Category: Culture

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Symposium: Clan on the FOB, part one

Unlike most of our symposium members, I do not approach the RULE OF THE CLAN from a legal perspective, not primarily anyway. My perspective is from the battlespace. The issues of clan solidarity, group honor, and collective shame that Mark elucidates, specifically in chapter seven, were not legal theory but stubborn and irreducible facts-on-the-ground for my students and me at a Forward Operating Base near the AF-Pak border in Afghanistan. I approach Mark’s arguments primarily from a socio-cultural perspective, for cultural incompatibility between US Forces and Afghan Forces, who are supposed to be allied in their efforts to provide security to Afghans, often has lethal consequences. Green-on-Blue killings (Afghan troops killing US troops) dramatically spiked during my deployment to Afghanistan, a “metric truth” I discovered first-hand when an Afghan Soldier stopped me on my way to my tent, for no apparent reason, by aiming his short-barrel AK at my head—an epiphany at gunpoint that instantly revealed the predicament in which my students found themselves working alongside an Afghan Army made up of dangerously loyalty-conflicted individuals. That at-the-end-of-a-barrel moment also revealed the tricky nature of my pedagogical duty as Professor Fobbit.

That duty was preventing Green-on-Blue conflict. My students are being asked to fight an especially treacherous kind of war in Afghanistan, in which they must vigilantly watch their backs for fear of being shot through their own hearts by the native minds they’re supposed to have won over, the ANA and ASF. For example, on our base, the ANA manned the ops alongside US Soldiers, my students. Whenever we came under attack, however, the ANA would typically NOT shoot back, for fear of killing one of their own kinsmen. Many abandoned their posts, leaving US soldiers (my students) to worry that they’d soon be getting shot at from behind. In addition to uniformed Afghans, many non-uniformed, armed Afghans roamed the FOB. As one student remarked, “I don’t know how many pyjama-ed, sandal-wearing, OBL-bearded locals I see a day walking around base armed with AKs but not wearing ID badges. Who the hell are these guys? NOBODY knows!”

In this environment, reliable, detailed socio-cultural data about Afghans was of MORTAL import to my students, armed US Soldiers and Sailors whose daily choices often had lethal consequences, for themselves and for Afghans. My students’ ability to make blink-fast, razor-smart on-the-Fob and on-patrol choices was directly linked to their understanding Afghans as complicated human beings who belong to complex, clan-based, honor-obsessed cultures that appear, at first glance, utterly incomprehensibly bizarre to most US Troops. We called the kind of intellectual skill we were developing in our plywood classroom “cultural cunning.” Mark’s insights are uncommonly useful to developing that kind of cunning.

Although I taught any material that was intelligently useful to helping my students learn how to sidestep unnecessary conflict with their Afghan counterparts (I wish I’d had Mark’s book then), Homer was our main textbook. The primal data the ancient bard offers in ILIAD about the tough psychic realities of combat helped my students deepen their understanding of and commitment to the Warrior’s Code (See Shannon French’s THE CODE OF THE WARRIOR, 2005) and gave them a much-needed narrative template upon which to organize their own increasingly burdensome and discombobulated experience of counter fighting a brutal, no-end-in-sight insurgency. I didn’t have to teach them that Homeric myth can be used as a method to face the spiritual and psychological damage of war fighting. They taught me that lesson, because they were already living inside the warrior myth.   Echoing Roberto Calasso, my students demonstrated that that Greek myths are not “there waiting for us to revive them; they are there waiting to revive us, to wake us up to collective psychic realities.” They provide a place to begin healing from the collective “moral damage” of war. Homer was, as we approached him on a battlefield in Afghanistan, a powerful prophylactic against moral injury and psychological trauma.

