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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Friday, August 22, 2003

Today, as I was rushing around Hyde Park getting ready to leave for Moscow, I discovered something kind of cool and kind of sad. The cool part was that I found, by chance, a memorial plaque to Senator Paul Douglas just off 57th Street on Blackstone. The sad part was that the street was under construction and the plaque was just lying on the sidewalk; I have to wonder whether the plaque will ever make it back up.

Paul Douglas, for those of you who don't know him, was a University of Chicago economist who was elected to the Senate in 1948. The Democrats expected to be annihilated in the fall elections that year--President Truman was unpopular, and the state party had a reputation for corruption--so the party's state leaders therefore nominated two political novices for the state's highest offices. (They expected that they could thereby avoid humiliating a pair of more established Democratic officials.) To the shock of nearly everyone, Adlai Stevenson was elected governor and Douglas won a seat in the Senate.

Adlai Stevenson, of course, is one of the Democratic party's better-known politicians of the twentieth century. In retrospect, I think the country may have been better off with Eisenhower in the White House, but I still find Stevenson a very appealing politician. Douglas is less well known, but seems like an equally intriguing figure: a Quaker Marine who taught economics and became a leading liberal reformer in the Senate. I'd like to know more about him--it would be nice to know whether he was an effective senator or just a prominent spokesman for liberal causes, for example--and I was glad to see a memorial to him in Hyde Park, however small it might have been.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

My blogging is about to slow down dramatically: I may have another post or two before tomorrow morning, but then I'll be leaving for Russia for a month. I'm not sure how much I'll be posting from there. I'll at least occasionally write blog entries about my trip, but I doubt that I'll be frenetically linking to random news article, as has been my wont of late. If you're interested, check back and see if I post anything about my trip to Russia and my work in the archives. If not, I'll be back to posting (though perhaps at a slower rate) in the fall.

Was Genghis Khan cool? A lot of Mongolians think so.

These days it seems that everyone is interested in Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This Washington Post article emphasizes her status as Trotsky's great-granddaughter more than the New York Times did.

A New York Times op-ed on Idi Amin has some interesting things to say:

It's called the banality of evil. Idi Amin was never an exceptional person. As someone said, you have to be a great man to do great good, but even an imbecile can do great evil. You just need to be in the right place at the right time. Idi Amin was a former cook of a British colonial regiment who happened to be among the few Ugandans with military experience when his country became independent.

He was guilty of great atrocities, of course. But an entire generation of African leaders was guilty, too. The difference is that Idi Amin did what he did in a transparent way: the mayhem and the horror, but also the famous photograph of white businessmen forced to carry him on his chair; his satirical wedding ceremony in front of a huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of England; his repeated claims to the throne of Scotland. When asked about allegations of cannibalism, instead of denying it he answered: "I don't like human flesh. It's too salty for me."

He had an unconscious genius for political theater, mocking the grand statesmen of the era with telegrams full of condescending words. To Henry Kissinger: "You are not intelligent because you never come to see me when you need advice." To the queen: "I hear that England has economic problems. I'm sending a cargo ship full of bananas to thank you for the good days of the colonial administration." To Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Zedong: "If you need a mediator I am at your disposal."

The author of this piece, Richard Orizio, also wrote a book on dictators that I mentioned in a recent post.

A new documentary on Sylvio Berlusconi will soon air.

The London Review of Books has finally published Neal Ascherson's review of William Taubman's Khrushchev biography. An amusing excerpt:

His personality was horribly deformed; his crimes were unforgivable. And yet his lust for the new was disarming. I will never forget a story Taubman tells about his London visit in 1956. What, he asked his Foreign Office escort, was that odd 'oo, oo!' noise coming from the back of the crowd? The diplomat explained that people were booing, an expression of disapproval. Khrushchev grew thoughtful. In the back of the car, he said experimentally to himself: 'Boo!' And then again: 'Boo!' He liked it. For the rest of the day, he went around exclaiming 'Boo!' to all kinds of puzzled people. He had learned something.

That's a wonderful image.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Stuff like this scares me. And I'm a big Tolkien fan.

Does Burke Marshall deserve credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Legal Affairs says so.

Other cool Legal Affairs articles include Adam Cohen's review of a book on Progressive-era justice in Chicago and Jeffrey Rosen's piece making the case that we should both permit abortion and punish people who kill fetuses.

Jim Holt has an article on multiple universes in Slate. I know nothing about this sort of thing, but find the article interesting. Maybe that's because, since I know nothing, I don't recognize the article's flaws. Maybe it's because, having read the article, I do sort of know something about the question now. Lord knows which of these explanations is true!

