*Love, Africa*

The author is Jeffrey Gettleman, the subtitle is A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival, and this travel romance of East Africa has taken a beating on Twitter and elsewhere, for its apparently “neo-colonial” approach.  I bought the book, wondering if I might find a contrarian take to offer.  I’ve only browsed it, but here was one random passage I ran across, noting the scene will culminate in the two making out (and perhaps intercourse?):

As my eye traveled across the faces, I kept coming back to the same one.  It belonged to a girl with high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, heavy eyelids and dark hair; her features looked Eurasian, maybe even Eskimo.  She was wearing a red dress that showed off her back; she was lithe and freckly.  As she danced, the blacks of her eyes shone.  There was something in them that I had seen before.  She seemed deeply, freely happy, like those kids on Lake Malawi.  I could tell she really dug dancing.

Now, I am not here to offer him a deserved bad writing award, nor to shame him, but still I consider this data and I am puzzling over what this data means.  In a mere minute of browsing, I found several similar passages, and with a few more minutes they seemed to multiply endlessly.  Nor was it easy to stumble across pages with lots of information about Africa on them.  And yet he is a Pulitzer winner and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, East Africa Bureau Chief for a decade.

But exactly which views do I need to revise?  The NYT writers and journalists I have met are uniformly impressive.  It is not easy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Here is a review from Laura Seay, she is harsh but it seems to me probably fair.  Is Derek Parfit right about the self after all?  At the very least, my opinion of the political correctness scolds went up a bit today.  And I once again ask myself whether I should spend more or less time writing negative reviews of books (mostly I don’t, though this week’s reading was pretty meh).

Please advise.


It is also telling that the author is clueless about the derogatory nature of the word 'Eskimo'. In 2017, if you write about a people, you can (and must) be minimally knowledgeable about them. No excuses. So given this random example, what other careless mistakes has he made?

Spare us your stupid scolding. He's not writing about Eskimos, he's writing about his experiences in East Africa.

The link you provide notes, correctly, that Eskimo is not derogatory, and that it is by far the most common term used for the eye grouping of Alaska natives among that population. The word Inuit is not synonymous, and is only common in Canada because the Inuit were relatively more numerous compared to other northern groups in that country, and were able to push their preferred term into common parlance despite objections from other northern groups...

The mindless attempt to make "Eskimo" into a derogatory term is one of the most laughable/horrible episodes in the lamentable/hilarious/execrable history of PC. Funniest/worst since "niggardly" was driven out of the English language.

I will be fulsome, not n*ggardly, in my praise of you.

The London Review of Books in 2001 used the word "niggardly" when reviewing one of John Updike's books, true, it's in their archives.

As for this disparaged 'parachute journalist' Gettleman what do you expect if you assign one man to cover all of a part of east Africa, about the size of the entire western Europe?

And anyway, it's the famed travel writer V.S. Naipaul in fact a sordid fellow in real life (I forget why, multiple wives?)

Bonus trivia: the Greek-American actress Jennifer Aniston married the nephew of famed travel writer Paul Theroux.

V.S. Naipaul: sordid because he liked beating and spitting women in bed (largely with consent, I think, but not sure). Recounted in first person (albeit in fictionalized form) in 'A Bend in the River'.
Bonus on the bonus trivia: Paul Theroux was V.S.N's protégé of sorts, but turned on him later in life. Recounted in his book, 'Sir Vidia's Shadow'.

Don't we all know by now that there is a percentage of the cultural left, NYT circle that is mainly deeply interested in themselves. Imagine Woody Allen or Phiip Roth without even a trace of a sense of humor. That culture runs deep and has strong auto correlation.

Do we really have to choose between an over-credentialed, under-talented, NYT hack and the PC scolds? Can't they both be as bad as they both seem?

They'd have to be different groups before you could choose between them

Less time. I read this blog in part to learn about new ideas that I might profitably consider. Positively reviewed books, at least for me, further that goal in a way that negatively reviewed ones do not.

Not sure I grok what you're saying, Tyler. Isn't the annoying thing about the political correctness scolds the fact that they would have condemned it regardless of whether it was well-written or not? So why would you reading a badly written book that they happened to condemn grounds for your revising your opinion of them?

As I read it, Tyler was perhaps predisposed to think that "most scolds are wrong," and has updated to "scolds are not always wrong."

