Liberals and Patriotism; Reason by Robert Reich

reich_reason.jpgElection years always stimulate increased popular interest in politics. But the presence of daily polling and instant analysis via blogs, both of which I have been obsessing over, can too easily direct our attention to the campaign process, the horse race, at the expense of the public policy issues at stake. This is made apparent by the dramatic decline in public attention to politics once the legislating begins, accompanied by a parallel decline in media coverage.

I'm guilty as well. I did not even pay much attention to the election until the night of the Iowa caucuses. I assumed that Senator Clinton was going to win the Democratic primary, and then the election, in a walk. What a difference a caucus can make. I opened up my wallet for Senator Obama that night, and have been more or less glued to the Internet since. I refresh my favorite political blogs with sufficient frequency to raise concerns about the survival of my F5 key. But this is mostly instant gratification, micro-data from polls and pundits on the campaign, not on our public policy. The campaign Senator McCain has chosen to run has only further diminished the visibility of key issues on the campaign trail.

I decided to take matters into my own hands, in the way I always do when I want more information: I started looking for books. I sought out big picture texts on the liberal agenda, and was directed to Robert Reich's Reason, Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, and of course, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. On specific policy areas, I picked up David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, and Chris Mooney's The Republic War on Science. For some help on understanding what led to the current financial crisis and the reactions to it, I bought Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, and Kevin Phillips' Bad Money.

So a big batch of books was headed my way, and I started with the first that arrived. Robert Reich, who maintains his own blog, became friendly with Bill Clinton during their time together at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars, and then joined Bill and Hillary at Yale Law School. Many years later, he would serve as Secretary of Labor in Clinton's first administration, and emerged as a leading liberal voice in a decidedly centrist cabinet. In the years since he left office, he has continued promoting liberal values and politics in his prolific writing, including his 2004 book, Reason.

I have already discussed Reich's take on the rise of "radical conservatives," his argument that liberals should not shy from discussions of public morality, and his elucidation of the liberal path to economic prosperity. The final prong of Reich's liberal rebuttal to the radical conservative ("Radcon") agenda is another hot current events topic: patriotism. He starts by exposing the superficial nature of the patriotism that conservatism encourages:

The Radcon version of patriotism requires no real sacrifice by most Americans. And it asks nothing of the more fortunate members of our society. Radcons don't link patriotism to a citizen's duty to pay his fair share of taxes to support the nation. And they don't think patriotism requires that all citizens serve the nation. Theirs is a shallow patriotism that derives its emotional force from disdaining foreign cultures and confronting foreign opponents. As such, it imperils the future security of America and the world...

Can there be any doubt that this is exactly the type of patriotism that conservatives have been pushing for the last eight years? And the trend continues. Let's take a look at the events of just the last week. Last Tuesday, at fundraiser in North Carolina, Sarah Palin said:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

Sure, sure. Never mind those people in the big cities. You know, the ones that terrorists like to attack. Suffice it to say that these comments were so ill-received that even Palin felt it necessary to apologize. But take a moment to look beyond the denigrating offensiveness, and try and find some actual meaning to what she is saying. What can she possibly mean by the "real America" or the "pro-America areas" of this country? It is this same vapid patriotism that Reich was referring to.

Perhaps to give Palin some covering fire, Republican congressmen have produced their own variations on this theme. I have already covered Rep. Michele Bachmann's rant on Hardball last Friday, when she told Chris Matthews, "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" Bachmann was rewarded for this hate-fest via hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to her opponent and a DCCC influx of an additional $1 million to boot her from her seat. After initially denying she ever made the recorded, televised comments, Bachmann now regrets going on the show, where she claims "a trap was laid."

Just when it couldn't get any weirder, we got word that while introducing John McCain at a rally on Saturday, North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes told the audience that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." That's not the weird part (after all, this language has been par for the course); this is:

The comments were first reported by the New York Observer. When Politico linked to the Observer story on Monday evening, Hayes' spokeswoman Amanda Little called and denied the report. Observer reporter Jason Horowitz told Politico he stood firmly behind the story. Politico left the quote in The Crypt blog but added the Hayes denial.

On Tuesday, two more reporters and two other witnesses confirmed the quote, but Little continued to deny it, calling the story "irresponsible journalism." Little said she had just as many sources who would deny it, including Hayes' staff and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who spoke before Hayes.

But then Politico obtained an audio file of the Hayes quote from radio reporter Lisa Miller of WFAE. Little backed down, saying that Hayes must have misspoken.

Seriously. Check the original blog post to see the blow-by-blow updates. It is downright embarrassing. Of course, now that Hayes concedes that he made the statement, he claims "there is no doubt that it came out completely the wrong way." Hate speech can be tricky that way.

Apparently feeling left out, John McCain got in on the act on Tuesday. After flubbing an attack on John Murtha by actually agreeing that Western Pennsylvania is "racist," he made a feeble recovery attempt:

That's right, "Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most god-loving, most patriotic part of America." Take that Eastern Pennsylvania! And the rest of America!

But seriously, there is good news in all of this. Palin had to apologize. Bachmann's comments were seen as so outrageous that her opponent now has $2 million to spend in two weeks, and she was forced to walk back her statement. Hayes, under intense media scrutiny, had to explain away a statement he has probably made a dozen times before.

What does this tell you? That there is another kind of patriotism out there, one that goes far beyond the shallow jingoism spouted by these conservatives. And it is a patriotism that resonates with the electorate, and can be harnessed. As Reich put it:

Liberals should embrace patriotism--not the negative and imperialistic version the Radcons are peddling, but a positive patriotism that's better suited to our time: a patriotism that's based on love of America, but not contempt for what's not America; that cherishes our civil liberties and our democratic right to dissent; that understands that our national security depends as much on America's leadership and moral authority in the world as it does on our military might; and that emphasizes what we owe one another as members of the same society.

