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

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Saturday, July 19, 2003

I enjoyed the subtitle of this article from the National Post: "For once, the Americans are not the villains here." The Canadian Tourist Commission is now taking the blame for a series of mistakes on a set of maps sent to potential tourists; those maps left off Prince Edward Island and incorrectly spelled "Nunavut."

Overheard at the movies last night (during previews): "God! Not another stupid horse movie!"

(Does anyone actually want to see Seabiscuit? I do have to admit, though, that the other "stupid horse movie" previewed last night looked kind of fun.)

I've decided that Pirates of the Caribbean is a cinematic masterpiece of the first order. Well, maybe it's just a cinematic masterpiece of the second order, but either way, it's definitely worth seeing. (How could a movie that includes both a shoulder parrot and a shoulder monkey be bad?) In case my favorable comments about Legally Blonde 2 have left you questioning my judgment, consider this: Legally Blonde is the sort of dumb movie you should watch if you want to see a dumb movie. Pirates of the Caribbean is the sort of dumb movie you should watch if you want to see a fun movie. But if you want to see a film with a good script, wonderful acting, and a plot without glaring inconsistencies, then go see something else entirely.

The Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow--where the action in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita begins--have been the subject of controversy. The city of Moscow has abandoned plans to erect a statue of Jesus walking on the pond's water, but the pond is now little more than a muddy hole.

In other Russian literary news, a group of prominent writers has complained to the education minister that dissident authors from the Soviet era are being removed from the high school curriculum.

Ever wonder what your cat is trying to tell you? Then buy a Meowlingual!

Back in the day, before the Republicans took control of the legislative branch in 1994, Newt Gingrich and friends complained about how the minority party in Congress was treated. But Republicans were treated better than this.

Donald Rumsfeld says that Iraq today is just like America in 1783. Mary Beth Norton, a historian at Cornell, shows just how wrong he is.

This doesn't, of course, mean that the American dream is dead in Baghdad. Just consider these five men whose avowed goal is to "become superstars like Michael Jackson." Will they become the Iraqi 'N Sync?

The man who inspired John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation--a conman who convinced members of New York's high society that he was the son of Sidney Poitier and needed their help--has died.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Maybe there's hope after all... If philosophy grad students can do sort of okay on the job market, then maybe wannabe historians can too!

Then again, my superstitious side will never forgive me if I'm too optimistic and jinx myself, so here's a blog that anyone considering grad school in the humanities or social sciences should look at.

According to this article, both the administration and the press are under-counting the number of soldiers who've died in Iraq. (via Altercation)

The Guardian is coming to America. Could be interesting...

This one's been going around, but in case you missed it: Senate interns are charming people, don't you think?

In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait lays out a liberal case against Howard Dean. If Karl Rove wants Dean to be nominated, then the rest of us should hope he doesn't win...

Update: it has just come to my attention that Chait's article was paired with a pro-Dean piece by Jonathan Cohn. Cohn's article, unfortunately, is not available online, but Donkey Rising analyzes the two articles here (just scroll down until you find the headline "Take Two Dean Articles and Call Me in the Morning.")

Homesick for East Germany? An American soldier who defected to the East Bloc's German Democratic Republic wants to live in Germany again. Will he be able to come back?

If the history thing doesn't work out, then maybe I'll let publishers pay me to write blurbs. (via Bookslut)

Why is it that, when Tony Blair and George W. Bush say the same thing, Blair always sounds more intelligent?

Not that I want to downplay the differences in what Blair and Bush believe, or in what they've said publicly about Iraq and the war on terror. One of these days I plan to write in more detail on these issues, but I'll have to wait until I have more time. Suffice it to say that I'm more hawkish than most of the liberals I know, but that I disapproved of the way the war was carried out, and that I detest the way that the Bush administration deceived the public about the Iraqi threat, but I believe that that those deceptions discredit the Bush administration more than they discredit the war.

British newspapers seem much better than their American counterparts in producing good headlines. Two examples: Hell is Belgian bureaucrats (from The Guardian) and "Half man, half broccoli" (a review of Hulk in The Telegraph, not available online). The article on Belgium amused me.

