classic Tom Gordon style and bopping it right on the nose. Tom’s lesson—that you have to take the thought that your opponent is better than you away from him as quickly as you can—comes full circle in a nice and fulfilling way.

And in this regard, I realize that Trisha has to be a nine years old in order for the story to work. She can’t be anything else. Can you imagine an adult, lost in the woods, conjuring up a projection of his favorite baseball player to be his guardian and pathfinder in a time of desperation?

King never tries to convince us that Tom Gordon is actually with Trisha in the woods. He knows better than anyone that it isn’t really Gordon that’s protecting her. It is Trisha’s child-like sense of hero worship that gives her the courage to push forward and do what she does. And given the themes King has written about so many times before, that is a concept worthy of his narrative gifts.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


“Yet one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Despite the interpretation some may place on the title, this is not an anti-American book. It is, in my opinion, a cogent and eminently readable argument that the geopolitical power balance in the world is now entering a new phase—one is which America is no longer the sole, reigning superpower. A few lines in the preface well summarize Zakaria’s perspective and final conclusion in this regard.

The United States still plays a pivotal role in the world, but it is not what it once was. … This is not necessarily a sign of weakness or a cause for lamentations. But it is a new world in which countries will seek their own solutions and their own path, and the United States will have neither the economic means nor the political influence to impose a solution.

I can’t pretend to know whether Zakaria is right or wrong. What I will find fascinating about his prediction is monitoring how much the citizens of the United States accept it if it begins to prove true. There are vocal elements in American society that have their view of economic, military, democratic and/or moral superiority built on the idea that the United States is a singularly exceptional nation that must always dominate the world. If this proves factually wrong, will this “America First” crowd be able to accept the new world Zakaria describes?

It should be interesting. Zakaria says this new world is “not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else.” But, I’m doubtful that this distinction will be noticed or accepted by those who would prefer to see threats in other countries rising in prominence. They’re so used to the concept of the zero-sum game. Will they be able to interpret China’s rise, for example, as anything else than America’s corresponding decline?

Zakaria tries again and again to combat this perspective, knowing, I think, that he is likely to be misunderstood.

We still think of a world in which a rising power must choose between two stark options: integrate into the Western order, or reject it, becoming a rogue nation and facing the penalties of excommunication. In fact, rising powers appear to be following a third way: entering the Western order but doing so on their own terms—thus reshaping the system itself.

It’s an avenue few Americans can perceive. George W. Bush’s patriotic premise that you’re either “with us or against us” is still very much in the air, and it’s given a new paint job every election cycle. Few Americans recognize what Zakaria claims, that…

The world is moving from anger to indifference, from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.

Americans Live in a Cocoon

Americans have a difficult time seeing the forces that are reshaping the world around them. They think they understand how the world works—some of them, in fact, are convinced God has revealed uniquely to them how the world is supposed to work—but very few of them actually have that kind of vision or wisdom. They think they’re experts but, increasingly, the rest of the world doesn’t see things that way.

To foreigners, American officials seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running. “There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without,” says Kishore Mahbubani, who was formerly Singapore’s foreign secretary and ambassador to the United Nations. Because Americans live in a “cocoon,” they don’t see the “sea change in attitudes towards America throughout the world.

Zakaria has numerous examples of how the cocoon manifests itself in United States foreign policy. All are worth reading and understanding, but here’s a sample.

From before the start of the Iraq War…

The UN inspectors in Iraq were puzzled by how uninterested U.S. officials were in talking to them before the war. The Americans, comfortably ensconced in Washington, lectured the inspectors—who had spent weeks combing through Iraq—on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. “I thought they would be interested in our firsthand reports on what those supposedly dual-use factories looked like,” one inspector told me. “But no, they explained to me what those factories were being used for.”

And regarding the world’s reaction to the aftermath of the Iraq War, which is not based—as it is in America—on whether or not the United States was able to claim victory…

Even had Iraq been a glorious success, the method of its execution would have made utterly clear the unchallenged power of the United States—and it is this exercise of unipolarity that provoked a reaction around the world.

It doesn’t matter whether America’s intervention in Iraq was a success or failure. To large portions of the world, the overriding concern is how the United States took action. Too many American people and their politicians have yet to realize that they can no longer act unilaterally and expect there to be no negative repercussions.

And regarding terrorism…

On terrorism, both [American political] parties continue to speak in language entirely designed for a domestic audience with no concern for the poisonous effect it has everywhere else.

And generally speaking…

American politicians constantly and promiscuously demand, label, sanction, and condemn whole countries for myriad failings. Over the last fifteen years, the United States has placed sanctions on half the world’s population. We are the only country in the world to issue annual report cards on every other country’s behavior. Washington, D.C., has become a bubble, smug and out of touch with the world outside.

Is it any wonder Zakaria predicts the United States is unprepared for a world in which it is no longer the sole, dominant player? Not that many Americans care. To them, the United States remains the world’s most indispensible nation, the one that holds the beacon that all other countries should follow.

There’s a Reason Why Capitalism Won the Cold War

I think the thing I like best about Zakaria is the clarity of his perspective. He has the ability to slice through the bluster and indignation that drives much of our political rhetoric, and cut the legs off firmly entrenched positions with fact-based interpretations of reality.