This physics article (found via Arts and Letters Daily) was also interesting.

"There are three types of countries: dictatorships, democracies, and a country called Ukraine." The Moscow Times reports on Ukraine: the Soap Opera.

Saddam Hussein's Disney for Despots: one of the Iraqi dictator's pet projects was the reconstruction of a Babylonian palace. (via The History News Network)

Saddam Hussein wasn't the only man with plans to rebuild an Iraqi city: Frank Lloyd Wright had some interesting ideas about what to do with Baghdad.

Christians have had a prominent place in the recent history of Middle Eastern extremism, according to this article on The History News Network.

Leon Trotsky was killed 63 years ago this week. Here's how The Guardian reported his murder.

It's a weirdly interesting article, to which I have a one-word response: trepanning?!

John Mortimer, the author best known for his Rumpole mysteries, has denounced Tony Blair's New Labour for undermining the country's three guidiing tenets: habeas corpus, Shakespeare, and the English breakfast.

Sylvio Berlusconi: symbol (and cause?) of Italy's odd position in contemporary Europe.

The tone of this New York Times article irritated me a little. It profiled a Kentucky high school kid who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, but seemed more interested in his test score than in his personality.

The Washington Post has reviewed Walter Laquer's new book on terrorism. Given what I know of Laquer (and what this review says), I suspect that I'd disagree with a lot of the book's arguments. Nevertheless, there's some really interesting stuff in here: I didn't realize that the Tamil Tiger leadership was atheist, for example.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Jesse Walker of Reason writes about the intermingling of entertainment and politics, discussing--in particular--the career of Texas Governor Pappy O'Daniel. O'Daniel is a fascinating guy, and you should read the article for more details--including his leadership of Hillbilly Flour and his singing career with the Light Crust Doughboys. O'Daniel also, incidentally, beat Lyndon Johnson in a 1941 Senate election. He may well have stolen the election (there were a lot of very suspicious late returns favoring him), which taught LBJ a valuable lesson about Texas politics in time for his 1948 Senate campaign.

I'm not terribly impressed by the article's larger argument, such as it is:

It's easy to assume that events like these are peculiar either to California or to our time. Thus, while the Golden State could elect a movie star governor in the 1960s and launch him on the road to the presidency, the rest of the country had to wait until the culture corroded irreparably before allowing people like Jesse Ventura to win elections. A tempting theory—and a completely wrong one.

For as long as the mass media have existed, they have crossbred with the world of government. The newspaper world gave us Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, and the yellow journalism master Rep. William Randolph Hearst (D-NY). For many years in Nashville, the country music legend Roy Acuff was not simply the state Republican Party's most famous face: In those days of the solidly Democratic south, you could be forgiven for believing he was the Tennessee Republican Party.

Ben Franklin never held a significant elected office, I believe--and certainly wasn't a celebrity in the sense that Jesse Ventura, Ronald Reagan, or Arnold Schwarzenegger was. Horace Greeley was primarily a journalist, and not a politician. William Randolph Hearst, finally, doesn't quite seem like a celebrity, except in the sense that, say, Rupert Murdoch is. (Hearst probably had more of a celebrity aura than Murdoch does today, but he seems like a better example of a different phenomenon: the rich man willing to buy his way into elected office. Then again, I may be underestimating his celebrity status.)

Walker is undoubtedly correct that American politics and entertainment have often been mixed, but it's hard to know what to make of this phenomenon from the career of Pappy O'Daniel. (Is an example from Depression-era Texas the best basis for a larger theory about American government?) One of my favorite examples of a celebrity politician was Jimmie Davis, the "Singing Governor" of Louisiana from 1944-1948 and the composer of the song "You are my Sunshine." Again, though, Louisiana politics is famously bizarre--so I wouldn't draw too much significance from Davis's tenure in office.

Reason has more than made up for its abysmal Star Wars article with this piece. Still, instead of making the obvious (and uninteresting point) that politics and entertainment have been closely linked for years, the article could have combined its entertaining O'Daniel profile with a more interesting analysis of the role of celebrity in politics.

Nicholas Mosley sounds like a cool writer.

British courtesans: more interesting than you think. (French courtesans aren't exactly dull, either.)

Russians seem oddly intrigued by the Schwarzenegger campaign:

Well-known artist Nikas Safonov agreed that Russia could use a Schwarzenegger of its own. "Schwarzenegger is a very goal-oriented person," he told Izvestia. "If we had a Schwarzenegger, young people would vote for him. ... It is also important that he is rich. He is not going to steal. We need someone like this here, too."

If only we could send him over there...

