Thursday, March 11, 2021

Walter LaFeber: A Great Light Has Gone Out

Yesterday I learned that a great and good man I was fortunate to study under in college and later to have as a friend, Walter LaFeberhad died. As I emerged from my initial shock and distress, I remembered a line from Shakespeare in Love, uttered when the stunned Admiral’s Men hear of the death of Kit Marlowe: “A great light has gone out.”

That’s what happened yesterday.

I first got to know Walt in the fall of 1985, when I took both his legendary History 313 History of US Foreign Policy lecture (continued in the spring with History 314) and a small graduate-level seminar, also on the history of US foreign policy. I was 21 then, and it’s strange for me to consider now that Walt would have been 51—six years younger than I am today.

The reasons 313 and 314 were legendary, and the reason I was so fortunate to take them, were threefold: Walt’s command of the subject matter; his deep insights; and his masterful delivery, always involving a 50-minute talk—without ever resorting to notes—to a room of hundreds of spellbound people. 

In one lecture, I noticed a student in the row in front of me doodling in the margin of his notes: Walter es Dios. I doubt anyone in the room would have argued, though Walt himself tended to shrug off the praise he regularly received, always quickly departing rather than reveling in the applause that inevitably erupted at the end of his lectures.

History 313 and 314 met on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. The lecture hall was always filled. Saturday might have been even more crowded, because students liked to bring visitors to experience Walt in person.

From the vantage point of 2021, it might not seem like much of an innovation, but Walt was ahead of his time in tape-recording all his lectures for any students unlucky enough to miss the live performance (by coincidence, yesterday Lou Ottens, the inventor of the audiotape cassette, also died). My brother and I used to bootleg the tapes at the library and mail copies to our dad, a voracious reader and amateur historian, who would avidly listen and then enthusiastically discuss the content with his sons. My dad died in 1997, and knowing how much he, too, learned from Walt and relished listening to him is bound up in my sadness today, although that connection also gives me a lot of happiness.

If you’d like some flavor of what it was like to listen to Walt, this was his retirement lecture, attended by over 3000 people in New York City in 2006. The whole talk is wonderful, but if all you want is the foreign policy discussion, it begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Another of Walt’s special qualities was his wry kindness. I could give many examples, but just one: when I turned in an essay for History 313 that included an elaborate explanation of why General Lafayette didn’t attack the Colonial forces, Walt wrote in the margin, “Another—and better—reason is that Lafayette fought with the Colonial forces, not against them.”

Despite a few missteps like that one, Walt wrote me a recommendation that I’m sure was instrumental in gaining me admission to law school. I managed to acquire a copy afterward; in it, Walt said that had I been interested in history instead of law, he immediately would have accepted me as a PhD candidate. I’ve wondered since whether I made the right choice.

Before studying with Walt, I was pretty insular in my outlook and while I read a lot, I wouldn’t say I was doing anything particularly useful with the information. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and Walt’s insights into the nature of US foreign policy were hugely eye-opening and motivating, and provide an intellectual framework that has served me ever since. I don’t think his politics would be easy to classify, and in some ways I think he was amused by some of my more radical critiques of the status quo, which made discussions a pleasure even when we didn’t see eye to eye.

After I graduated from undergrad, we started getting together for lunch periodically, usually at Rulloff’s in Collegetown. He told me I had to stop calling him Professor LaFeber and start calling him Walt. It was a strange transition, but eventually he did become Walt for me, though part of me will always think of him as Professor LaFeber, too. My mom, who died in 1987, once told me how delightful it was to have her children grow up and then, while remaining her children, also become her friends (I have since experienced this joy as a parent myself). Growing up and becoming friends with a former teacher is, I think, something similar.

Even after I graduated from law school, my wife Laura and I have had numerous opportunities to visit Ithaca, and on almost every one of those occasions we’ve gotten together with Walt and his delightful wife Sandy. The last time we saw them was in the fall of 2019. The last time we were in touch was by email, almost a year ago at the start of the pandemic. Of course I’m upset now that I wasn’t in touch more—having lost people before, I generally know better. But somehow this year slipped away, and now Walt has, as well. I’m comforted by knowing how rich a life he lived, and how many hearts he touched and minds he influenced in his 87 years. “No one here gets out alive,” my dad would sometimes say, but still there are a few immortals, and Walt LaFeber was one of them.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Fundraiser for a Tragic Loss to Cancer

This fundraiser is for a friend of Laura's and mine who just lost her 35-year-old husband to cancer. They have small kids and anything anyone is inclined to do right now would be a big help.

Thank you.

Monday, October 12, 2020

How To Write A Killer Opening

This past weekend I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the annual Japan Writers Conference, which was of course held virtually because of Covid. If you want to learn more about how to write an effective story opening, here are my 50 minutes worth of thoughts. Enjoy!