Any of this sound familiar? If you had your television tuned to one of the major networks or cable news stations on August 28, 2008, it should:

We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans - have built, and we are here to restore that legacy.

As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.

I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.

These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain.

But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America.

So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

And Obama has kept hitting back at the most recent ugliness from the Republicans. Take a look at this Dana Milbank piece from yesterday's Washington Post about Obama's rally in Richmond (note Milbank's mockery of the "Joe the Plumber" meme):

"There are no real parts of the country and fake parts of the country," he told 12,000 supporters. "There are no pro-America parts of the country and anti-America parts of the country. We all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, city dweller, farm dwellers, it doesn't matter. We're all together."

In recent elections, Democrats were cowed by challenges to their patriotism. But the crowd in Richmond, confident of an Obama victory, brushed off the Palin insult with laughter, a survey of the first row in the arena revealed.

"I'm a terrorist," said Kathleen the Food Vendor.

"We're probably communists," added John the Other Food Vendor, sitting with Kathleen. "I've been hating America ever since I was a young man."

"I was a baby terrorist," offered Terrence the Unemployed Guy.

Obama wasted little time getting to the "careless, outrageous comments" of McCain. "That's what you do when you are out of ideas, out of touch, and you're running out of time." He then had some fun with McCain's Joe-the-Plumber offensive: "He's not fighting for Joe the Plumber; he's fighting for Joe the Hedge Fund Manager." Eventually, he arrived at Palin's "pro-America" charge.

"There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq; there are patriots who opposed it," he said. "There are patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women from Virginia and all across this country who serve on our battlefields, some are Democrats, some are Republicans, some are independents, but they have fought together and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag."

In the heart of real America, the crowd gave Obama a cheer that did not seem at all phony.

Amen to that. With Reich's book and Senator Obama's campaign, Democrats are reclaiming the meaning of patriotism that has been hijacked by conservative rhetoric for too long.

Liberals and Economic Prosperity

Robert Reich & Barack ObamaOver the past several days, I have discussed Robert Reich's take on the rise of "radical conservatives," as well as his argument that liberals should not shy from advancing a moral agenda of their own, each of which comprises a chapter of his 2004 handbook on liberalism, Reason.

The second and third prongs of Reich's liberal rebuttal cover economic prosperity and patriotism, and ways in which liberals can retake these issues from the conservative movement that for decades has claimed them as their own. In the debate over economics, Reich argues that liberals have made two errors; they have been dismissive of the importance of growth, and they have lost the framing war:

[I]n a debate that seems to pit economic growth against fairness, liberals lose. Part of the reason lies in how liberals define "fairness." They make it seem like too squishy an idea -- appropriate for soft hearts rather than hard heads. Besides, most of the people who are being hurt by Radcon cuts in social spending appear to be poor and black or brown -- "them" rather than "us." And most of those who are getting tax breaks and accumulating fortunes are people whom a lot of Americans would like to emulate.

We've seen this very phenomenon appear in the past several weeks of the current campaign. The ridiculous "Joe the Plumber" meme, which the gasping McCain team has latched onto this past week, is a perfect example. While the lunatics at the National Review obsessed over Senator Obama's "socialist" beliefs, it was not readily apparent or important to Joe the Plumber himself that he was going to be a beneficiary of Obama's tax plan. Instead, he was more concerned that someday, somehow, he would be rich, and Obama would raise his taxes. Robert Reich has a better answer to this than Democrats in the past:

Liberals shouldn't abandon convictions about fairness. But to be persuasive to the rest of America, the ideal of fairness has to be embedded in a hardheaded program to promote prosperity for everyone. Rather than help wealthy people stay on top, we need to help all working people build their wealth. The truth is, fairness and growth aren't at odds; they complement each other. Prosperity is easier to achieve if it's widely shared.

Unfortunately for McCain, and the occupants of the National Review echo-chamber, Reich's sentiment can be heard incorporated throughout Senator Obama's response:

My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.

So while the cynics and the mercenaries want to seize on the "spread the wealth" soundbite, Senator Obama is still consistently winning the argument, because he taps into both of the American economic ideals: growth and fairness. That's why the latest polls show he is more trusted on almost every issue related to economics, including the current financial crisis, reducing the deficit, and even taxes, which has been the bread-and-butter of conservative propaganda for decades:

On most domestic issues, Obama enjoys wide leads over McCain. Voters see Obama as the candidate best able to deal with the current economic crisis, 46%-34%. Obama leads 53% to 32% when voters are asked which would do the best job improving the economy more generally. Voters favor Obama on energy issues 53% to 34%. On handling education, the environment and the health care system, Obama holds advantages of more than 25 points over McCain.

Half of voters say Obama would do a better job dealing with taxes and reducing the budget deficit, while about a third say McCain would do the better job (35% and 30%, respectively). Obama also holds a nine-point advantage over McCain on the question of who would best limit the influence of lobbyists, up from a four-point edge in mid-September [emphasis added].

Certainly part of the reason for Senator Obama's advantage has been the disastrous campaign run by his opponent, whose erratic and negative behavior has destroyed his own credibility on almost every issue. But part of the reason why such a campaign was necessary was that Obama has so successfully articulated a liberal alternative to the conservative policies that have dug American into a hole. Consider one of Reich's major insights into the future of American economic growth. He recognizes that the decline of manufacturing jobs is not the fault of outsourcing, free trade, illegal immigrants, or minorities:

Factor jobs are vanishing all over the world... Robots and numerical machine tools can do factory work more efficiently than people. Even as manufacturing employment dropped around the globe since the mid-nineties, industrial output rose more than 30 percent.

We should stop pining for "manufacturing" jobs and the days when a lot of people were paid for good money to stand along an assembly line and continuously bolt, fit, solder, or clamp what went by. Those days are over. Don't blame poor blacks, Latinos, or all the other usual suspects.

