Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Thursday, July 10, 2003

An op-ed contributor to the New York Times discusses turmoil within the Monticello Association: five years after the release of DNA evidence linking Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the two branches of the extended family have yet to see eye to eye.

I'd be interested in more detail on the controversy. Is it a simple case of racism? Grouchiness? Concern over Jefferson's reputation? Concern over the validity of the DNA evidence? Some combination of the above?


Words guaranteed to attract the attention of a Soviet history grad student: "Communist bloc archives reveal..." The Christian Science Monitor reports on the release of archival documents that show just how successful Communist governments were in using economic aid to win the cooperation of the North Korean government. Should these records tell us something today?


What do you get when you combine "a madcap romantic comedy" and "a graduate seminar in literary history"? A weird-sounding novel, of course. Maybe I'll read it sometime.


George Orwell: government stooge? Yesterday the British Foreign Office announced that it would release its copy of a list of untrustworthy "crypto-Communists" provided by George Orwell in 1949, making the list freely available at the Public Record Office later this summer. The news that Orwell--famous for his political independence and his journalistic integrity, as well as his anti-Communism--had sent such a list to the British government made waves earlier this summer, when a copy of the list was published by The Guardian; the list included Charlie Chaplin and the Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher, among others.

Unfortunately, Timothy Garton Ash's essay accompanying the June release of a carbon copy of the list isn't available online. Norman MacKenzie, the one known surviving person from the list, has said that Orwell's declining health clouded his judgement. (Orwell also disliked one of the supposed fellow travellers, who had rejected Homage to Catalonia for publication, and was apparently trying to impress a woman named Celia Kirwan by helping the government.) The list seems like a fairly small stain on Orwell's reputation, given that it was intended to help the government select anti-Communist propagandists (and not to punish suspected reds), but it's interesting reading nonetheless.


Revelations from Kim Jong Il's chef!

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on Seymour Hersh.


"Whenever Prince William, Prince Harry - or their father for that matter - are photographed they are almost always wearing polo clothes. Is their wardrobe limited? Or are they hopelessly obsessed with one of the oldest recorded games in the world?" An article in the Financial Times discusses polo's efforts to look less elitist. Another article describes old-guard Stalinists who can recognize enemies of the people by looking them in the eye, but I couldn't get access to the article on concentration camps in Franco's Spain.


If you've ever harbored the misconception that Arianna Huffington is intelligent, then I'd recommend that you read this column. Of course, I suspect that the only people who think much of Huffington are the same people who think that Michael Moore is god's gift to American liberalism, and I doubt that any of them read this blog.

The subject of Huffington's column is the movie Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blue. Most of the reviews of the movie have been lackluster at best, but Huffington sees it not just as a fun movie, but as an inspiring two hours for anyone who wants to change American politics. "A frothy comedy is an unexpected place to find a clarion call to movement building," she writes. "But that's OK, because it's this very unexpectedness that gives the movie its impact." Later on, she adds:

Elle's [the main character's] efforts culminate with a rousing speech in front of a joint session of Congress in which she reminds the rest of us how important our involvement is to the well-being of our democracy: "I forgot to use my voice ... Now I know better. I learned that one honest voice can be louder than a crowd's ... So speak up, America. Speak up for the home of the brave. Speak up for the land of the free gift with purchase. Speak up, America!"

Sitting between my teenage daughters while watching Elle take on the U.S. Congress, I was struck by the palpable effect it had on them: They left the theater inspired, empowered, and talking about the things they wanted to change and the ways they might be able to change them. None of which would have happened as a result of a lecture from Mom.

The problem, as anyone who's seen the film can tell you, is that Elle's speech is utterly substanceless. I can't even remember what it says--except that it has nothing to do with the issue she's pushing, and instead dwells on the evils of a bad haircut. Maybe this message will resonate with American voters, but, frankly, I doubt it. I suspect that the film's producers would be as amused by Huffington's reaction to the speech as I was, and I have to wonder what planet her children come from.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Legally Blonde 2. It wasn't as amusing as the first movie in the series, and I preferred the way that the first movie put a ridiculous person in a supposedly serious situation to the way that the sequel made the whole situation utterly ridiculous. But if you're looking for a fluffy comedy, something that's not the greatest (or the most hilarious) movie ever made, but which is a lot of fun if you're looking for something to do on a hot summer day, then Legally Blonde is worth seeing.

By the same token, the column cited above is worth reading if you want to understand Arianna Huffington. Huffington began her career in punditry as a conservative, before suddenly--and inexplicably--becoming more liberal a few years after her then-husband failed in a bid to buy a U.S. Senate seat in California. I've never thought that ideas meant anything to her. Now I know that I'm right about that.


