Mildly Malevolent

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

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

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Saturday, September 27, 2003

The Guardian has published two interesting reviews of books by historians named Roy: Simon Schama reviews Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason and Bernard O'Donoghue reviews Roy Foster's new Yeats biography.


Here's a surprisingly bland Christopher Hitchens article on Edward Said with some nice details.

Friday, September 26, 2003

The Economist reviews a book on the struggle for cultural dominance during the Cold War.


This article is not a parody: the Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill that would limit the weight of public school textbooks. The bill was "[p]rompted by parent complaints that children are struggling under backpacks crammed with heavy textbooks."

This is apparently a national issue: according to the article, "California passed a law that requires the state Board of Education to limit textbooks' weights by 2004... Similar legislation passed in Tennessee and has been proposed in at least six other states, including New York and Pennsylvania." The author of the Massachusetts bill has even suggested that Congress should step in and address the issue.

Of course, the rationale behind the bill seems extremely weak. Government data apparently show that students are more likely to be hurt by tripping over backpacks than to be injured by carrying too much weight, and a University of Michigan study shows that students' back pain has more to do with their weight and their level of activity than with the size of their backpacks.

Personally, I think the content of textbooks matters far more than their size. Of course, the biggest textbooks may not be the best, but I still think the bill's focus is in the wrong place. Then again, somehow that doesn't surprise me...

Random comment: the number of statistics out there really amuses me. Did you know that "The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 21,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices, and clinics in 2002"?


Here's another cool Michele Berdy column from The Moscow Times. This article discusses issues with paronyms in Russian.


It sounds to me like the premise of a really sappy foreign movie, but there's apparently a Chinese island known as "Piano Island" for its residents' high rate of piano ownership and love of music.


The Spectator reviews Ian Buruma's new book on Japan. Its conclusion:

I must say something about Mr Buruma’s concise bibliography. He not only says where he got much of his information--all reliable historians do that-- but he mentions several easily accessible books, one of which, Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan, 'contains pretty much everything one needs to know'. I can’t think of any other book which says, in essence, 'There are other books as good as mine, and maybe better. But mine is shorter.' Wow.

Another Spectator article, by Martin Walker, argues that Tony Blair and George W. Bush are headed for a split.


The playwright Ariel Dorfman has written a tribute marking the 30th anniversary of Pablo Neruda's death.


The economist Franco Modigliani has also died this week, as has the writer George Plimpton. An excerpt from the AP's Plimpton obit:

Plimpton proved all too effective at praising others at the expense of himself. Until 2002, when he turned 75, his highest honor was being named New York City fireworks commissioner, a position that didn't officially exist. But within a month of the academy induction, the French made him a Chevalier, the Legion of Honor's highest rank. The Guild, an arts organization based on Long Island, gave him a lifetime achievement award.

Personally, I think it would be pretty cool to be the New York fireworks commissioner--I'd rather be honored that way then, say, win a Pulitzer.


I often find it fascinating to read tributes to the recently deceased, whatever I think of their politics or their personality; the recent tributes to Edward Said have been especially interesting. Oddly enough, Alexander Cockburn spent several pragraphs discussing Said's thin skin:

He never lost the capacity to be wounded by the treachery and opportunism of supposed friends. A few weeks ago he called to ask whether I had read a particularly stupid attack on him by his very old friend Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. He described with pained sarcasm a phone call in which Hitchens had presumably tried to square his own conscience by advertising to Edward the impending assault. I asked Edward why he was surprised, and indeed why he cared. But he was surprised and he did care. His skin was so, so thin, I think because he knew that as long as he lived, as long as he marched onward as a proud, unapologetic and vociferous Palestinian, there would be some enemy on the next housetop down the street eager to pour sewage on his head.

Cockburn then goes on to compare Said to D'Artagnan, which makes up for some of the references to his thin skin, I think.

Scott McLemee's Said article was also interesting. I've always found it fascinating that Said was both a vociferous critic of Orientalism and the opera critic for The Nation, an interesting combination. McLemee addresses this point directly:

There was no real gap between Mr. Said's political militancy and his rather traditional cultural tastes, says Lindsay Waters, the executive director for the humanities at Harvard University Press. "I read him as having held that, essentially, art provides a key for reconstituting society," he says. "If you are going to reconstitute Palestine, you'll be able to do it by the pleasure of some of the artworks that come from Palestine. Without access to that sort of pleasure, life isn't worth living. Which makes him very old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, I guess."

I'd have liked a little more detail on this point, but the article is worth reading.

Also check out this Malise Ruthven article in The Guardian.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler review Michael Lewis's new book on statistics and baseball. It's a good read, even for people like me who know nothing about sports, so check it out before TNR takes down the link.


Richard Nixon: more intellectual than you thought.


Just so you know, this is National Funeral Service Education Week. (What would Jessica Mitford would think of that?) Tony Randall, it seems, is the new spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, but he apparently no longer thinks death is funny.


Edward Said has died. The AP somehow didn't see fit to mention that he wrote the book Orientalism, though it did--for some reason--mention his book After the Last Sky.