That's probably true, simply because no one is always wrong. It is an important thing to remember in political discussion. Insert your favorite enemy, and remember that they may not always be wrong.

Once you get beyond no one always being wrong, it moves on to batting averages. For that you probably have to decide which "political correctness scolds" you are even listening to. For me personally, it would be someone with a claim to broad national perspective, and not something narrow and stupid, like sex representation of a particular book panel. YMMV.

(I might as well explain my anecdote. I used to follow a very creative and I think insightful science fiction writer. He does go a bit off on the PC though. My ability to even follow his blog ended when he declared "I can be on no book panel that is not half women." This coincided with another claim that "education panels should be half women."

Dudes, I thought, aim for "good panels" if you are trying to accomplish anything. If you want ratios you are, by definition, reducing your emphasis on the content. You are setting an alternate goal. You are saying ratios are more important than books/education.)

I guess it was Scalzi.

Am I right?

No, European actually. But the person isn't the thing as much as the idea, that all our goals should take a back seat to rails.

I don't doubt that women are often excluded for bias, but de-biasing should be the goal.


Can men go bare chested on the boardwalk in the USA anymore?

How is this an example of moral scolding?
If a journalist is covering Africa and purportedly writing about how his experiences in Africa shaped his life, it seems to display a profound lack of self-awareness if said writing ends up being all about himself and his white expat friends who hang out with him in hotels, and only marginally (at best) about African politics or actual Africans. If he spends more time talking about really nice hotels than about the streets of Nairobi, how much of the real Africa did he actually experience?

"But exactly which views do I need to revise? The NYT writers and journalists I have met are uniformly impressive."

Maybe you want to be impressed, or the dance of mutual flattery interests you. Certianly the NYT's journalistic perfomance isn't what you value. Possibly self-reflection in a status raising mirror?

If so, that is mainly the view that needs revision.


What tyler needs more than anything -like the general celebrating a triumph- is someone behind him whispering remember the awkward high school kid who was super shy around girls.

Being impressed by people with bad characters and ideas is sort of an academic pose, "a worthy opponent", not something useful in the real world. Maybe Jeffrey Gettleman would be "impressive" if you met him. But he's an asshole. You need to be able to distinguish the two.

Another eager journalist school kid the NYT rejected.

Actually HW few of the current crop are journalism majors. There are other requirements.

Does it make journalism majors more ressentful?

From the negative WP review: "Africa is merely the backdrop to Gettleman’s process of finding himself, deciding whom he loves and committing to a career in journalism. Africa also serves as a kind of totem, a stand-in for the vague aspirations of his early 20s and his zealous search for increasingly dangerous and sometimes illegal adventures to offset the emptiness of his comfortable, suburban upbringing and dragged-out struggle to fully commit to the woman he loves."

My response: So? You're allowed to do that in a novel. Actually, you're allowed to do anything in a novel, as long as you don't lose the reader's interest. The man isn't writing on "Africa" for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He's writing in a form that gives the author or fictional narrator of the story enormous latitude for self-obsession and unconscious self-revelation. The reviewer disqualified herself from the beginning by admitting that she hated Gentleman's NYT reporting on East Africa, and was very likely to hate his book. PS: I'm with Hmmmmm. I get more out of Tyler's positive reviews. Please don't increase the negativity.

"You’re allowed to do that in a novel". But, is this a novel? The book jacket says "memoir" (quoted by Cowen in the very first sentence above) and the review's summary of the contents is consistent with that description.

You are allowed to do it in a memoir too.

What separates this crap from Dreams of My Father is a Weatherman turned ghost writer.

Dreams of my Father is probably crap too. Both of these books are the sort of thing that ends up selling for 25 cents in a yard sale in 5 years. Or it would have been had Obama not been elected President.

Sure, but a story of a nice suburban white boy going to Africa and observing the exotic natives in the process of finding himself sound interminably dull. How many autobiographies of average middle-class white guys travelling the world in their 20s does the world really need?

Consider revising upwards your view of NYT editors. Some writers really need them.

"It is not easy to win a Pulitzer Prize." Oh yes it is; just hire a good ghost writer and have the money and threats of old Joe Kennedy behind you.