The Telegraph's review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book on Stalin is now available online. I'm unimpressed by the review (by Orlando Figes) and don't know what to make of the book.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Mice, according to this article in New Scientist, prefer the smell of chocolate to the smell of cheese, which has led to the development of a new type of mousetrap. If the contents of New Scientist are any indication, British scientists are oddly intrigued by our rodent friends: this earlier article suggests that mice leave twigs and leaves to make signposts (or "rodent road signs") in fields.

"My friends on the left fear the administration's budding imperialism. I'm more concerned by its raging anti-empiricism." Harold Meyerson, in today's Washington Post.

It's always nice to see that a historian's work has been influential beyond the academy: John D'Emilio, a prominent professor of gay history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was cited in Justice Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence v. Texas. The Chicago Tribune's culture critic discusses D'Emilio and his work in her latest column.

Update: I've just come across this Rick Perlstein article from The Washington Post on how academic gay studies shaped the court's opinion.

Update 2: Here's another related article, this time from the New York Times Week in Review section.

The governor of Illinois is now preparing to sign a law that would require the taping of police interrogations. This is an extremely good idea: as I learned when writing an article on one of the leading critics of Miranda v. Arizona, even the toughest foes of the Miranda rule tend to support taped interrogations. But it seems that Illinois will become the first state to mandate this reform.

Has the "war on terror" hurt the world's poor?

I have to enter this contest someday. The Washington Post reports on this year's results.

The Atlantic slave trade: initiator of globalization?

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I've always thought that the "Today's Papers" feature in Slate was kind of dumb. (Not as dumb as the "Bushisms" feature, which is often kind of weird and which is never as funny as its compiler thinks it is, and not as pointless as the recent feature on candidates' catchphrases. But it's still kind of dumb. Or is there something I'm missing?) Here's an interview with Eric Umansky, who writes "Today's Papers."

In LA Weekly, Doug Ireland describes the conservative record of Joe Lieberman--a long-time critic of affirmative action and a fan of Charles Murray (who wrote The Bell Curve).

I have mixed feelings on articles like this. To begin with, a candidate's past record isn't always the best guide to what he'll do in office--just consider Franklin Roosevelt, who ran for president as a champion of balanced budgets and tight finances. I'm not arguing that we should ignore the records of presidential candidates, of course, but I suspect that Lieberman's views on a number of issues have changed since the mid-1990s. (I doubt that any Democrat would oppose affirmative action in the White House, and Lieberman's views, in particular, have almost certainly changed since 1995, when he described affirmative action as "un-American.") It would obviously be nice if all our politicians were totally principled and consistent, but I'm not prepared to oppose a candidate out of hand because of views he held in the past. Should we oppose Dick Gephardt just because he first ran for office as an anti-abortion foe of busing?

The article also goes over the top in criticizing Lieberman's other positions. It notes, for example, that Lieberman "joined with rabid gay basher Rick Santorum . . . to co-sponsor George Bush's faith-based initiatives." Lieberman joined with a lot of senators in supporting Bush's bill: I think he was wrong to do so, but the gratuitous reference to Santorum's gay-bashing doesn't seem relevant here. Ireland can never seem to decide whether Lieberman is an ultra-conservative or just an opportunist--he notes that "the quintessential Lieberman act of opportunism was his mad dash to the Rose Garden to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dubya and co-sponsor the resolution that gave away Congress’ constitutional power to declare war on Iraq." Is this opportunism, though? Again, I think that Lieberman was wrong, but his stance will probably hurt his chances of becoming president, since many primary voters will hold it against him. Ireland's argument, such as it is, comes across as shrill and unnuanced.

Which is a shame. Some of the charges laid out in the article are quite serious--I agree with Ireland that Lieberman is too much a slave of corporate America to be taken seriously as a Democratic presidential candidate. I think that Lieberman is prudish and sanctimonious. I think he should have to answer for some of his past votes and statements. I just don't think he should be completely written off as a right-wing stooge.

