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

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Saturday, August 02, 2003

Someday, when I'm really old and actually have some free time, I'll make it a practice to read more books than book reviews. But for now:
(sigh) When I run a grad school of my own, I'll require every student to read at least one book a week that has nothing to do with his or her research.


One of Bruno Bettelheim's patients has written a memoir.


It's amazing how, when you're tired, the most obvious headline can seem baffling. Consider this one from today's Boston Globe: "Classified pages implicate Saudis." For a moment after reading it, I had this weird image of a classified ad requesting help with explosives, or something odd along those lines. I guess that's still more evidence that I'm an Ed of little brain.


An exhibition of avant-garde Russian art has opened in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France. I won't comment on whether the article has an appropriate headline: Katerina Clark would have far more to say on that subject than I do.


The Washington Times has published a review of David Gilmour's new Curzon biography. As a review of the book, it was competent but not outstanding: its author sometimes seemed not to understand that many people have a far more negative opinion of Curzon than he did.

Every so often, however, the reviewer wrote something that grabbed my attention:

It is undoubtedly true that Curzon was exceptionally well-traveled — how many other European statesmen of his, or any other, time had walked across Indochina? — but Mr. Gilmour falls into the trap of believing that to see a country is to really know it. All too often what people see when they travel is what their preconceptions and worldviews allow them to see.

I remember a couple of decades back reviewing a pair of republished travel books on Central Asia, one by Curzon and the other by Arthur Koestler, and being struck by the superiority of both style and substance of Koestler's work. What struck me again about Curzon's travel writings when reading Mr. Gilmour's acute, if to my taste too admiring, descriptions of them is their predictability, indeed their utter banality.

It is inevitable that he should be impressed by Japan and appalled by French colonial administration, that he is impressed with princely splendor in India and appalled by brashness and vulgarity in Chicago: "'America was a very strange country', he thought, 'so vital, so prodigious, so blatant, so much on the nerves.'" Evidently, the secret of his travel books' success with the great British public lay in their accurate reflection of conventional tastes and prejudices shared by author and readers alike.

This reads to me like a fair judgment of Curzon's travel writing, and a decent summary of conventional Victorian views of the world. It also made me wonder whether the author of this review could have done more justice to another book: this essay is mostly bland, with occasional points of interest, but anyone who has read Arthur Koestler's travel writings from Central Asia must be an interesting person. (For all I knew, Koestler had only written Darkness at Noon, The God that Failed, and a bunch of crazy stuff about mental telepathy and parapsychology.) Then again, I don't expect greatness from the book reviews in The Washington Times.


I'm always amused when the editors of blatantly satirical material feel the need to emblazon their work with the word "parody." Then again, when your subject is Ann Coulter, sometimes it's hard to tell satire from reality.


Denis Thatcher amuses me. I wonder what America's first "first husband" will be like.


Mirrors are more interesting than you'd think.


Did the Orientalist views of Western scholars help justify the Iraq war? Not surprisingly, Edward Said thinks so.

I've never had a straightforward reaction to Said's Orientalism, but I enjoyed this essay. (Call me a hopeless romantic, but I can't help but enjoy an essay expressing sentiments like this: "To young people of the current generation the very idea of philology suggests something impossibly antiquarian and musty, but philology in fact is the most basic and creative of the interpretive arts.") Some of Said's arguments seem indisputable to me:

What American leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of understanding is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, so that "we" might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people to follow. It is quite common to hear high officials in Washington and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle East, as if ancient societies and myriad peoples can be shaken up like so many peanuts in a jar.

Other passages seem less straightforward:

But there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. It is surely one of the intellectual catastrophes of history that an imperialist war confected by a small group of unelected US officials was waged against a devastated third world dictatorship on thoroughly ideological grounds having to do with world dominance, security control and scarce resources, but disguised for its true intent, hastened and reasoned for by orientalists who betrayed their calling as scholars.

The first sentence strikes me as a valid indictment of part of this country's intellectual establishment. The second sentence strikes me as over-the-top: though the motives of the war were highly ideological, I'm not convinced that "world dominance" was the main goal of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and their allies. Simplistic language like this, I would argue, hurts the cause of critics of the war more than it helps them.

What interests me most, however, is Said's argument about the relationship of knowledge and empire:

Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not like "us" and didn't appreciate "our" values - the very core of traditional orientalist dogma - there would have been no war. The American advisers to the Pentagon and the White House use the same clichés, the same demeaning stereotypes, the same justifications for power and violence (after all, runs the chorus, power is the only language they understand) as the scholars enlisted by the Dutch conquerors of Malaysia and Indonesia, the British armies of India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, West Africa, the French armies of Indochina and North Africa.

I don't think I've done this essay justice (in fact, I may revise this entry after reading the article again or reviewing my notes on Orientalism, since it feels like a trite book report by an undergrad), but I think that the relationship between academia and the goals of the state is a topic that every historian who works with non-American history should consider carefully. My own field, Soviet history, was closely intertwined with the foreign policy establishment for most of the Cold War era. (Perhaps the best-known American historian of the Soviet Union--Richard Pipes--worked for the Reagan administration, and even today, my funding as a grad student comes from a Cold War-era federal government program.) In Soviet studies, one could argue that the goals of academia were shaped too strongly by the imperatives of American foreign policy. It became too easy either to adopt a pro-U.S. "totalitarian" line or to expend energy challenging that line, leaving other questions unexplored.

I'm very glad to be working in a less politicized atmosphere today, though I'm sure that current events make Middle Eastern history an exciting field for today's historians.


Now that Tony Blair has passed Clement Attlee as the Labour party prime minister with the longest uninterrupted tenure in office, The Guardian compares the Britain of 1951 to the Britain of today.