In the absence of these jobs, Reich sees a division of available employment into two categories: highly-paid "symbolic analytic" jobs that center on "analyzing, manipulating, and communicating through abstract symbols--numbers, shapes, words, ideas" (think engineering, law, advertising, medicine, finance); and "personal service" jobs, which "are usually paid by the hour, are carefully supervised, and rarely require much more than a high school education."

Reich makes no judgment about the importance of either job to the economy; he simply recognizes that the jobs are not rewarded equally; "the demand for symbolic analysts keeps growing because they add significant value to products and services. Companies can no longer depend just on economies of scale to keep them competitive." On the other side, "Most personal service jobs... pay low wages. Few of these jobs require special qualifications, so many people can do them."

The obvious solution? Increase the number of symbolic analytic jobs in the United States. But Reich points out that the standard supply-side, trickle-down economic policies promoted by doctrinal conservatism is antithetical to such growth:

Their solution is to raise the level of savings and reduce consumption in order to create more capital. You know the drill: Cut the highest income-tax rates; reduce or eliminate taxes on savings, investment income, and wealth; and phase out the estate tax. Meanwhile, cut spending on social services; privatize public insurance; and relax government regulations on health, safety, and the environment.

The only way to attract global capital and also improve our living standards is to increase the productivity of Americans.

America's basic strategy for economic growth must be to equip a larger portion of our people to add more value to the world economy. And the way to do this is to increase investments in our people: We need to ensure that a good-quality public education is available to every child from the age of three all the way through at least two years of college, so that any talented American kid can become a symbolic analyst regardless of family income or race. We need to help personal service workers be more productive by giving them access to better training, and career ladders linking increased expertise to higher pay scales. We need to provide better health care and improve the environment, so that American can lead fuller and more productive lives, and both feel and be more prosperous.

Does Senator Obama have a coherent strategy to meet these demands? Let's see. Education? Check. Job creation? Check. Health care? Check. The environment? Check. It should be no surprise, then, to see the bases on which Robert Reich endorsed Obama, way back in April when the primary was still hotly contested:

His plans for reforming Social Security and health care have a better chance of succeeding. His approaches to the housing crisis and the failures of our financial markets are sounder than hers. His ideas for improving our public schools and confronting the problems of poverty and inequality are more coherent and compelling. He has put forward the more enlightened foreign policy and the more thoughtful plan for controlling global warming.

He also presents the best chance of creating a new politics in which citizens become active participants rather than cynical spectators. He has energized many who had given up on politics. He has engaged young people to an extent not seen in decades. He has spoken about the most difficult problems our society faces, such as race, without spinning or simplifying. He has rightly identified the armies of lawyers and lobbyists that have commandeered our democracy, and pointed the way toward taking it back.

Absolutely. Tomorrow I will turn to the final chapter of Reich's book, entitled "Positive Patriotism." In light of comments made in just this last week by Senator McCain, his running mate, and several Republican congressmen, this is a hot topic. And it is another area where Senator Obama has been pitch-perfect in his response, successfully owning the topic of patriotism such that now it is the conservative darling, Sarah Palin, who is making televised apologies for her comments. Advantage: liberals.

The Making (and Remaking) of McCain

Steve Schmidt & John McCainHave thirty minutes to gain some real insight into the nature of John McCain's campaign, and wondering where to spend it? Easy; read Robert Draper's 8,000 word "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain", which will appear in The New York Times Magazine this coming Sunday. A sample:

A senior adviser to McCain said: "The town halls, the ethics bill, immigration reform -- all are examples. I think McCain finds it galling that Obama gets credit for his impressive talk about bipartisanship without ever having to bear the risk that is a part of that. It is so much harder to walk the walk in the Senate than to talk the talk." By extension, then, if the McCain campaign's conduct would appear to be at odds with the man's "true character," it is only because the combination of a dishonorable opponent and a biased media has forced his hand. Or so goes the rationale for what by this month was an increasingly ugly campaign.

The worry among his aides had long been that McCain would let his indignation show. Going into the debates, an adviser expressed that very concern to me: "If he keeps the debates on substance, he's very good. If it moves to the personal, then I think it's a disaster." Accordingly, Salter advised McCain before the first debate to maintain, one person privy to the sessions put it, "a very generous patience with Obama -- in terms of, 'I'm sure if he understood. . . .' "

"The object wasn't to appear condescending at all -- really, the opposite," an adviser said of Salter's tactic, which judging by the postdebate polls seemed to backfire. "You put a bullet in a gun, figuring it'll get shot once. We had no idea it would be shot 10 times."

Sure it backfired! McCain didn't say "'I'm sure if he understood...," he said "What Sen. Obama just doesn't understand is..." This is considerably nastier, and he said it over and over again. And when Senator Obama actually was gracious ("Senator McCain is right"), the McCain campaign made an ill-received, sarcastic ad about it.

If you were ever looking for a textbook example of an echo chamber, this is it. A campaign essentially driven by a candidate's personal animosity toward his opponent, which he simply assumed entitled him to be negative and condescending, no matter how uncalled for and overblown this would seem to the world. McCain aides specifically point to an incident (from February 2006!) wherein McCain felt Obama went back on his word to attend a bipartisan meeting on ethics reform, and had Salter write a nasty letter in response.

Perhaps this was a legitimate grievance. But how many Americans have the slightest notion about this uber-insider baseball stuff from 32 months ago? That's how the whole article reads; three close advisers basically spent the last year convincing each other to believe their own spin, and apparently failed to notice that: a) no one else did; and b) they were contradicting themselves every few weeks.

Liberals and Public Morality

Robert ReichI have previously discussed the first chapter of Robert Reich's Reason, in which he analyzes the rise of the "radical conservatives" who have come to dominate the modern Republican Party. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections, each an area of public policy in which Reich believes liberals have the right answers, but have allowed the "Radcons" to frame the debate in their favor.