It's not uncommon, these days, to see articles calling on Democrats to take a stand, to be forceful in developing a strong liberal message and attacking the president and his allies on the issues where they're most vulnerable. I think that this is a good idea. It's not a good idea, however, to take such a resolutely negative stance that our strongest arguments are lost in a sea of shrillness, and that our negative attitude makes us look petulant and reactionary.

Showing, once again, that The New Republic has a fantastic section on books and the arts, Cynthia Ozick writes a lengthy review of Reading Lolita on the Bus. It's a "memoir in books" by an Iranian woman about life under a theocratic regime, and about her reading of forbidden Western literature with a group of other women.

According to the Village Voice, an anonymous Hasidic blogger has been making waves in certain Orthodox circles, comparing his culture with that of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Normally I find blog entries about blogs kind of annoying, but I enjoyed reading this article.

I've recently come across two interesting blogs on language: Languagehat and The Discouraging Word. Where else can you find posts named "Kazakh word magic," charming anecdotes about Evelyn Waugh, snarky comments about the need for proofreading, and discussions of the words "natch" and "owly"?

"As the cliche would have it, those who can't create, criticize. I was recently attacked, for example, by a sculptress when I told her I was reviewing Claire Tomalin's biography of Pepys. 'A review of a biography of a writer?' she asked incredulously. 'Isn't that a little precious?'" Apparently the sculptress wasn't convincing: the woman she spoke to has now written a review of an essay collection by the critic Clive James.

According to one conservative writer, Christopher Hitchens "tried for a sort of 'Politics of the English Language' lite and wound up with a bad McGuffey reader impression instead" when he wrote his latest book.

Is compiling standardized exams like preparing gourmet food? I don't think so either. But this article on the writing of standardized tests is worth a read.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Via The Filibuster: Bob Graham, the Florida senator who's running for president, has decided to sponsor a NASCAR driver.

The London Review of Books reviews a book about self-medication by animals. (Special bonus: our furry friends get high, too!)

Fred Kaplan has become one of the country's best writers on U.S. foreign policy. Here's his latest Slate article, describing the crisis in North Korea.

It's always distressing to link to an article, and then find that Arts and Letters Daily has also linked to it. (I linked to that Gadamer article first!!)

Then, every so often, I actually do link to an article featured on aldaily after they've alerted me to it. (There isn't much point to that, it seems, since a lot of my readers also read aldaily themselves.) One such article--a review of two books on cadavers and medical curiosities--includes a delightfully nasty comment: "On the whole, one’s time would be better spent reading a railway timetable." (The review is worth reading for more than just the final line.)

The world needs more nasty book reviews. And more nasty obituaries.

James McNeill Whistler was a surprisingly witty man. Did he influence Oscar Wilde?

French workers have seven weeks of vacation a year, France's economy is one of the most productive in Europe. How do they do it?

Movies frequently cast African-Americans in spiritual roles--roles where they help white characters through mystical or supernatural means. Is this patronizing, or is it a sign of progress?

What does a federal judge do in his free time? Help his father compile a massive genealogical table of Greek mythology, of course! Should you be curious, it's on sale here. (Via Bookslut)

Monday, July 14, 2003

Yesterday I began reading The Fly Swatter, a biography of the Russian-American economist Alexander Gerschenkron by his grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff. My mouth practically dropped open when I read the following passage:

In 1949, when Henry Rosovsky, one of his students at Harvard, mentioned that he was going to a concert that night, Shura [Gerschenkron] wanted to know, "What concert?"

"Reginald Kell, the British clarinet player, is performing with the Boston Symphony," answered Rosovsky.

"Ah," Shura said stroking his chin. "You know I haven't been to a concert in thirty-five years. I haven't got the time." At that point in his life he was sleeping only every other night and inviting those who wanted a word with him to stop by his office at six in the morning."

Could that final sentence really be true? If it is, then grad schools should offer courses to teach valuable skills like that!

A cool New York Times article I missed yesterday: Emily Yoffe tries to explain why kids want to watch the same videos again and again and again and again...

Does it matter that there are very few men teaching young elementary school children?