Here’s an example, in response to those who are worried that fundamentalist Islam has a chance of taking over the world as a primary governing philosophy.

In contrast to Soviet socialism or even fascism in the 1930s, no society looks with admiration and envy on the fundamentalist Islamic model. On the ideological level, it presents no competition to the Western-originated model of modernity that countries across the world are embracing.

You realize it’s true in as much time as it takes to read the words. Communism and fascism were the threats they were because people and governments espoused them as rational alternatives to Western secularism and capitalism.

But neither of the two rising powers Zakaria profiles in depth—China and India—feel this way. Each, in their own way, has already embraced capitalism. India, especially, consciously chose its direction after observing world events.

In the minds of India’s policy and intellectual elites, there was a U.S.-led capitalist model on one end of the spectrum and a Soviet-led socialist model on the other. New Delhi was trying to carve a middle way between them. In this respect, India was not unusual. Brazil, Egypt, and Indonesia—and in fact, the majority of the world—were on this middle path. But it turned out to be a road to nowhere, and this was becoming apparent to many people in these countries by the late 1970s. As they stagnated, Japan and a few other East Asian economies that had charted a quasi-capitalist course succeeded conspicuously, and the lesson started to sink in.

But the earthquake that shook everything was the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. With central planning totally discredited and one end of the political spectrum in ruins, the entire debate shifted. Suddenly there was only one basic approach to organizing a country’s economy. This is why Alan Greenspan has described the fall of the Soviet Union as the seminal economic event of our time. Since then, despite all the unease about various liberalization and marketization plans, the general direction has not changed. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it in the years when she was reviving the British economy, “There is no alternative.”

The fact of the matter is that capitalism won the Cold War. You’d think Americans would be happy with that outcome, but I wonder how many are concerned about how well America can compete in the world that it created.

There Is No Such Thing as Asia

Here’s another. As described earlier, Americans are sometimes oblivious to how skewed their perspective is, how fundamentally premised it is on an American view of the world around us.

To speak of the “rise of Asia” misses the point. There is no such thing as Asia, which is really a Western construct. There are many very different countries that are part of that construct—China, Japan, India, Indonesia—and they harbor differences and suspicions about one another. The world looks different to China and India not simply because of who they are but also because of where they sit. The great shift taking place in the world might prove to be less about culture and more about power.

There is no such thing as Asia. Brilliant. How much will you misunderstand the world if you persist in clumping competing players together into constructs that don’t exist for them?

It’s a nice introduction to the next major section of his book, where Zakaria takes an in-depth look at two of the countries he mentions above—China, which he refers to as the Challenger (as in challenging America for its superpower status), and India, which he calls the Ally (as in the one with sensibilities more fundamentally aligned with our own).

The Challenger

To me, this is the most fascinating thing about China.

It is awkward to point out, but unavoidable: not having to respond to the public has often helped Beijing carry out its strategy. Other governments enviously looking on have taken note of this fact. Indian officials like to observe that their Chinese counterparts don’t have to worry about the voters. “We have to do many things that are politically popular but are foolish,” said a senior member of the Indian government. “They depress our long-term economic potential. But politicians need votes in the short term. China can take the long view. And while it doesn’t do everything right, it makes many decisions that are smart and far-sighted.”

I’ve begun arguing for some semblance of this for the United States, as un-democratic as it may sound, because I believe we are facing some problems—a comprehensive energy policy, for one, and the ballooning national debt, for another—which will not and cannot be solved by politicians that stand for re-election every two, four or six years. We need some other mechanism for determining and setting long-term strategies.

This is evident in China’s current push in higher education. Recognizing that the country needs a better-trained workforce in order to move up the economic value chain, the central government committed itself to boosting scholarships and other types of aid in 2008 to $2.7 billion, up from $240 million in 2006. Officials expanded overall government spending on education, which was a measly 2.8 percent of GDP in 2006, to 4 percent in 2010, a large portion of which is devoted to a small number of globally competitive elite institutions.

Can you imagine something like that happening in the United States? Zakaria doesn’t make that comparison, but in talking about the likelihood of such action in India, he might as well be talking about America.

Such a focus would be impossible in democratic India, for example, where vast resources are spent on short-term subsidies to satisfy voters. (India’s elite educational institutions, by contrast, are under pressure to limit merit-based admissions and accept half their students on the basis of quotas and affirmative action.)

There are certainly human rights abuses in China, but Zakaria makes what strikes me as a cogent point that one of the reasons these autocratic actions work in China is that they are, ultimately, based on reason, and not the whims of some super-rich dictator. And Chinese society, through its philosophical tradition of Confucianism, has a decided bias towards what it sees as reason.

Early Enlightenment thinkers celebrated Confucianism for its reliance on reason rather than on divinity as a guide to human affairs. A thesis developed: While Europe might be far ahead in scientific and technological progress, China had “a more advanced ethics,” a “superior civil organization” (based on merit, not patronage), and a “practical philosophy,” all of which “successfully produced a social peace and a well-organized social hierarchy.”