Mark is dead right in RULE when he states that “each Marine is bound other Marines by unbreakable bonds of loyalty.” The same is equally true of the Soldiers and Sailors I taught in Afghanistan. Our study of Homer’s ILIAD gave them abiding insights into their own collective understanding of the powerful feelings of honor that bind them into effective military units. I know of no relationships thicker or more intense than those between Soldiers in combat. The US military is extraordinarily effective at training its Warfighters into fictive kinship groups, bands of brothers, indeed. (See BECOMING SOLDIERS: ARMY BASIC TRAINING AND THE NEGOTIATION OF IDENTITY by John Bornmann) And Homer’s primal insights into battlefield relationships spoke directly to what mattered most among my students: The ethical and social performance of his or her own forces. Their understanding of honor, like Homer’s, was intensely social, keenly collective. Bouncing our experience off of what Homer depicts of the bonds between Ajax and Nestor or Hector and Paris or Achilles and Patroclous, we explored the implications of what Mark has called the “community surveillance” of clan configurations, especially its benefits to US Warfighters in the battlespace, “security, identity, robust interpersonal relationships”—solidarity. Deployed life in US uniform in Afghanistan is, in the best-possible sense, Clan life. I’ll return to his point in a follow up post with the recent evolutionary, socio-biological discoveries about group loyalty and genetic altruism of Robin Dunbar, Franz De Waal, Paul Zak, and E.O. Wilson. (I also hope to contrast my work in Afghanistan with my work in Africa.)

While Homer provided my students self-protective insight and narrative form for their own experience of war, the Mediterranean bard also provided my students key insights into a clan-based, honor-possessed Afghan society. As my friend and colleague, Dr. Jonathan Shay (ACHILLES IN VIETNAM: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE UNDOING OF CHARACTER), points out, “The world of Homer was dominated by aspirations to, struggles over, and rages related to honor. The Soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are fighting against, and also in alliance with Afghans, who inhabit a culture that is much closer to that of the Homeric epics than to that of today’s USA. This can only help our Soldiers make better decisions on the ground.” Homer forms much of his epic out of what Mark has identified as a key aspect of identity-formation in clan members, “ancestral consciousness…lineage knowledge provides clan members with a sense of their place in the world, not only in contemporary time but across many generations in the past and, implicitly, in the future.” A great many passages in the ILIAD depict characters boasting of their lineage. The point of these I-was-begat-by riffs is to establish the status and presence – a sense of place – of the character, i.e. Ajax, Nestor. Here, we made the links to Afghan identity structures and to Afghan ancestral SELF-consciousness.

As Mark has noted, a clan coerces cooperation and loyalty out of its members. Myth is a highly manipulative tool invented by the clan for creating solidarity, of course. Homer’s ILIAD, for example, was used to teach a young Greek warrior the stubborn and irreducible social and psychic facts of war. The teaching and reciting of the ILIAD by Greeks was also used to form loyalty to the group and to promote the key virtues that were considered absolutely crucial to the formation of Greek warrior units: The classical virtues of courage, honesty, moderation, self-sacrifice—justice. (These are also the core LEADERSHIP values of all branches of the US military.) Homer was, for centuries, THE textbook for Greeks.

Moreover, the ILIAD provides an unsurpassed lesson in the psychology and physiology of honor: How honor structures individual identity, how it binds the individual to the group, how it motivates him to action, especially into combat. The ILIAD reveals the physiology of honor, demonstrating better than any work I know of how honor motivates the feuding behavior of an entire society. Homer reveals the specific cultural devices that instilled and induced the feeling of honor and shame among Ancient Greeks. That was, in fact, the main didactic point of Homer’s epic. In that sense, the ILIAD is highly manipulative, inducing feelings that were key to becoming a true Greek warrior and encouraging the appropriate, active responses to those feeling states.

As I explained to both my ISAF (and to my AFRICOM) students, honor is neurologically compulsive among members of honor-based societies. (See Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s study on the physiology of honor in Southern men.)

It’s vitally important to know that affronts to members of honor-based societies call forth automatic, gut reactions from an individuals whose identity is structured by the honor-shame dynamic. An insult to a Tribal Afghan might very well compel him, at the neurological level, to empty his AK into you and your unit. His reaction is NOT deliberative. It is compulsive. He cannot NOT react to the cocktail of neuropeptides released into his blood stream by an affront or insult. Among some Afghans, even the profanity used so very casually by ISAF personnel in the vicinity of a tribal elder (or, worse, an Afghan woman) might be enough to give an insult that provokes an honor reaction.

In order to work effectively with Afghans, you need to know precisely what offends and affronts the individual’s culturally-bound, innate sense of honor. You need to know the cultural mechanisms by which honor and shame are induced in individuals by their tribe. Mark’s book gives us some tough gristle on which to chew through these issues.

