January 21, 2013

1. Blitzkrieg

As all the world knows, “blitzkrieg” is a German word meaning “lightning war.” Niall Ferguson tells us that blitzkrieg was “in many ways a British invention, derived from the lessons of the Western Front in the First World War.”1 The blitzkrieg strategy was developed by Liddell Hart, an Englishman, who argued that “the fatal mistake of most offensives on the Western Front had been their ponderous and predictable directness.” Like Napoleon, Hart believed it was a mistake to make a frontal assault on an entrenched foe: “Direct attacks against an enemy firmly in position almost never work and should never be attempted.”2 Hart favored an indirect approach: “In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there.”3 “The essence was to concentrate armor and air power in a lethal lightning strike,” then follow that strike with “deep strategic penetration; carried out by armored forces racing on ahead of the main army.”

Hart’s writings had more influence in Germany than in his native land. Is this a case of “no man is a prophet in his own country?”

Hart wrote several volumes of military history, including studies of Scipio Africanus, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Marshal Foch.

2. Orwell on Language

The local GreatBooks group recently discussed an Orwell essay called “Politics and the English Language.” It’s a clever essay, an interesting essay, a funny essay, and most people in the group liked it. But I’m not sure it should be considered a “Great Book,” or great literature; Orwell is a deft writer and a penetrating observer, but I think he falls short of being a deep thinker or a first-rate philosopher. He was good at satirizing false philosophies (Communism, etc.), but he wasn’t good at building a true philosophy, which is the important task.

Orwell notes that modern writers are fond of big words, long polysyllables, words with Greek or Latin roots; they’re fond of words that are cloudy, abstract, rather than vivid and concrete. Orwell:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Orwell’s “translation” is similar to a translation that I made in an earlier issue, when I was discussing LitSpeak, the jargon of literary criticism. Nowadays, some of the worst writing is found in literary criticism and art criticism (LitSpeak and ArtSpeak). As Orwell put it, “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”4 Young scholars have to use this arcane jargon to show that they’ve mastered it, that they’ve learned this special language. Since the average reader doesn’t understand this jargon, he generally avoids reading LitSpeak and ArtSpeak; publishers don’t want to publish literary criticism, because it doesn’t sell.

As an example of simple, vivid language, I quoted a remark by Deng Xiaoping. When Deng was asked if his reforms were deviations from true Communism, he responded, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” The Chinese seem to have a knack for metaphor; perhaps it’s only in the West that abstract language has become pervasive. At the end of the Long March, Mao addressed his small band of survivors: “Are we weaker now, since more than half of our soldiers have died, or are we stronger? I think we’re stronger. When you sift sand, only the gold is left behind. What we have now is a small group of pure gold.”

Deng believed in his reforms, he was sincere, so his language was clear and vivid. If you have strong feelings and convictions, and express them straightforwardly, all goes well. As Orwell notes, when we say what we believe, our language is usually simple, clear, vivid. But when we’re insincere, our language becomes cloudy, deceptive. Orwell:

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Orwell says that bad language, worn-out metaphors, can be driven out by “the jeers of a few journalists.” In a totalitarian society, however, journalists aren’t allowed to jeer, and insincerity flourishes; language becomes a tool of the government, an instrument of deceit. Orwell:

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.

Since totalitarianism is waning, this sort of language isn’t as common as it was. On the other hand, academia has expanded apace since Orwell’s time, so scholarly jargon is more common than ever. Scholars should memorize Orwell’s Rule 5: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Perhaps we should divide language into three classes: political, scholarly, and everyday. Everyday language might also be called “TV language,” or “MediaSpeak.” According to a friend of mine, the most hackneyed phrase nowadays is “at the end of the day.” My friend says that, when she was watching a political discussion, she counted five uses of “at the end of the day” in the space of two minutes.