In These Times features a review of a book on FDR's geographer. (via Arts and Letters Daily)

It's a fascinating read. I had no idea that the "discovery" of Macchu Picchu was mostly a publicity stunt (and that the location of the city was widely known in the area); Isaiah Bowman, the subject of the book, participated in that expedition, and later helped to redraw the borders of Europe "scientifically" as a member of the American delegation to Versailles. He later served as head of the Council on Foreign Relations and president of Johns Hopkins, and was then chosen to "scientifically" manage the Jewish refugee problem during World War II. Suffice it to say that neither attempt at "scientific" policy-making was a success.


What do Americans think about religion?


The New York Times has published a fascinating article by Douglas Brinkley about recent attempts to track the authorship of works produced under the Depression-era Federal Writers Project.

One problem was that many authors (like John Cheever and Saul Bellow) were ashamed of their connections to the W.P.A.:

But it is difficult to trace authorship for the W.P.A. guides. Mr. Bellow, for example, left mention of his Writers' Project work at the Chicago office out of his entry in Who's Who in America. In "Bellow," his biography of the author, James Atlas writes that Mr. Bellow was humbled to be toiling alongside hard-drinking literary heroes of the proletariat, like Algren and Jack Conroy, editor of the leftist journal The Anvil. Mr. Bellow explains in the book, "I rather looked up to them, and they looked down on me."

Mr. Bellow, whose first Writers' Project job was inventorying Illinois periodicals at the Newberry Library, was later assigned to write 20-page profiles of writers like John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson and James T. Farrell. Mr. Atlas discovered the essays only a few years ago when he was researching "Bellow."

Researchers are also plagued by more infuriating obstacles:

Steinbeck [in Travels with Charley] points out that many of the printing plates for the guides were smashed in the wake of a late-1930's witchhunt by Representative Martin Dies Jr., Democrat of Texas, who insisted that the W.P.A. was a Communist plot. But the Library of Congress has hundreds of boxes of the guides' raw material: correspondence, interview transcripts, slave narratives, research notes and photographs. It is one of the most underused and untapped historical collections in America.

The article is well worth a read. You should also check out Languagehat's entry on the Federal Writers Project, which includes a link to the American Memory section of the Library of Congress website.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Christopher Hitchens asks a question that's been bugging me the last week or so: Did Bob Hope ever say anything funny?

Personally, I think The New York Times (or some other prominent newspaper) should hire Hitchens as an obituary writer. When he's not pretending to be George Orwell, Hitchens can be a clever writer--and he clearly enjoys bringing beloved figures down a notch or two. Perhaps Hitchens should forget about Orwell and try to channel the spirit of H.L. Mencken (who wrote nasty obituaries of lots of people, not just of William Jennings Bryan.)

Hunter S. Thompson's obituary of Richard Nixon is another great read. (It was published in Rolling Stone, but is now available on The Atlantic's website for some reason. You should read it in its entirety.) The obituary includes its share of amusing passages:

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

It also includes a passage that's either profound or silly--I can never tell which:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Subjective Journalism (to paraphrase Thompson, odd capitalization and all) is a skill at which Christopher Hitchens excels. I'd much rather see him writing entertaining obituaries--or, failing that, articles like the Slate piece I link to above--than see him lambaste the left unfairly or pretend that all liberals should reflexively support the second Iraq war. Maybe, if we're lucky, he'll find a new journalistic calling.


Victor Davis Hanson has published a review of Paul Johnson's Napoleon biography in the Claremont Review of Books.

This is the sort of review that is difficult to judge fairly--especially for someone like me, who knows practically nothing about Napoleon. The best way to describe the article is to call it a polemical defense of a polemical book. Davis makes sweeping statements, declaring that "Napoleon and Alexander were money-driven thieves par excellence, perhaps the difference being only that the looted imperial treasuries at Susa, Babylon, and Persepolis yielded more specie than the Swiss banks at Berne." Discussing one of the seminal events of world history, he writes "Lest we think napoleon [sic] perverted the French Revolution's idealism, we should remember that he in some sense embodied the very brutality of that entirely unnecessary event." And, like so many commentators writing on French matters these days, Davis can't help but comment on contemporary affairs:

Before labeling the melodramatic Johnson an alarmist, recall that the present French ambassador to the United Nations—pompadour hair flying and arms waving as he warned America of imperial overstretch and the need to lay off fascist Iraq—is none other than the starry-eyed Dominique de Villepin, author of Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice (The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice), a recent postmodernist history that laments the dream that was lost at Waterloo ("a defeat which gleams with the aura of victory"), on a battlefield 12 miles from Brussels, the current center of the latest undemocratic European utopian fantasy.

Indeed Napoleon's enduring resonance in some parts of contemporary Western society tells us as much about ourselves as it does the self-proclaimed emperor. Johnson's matter-of-fact chronicle of executions, grotesque battle losses, betrayal, and outright lying—stripped of Napoleonic fluff and bluster—reflects deeply-rooted Anglo skepticism about messianic killers, as the principled careers of Englishmen like Edmund Burke, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and most recently Tony Blair attest. In contrast, for the insecure, megalomaniac, and duplicitous, Napoleonic power holds an eternal appeal, one apparently with increased attraction for a slowly eroding contemporary France, which deploys half an aircraft carrier as it eyes longingly the 12 fleet carrier groups of the United States.

