"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When Wall Street Journal reporter Gregg Zachary abandoned the Silicon Valley beat and said that he was going to travel the globe covering labor issues, his friends in the media wondered whether he had gone Marxist on us. For aside from his day job at the great capitalist bastion, he moonlights as a contributor to lefty publications such as Mother Jones and In These Times. Sure enough, Zachary wound up writing something truly radical, although his ideas will challenge accepted wisdom on both the left and the right.
In his new book, “The Global Me,” Zachary spins a theory of why countries will succeed or fail in the global economic struggle, sort of a “Wealth of Nations” for the microchip era. His argument is that innovation depends on the cultural collisions that come from an ethnic and racial mixing of the population, which is exactly what happens in places like California. Outsiders and misfits are the ones who provoke change, he says. Immigration and intermarriage are economic boons because they create “mongrels”–hybrid personalities who are exceptionally creative: “They have more perspective than the one-dimensional person and are more willing to rebel against tradition or question habitual ways of thinking or doing.” Nations that remain homogenous and closed off, like Japan, risk getting clobbered. Countries that are starting to encourage diversity (like Ireland, surprisingly) are the ones that stand to win.
The book is an example of its own thesis: It’s an interesting read because it’s such an unusual melange — a lyrical political manifesto, a shrewd economic and business analysis and a finely-observed reportorial notebook, with more than a bit of enticing armchair travel, too. The title, “The Global Me,” evokes the image of a footloose soul who’s no longer constricted by a single national identity. Zachary himself, a long-time Berkeley, Calif., resident now based in London, exemplifies how mongrel breeding and global mobility can produce a highly original thinker. His own ancestry is half Italian, half Eastern European Jewish, and his wife is Irish. Salon recently caught up with him for pasta in San Francisco’s North Beach.
What provoked the ideas for this book?
It was triggered by my experience in Silicon Valley. It’s the most innovative place in the world, technologically and socially, and I saw that a big source of its strength and vitality was the large amount of diversity and the mixing. That’s what’s critical — the mixing. Typically one-third of a company’s engineers were from foreign countries. And many people maintained connections internationally — they weren’t just Americanized foreigners.
One of the reasons the United States regained its lead over the Japanese in industry, and why it has never been seriously challenged by Europe in information technology, was because the United States has this great ability to harvest the world’s talent. American society is open and porous enough so that talented foreigners could come here and feel they were expressing themselves. When you go to Japan and Germany as a foreigner you might be contributing to an organization, but you feel that you’ve lost your self.
This is a simplification, but your basic thesis — about the importance of ethnic and racial mixing in a society — reminds me a little of the old ’60s notion that if we all make love to each other the world will be a better place.
(An embarrassed laugh.) Contact with strangers is the engine of growth and vitality, the heartbeat of a vital society. And to an extent, one of the things about the ’60s was you were supposed to have intimate contact with all kinds of people, whether it was sexual or social, through drugs or partying.
And I think that is the new ideal of American diversity — not that groups are supposed to be separate or protected, which was a big advance over the idea of a melting pot, that we would all act alike. That was the ’50s idea. You were supposed to only show your unique identity in the privacy of your own enclave. So if you were a devout religious person, that was something for home, not to intrude on the public life.
Joe Lieberman still carries that out. You don’t see him wearing a yarmulke at the Democratic Convention. He says that he’s an Orthodox Jew, but he’s only going to go so far. For older people there’s still a sense that your most intense feelings of group unity are private. Then in this public sphere in American life we’re all supposed to be the same. But in the last 25 years we’ve started to see that people want to carry their traditional names into the public sphere, and their traditional language, and more importantly they want to bring some of their values to the public space.
You make a compelling case for the value of cultural mixing as an impetus for innovation, but where does that stand in relation to other factors influencing global competitiveness? Silicon Valley has a cultural melange but it also has unique structures for raising capital and forming companies.
More and more places in the world are imitating the structures of Silicon Valley. Europe now has the NASDAQ. For the past five years you can raise venture capital in Europe; you can float a public stock offering there. Is that likely to decisively change the competitive balance around innovation? No. It hasn’t and it isn’t going to. Because while these factors are necessary for innovation, they’re not sufficient. If you have capital and a good educational system you can compete, but without this mixing of top talent from around the world, you don’t get the vitality and the cutting-edge results.
Economists consistently miss the cultural aspects of change today. Just as it’s easier quantitatively to track the financial factors, it’s easier to duplicate them. Governments have been trying to duplicate Silicon Valley for 25 years but what continues to elude them is this collision, this mixing, this social melange, because that requires a whole different mindset. Some countries are making strides towards it. Ireland, for example. Singapore.
You write about the stubbornness and arrogance of Germany, where the elites feel philanthropic because they let in hordes of uneducated workers but they keep out the educated technocratic classes that would compete with them.
One of the big issues facing the rich parts of the world right now, in Asia and Western Europe, is that the U.S. advantage in diversity is crippling them; that even if they get all the financial factors right, all the regulations right, they’re going to have this other problem, that they don’t have diverse populations that feel good about the diversity. Right now you’re seeing a backlash in Europe, of neo-Nazis and others, partly because the leaders are starting to talk about immigration and diversity as if it’s good.
There’s still a struggle to re-examine what does it mean to be a good German or a good Irish person or a good French person. If being Irish is no longer being Gaelic and Catholic, what is it? Anybody that shows up there and contributes — is that enough? That’s fairly close to the U.S. definition of citizenship. If you follow the rules and you contribute, you deserve to stay. For many societies, that’s a radically different notion of community, which is based on religion and race, but not just on pulling your own weight.