In other words, living under a dictator is bad, but there are far worse dictators than those who act based on reason and who strive for social peace.

It makes for a China that, should the United States choose to view it as a threat, is a much different threat than any it has faced before. China has a military, but it typically doesn’t use it to exert its influence around the world. It works largely behind the scenes, seeking not conflicts, but the avoidance of conflict. True success, one writer Zakaria quotes says, comes from manipulating a situation so effectively that the outcome is inevitably in favor of Chinese interests.

But why should this “asymmetrical strategy” be a problem for an America casting about in search of a new enemy?

The United States understands how to handle a traditional military-political advance. After all, this was the nature of the Soviet threat and the Nazi rise to power. The United States has a conceptual framework as well as the tools—weapons, aid packages, alliances—with which to confront such an advance. Were China to push its weight around, anger its neighbors, and frighten the world, Washington would be able to respond with a set of effective policies that would take advantage of the natural balancing process by which Japan, India, Australia, and Vietnam—and perhaps others—would come together to limit China’s emerging power. But what if China adheres to its asymmetrical strategy? What if it gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence, seeking only greater weight, friendship, and influence in the world? What if it slowly pushes Washington onto the sidelines in Asia, in an effort to wear out America’s patience and endurance? What if it quietly positions itself as the alternative to a hectoring and arrogant America? How will America cope with such a scenario—a kind of Cold War, but this time with a vibrant market society, with the world’s largest population, a nation that is not showcasing a hopeless model of state socialism or squandering its power in pointless military interventions? This is a new challenge for the United States, one it has not tackled before, and for which it is largely unprepared.

The prospects don’t fill me with hope. Too often in our world, we see American politicians continuing to paint modern threats with the brush of the past (i.e., Saddam Hussein is the new Hitler, China is the new Soviet Union) because those are frames that Americans understand and to which America’s political and military might can be applied. But if the United States decides to fight China—and I personally don’t think it needs to—and it tries to fight on terms that don’t reflect the true nature of the conflict, how much hope does it have of winning? And what happens then?

The Ally

To me, this is the most fascinating thing about India.

The Bengali writer Nirad Chaudhuri was driven to exasperation by Hinduism’s complexity. “The more one studies the details of the religion the more bewildering does it seem,” he wrote. “It is not simply that one cannot form a clear-cut intellectual idea of the whole complex, it is not possible even to come away with a coherent emotional reaction.” Hinduism is not really a “religion” in the Abrahamic sense of the word but a loose philosophy, one that has no answers but merely questions. The only clear guiding principle is ambiguity. If there is a central verse in Hinduism’s most important text, the Rig Veda, it is the Creation Hymn. It reads, in part:

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation’s day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

Compare that with the certainties of the Book of Genesis.

Why is that so fascinating? Because of the impact these beliefs have on Indian culture and politics. I really like the way Zakaria doesn’t try to separate religion and belief from culture and politics, the way so much of the media seems desperate to do. He did the same thing with Confucianism leading to political action based on reason in China. For India, a belief in Hinduism means their culture brings an abiding sense of practicality. Indian businessmen, Zakaria says, can thrive almost anywhere. “As long as they can place a small idol somewhere in their home for worship or meditation, their own sense of Hinduism is fulfilled.”

This practical stoicism creates a very different kind of foreign policy.

It is clear that Indians are fundamentally more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than many Westerners, certainly than Anglo-Americans. Indians are not likely to view foreign policy as a crusade or to see the conversion of others to democracy as a paramount national aspiration. The Hindu mindset is to live and let live.

You don’t hear much saber rattling directed at India in the United States—I don’t think most Americans think of India as any kind of military or political threat to their foreign policy intentions. But they will make interesting competitors in the global marketplace of business.

You do hear a lot about the caste system that has shaped Indian society for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the growing pains their culture will have to wrestle with—violently or not—as their vast population of desperately poor and underprivileged begin making their way towards what we would think of as the middle class. It creates another interesting foil against what Zakaria sees as an opposite trend in American society, an increasing separation between our socio-economic classes.

There is a growing gap between America’s worldly business elite and cosmopolitan class, on the one hand, and the majority of the American people, on the other. Without real efforts to bridge it, this divide could destroy America’s competitive edge and its political future.

I found this section especially compelling, with Zakaria writing it years before, and me reading it a month after the 2012 presidential election. Much of Mitt Romney’s political message, seemed keyed towards the business elite of this country, and I think its failure to connect with the middle class is an example of the divide Zakaria is talking about.

The Rise of the Rest

But when Zakaria talks about “the rise of the rest,” don’t assume that he is only talking about the rise of other nations like China and India.

A related aspect of this new era is the diffusion of power from states to other actors. The “rest” that is rising includes many non-state actors. Groups and individuals have been empowered, and hierarchy, centralization, and control are being undermined. Functions that were once controlled by governments are now shared with international bodes like the World Trade Organization and the European Union. Nongovernmental groups are mushrooming every day on every issue in every country. Corporations and capital are moving from place to place, finding the best location in which to do business, rewarding some governments while punishing others. Terrorists like Al Qaeda, drug cartels, insurgents, and militias of all kinds are finding space to operate within the nooks and crannies of the international system. Power is shifting away from nation-states, up, down, and sideways. In such an atmosphere, the traditional applications of national power, both economic and military, have become less effective.