A Hawaiian school's policy of favoring native Hawaiians in admissions is the subject of a lawsuit.

Has Moammar Gaddafi reformed?

The Enola Gay--the U.S. plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima--has been completely reasssembled for the first time since 1969 so it can be displayed at the Smithsonian. The new exhibit, unlike a proposed 1995 exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, is minimalist and unlikely to lead to controversy. (A museum officials says that it merely "delivers the facts and allows people to understand these facts within the context of their own beliefs.")

How does Leon Trotsky's great-granddaughter spend her time? She's the director of the National Institute of Drug Addiction in Bethesda, Maryland, and the subject of an interesting New York Times interview.

Monday, August 18, 2003

This AP report discusses the nationalist bent of the Arabic version of "American Idol". The author seems surprised that something like nationalism could appear in the series, which makes me wonder whether he ever watched the American version of the show. Elaine Showalter has commented on how "the search for identity" helped shape American Idol--the show's patriotic flag-waving included the prominent role of an active Marine in the finals and the sale of a CD featuring patriotic songs in the midst of the Iraqi war. Couldn't someone quite easily make the point that a relatively value-neutral British program was made far more patriotic and nationalistic in its American incarnation? Aren't foreign viewers more likely to recognize this aspect of the show than the mass U.S. audience?

I'm not necessarily saying that there's anything wrong with American Idol's patriotic side. But it's sometimes much easier to recognize nationalism in others than to see it in ourselves.

In City Journal Theodore Dalrymple describes how the legacy of World War II and its aftermath still divides Europe. An excerpt:

There's no doubt that, more that half a century on, we haven't overcome the legacy of the Second World War, at least where our feelings are concerned. Not long ago in Germany, I went to dinner with a man in his thirties who ran a forestry company. In order to explain how difficult it was even now to be a German, he described how a meeting in his company to decide on a company slogan dragged on for hours because someone suggested as a possibility "Holz mit Stolz"--Wood with Pride. Was it, everyone wondered, the beginning of the slippery slope to Auschwitz? This week planks, next week planes, the week after that world conquest. After long debate, they decided that no pride was permissible for Germans in any form.

The article was a little anecdotal for my taste, but it's still worth a look.

The Chicago Tribune describes the North Dakota recall of 1921, the last time a governor was removed from office mid-term by his state's voters.

(When I refer to "the North Dakota recall of 1921," it almost feels like I'm describing a major disaster--you know, like "the San Francisco earthquake of 1906" or "the New York blackout of 1966." I guess that's not inappropriate.)

Fareed Zakaria writes that analysts are wrong to treat suicide bombers as delusional figures: they can--and do--respond to political realities.

Something I didn't know: Zakaria isn't just a media-savvy foreign policy journalist. He's also the former wine columnist at Slate.

In The University of Chicago Magazine, Rick Perlstein profiles George Chauncey, the U of C history professor whose amicus brief helped shape the Supreme Court's opinion in Lawrence v. Texas.

The magazine also features an overly fluffy article on the new Chicago Manual of Style.

Edward Jones has published a novel that, in the words of The Christian Science Monitor, shows just how "strange" America's peculiar institution really was: its story deals with a Virginia slave plantation owned by a freed black. (The New York Times review is also available.)

How should the Smithsonian commemorate the darker side of space exploration? Should it exhibit wreckage from the Challenger and Columbia explosions?

A Romanian author, exiled under the Ceausescu regime, has published his memoirs, presenting a Kafka-esque vision of totalitarianism and illustrating the distinctive post-Communist fate of his home country.

The historian John Higham has died. I read one of his books on nativism and immigration when I was at Swarthmore, but I'm afraid I don't remember much about it.

Dylan Thomas's secret war-time lover has come forward. Three women important in his life (including his lover) have discussed their interactions with Thomas with his biographer.

I enjoy descriptions of Dylan Thomas as "the renowned Welsh writer and hellraiser." Maybe, when I die, I'll be remembered as "the renowned American historian and hellraiser." Or maybe not.

Why does this not surprise me? I suspect that the situation is just as bad in the U.S.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

David Owen, a death penalty foe who served as the UK's foreign secretary in the late 1970s, says he proposed that the British assassinate Idi Amin. Should they have done it?

Bob Riley, the former door-to-door egg salesman who is now Alabama's conservative Republican governor, has shaken up his state's politics by proposing a major tax increase. (He's using Christian rhetoric to call for higher taxes, to the chagrin of many Republicans.) Another Alabama political figure--Chief Justice Roy Moore--says he'd be committing treason if he obeyed a court order to take down a monument to the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building.