I'd like to turn to the second chapter of his book, which he titles "Public Morality." Interestingly, Reich does not shy away from pushing a liberal agenda on public morality. In fact, he believes public morality is an area in which liberals should expand their influence. The first step is in properly defining the sphere appropriately:

Radcons are correct in one respect: Public morality is important. By shying away from discussing it, liberals allows Radcons to define public morality the way they see it. But public morality shouldn't be about private sex. Liberals should be screaming from the rooftops about the real decline of public morality, about the real abuses.

Reich includes in his list such abuses as fraudulent accounting and stock manipulation, tax evasion, executive pay, and financial conflicts of interest, many of which will sound familiar to those who have paid to the attention to the four years since Reich published his book. Reich points out that conservatives "equate sexual permissiveness with the erosion of public morality because they're obsessed by the decline of discipline in society. They don't worry about the misuse of authority because they're focused on obedience to it."

Think about this for a few minutes. When we as Americans think or talk about sexuality, we usually do it in moral terms. When we talk about business or economics, we rarely do. We have been trained to think of capitalism as inherently moral, or at worst, amoral. The "free market" is made an excuse for a free-for-all in which abuses of greed or corruption are seen as par for the course, or necessary evils. The introductions of moral decision-making into a business plan is considered laughable; indeed, to the extent it might interfere with the immediate financial well-being of large shareholders, it would be considered corporate malpractice. That is how far we have fallen.

Reich indicts liberals for complicity in this situation, as they have reacted against the conservative emphasis on sexual morality by simply abandoning the field:

Morality is sometimes hard for liberals to talk about. It seems too personal, too closely related to authoritarian religion, too easily used as a tool to justify or to condemn private behaviors. Moralists often strike liberals as being intolerant. Hence, many liberals have adopted a kind of moral relativism; no single version of morality is superior to any other. By this view, abuses of power may violate legal or economic principles, buy they don't raise moral issues.

This is a dangerous cop-out.

To their credit, Radcons have developed several useful ways to frame morality as a public issue. They go awry on the application of their ideas. Sex is the wrong target. But their willingness to introduce the concept of right and wrong into public discourse enables us to discuss why the abuses of authority that plague modern America are rightly matters of public concern.

He goes on to quote extensively from books by Bill Bennett and Robert Bork for the purpose of showing how persuasive their morality-based arguments are if shifted away from sexuality and onto abuses of power. Reich also succinctly rebuts the oft-repeated conservative talking points on premarital sex, the decline of marriage, and the separation of church and state.

Reich then turns his attention to the abuses of corporate power that liberals should make the focus of their own moral crusade. He highlights Enron as the "poster child," of this phenomenon, but emphasizes that Enron was no exception, it was the simply the most excessive example of abusive practices running throughout corporate America. He points out the tremendous conflicts-of-interest that continue to link the fates of bankers, large investors, corporate executives with the boards of directors and auditors who are supposed to be guarding the hen house. Reich also touches on a subject that has really made the headlines in the current financial crisis, executive pay:

Over the past twenty years, as executive pay moved into the stratosphere, the pay and benefits of average working Americans have gone essentially nowhere. In the 1990s, many of these same Americans invested their scant retirement savings in the stock market, only to discover--too late--that is was a bubble filled with hot air. Then they found out that a lot of reported corporate earnings had been pumped up with helium. CEOs, on the other hand, did just fine. Their "big money carrots" were real. They cashed in their options early enough to beat the imploding market.

Reich goes into detail on what he calls "legalized bribery," which is of course an indictment of the campaign finance system. I'd be interested to hear what he thinks of Senator Obama's fund-raising, which has been exceptional for its breadth and its depth, and its exclusion of any lobbyist or PAC money. [UPDATE: Reich endorsed Obama in April, but did not specifically mention fund-raising]. Reich also emphasizes that the occasional "perp walk" (e.g. Kenneth Lay, Bernie Ebbers) is not enough. Instead, liberals must take the lead in promoting legal enforcement of the public trust, but with a healthy dose of morality added to the mix:

It's time for a vigorous liberalism that holds morally accountable those who abuse their authority. We need moral as well as legal limits on rapacious CEOs, accountants, lawyers, brokers, and investment bankers--people who are stewards of the economy but don't give a damn what happens to the millions of small investors, as well as employees, they're supposed to represent.

The chapter falls short, however, on detailed solutions. Perhaps Reich offers those elsewhere, but it was disappointing to find a former cabinet secretary so light on particulars. While convinced by Reich's call for introducing a moral element to the fight against corporate abuses, that seems a long-term project. Reich is surely correct that the liberal movement against greed and corruption will be strengthened by the moral arguments he suggests.

In the short-term, however, the law can yield greater effect. Yet Reich gives no guidance on what the appropriate changes might be. We might consider an expansion of legally-enforceable fiduciary obligations to a wider group of professionals involved in corporate finance. Or perhaps greater regulation (or re-regulation, as the case may be) of the conflicts-of-interest that improperly link the fates of supposedly independent actors. I am no expert in the field, which is why I hoped for a bit more from Reich. In his defense, the chapter is largely focused on convincing liberals to recognize the moral, not legal, elements of corporate abuse; I simply wanted both.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

adiga_white.jpgAs I mentioned a few days ago, Aravand Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. As luck would have it, I purchased the book when the Booker shortlist was announced, and finished it the very day it won the award.

The White Tiger explores the prospects of social mobility amidst the caste prejudices that continue to linger in modern India. As the story opens, the first person narrator introduces himself as a small business owner in the city of Bangalore. Bangalore is known (in)famously as the Silicon Valley of India (or "the world's center of Technology and Outsourcing" as the narrator calls it), so this immediately connects the non-Indian reader to the rapid rate of modernization in the Indian economy. As with all such economic upheavals, change is accompanied by social and political instability, and The White Tiger touches upon each.