I personally find this trend fascinating. Nation-states—and, I think, America most of all—will have a very difficult time adapting to a playing field in which non-state actors have significant power and influence. Look at the constitutional knots the United States has had to twist itself into in order to combat Al Qaeda and global terrorism. Nations will have to rewrite their own rulebooks to compete in this space, and risk alienating the base of their power—the consent of the governed—in the process.

Americans are at a significant disadvantage on this front, because their identity is inexorably linked to their status as a nation-state. They go out of their way to talk about their unified vision as Americans. But many other people in the world come from cultures that have far older ways of organizing their allegiances. Zakaria cites numerous examples of religious, ethnic, and linguistic communities within nation-states that command far greater loyalty among their members than the nation-state they supposedly belong to. As these non-nation-state communities grow in power and influence, America will continue to have a difficult time understand their needs and motivations.


America faces other disadvantages in this post-American world, most of them tied to perspectives that were shaped by its past.

Nationalism has always perplexed Americans. When the United States involves itself abroad, it always believes that it is genuinely trying to help other countries better themselves. From the Philippines and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, the natives’ reaction to U.S. efforts has taken Americans by surprise. Americans take justified pride in their own country—we call it patriotism—and yet are genuinely startled when other people are proud and possessive of theirs.

This strikes me as a wholly accurate description—and again it’s something that results from the view most Americans have of America as the world’s most exceptional country. Americans are raised inside a bubble of self-congratulatory superiority, and most of them come to believe that America is indispensible to the world and unfailing right in its actions.

Even the history books reinforce this.

Russians have long chafed at the standard narrative about World War II, in which Britain and the United States heroically defeat the forces of fascist Germany and Japan. Given mainstream U.S. historical accounts, from Stephen Ambrose to Ken Burns, Americans could be forgiven for believing that Russia played a minor part in the decisive battles against Hitler and Tojo.

But are those stories true?

In fact, the eastern front was the central arena of World War II. It involved more land combat than all other theaters of the war put together and resulted in thirty million deaths. It was where three-quarters of all German forces fought and where Germany incurred 70 percent of its casualties. The European front was in many ways a sideshow, but in the West it is treated as the main event. As the writer Benjamin Schwarz has pointed out, Stephen Ambrose “lavishes [attention] on the U.S.-British invasion of Sicily, which drove 60,000 Germans from the island, but completely ignores Kursk—the largest battle in history, in which at least 1.5 million Soviets and Germans fought, and which occurred at exactly the same time. … [M]uch as it may make us squirm, we must admit that the struggle against Nazi Germany…was primarily, as the great military historian John Erickson called it, ‘Stalin’s war.’”

In fact, here’s a tidbit I just can’t pass up. Put this in your “Alternate History of World War II” file:

World War II was the final nail in the coffin of British economic power. (In 1945, American GDP was ten times that of Britain.) Even then, however, Britain remained remarkably influential, at least partly because of the almost superhuman energy and ambition of Winston Churchill. When you consider that the United States was paying most of the Allies’ economic costs, and Russia was bearing most of the casualties, it took extraordinary will for Britain to remain one of the three major powers deciding the fate of the postwar world. The photographs of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 are somewhat misleading. There was no “big three” at Yalta. There was a “big two” plus one brilliant political entrepreneur who was able to keep himself and his country in the game, so that Britain maintained many elements of great powerdom well into the late twentieth century.

Makes you wonder how much America in 2013 is like Britain in 1943—desperately losing a war and looking for powerful allies to lift the heavy burdens of victory off its shoulders so it can position itself as the kingmaker in the new world order. The problem with the comparison is that when Britain looked around in 1943, it saw Russia and America willing to help. In 2013, who will America find when it looks around for help? Or better posed, will it even look around?


Another intriguing issue—and one where the perception of Americans may be increasingly at odds with the rest of the planet—is the question of whether or not Modernism is exclusively a Western phenomenon. Zakaria argues, for example, that as India shook off its Western colonizers and began to make its own way in the world, its leaders specifically steered away from the Western democratic and capitalistic systems. What followed was years of stagnation and poverty. Now that it embraces them, growth and prosperity are in abundance, and they are taking on many of the trappings of Western culture as a result. But…

The issue that non-Western reformers were struggling with in the twentieth century has returned as a central question for the future: Can you be modern without being Western? How different are the two? Will international life be substantially different in a world in which the non-Western powers have enormous weight? Will these new powers have different values? Or does the process of becoming rich make us all the same?

My own belief is that becoming rich makes people of different cultures similar, but not the same. All increasingly wealthy people will acquire better things and nicer places to live, but they will each bring the idiosyncrasies of their culture with them and, placing great importance on them, will leverage more and more resources for them.

And some people agree with me.

Some contemporary scholars, most famously Samuel P. Huntington, have argued that modernization and Westernization are wholly distinct. The West, Huntington argues, was Western before it was modern. It acquired its distinctive character around the eighth or ninth century but became “modern” only around the eighteenth century. Becoming a modern society is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities that make a society Western, in contrast, are special: the classical legacy, Christianity, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society. “Western civilization,” Huntington writes, “is precious not because it is universal but because it is unique.”

