Pale Wire (Popscene)

Sunday, October 09, 2005


The sea is angry, my friends. Or at least that's how William Langwiesche makes it out in The Outlaw Sea, his unsettling 2004 book about seafaring in the new millennium.

It's made up of a pair of articles about the terrorist threat to America's seaports Langwiesche wrote for The Atlantic magazine, complemented by a terrifying account of the sinking of a European oceanliner, and an investigation into Indian shipwrecking yards singled out as abominations by distant European activists.

Like the Richard Preston book I reviewed earlier in this year, The Outlaw Sea is the sort of journalism designed to frighten. Langewische wants you to fear the sea. And why is that? Because, amidst their roaring waves, Earth's oceans are peppered with floating outposts of rotting steel where you can find new forms of poverty, commerce, crime, and—most notably—nationless terrorism. There, regulation is a farce, America is a villain, and the safety of civilization is far gone over the horizon's edge.

After impressing the grave threat posed to America's vulnerable seaports by rogue ships and exposing our own baffling inability to stop it (frankly, enough to get me a little lathered), Langwiesche aims for something bigger. There is a recurring theme about human frailty in the face of nature—not much stands between us and a violent death, particularly when we're at sea, and our dear author wants to make sure we don't forget it—but there's also a concerted effort to use the untamed and reckless nature of the sea as a symbol of the challenges of globalization. Thomas Friedman uses India's motivated crop of engineers and growing technological infrastructure to present globalization as an electronic-fueled struggle between minds, as a battle that can be won. William Langewiesche is not so optimistic. He doesn't write about Bangelore's well-groomed business campuses. He writes about how the other four-fifths lives in the starving slums of New Dehli. And instead of empowering Friedman's supercompetent class of achievers to "flatten the world," most of the institutions he introduces us to come off as ineffectual, misguided, inadequate.

So, life sucks for most everybody and things aren't looking up. But what can we do about it? Sorry, Langewiesche doesn't offer any answers. But he seems to think a good first step would be to get our heads straight.
[The Indian shipwrecking port of Alang] has become a metaphor in the crucial struggle of our time—that between the First World and the Third World, the rich and the poor. In a slightly different form, it is the same struggle that plays out in the open ocean. Beneath our perspectives on a shrinking world lurks an opposing reality, hidden in the poverty of places like South Asia, of a world that is becoming larger, and unmanageably so. Do we share a global ecology? On a certain level it's obvious that we do that therefore a genuine scientific argument can be made for the imposition of a Western knowledge and sensitivities. But making this argument is difficult, full of political risk and the opportunity for self-delusion. In practice, the world is as much a human construct as a natural one. The people who inhabit it have such radically different experiences in life that it can be almost surprising that they share the same air. This is inherently hard to accept from a distance. Too often we have a view of what is desirable for some other part of the world—on an ocean, in the slums from which sailors come, in Alang—which is so detached from the daily existence there that it becomes counterproductive, or even inhumane. At Alang, resentful Indians kept saying to me, "You had your industrial revolution, and so we should have ours." I kept suggesting in return that history is not so symmetrical. But of course they knew that already. They viewed Alang, and the ocean itself, with more complexity than they could express to me, and were using a simplified argument they felt I might understand. On the ship-scrapping beach at Bhittagong, in Bangladesh, I met an angry man who took the simplest approach. He said: "You are sitting on top of the World Trade Center, sniffing fresh air, and talking about it. You don't know anything." And then, of course, the World Trade Center came falling down.

Other than an overuse of the word "chaos," Langwiesche's prose is as elegant and facile as ever. He effectively uses narrative techniques to pull you along. His account of the sinking of the Estonia and the international struggle that followed is compelling, if a little long-winded. You can read more of his work in this month's Atlantic, on newsstand's now, where you can find the first installment of a two-part series on A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan, Libya, and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. I also read that this weekend. It's very good.