I recently read an article about the New York Knicks. Their star, Carmelo Anthony, was asked if he was going to play against Miami — if his injury had healed. “‘I want to play against Miami,’ Anthony said. ‘But at the end of the day I’ve got to do what’s right for my finger with the deep cut that it is. So we’ll see.’” Phrases like “at the end of the day” acquire a kind of momentum, and take public discourse by storm. One purpose of Orwell’s essay is to call attention to such phrases, ridicule them, and try to drive them out of the public domain.

Orwell’s Rule 1 is, Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Orwell mentions several worn-out metaphors: “Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.” But are these metaphors as bad as Orwell says? If the purpose of language is to communicate, to convey a thought or experience or fact, a common metaphor might be appropriate because most readers understand it. An original metaphor, on the other hand, might be more obscure, and might draw the reader’s attention away from the thought or experience or fact that the writer is trying to communicate. The purpose of language is to disappear, to make the reader forget the language and focus on the content.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned that three MIT students wrote software that would mix up scholarly jargon, and create a nonsense essay. Their essay (“Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy”) was accepted for presentation by a scholarly conference. Surely this couldn’t have happened in Orwell’s time. Jargon and nonsense is more widespread now than when Orwell was writing. Academia is a bastion of bad writing.

3. Miscellaneous

A. I’m often amazed by how many good writers I not only haven’t read, but haven’t even heard of. I recently discovered a British writer of philosophy and science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, who was active in the 1930’s and ’40’s. He influenced Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, and other science-fiction writers. Stapledon’s work was praised by Borges, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, etc. Stapledon seems to be more popular among mystics than among monotheists. C. S. Lewis was troubled by what he regarded as Stapledon’s amorality. According to Wikipedia, “Stapledon was an agnostic who was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings.” Perhaps C. S. Lewis was more traditional than Stapledon in his religion and morality. Among Stapledon’s best-known works are Last Men and First Men and Star Maker.

B. There’s a new literary star in the U.S., a witty writer named George Saunders. Saunders has been published in the New Yorker, discussed in the New York Times, and interviewed by PBS. In interviews, Saunders comes across as unassuming and very articulate. His specialty is the short story; his latest story-collection is called Tenth of December.

C. In a recent issue, I wrote,

In 1943, Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski told U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter about Nazi genocide, but Frankfurter couldn’t believe him: “I did not say that he was lying,” Frankfurter remarked, “I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.” In other words, “He’s telling the truth, but my mind can’t grasp this truth, it’s too strange.”

I now find that the scientist Helmholtz had much the same attitude toward the paranormal: “Even if it is true, I don’t believe it.”5 We can’t believe what’s outside the range of our experience, what doesn’t fit into our worldview.

D. I saw a movie called Island in the Sun (1957), based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn Waugh). In an earlier issue, I discussed the Caribbean, and mentioned that Alec Waugh had written several books about the area. I enjoyed the movie — it’s intelligent, tasteful, literary. It gives you a glimpse of the Caribbean — the land, the economy, race relations, politics. The plot is intricate, yet easy to follow.

In an earlier issue, I discussed a Woody Allen movie called Match Point, and said that it was influenced by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Island in the Sun is also influenced by Crime and Punishment — influenced in a more explicit way, and a more interesting way, than Match Point.

E. I saw a movie called Rudy, about a mediocre football player who dreams of playing for Notre Dame, and finally realizes his dream. It’s a sugary and predictable movie. It’s based on a true story, and the DVD includes, as an extra feature, an interview with the real Rudy. The real Rudy has tried various ways to capitalize on his fame, including starting a beverage company that violated SEC rules, and paid a large fine.

F. I’ve always been a fan of The Graduate, the 1967 movie starring Dustin Hoffman. I see it regularly — every 20 years. It has intelligence, humor, a good ending, and great music (by Simon & Garfunkel). The Graduate is based on a novel by Charles Webb, written when he was about 23.

I’m also a big fan of the movie Forrest Gump (1994). Forrest Gump was very popular with the public, but critics were divided about it. It’s based on a novel by Winston Groom. The protagonist is a man of low intelligence, played by Tom Hanks. His life intersects with various historic events, such as the Watergate burglary. The plot is skillfully woven, and Gump has an endearing innocence.