Yeah. What he said.

Think about it. Would an industrialized, urbanized, highly literate and wealthy society that rises out of one the Islamic cultures across the non-industrialized world necessarily develop any of the things Huntington mentions? And if not, how many Americans would view such a society as alien and corrupt—as anti-modern despite many of the trappings of modernization it would possess and leverage for its own cultural aims?

All Is Not Lost

But, in the final analysis, as I said at the very start, this is not an anti-American book. Although Zakaria certainly calls them like he sees them:

We have not noticed how fast the rest has risen. Most of the industrialized world—and a good part of the nonindustrialized world as well—has better cell phone service that the United States. Broadband is faster and cheaper across the industrial world, from Canada to France to Japan, and the United States now stands sixteenth in the world in broadband penetration per capita. Americans are constantly told by their politicians that the only thing we have to learn from other countries’ health care systems is to be thankful for ours. Most Americans ignore the fact that a third of the country’s public schools are totally dysfunctional (because their children go to the other two-thirds). The American litigation system is now routinely referred to as a huge cost to doing business, but no one dares propose any reform of it. Our mortgage deduction for housing costs a staggering $80 billion a year, and we are told it is crucial to support home ownership. Except that Margaret Thatcher eliminated it in Britain, and yet that country has the same rate of home ownership as the United States. We rarely look around and notice other options and alternatives, convinced that “we’re number one.”

He also recognizes the substantial benefits America has given the world.

For all its abuses of power, the United States has been the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government—an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of humankind.

And in noting this influence that the United States has had on the world, Zakaria notes what might be its final irony.

Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the United States succeeded in its great and historic mission—it globalized the world. But along the way, they might write, it forgot to globalize itself.

If America is to adapt to the post-American world Zakaria describes, however, there are some fundamental changes that must be made. And they may not be of the kind you would think.

As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. An antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with—about 225 years old—has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia—politics as theater—and very little substance, compromise and action. A “can-do” country is now saddled with a “do-nothing” political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving. By every measure—the growth of special interests, lobbies, pork-barrel spending—the political process has become far more partisan and ineffective over the last three decades.

To me, this is the essential point in understanding how to respond to the challenges that the future is bringing. America is not facing an economic crisis, nor a demographic one. It is facing a political crisis and, as such, it will require a political solution.

But good luck trying to provide it from within.

Those who advocate sensible solutions and compromise legislation find themselves marginalized by the party’s leadership, losing funds from special-interest groups, and being constantly attacked by their “side” on television and radio. The system provides greater incentives to stand firm and go back and tell your team that you refused to bow to the enemy. It’s great for fund-raising, but it’s terrible for governing.

The political solution must come from without, not within, the current system. Is that a third party? Ultimately, I think not. Although a credible third party may open up some new thinking on some of America’s entrenched problems, it will inevitably become as corrupt as the other two and, if successful, would likely supplant one and return the system to two-party rule. I don’t know how to do it, but somehow we have to decouple some of the momentous decisions that must be made from the political process itself. Not because we think our current politics will make the wrong decision—but because our current politics refuses to make any decision at all.

Let’s end with some of Zakaria’s most thought-provoking questions.

The real test for the United States is political—and it rests not just with America at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up? Can it respond to shifts in economic and political power? This challenge is even more difficult in foreign policy than in domestic policy. Can Washington truly embrace a world with a diversity of voices and viewpoints? Can it thrive in a world it cannot dominate?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Two


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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I took the pendant home and showed it to Otis and my mother, liking its shape and the way it glinted in the sunlight. What followed was as big a shock to me as the medallion was to them. My stepfather took the trinket from me and then violently shook me until I told him where and how I had gotten it. Crying, I told him all I knew. I was spanked and punished, and then Otis lectured me on what the five-pointed star stood for and the dangers of associating with men who bore it as their symbol. I said I was sorry and that I had not known and together, Otis and I, we prayed to Grecolus for forgiveness. The matter was settled, even though I still was not sure exactly what I was asking forgiveness for, and Otis threw the pendant deep into the small copse of trees that grew behind our home. It took a long time, skipping out whenever I had an hour or two of free time, but eventually I found it and secretly hid the medallion in my room.

+   +   +

Dinner was, in many ways, not what Brisbane expected it to be. After Smurch had helped him into his robes—Brisbane did not seem able to prevent the service—the half-ork took him directly to the banquet chamber where members of the klatru were already gathering to feast on what was their only meal of the day.

The chamber itself was conveniently located at the other end of the main corridor, opposite the bath chamber, and was by far the largest chamber Brisbane had seen so far. Gigantic might have been an understatement. It was so huge Brisbane could not even guess at its dimensions. It was roughly oval with plenty of exits scattered around the walls and a high, vaulted ceiling. Like the other main chambers in this complex, it was lit with torchlight and, in the very center of the room, a huge stone table stood surrounded by numerous stone benches.

