Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Reading:: The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

Originally posted: Wed, 26 May 2004 09:22:51

The Art of War

by Sun Tzu

A brief review for a brief book. Sun Tzu's book is a mere 60 pages, but it's a terse set of maxims that have been justly passed on through the centuries. My brother read it in ROTC, I think. It's very applicable to military strategists. And it's an interesting contrast to Machiavelli.

Machiavelli's why I picked up this book: I was searching for his book of the same title when I came across this one. Both are interested in strategy, both are ruthless. But Machiavelli's book seems more broadly focused on political power and governance. Tzu is a general, period.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Reading:: Fast Food Nation

Originally posted: Tue, 25 May 2004 19:09:23

Fast Food Nation

by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation is an interesting book and a quick read. It provides some really relevant examples of the deskilling and efficiency focus discussed by Harry Braverman and feared by Ehn, Kyng, et al. But for all that, I found the book to be a bit forgettable.

Why? Maybe because although there were interesting anecdotes and sometimes horrifying facts, there really weren't many surprises here. Yes, fast food is terribly unhealthy and makes people fat. Yes, McDonald's exploits its workers. Yes, slaughterhouses are unsanitary and unsafe. Yes, family farmers are finding that their trade is about as economically viable as cobbling. And yes, fast food restaurants are trying to market directly to my two-year-old. I knew all that, although I didn't know some of the particulars.

But fast food and the mass production system that coexists with it have lowered the price of food enormously: Poor people in the US are more likely to be overweight than emaciated. But the outbreaks of disease documented at fast food restaurants are pretty tame compared to the public health challenges faced by the WWI generation or indeed the current highway system. But marketing to children, although it sounds insidious, seems clumsy compared to the sorts of ideological indoctrination that socially conscious parents often worry about, and doesn't seem to work all that well anyway.

What really struck me about the book, though, was that the author seems so preoccupied with authenticity. He talks in great detail about how artificial scents and smells are formulated, about how kids in Colorado Springs no longer wear cowboy hats as the "real" Coloradans did, about how chains actually got started compared to what is said in their literature. Maybe it's because I'm GenX, but I really don't have the preoccupation with authenticity that Schlosser does. Of course these restaurants are selling a brand, a mood, an experience. So do universities and churches, often with the same level of conscious cultivation.

I'm using FFN as the reader in my first year composition course this summer. The simple stories have clearly defined heroes and villains, which I think will please the class very much. I was a bit disappointed with that simple underlying story, though, particularly in how it (in my view) misread politics. In the Afterword, the author concedes that the villains are usually Republicans, not Democrats, and admits that he could have made much more of President Clinton's ties to Tyson Chicken. But, he adds, Republicans have far more often deregulated the food industry and supported meatpackers in their efforts to evade legislation on fair working conditions and on sanitation and health. When it comes time to explain why, Schlosser sort of shrugs his shoulders and says that if the Democrats were to do the same things, he would condemn them as well. I suspect the split has more to do with geography and region than party: Clinton's Arkansas is largely rural, like most of the "red" states, and rural areas are more likely to house meatpacking plants, more likely to have Republican constituencies, and more likely to subscribe to the do-it-yourself ideology that drives deregulation. No wonder Arkansas Democrats "act like Republicans" when it comes to food issues (those are my scare quotes, not Schlosser's) -- all politics is local, as someone famously said.

Schlosser attempts to inoculate himself from charges of political bias by pointing out that Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, led the fight to pass key meatpacking regulations and wishes that contemporary Republicans would take up the charge. Roosevelt's Republican party was largely Northern and urban, of course, again suggesting that party labels have less to do with the issue than region. So I wish Schlosser had gone ahead and checked that thesis rather than subscribing to the all-too-common bifurcated view of political parties.

In any case, the book is a good read. But I had the urge to buy fries everytime I picked it up.

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