I mentioned the story is written in first-person, but there is a curious framing device as well. The entire book is divided into a series of letters from "The White Tiger" to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who has announced an upcoming visit to Bangalore to meet Indian entrepreneurs:

Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nations, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs--we entrepreneurs--have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.

The narrator, who soon identifies himself as Balram (a name given to him by a teacher, since his family just called him "boy"), considers himself the perfect example, and thus begins writing his letters to the Chinese Premier to educate him about Indian entrepreneurship. He begins by detailing his childhood spent as the son of a rickshaw-puller in the village of Laxmangarh, which he sarcastically describes as failing to meet any and all "standards set by the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends." The majority of the citizens in Laxmangarh live impoverished existences, and all of the valuable land and business is owned by just four landlords, known colorfully as the Buffalo, the Stork, the Wild Boar, and the Raven:

All four of the Animals lived in high-walled mansions just outside Laxmangarh--the landlords' quarters. They had their own temples inside the mansions, and their own wells and ponds, and did not need to come out into the village except to feed.

This dichotomy had already resulted in violence, with one of the landlords' infant sons kidnapped and killed by Naxals, Indian communist rebels. Public animosity between the politicians and the people, the haves and have nots will lead, later in the book, to the rise of "the Great Socialist" and the defeat of the ruling party.

These events are somewhat ancillary to the narrative, however, which follows Balram's rise to close proximity with this upper class. He convinces his family to invest in driving lessons, and through lucky coincidence gets hired as a chauffeur for Ashok, one of the Stork's sons. They are relatively generous masters, providing sufficient food and a covered room for Balram to sleep in, as well as "the thing that we who grow up in the Darkness value most of all. A uniform. A khaki uniform!"

"The Darkness" is Balram's term for the vast expanse of rural India where the masses suffer in povery and powerlessness, controlled by greedy landlords and corrupt politicians. Balram sees this suffering borne by the masses, and explains their acquiescence through the analogy of "the Coop":

The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop... the roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent--as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way--to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

We learn early on that Balram has flown the Coop, so to speak; he is a wanted man, has taken a bag full of cash, and has slit Ashok's throat. With these revelations made up front, there is a fatalistic tone to the rest of the book, which follows Balram's work as the family driver, exploring the psychology of this role, constantly exposed to freedom and luxury but never able to taste it himself. Balram begins to idealize his master Ashok, comes to believe that there is genuine care for him as a servant, only to be devastated when it becomes clear that Ashok is little different from the rest of the upper class in his self-absorption. Along the way, Balram is frequently confronted with the stark contrast between the lifestyle enjoyed by his employers, and by those who slave away to create this world.

The problem is, there is little sense to why the Indian state continues to sustain this inequality. Adiga relies heavily on these analogies, the Light and the Darkness, or the chicken coop, which undoubtedly mask a greater complexity in this country of a billion people. Many of the characters Bulram encounters are mere caricatures, from the landlords to the police looking for bribes to the young revolutionary who instantly converts to greedy self-interest once he tastes power. Can all of India's ills be explained away by pointing at corrupt politicians? Even the overthrow of the ruling party simply changes the destination of the landlord's bribes. Is the only solution an individual one, whereby the White Tigers of the world muscle their way into "the Light" by any means necessary? This seems an unsuitably narrow view, but it is all the novel offers.

Vietnam Veteran Curse?

Gore, Kerry, McCainCan it really be, that America will never have a Vietnam War veteran serve as President of the United States? It certainly seems likely at this point. If Senator Obama wins the election two weeks from tomorrow, and I am confident that he will, we will have seen three consecutive elections in which a Vietnam veteran was nominated, but lost. And with no disrespect to Al Gore, Senators Kerry and McCain are not just veterans, but gentlemen with heroic service records (though under dramatically different circumstances).

If Obama wins, the next contested Democratic primary will be in 2016, at which point most Vietnam veterans will be well over 60 years old. None of the up-and-comers in the party (Mark Warner, Brian Schweitzer) served in the military, let alone Vietnam. The sole exception might be Jim Webb, but he'll be 70 years old and an unlikely candidate.

The Republican bench is just the same. Neither Mike Huckabee nor Mitt Romney is a veteran. Same for Bobby Jindal, who was three years old when Saigon fell. And we all know Sarah Palin has never been to Vietnam.

Perhaps I am overlooking someone who will rise to lead their party into the White House. And perhaps it is not such a big deal. It just seems odd, considering the perpetual elevation of military service as the pinnacle of public sacrifice, and the continuing presence of the Vietnam War as a focal point in political debate, that a veteran of that conflict might never hold our highest office.

When John McCain was a Real Conservative

In his 2004 political tome Reason, which I started reading last night, Robert Reich discusses the rise of the radical conservative movement (he calls them "Radcons"). He traces their agenda back to the 1960s, as a reaction to the New Left:

In its moral absolutism, its faith in the redemptive power of discipline, its emphasis on punishment, and its theory of evil -- in all these respects, radical conservatism sees itself as the counterforce to the sixties left. No matter that the sixties left has all but vanished. According to Radcons, it released an evil into the world that still imperils American civilization.

It should be little wonder, then, that the current mantras of the Republican candidate's campaign for President are that Senator Barack Obama has ties to William Ayers (that's right, a sixties leftist radical) and that he is a socialist (who said the Cold War was over?).

I have no reason to believe that John McCain had a sudden conversion to the radical conservative agenda. If he had, we would see him elucidating their worldview with genuine vigor, and he might retain at least the dignity of fighting for what he believed in. Instead, he simply turned over his campaign to these forces after making "cold, political calculations," put the young Rovians in charge, and put their Ice Queen on the ticket with him.