Friday, October 09, 2020

That Rarest Breed: Leftist Political Thrillers

Recently I had a fun discussion with Praveen Tummalapalli about why there are so few leftist thrillers, and of course we talked about much more, too.

The discussion was for an article Praveen is writing for Current Affairs Magazine, but it wound up working well in its own right, so I'm posting it here. Had I known we were going to use the interview not just for background, I would have lit our Zoom call better and used an external mic, too. I might even have combed my hair! And apologies also because, having listened to some of the talk after the fact, I was horrified at how much I was saying "um." I work hard to avoid verbal tics, but that morning the Ums got the better of me.

I've addressed some of these issues before, particularly in the context of the tendency to denigrate as "political" only those storylines that don't jibe with one's own political views. As I sometimes like to ask when people criticize my novels as "too political," "You do know they're political thrillers, right?"

Anyway, regardless of any technical shortcomings, I hope you'll enjoy the discussion. When the article's out, I'll post that, too. And who knows? Maybe some of this will encourage other novelists to depict the thrills inherent in leftist politics.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Vincent Bevins's The Jakarta Method

Okay, time for another book I've listened to during the pandemic (and now the wildfires). Last up was Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State; this time it's The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade & The Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World.

The Jakarta Method recounts the US-backed extermination campaign that murdered something like one million Indonesians. If you're unfamiliar with this history, it's partly because the program was a "success," and partly because the details are so disturbing--disturbing both for the horrors and human suffering the book recounts, and because the horror and suffering were both the effect and the intent of US policy.

If you found yourself recoiling from that last clause, don't worry. The reaction is natural. It's hard to look in the mirror and see something terrible staring back. This is just an axiom of human nature. So when faced with evidence of atrocities committed by one's own in-group, it's extremely psychologically tempting to deny them, memory hole them, or to marginalize them as aberrations or "a few bad apples" (see for example Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, putting the Mai Lai massacre into its proper, larger context).

But if there's one thing I know about humans, it's our tendency to give ourselves and our in-groups the greatest possible benefit of the doubt (for more on this, I recommend looking into something called the Fundamental Attribution Error). From the earliest age, Americans are fed a steady diet of American Exceptionalism, American benevolence, the Indispensable Nation...the whole notion of a Light Unto Nations and the City Upon a Hill. You don't have to seek out American apologia and hagiography; they're impossible to avoid. Our national anthem is a celebration of war and slavery; stadium flyovers are part of the cultural firmament; we carve likenesses of revered politicians into the face of mountains; as children, we're made to recite a Pledge of Allegiance proclaiming that we have achieved liberty and justice for all; politicians decree that America is the greatest nation in the history of mankind and that there's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with us.

Imagine for a moment how the media would treat, and how we would perceive, these sorts of things if they were occurring in, say, China or Iran or Russia. Can you believe Iran puts "In Allah we trust" on their own currency, or that they have developed a weapon intended to burn people to death and that they celebrate such a horrific weapon in the weapon's very name? That Russia believes in Russia's "manifest destiny" of dominion over an entire continent from sea to sea? That China has something called the "Xi Doctrine" declaring separate eastern and western spheres of influence and making all of Asia a Chinese protectorate?

And of course you could write an entire book on how their wars are aggression and conquest while ours are merely interventions or police actions; how their nuclear weapons are destabilizing and provocative while ours are simply defensive; how they meddle in elections while we merely assist; how theirs is terrorism and ours is Shock and Awe (actually, I really do need to write a post just on the propaganda buried in our reflexive nomenclature. There's so much of it).

Part of the reason propaganda is so pervasive is because it's so pleasurable. We all want to feel good about ourselves and our in-groups, and propaganda helps achieve that. What's the expression? "Flattery is the art of telling people exactly what they want to believe about themselves." Coke and Pepsi don't dominate the world because they're good for human health; they dominate because sugar tastes good. What tastes good gets widely consumed, regardless of what it might do to your body (or your mind).

To put it another way: ego distorts accurate perception. Books like Bevins's are corrective lenses. For anyone interested in seeing more clearly, The Jakarta Method is a great place to start.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror

I'm still trying to catch up on reviewing some of the great books I've listened to during the pandemic (and now the wildfires). Last time was Maija Soderholm's The Hustler. This week is Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

I've followed the reporting based on whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations reasonably closely since June 2013, when I was working on The God's Eye View and was concerned that the secret bulk surveillance (sorry, "data collection") program I imagined for the novel was going to seem like too much. And then, as I dove into Gellman's and other reporting based on Snowden's revelations, I realized the program I had envisioned wasn't nearly enough, and that the reality of domestic spying had already far outpaced my imagination (more on how reality wound up informing God's Eye here).