Brian Ulrich has written about recent developments in Qu'ranic studies. I find the subject fascinating. I'm generally ignorant of Islam, and have little of interest to add, but I was reminded of an Atlantic Monthly article on the subject from a couple years back. I'm curious how good the article is.

It has now been fifty years since the arrest of Lavrentii Beria, Stalin's notorious secret police chief. Beria is a fascinating person: he's long been considered an especially brutal and evil man (who drove around Moscow and ordered his guards to bring him selected young women to rape as he passed them on the street), but now historians are beginning to revise that view. (Beria supported several liberal reforms before his execution in 1953, and some of the most sensational charges against him may have been made up by his political rivals.) My hunch is that at least some of the more gruesome stories about Beria will prove to have been exaggerated or fabricated, but that he was still one of the worst of Stalin's henchmen. Only time will tell.

Not a parody: "Russia's only 'sniffer cat', hailed for its successes in the campaign against the bloody and lucrative world of caviar smuggling, has been run over and killed in a suspected contract killing."

(Apparently the government is considering a caviar monopoly, since smuggling and poaching may lead to the extinction of the Caspian sturgeon.)

Update: Rusik's death may have been an accident. Click here and scroll to the bottom.

Does the antiliberal revolt of the present day resemble the tumultuous 1920s in Europe? Abbott Gleason, a professor of Russian history at Brown, thinks so.

Fans of Hans Georg Gadamer--the German philosopher who pioneered hermeneutics--like to say that he was a modern Socrates. Should his career under the Third Reich tarnish that image? He was, it seems, at best a pragmatist--and at worst an opportunist or a collaborator.

According to the traditional view, Benito Mussolini was an arrogant and incompetent dictator:

Mussolini liked to demonstrate his physical fitness by jogging down the lines when reviewing his troops; from 1935 he made visitors display their fitness as well as their inferiority by making them run to his desk in the Palazzo Venezia and then run out again at the double before saluting him from the door. He compared himself positively to Napoleon and Julius Caesar, although no comparisons could be more absurd: they secured victories, he guaranteed defeats. The Duce was, as foreign critics pointed out, a "sawdust Caesar" or a "Cesar de carnaval."

Now, two new biographies revisit the life and career of Mussolini.

How did the Delphic oracle work? A team of geologists and archaeologists argues that the classical answer (involving geologic phenomena) is more convincing than the more recent consensus view. The article is well worth reading--though the authors' conclusion (about the dangers of "exclud[ing] scientific inquiry from religious understanding") seems a bit unconvincing and tacked on. (Link via The Antic Muse.)

Tim Judah reports on passover in Baghdad.

Twelve years ago, Simon Schama published an idiosyncratic book called Dead Certainties, whose best-known section involved a notorious murder at Harvard. (It even features a janitor who doubled as the medical school's "resurrectionist.") Now The American Experience will present a documentary on both the case itself and Schama's approach to the writing of history.

Do we really understand al-Qaeda?

Sunday, July 13, 2003

"Bars can't have TVs bigger than 55 inches. Teddy bears can't include tape decks. Girl Scouts who sing 'Puff, the Magic Dragon' owe royalties." Copright law, it seems, is idiotic.

If I were to compile a list of the most interesting magazines that I'll probably never subscribe to, Legal Affairs would be near the top of the list. (I'd also rank it high on a more general list of neat magazines.) There's other good stuff in the latest issue--one of the most interesting articles being a piece by David Bosco on civilians and the law of war.

I like Joseph Epstein. An excerpt from his piece in today's Wall Street Journal:

I walked to Barnes & Noble and saw an attractive woman with my book in her hand. I sidled up to her and announced, "I wrote that book." She looked at me in mild disbelief, taking me, quite possibly, for a maniac. I attempted to establish my sanity by telling her, in too-quick speech, about an incident in which John O'Hara saw a beautiful woman on a train reading one of his books. This could only have confirmed her initial impression of my nuttiness.

Slate asks a profound question: Why are pirate movies so bad?

Note to self: read some Peter Brown.