For example, Homer’s ILIAD is a grand dramatization of the cataclysm into which honor-provoked feuding typically propels clan-based societies. In this regard, Mark’s book not only confirms many of my own observations of Afghan clan-driven, honor-obsessed behaviour but also echoes the primal lessons about pre-modern, honor-driven small societies that Homer’s been teaching us for over 1,500 years. In our battlefield classroom, we applied Homer’s insights to Afghan society and used them to discover the specific cultural mechanisms by which a given Afghan tribe created loyalty and solidarity. I wish I’d had Mark’s book available to me then. His book has given me “soft eyes” on Homer.  (I’ll try to refrain from waxing Homeric in future Posts.)

I had an ideal position as a “socio-cultural” professor on that particular FOB because I lived in a tent that was exclusively designated for Afghans. Even better, I was the only NON-Afghan living in that tent. They didn’t want me there, but I stayed on to learn their worldview, to learn from them directly how they viewed each other, me, ISAF—how they viewed my students. At any given time, there were around fifty Afghans packed into that tent: Nuristani, Pashai, Pashtun, even Shia Hazaras. After they figured out they could trust me (or pretended to), they invited me into long chai conversations in which they endeavoured to make me understand the immensity of the cultural chasm between them and my students.

I learned their backgrounds, levels of education, musical tastes, attitudes toward Islam, toward women, toward the ANA, toward Russians, toward Pakistan, toward America, toward each other. I learned how to make Chai. I learned their complicated, oft contradictory and ambivalent views of our Troops so that I could better equip my students to cope with Afghan hostility and ambivalence—to cope with potentially lethal cultural incompatibility. I lived with them in that tent, alone as an American. My self defence was entirely on me. I eventually learned how to sleep soundly. (Male-on-male rape was disturbingly common on that FOB.)

I took their insights (and complaints) directly into my classrooms. My squibs last year in FOREIGN POLICY will give you a pungent sense of our classroom work at that FOB.  In my next post, I’ll share more of what I learned from Afghans about Afghan “clannism.”

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Pressing a point

 

Prentice Women’s Hospital is a landmark for me.  Owned by Northwestern University, it stands directly across from the Northwestern Law complex, meaning that I passed it virtually every day as a law student and more recently as a VAP here at the school.  So I’m keenly interested in the University’s plan to tear down the concrete, clover leaf-shaped structure and replace it with a state-of-the-art research facility.  The debate over its fate also illustrated a trend towards advocacy in the mainstream media that raises some interesting legal questions.

Prentice_Women's_Hospital_Chicago

The building is one of the foremost examples of late-Modernist architecture in the city, and activists pressed the Chicago Commission on Landmarks to give the building landmark status, thus preserving it from demolition. When, in the midst of the preservation effort last year, local alderman Brendan Reilly said he was “open to suggestions” to save the building, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman stepped in.  Kimmelman did not merely detail the architectural relevance of the building or express his support for preservation.  Instead, he asked Chicago architecture’s It Girl, Jeanne Gang, whether it would be possible to build a research tower on top of the existing structure.  She responded with drawings of a 31-story skyscraper perched on top of the clover leaf.  Kimmelman wrote about Gang’s idea, running pictures of her concept in the paper.  Again, though, he didn’t stop there.  He contacted a field officer for the Chicago office of the National  Trust for Historic Preservation, and asked whether her organization would support the idea.  He contacted Northwestern to ask whether the university might sign on.  And he called the president of an international structural engineering firm to get feedback on the structural and financial feasibility of the plan.  Somewhere along the way, Kimmelman stopped looking like a reporter, or even a critic, and started looking more like one of the activists trying to save the building.

Putting aside the admirable intentions that obviously drove Kimmelman, his efforts illustrate the increasingly porous boundary between reporting and advocacy, even in the mainstream media.  Of course, partisanship and muckraking in journalism are not new.  But as journalism migrates onto our phones and screens alongside Instagram and Facebook, and as “dying” newspapers and network news broadcasts venture beyond traditional reporting techniques to chase eyeballs and engagement, it grows increasingly difficult to categorize what exactly we are consuming when we consume the news.  Why do these questions, obvious fodder for media ethicists, matter to lawyers?  For two reasons, one specific and one general.