G. I discovered an architecture-writer, poet, and TV personality named John Betjeman. In the 1950’s, Betjeman was a very popular poet: “His poetry eventually reached an audience enormous by the standards of the time. Like Tennyson, he appealed to a wide public, and managed to voice the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people, while retaining the respect of his fellow poets.”6 Betjeman wrote numerous architecture books (mostly about English architecture) and travel guides (mostly about English places), and was active in societies that tried to preserve old buildings.

H. I discovered a popular-science writer named Bill Hayes. Hayes wrote The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy; he also wrote Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood.

4. The Stress-Disease Connection

A few months ago, I read When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, by Gabor Maté. It’s full of wisdom about human nature, and about the mind-body link. The author doesn’t deal much with temporary stress, surface stress; for example, he doesn’t say that the stress of cooking a big Christmas dinner will make you sick. Rather, he focuses on deep-rooted stress, permanent stress, stress that starts in early childhood; one might say that the book is about the importance of early-childhood experiences.

Maté says, for example, that Ronald Reagan was neglected in his early childhood, and this eventually contributed to his Alzheimer’s Disease. One of the themes of the book is that some people can’t say No; they take on numerous tasks, they do whatever people ask of them, and finally their body says No, their body stops functioning. My only criticisms of the book are:

With respect to the occult, Gabor Maté is a skeptic, but some of his anecdotes are very interesting to a reader who’s receptive to the occult. For example, he tells us that

Thirteen years before his death, while still in good health, Swift predicted his dementia. He wrote in Verses on the death of Dr. Swift:

Poor gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his face:
That old vertigo in his head,
Will never leave him, till he’s dead:
Besides, his memory decays,
He recollects not what he says;
He cannot call his friends to mind;
Forgets the place where he last dined.

He expressed the same premonition on a walk with a friend, seeing a decaying tree: “I shall be like that tree; I shall die first at the top.”7

Maté is reluctant to ascribe Swift’s foreknowledge to anything occult, so he says, “In some highly sensitive individuals there may arise an uncanny prescience of deeply hidden processes at work in the body/mind.” I think it would be simpler, clearer, truer to say that Swift anticipated the future, and this anticipation is something occult; time isn’t absolute, the future exists already. There are many examples of people anticipating things that don’t concern what Maté calls “deeply hidden processes at work in the body/mind.” In an earlier issue, we discussed a film called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which deals with a paralyzed man who can communicate only by blinking; before he became paralyzed, he was preoccupied with a novel that has a character who is paralyzed and communicates by blinking.

Maté discusses the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Her sister, Hilary, “recalls a chilling childhood memory of Jacqueline’s intense expression and secretive whisper, ‘Hil, don’t tell Mum but when I grow up, I won’t be able to walk or move.’”8 Maté ascribes Jacqueline’s illness to a problem in her relationship with her mother: “Jackie’s relationship with her mother became one of symbiotic dependence from which neither party could free herself. The child was neither allowed to be a child nor permitted to grow up to be an adult.”9

Maté quotes a woman named Joanne who suffered from ALS:

All my life, ever since childhood, I have been having this dream of being buried alive. I lie in my underground coffin, closed in, unable to breathe. When I was diagnosed three years ago I went to the office of the ALS Society for information. There on the wall was a poster that read ‘Having ALS is Like Being Buried Alive.’10

Maté hastens to tell us that Joanne’s striking anticipation is neither “coincidence” nor “preternatural premonition.”

One of the most famous ALS sufferers was the baseball star Lou Gehrig. Like many ALS sufferers, Gehrig was too nice, couldn’t say No, couldn’t get angry. He often played when he was injured, when other players would have rested; his nickname was The Iron Horse, and his streak of consecutive games played is a baseball legend. He was caught up in “his self-designated role as a loyal son, loyal team player, loyal citizen, loyal employee.”11 Being nice is so characteristic of ALS patients that people who test for ALS sometimes say, “He doesn’t have ALS, he’s not nice enough,” and their remarks almost invariably prove to be correct!