Actually, only one person managed to do that. Compare and contrast the Nobel Prize, which more than five persons win every year!!

Speaking of which, I think it is time to give Obama a second one. The reason? It's been so long since the last one.

He got the not-Bush Nobel Prize, maybe he should get the not-Trump Nobel Prize, too. But Clinton is not -Trump, too. Shouldn't she get the prize? Can she be chosen by the majority of the judges and still lose the prize? If the Dalai Lama wins the prize again, will he lock her up?

This book sounds sexy and fast

> But exactly which views do I need to revise? The NYT writers and journalists I have met are uniformly impressive. It is not easy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The Gell-Mann Amensia effect at work. Think of a topic that you know really well. Like better than 99% of the population. How often do you read a journalist's account of your field that's both engaging and accurate? (For my part, I'm in quant finance, and can't think of exactly one journalist who qualifies: Matt Levine. And it's not exactly like the finance press is a small group.)

A journalists incentive is to be a shallow and sophomoric as possible, while still fooling his readers. He's not writing a thesis, he's not even writing a book most of the time. We're talking about short articles that nobody in any actual position of responsibility are ever going to rely on. The NYT's job is to make UES chiropractors feel like they're acquired some sort of genuine expertise on some topic trending in the intellectual zeitgeist. All in 1000 words or less. Don't be surprised that the best way to do that involves gross oversimplification, wholesale ignorance of entire sections of the topic, and heavy distortion to make the story fit well-worn tropes.

In short journalists are the charlatans of the modern intellectual world. Their entire career is honing the ability to impress people without any of the actual work or knowledge normally needed to be impressive.

The important thing though is plenfy of people with power are going to rely on this. Keep in mind that the chief talent of people in power is hetting and keeping it, and they are almost never anything close to expert in other issues. While they tend to be smarter than journalists they have a lot less time to actually learn where journalism is most wrong.

+1 Matt Levine is good. I like his Bloomberg articles on law, they are spot on, and I notice from his bio he was a lawyer with a prestigious firm.

Great comment. I was in the quant world in 1980s and through 2005. I almost never saw an article that wasn't pre spun or reverse engineered to fit a popular narrative.

Great example. Read recent NYT article on how one drop of sunscreen can destroy an entire coral reef.

But is it true or pop science? You read all kinds of such claims that later cannot be confirmed. Like the prion scare of a few years ago.

Bonus trivia: I had the "bone broth vegetarian" shake at Whole Foods, and it was surprisingly good! Wonder if it has prions though that will work their way into my brain 40 years from now...but I liked the taste, not too salty.

Her calculations were off by a factor of one million or so, and the articles she referenced never bothered to check their own assumptions. It's a completely bougus cliam. Featured in our paper of record The NYT.

"The NYT’s job"...

This is what happened at the NY Times with the Tokyo Bureau Chief who had years of experience as a journalist on Japan. For some articles he clearly didn't look up facts but just created a narrative on a declining Japan. In a front page three part series on Japan half a year so before the Fukushima accident he wrote how unlike the bubble period, Japanese weren't flying abroad as much anymore and that "once crowded Japanese-language classes at American universities have emptied." It took me maybe 15 minutes to find links to show Japanese travel increased 100% since the late 80s and that Japanese language enrollment hit an all time high, about tied with Chinese. And it wasn't just this one article.

The NY Times reporting on the Fukushima was terrible in a several ways but would not end because it helped sell papers to the strongly anti-nuclear left. I wasn't surprised at all that the NY Times reporters won runner-up for their reporting on Fukushima. The head of the five person committee to decide that was business reporter Gillian Tett.

Here is a classic article by the Tokyo Bureau Chief from ten years ago: Google "Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place" about Japanese supposedly dressing up as vending machines to avoid street crime.

CNN International has/had a reporter, Kyung Lah, who like many of their on air talent arrived after an LA tv news sex scandal. They made her Northwest Asia correspondent for awhile and she did a fair number of dull but not too bad Korea stories, but all her Japan pieces were about Japanese sexual perversion.

Japan is into perversion. They hire US models so JP men can humiliate them ritually. Also in JP porn the women cry like they are being raped (apparently a woman has to resist when having sex, that's the JP way even with non-porn) and it sometimes--or at least once--crossed into the actual rape of a JP porn actress.