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Documentary on Indonesian War Crimes Strikes a Chord

TalkShowThe documentary “The Act of Killing” appears to be an extraordinary commentary on the violent anti-communism of Suharto‘s Indonesia. As Francine Prose notes, “the country’s right-wing leaders recruited gangs of thugs to wipe out suspected Communists with messy, improvisatory, but astonishing efficiency; estimates of the number killed during this period range from 500,000 to a million or more.” As in Vietnam, it appears that extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice.

As gangs become a tool of the prison industry in the US (or vice versa), the following observations from participants in the documentary are a striking commentary on the relativity of law in extreme scenarios:

On screen, one unrepentant murderer mocks the notion of human rights: “The Geneva conventions may be today’s morality,” he says, “but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.”

When some of “the most important figures in organized crime are employees of multinational companies, politicians and bureaucrats,” the definition of the “criminal” leaves ordinary rule of law principles behind. The problem affects far more countries than the obvious targets of, say, Indonesia, Italy, and India. The “officialization of the criminal” and “criminalization of the official” may well be one of the darkest trends of our already troubled times.

Image: From The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer), video still of an Indonesian talk show, where the audience applauded the “homicidal exploits” of a “self-described gangsters who” engaged in “brutal campaigns against Communists, ethnic Chinese and critics of the military government.”

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Glass Houses

Google Glass has been a mere gleam in the eye of tech savants for the past several months, but the company began distributing the wearable internet device to a hand-picked group of “Explorers” in June.  A fascinating pair of articles from the New York Times Bits columnist, Nick Bilton, recently highlighted the tensions between speech and privacy that are likely to play out as the device is integrated into everyday use.  The articles compared Glass to Kodak cameras, which were controversial when introduced in the late 1800s but ultimately accepted after Americans figured out how and when the cameras should be used.  It’s not clear, however, that the Glass experience will duplicate the Kodak pattern.  Kodaks came on the market when tort law could respond nimbly to camera invasions of privacy, while Glass is debuting in a world where tort law is increasingly subject to constitutional constraints.

Bilton teed up the Glass privacy issue nicely in May, when he described his visit to the Google I/O developers’ conference.  There, hundreds of attendees were sporting the eyeglass-mounted computers, which can take a snapshot or video with a wink of the wearer’s eye.  Bilton — a self-professed tech nerd — reported being rattled by the swarms of Glass wearers; after trying to “duck [his] head and move out of the way” of the wearable cameras, he retreated to the men’s room, only to find the urinals on either side of him occupied by Glass wearers.  “My world,” he wrote, “came screeching to a halt.”  In an article appearing a week later, however, Bilton appeared to have calmed down.  He had interviewed CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who predicted that unwilling stars in Glass pictures and videos would eventually realize that being recorded is simply a hazard of appearing in public.  Jarvis likened the anti-Glass complaints to the furor that erupted when Kodak cameras were introduced in the 1890s.  So-called Kodak fiends, who trained their lenses primarily on uncooperative females, initially encountered threats and violence.  Ultimately, Jarvis said, amateur photographers began to behave better and society accepted cameras as a new feature of daily life.

But Bilton and Jarvis may have overlooked a crucial difference between the legal environment when pocket cameras were introduced and the legal environment today.  Tort law was instrumental in developing norms about acceptable camera use in the early Twentieth Century.  The Kodak fiends did not become more respectful overnight, and Americans did not become easily inured to having their pictures taken by strangers.  Instead, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis protested the abuse of cameras in what has been called the most famous law review article ever published, The Right to Privacy.  That piece advocated the creation of a new tort that would give victims of stealth photography (and other dubious news practices) a legal remedy against their aggressors.  State courts began recognizing privacy torts in 1905 and by 1960 they were a standard part of the tort toolbox.  In short, tort law established a background scheme of legal liability for the abuse of camera technology, and social norms about acceptable camera use followed.

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When There’s Nothing Else to Say

Are the following two paragraphs likely to have been composed with originality, independently by two different people, or does it seem likely that one was adapted from the other?