Remember Frontier House, the PBS reality show? According to a recent article, plans are afoot for two similar shows from earlier in the country's history (when daily life was more difficult). An excerpt:


It's easy for academic historians to take potshots at the reality-television impulse driving Colonial House and the "Mayflower Project." "They should set it in Jamestown," one colleague mused. "Then all the colonists would be young and male, and we'd see them resort to cannibalism before they all gave up and died in the season finale."


I agree with the author's colleague. Given the state of reality TV, could a program like this be in our future?


I don't think it needs the attention, since many of the blogs I read regularly link to it, but I've really enjoyed Crooked Timber, a new group blog. The entries have varied a little in quality (the first one, introducing the site, seemed kind of pompous to me), but I especially enjoyed this entry.


Robert Conquest is one of the country's better-known authorities on Soviet history, but he was always more effective as a Cold Warrior than as a scholar (and his work hasn't worn especially well since the archives opened up.)

He's also a poet. Until recently, I'd never read any of his poems and, now that I have, I'm not terribly impressed. Am I missing something? Or is this particular verse kind of bland and uninteresting?

The poem linked to above is much less catchy, but far more tasteful (and literary), than this limerick written by Conquest:

There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
That's a lot to have done in
But where he did one in,
that grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.


I find the poem kind of odd. Right-wingers are always trying to equate Stalinism and Nazism--I honestly don't remember Conquest's take on the relationship between Nazism and Soviet Communism, but there are a lot of conservative writers (often inspired by Conquest) who are determined to compare the numbers of people killed and show that Communism was worse. (That's a subject for another day.) I can't imagine someone writing joking poetry about Hitler, and yet I've seen this verse approvingly quoted by people who applaud Conquest's staunch anti-Communism.


Though I haven't read much of his work, I get the impression that Terry Eagleton is a charming writer. I've always enjoyed reading George Orwell, even though some of his biggest fans really get on my nerves. So I got a kick out of Eagleton's recent review of several new Orwell biographies. An excerpt:


A second-rate novelist and a furtively fabricating social commentator, he was homophobic, anti-feminist, unsociable, anti-intellectual, authoritarian and latently violent. He was also an anti-semitic, sexually promiscuous, self-pitying Little Englander, whose later fantasies about Big Brother and pigs running farms (they don't have the trotters for it) bequeathed a set of lurid stereotypes and convenient caricatures to the Right. In this sense, Orwell, like Freud but unlike Marx, has passed into the common language. But whereas Gramsci believed that socialism must become common sense, Orwell at his worst seemed to imagine that common sense was socialism. As if all that were not enough, he thought Henry Miller was an outstanding novelist.

Read the whole thing if you found this excerpt amusing. It's slightly pretentious at times (see above), and more favorable to Orwell than this quotation (taken out of context) would suggest.

Should you want to read something about a man who seems to think he's George Orwell reincarnated, see this article on Christopher Hitchens. Its conclusion? "I'm afraid my old mentor is not the truth-telling Orwell he fancies himself to be. He's becoming a coarser version of Norman Podhoretz."


It's good to see that, according to Daniel Drezner, Howard Dean's foreign policy views aren't always as naive as they appear.

I've never quite been sure what to make of Howard Dean. Early on, he seemed likely to become this year's version of the thoughtful, right-of-center Democrat who wins a reputation for "seriousness" and receives the support of the press and a lot of upper-middle-class voters. (Think Paul Tsongas or Bruce Babbitt.) Since then, of course, he's become a fiery populist, winning points with the Democratic base for his attacks on Bush and the Iraq war. On domestic policy, I like Dean: he's a little too conservative for me on issues I don't much care about (say, gun control), but seems like one of the party's more credible voices on finances. (It's no coincidence that Vermont is one of the few states that's not going through an enormous fiscal crisis right now.) But Dean seems too angry for me, and I'm not wowed by his foreign-policy stance. I also suspect that, one of these days, people will figure out that he's a fairly conservative Democrat, complicating his campaign for president.

Once again, then, we're left with an underwhelming field of Democratic presidential candidates. I guess I'll just have to hold my nose and vote for Dean, Kerry, or Edwards.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

It's nice to see that at least some conservatives care about the president's misleading rhetoric on weapons of mass destruction.


An article in Reason Online discusses how Leon Uris's book Exodus has shaped American attitudes toward Israel. It's worth reading. Until recently, I thought that Uris was the sort of writer known only for appearing in Trivial Pursuit questions, and this article both told me more about his work and presented a nice (implicit) defense of popular literature.