It's no surprise that the hagiographer Villepin and his "handful of dreamers" in contemporary Paris would ignore the endemic terror inherent in Napoleon's methods, offer cant to hide amorality, and instead focus on raw power. Villepin's France is a sort of hollow Directorate come alive, talking of the need for U.N. approval, all the while it intervenes unilaterally in the Ivory Coast; protesting the horrors of Middle East war while it sells weapons to Saddam Hussein; expressing notions of universal brotherhood while it abets the criminality of the Iraqi Ba'athists who ran up a bill in the billions to everyone in France from perfumists and pornographers to oil men and missile salesmen; and praising the Atlantic "alliance" as it strongarms two-bit dictatorships into opposing American efforts to take out the same type of fascists that once took it out. For the current naïfs who lament the Bush Administration's purported ineptness at trans-Atlantic relations, they could do no better in fathoming the current French antics than reading Paul Johnson's Napoleon alongside Villepin's Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice.

I've never been terribly impressed by Paul Johnson--he seems much more effective as a conservative polemicist than as a real historian. The Conservative Book Club advertises his Napoleon biography as "informative reading for every conservative who wants to keep the Left from repeating its twentieth century errors in the twenty-first," which wouldn't exactly draw me to the book even if I were a conservative. A 1998 Slate review of one of his books sums up his approach to history well (almost too charitably):

If you want your history books to be entertaining--full of anecdotes about the lives of the rich and the famous--Paul Johnson is the author for you. A prolific British journalist-historian, Johnson is the author of many popular books, including Modern Times (1992) and A History of the Jews (1988), which explore the past in large sweeps. More opinionated than academic historians tend to be, he is also skilled at offering character sketches and at spinning out stories. While this ambitious and lengthy history of the American people gets bogged down here and there, it manages, for the most part, to move ahead at a lively pace. It covers developments from 15th century explorations of the New World to the mid-1990s, but you can open the book almost anywhere and have a good read.

You will also encounter a host of superficial and slanted judgments. Some of these reflect thin research--hard to avoid entirely in a book of such scope. Others expose a sourness about modern American politics and culture that becomes increasingly acid as Johnson moves toward the present day. Particularly in the sections devoted to the years since 1929, Johnson has trouble containing his conservative political and cultural agenda. He is better when he keeps things light

Victor Davis Hanson, on the other hand, strikes me as a more serious figure--but that's true when he's writing about hoplites, not when he's writing off the French Revolution as "unnecessary." (The Boston Globe ideas section recently published a profile of Hanson, available here.) His review is successful as a polemic, but should never be read as deep scholarship, and though Hanson is a learned man, he should not automatically be considered an expert on matters outside his field.

And yet both Johnson and Hanson have won over a large chunk of the reading public, convincing otherwise sensible reviewers of their great erudition and amazing versatility. National Review, for example, ranked Johnson's Modern Times eleventh on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the twentieth century, which is simply ridiculous. (All of the books in the top ten, and most in the next ten, are reasonably plausible, if slanted toward the right, but the inclusion of Modern Times is just silly.) Hanson is viewed in similarly reverential terms by many on the right.

This bothers me, and right off, I can't think of an equivalent figure to Hanson or Johnson on the left. Perhaps this is because academic historians tend to be liberal, leaving an opening for a conservative non-establishment historian/journalist to make waves (and allowing cranky conservatives to vent about "slanted history" when they read works by those who share their biases.) But it seems that there should be some comparable figure on the left--a historian (or journalist) with a reputation for erudition, a frenetic schedule of publishing, a willingness to air his views in popular magazines and journals, and a goal of spreading a liberal view of politics and culture. I just can't think of someone who fits that description.

An instructive counterpoint to Hanson and Johnson from the left, I would argue, is Douglas Brinkley--a very prolific historian with some talent as a scholar, and with a driving need to publish readable books that will establish his reputation. Brinkley is sometimes said to want to be the next Arthur Schlesinger, but his work--to my knowledge--has no clear political agenda. Moreover, he's as well known for publicly mourning JFK Jr. than for his scholarly output or his political views. His book are reviewed approvingly, but not reverentially, by reviewers around the country. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that liberal popular historians aim for celebrity status, and conservative writers on history aim to change the world?

I find this situation a little disturbing. Perhaps this is just the result of two unhappy facts: too few academics are willing to write for the general public, and academia is often judged (fairly or unfairly) as liberal. When a prolific conservative writer or historian gives an impression of erudition and begins to win attention in the public sphere, he's treated reverentially and given far more attention than he deserves. I guess this just makes the work of other historians all the more difficult.


The New York Times has published another analysis of the futures market in terrorism. The more I read about it, the more I think that it wasn't a bad idea. It wasn't necessarily a great idea--I doubt that it would have greatly aided us against terrorists--but at its worst it would have been harmless.

At least the market idea ended John Poindexter's current stint in government--but I'm afraid it led to the firing of the right man for the wrong reasons.


Is kindness toward animals a luxury of the wealthy West? The people who care about the stray cats of Tbilisi don't think so.


What language do Russian animals speak?

Michele Berdy, the author of this article and the article on Russian interjections I linked to last week, writes a regular column for The Moscow Times. Earlier this summer she reviewed a charming Russian movie, Beloe solntse pustyni. (Well, it's charming until everyone gets shot at the end, but that's another story.) A Berdy article from Valentine's Day discusses Russian as the language of love. Yet another Berdy column from this summer explains how to ask for things in Russian.


Still more evidence that Larry King is a moron.


The Danube: river of blood or river of hope?


Is promiscuity innate?


Did Joseph Stalin order the assassination of John Wayne?

A new book says that he did. But, as The Guardian reports, Wayne decided to act on his own when he learned about the order:

Wayne then apparently hatched a plot with his scriptwriter at the time, Jimmy Grant, to abduct the assassins, drive to a beach and stage a mock execution to frighten them. Mr Munn said he did not know what transpired, but heard the two men stayed in the US to work for the FBI.

