Category Archives: Systems of Survival

Heart of a Dog

I read Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s masterwork and often acclaimed one of the greatest novels of all time, right on the heels of digesting Good Omens (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman), and found the parallels between the two romps through the Ends Times and the Stalinist theater world, respectively, deliciously complementary, although I couldn’t tell for certain whether the authors of Good Omens were familiar with Bulgakov’s work. No matter. If you loved Good Omens, you would certainly enjoy Bulgakov’s sense of humor, too.

This poem was inspired by another of Bulgakov’s novels, which has been adapted to the stage and even the opera, and remains open to a variety of layers of meaning on interpretation. Heart of a Dog deals, on the surface level, with a scientific experiment run amok and a social engineering experiment gone off the rails. An analysis of the themes in this story using the templates in Systems of Survival is tempting, because of how prominent a role corruption and systems of perverse incentives play in the plot. This satirical novel also deals rather pungently with the animal nature lurking just below the surface of human behavior, which is so easily brought to the fore by a little scientific or cultural tinkering, sometimes with appalling results.

Now, Bulgakov didn’t share the warm and fuzzies you and I reserve for our four-legged friends. To appreciate his sense of humor, you have to see in the dog the pejorative metaphor for those all-too-human instincts for grasping, guzzling, chasing, heckling, grovelling, and just generally making a ruckus that writers in by-gone days heaped on those same companion animals that we cherish today for their innocence, loyalty, patience, sympathy and fortitude.

So this poem might make you a little uncomfortable, if your best friend has a wet nose and a wagging tail. The book certainly made me squirm a little when I read it. But it must’ve gotten under my skin, too, because when I sat down to write a poem based on the 19th psalm, I ended up with this little tribute to Bulgakov.

The blue Earth’s mirror alleges man’s glory,
and his genius satellite orbits attest.
Day to day sounds of traffic mark his passing
and sleep to sleep his habitus rests secure.
There is no common language for this insight,
only a bald, ineffable mastery.
Through every surface of the earth there pours out,
to the very stratosphere, man’s naked force.
For the sun he refracts in pillars of fumes –
and he like a groom from his glass tower steps,
stretching like a killer refreshed from a nap.
From the farthest scrap of sky his mirrors wink
and his cargo hustles round the globe below,
and no sparrow, root or weed is spared his heat.
Man’s leverage over nature is complete,
inventing and supplanting lifeforms undone.
Man’s covenant with power is resilient,
it makes a giant out of any old fool.
Man’s instincts elevate the boundless present,
the tastes and colors that stoke the appetite.
The measure of man’s kingdom is as precise,
the light in his eyes as bitter as sunlight.
The fear man inspires is absolute,
over all else hangs the risk of extinction.
As man is the measure of falsehood and truth,
all of his doings conform to his justice.
More sacred than water, his covenant’s axe,
than abundant sweet springs in the great badlands,
and intoxicating in its action, clean
and clear as the nectar of honey and meade.
Your poodle, too, is observant of the laws.
in licking the heels of power – great reward.
What can dogs know of nakedness, or of shame?
Of unwitting trespasses, forgive my tail.
From forward strangers hands preserve Your servant,
let them not seize me up and rebrand my hide.
Then I shall be content with the threats I know
and secure from the wrath of alien apes.
Let my muzzle’s whines and yaps be welcome here
and my tail’s wagging appease your blandishments,
Man, my great gaoler, my shield and my succor.

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Filed under Corruption, Systems of Survival

Kin and country, work and love

What is it with Hollywood and reluctant heroes? I’ve taken one stab at giving them a pedigree, but Schiller’s relatively obscure legacy can only be a partial explanation. As much as Russell Crowe wants to distinguish Maximus from iconic action heroes like the cop in the Die Hard franchise, both characters spend their illustrious careers killing bad guys secretly dreaming of a modest retirement, utterly unambitious in their work despite self-evident talent of a superhero caliber. Would it be worth it to save the world from terrorists if said terrorists hadn’t kidnapped your daughter? Maybe, but only if you happen to be on duty when the shit hits the fan and no one else is available. And therein lies my next angle on reluctant heroes – they’re our family men.

Maximus is trusted by Marcus Aurelius above all men because his excellence as a general doesn’t compromise his commitment to his family with ambition. But if he had put his family first he would not have risked all to honor the dead Emperor’s last wishes for a legacy greater than his conquests. Quintus may have justified his loyalty to the usurper on his commitment to his own family’s safety. Maximus can only offer his family vengeance and impatience to join them in the afterlife. But in her moral philosophy of public life, Jane Jacobs warns against privileging the domestic sphere as more naturally virtuous than public life, or treating the family as an island that can endure in a social milieu where corruption in public life makes it dangerous to trust strangers. Without recourse to justice outside the home, families can be destroyed from within with brutal efficiency.

