Friday, January 5, 2007

Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Sci-fi comedy or Anthropological Authority?

I got a bunch of books for Chrismahaunakwanzica Yultide Solstice this year and have delved deeply into one and thoroughly into another. I had begun T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom to the tune of about 100 pages or so when I received Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. I don't like to have more than a couple of books going at once. Inevitably, one winds up getting pushed to the back and it becomes doubtful if it will ever be finished. (This has most recently happened to American Theocracy, though I am determined to finish that and soon.) But Rajiv begins his book with this great quote from Lawrence:
Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably well than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.
Having read that and skimmed the first page of text, I knew I could whip through Chandrasekaran's work in a hurry and be better for it. So I did. It took me about a day to turn it over and I can highly recommend it. You'll know more than you did when you come out the other side, having been entertained by some very smooth prose along the way.

Rajiv starts by touching Lawrence and it would have been well for America and many thousands of other people if anyone in the Neoconservative Cabal had done so as well. Perhaps the most striking thing of all is not how bad the preparation for occupation was but that there really wasn't any. None. Plans were made on a single set of assumptions and no contingency plans or even contingency theories were developed. The scope of ignorance is so broad one can only assume incompetence or criminal intent. Based on a few tidbits I'm leaning toward the latter: 1. the few competent people who found their way to Iraq were overborne by the weight and volume of useless information and people they were forced to accomodate, and 2. the vast (and by vast I mean 99%) majority of contracts and appointments were handed out not based on competence or suitability, but on connections and a neoconservative litmus test.

What's sad is that the remaining 1% appear to have been genuinely talented and dedicated individuals. What's tragic is the cost of this cock-up. What's criminal is that it appears to have been intentional.

Rajiv never comes close to that conclusion. But he recites so many instances of graft and despoiliation and nepotism that it's hard to conclude other than that at least some portion of the administration realized the invasion of Iraq was the Great Heidlburg Tun of war profiteering, and worked to be sure that there were sufficient holes in the sieve.

In the main, this was accomplished by installing the most criminally incompetent band of monkeys ever to assume governance of a war zone. To the extent anything was accomplished it was accomplished through swift infusions of cash designed to polish the turd in time for US Elections. It was so stunning that about halfway through the book, I realized where I had heard this all before: Douglas Adams' Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

As a young teenager, I steeped myself in these books--they were a great escape, especially for a young person who wanted nothing more than to leave this world. Adams had an explanation for why I might feel that way and it comes in the second "Hitchhiker's" book, "The Restaraunt at the End of the Universe."

His main characters find themselves on Earth, before the start of human history. They got there when, after having made several haphazard jumps through time and space, they wind up on an interstellar frieghter that has been programmed to crash-land on our backwater, unsettled planet. The frieghter is packed with all the useless, inane and unnecessary people from the planet Golgafrincham. 15 million people from all walks of life, all sharing one characteristic: incompetence. Incompetent hairdressers, joggers, telephone sanitizers, secondhand car salesmen, advertising account executives, TV producers, insurance salesmen, management consultants, security guards. All in suspended animation in a ship captained by an incompetent and manned by two sub-fools (#1 and #2).

The ship is programmed to crash-land on Earth as a means of, frankly, eliminating this ship of fools from Golgafrincham. Of course, when they get there, those that survive the crash have no idea of how to manage themselves. In the scene that came flooding back to me as I read Imperial Life, they've finally settled on a fiscal policy. This notwithstanding the fact that they haven't figured out what to eat, or how to build shelter from the weather, or settled any of Maslow's basic needs:
"If," he said tersely, "we could for a moment move on the subject of fiscal policy..."
"Fiscal policy!" whooped Ford Prefect. "Fiscal policy! [...] How can you have money if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn't grow on trees you know."
"If you would allow me to continue. . ."
Ford nodded dejectedly.
"Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich. [...] But we have also run in to a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availabiliy, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests to one ship's peanut. [...] So in order to obviate this problem, and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."

The Coalition Provisional Authority would be proud. In Adams' books, the Golgafrinchans ultimately, somehow, survive to become us. Along the way, they depress into extinction the planet's original denizens who lose their will to live in the face of the Golgafrinchans unbelievable inanity. But the strength of Golgafrinchan DNA has been proved beyond question by the CPA.

Anyway, I'd like to recommend Chandrasekaran's book. Also Lawrence's. TE Lawrence (of Arabia--yes, that one) provided British aid to the "Arab Revolt" that occupied Turkey's southern and eastern flank during the First World War. Lawrence's vision was to prod the Arabs into creating a new nation that would, hopefully, protect that people from what Lawrence could see would be the abusive subjegation of their land by the west. As we know, he, and they, ultimately failed at that. But his insights to the people and the region were prescient. Becuase they spring from a concern for the welfare of Arabs, or more properly perhaps, the Arab Tribes, and have nothing to do with preserving the oil economy for the west, however, Lawrence's insights have never been seriously adopted and his advice, clearly, has never been heeded.

As for Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide? Avoid the movie. It stinks.