From yesterday's Wall Street Journal: Mathematicians for Martha Stewart!


My dissertation research has been moving along smoothly for quite a while now. (More on that later.) But it's nice to know that my dissertation problems paled in comparison with someone else's: no one ever claimed that my research was a threat to national security.


I'm scared. A dancing Dobby?!

Monday, July 07, 2003

The National Post has begun a series on creativity and the brain. The first two installments discuss how language stunts creativity and why we can't get that song out of our heads.


Here's a question that will be very important in my future: What should college professors be paid? An economist talks about how that question has been answered, both now and in the past.

Of course, some professors are paid more than others. Maybe I'll be one of the lucky ones!


Thoughts on reading The Guardian:
  • Wannabe pop stars had the chance to compete for attention (and a record contract) on the BBC's Pop Idol, which was the inspiration for American Idol; now the BBC is planning a similar show to give wannabe writers the chance to compete for fame and (maybe) fortune. Something tells me that the idea won't catch on in the US...

    I have to wonder: Who'd be the best candidate for the Simon Cowell role? James Wood, perhaps?

  • Robert Graves is cool. But is his poetry as cool as his other writing?

  • I was struck by this review of the book
    30 Days: A Month at the Heart of Blair's War
    . (The title is apparently different in America.) "Peter Stothard can tell us what Blair's staff ate," the review's teaser informs us, "[b]ut as for the larger matters..." This quotation neatly summarizes the review's argument: the book's access to the hallways of power sometimes led to a lot of details (though sometimes not...), but rarely helped explain the true dynamics of the crisis.

    I think there's a larger argument to draw from the review: the writing of history and the writing of journalism are very different things. I've never been terribly impressed by Bob Woodward's recent books, for example--they take an enormous issue (like the origins of the drug war or the Iraqi crisis) and give an amazingly up-to-the-minute summary of the chain of events. Woodward's books often even describe the thoughts, feelings, and personal reactions of high-rankings government officials, giving readers the impression that they are there--at the center of power and influence, where life-and-death decisions are constantly being made. Books like this can be fascinating (and are often loaded with fun anecdotes), but there are two major problems with them: their authors are usually the captives of their sources, and they're almost always short on long-term perspective. Stothard's book, then, is part of a larger problem that results when journalists try to write history.

    The Guardian article cited above makes an excellent case that Peter Stothard's book isn't good history. Likewise, I don't think Bob Woodward's Bush at War will be a lasting contribution to our knowledge of the "war on terror." John Judis and Spencer Ackerman have recently demonstrated the dishonesty of the build-up to the second Persian Gulf War, adding a little perspective to studies of President Bush's leadership. Even that account, however, will be subject to revision in the months ahead--and its greatest contribution isn't the analysis it provides, but its documentation of the administration's misleading rhetoric. You can look to opinion journalism for a lot of things--snarkiness, thoughtful analysis or heartfelt ideological criticism, for example--but you shouldn't look to journalists for a definitive account of the recent past. If you want to know what really happened and why, then--in all likelihood--you're just going to have to wait.

    [My response to this review has turned out really rough, and not very convincing. Perhaps I'll expand on this later.]

  • Can British newspaper readers really answer all the questions on these quizzes?
As you can probably tell, bullet points have recently become my friends.


A (delayed) Sunday reading summary:

  • Michael Dirda raves about a really cool-sounding book on murder and revenge in Anglo-Saxon times.

  • The Boston Globe ideas section asks a lot of interesting questions: To what extent does gender affect writing style (and how big is genetic variation between men and women, anyway)? Do muckrakers like Eric Schlosser have a bright future in journalism?

  • The Columbia Journalism Review discusses the meaning of objectivity in the press.

  • Peter Linebaugh (who writes cool books and articles on English history) describes the lesser-known history of the Magna Carta.

  • The Wilson Quarterly discusses the definition of the natural and the nature of medical necessity.

  • An interesting fact I didn't know until yesterday: the writer Joan Didion and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy were childhood friends (just one tidbit from an article about how Supreme Court justices sometimes change their minds).

One of these days, I plan to start discussing the content of the articles I read. That day will just have to wait.


I've been slow in posting of late, in part because of a weekend trip to the suburbs and in part because Blogger has been misbehaving. (It won't seem to work on my computer at home...) This afternoon I'll post something more substantive, but for now, here's a link to the second-most-stupid article on Harry Potter I've ever read.