“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to become a part of what we believe to be the finest family of companies ever assembled under one corporate name. Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway has demonstrated a legendary record of protecting the unique characteristics of individual businesses in a diverse portfolio of companies. We’re excited to be a part of it.”

“We couldn’t be more pleased than to have the opportunity to become a part of what we believe to be the finest family of companies ever assembled under one corporate name. Warren Buffett has demonstrated a legendary track record for growth and we want to be part of it.”

These are from Berkshire Hathaway press releases, several years apart (1997 and 2000), quoting senior executives of generations-old family companies being sold to the conglomerate Warren Buffett leads.  My hunch is that cribbing occurred, but of a fairly innocuous sort.

A Berkshire manager, experienced in drafting press releases, asked the selling executive for a comment.  Having never given a comment for a business press release of this sort, the recipient asked for examples or suggestions of what to say.

Taking a habit from the page of corporate lawyers, the Berkshire manager likely culled some examples from precedent and sent them over.  The family businessman then read through the samples, picked the one he liked the best, touched up the wording a bit and sent it back.

I came across this curious incident in the context of a larger research project on Berkshire Hathaway’s acquisitions over the past forty years. Part of the project concerns annotating and documenting the joint expectations at the outset.  To do that, I’m reading through public company disclosure documents, minutes of meetings and other resources, including press releases. 

Press releases announcing corporate mergers are prone to hyperbole and generalities and I’ve found quite a bit of that. Yet, especially when a public company is involved, they are also carefully vetted.  And I’ve seen quite a bit of useful, distilled, clear detail in the Berkshire press releases, including the pair quoted.  

Written independently or not, this pair reflects a widespread perception in the business world that Berkshire is a unique corporate home where Buffett has been exceptionally good at helping companies grow.   

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Kentucky: Boy, 5, Kills Sister, 2

That’s not my headline.  It was in the New York Times earlier this month, in the section where the paper provides short blurbs about what is happening around the country.

My youngest daughter is in kindergarten.  Here is a list of some of the things that she either cannot do or is not allowed to do: cross a busy street by herself; pour milk from a full gallon jug; ride in a car without a booster seat; and tie her shoes (I know . . . she’s working on that one).  She is, however, a highly capable kid.  So it might be fairer to her if I listed some of what she can do:  get herself ready for school; ride her bike around the block; make her bed; use a variety of electronic devices that begin with an “i”.

But regardless of whether the list is of “cannots” or “cans,” it does not square with this statement from the county coroner in Kentucky:

 Mr. White said that the .22-caliber rifle had been kept in a corner and that the family had not realized a bullet was left inside it. “It’s a Crickett,” Mr. White said, referring to a company that makes guns, clothes and books for children.  “It’s a little rifle for a kid,” he said, adding, “The little boy’s used to shooting the little gun.”

I grew up in a small Wisconsin town.  At my high school, so many teachers and students were absent on the first day of deer season that school might as well have been cancelled.  Today some of my close relatives keep hunting rifles in their closets.  So while I absolutely do not want to suggest that I know anything about the family that suffered this terrible tragedy, I am familiar with the kind of culture in which a .22-caliber rifle is put in a corner.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t jarred by the phrase “a company that makes guns, clothes and books for children.”  Or that I expected, when I visited Crickett’s website, to see child-sized guns in bright blue and pink.   And watch out Joe Camel, because Crickett’s mascot is a jolly green frog sporting a rifle, boots, and a hunting cap.

Footbinding, smoking, drunk driving—these are all legend among law and norms scholars.  But with few exceptions, almost no one talks about trying to change gun culture through the sort of small, incremental changes that have made such a difference elsewhere.  Certainly it is daunting to even think about how to spark change.  And it’s also true that those whose ideas would make a difference would only receive posthumous gratification, because change might not actually be realized until my kindergartener has great-grandchildren.

But Boy, 5, Kills Sister, 2.

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Daily Routine: Then and Now

Intellectuals used to refine ideas in relative solitude before releasing them to the world.  Modern technology has led the incubation of ideas to occur publicly, dynamically and in real-time. Is that entirely good or are some ideas better developed in private?  Brief reflection on the daily routine offers a window onto the transformation.