Not all trade-offs between public duties and private commitments are tragic conflicts. But how often does the gifted artist find balance, when it is so commonplace for the skilled worker to undervalue his own family’s needs out of love of his work for its own sake? Einstein, the iconic genius, was no family man. The alternatives are laid out starkly in Cinderella Man and American Gangster. Jim Braddock faces the world championship with milk money in mind, and Richie Roberts dodges weekends with his son to chase criminals in a city so corrupt his efforts seem futile. Richie is the genius who will beat the odds and single-handedly clean up the NYC drug enforcement police force, against seemingly impossible odds. Jim Braddock is the man we want our children to look up to instead.

I came across an interesting generalization in a textbook on corruption research, “Cultural and social factors are related to a country’s level of corruption; in particular, when family ties are very important, reported corruption is high” (Rose-Ackerman 2006). So it’s not just Sicilian families, then? The more assiduously we provide for our own, the less ground we will give for the public interest, I suppose. Frank Lucas is a family man, exploiting the strength of family ties in his crime organization in the Sicilian fashion, but showing his kin genuine consideration at the same time.

The tension between public life and the security of the household is embedded in the political liberal’s defense of personal privacy and the political conservative’s defense of domestic prerogatives to self-government. Every polity has ideas about how families should work, and every political minority takes refuge in the home when its values are under assault. So there is room for muddying the topic of corruption in with political dissent. If for its own purposes Hollywood is politically cosmopolitan, expecting generic heroes to serve humanity rather than region, country, race or sect, the family is the protagonist’s refuge from overextension, a tribal unit where his identity means something, and not just everyone can make equal demands on him for help. If he’s written too generic, then like the hero in Red he might find retirement a little empty, but sometimes we concede that being the ultimate badass comes at a price, an achievement made possible by love of work to the exclusion of the rest life has to offer.

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Filed under Acting, American Gangster, Cinderella Man, Gladiator, Systems of Survival

Systems of Survival

I brought up Systems of Survival in my last blog and mentioned I wanted to return to the ideas in this book and go into them at length. The author is Jane Jacobs, a very creative thinker but fairly obscure as intellectuals go, known mostly for her work in urban planning. The topic is ambitious – she has gone through journalistic and archival records of public life cutting across historical epochs and continents to try and abstract moral principles operating in public discourse that transcend human history and culture. What’s the use of taking all this out of context? Well, she quickly hit upon vital applications in the study of political corruption and crime, topics you can think of as timely or timeless, on which moral philosophy has heretofore shed little light.

Although her non-Western sources are usually presented through a Western analytical lens (ancient history or anthropology), it is tempting to give her credit for having transcended these limitations with a natural history of human civilization that doesn’t flatter present circumstances as the best of all possible worlds. Her abstract principles are compellingly simple and her approach to organizing them into systems is at once easy to support with empirical examples and theoretically coherent. So rather than worry too much about her idea’s pedigree, I’m running with it as a tool for studying motivation, organizational behavior and corruption.

Her idea is that in public life, there are two possible codes of conduct that are internally valid but diametrically opposed to one another, and civilization needs adherents to each to play different roles for which their different values are uniquely suited. I liked this at once, because I enjoy dissecting false controversies and I think one of the main reasons Americans look for post-partisan candidates is that we see false controversy in the very way our bipartisan system is organized. Strikingly enough, her two moral codes of conduct fall out along the same fault lines as the Democratic and Republican parties in U.S. politics. One moral code of conduct is for commerce, the other for governance. She calls the second category of roles “guardian work” because it encompasses the military and police, but administrative and regulatory watchdog work that is in the public interest (rather than providing services from the private sector) belong in the same category.

I’ve illustrated her two lists with examples from Russell Crowe’s filmography to show how closely they correspond to the professions of the characters he plays. For me the correspondence between the ideas in the book and the values in these movies is fascinating and encouraging. I think movies are fertile territory for illustrating this sort of theory, because of the plurality of perspective so common in film. You can see characters from different walks of life interacting on their own terms, and have a sense of each person’s perspective in the same scene even if they disagree. Of course, we know Russell Crowe best for playing “guardian” types, muscular and adventurous, but Cinderella Man is an interesting exception. For Jim Braddock, boxing is a professional sport and his adversaries aren’t supposed to be trying to kill him. Work isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and outside the boxing ring he shuns force and puts the utmost importance on abiding by voluntary agreements rather than simply taking what you can for yourself.

The first thing you might notice about these lists is that they seem incomplete. Universal virtues appear on neither list, though Jane Jacobs can think of many: cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom. No one disputes these virtues, whereas adherents to the moral code of commerce hold values diametrically opposed to those of adherents to the guardian code of conduct. It is the values that have twinned opposites that distinguish these ways of life from each other and function interdependently with the other values within the same code.

