The success of “self-help books” for the publishing industry might only be matched by the genre’s failure to provide innovative and beneficial advice. I just started Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America; I eagerly await her to fully confirm what I’ve already assumed by my anecdotal exposure to the success-is-guaranteed-by-a-successful-attitude cult of thought. Yet just because the genre is defined by its failures doesn’t mean it can’t ever have a success. Andreas Kluth, the West Coast correspondent for The Economist and my blogging buddy, has produced a real tonic of a book to counter the success-is-simple snake oil. Readers will know something is different right away: It’s certainly no “self-help book.” Kluth’s Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure is about how Success and Failure are both “impostors,” as Kipling wrote. The stories in the book aren’t a guide to success but a historical survey and ironic examination of it. Kluth populates his mediation on success and failure with many of humanity’s important characters and archetypes – an Avengers of world history.
The author’s fascination with the one-eyed Carthaginian general pervades (invades?) Hannibal’s story and that excitement carries Kluth’s narrative and provides his most detailed example. By using archetypal figures from history, we’re supposed to see how their successes and failures map onto our own in unique ways, so I felt like I was cheating a bit when I kept thinking of how Hannibal’s military campaigns clarified our modern military campaigns.
After three years of high drama and adrenaline – of Alpine peaks, Etruscan swamps, and three of the bloodiest battles in human history – there now followed thirteen excruciatingly long years of limbo.
Both Hannibal and Fabius understood that the invincible invader of Italy was now, paradoxically, captive in Italy, as though it were a shrinking prison of success. The fact that Hannibal was still officially successful made it impossible for him to escape this captivity. If he suffered a military disaster of some sort, Hannibal would have had to evacuate Italy. It would have been humiliating, but he would have started over, with a different strategy, and the overall war might have gone in a new direction. But Hannibal was still victorious, and victors don’t flee.
Replace a few names and Kluth might be writing about America’s War on Terror. For approximately 12 years our armed forces have gone from battle to battle without suffering a military defeat and it’s certainly racked up some stunning successes. After all, we have the greatest military the world has ever known! But just as Hannibal’s strategy never led to the Fall of Rome, our endlessly successful wars won’t lead to the End of Terrorism. Our official successes continue to cost us more in treasure, blood, and liberties as we go from victory to victory abroad.
Not all of Kluth’s cast are as compelling as Hannibal. His credulous retelling of the power of an aikido master undermines his wider project of grounding his lessons in history. For generations aikido promoters have sold stories of making enemies “fly through the air without ever being touched” and beating “thirty people” with hardly any martial aggression from this so-called martial art. Evidence for these abilities is as invisible as the ki they use against their opponents. It’s still a good story, but the counter-evidence of the art’s efficacy is concussive. That said, Kluth’s point about using the intentions of your opponents against them is worthwhile. Using the instability of attackers is better exhibited by BJJ, Judo, and wrestling; I’m sure there is an interesting figure somewhere in their histories.
Two characters had me pondering my own career and life trajectory. Instead of examining the art of Picasso and Cezanne, Kluth draws the arcs of their lives and probably has younger readers asking, “which one am I!?” Right now, I feel a bit like the “wanderer” – Paul Cezanne didn’t know what job he’d end up with and often felt pessimistic about his future. With a poor economy and without a specific and set career goal to strategize toward, Cezanne’s biography offers support. Most days I just hope I’m climbing up the arc as Cezanne ended up doing.
Of course, maybe focusing so exclusively on a career is a bit like focusing only on tactics and forgetting strategy. A balance is probably necessary to “fulfill my human potential” and “self-actualize.” But extremely few people ever become totally comfortable with one’s own personality and life despite the obviousness of the objective. One of the book’s better examples of this success is Albert Einstein.
Try to tell me that man isn’t transcendently comfortable. Kluth isn’t a hagiographer for any of his subjects; instead, he spotlights their faults. I was surprised to discover Einstein’s personality defects and professional failures that met him after his glory years. Part of being successful, as we learn, is being able to see the world as it is, “flowing” with disasters, and “not dwelling on flaws.”
Andreas Kluth’s profile of success and failure isn’t perfect. The book ends with conventional catalogue of lessons that he basically apologizes for before listing (although, wisely, they’re actually pretty good summaries of themes laced with new insights rather than just simplified bullet-point regurgitations). Even if you finish without adopting any of the book’s themes or lessons, the history and quality of storytelling make Kluth worth reading. Hannibal and Me may not be perfect from tactic to tactic but it takes risks and transcends the failed genre.
On my weekend off I read Mark Twain’s “What is Man?” The obscure essay is so full of wonderful passages, it’s difficult to choose what to excerpt. Twain’s imagined dialogue between an Old Man and a Young Man opens a sinkhole underneath the concept of free will and the existence of a totally altruistic motive. Yet one segment seemed the most fitting. This blog’s motivation is an honest and enduring quest for truth. In the interest of that enterprise, here’s the Old Man calling me out:
We are always hearing of people who are around SEEKING AFTER TRUTH. I have never seen a (permanent) speciman. I think he had never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who THOUGHT they were (permanent) Seekers after Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment – until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. THAT WAS THE END OF THE SEARCH. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather. If he was seeking after political Truth he found it in one or another of the hundred political gospels which govern men in the earth; if he was seeking after the Only True Religion he found it in one or another of the three thousand that are on the market. In any case, when he found the Truth HE SOUGHT NO FURTHER; but from that day forth, with his soldering-iron in one hand and his bludgeon in the other he tinkered its leaks and reasoned with objectors.
Ouch. Let this blog live on seeking after truth as frequently as my temperament allows. I encourage others to claw the roofing nails out of my insulating shelters whenever possible.
Trampled By Turtles bluegrass cover of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)”
The political battles surrounding the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden reveal an important truth about our political and media class. After the Obama campaign released an ad celebrating the president’s decision and questioning how Romney might have acted, Republicans started hyperventilating and the media started asking if it’s appropriate for Obama to “politicize” this.
I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together –Mitt Romney
[Obama has] managed to turn it into a divisive, partisan political attack –Ed Gillespie
Politics of bin Laden: ‘Fair game’ vs. ‘divisive’ –CNN
GOP says Obama playing politics with bin Laden anniversary –CNN
Is the president politicizing the bin Laden mission? –Fox News
You can find virtually endless debates about whether or not it’s ok for Obama to have politicized his decision.
That, in a word, tells you all you need to know. Politicians of all stripes and the media apparently believe that political discourse necessarily trivializes issues. It’s a game to them. If it wasn’t why would national security be off-limits for politics, as is often argued? Foreign policy and the decisions stemming from executive power are exactly the type of issues we should be divisively clarifying for the electorate.
It’s quite reasonable to believe that Mitt Romney was correct that it’s “wrong for a person running for president of the United States to get on TV and say we’re going to go into your country unilaterally” as he argued in 2007. Or you could criticize the raid and the selective leaking of details from the Left as Glenn Greenwald has on numerous occasions. And it’s perfectly acceptable that Obama tout his decisions as successes and to criticize his opponent.
As I said at the time, I think the world is better off because of the decision Obama made. People can disagree with that conclusion, people can disagree with the specifics of the operation and aftermath. These are issues that should be politicized because politics is the arena where we publicly discuss public policy and government action. Anytime anyone decries politicization you know they don’t take politics seriously. Of course, since politicians seem to think it’s just a cynical team sport, I often wonder how seriously anyone should take politics.