Beyond the reporting itself, I read No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald, along with Gellman one of the reporters to whom Snowden entrusted his revelations (my thoughts on No Place to Hide here and here). I also watched CitizenFour, the Oscar-winning documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras, another of Snowden's handpicked journalist contacts. And of course Oliver Stone's biopic Snowden, in which Joseph Gordon Levitt, who physically bears little resemblance to the real Snowden, manages an uncanny imitation through body language and a remarkable imitation of Snowden's voice and vocal cadences. And I wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine urging then-president Obama to pardon Snowden (spoiler alert, Obama didn't listen).

Lastly, a few years ago I shared some thoughts on Snowden and whistleblowing alongside former director of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden in front of the San Francisco chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Hayden was promoting his memoir Playing to the Edge and I was promoting The God’s Eye View. I wouldn't say we all saw eye to eye, but it was a good discussion.

So that's the tale of how I've been following the Snowden story since 2013 (I'm chagrined to admit I haven't yet read Snowden's own memoir, Permanent Record). But as familiar as I am with Snowden's revelations and the story of how they came to be, I was still knocked out by the amount of fresh material in Gellman's book. Dark Mirror has plenty about the programs Snowden revealed, yes, but what made the book particularly compelling for me were the personal aspects Gellman detailed: how Gellman built trust with the anonymous source who initially reached out to him; the bordering-on-paranoia steps he took to protect their communications; the decisions he had to make about what news organization to work with on the stories. There's a scene where Gellman is negotiating with the leadership of The Washington Post—on what he would require if he was going to agree to work with them—that actually made me tear up! Which doesn't often happen when I'm reading nonfiction (or at least I can't admit that it does, because that would be bad for my brand).

Part of what made the audiobook so affecting, I think, is that Gellman narrated it himself. Given the personal aspects of the story, and given that Gellman did such terrific job, I'd say the publisher made the right call.

The dictum in detective fiction is that the best stories aren’t about how the detective works the case, but about how the case works the detective. And that’s part of what makes Dark Mirror so gripping—how a set of incredibly high-stakes circumstances affected Gellman, what decisions he had to make, what it put him through and how it shaped and forged him. Anyone interested in investigative journalism will find these sections of the book fascinating and even moving.

Not long ago, I came across a video by screenwriter Michael Arndt on what makes a great story ending. Arndt makes a case for three sets of stakes: external; internal (emotional); and philosophical. I could go on and on about this, but for now I’ll just say that I think part of what makes Dark Mirror so unusual for nonfiction is that all three stakes are in play. External—the risks Gellman was running given the laws and resources the state could deploy against him (reputation, providing for his family, prison). Internal/emotional—how far beyond simply protecting a source can you go before you've drifted beyond journalism and into something else (journalism, advocacy, what is the proper role—can a journalist be “aiding and abetting” as David Gregory infamously suggested)? Philosophical—when it comes to secrets, who ultimately gets to decide (hint: whoever it is, it's not the government)?

And how do you grapple with these momentous questions when you can’t talk to anyone, not even the people you trust the most?

Anyone with an interest in how the government has created a giant one-way mirror through which the government knows more and more about the people and the people know less and less about the government; in why whistleblowing and investigative journalism are our last line of defense against this metastatic asymmetry; and in the mechanics of reporting on one of the most explosive set of national security revelations of all time, will get a lot out of this book. I know I did.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Maija Soderholm’s The Hustler: Sword Play and the Art of Tactical Thinking

I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts about Maija Soderholm’s latest book, The Hustler: Sword Play and the Art of Tactical Thinking, since finishing it a couple months ago. Alas the pandemic and the new manuscript have been a distraction. But here we are at last…

If Maija’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she was one of Livia’s mentors in Livia Lone.

Maija is also the author of a previous book on martial arts tactics, The Liar, The Cheat, and The Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play. And she's one of the real-world designers of Livia’s favorite knife—the Somico Vaari. A few of my thoughts on the Vaari in this video.

The Hustler is every bit as useful and insightful a book on tactics as its predecessor. It’s true that Maija, an expert with swords, presents her thoughts on violence in the context of her chosen art. But it’s equally true that her observations have applicability far broader than swordplay itself. In this respect, her work is in keeping with with martial arts classics like Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, which is of course about sword combat but is also read in corporate boardrooms, and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which likewise is about far more than its titular topic.

Parenthetically, it occurs to me that in at least one important sense, great books on strategy can be like great stories. The best stories are about something, but really about something else. Think about your favorite television shows. Among mine is Breaking Bad. It’s about a milquetoast high school chemistry professor who’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and turns to cooking meth to make sure his family will be provided for after he dies. But it’s really about self-actualization: how far would you go to become your authentic self—even if your authentic self were a master criminal?