Update: The New York Times has published its own obituary. A fact I did not know: Said was an Episcopalian married to a Quaker.


Question of the day: how famous is John Buchan? Until recently, I only knew Buchan as a British author who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and became governor-general of Canada. (I also once came across his biography of Cromwell, which I found oddly intriguing: a book about a historical figure by a famous writer with no obvious qualifications as a biographer!) When I was in Russia, however, his books were all over--not just The Thirty-Nine Steps, but Greenmantle and Memory-Hold-The-Door.

I was curious about this at the time. Perhaps Buchan is more popular in Britain than in America. Perhaps he's better known in Russia than in the United States. (There are quirks in the international popularity of foreign books, after all: Jack London is probably more popular in Russia than in England. London was one of Lenin's favorite authors, and lots of other Russians seem to love London too.) Or perhaps the high number of Buchan books in Moscow was just a result of the haphazard selection of English-language novels by Russian bookstores. It's hard to say.

In any case, it was interesting to find this New Criterion article about Buchan (via Arts and Letters Daily.) An excerpt:

One tends to think--I certainly thought--of Buchan primarily as a writer of thrillers. But that is like saying Winston Churchill was a painter. He did a few other things as well.

The Churchill comparison seems a bit hyperbolic to me, but Buchan still sounds cool.


[Rambling and incoherent post on Bush/Clinton hatred deleted. It may reappear sometime in expanded/revised form.]

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

The transcripts of conversations among German nuclear scientists in detention in an English farmhouse show how far the Nazi nuclear program was behind the U.S., according to John Cornwell.


Tragic news: the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in its infinite wisdom, decided to leave out the word "snollygoster." Now we may never know what it means... (via Artsjournal)


Is there a "deep affinity" between anti-Semitism and the philosophy of Kant? Is this article as unconvincing as I think it is?


Did William Howard Taft suffer from sleep apnea? (via The History News Network")


The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington is playing host to a cool-sounding exhibition on fakes, forgeries, and facsimiles.


Vladimir Putin isn't the only Russian politician with KGB ties: according to one researcher, a quarter of senior government posts are now held by former members of the security police. Both The Washington Post and Slate describe the Putin administration's dark side.


Things I do not understand: why would people in other countries want to buy Hillary Clinton's autobiography? It was all over Moscow bookstores, and it's apparently on sale in China, where a censored version has become a bestseller.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Melbourne Age profiles Frederick Forsyth, the conservative journalist-turned-writer best known for The Day of the Jackal.


The Wall Street Journal op-ed page profiles the Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis. Most of the Middle Eastern historians I know aren't fans of his, but I'm always interested in profiles of historians...




Plans are afoot to build a memorial to Germans expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II. The idea has (surprise, surprise!) turned out to be controversial.


I'm not sure if this novel about Sigmund Freud sounds intriguing or just bizarre, but I lean toward the latter view.


I wouldn't pay too much attention to this new poll, but I'm really looking forward to the reaction to it from whiny conservatives: a simultaneous attack of denial and anger large enough to make Elizabeth Kubler-Ross cry!


People I trust tell me that Nigel Hamilton's biography of Field Marshal Montgomery was really good. Has he written anything even vaguely worthwhile or responsible since then?

Monday, September 22, 2003

It really scares me how many people come to this site looking for "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Cliff's Notes." Maybe there's a larger market for such things than I thought...


I've just spent a few minutes catching up on the reading I didn't do while I was in Moscow. Some random passages from a recent review of the vampire movie Underworld show why David Edelstein is my favorite film reviewer:

With his sepulchral voice and visage, the marvelous English actor Bill Nighy often makes a spooky impression--so it's good to see him finally play a lord of the undead! Other than Nighy, the only reason to see Underworld (directed by Len Wiseman, from a screenplay by Danny McBride) is to ogle bonny Kate, more mouth-watering in a caped black shiny vinyl catsuit than anyone in film (or human, or inhuman) history. Her diction doesn't suffer for those vampire teeth, either. As we Christopher Lee fans can attest, there's something hugely satisfying about seeing regal English snobs with perfect enunciation hiss through bared fangs while drooling blood. It clarifies so much about Great Britain's role in world history.

That sounds to me like reason enough to see the movie, though I don't think this is the conclusion Edelstein intended!

I've been thinking about movies more than usual lately. I lucked out on the flight home, which showed the second X-Men movie (which I enjoyed when I saw it in a theater) and Bruce Almighty (which was more watchable than I feared.) The first movie reminded me of why I like Ian McKellen: he's a well-known Shakespearean actor who seemed to really enjoy playing a comic-book villain. (In one scene, he appeared in a silly uniform with a cape and a dumb-looking helmet, walked up to a mutant who could control people's minds, and pointed at his helmet with an amusingly gleeful expression. Either he was having the time of his life or he's an even better actor than I think he is.) The second movie confirmed one of my opinions of Jim Carrey: he could have been a fantastic mime, but decided to become a really grating comedian instead.