Maté suggests that Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, may have contracted prostate cancer because he worked too hard. Maté calls Giuliani “a driven man, ‘a robo-mayor immune to fatigue, fear, or self-doubt,’ who ‘lived and breathed the work ethic.’ He completely identified with his role, slept only four hours a day, and worked most of the other twenty.”12 But Maté doesn’t say that Giuliani’s cancer was caused by stress alone. Maté says that many factors together create disease, or health: “No disease has a single cause.... Many processes and factors work together in the formation of disease or in the creation of health.”13

Maté insists that we should look at the whole person, not just a diseased organ or a diseased cell. He calls his approach “biopsychosocial.” He praises the work of Hans Selye, a Hungarian doctor who spent most of his career in Canada. Selye was a pioneer in mind-body connections, and wrote a book called The Stress of Life. Maté criticizes the Western tendency to isolate things, to see the body in isolation. Perhaps this tendency is as old as Western science; Maté points out that it even existed in antiquity:

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates quotes a Thracian doctor’s criticism of his Greek colleagues: “This is the reason why the cure of so many diseases is unknown to the physicians of Hellas; they are ignorant of the whole. For this is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body, that physicians separate the mind from the body.”14

Like Selye, Maté himself was born in Hungary, and spent his adult life in Canada. Many of Maté’s relatives died in the Holocaust; since his mother was under stress, she couldn’t provide a nurturing environment for him, and this left a mark on his personality.

Maté says that as recently as 1930, medical science was aware of mind-body connections, and understood the role of stress. Maté says that in 1892, the famous doctor William Osler suspected that rheumatoid arthritis was stress-related.15 In more recent times, though, there has been a tendency to take a “narrow scientific approach.” Maté emphasizes the connection between stress and auto-immune diseases like arthritis. Maté says that scleroderma is

one of the autoimmune diseases, which include rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and many other conditions that are not always recognized to be autoimmune in origin, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.16

Maté says that asthma is one of the few diseases that the medical establishment admits has “a significant mind-body component.”17 As I said in my book of aphorisms, “Certain illnesses, such as epilepsy and asthma, almost always have a psychological cause.” What Maté says of asthmatics seems applicable to Proust: “Separation anxiety has been observed in children with asthma to a greater degree.... Asthmatic children [often] engage in long, escalating, mutually negative interactions with both their mothers and fathers.”18 Do readers who are asthmatic feel a strong affinity for Proust? Has he depicted their experience better than other writers? Maté says that asthmatics often come from a family characterized by “overprotectiveness.... inter-dependence of relationships [and] intrusions on personal boundaries.”

Maté speaks of the importance of boundaries, of detachment, of differentiation — “the ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s emotional functioning.”19 Maté cites a study in which emotional dependence was related to immune-system deficiency.20 Detachment should not be confused with apathy. It means having a boundary between yourself and others, and between your thoughts and feelings. I’ve discussed detachment often. Maté suggests that women are more dependent on the relationship, more prone to suppress their own needs for the sake of the relationship, and more prone to contract auto-immune disease or cancer.21 Maté says that we need a balance between security (security in our relationships and in our social surroundings) and autonomy.

If early-childhood experiences lead to disease and death, should we blame the parents? If the parents themselves had a troubled early childhood, should we blame the grandparents? But what if the grandparents had a troubled early childhood? Maté says stress and disease are passed down through the generations, just as health and good parenting are passed down through the generations. Bad parenting often affects all the children in a family, hence all the children are afflicted with disease. Maté discusses a woman named Natalie, who had multiple sclerosis. “Her oldest brother was an alcoholic who died of cancer of the throat. Her younger sister is schizophrenic. Her uncles and aunts were alcoholics.... Her son has attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and has struggled with drug addiction.”22

Maté says that, in an ideal parent-child relationship, the parent is “tuned in” to the child. In my view, Maté’s concept of attunement is a valuable one, and might be original.