There were several orks already seated at the table, none of whom Brisbane recognized, all dressed in black and drinking from great tankards. Smurch stopped Brisbane at one of the portals into the chamber.

“I am forbidden to enter until the time has come to serve the meal,” the half-ork said. “I must go to the kitchen now. Enjoy your meal, Grum Brisbane.”

Smurch walked quickly away from Brisbane and turned down one of the side tunnels. Brisbane raised a weak hand in a wave and said goodbye to his friend under his breath. Suddenly, he wasn’t so eager to go in there and get his dinner, even though he had eaten nothing but prison rations for the last two days. He took a small cautious step into the chamber and, when none of the orks at the table took notice of him, he took another. Soon he was moving steadily towards the center of the room and he did not stop until one of the orks looked up at him.

Their conversation suddenly went silent and all their heads pivoted up to look upon Brisbane. Brisbane stood frozen in their gazes and, for the briefest of moments, he was deadly sure they were going to rise up and snuff out his life.

“You that human Grum?” the ork who had first noticed him asked.

Brisbane could not find his voice. There were eight orks at the table, all of them larger than Brisbane and all of them more fierce-looking than any creatures he had ever seen. He might have turned and fled in fear if a sarcastic vein in his body hadn’t ballooned up and said to his mind, What the hells kind of question is that, dumb ass? Who else would I be, an unarmed human so deep in the lair of a clan or orks?

“Yes,” Brisbane said finally.

The ork nodded his head and fell back into conversation with his comrades around the table. They were speaking orkish and Brisbane couldn’t help but think they were doing that just to spite him. He still did not feel comfortable enough to go on over and take a seat at the table, a seat Smurch would probably have said he now deserved, so he stood lamely in place and tried to will someone he knew into the room. At this point, he would have even been glad to see Wister.

Fortunately, it was not long before Ternosh entered the chamber with Wister right on his heels. The Grum went over to take his place at the table while Ternosh spotted Brisbane and came over to him.

“Well, Brisbane,” the Grumak said kindly. “I see you are now properly attired. I hope you are taking easily to your new life. I imagine it is quite different from the one you knew before.”

Brisbane was still not used to the Grumak’s friendliness. Until what had happened with the Demosk, Ternosh had seemed ready to gut Brisbane with a paring knife, and now it was all warm greetings and friendly overtures. Brisbane did not trust it.

“Things are going okay,” he said cautiously.

Ternosh actually smiled. “This will be your first dinner with us. I’m glad I have a moment to talk to you a little bit before the meal begins.”

“Go ahead,” Brisbane said.

“You may have noticed,” the Grumak said, “that dinner is the only meal we grugan eat in the day.”

“I have,” Brisbane said as he held his stomach.

Ternosh chuckled. “Yes,” he nodded. “Very good. Perhaps because it is our only meal, it has taken on quite a bit of importance in our lives. It’s more than just a meal, it’s a gathering time, when peers come together to eat, drink, talk, and celebrate. The grugan word for it is draknel.”

“Kind of like a holiday feast every day?”

“Yes,” Ternosh said, sounding surprised. “That is one way of putting it. Now, since this is your first draknel, and you are still learning our customs, I think it would be best if you kept to yourself as much as you can. Eat your fill, by all means, but do not initiate any conversations. If questions are put to you, answer them simply and respectfully, but do not offer any needless information. I am telling you to do this for your own safety. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said.

“Fine,” Ternosh said. “When we take our seats at the table, I will sit between you and Wister and you will sit on my left. You may pour yourself some ale and drink it if you wish, but you are not allowed to eat anything until Clan Chief—we call the position Sumak—Tornestor has been seated and has begun to eat. Is that clear?”

Brisbane looked briefly over at the table of orks. Wister was not drinking nor was he conversing with the others.

“I’ll just follow your lead,” Brisbane said. “I won’t do anything unless you do it first.”

The Grumak clapped Brisbane on the shoulder. “That will probably be the best way to handle it. Are you ready?”

“I suppose so,” Brisbane said, not really sure if he was or not.

Ternosh led him over to the table and they took their seats, Brisbane on the Grumak’s left just like he had been told. The black-clad orks were separated away from Brisbane and the red-eyed orks by the many angles cut into the edge of the table. It was a huge sprawling thing, roughly oval but with many sides to it. At one end of it sat a stone chair, not a bench like everyone else was sitting on, but a chair. A throne perhaps, with a high back and regal arms.

Ternosh poured himself a tankard of ale and then poured one for Brisbane. Brisbane took the drink and sipped it, lighting a small fire in his belly and reminding him just how hungry he was. The ale was a fine brew, probably stolen from some merchant on one of the roads, and was much better than the swill Shortwhiskers had taken from the orks on the bank of the Mystic River. They had red eyes on their shields, Brisbane reminded himself. They were members of this clan. When he had first seen their shields, Brisbane had wondered about the great red orbs on them. Now he knew they were representations of the one great unwinking eye of Gruumsh One-Eye, a god Brisbane now had to feign allegiance to. Until he could find Angelika and escape with her, Gildegarde Brisbane III was now Grum Brisbane, wizard and priest-in-training of Gruumsh One-Eye.

