Several nights ago I had the pleasure of watching The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is a mockumentary style and Coogan is the main character. The Observer has asked Coogan to take a trip in the North England countryside, eating at various restaurants and resting at inns along the way so he could write about them. Coogan had planned to make the journey with his girlfriend, but at the last minute she decamped for work in the U.S., giving him no other alternative but to take his best friend Rob instead.
Two pieces on Russia for this afternoon that demand to be read in full. The first is a long, terrific, and terrifying story brought to us by David Remnick of the New Yorker. It centers on Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. It charts his first appearances in the pro-democracy protests surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union, and brings us to today, where he is a Stanford professor, recently returned from his time as a diplomat. The piece is breathtaking in its scope and attention to detail. Plus the variety of sources here is startling. Remnick has deep contacts in the Russian oligarchy and a good sense of history there. The second is this short commentary on the current state of the country from McFaul himself.
The most troubling fact of this whole situation is not Russia’s capabilities, but that there leadership seems unhinged. They’ve crafted an elegant propaganda machine they all seemed to have bought into, heedless of the consequences. They see Russia as the world’s Conservative (capital-C) bulwark, standing against the decadent, soulless Western civilizations. This is not their predicament, but rather their destiny. Money quotes from Remnick that come to us via two Russian intellectuals:
[Aleksandr] Prokhanov is pleased to conclude that Russia is entering a prolonged war with the West—a cold war, possibly worse. “There is always danger of worse,” he said, “even worse than nuclear war—and that is soulless surrender.”
The world, for [Aleksandr] Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”
There is a sense of reckoning to be felt here, like we got off easy at the end of the Cold War and this is the real backlash. There are many reasons to be scared, but we shouldn’t be hysterical. As McFaul reminds us, Putin is on his own now (Russia’s posturing only becomes meaningful if China gets involved, but that is highly unlikely). The U.S. is in a far stronger position and enjoys stable relations with both its neighbors and many more countries. Effective deterrence and diplomatic relations kept the mass-murdering tyrant Stalin at bay, and they will do just fine here.
A few days ago a commenter (and friend) wrote a response to the post regarding the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. Analyzing the sale, I felt that it may have been excessive, given that the Clippers revenues for the last year were $164.9 million. The $2 billion price tag was 12 times yearly revenues and no professional sports franchise had ever sold for more than six times yearly revenues before. Because of this, and other NBA franchise sales in recent years, I floated the notion that we may be seeing a bubble of some kind in the valuation of NBA franchises. The commenter (and friend) countered with the above chart, which shows that, for S&P 500 companies, a price-to-earnings ratio of 12-to-one is average, even low. In fact the current S&P ratio as I type is figured to be 19.17, far higher than 12. The implications of this are that, in comparison, the Clippers were not sold at an outrageously high price and the market rate for NBA franchises is more or less reasonable.
Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker. Like most of what he does, it’s more flash than substance and sacrifices most verifiable/technical details in favor of a good narrative. But, also like most of the stuff he does, the narrative is an interesting one and makes a certain amount of sense. As long as we leave the science to someone else.
The subject is social mobility and organized crime. It’s a review of the new book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman. Gladwell uses a 40-year-old non-fiction book “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime” to provide context and counter-narrative. “A Family Business” is the real-life story of The Godfather, with a different ending. Both chronicle a family of Italian immigrants in New York City and their rise to power. Starting small, they start successful businesses and use their large families to pool their strength. Their empires grow through cleverness, trust, and fear, the latter abetted with crime and intimidation. One is true and the other is not. It is at the end however, that the stories diverge. In The Godfather the characters are never able to cast aside their criminal roots. They are never able to join the ranks of legitimate society. The old guards always hold them at arm’s length and the past can never be put in the past. That is the fiction. The truth, told to us in “A Family Business,” is that, once achieving a certain status, successful mobsters were able to direct their descendants down the legitimate corridors of our republic. Academia, business, politics – all were fair game and all were accessible to them. Many of these descendants make up our current prestigious and high-standing families. The new old money if you will.
In contrast, Goffman’s work tells a similar story, albeit one with different subjects and different outcomes. It is the story of black urbanites. Like the big-city immigrants before them, they to sought the trappings of legitimacy. The typical doors were closed to them so they resolved to create new ones. Also like immigrant families they used crime, in their world it was drugs. But, like the best of the immigrants, crime was not an end, but a means. It was a path to legitimacy (Stringer Bell from The Wire). A crooked ladder to the American dream. They held true an idea best articulated by the Japanese saying (that comes to us now from a scene in Mad Men) “A man is whatever room he is in.” The game was to get into the room. And in a rigged game they had to break the rules. However, in the last third of the 20th century our society declared war on its criminals. Many things that were once viewed with a blind or corrupt eye became targets. The so-called crooked ladder of upward mobility was pulled out from under them.
Fascinating narrative no? It’s one of those that sounds so good it’s hard to believe it’s not true. Of course it happened, but a lot of other things happened too.
Lupe’s 2011 album Lasers sounds annoying at first listen. A creative rapper, it sounds much more poppy than previous works and veers close to selling out. On a second listen however, the lyrics make themselves more well known. And they are as edgy as anything he’s done. It’s as if he gave into the producers and gave them the kind of music they wanted, but in exchange he got to say whatever he wanted. Listen and enjoy!