For the satisfaction of attachment needs in human beings, more than physical proximity and touching is required. Equally essential is a nourishing emotional connection, in particular the quality of attunement. Attunement, a process in which the parent is “tuned in” to the child’s emotional needs, is a subtle process. It is deeply instinctive but easily subverted when the parent is stressed or distracted emotionally, financially or for any other reason.23

Attunement may occur between a person and a pet. How many of Maté’s concepts apply to animals, apply to man-animal relationships? Are the seeds of stress planted in an animal’s early childhood, and do these seeds eventually grow into disease? Robert Sapolsky wrote a book about animal stress called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Perhaps we should conclude this discussion of Maté’s When the Body Says No by repeating its central message: health and disease, both physical and mental, have their roots in early childhood:

In the parent-child interaction is established the child’s sense of the world: whether this is a world of love and acceptance, a world of neglectful indifference in which one must root and scratch to have one’s needs satisfied or, worse, a world of hostility where one must forever maintain an anxious hypervigilance.24

5. Dieter Dengler

I saw an excellent Werner Herzog documentary called Little Dieter Needs To Fly. It’s about Dieter Dengler, a German who grew up during World War II, dreamed of becoming a pilot, made his way to the U.S., joined the Navy, participated in the Vietnam War, was shot down over Laos, was taken prisoner by Communist guerrillas, managed to escape from prison, and was finally rescued by a passing American plane. In addition to this documentary, Herzog made a movie called Rescue Dawn, which tells Dengler’s story in fictional form. Dengler wrote a memoir called Escape From Laos, and a writer named Bruce Henderson told Dengler’s story in Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War.

When Dengler was about 6, he saw an Allied pilot fly low over his village, and from that moment he dreamed of becoming a pilot. Dengler’s father was a German soldier, and died in World War II. Dengler was once running from the communists, came to a fork in the trail, and saw a vision of his father pointing the way to safety.

The privations that Dengler endured as a youngster in Germany helped him to endure captivity. His family collected wallpaper and made “wallpaper soup,” since there were vitamins in the glue. Dengler was apprenticed to a blacksmith who treated him roughly — a preview of how his guards later treated him. Dengler’s grandfather had been persecuted for criticizing the Nazis; his courage in the face of mistreatment inspired Dengler with similar courage. As a pilot-in-training, Dengler went to a “survival school,” and proved adept at escaping from confinement, and at surviving on his own. One might say that Dengler had a knack for escape, like Rudolf Vrba, whom we discussed in a recent issue.

Dengler was once on the verge of death. He said he felt no fear or pain, and couldn’t tell if what he was experiencing was dream or reality.

Dengler’s story ends on a dark note: at the age of 62, “Dengler was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable neurological disorder, and on February 7, 2001, he rolled his wheelchair down to the driveway of a fire station and shot himself. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.”25

6. Harry Markopolos: The Man Who Knew

I saw a fascinating documentary: Chasing Madoff, about the Madoff Ponzi scheme. (Bernard Madoff, who’s now 74 and in prison in North Carolina, carried out the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history, a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of some 65 billion dollars. The scam operated for at least 20 years, before it came crashing down in December, 2008. Madoff’s fund seemed to produce steady returns, but Madoff was really just putting money into a bank account, and paying off old investors with new money.) Chasing Madoff focuses on Harry Markopolos, who was one of the first to suspect Madoff, and one of the first to provide the SEC with evidence that Madoff was engaging in fraud.

In 1999, Markopolos was asked by his Boston employer (Rampart Investment Management) to figure out how Madoff was achieving steady returns, and duplicate his success. After looking at Madoff’s returns for 5 minutes, Markopolos realized he must be a fraud: Madoff’s returns were a straight line upward, without declines, without zig-zags. Markopolos knew that, in the financial world, even the savviest investors can’t produce a straight line upward. Markopolos collected evidence, and presented it to the SEC, but the SEC initially did nothing, then later investigated and found no evidence of fraud. Markopolos was stunned that the SEC wasn’t convinced by his evidence. Two articles voicing suspicions about Madoff were published in 2001, about 7 years before Madoff’s scheme was exposed. Markopolos was stunned that the articles didn’t have an effect.