The European Union allows everyone in those 15 countries to live and work in every other country. That was one start of it. The shortage of babies, the low birth rates, means the European nations have big worker shortages and they’ve got to let people in to solve that.
For the Japanese, the first question is immigration. They’re just beginning to talk about how if they don’t get immigrants, then in 100 years their population will fall by half. The country’s influence and wealth will naturally decline if there are 60 million people and not 120 million. And they’re steadily falling in population already. They know immigration is important. The problem is that, like Germany, you can let in immigrants, but it’s not set up to handle their aspirations. They may be worse off in the short run. Instead of having the contribution of lots of talented people, you just have a lot of angry foreigners living in your country.
What’s happening in Northern Europe, in a culturally homogenous place like Finland with the success of the cellphone maker Nokia?
Nokia has brought hundreds and hundreds of foreign people to Finland. They’re changing their fellow employees. Nokia realizes that you can’t ask foreigners — whom you’ve recruited — to change to satisfy Finnish ways. They won’t. They’re not going to be told how to dress, where to eat, how to behave. The Finns are very reserved and structured. These foreigners bring a more freewheeling, out in the open, argumentative approach. And so some Finns at Nokia will start becoming that way, and it spills over to the larger society.
Finland, because it’s bringing talented people into the country, may have a better chance at pulling off a more thorough diversity than Sweden, where they never really did try to attract talented foreigners. They were a big country for asylum seekers, for the desperate, lesser-educated people who deserved to stay in the country. But Sweden has ended up with essentially foreign ghettos, and they recently had a race riot there, where Swedes and these immigrant neighborhoods exploded in battle. The United States has had that and still has it. Tensions and violence themselves don’t mean that you failed. It could mean that you’re gaining ground because people are getting anxious.
Revolutions of rising expectations?
Exactly. Turks in Germany are more militant now than ever, yet they’ve got more rights and they’re better treated than ever. The reason is because they now need to be treated as well as the Germans, despite their differences. There’s still a ways to go. In Germany you can run a newspaper ad that says I’ve got an apartment for rent but don’t bother applying if you’re Turkish.
An influential book by Rutgers political science professor Benjamin Barber, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” portrayed the rival forces of multinational companies spreading branded American culture in confrontation with indigenous cultures and traditions. You don’t see this polar conflict. In a qualified way, you’re praiseworthy of the cultural influence of multinational companies.
Many people got swept up by the idea that the world was falling into two camps: globalists and nativists. But in most societies, people are trying to marry the two. They’re trying to have a paradoxical attachment to both. They want traditions, but they want freedom to explore the world. And that’s the dominant motif, the grand narrative of the future: people getting both. The world is much more complicated than this idea of warring camps. There’s a war inside the souls of each one of us to be both global and local. There’s an American openness to many multinationals that’s very attractive and that contrasts favorably with the approach of local employers, where nepotism and discrimination are still common.
You have to criticize multinationals on a case by case basis, but in general, I don’t think they’re any more destructive culturally than purely domestic companies. And in a lot of cases they can do good. No one who goes into a McDonald’s in a foreign country thinks they’re getting anything central culturally, but they have an attraction to it. It fills a need. And McDonald’s is often the first retailer in a country to offer clean bathrooms. In Moldova, it’s the only retail establishment I know of that has hot water in its bathrooms. Women go in and wash their hair sometimes just to experience hot water.
There’s a perception in the political left that multinational corporations and the globalization trend is evil. Look at the passion of the WTO protesters …
My first writing job was at the Berkeley Barb. I’m a contributing editor to In These Times. I’m sympathetic to the left’s critique and to people on the left. My argument is simply that even if you didn’t organize the world economy around multinationals and open financial structures, you’d still have to deal with migration and diversity in a new way.
German trade unionists are opposed to diversity in Germany. People on the left in Germany are against multiculturalism. Trade openness means people openness. In Europe some of the biggest nativists are left-wingers. Socialism in Britain means victory for the British working class and that’s the people who are there now. So the Guardian, the most leftist newspaper in Britain, is very skeptical of these multicultural ideas I talk about. Aren’t the people who are here already supposed to get the benefits of trade? And who are the people who are there? Well, they’re white English people. Who are the people in Germany benefiting from the trade unions? White German people.
It’s fine if you’re against the WTO. I think it’s undemocratic and it’s not a good structure to deal with trade agreements. I’m just saying that within this realm of diversity, which is very essential, multinationals have a good record. The ones that aren’t are those involved in extractive industries, like the oil companies, mining, low-wage manufacturing. These have bad records. But there’s a lot of knowledge-based multinationals and these have a much better picture.
People on the left have to make more fine distinctions about what multinationals are actually doing and how much responsibility these trade agreements really have for the overall society. If you have ethnic strife in a country, it’s not helped if you don’t allow a free-floating currency or if you have trade barriers that protect domestic manufacturers. You still have serious issues about how in a knowledge economy, which is predicated on creativity, how do you gain creativity in society? You do it through mixing. Collision of ideas. Out of that comes misfits and new experiments.
When people have looked at the sources of creativity, they find again and again that misfits are the most creative. And who are these misfits? They’re the outsiders. It used to be that outsiders were flukes, so societies once in a while got something creative. Now, everybody in a society can be a misfit, metaphorically. One could say the entire Bay Area is just a collection of misfits.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)