"Afterwards though, John shunned FBI protection and did not want his family to know. He moved into a house with a big wall around it."

Wayne then relied upon a group of loyal stuntmen who infiltrated communist cells in America and learned of plots to kill him.

"He then gathered all the stuntmen, went to the communist meetings, and had a huge fight," Mr Munn said.

I love the image of John Wayne fighting the reds in real life, and not just fighting bad guys on the silver screen, but I'm somewhat skeptical of this report. One of the main sources was Orson Welles, who wasn't exactly a noted Sovietologist. Given Stalin's personality (and the decline in his health in the years before his 1953 death), I can't rule this story out, but there are plenty of questionable theories about Stalin-ordered assassinations (Kirov, Gorky) that are far more plausible but still unlikely.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Still more proof that James Thurber is really cool can be found in today's New York Times:

In a fine new anthology that casts light on the unguarded aspects of his life, Thurber's dedication to writing as many as 1,200 letters a year and his astonishing versatility are made clear. He could enchant. (To the John O'Haras: "I wonder if you are the same O'Haras I used to know? He was a tall handsome violinist and she was a moonlight serenade.") He could gossip. ("Charles Addams is now mixed up with a woman lawyer who bites him and is said to be handy with a knife when she's mad.") And of course he could skewer. (Re a Time magazine profile riddled with mistakes abut him: "This is a little like finding out that the injury you suffered in the Cornell-Pennsylvania game was actually syphilis.")

He wrote 1,200 letters a year?! I don't even write that many email messages a year, and Thurber's email would undoubtedly be wittier than mine.


Earlier this week, David Greenberg published a smart New York Times op-ed piece on Jeb Stuart Magruder's recent claim that Nixon had approved the Watergate break-in:

The periodic controversies that erupt over questions like Nixon's foreknowledge of the Watergate break-in — and kindred parlor-game mysteries like Deep Throat's identity — impart undue importance to these details. To be sure, the answers may cause us to refine our view of Nixon. But solving such mysteries will not change our basic judgment of Nixon or Watergate — and they distract from more important historical questions.

Of course, writing the paragraph above didn't stop Greenberg from providing a sensible analysis of Magruder's claim, with some colorful details on Nixon's attitude to the break-in. I'll look forward to his book when it comes out this fall.


The British historian Niall Ferguson will be joining Harvard's faculty. The hiring is being treated like a major coup.

I've never known what to make of Ferguson. He made his reputation with a series of books on economic history (unread by me) and made waves with his contrarian history of World War I, The Pity of War. The only book of his I've read (in part) is Virtual History, which struck me as more clever than insightful. (I've seen more intelligent analyses of the role of chaos in history, but Ferguson's chapters in Virtual History weren't bad.) My sense is that his latest book (Empire) isn't an especially deep work of history, but just might be a good read. I probably wouldn't like Ferguson's politics much, and I think he's at least as famous for his celebrity status as he is for his scholarship, but that doesn't mean that he hasn't done some interesting work.

For people interested in more information about Ferguson, here's a profile from the Telegraph. Robert Fulford, a Canadian journalist, wrote a series of articles on Ferguson for The National Post. Here's an interview with Ferguson from Tech Central Station, and here's a "digested read" of Empire from The Guardian. It amused me.


The BBC reports on the restoration of Red Square. Rock concerts and tank parades are hard on venerable old buildings, it seems.


Der Spiegel has an insightful profile of Tony Blair. Here's one interesting passage (part of it irritatingly written in the present tense):

"Our politically ambitious father's stroke, our mother's cancer lie at the beginning of his ambition and sense of obligation," says Bill Blair, his older brother. "He wanted and still wants to do the right thing."

To satisfy his conservative parents' expectations, Tony studies law. But first he gives himself a little time off as guitarist and singer in the band Ugly Rumours (specializing in Mick Jagger imitations), letting his hair grow to his shoulders and wearing hippie clothing. But he rebels against nothing and no one, stays away from drugs, even from the hashish that's so common in the music scene. On Sundays, when the other band members sleep in, Tony goes to church and distributes church pamphlets.

The article ends with a British joke about Blair's popularity abroad and relative lack of interest in domestic affairs: "There is one thing that differentiates our Prime Minister from the Almighty, they say: God is everywhere. Blair is also everywhere, just not in Great Britain."



Mel Gibson is a scary man. The New Republic has finally posted its article on Gibson's anti-historical, anti-Semitic, graphically violent film about the crucifixion. The article is long and worth reading in full. But here's an excerpt if you don't have much time:

I began worrying about Gibson's movie back in March, when The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times ran their stories. The piece in the Journal rhapsodized about Gibson's religious faith as well as about his ardent commitment to his vision: a graphic exploration of the suffering, the torture, and the death of Jesus. The script would draw not only on the Gospels, the article reported, but also on visions of Christ's Passion received and written up by two seventeenth-century nuns. Gibson, the Journal revealed, was struggling to re-capture historical reality both visually (the gore, the pain) and aurally. Ancient languages, no subtitles: this was "a point of honor for Mr. Gibson." His reason was simple. "This is what was spoken at the time," he explained.

But something did not add up. To depict a first-century event by drawing on visionary writings composed almost two millennia later makes no sense at all: one might as well try to reconstruct ancient armor by peering at Bruegel. And while Aramaic was indeed the daily language of ancient Jews in Galilee and Judea, Latin would scarcely have figured at all. When the Jewish high priest and the Roman prefect spoke to each other, they would have used Greek, which was the English of antiquity. And Pilate's troops, employees of Rome, were not "Romans." They were Greek-speaking local gentiles on the imperial payroll. Gibson's pious evocations of historicity rang more than a little hollow. How much homework had he actually done?