So don’t think of Maija’s books as being only about swords. They’re really about far more. As Maija’s teacher, Sonny Umpad, put it, “There is no art in killing. There is no art in dying. The art is in the living.”

There were two passages in the book I particularly lovedboth because they rang so true for me and because they made me feel I’m getting these things right in my fiction. The first is this:

It has been my experience that putting a sword in a person’s hand will bring out their natural personality. You can see people become who they really are—scared, aggressive, joyous, dark, tentative, enthusiasts, killers, or players. It is hard to hide who you are with a blade in your hand. Maybe it is some ancestral DNA that understands what blades can do? After all, the sword has been a killing weapon since the bronze age. Who knows? In any case, it is the best forum I have ever come across to truly be able to “see” people, to learn who they are and how they can be trapped.

Which reminded me of this scene between Rain and his older paramour, Maria Grazia, in Zero Sum:

We walked over to the swords. There were at least a dozen, each resting on a wooden stand holding two components. On top of each stand was a koshirae scabbard and tsuka hilt, suggesting a sword at rest within. But the gorgeous lacquered scabbards and tsukaito ray-skin-and-silk grips were for combat, not storage; for the latter, on the lower tier of each stand was a shirasaya, a plain wooden scabbard, with the blade inside and a plain wooden hilt attached...

“Do you remember any of them?” Maria said. “They’ve been with the museum for a long time.”

I nodded, feeling a little wistful, and pointed to the one I was already looking at—a classic katana resting in its shirasaya scabbard below a gold lacquer koshirae. “This one was always my favorite.”

“Would you like to handle it?”
I glanced at her, remembering how badly I’d wanted that as a boy. “Are you kidding?”
“Just please be careful.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt the exhibits.”
“I’m more worried about you than the exhibits. They’re extremely sharp. I know you know, but still.”

I gripped the shirasaya in my left hand and the wood tsuka with my right, lifted the sword from the stand, and then, taking care to draw the mune, the back, along the inside of the shirasaya so as to protect the ha, the edge, unsheathed the slightly curved blade. I held it horizontally at eye level, manipulating it with my wrist, watching the expertly worked steel catch the light, dazzled by the perfect weight and balance, the sudden sense that what I held in my hand was more than mere metal, but was instead alert, purposeful, almost alive. I gazed at the hamon, the temper pattern along the edge, wondering how many battles this weapon had seen, how many lives taken, and for a moment, I felt a strange connection to it—both of us born in Japan, both of us forged for killing.

“It suits you,” Maria said, her voice slightly strange.

I blinked, realizing I’d been gone for a second. “Hmm?”

She was frowning slightly. “Just . . . you seem very comfortable holding a sword. Not like when you wear a tuxedo.”

I didn’t know quite what she had seen, but instinctively wanted to conceal it. I looked at the blade again. “I just always liked the kotō, the old swords, better than the shintō, the newer ones. The shintō were expertly made, of course, with beautiful tempering patterns. But I think I liked the more utilitarian presentation of the classic blades. They were less about beauty, and more about business.”

The second passage was this:
Sonny referred to the ability to “see,” when applied to individual opponents, as “reading,” and of this he was an expert. However, a higher skill he called “writing,” a skill at which the Maestro was most adept. His much talked about “ghostlike” quality came from this. It meant that he was virtually impossible to block and impossible to touch. Seemingly always just out of reach whilst striking you at will. His ability to set you up, coupled with his precision in judging range and his pinpoint accuracy, created the impression of fighting someone who wasn’t there.

This “writing” skill meant creating a situation in which he knew what his opponent would do next. Not only could Sonny read people, he could use this knowledge to move them to where he wanted them to go. Fascinatingly, he used this skill to teach as well as to fight.
Which reminded me of this scene from Graveyard of Memories, where Rain is describing how his judo has evolved:
My play had reached a level at which for the most part I was able to anticipate an opponent’s attack in the instant before he launched it, subtly adjust my position accordingly, and frustrate his plan without his knowing exactly why he’d been unable to execute. After a while of this invisible interference, often an opponent would try to force an opening, or muscle a throw, or would otherwise over-commit himself, at which point, depending on my mood, I might throw him. Other times, I was content merely to flow from counter to counter, preventing battles rather than fighting them. A different approach than had characterized my younger days at the Kodokan, when my style had more to do with aggression and bravado than it did with elegance and efficiency.
In fairness, I borrowed that concept from one of my own teachers, Stephen Blower of the Kodokan, whose judo was the most elegant I’ve ever known. When I once asked Stephen how his play had evolved as he got older (he had been a relatively young third dan when we met), he described it in terms similar to the ones above.

If you’re looking for a short work about a fascinating art that’s really about much more, I highly recommend The Hustler. I’ll certainly be drawing on it in my fiction, and of course outside it, too.