A typical Wednesday during the academic year in 2003 for a professor might have begun by reading the printed newspaper delivered to the front door, evaluating stories of interest to one’s class, followed by a trip to the office, a review of a binder of teaching notes, and the live interactive dialogue with students assembled in person.  After lunch, reading of printed journal articles and bound books would stimulate  production of such output, as well as op-eds, essays, chapters and treatises.

Today, the typical day begins by checking (1) email, including Google alerts, (2) Twitter, (3) Facebook, (4) Linked In,  (5) this blog (Concurring Opinions), (6) several bookmarked blogs, (7) blawg search, (8) SSRN and Scholarly Commons, (9) reddit, and (10) the web sites of one or more news organizations.  Then professors email students, create and update PowerPoint slides on course web pages or MOOC sites, type Tweets, update Facebook, draft responsive blog posts and download papers to lap tops and books to e-readers.

Eventually, the scholar will still turn ideas generated during a semester’s worth of such daily routines into the old fashioned products, such as books and articles.   But the route differs considerably.  In the old days, study would be relatively private, with ideas developed reflectively in one’s school, tested against a careful review of a vetted literature, surfaced in substantially mature form via classroom lecture, faculty workshop and conference presentations, refined, submitted, reviewed, edited and published.  More speculative ideas might appear, if at all, in footnotes classified as such.

Today, much of the incubating process occurs in real time and in public, with inchoate ideas floated on Twitter and Facebook and then perhaps in blog posts and comments before being turned into op-eds, essays, chapters, articles, books and the rest. It is exciting and interactive and creates a sense of communities engaged in broad pursuit of knowledge.  Yet reading some of the unrefined stuff out there raises the question, to paraphrase what Moses Hadas said of a certain book, whether modern technology fills a much-needed gap.  Just an idea.

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Data Streams and E-Textbooks

Today “smart” e-books are in the news.  These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student.  The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.

I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH.  The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns.  But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form.  If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.

The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors.  Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades.   One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice.   A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use.   In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.

Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago.  Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up.   E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book.  E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table.  They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding.  But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.

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“Where Are the Books?”

Books have lined the shelves of the offices of all my colleagues at every school where I have worked.  In my early days of teaching, or when spending a term as a visitor, I’d wander into a learned neighbor’s office to get acquainted.  The titles and content of those books announced a persons’s intellectual background and interests. They were instantly and extensively a topic of earnest discussion.  If my interlocutor should be interrupted by a call or an assistant popping in, I’d amuse myself by grazing over the titles, scanning the shelves that added up to an inventory of knowledge.  On their shelves and mine, students attending office hours would likewise find easy ice breakers.

When visiting the homes of friends, especially new friends but longer-term friends as well, it has always interested me to see what books are stacked on their shelves, in the living room, the study, along hallways. At parties, these books have been great conversation starters, fountains of discourse and debate.  You could even pick them up and hand them over, citing the passage on a given page where you recalled a point being made particularly well.

My wife and I, when house hunting the last time around, inspected two dozen apartments before falling in love with the homey charm of the one where we live now.  As an anonymous broker showed us through the absent homeowners’ place, we’d scan the stacks of books that gave a sense of the people who lived there–lovers of art history, a denizen of Wall Street, devotees of history, biography, the Civil War.  Stephanie and I would joke, when viewing that rare apartment empty of books, that the absence of books was an absence of warmth and that we would not trust the people who lived there.  “Where are the books?,” we’d ask in bewilderment as we rode down the elevator, never to return.

Today, with reading so often done and “books” acquired digitally, stored in pixels on hand-held devices, we see fewer new titles gracing the offices of colleagues and teachers, the homes of friends.  No longer on display, they can no longer be conversation pieces.  The average age of books on shelves is rising steadily and even these becoming anachronistic.  Shelves are given over to decoration, clocks, cups, bells, photographs.   My wife and I wonder, “what will our kids think, 10 or 20 years from now, when they see an apartment without a single book in it?”  Maybe nothing.  We would be horrified.

But exactly what the future holds is uncertain.  One of my recent books, The Essays of Warren Buffett, is selling briskly in both print and digital, though with vastly more sales in print than digital, yet it costs $35 in print and half that in digital.  Time will tell.