It was not always this way. Reich makes it a point to distinguish radical conservatives from "real conservatives." And the examples he offers? You got it:

A real conservative is somebody like the late Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, or Senator John McCain, of Arizona -- someone who wants to conserve many of the things that are great about America: the value we place on hard work, our dedication to family and community, our love of freedom, our storehouse of generosity and tolerance.

Real conservatives are cautious. They're skeptical of big ideas, grand plans, risky moves. When change is necessary, they prefer doing it gradually, carefully, methodically, step-by-step. And they're meticulous about laws and procedures: Means are as important to them as ends.

Amazing what four years and a shot at the White House can do to a man. There is no way Senator McCain would be mentioned in this passage if it were written today, except perhaps to symbolize the total corruption of the Republican Party by these radical elements. Decide for yourself which of these best describes the John McCain of 2008:

Real conservatives are concerned about civility. They have codes of honor and rules of conduct. They worry about the "coarsening" of American culture. And they're wary of demagogues who stir people up. Edmund Burke, again: "Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hours than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years."

But radical conservatives are uncivil in the extreme. They fill the public airwaves and bookstores with nastiness. Listen to Radcon talk radio or cable TV news and what you mostly hear are venomous diatribes. Read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, Washington Times, New York Post, New York Sun, or any other Radcon outlet, and you find vicious attacks. Open a Radcon political best-seller and you find more mean-spirited screeds. Radcons typically reduce political debate to nonsensical statements that seem to be making a point but are nothing but vague and angry assertions, unsupported by facts.

That last sentence seems to describe Senator McCain's third debate performance pretty well. Or any statement that comes out of Sarah Palin's mouth. Or this:

That's why it was so moving to hear Colin Powell not only endorse Senator Obama, but spend several minutes eviscerating the tactics that have taken over the McCain campaign and the Republican Party. He specifically denounced the Ayers smear, cited the terrible Palin selection, and gave the best explanation of the offensiveness of the "Muslim" meme that any public figure, including Senator Obama, has been able to offer:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way.

Here's more on that Soldier's sacrifice. This is very powerful imagery, and the strongest possible rebuke to the despicable attacks that no longer reside merely in fringe viral e-mails, but with "senior members" of the Republican Party. In a press conference after the show, Powell also gave a strong rebuttal to the "socialist" attack that is now the McCain/Palin smear of choice, by pointing out the importance of taxes in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, almost as if it were a patriotic duty.

Suffice it to say, between John McCain and Colin Powell there is only one real conservative. Too bad the Republican Party lacked the wisdom to ever put him on the ticket.

Spread the Wealth

Much has been made about Senator Obama's comment that Americans should be willing to "spread the wealth" around. When viewed in context, which political sound bites rarely are, this made perfectly good sense, but cynical conservatives have painted this as proof of Obama's support for forced wealth redistribution. But now I wonder whether Senator Obama was really talking about this:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised more than $150 million in September, a stunning and unprecedented eruption of political giving that has given him a wide spending advantage over rival John McCain.

Campaign manager David Plouffe, in an e-mail to supporters Sunday morning, said the campaign had added 632,000 new donors in September, for a total of 3.1 million contributors to the campaign. He said the average donation was $86.

Talk about a massive redistribution of wealth! I am proud to say that I made the first political donation of my life to Barack Obama on the night of the Iowa caucuses. I maxed out for the general election on the night of Sarah Palin's convention speech.

The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser

fraser_story.jpgWhether it be a childhood love of Disney's Robin Hood, America's "special relationship" with the former mother country, or an appreciation for the brilliance of their historians, I share many people's interest in the history of England. After World War II and the ancient Egytians, English history seems the most likely subject of a History Channel feature. The Tudor dynasty comes in for special attention, with documentaries like The Six Wives of Henry VIII joined by Hollywood productions such as The Other Boleyn Girl and Showtime's The Tudors.

Over the years I have accumulated several works on specific aspects of British history, including Martin Gilbert's one-volume Churchill and Alison Weir's Henry VIII. Still, it seemed best to look for a survey that could provide a foundational understanding of history on the island. Fortunately, I came across Rebecca Fraser's recent narrative history, The Story of Britain.

Fraser is the daughter of Antonia Fraser, herself the author of numerous histories and novels, and Hugh Fraser a Conservative MP until his death. The two were nearly killed in 1975 by an IRA bomb planted under their car (while Caroline Kennedy was staying at their home), and several years later Antonia left Hugh to begin an affair with her current husband, Nobel-laureate Harold Pinter. Quite a family.

The Story of Britain is a thick book, nearly 800 pages, stretching "From the Romans to the Present." It is divided into sections by dynasty, and into chapters by monarch. Monarchs with particularly eventful or lengthy reigns, like George III and Victoria, even get sub-chapters. It is a straight chronological narrative, and the declared "aim of this history is to attempt to return to those old rules of 'who, when, what, how," with "no apology for re-telling some of the nation's best-loved stories, though the facts on which they rest may be dubious to say the least." That's one way to preface a history, but at least she's honest.

The first thirty pages are devoted to the Romans, first led ashore (but not much further) by Julius Caesar, before the rise of the Anglo-Saxons under Ethelbert of Kent. Very interesting details on the constant pressure applied by Viking aggression throughout this period:

There were three kinds of Vikings and they moved in three separate directions. While the Swedish Vikings swept east in their thousands under their chief Rurik to found the Kievan Rus or first Russian state, the Norwegian Vikings sailed west and founded Greenland. Two centuries later, about the year 1000, they would discover North America, putting in at what is now New England, which they called Vinland. They sailed down the west coast of Scotland and across to Ireland, where they founded Viking cities like Dublin and Cork and laid waste almost all the wealthy monasteries in the north of the country...