I was reminded of the Oxford Theory: there, too, the evidence is strong, but people somehow close their eyes to it. There, too, articles were published in major journals, yet the fraud continues. The Stratford man is the Madoff of the literary world.

I was also reminded of Robert Hanssen, whose spying for the Soviets was “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” In 1990, eleven years before Hanssen was arrested, his brother-in-law, Mark Wauck, suspected him. Wauck was in the FBI (as Hanssen was), and Wauck relayed his suspicions to his supervisor, but no action was taken.

Perhaps people have a tendency to “play the averages” and “go with the flow.” When we hear something strange and surprising, we feel that it’s probably not true. Perhaps Wauck’s supervisor thought, “this tip is probably not true, the chances are that Hanssen isn’t a Soviet agent, and it would require a lot of work to investigate him.” So Wauck’s supervisor ignored the tip. It was easy to ignore the tip, hard to investigate it. To go with the flow is easy, to accept what others accept is easy.

The Madoff case also reminded me of Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz, and told people what was happening there, but wasn’t believed. It seemed impossible — too strange to be true, too strange to conceive of. Perhaps this is how people felt about Madoff: they couldn’t conceive of such a huge fraud, it seemed impossible, incredible. It was easier to believe that Madoff was just another investor — a little savvier than most, a little unusual in his strategy and results. After all, Madoff had an impressive resumé: he had worked on Wall Street for decades, he had been Chairman of the NASDAQ exchange, his firm was a major “market maker” (that is, his firm executed trades, putting together buyers and sellers).

In his capacity as “market maker,” Madoff had learned to acquire business by incentivizing people to bring him trades. If a firm executed trades with Madoff, he would reward them with “a piece of the action,” a kickback, a commission. Madoff used the same method with his Ponzi scheme: he rewarded money-managers for bringing him money by paying them a generous commission. Thus, there was always a flow of new money into Madoff’s fraudulent fund, and fortunes were made by money-managers who steered investors into Madoff’s scam.

Nonetheless, the major Wall Street firms stayed away from Madoff, they “smelled a rat.” Many Madoff investors were European, others were charities, others were ordinary individuals. The Madoff scheme has been called an Affinity Fraud because Madoff lured people who were of the same ethnicity as himself (Jewish).

During his lonely crusade, Markopolos feared for his life. He felt that Madoff probably knew of his work, and might want to “rub him out.” Markopolos believed that some of Madoff’s investors were Mafia figures, who wouldn’t hesitate to use violence. Markopolos planned to kill Madoff before Madoff could kill him. In retrospect, Markopolos’ fears seem overblown, but at the time, it was natural for him to feel “saucy doubts and fears.”

In the end, Madoff’s scheme wasn’t exposed by the government or the media, it was exposed by the market itself. During the 2008 financial crisis, people were losing money in large amounts, so they needed to raise cash; Madoff couldn’t keep pace with redemption requests. Markopolos admits that, try as he might, he wasn’t able to expose Madoff, he wasn’t able to save numerous investors from ruin.

Madoff’s scheme was, in some respects, similar to the 2008 subprime-mortgage debacle, and similar to other investment manias. When I discussed the 2008 crisis, I said,

As long as housing prices were rising, the profits rolled in, and the risks were ignored. “I can go with the flow. If everybody’s in the same boat, how risky can it be?” It was similar to a Ponzi scheme: as long as new money kept coming in, it seemed like a good business. But the product at the bottom of it all had little value: a mortgage sold to a risky, subprime borrower. One is reminded of the Tulip Mania in 17th-century Holland: something of little value was sold and re-sold, lots of people made money, and then it all came crashing down.

Madoff’s scheme was just a more extreme version, a more naked version, of many investment fads. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from both the Madoff affair and the subprime affair is, “Invest in something you understand, something that’s transparent, not something that’s opaque and mysterious, even if it offers juicy returns.” What was Madoff’s motive? I doubt his motive was financial gain. His market-making business probably provided him with a substantial, steady income. Furthermore, his Ponzi scheme wasn’t very lucrative; available funds were used to pay commissions and satisfy redemption requests.