The article goes on to describe the ultra-conservative politics of Gibson's father (who considers the current pope illegitimate and doesn't think the Holocaust happened) and describes Gibson's own right-wing Catholic views and his quarrels with scholars who tried to make the film more accurate.


What do you do with the bodies of bad guys? There's been some debate on what to do with the bodies of the Hussein brothers, and Mussolini's corpse presented its share of problems.


Is it better to be read than dead? Peter Ackroyd thinks so, according to this review of his latest historical novel in The Times Literary Supplement. Stephen Abell, the reviewer, isn't a huge fan of the book:

Such playfulness feels like an end in itself, a continuing indulgence craved of the reader. We come to sympathize with the citizen in Ackroyd’s book The Plato Papers who feels snubbed by Plato’s artful rhetoric and is merely told: “That is what he enjoys. The game”.

Ackroyd has been playing the literary game for so long he has perhaps forgotten that his own brand of writing is – like all games – better played out with willing partners. Instead, his new novel represents the perverse egoism of the metafictional writer, who, when calling attention to his forebears, is really seeking to advertise himself. The “Author’s Tale”, which concludes the novel and seeks to place it in a historical and imaginative context, makes the point explicit: revealing that the apparent attempt to focus on the ideas behind the narrative is actually an excuse to dwell on the author behind the ideas.

Anyone out there read any Ackroyd? I've heard good things about his book on London, and have been tempted to read some of his fiction.


The concept of honor is a growing academic interest of mine--especially as it shapes the acceptable code of conduct of members of select groups. (The people whose behavior I'm most interested in, of course, are Communist party members.) I was struck by an article on honor (found via Arts and Letters Daily that appeared in The London Telegraph. It's worth reading for the first paragraph alone:

If you are looking for some fun, and have a research grant to spend, try this. Visit an American university, bump into random students in the corridor and loudly call each one ‘asshole’. Then measure their reactions. This is what a team of psychologists did in a controlled experiment at the University of Michigan. The results were most interesting. Students from the southern part of the United States reacted far more violently and aggressively than those from the North, were shown to have much higher levels of cortisone and testosterone, and in tests regularly suggested more belligerent solutions to problems. America, it seems, remains culturally divided along the Mason–Dixon line, and the crucial difference now, as at the time of the American Civil War, is honour.

I'm not sure I buy the article's argument as far as foreign policy goes:

Jacksonian rhetoric has spearheaded America’s recent wars. The word ‘honour’ is rarely used, but substitutes such as ‘credibility’ abound in official speeches. Nato had to bomb Yugoslavia because the ‘credibility of the alliance was at stake’. Coalition forces had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was ‘undermining the credibility of the UN’. Saddam was not a threat to the USA, but he was a living insult to its honour. Despite all the efforts of the most powerful state on earth, he had for ten years continued to survive and defy America’s wishes. For an administration driven by sentiments of honour, such an insult could not be permitted. Just as the South could not allow Lincoln to become their President, so George W. Bush could not allow Saddam to continue humiliating his country. Only war could satisfy honour.

I'm not convinced that "credibility" and "honor" are exactly comparable terms, and I don't buy the idea that honor-based rhetoric has "spearheaded America's recent wars." This rhetoric has sometimes justified such wars, but has never driven them, I would argue. I would also question the idea that "George W. Bush could not allow Saddam to continue humiliating his country. Only war could satisfy honour." If George W. Bush was concerned about anyone's humiliation, it was his father's--not his country's or the U.N.'s. The main factor driving this country toward war was a neo-conservative plan to reshape the Middle East, coupled with legitimate concerns about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Archaeology magazine weighs in on the new Lara Croft movie. Will the discipline of archaeology survive in its wake?

Personally, I've always wanted to see a fourth Indiana Jones movie, in which the aged title character hobbles around an archaeological site hunting for broken pots and battles the evils of arthritis--before making a grand appearance at an academic conference. (Sure, we could throw in some Nazis, too.) But something tells me that the creators of Indy 4--if it ever does come out--will be disinclined to break with Hollywood tradition.

Archaeology's interview on Iraqi antiquities with an Oriental Institute scholar is also worth reading.


The Blog of Death really intrigues me: it even has a great name! I tend to doubt that the obituaries it publishes will be as marvelous as those written by Robert McG. Thomas of The New York Times, however.

The obituaries available on the site today commemorate Frederic Bradlee (a Broadway-actor-turned-writer who was the brother of The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee), the Hussein brothers, the radio DJ who inspired Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati," and many more. None of the obits are spectacularly written, but they're worth a quick look.



In These Times features a left-wing critique of liberal interventionist foreign policy. It's the sort of article that hawkish liberals like me should read.


A travel writer for The Christian Science Monitor describes Berlin's Museuminsel--probably the most fantastic museum complex I've ever been to. These museums deserve far more recognition than they've gotten.


Jacques Barzun is a charming man. Consider these quotations:

An American commencement, when you come to think of it, is an extraordinary event, even though it occurs every year and in many places. Consider: At commencement, credit is given to those who have earned it; public recognition goes to hard work, not influence; prizes and honors are awarded according to merit. This will never happen again in the lives of the graduates.


The reviewer who wrote: "This book fills a much-needed gap" may have misstated his meaning, but his phrasing is worth remembering for eventual use now and again.


G.W.F. Hegel
Invented the bagel.
He liked its peculiar intensity.
(His prose has the same propensity.)

I'd like the Hegel clerihew a little better if good old G.W.F. really had invented the bagel, but all these quotations amused me. If you're as charmed by Barzun as I am, then go out and buy A Barzun Reader. Either that, or I might lend it to you when I'm done reading it if you ask me really nicely.