A silence fell over the orks at the table. Brisbane looked up and, at one of the many entrances to the chamber, he saw an ork who could only have been Sumak Tornestor.

The chief was huge. His pink pig ears twitched nearly seven feet above the floor and his shoulders stuck out from his neck like the wings of a great bird of prey. Like the orks at the table, he was dressed all in black—black boots, black trousers, and black tunic—but he had a red sash draped over a shoulder that crossed his body on a diagonal. He strode into the room like he owned it which, Brisbane thought, he probably did, followed by two more black-clad orks, these two each with a red stripe on their right sleeves, and sat heavily on the stone chair at what now was no doubt the head of the table. The two orks who followed him sat on benches on either side of the Sumak.

“The Clan of the Red Eye,” Tornestor said in a voice like sandpaper, “extends welcome to Grum Brisbane on the occasion of his first draknel.”

“Welcome,” a chorus of deep voices chanted all around the table.

Ternosh leaned and whispered in Brisbane’s ear. “Say, ‘Thank you all.’”

“Thank you all,” Brisbane said, pitching his voice as low as possible.

Tornestor nodded his head as he appraised Brisbane with his eyes. “And now, before I have the food brought in, does anyone have any statements they wish to make?”

Heads turned back and forth up and down the table. There were perhaps twenty seconds of silence before Wister rose to his feet.

“Grum Wister,” Tornestor said gravely. “You wish to invoke your right of statement. What do you say?”

Brisbane took another sip of his ale and shifted his weight on his bench. He was doing just what Ternosh had warned him to do, minding his own business.

Wister cleared his throat. “I would like to issue a challenge, Sumak Tornestor.”

Mumbles bounced around the table. Tornestor’s brow wrinkled and Brisbane did not think he looked pleased.

“A challenge has not been issued in this hall for quite some time, Grum Wister,” Tornestor said. “But that does not prevent you from issuing one now. You may continue.”

“I do not issue it lightly, Sumak Tornestor,” Wister said. “I have given it a great deal of thought. I have decided I cannot share my position in this clan with a human. I challenge Grum Brisbane.”

Brisbane heard his name called out and saw all the eyes around the table turn to him. He did not know what this challenge meant, but he had the feeling it was not good news.

Ternosh leapt to his feet.

Tornestor turned to his brother. “You have something to say, Grumak Ternosh?”

“I do, Sumak Tornestor.” Ternosh gestured towards Brisbane. “He was sent here by Gruumsh One-Eye. His purpose among us in still unknown, but it must be direfully important for Gruumsh to send a human to do it. We cannot allow him to face Wister, or anyone else, in a challenge. What would happen to us all if Brisbane were to lose? Gruumsh’s purpose would go undone.”

Tornestor faced Wister. “Grum Wister?”

“I have considered this, Sumak Tornestor,” Wister said carefully, “and it means nothing to me. I will not share my position in this clan with a human. My oath to Gruumsh compels me to no other action.”

Brisbane tried to rise to his feet but Ternosh pushed him back down with a hand on his shoulder. He still didn’t know what this was all about, but he was getting tired of the way Wister said human. Brisbane figured Wister had been planning this since he first heard the news about Brisbane. That’s why he was so rude to me in the work chamber. He wants nothing to do with me.

Tornestor rubbed his chin. “Ternosh, did your Demosk say Grum Brisbane was to receive special considerations while he lived among us?”

Ternosh paused. “No, Sumak Tornestor.”

“What exactly did it say about Brisbane?”

Brisbane’s ears perked up. This was exactly what he wanted to know.

“The Demosk said three things about Brisbane,” Ternosh said. “First, it said Brisbane’s blood carried the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye. He can work magic and is entitled to possess the pentacle medallion he wears around his neck. Second, the Demosk said Gruumsh had granted this power to a human because he had a special plan for Brisbane among us. And thirdly, it said Brisbane was to be treated as a member of our clan.”

“That is a bit vague,” Tornestor said.

“Information gathering with my Demosk can be a time-consuming practice,” Ternosh said. “That is all I have had time to discover so far.”

Both Ternosh and Wister were still standing while they argued their cases before Tornestor. All the other orks remained seated, quietly drinking their ale. Brisbane could tell some of them were very interested in how this all turned out. Others, Brisbane felt, could not have cared less about it and were just waiting for their dinner to be served.

“It is my job as Sumak of this clan,” Tornestor said, “to listen to the information my Grumak receives from his Demosk and decide how that information would best serve the clan. Is this not true?”

“Of course it is,” Ternosh admitted.

“Brisbane is to be treated as a member of our clan, the Demosk has said,” Tornestor went on, his brow wrinkling as he forced the logic out of his mouth. “This, I have seen to. His blood bares the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye and, even though he does not have red eyes, I have allowed him to assume the position of Grum among us. This is how any grugan with the power of magic would have been treated. This is just and right.”

Brisbane tried to stand up again but Ternosh firmly pushed him back down on the bench.

“However,” the clan chief said, “the rights of challenge and the pit of combat are also part of our society and Grum Brisbane, as a member of the Clan of the Red Eye, should not be exempt from them. Grum Wister is just in issuing his challenge, his rights shall not be denied because of Brisbane’s mysterious origin, and after this evening’s draknel, in the traditional manner, Wister’s challenge shall be answered.”

