The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The first purchase I made with my Christmas-gift subscription to Audible was Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, LEGACY OF ASHES. It certainly won its share of recognition--the National Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, and one of the "Best Books of 2007" on countless national lists. It deserves it. There is no shortage of books on the CIA, and in fact Weiner makes that a constituent part of his thesis--American conservatives have lionized the agency and leftists across the world have seen the agency as the very embodiment of evil in the world, but (Weiner argues) this is due to a grave misunderstanding. We think, he says, that we only know about their failures (Bay of Pigs, the Afghan mujahedeen "blowback", the Guatemalan and Salvadoran disasters, and the "slam dunk" Iraq intelligence) and that their "successes"--whether we see them as sinister or inspired--remain secret, but, Weiner insists, the reason that the only things we know about are failures is because that's pretty much the only thing they've accomplished. Weiner draws on all of the previously published sources in his book, but he also accessed a bunch of materials that were declassified only in 2006 as well as interviewing almost every principal in the story. (He was a NEW YORK TIMES national security reporter, so that helps in getting people to return your calls.)

Weiner's thesis is, of course, that the CIA has been a failure from the beginning, due to infighting, bad decision-making, a lack of understanding on the part of the executive branch, and, probably most important, due to the rivalry of the intelligence-gathering services of the Defense Department and the National Security Agency, which have tried constantly to undermine CIA. Weiner is surprisingly sympathetic to the agency, almost to a fault at points, but his criticism doesn't spare the agency's shortsightedness. It's Presidents who don't know how to use the agency, though, that he really attacks. George W certainly is the worst of these, and Weiner starts with the Nixon administration to show how Cheney and Rumsfeld developed their hate and mistrust of the agency back in those days, but Weiner faults everyone for not understanding the agency. George H.W. Bush is perhaps the least culpable of these in Weiner's eyes--he ran the agency briefly and gained a great deal of respect for its work, probably another reason behind Rumsfeld and Cheney's orientation against CIA. If there's one worst figure in this book, it's probably Bill Casey, who ran the agency under Reagan. He was, according to Weiner, a precursor to the current Bush administration, for rather than trying to learn from facts he selectively heard only those facts that confirmed the things he wanted to believe--or, rather, had already decided were true. People with facts that didn't confirm his preconceptions were terrorist Communist sympathizers. One thing I learned from this book that surprised me was just how gung-ho of a covert enthusiast Bobby Kennedy was--JFK considered having him run the agency, and throughout RFK thought that covert actions, assassinations included, weren't being used enough.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

retaking language

Why am I not hearing more about the irony of a group calling itself the "Liberty Counsel" opposing gay marriage? Conservatives have been way too successful in maintaining ownership of that word.


Thursday, June 05, 2008


Most anyone who is interested in the subject of American cities or urban planning or Robert Moses or the "urban blight" of the 1950s and 1960s not only knows of Jane Jacobs' classic DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES but assuredly knows its thesis: diversity is good; central planning tends to screw things up; segregating the functions of a city (commercial, transportation, residential, civic, cultural) will damage each of them; cities are complicated organisms not apt to respond well to simplistic theories of how to improve them; the "Radiant City" or "Garden City" or Le Corbusian towers-in-a-park are abominations and antihuman. Okay, I not only get that, but I couldn't agree more.

Jacobs' book, read now almost fifty years after publication, is particularly interesting for Pittsburghers, for Pittsburgh is one of the cities that she has clearly studied. Just to mention a couple of the times she discusses the Steel City: in a section about how cities that segregate their cultural districts away from downtowns and residences so that the residents thus need to drive between the two (and park both places), she points to the "new civic center" (i.e. Mellon Arena) as a place far enough away from downtown that people have to drive between the two. She also discusses the Gateway Center development by Point State Park as an example of "Radiant City" design (i.e. towers in a park) where the open space isn't used, as opposed to Mellon Park, which is heavily used during the daytime hours. She has quite a few very insightful things to say about Pittsburgh's failings in terms of urban redevelopment and planning in the 1950s and 1960s, and she doesn't even mention the mass displacement that followed the construction of the Civic Arena and the subsequent gutting of the lower Hill. Read in conjunction with the recent NEW YORK TIMES article on how Pittsburgh is "adjusting" to its aging population, it's an eye-opener about mistakes made in the past and their current ramifications.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

the beach

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
They loved the beach much more than I do (I am averse to the beating sun). Lots of running into the surf up to the ankles, squealing, and then running back.

the trio

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
The boys and their cousin.

Puerto Vallarta reading

We just returned from a very successful week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where we used my parents' time-share and were accompanied by my sister-in-law and her daughter. The three kids LOVED playing in the pool and on the beach, and apart from the fact that they ate an enormous amount of junk food and didn't get anywhere near enough sleep they were great. And contrary to my fears, I was able to even get some relaxing in (it's usually pretty difficult when chasing around a very busy toddler and his affectionate/rivalrous older brother). In fact, I read FOUR whole books! Two barely count; they were very short little mysteries by one of Mexico's leading genre writers, Paco Ignacio Taibo II: SOME CLOUDS and NO HAPPY ENDING. They're clever and full of local color (Taibo knows Mexico City well and captures it vividly if much more concisely than another local-color genre writer like James Lee Burke) but neither had all that much besides that--the plot was pretty cursory, and the scenes of violence perfunctory and excessively stylized.

After Taibo I decided to postpone my reading of Arendt's ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM (I've finished Part I and needed a break) and took on one of the first English-language novels, Henry Fielding's JOSEPH ANDREWS. I like Fielding quite a bit, and I like novels from that period, from before people really knew what the novel should be. I was concerned when I read that many critics feel that JOSEPH ANDREWS bears a great deal of resemblance to DON QUIXOTE, because frankly I find that book incredibly boring. I know that plot in novels is a bourgeois convention, blah blah, but when I try to get through the plotless prose works like Cervantes or Rabelais I just can't do it. But Fielding is different (because he was a dramatist as well? maybe). TOM JONES is, of course, brilliant and very intricately and teleologically plotted, but it's also really funny and really willing to go off on digressions. JOSEPH ANDREWS did definitely have more of the whole DON QUIXOTE, picaresque structure/nonstructure to it, but its constant themes really worked. The introduction to the novel (I read the Penguin edition) said that the real theme of the novel was charity and the hypocrisy of a purportedly Christian society that doesn't hold to charity, but I actually felt that the novel was much more about the obligation of hosts to guests--a deeply classical theme, in keeping with the novel's deeply classical learning (embodied, of course, by Pastor Adams).