3

Why Other People’s Money is The Best Hollywood Film About Business

Go down the list of Hollywood films about business and you will find one biting portrayal of capitalism after the next. As the late Larry Ribstein documented and explained, all of the following movies and most other artistic renderings have this biased flaw: Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, The Constant Gardner, Blood Diamond, Michael Clayton, Pretty Woman, Wall Street (or take older examples such as Dinner at Eight or The Hudsucker Proxy or those once listed by Forbes as epitomizing this genre, such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, It’s A Wonderful Life, Glengarry Glen Ross).

That’s why I find Other People’s Money (1991) refreshing, and probably the best Hollywood film about business (contrary to dominantcontending, opinion).  The movie is among the few nuanced artistic portrayals of corporate life. The play, and the movie it became, presents two sides of the story when conflicts arise between economic imperatives and socially pleasant outcomes. That’s why I often assign the film as part of my course in Corporations  (hello students!).

OPM pits against each other two men seeking to control the destiny of an ailing New England family company in the dying industry of manufacturing wire and cable: a greedy and creepy takeover artist called Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield (in the film played by Danny DeVito) and the patrician lord of the target company named Jorgenson (Gregory Peck, making for perfect casing of both roles).

Garfield opens with a monologue celebrating money, along with dogs and doughnuts, and denigrating love and basic human kindness. In his first encounter with Jorgenson, Garfield announces that the New England company is worth “more dead than alive.”

Jorgenson sniffs at such short-termism, stressing moral aspects of business life, and refuses either to pay Garfield to go away or borrow money to navigate through the difficult times. Garfield counters with assertions about free enterprise, Darwinian markets and the imperatives of business change.

The drama pursues this contrast between “doing right” and “doing well” through a proxy fight for corporate control. It climaxes with an exchange of speeches at a special meeting of shareholders.

Jorgenson acknowledges the financial losses currently facing the company, stressing that they are due to the rise of fiber optics that impaired demand for wire and cable.  But he makes the pitch for tradition, loyalty, and sticking with the company and its employees through tough economic patches.   Admitting that the company’s niche business may have become anachronistic, he argues that it will be able to re-purpose itself and prosper over the long term, if only everyone would be patient.

Jorgenson lambasts Garfield as a mere money-man who gets rich by using other people’s money yet “creates nothing, builds nothing, runs nothing.” He gets a standing ovation when thundering against

 murder in the name of maximizing shareholder value, substituting dollar bills where a conscience should be. . . . A company is more than money. Here we build, we care about people.

Garfield follows by saying “Amen,” and calling Jorgenson’s plea to save the company a mere prayer, one that fails to appreciate earthly economic reality, essentially referencing Schumpeter’s famous principle of “creative destruction.” Fiber optics rendered wire and cable obsolete and the best thing to do is recognize that fact, sell off the company’s remaining assets, and move on. He explains:

This company is dead. I didn’t kill it; it was dead when I got here This business is dead, let’s have the decency to sign the death certificate and invest in the future. Who cares [about the employees]? They didn’t care about you. . . . Employee wages went up way more than stock. Who cares? Me. I’m your only friend. I’m making you money; that’s the only reason you became shareholders. You want to make money, invest somewhere else, create new jobs. . . At my funeral you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a few bucks in your pocket – that’s a funeral worth having.

Who wins?  [Spoiler Alert: Answer Coming.]

The shareholders vote with Garfield, siding with a capitalist over Jorgenson’s impassioned plea for broader concerns. That is somewhat unusual in Hollywood films about business, where the capitalist’s argument rarely carries the day.

Here the referendum accepts that what may be the downside of capitalism, short-term effect on employees and communities, can be outweighed by its salutary long-term effects of moving forward on a clean slate towards ultimately brighter futures all the way around. It turns Jorgenson’s view of the long-term around on itself.

On the other hand, the Hollywood film version of the art adds a scene that did not appear in the stage version: Garfield falls in love with Jorgenson’s daughter and the two hatch a plan to sell the dying firm to its employees who will then repurpose it along the lines Jorgenson envisioned. A happy ending is snatched from the jaws of creative destruction after all.  As Larry Ribstein wrote in his assessment of this twist, which thus ultimately does not stray too far from Hollywood’s favored pathways: “Capitalism is acceptable only if it has a heart.”