She recounts being surprised to discover a variant on her own idea in Plato’s writings, and notes how adamant Plato was that each citizen must mind his own work and not try to do anyone else’s, in support of her claim that corruption occurs when people mix and match values from both codes and combine roles. She points out that the British navy was set up with a merchant fleet that merchants did not wish to operate themselves, because of the temptation to use warships to raid one another’s trade ships if they were responsible for their own protection from piracy, fearing anarchy would make the seas un-navigable if trading vessels were armed. In the drug trade this is a constant threat, because drug dealers are quick to resort to violence.

She does point out that there are jobs in civilization that mingle the priorities of governance and commerce, inevitably as without guardian enforcement of contract rights or fraud liabilities, commerce would be an unreliable way of life. The darker side of collusion between governance and commerce is illustrated in the colonial history that prefigured what we now call globalization. I used a graph to illustrate these overlapping responsibilities and undertakings, and used the axes to underscore the basic functions and modus operandi of each code of conduct. Jane Jacobs argues that in many managerial and administrative jobs, one must wear two hats, one at a time, adhering to the code of conduct appropriate to the task at hand. These are delicate responsibilities, easily mishandled. The corporate confidentiality agreement among tobacco executives in The Insider is an example, ethical when it protects trade secrets, unethical when it conceals knowledge of fraudulent public statements or practices like adulteration. The Brown & Williamson lawsuit against Jeffrey Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement was not upheld in court because the expectation that he withhold knowledge of corporate malfeasance was unethical. The U.S. government is less understanding of whistleblowers within the guardian services, treating Wikileaks as treason instead. But this hypersensitivity to betrayal of government secrets is closely linked to the edict “shun trading,” which for a public official means not selling out the public interest, not selling military secrets to the enemy, and not subverting one’s professional responsibilities for bribes.

I doubt I’ve said enough to be clear yet, you should really read the book. But I’ll keep drawing examples from movies as I think of them, to try and show how her ideas work. So far my favorite examples are Master and Commander for guardian/governance values, and Cinderella Man for commercial/professional values. I pulled a picture from the scene where Jim takes his son to the butchers to return the salami because it underscores the importance of not taking what you need without paying for it in a voluntary transaction. In Master and Commander, in contrast, the crew speculate that if they take the Acheron as a prize, they’ll enjoy shares of her stolen loot. Thus far, the basic taking/trading distinction.

The importance of luxuries like rum and music on the HMS Surprise is part of the guardian way of life, dangerous at times but taking some of its core values from hunter/gatherer lifestyles rich in leisure time and creative arts. Jane Jacobs speculates that one reason hunter/gatherers cultivated skills in art and other leisure activities was to keep their predations on the game animals sustainable. The introduction of fur trade in the Americas subverted this conservation ethic and created incentives to maximize kills and waste meat in favor of pelts. Rum also functions as largesse, dispensed by the powerful to placate subordinates expected to abide by a rigid hierarchy with few rewards at the bottom of the pecking order. Hierarchy and discipline are explicit themes in the script, along with cunning, prowess, fortitude and tradition.

State largesse comes into play in Cinderella Man when Jim goes on welfare, and as such it is help he is reluctant to accept. He would not expect charity without obligations from peers, and it hurts his pride as an equal among other ordinary citizens to go to the welfare office. His friend Mike dismisses FDR’s reforms as politically motivated and not a redress of what had been taken from families like theirs. Jim repays the welfare office as soon as he’s able as if it had been a loan, like the cash assistance he asked for at Madison Square Garden, which he also repaid. As a professional boxer and wage laborer, he’s uncomfortable taking something for nothing even when his family is in need, impatient to return the welfare money even when his family’s future is still precarious. It’s a matter of keeping true to his own way of life, which has no part in governance, although he respects the need for the government to step up in a national emergency.

I’ll refer back to this account of the core concepts in Systems of Survival later, so I hope it’s adequate since you probably won’t have time to read the book. I have a lot of ideas about how to apply this theory of corruption and public life to the analysis of other movies, and I’ll bring in more material from the book as I go along. Hopefully I’m not the only one eager to see how far her ideas pan out. I think I can use them to study corruption in hospitals, since my work is in public health, so I have a great deal of interest in the details of her theory.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from her book, about elementary school children evincing guardian virtues without coaching, lifted from John Holt: “Ten is a heroic age for most kids. They remind me in many ways of the Homeric Greeks. They are quarrelsome and combative; they have a strong and touchy sense of honor; they believe that every affront must be repaid, and with interest; they are fiercely loyal to their friends, even though they may change friends often; they have little sense of fair play, and greatly admire cunning and trickery; they are both highly possessive and very generous – no smallest trifle may be taken from them, but they are likely to give anything away if they feel so disposed.” Jane Jacobs thinks if Holt had watched the same children at a yard sale, they would have taken just as naturally to the commercial virtues, that all this is in human nature and flows naturally when the appropriate task is at hand.

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Filed under A Good Year, Acting, Cinderella Man, Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, Master and Commander, State of Play, Systems of Survival, The Insider