The third kind of Viking, known as the 'inner line,' concentrated their unwelcome attentions on the southern coast of England and the north coast of continental Europe. These Vikings were Danes from Denmark, whose ancestors had moved into the districts left empty by the Angles when they went to England in the fifth century... From merely being coastal raisers, who in a sense could be lived with, the Vikings of the mid-ninth century started to spend the winter in the countries they raided, showing their utter contempt for the local community.

This was happening through Europe. By the latter half of the 9th century, the Vikings "took up more or less permanent quarters on the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Somme, the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne." They reached Morocco and laid siege to Constantinople. Their domination of England was only ended by the heroic leadership of Alfred the Great, a prince of Wessex. Anglo-Saxon rule would continue, more or less, until William the Conqueror led his troops across the English Channel in the Norman invasion of 1066Norman invasion of 1066. This began the shift of English attention away from the North Sea and the Scandinavians, and toward the continent. English interests in France would expand further during the reign of one of England's greatest kings, William's great-grandson, Henry II, which lasted from 1154-1189:

Henry II was not a man any baron would wish to trifle with. Not only was was he in the fierce, energetic mould of the Norman kings and possessed of a powerful personality, thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitane he also ruled the whole of western France from the Loire to Pyrenees on the borders of Spain, as well as Normandy and Anjou, inherited from his mother and his father respectively... The new king of England was thus the greatest monarch in western Europe.

This from an island nation that a century earlier had paid scant attention to its continental neighbors. As the centuries pass, and the internecine battles that mark medieval English history continued to erupt, Fraser does an exceptional job providing sufficient background to the various players, and sufficient detail to understand the rise and fall of various factions. This becomes particularly complicated during the Wars of the Roses. Any work of English political history demands decent genealogical tables, and Fraser provides nine pages worth, starting with Alfred's grandfather Egbert, all the way down to Elizabeth II's great-niece, Margarita Armstrong-Jones.

The civil wars between powerful regions and families that characterized the reigns of Lancastrian and Yorkist monarchs give way to religious factionionalism after Henry VIII's break with Rome, leading most significantly to the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell. The defeat of Cromwell's successors and the subsequent Restoration of the throne did not end religious conflict on the island, but the major scene of strife shifts first to the power struggle between the throne and Parliament, and then finally to the party politics that characterize modern democratic government. Fraser covers it all in great detail.

The work is not without faults. There are neither footnotes nor endnotes, and a mere 3 page list of suggestions for "Further Reading." This is almost entirely a political history, and is thus confined for most of the first 500 pages to the crown and the recurring battles over succession. There is little coverage of the social and cultural history of the British, little discussion of music, art, science or philosophy, and the references to religion are confined to religion's influence on the state or as an impetus for war. The appearance of Robert Walpole and the subsequent rise of the office of prime minister, moves the focus, but only to follow the shift of political power. The coverage of 20th-century Britain has more breadth, though even this seems concurrent with the expansion of the state itself.

This is also England-centric history. Fraser fails to give Wales, Scotland, or Ireland anywhere near their due attention. They are largely ignored except for when they are either rebelling or being conquered. That may be more excusable for Ireland, at least insofar as much of it is now independent of Britain. But Scotland and Wales have been part of Britain for hundreds of years, and there is worthy history in those regions beyond the occasional military or political conflict. This is hardly the end of the world; after all, I've got Magnus Magnusson's Scotland and R.F. Foster's Modern Ireland to cover that history. But those looking for one-volume covering the whole history of the Isles might be disappointed.

2008 Booker Prize Winner - The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

After my ill-fated effort to anticipate the judges by reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, only to see it fail to make the shortlist, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the same day I finished reading it, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger has won the 2008 Booker Prize:

Mr. Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, was born in India and brought up partly in Australia. He studied at Columbia and Oxford and is a former correspondent for Time magazine in India. He is the second youngest writer to win the award; Ben Okri was 32 when he won for "The Famished Road" in 1991.

Michael Portillo, a former cabinet minister and the chairman of this year's panel of judges, praised Mr. Adiga's novel, saying that the short list had contained a series of "extraordinarily readable page-turners." However, Mr. Adiga's book had prevailed, he said, "because the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal measure."

I thought it was an unusually promising debut, but it fell short of greatness. I'll have a review up soon detailing why, though I have a bit of a backlog to get through. I'm just too obsessed with the election to sit still for ten minutes and write.

Summer in Kuwait

I was supposed to have been in Kuwait for 90 days this summer, roughly from the middle of June until the middle of September. Unfortunately, in early July we moved a court-martial from Kuwait to Atlanta to accommodate a number of witnesses who had already redeployed, so I was brought back from Kuwait just after Independence Day. The plan was to try the case the following week, with an immediate return to Kuwait thereafter.

That was the plan. Instead what happened was the trial kept being delayed two weeks at a time, finally going through during the last week of August. By then, the unit had a major training exercise going on in Kuwait, so my return was further delayed until that exercise ended in mid-September. I was only able to go back for three weeks, as my family and my wife's family had already made travel arrangements to come visit us in October and November, which was when I was scheduled to have rotated back.

The absurdity of the situation is hard to overstate. All told, I spent 43 days in theater this summer. Of those 43 days, 10 were spent in travel. So really I spent 33 working days in Kuwait. In that time, I tried zero cases. I took 11 flights, totaling nearly 30,000 miles. Since the 43 days spanned four calendar months (through no planning of my own), I received $900 of combat fire pay and four months of tax-free salary.