The tone of this article on math camps bothers me a little, but I can't put my finger on why.


I find this oddly intriguing: if you look at the website for The Washington Times (a conservative DC daily), you can find links to individual sections on a sidebar on the left. These include all the standard newspaper sections--the front page, nation/politics, world news, op-ed, metropolitan, sports, entertainment, and technology--and one heading that really surprised me: the Civil War. It seems that the paper has an article or two on the war each week, including some interesting stuff. One profile described the post-war reputation of James Longstreet, a Confederate general-turned-Republican. Another piece describes "Our American Cousin," the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. This week's installment describes the evolution of the Union cavalry's skills and leadership, and other articles describe Newt Gingrich's Gettysburg novel and the career of former National Park Service historian Ed Bearss.

Is the DC area loaded with Civil War buffs? Is an important Washington Times editor an avid reader of war scholarship? Does the paper have an agenda in publishing these articles? I haven't read the section carefully enough to check for bias, but I'm always glad to see history given a high profile in our country's newspapers.


Benjamin Franklin: bourgeois revolutionary? Robin Blackburn reviews two new Franklin biographies in The Nation.

I sometimes feel bad for Edmund Morgan. He's an eminent historian who published a well-received biography of Franklin--only to see Walter Isaacson, a journalist with no real history training, publish another biography that gets far more attention (despite receiving at least some criticism from professional historians.) I haven't seen a comparison of the two books' sales, and I don't want to sound like an elitist who doesn't think that journalists can write history, but this seems like an unfortunate case of bad timing.


Libraries are cool.


Does Tony Blair understand history? Linda Colley, a prominent British historian, doesn't think so. The British prime minister, Colley argues, simply doesn't see the importance of history: "For Blair, the past is irrelevant, because this is a new world facing entirely new dangers." He could have learned a valuable lesson from the work of Richard Hofstadter:

America is a great country. But, ever since independence, Hofstadter demonstrated, sections of its political class have repeatedly viewed "conspiracy as the motive force in historical events". At different times, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, Jews and communists have been identified as the conspirators in question. Whatever the perceived enemy, the "central preoccupation" has always been with "a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character". As a result, Americans have been regularly prone to seeing a "wrestling match between good and evil" as the "archetypal model of the world struggle".

This kind of paranoia occurs in many countries and groups. But in America, Hofstadter argued, it has usually been prompted by religious and ethnic tension, and is particularly characteristic of the political right. Does any of this ring bells? It should. September 11 was an atrocity, and there are doubtless still more to come. Heightened security and improved intelligence are certainly called for. But by representing all this as an epic, ongoing war against "shadow and darkness" that requires pre-emptive attacks against sovereign states, it seems likely that Blair, like Bush, has succumbed to the paranoid style in American politics, and with far less partisan benefit.

There's something to this, I think, but I'm a little wary of Colley's argument: ultimately, there just isn't a lot of substance to it. History is, of course, important, and I wish that Blair weren't quite so eager to follow Bush's lead. But I'd have been more convinced by Colley's essay if it had argued that the best way to understand what's going on now is to understand the Muslim/Arab past, or if it had better explained the specific lessons history teaches us today. It's easy to criticize someone for historical ignorance when they follow a policy you don't favor. It's harder to build a convincing case for exactly what they should do, under the same circumstances, if they are truly students of the past.

Update: An op-ed in today's New York Times does a more effective job of explaining how the lessons of the past can help policymakers. The authors look at the U.S. experience occupying Okinawa and describe how lessons from that occupation could help shape Iraq policy.


The New York Times has published an article on "the fudge factor" at museums: in the quest to lure in more visitors, museums are turning to fluffier and sillier exhibits. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, has now opened an exhibition on chocolate--giving visitors the opportunity to watch "chocolatiers" mold chocolate animals and combining serious exhibits on the food's history with "testimonials about the pleasures of chocolate."

I wrote a short article on this issue when I worked at The American Prospect, and the issue is just as relevant today. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, for example, is now featuring an exhibit on Monster Trucks. I don't want to sound too much like a snob--there's something to be said for bringing in new visitors with untraditional exhibits, after all--but I think things have gone a little too far.

What I'd really like to know, however, is the reason that museums are now desperate for money--and a history of when this decline began. Has attendance slipped? Has government funding gone down? Are private philanthropists feeling less generous? I suspect that each of these explanations is partially true, and I'd rather read a serious article explaining these questions in detail than see another fluffy general interest story on the cute "chocolatiers" at the American Museum.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Why make history when you can write it? A former police colonel who once served as the deputy head of Russia's Presidential Security Service is now helping to publish controversial memoirs and biographies illuminating post-Soviet history.


Mark Steyn is a Canadian journalist and writer--a conservative who likes to think he's amusing and who has quite a following among the right-of-center readers of American blogs. I've never really understood his appeal. His writing has often struck me as trite and his humor has seemed underwhelming. From what I've seen so far, his politics have been straightforwardly supportive of the war on terror, with little nuance or insight but lots of strong rhetoric. (Like many conservative columnists, he seems to think that he understands the evils of the twentieth century--Nazism and Stalinism--and hence has the perfect perspective on the dangers of Islamic terrorism.)

I was struck by this recent Steyn offering: a profile of one of the century's most despicable leaders, Idi Amin. The column was more snappily written than a lot of Steyn articles I've seen--perhaps a sign that I should familiarize myself with his writing before judging him too harshly, or maybe evidence that even a hack can sometimes turn out a well-crafted paragraph or two. Then again, Steyn also produces passages like this:

Asked about his cannibal appetites, he liked to complain that human flesh was a little too salty. Hard to believe he'd have said that if he'd eaten bland, insipid Mr Callaghan instead of just metaphorically chewing him up and spitting him out on Sunny Jim's pitiful Kampala kowtow to get Denis Hills off the hook.