Now that I've been blogging for a while, I'll probably need to change my strategy a little bit. The few people who read what I write presumably know that I'm a fan of Michael Dirda's Washington Post column and the Boston Globe ideas section, so it seems pointless to link to each one every Sunday. (If you agree with me that both are really cool, you can find them yourself, and if you disagree with me, you probably find this blog unbearably boring.) Still, though, my plan is to keep linking to stuff I find interesting, though I hope to limit my utterly predictable Sunday links to one entry a week (at most.)

In that spirit, here are links to other articles I found interesting in my morning look at various newspapers and magazines:

  • Andy Warhol meets Alfred Hitchcock. America's first female self-made millionaire and her daughter: what does the story of their lives they tell us about the Harlem Renaissance? Especially recommended: Germany tries to change the image of its tourists.
  • The New York Times reviews the new Harry Potter. (Reading the review's claim that Order of the Phoenix is "an angry book, a lamentation and a thanatopsis, a 'Song of Roland' and an 'Epic of Gilgamesh,' with the usual chorus of doxies, puffskins, bowtruckles, spattergroits and thestrals, not to mention a crumple-horned snorkack" almost makes me wonder if A.S. Byatt was right...)
  • Why people still starve. Sigmund Freud: writer or scientist?
  • Carlin Romano looks at historical context in the history of philosophy and at before-and-after photographs of Philadelphia. (Romano's Sunday book review column in the Philadelphia Inquirer seems to be worth another look.)
  • Borges apparently thought that translations could be better than the original books they were based on. Something tells me that Vladimir Nabokov would have disagreed.
  • Why is Carol Mosely-Braun running for president?
  • Nelson Mandela rethinks the legacy of Cecil Rhodes.

Another lesson to live by: Books with boring titles can be surprisingly fascinating. In 1965, Harry Truman donated a book called "The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc., Diary and Manual 1947" to his presidential library, where it was placed on a shelf and went unnoticed for decades. In the words of the Washington Post, "Apparently its tedious title scared scholars away and nobody noticed Truman's handwritten comments in the diary section in the back of the book until recently, when a librarian reshelving books happened to see them."

(Random question: why would a book with such a boring title include a lengthy diary section for its owner's use? That just seems bizarre.)

The most interesting revelation from the book: Truman--despite his staunchly pro-Israel policies as president--had some rather negative things to say about Jews:

The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.

I find these comments interesting: something tells me that they won't have as big an impact in shaping Truman's reputation as Richard Nixon's anti-Semitic comments have had in tarnishing his own legacy. I won't comment in detail on that, though--especially since I don't know enough about Truman, Nixon, and their attitudes toward Jewish people to have a sense of whether this difference is actually unfair. (It could be hard to denounce Truman--the president who recognized Israeli statehood--as an anti-Semite, after all.)

I was amused by Truman's comments on an Independence Day celebration at Monticello:

Lady Astor came to the car just before we started from Monticello to say to me that she liked my policies as President but that she thought I had become rather too much 'Yankee.' I couldnt [sic] help telling her that my purported 'Yankee' tendencies were not half so bad as her ultra conservative British leanings. She almost had a stroke.

Another diary entry confirms the long-standing rumor that, in 1948, Truman suggested that if Douglas MacArthur decided to run for president as a Republican the next year, Dwight D. Eisenhower should run as a Democrat--with Truman (then the president) as his running mate.

Update: The Smoking Gun has posted excerpts from the diary. And William Safire (a former Nixon speechwriter, as well as a New York Times columnist) weighs in.

In case you haven't noticed, blogging was light (er, nonexistent) for the last few days, while my parents were visiting me. Now that they've moved on, I'm returning to my habit of frenetically posting links to articles that won't interest anyone but me. I'll begin with a handful of links that I'd normally have posted on Friday or Saturday, and if you're lucky, I may even add some commentary of my own.

A lesson to live by: "Word has somehow got around that a split infinitive is always wrong. This is of a piece with the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady." (James Thurber, The Owl in the Attic and other perplexities.)

(Note to self: read more Thurber.)