Both Wister and Ternosh slowly bowed and then reseated themselves.

“I, Sumak Tornestor, have spoken.”

Tornestor clapped his hands twice and immediately the table erupted again in loud conversations and servants entered the chamber carrying platters of food.

Brisbane turned to Ternosh as a steaming plate of potatoes and vegetables was set near him. “So what was that all about?” he asked the Grumak softly. “What exactly does this challenge mean?”

Ternosh picked a plate off a nearby pile and began to spoon potatoes onto it. “Wister has challenged you to combat. After the draknel, you two will fight and the winner will retain the right to be my Grum.”

The smell of the food was inebriating. Brisbane took a big platter of sliced meat from the ork on his left and began to fill his plate. “And the loser?”

Ternosh spooned some potatoes onto Brisbane’s plate. “The loser will be dead. It is a fight to the death.”

To the death.


Brisbane stole a couple of looks at Wister, but the Grum ignored him completely. The ork was of average size for his race, which meant he was about Brisbane’s size. Brisbane may have been somewhat of a giant among humans, but among orks, he was as average as the night was dark. More food was passed around the table and Brisbane continued to pile his plate high with a little bit of everything.

“Do we use weapons or something?” Brisbane asked the Grumak. He hated the thought of hand-to-hand combat to the death. He wasn’t very good at street fighting.

“Armor and weapons,” Ternosh said curtly. “Now shut up and mind your manners.”

By this time, all had their plates full and their forks poised. Brisbane remembered not to start eating until Tornestor did, but the aroma coming off his plate nearly drove him mad. He joined everyone else at the table in silence and in staring at the Sumak.

Tornestor paused for a dramatic moment and then dived into his food. A second later, Brisbane and the other orks did the same. The food was delicious. Brisbane ate with an abandon he was sure Otis would have called gluttonous. Brisbane didn’t care. Let Otis have only six small strips of salty meat for two days and then serve him a feast like this and see how much he ate.

Brisbane devoured helping after helping, but through it all, his thoughts were on the challenge Wister had issued to him. Evidently, it wasn’t an ork’s right to refuse a challenge. At least, no one had asked him if he wanted to pick up the glove Wister had thrown down. But Brisbane guessed that wasn’t important for, even if he had been asked, he would not have turned down Wister’s challenge.

He could not, as Brisbane saw it. If he was ever going to get Angelika back, he had to mold into the society of the clan, and this challenge and the pit of combat, whatever that was, were obviously very important to the life of the klatru. Brisbane could not let himself be excluded from that. Ternosh had seemed displeased with Tornestor’s decision, but Brisbane had heard the reasoning behind it and he agreed with it.

Also, Brisbane knew, Wister’s feelings, his hatred of Brisbane because he was human, could not be a sentiment exclusive to Wister. If Brisbane somehow shirked the challenge, what would the orks who hated him for being human think of him then? Brisbane remembered the faces around the table when Tornestor had been casting judgment on Wister’s challenge—the ones that had seemed lined with concern over whether or not Brisbane would be forced to face the challenge—and he thought he knew which ones resented him on the basis of his position and his race. To face Wister in combat was perhaps to gain respect in their eyes.

But then again, this was not an arm wrestling contest. This was a fight to the death. Ternosh had said the combat would be done with armor and weapons, and Brisbane was glad for that. In his opinion, a sword in his hand increased his odds of winning to a more comfortable margin. If he could somehow use Angelika against Wister, he would have no doubts about winning the contest at all.

Eventually, the meal was finished and servants re-entered the chamber to clear the table. Brisbane saw Smurch was among them, but the half-ork paid no attention to his new master and soon he and the other servants left the chamber with the many dirty dishes and the few leftovers.

Brisbane was full, fuller than he had been in a long time, but he had stayed away from too much ale to keep his head clear in the coming battle. He noticed Wister had done the same. Just as he began to wonder what was going to happen next, Tornestor rose to his feet and addressed the table.

“Gentlemen,” the Sumak said. “In the tradition handed down through generations, a tradition begun in the time Gruumsh One-Eye himself walked the earth, a challenge, a masokom, has been issued by one of our number against another. We have all heard the reasons for this masokom. Are there any here who would deny Grum Wister his right in challenging Grum Brisbane?”

The table was silent.

“Then let us move to the pug-trolang, the pit of combat, to settle this masokom before our own eyes.”

All around the table the orks got to their feet. Brisbane, imitatively, did the same. Tornestor and the two orks with the red stripes on their sleeves began to move towards a wide exit from the room, opposite the one Brisbane had used before the draknel. The other black-clad orks soon followed and, when he was given a little shove from Ternosh, so did Brisbane, the Grumak, and Wister.

Brisbane was not sure what lay in store for him at the pit of combat, the pug-trolang, but he was sure he was doing the right thing in facing Wister. He was confident he could defeat the Grum and he was ready to show the rest of the klatru he wasn’t some puny human they could push around like the ones they kept in the circus wagons on the surface.