That second sentence is a little tough to parse: Steyn seems too eager to show off his supposed wit and too slow to recognize that good writing doesn't magically appear when you cram as many words as possible into one sentence.

But enough about Steyn's style. The article itself is informative and interesting, but ultimately I'm really not sure what its point is. The tone seems self-congratulatory and snide. As I've written before, almost no one will joke about Hitler's genocide, but Steyn has no problem making light of Idi Amin's dark side. Maybe I'm being too fussy and even Nazi jokes should be okay, but Steyn's humor just doesn't seem very funny.

What struck me most about Steyn's article, though, was its attitude toward Africa. In one revealing passage, he writes:

All the wise old Africa hands in the Commonwealth Office thought Idi was the coming man. Much better than that ghastly Obote. So, in a cautionary tale on the limitations of expertise, they quietly approved his 1971 coup, British intelligence fretting only that he might be too obviously pro-British. What they don't seem to have noticed is that he was bonkers. Or, if they did, it didn't bother them.

George W Bush, campaigning on inner-city schools, liked to talk about the "soft bigotry of low expectations". That's what Uganda got from London.

This may well be true. But, in a sense, I think that Steyn's article reveals a more subtle sort of the same "bigotry." Steyn is quick to point to colorful details about Amin's horrific rule, but his article doesn't seem to have a point beyond "Aren't these evil African dictators crazy?" (Perhaps I should drop the word "African" from that last sentence--or maybe not.) Consider this passage:

But what he really was was a psychopath. In eight years, more than 300,000 Ugandans were killed. He enjoyed personally decapitating his enemies, and on one occasion he and a few family friends passed a pleasant farewell dinner with the severed heads of two opponents propped up at their places round the table. He had the second of his five wives murdered and dismembered, and then ordered the pieces retrieved from a burlap sack and stitched together so he could show her off to their children. The expatriate community he regarded as mainly a source of potential hostages, such as the adventurer and writer Denis Hills, whom he arrested and sentenced to death. After being advised to do so by God, he expelled all the Asians and destroyed his country's economy. Then he decided to invade Tanzania, and that was the end.

Steyn obviously isn't letting Amin off the hook here--quite the contrary, in fact. But he dwells on grisly individual acts rather than on the big picture. The expulsion of Uganda's Asian population was a horrendous human tragedy--and all Steyn tells us about it is that it resulted in the country's economic ruin. He mentions that 300,000 Ugandans died during Amin's rule, but never tells us why. Instead, he describes a handful of ghastly cases of his cruelty that don't begin to tell us about what Amin did to his country. I wish that Steyn had spent as much time explaining why 300,000 Ugandans were killed as he did writing about how Amin liked to take Western expatriates hostage.

If a historian wrote a profile of Stalin that mentioned the millions of deaths he caused, but then dwelled on how he drove his wife to suicide and how he had Trotsky and Bukharin killed, he'd be missing the point completely. Why not tell about the larger context in which the Old Bolsheviks were purged? Why not write about the many other victims of the purges, the fate of Russia's kulaks (rich peasants), or the evils of forced collectivization? Steyn's profile has no larger point than to provide us with colorful details of a dictator's cruelty. He says that "Amin remains the best of the post-colonial jokes," but tells us little about his legacy. I don't want to sound like I think Steyn is a racist--I know nothing about his views at all--but he sounds like the sort of man who believes that colorful evil of the variety practiced by Idi Amin is just the sort of thing that pops up from time to time throughout the world, and that the most proper response from Westerners is to laugh about it.

Addendum: I don't want to overplay race in my critique of Steyn's article. From what I've read, I think that Steyn has a simplistic view of "the West" and an extremely unnuanced view of totalitarianism and "evil." For him, I wonder if it's enough to say that Idi Amin was a cruel man personally and to read all the effects of his rule as logical consequences of his personality, when I'm sure that more was at stake. Conservatives of his ilk are often willing to write off parts of the developing world as lacking in the "Western" virtues of democracy and hence to act unsurprised (or even amused) when tragic consequences ensue. The results of such an analysis are at best simplistic and at worst tasteless and arrogant.


Does Matt Ridley have a Wittgensteinian approach to the nature/nurture debate?


Via Universal Language, here's a Deutsche Welle article on efforts by teachers to "sex up" the German language and make it more attractive as an international language. (A link on that site led me to DW's Instant Germanizer. The fun goes on and on!)


Slate has just posted an article on a city I could conceivably travel to this summer: Ekaterinburg. (I'd be visiting the provincial party archive there, not the many local factories or the site of the murder of the former royal family. It's most likely that I'll go to a provincial city nearer to Moscow, though.)


What do you get when you mix rat brains, robots, and art?


Nina Berberova: a Russian Hemingway?

I have to admit that I've really never liked Hemingway. But perhaps I'll give Berberova a try.


The Tempo section in today's Chicago Tribune has a pair of fluffy but fascinating articles: a profile of an expert on crying and an interview related to the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962.


Fifty-five years after they began work on the authoritative Sanskrit dictionary, scholars have nearly finished work--on the first letter. (via The Corner, of all places)


Some people at the Pentagon have interesting minds: they want to develop a futures market in which investors can bet on the likelihood of terrorism, war, assassinations, and Middle Eastern chaos. Plans for the market have attracted a lot of criticism, and it seems that the idea has now been dropped.