California, for obvious reasons, is the country's most politically fascinating state right now. Alabama may be a close second.

Via Arts and Letters Daily: The New Statesman reviews a newly translated book by Michel Foucault.

Erin O'Connor of Critical Mass links to a discussion of a study correlating subjects' college majors and longevity. This is another study that I find fascinating, though perhaps not convincing.

This reaction to the George W. Bush action figure mildly amused me. It's not exactly a gem of subtlety or wit, but I felt an odd desire to link to it.

I really can't understand the appeal of these George W. Bush dolls. (Then again, maybe the dolls have no appeal and will lots of lose money. That would amuse me, too.) More specifically, I just can't understand the mindset of the person who would buy them. They can't be intended for children (just look at the price), unless they're part of some program of mass indoctrination in the virtues of our commander-in-chief. Other presidents seem like unlikely candidates for action figure status. I can't imagine someone buying a George H.W. Bush figure, for example--well, conceivably a figure of him in his World War II navy uniform, though even that seems like quite a stretch. No Democrat would buy a Clinton figure, even at the height of his popularity; Reagan was too old for action-figure treatment when he was president, and the idea of an actor action figure (commemorating Reagan's Hollywood career) seems incredibly lame. John F. Kennedy is the only recent president whose likeness I can even imagine someone putting on an action figure.

I think this comparison is telling, in an odd sort of way. JFK's appeal was almost the appeal of a movie star--he became a glamorous celebrity as well a politician. Fans of Dubya almost seem like sports fans--people who, if they favored another team, would gleefully point to all his character faults and weaknesses as a leader, but who are unstintingly and unthinkingly behind him since he's on their "side." George W. Bush fans, then, seem likely not to notice the irony of a doll featuring their president in uniform, and can't imagine why anyone wouldn't support him. They might be the type who'd like an action figure as a keepsake of the glorious Bush years or as a light-hearted symbol of their support of the president. That's a mindset that I just don't understand.

Update: There actually are JFK action figures, produced by Hasbro with the cooperation of the JFK Library. (I couldn't find the action figure in the catalogue of the JFK Library, but I was amused by their souvenirs for kids.) Hasbro also apparently sells George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower action figures, as well as Colin Powell dolls--the military element, it seems, is important in presidential action figures. (The JFK feature comes in PT-109 garb.) I should have emphasized this more above: some people would presumably find a George W. Bush doll, in uniform, a nice, patriotic present, bizarre as that sounds to me.

Update #2: I stand corrected. There is a Bill Clinton action figure. I'm not sure it's meant to be taken seriously, but here's the website for the company that sells talking presidential action figures. Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at any of the action figures out there, given what's available.

Here's an Associated Press report about Saddam Hussein's attitude to magic. (via Hit and Run)

I'd be interested in a little more background information here. Are the practices the article describes related to traditional Iraqi/Arab folk beliefs in magic? Can the role of the occult in Ba'athist ideology be compared to the role of the occult in Nazism? (I'm guessing not, given what I known about the Ba'ath party, and I actually have no idea how good the Nazi book I just cited is.) Is this just a sign of dictatorial megalomania, perhaps like Hitler's interest in the occult?

Calpundit criticizes a columnist I strongly dislike, pouncing on Thomas Friedman for his unerring ability to find random ordinary people who say exactly what he's thinking. Leaving aside the question of how accurate the relevant quotation was, this column proves, once again, that Friedman is a master of name-dropping: he'll drop the name of a world leader in one column and then, good populist that he is, quote a Lebanese aid worker in the next. At least I haven't seen one of his annoying "Dear [Random World Leader], Here's my glib advice for how you can solve all your problems" columns in a long time.)

Friedman's column-writing on the Middle East is better than his random babbling on globalization, but I've always enjoyed this parody written by a former American Prospect colleague of mine. It captures everything that's annoying in Friedman's writing.

The History News Network reprints a London Telegraph article on the death of Diana Mosley by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts.

Whatever you think of the Mosleys (and Andrew Roberts), I think there's a place for obituaries (or similar articles) that take a negative stance on the death of famous people. I'm not talking about the widespread publication of articles like Hunter S. Thompson's Nixon obituary (which is fantastic, in its own eccentric way), and I don't know the proper venue for nasty obituaries. (The New York Times, despite what I wrote in a past post, probably isn't the ideal place.) I know that some people will complain about how we need to respect the dead, and some newspapers will worry about libel suits, but I know I'll die happy if I'm sure that some ignorant (but clever) conservative will write a raving diatribe abouy my life and legacy. The press should also publish more charming obituaries and more positive, heartfelt tributes to the recently deceased. Straitlaced "objectivity" isn't always the ideal in obituary-writing, I believe.