It is hard to describe just how ridiculous a process it was to leave Kuwait. The travel situation at Ali As Salem, described as the "theater gateway" because all troops coming or going from Iraq and Afghanistan, is particularly appalling when one considers we are now in the seventh year of this War on Terror. Soldiers arrive at Ali having survived the ordeal of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan, which often takes days because of sandstorms and/or equipment failures. Then they have to hope they are amongst the first 350 people to sign up for the single flight out of Kuwait. Occasionally they schedule a second daily flight, but just as often one of the flights (often the only flight) is canceled. Soldiers traveling home for R&R have priority on the flight, which is fair, but it means that Soldiers trying to redeploy are sometimes stuck for days and days because they go to the back of the line each day, no matter how long they have been waiting.

The only reason I got stuck for just one night is that I went on a Friday, knowing that if I didn't get on the R&R bird I was already manifested on the Saturday "Freedom Flight" which goes directly to Fort Benning. Of course, this wouldn't work well for anyone whose final destination was not Georgia. The flight is intended for reservists and civilians who deploy through the CRC at Fort Benning, but it is manifested first come, first serve. So I signed up last Tuesday and was able to get on the flight on Saturday. My warrant officer, who didn't sign up until the day before, got bumped from the flight. Three stops and three continents later, I was at Fort Benning, and a former colleague from my time there picked me up and generously shuttled me to Atlanta, a mere 60 hours after I had first arrived at Ali As Salem to go home.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

golden_memoirs.jpgDuring my last mini-deployment to Kuwait I was able to make it through more than ten books in three weeks. That, however, was during a lull in the election cycle, just after Senator Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination. Now, with the election heating up, I could not break away from the computer in the evenings in Kuwait, which is seven hours ahead of the East Coast. A lot of the news, speeches, and polls were being released as I was getting back to my room after work, and my total lack of restraint had me glued to the blogs when I probably should have been reading something a bit more enlightening. Even with these distractions, though, I was able to make it through 600 pages of Rebecca Fraser's The Story of Britain, and during one of my four flights back to the States I finally finished Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.

Geisha was a runaway bestseller when it was first published a decade ago, and was made into an apparently mediocre film a few years back. It has been one of those books that hovers just on the edge of my must-read list, but never quite made it into the top-tier. When I deployed to Kuwait in June, however, I bought up a bunch of mass-market paperbacks to bring with me. Most of them were Bantam and Signet classics, but a few modern novels like Geisha as well.

The novel is really an uneven affair. Golden's great triumph is writing a convincing portrayal of Sayuri's life as a young female geisha in pre-WWII Japan despite being himself a middle-aged American man. Some of the better scenes in the book take place early on, in Saruyi's childhood just before and after she has been sold into servitude at a geisha house:

My thoughts were in fragments I could hardly piece together. Certainly it was true that a part of me hoped desperately to be adopted by Mr. Tanaka after my mother died; but another part of me was very much afraid. I felt horribly ashamed for even imagining I might live somewhere besides my tipsy house. After Mr. Tanaka had left, I tried to busy myself in the kitchen, but I felt a bit like Satsu, for I could hardly see the things before me. I don't know how much time passed. At length I heard my father making a sniffling noise, which I took to be crying and which made my face burn with shame. When I finally forced myself to glance his way, I saw him with his hands already tangled up in one of his fishing nets, but standing at the doorway leading into the back room, where my mother lay in the full sun with sheet stuck to her like skin.

Of course Mr. Tanaka has no interest in adopting her; instead he facilitates her sale to the Nitta okiya in the Gion district of Kyoto, where she is put to work as a maid in anticipation of a potential career as a geisha. Her arrival is met with great hostility from Hatsumomo, the resident geisha, and soon enough her future as a geisha is in great doubt. She accrues a large debt via various plots by Hatsumomo, and is removed from geisha training after a failed attempt to escape with her sister, who was sold into prostitution. At her lowest point, a chance encounter with a dignified businessman changes her worldview:

Ordinarily a man on the streets of Gion wouldn't notice a girl like me, particularly while I was making a fool of myself by crying. If he did notice me, he certainly wouldn't speak to me, unless it was to order me out of his way, or some such thing. Yet not only had this man bothered to speak to me, he'd actually spoken kindly. He'd addressed me in a away that suggested I might be a young woman of standing--the daughter of a good friend, perhaps. For a flicker of a moment I imagined a world completely different from the one I'd always known, a world in which I was treated with fairness, even kindness--a world in which fathers didn't sell their daughters. The noise and hubbub of so many people living their lives of purpose around me seemed to stop; or at least, I ceased to be aware of it. And when I raised myself to look at the man who'd spoken, I had a feeling of leaving my misery behind me there on the stone wall.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, suffice it to say that this man, the Chairman, plays a pivotal role in the rest of the book. He becomes Sayuri's idealized man; the idea of entertaining him as a geisha motivates her to seize the opportunity to restart her training, and to work diligently at perfecting the skills a successful geisha must possess. The road ahead of her is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the continuing hostility of Hatsumomo. But some of the obstacles are internal to Sayuri. She has experienced such dramatic swings in her fortune, dragged from an impoverished village life to the exotic world of high-end geishas only to be condemned to life as a maid, that her enthusiasm at a second-chance to become a geisha obscures the reality that a geisha's life is not her own. She remains in servitude, both financial and physical, to the men who patronize her.

The idealization of the Chairman, and her continuing desire to be reunited with him, conflicts with her relationships with other men, including the Chairman's friend and business partner, Nobu. While Sayuri's hopes fixate on the Chairman, it is actually Nobu who provides vital support for her at key moments in her life. Her relationship with Nobu actually seems much more central throughout the book, setting up serious tensions for Sayuri to resolve. It is in this resolution, one of the key moments in the latter stages of the book, that the book really falls flat. Golden misses the chance to explore the complex web of rights and obligations that a geisha, living a life of servitude, must attend to. Sayuri makes a number of self-serving choices, which she is certainly entitled to after years of subordinating herself to others, but is not forced to really face the consequences of these choices. Golden lets her off the hook, which might be temporarily uplifting, but is not satisfying as a conclusion to this woman's life.