This reminds me a little of the Iowa Electronic Markets, in which people can bet on electoral outcomes. (If I read the current prices correctly, investors think that some "other" candidate is the most likely to win the Democratic nomination, with John Kerry the second most-likely nominee.)

Are there other similar experiments in the market? Is there any evidence on whether, say, the Iowa market has any real predictive power? (Even if it does, I suspect that potential investors know more about American politics than about the plans of al-Qaeda terrorists.) If life were a bad science fiction novel, the terrorism futures market would thrive--and al-Qaeda would make a fortune from betting on its own plans. But somehow I don't think this market would thrive even if it were to be established.

Update: Lots of people have been discussing this issue, but Virginia Postrel posts to an article and a paper on the broader context of the debate. I'm somewhat skeptical of the idea, but my economics knowledge is shallow enough that it would take me too long to develop a vaguely rigorous critique. In any case, the idea of a futures market in terrorism strikes me as more harmless than tasteless (though it includes elements of both), and I think that the fiercest opposition to it is misplaced.

Update 2: Daniel Gross of Slate has weighed in on the issue, pointing out some obvious problems with it and discussing how the "dumb agent" theory might have affected the market. Slate's Brendan Koerner, meanwhile, has a list of online prediction markets.

Update 3: Yet another Slate article on the controversy.


Russia's rich youth: are they like a new nobility?


Evil is spreading in the world of mandated summer reading lists: I'd have been furious if my high school teachers had made me read Dave Eggers, Mary Higgins Clark, or John Grisham over the summer. Required summer reading lists are bad enough already...


Should Russia sell China a big chunk of Siberia? An author for Slate likes the idea. A Washington Post article discusses tensions between Russians and Chinese immigrants in the Russian Far East.


In Edge, Elaine Pagels discusses the politics of Christianity and Murray Gell-Mann describes the making of a physicist.

I may add some commentary (especially on the Pagels interview) when I've had a little time to think about it. Watch this space! For now, all I'll say is that Pagels is a really interesting woman--but the interview with her was pretty lame.


Have tourists ruined Florence?

Monday, July 28, 2003

One of my biggest pet peeves these days is the recent explosion in infantile criticism of the French. I have no particular interest in France or the French language, I think that France's position on the recent Iraqi war was self-interested and questionable on policy grounds, and I find German and Russian culture far more interesting. Nevertheless, I get really irritated when I hear whiny conservatives joke about how France has never won a war, when stupid and lazy writers recycle the same boring old cliches about French intellectuals, or when people who know nothing about history, culture, or language make fun of the Academie Francaise. (Not that I think that the Academie Francaise is always right--I just think that knowledge is a prerequisite for criticism.) I thought it was telling when a French joke appeared on The Simpsons last year: the joke was both a sign of the show's precipitous decline in quality and an indication of the type of person who finds French jokes amusing. (Homer Simpson claimed that the French didn't even have a word for victory, if I recall correctly; the sort of person who likes to laugh at the French, in my imagination anyway, is the sort of person who sits in front of the TV all day drinking beer and eating Doritos.)

The most recent relevant controversy, of course, is the debate over the use of the word "email." If you want an intelligent discussion of the question, go to the blogs Universal Language and Pedantry.


The Russian news agency Itar-Tass recently polled cabinet members on how they'll spend their vacations. If the poll response was any indication, Russia is led by ardent outdoorsmen--but The Moscow Times suggests that Russian politicians aren't nearly as talented at hunting and fishing as they like to let on:

Take Boris Yeltsin, who in 1996 famously claimed to have bagged 40 ducks in one day. Perhaps he was using an AK-47 on full automatic with tracer fire. Utka, "duck" in Russian, is also the word for bedpan, and a Moscow art exhibit later lined up 40 bedpans in his honor. In 1997, Yeltsin had a fabulous time fishing in Karelia: Local officials had airlifted in 10,000 extra fish.

It's not just Yeltsin. Argumenty i Fakty once unveiled the KGB scuba divers who used to put fish on Nikita Khrushchev's hooks (a not-uncommon Communist Party practice, according to Arkady Vaksberg's "The Soviet Mafia"). Other officials hiding behind trees used to toss rabbits out for Leonid Brezhnev to bag.

"Hunting, fishing and Russian politics, mixed in equal parts, form a Harmonic Convergence of lying," the Moscow Times concludes. The whole article is worth a read.


A book of eye-witness accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto has now been published.


Byron as Cad: can evolutionary psychology enrich literary criticism?

(I just noticed that this is an old article: Philosophy and Literature either doesn'tupdate its website very often or isn't publishing any more. Either way, the article was interesting.)


The New Republic has an online debate about Howard Dean, featuring two political writers I like a lot: Jonathan Chait and Jonathan Cohn. So far, I think Chait (anti-Dean) has the upper hand, but I'll be reading with interest.


Here's a dull article on an important issue: the effect of budget cuts on state-run historical sites. Unfortunately, I think the problem will only grow in the years ahead.


Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle, was an interesting guy.


The Guardian reports on the controversy over Russia's high school literature syllabus.


The part of me that wanted to be an archaeologist when I was in the sixth grade finds this headline really intriguing:"Roman fingerprints found in 2,000-year-old cream."


Last week I commented on a Christian Science Monitor article that described a study on the relationship between professors' looks and teaching evaluations. Now The Washington Post has reported on the same study. (Scroll down to "Looking Good, Grading Well: Beautiful Teachers Score High.") (Link via Invisible Adjunct, which also has further commentary on the study.)

Sunday, July 27, 2003

It's history day at Mildly Malevolent! Blogging will be very light today, as I've predicted before. But here are some articles (mostly about history) that caught my eye:

I may have more commentary (or more links) after the tournament today. Or maybe not!