"She kept 300 snails as pets and carried them around in her handbag. Her most tender memories included going to the zoo to watch the crocodiles. She once set fire to her hair at a supper party and kissing a man, she declared, was like falling into a bucket of oysters. Even her closest friends called her stingy, creepy, cantankerous, neurotic and abnormal." Patricia Highsmith, it seems, was even weirder than I thought.

A Financial Times correspondent describes the hot tubs of Tbilisi. Georgia always strikes me as a fascinating place, but I can't say that visiting the sulphurous baths in its capital would be my top priority.

The Guardian describes the eccentric (and prudish) Englishman whose patronage resulted in The Dehlie Book, the most complete pictorial record of late Mughal art.

Idi Amin, as you probably know, is dead. Conservatives like to complain that The New York Times is biased and easy on dictators (well, easy on Saddam Hussein, anyway), but I found the Times obituary of Amin far more damning than the more obviously anti-Amin Observer obituary from England.

The reaction to Amin's death in Uganda can be a little disturbing, however. (via The Corner)

Were the Nazis Christian?

Do scientists lose their edge when they marry? I'm fairly skeptical of this study (is the stereotype that scientists become less productive with age true, anyway?), but I was entertained by the article.

Geoffrey Nunberg describes the history--and politics--of the word "leftist."

If I were in charge of The New York Times, I'd fire William Safire and give his "on language" column to someone like Nunberg. (That is, to someone who actually knows what he's talking about.)

Woohoo! William Safire is on vacation, so someone else is writing this week's NYT "On Language" column. The daugher of Eugene Maleska, the former New York Times crossword puzzle editor, has written a charming tribute to her father.

Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court correspondent of The New York Times, describes a visit she recently made with her daughter Hannah to the National Constitution Center, a new museum in Philadelphia.

Parts of the museum sound fun and interesting. But parts strike me as kind of silly:

One exhibit I couldn't pass up offered the chance to take the presidential oath of office. A video camera projects each oath-taker's image onto a realistic backdrop. A kindly video chief justice led me through my lines as Hannah tried to pretend she had never seen me before.

Touch screens at the Supreme Court bench (judicial robes are available for temporary use) describe the issues and arguments in recent cases and let visitors predict the outcome. Anyone who wants to learn more can use the "interactive Constitution" computers on the quiet side of the hall to call up in-depth information about decisions and constitutional provisions.

The chance to take the oath of office strikes me as kind of silly, for example: if they draw people in, that's great, but they should be a sideshow at the main museum--not its focus. The exhibits on recent court cases (with the chance to get still more information) sound more promising. But the article doesn't give readers a very good sense of what the balance is between fluffy, feel-good exhibits and more substantive, informative sites.

Mythology is cool. Michael Dirda columns are fun. A Michael Dirda column on a book about mythology, then, is definitely worth reading. A highlight:

Despite its shortcomings, From Olympus to Camelot possesses the merit of presenting at least the skeletons of the great mythological systems of Europe. And Leeming does range widely: Who would have thought that the Baltic deities were so down-to-earth? In one story, the chief god visits a group of peasants and accidentally leaves his mittens behind. Moreover, it does seem persuasive that the hibernation of bears (apparently worshiped as gods) may have given early man the notion that a deity could return from the dead. But when Leeming tells us that the Etruscans believed in the equivalent of the familiar Greek pantheon minus an Aphrodite figure, he never asks the obvious question: How did the people get along without a goddess of love?

I suspect that I'd be a little less impressed than Dirda was with the book under review: the comparison between Kali and Baba Yaga scares me, for example. Still, any book mentioning Baltic gods who lose their mittens can't be all bad.

Tangential addendum: Does anyone read C.S. Lewis for his scholarship these days? I don't mean his Christian apologetics, which were a sideline to his main work: studying Renaissance and medieval literature. Dirda refers to Lewis's book The Discarded Image, an introduction to Lewis's main subjects of study. I'd never heard of it, but it sounds kind of cool and it's still in print. My impression was that Lewis produced more scholarly writings than Tolkien, but that they weren't as influential or as interesting as, say, the Beowulf lecture "The Monsters and the Critics." Is The Discarded Image in print because it's a good book, or because it's by C.S. Lewis, or for some combination of these reasons?

Tangential addendum #2: This week's Washington Post Book World also includes this review of a book on the relationship between monotheism and scientific progress. It sounds like an interesting book, but I suspect that its argument is--at the very least--flawed and problematic.