Bonus trivia: the path to sacred Mt. Fuji is littered with cigarette butts...

The Japanese regime is at the brink of collapse.

I guess we've all gotten woked up since "Eat, Pray, Love" sold 10 million copies.

The NYT also liked the Soviet Union.

Soviet Somalia was more successful than today's 'capitalist' failed-state Somalia. Sometimes states need discipline. That's one of the themes of sometime-GMU scholar Francis Fukuyama's recent books.

Not the Soviet Union, only Stalin. They were fairly critical of Brezhnev and Andropov. They also liked Castro, but it is unfair to focus into two mistakes an organization made.

One thing nobody has mentioned is how much over the last 30 years African women have improved with respect to looking like Eskimo (as the author said, but he really meant European) women, if that is what they want to do. Check out, for example, the last 6 or 7 winners of the Miss Nigeria competitions, and compare with famous Nigerians of an older generation, such as David Bowie's wife. I don't know what the difference is - maybe Youtube tutorials, cheaper cosmetics, plastic surgery. I don't know how widespread it is, but in the small sample of humanity comprising the sort of people who hang with NY Times correspondents, my guess is that it is a huge deal. I personally don't think it is a generally healthy thing to assess the relative beauty of women we are not married to, but if you are going to criticize someone for finding African women attractive because they look sort of like Eskimo women, and if you say 'please advise' .... you may get humble observations such as this.

Wow, I just Googled it, and indeed Miss Nigeria does not look either Bantu or Yorba tribe to me...more like...a kind of Eskimo or darker European woman.

David Bowie's wife, Iman, was born in Somalia. Africa is a big place, with lots of genetic variation.

I am wrong about a lot of things! I agree with every word you say, Not David Bowie, without even looking it up! For the record, I think African beauty is a wonderful thing. People fall in love with each other all over the world! I tried to be fair by following "have improved" by "if that is what they want to do". Perhaps I failed in expressing the reality I understand, so I will try again: I have had African women look at me with eyes of love, and vice versa. Lust is bad: but so is a refusal to acknowledge that women everywhere are beautiful in the eyes of the local men, and men are handsome in the eyes of the local women, everywhere. As Tolkien said, we are all, men and women, in the same boat going to the same place (Tolkien was a Biblical Christian, supremely fortunate in including in his Bible what the sad Protestants call the apocryphal books: fortunately for us all, the Song of Solomon is not apocryphal: "I am dark, yet beautiful" .... ) Just another humble observation.

After a series of articles in 2007, I called him the "Judith Miller of East Africa". Cliche-packed writing is the least of his weaknesses. Bigger ones are lack of objectivity, and blatantly grinding his axe instead of actual reporting.

Consider this piece on the Eritrean president https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/world/africa/02eritrea.html
A supremely flattering article about a government considered one of the worst in the world by almost everyone who knows anything about the region. Or this piece
which is basically a regurgitation of propaganda by the ONLF group. Gettleman had some professional beef with the Ethiopian government -- notorious for being bad to the press.
I think that caused him to adopt "any enemy of my enemy is my friend" as his guiding principle in all his work from that point on... He wrote some pretty awful uncorroborated war-mongering garbage, and promoted uncritically some truly bad actors. Not sure what that work is called but it's not what journalism is supposed to be.

So the critiques of the book here make total sense. The pseudo journalism was just as narcissistic as the book. And equally badly written.

As for what beliefs to update, Tyler, I would say:

1) bad journalists can survive in prestigious papers if they stick to topics and regions the readers know very little about. The Judith Miller/Iraq problem is like cockroaches in a NYC apartment. There is never just one and some will hide much longer. Gell-Mann amnesia, as a previous commenter noted, is the right explanation.

2) the Pulitzer prize is gameable. I recently learned Jeffrey Gettleman won it after nominating himself!

"the scene will culminate in the two making out (and perhaps intercourse?)"

Intercourse, you say!? My word! How delightfully piquant!

(more seriously, this should go in the pantheon of Tyler-prose odd sentences)

I felt the same way about 'The Killing Fields'.
No idea what that book/movie is so highly acclaimed. The story is largely the self-glorification of the journalist who wrote it, and it spends all it's energy trying to blame the whole thing on America - as if Cambodians have no moral agency of their own.

Comments for this post are closed