If his motive wasn’t financial gain, what was it? It seems that, way back in the 1970s or ’80s, Madoff took a small step over the line, and once he crossed that line, it was difficult to go back, he could only go further, he could only wade deeper into fraud. One is reminded of Macbeth:

     I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Perhaps initially Madoff didn’t want to admit that returns were poor, so he falsified his returns, thinking that he could put things straight later, but that became impossible. He probably regretted that initial step. For years he lived with the fear of being caught, and when he was finally put in prison, he said he was happier and more relaxed than he had been for a long time. I don’t think Madoff is an unusually evil person, an unusually cruel person, though the effect of his actions may make him seem so. Did he feel some sort of thrill at having tricked people, at possessing a secret?

Markopolos wrote a memoir called No One Would Listen. Diana Henriques wrote The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and The Death of Trust. Brian Ross wrote The Madoff Chronicles. Robert De Niro is making an HBO movie based on the Henriques book; De Niro is going to play Madoff.

The TV show 60 Minutes did a piece on Markopolos called “The Man Who Knew.” Careful readers of this e-zine (if any such there be) will recall that, in an earlier issue, I discussed another person who was dubbed “The Man Who Knew”: John O’Neill, an FBI agent who understood al-Qaeda before 9/11/01, and tried to warn people about al-Qaeda.

Markopolos is now 56, lives in a Boston suburb, and works as a freelance fraud investigator. He says there’s lots of fraud around, and no shortage of work for fraud investigators.

© L. James Hammond 2013
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Footnotes
1. The War of the World, ch. 11, p. 386 back
2. Wikipedia back
3. Wikipedia back
4. I quoted this sentence in an earlier issue, when I was discussing an essay by Roger Kimball. Kimball gives us an example of LitSpeak: “In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate.”

In another issue, I discussed an essay by Joseph Epstein:

Epstein discusses a book by Barbara Foley, a left-wing professor in the Northwestern English Department: “Its first 103 pages are given over to the new literary theory gradually becoming regnant in English graduate studies. Devotees of this theory will find many old friends cited in her pages: Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan.... The highest new jargonese is everywhere employed. The prose is consequently very dense. Few actual works of literature are cited in this first part of the book. Instead something called ‘the text’ is continually mentioned; also such barbed-wire words as ‘intertextuality’ and ‘extra-textuality.’” Epstein gives a sample of the book’s obscure prose: “Though some writers manage to make use of modernist defamiliarization as a powerful tool in the critique of reification, most accede to the thoroughgoing fetishization of social relations that characterizes what Lukacs called the ‘problem of commodities’ in the early 20th century.” back
5. Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science, Myth, and the Trickster, Introduction, p. xxviii back
6. Wikipedia back
7. Ch. 12, pp. 160, 161. Maté traces disease to early-childhood stress. Maté notes that Swift’s father died before Swift was born, and Swift’s mother abandoned him when he was just one year old. “Swift’s life and writing both manifest a poverty of felt emotional experience and of direct emotional expression. His phenomenal powers were largely confined to intellectual ideas and to an acerbic wit.” back
8. Ch. 2, p. 23 back
9. Ch. 2, p. 23 back
10. Ch. 4, pp. 49, 50 back
11. Ch. 4, p. 44 back
12. Ch. 8, p. 111 back
13. Ch. 18, p. 243 back
14. Ch. 1, p. 9 back
15. Ch. 1, p. 5. Maté also praises the physiologist Walter Cannon, author of The Wisdom of the Body. back
16. Ch. 1, pp. 1, 2 back
17. Ch. 14, p. 190 back
18. Ch. 14, p. 191 back
19. Ch. 14, p. 194 back
20. Ch. 14, p. 195 back
21. Ch. 14, p. 196 back
22. Ch. 16, p. 216 back
23. Ch. 15, pp. 207, 208 back
24. Ch. 15, p. 207 back
25. Wikipedia back