Blogging may be a little slow the next few days: I have a two-day workshop on teaching to attend and I need to keep working on my Fulbright applications. (I also have various random errands to take care of, like getting on to the university payroll as a TA, lector, and workshop coordinator.) Expect a "geek day" at some point soon (with my long-promised review of Harry Potter and some comments on the new Lord of the Rings DVD) along with more commentary on history and politics.

For now, though, one last link. Those of you who know may (or who read this blog regularly) probably know about my odd interest in obituaries: I'd be delighted if Christopher Hitchens were to become a writer of nasty obituaries, I'm fascinated by more traditional obituaries, and I'm interested in more off-beat death notices. If you share my interest necrology, you should check out The Blog of Death. (My computer won't let me update my template at the moment or I'd list it among my links.) Today's site, for instance, features an obituary of the man who coined the phrase "Look!...up in the sky!...it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a man...it's Superman!"



Experts in infectious diseases are being lured to Washington to join a new multi-billion dollar program on bioterrorism, Merill Goozner writes in The American Prospect. Is that a good thing?


How good a philosopher was Jean-Paul Sartre? Jim Holt addresses this question in Slate. His piece is a fun read--especially for someone like me, who knows nothing about philosophy but would kind of like to--but I'm afraid that I still have no idea how good a philosopher Sartre was after reading the article.


Earlier today, I read a David Frum interview with Laura Ingraham and was tempted to comment. The Antic Muse beat me to the draw, however, and produced an amusing and much-needed takedown of the article.


I've been thinking about The Manchurian Candidate lately, and today I was glad to come across this Louis Menand article on the movie while browsing Arts and Letters Daily. More particularly, Menand writes about the Frank Condon book that was the basis for the movie:

Most people know John Frankenheimer's movie "The Manchurian Candidate," which stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury in the story of an American soldier who is captured in Korea and programmed by Chinese Communists to kill on command. And most people probably think of the movie as a classic of Cold War culture, like "On the Beach" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"--a popular work articulating the anxieties of an era. In fact, "The Manchurian Candidate" was a flop. It was released in the fall of 1962, failed to recover its costs, and was pulled from distribution two years later, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It turned up a few times on television, but it was not shown in a movie theatre again until 1987, which--nearly the end of the Cold Wa--is the year its popularity dates from. The true artifact of Cold War culture is the novel, by Richard Condon, that the movie was based on.

What interests me about The Manchurian Candidate is the way the whole question of the brainwashing of Korean War POWs casts light on images of POWs more generally. Among the topics that my dissertation will cover is the way that the Soviet Communist party treated patriotism as a moral issue in the 1940s and 1950s, an attitude that led to the expulsion from the party of essentially any Soviet citizen who had been held captive by the Germans. At this point, I don't even really understand the logic behind this policy: was the loyalty of POWs suspect (given that they might have been subject to German propaganda)? Were POWs seen as cowards who didn't really love the Soviet Union?

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single modern nation that treated its POWs the way the Soviets did. The closest analogy I've been able to come up with was the whole controversy around the "brainwashing" of Korean War POWs. I'm tempted to look around for scholarly work on captives more generally (Linda Colley has a recent book on the topic) and to investigate the imperial Russian army's attitude toward POWs. I'm sure there are comparable cases to the USSR's POW policy in the ancient world, too. If anyone can come up with another example (ancient or modern) of a country that considered its POWs suspect, I'd be really interested in hearing.


The writer W.P. Kinsella, it seems, is a Scrabble fan. Competitive scrabble--as portrayed by this article and by the book Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis--strikes me as an interesting game, but not a terribly appealling one. (I say this as someone who loves words and is pretty good at two skills crucial to a successful Scrabble player: memorization and anagram production.) Just consider this quotation:

And yet, for a writer who once won the Stephen Leacock award for humour, [Kinsella] is surprisingly lackadaisical about the definition of the words. He doesn't care if he understands the words he spells out, as long as they are "good" -- meaning they are listed in the official Scrabble dictionary.

"I'm just looking for the points," he laughed. "Who cares what they mean?"

John Chew, director of the Toronto Club, says it's a common misconception that people who are well-read or hyper-articulate are the best at Scrabble. In fact, he says many mathematicians, such as himself, make the top players. The idea is to get the most points, not create the best or most flashy words -- a rookie mistake.

This quotation reminds me a little about one of my own favorite activities--quizbowl, a question-and-answer game involving various academic disciplines and other spheres of knowledge. (This isn't exactly a novel thought: people on quizbowl discussion groups periodically mention Word Freak and compare quizbowl to Scrabble. I've sometimes claimed that I'm going to write a companion volume to Fatsis's Scrabble book called Knowledge Whore.) Like Scrabble, quizbowl doesn't test how much you "really" know in any significant sense, and it gives an advantage to those willing to engage in meaningless memorization. More often than not, the very best players actually know what they're talking about, but I can think of a number of people who've become extremely impressive players without really knowing anything. It's not that hard, say, to learn the titles of a bunch of Henrik Ibsen plays and to memorize the names of those plays' characters, and then you'll be able to beat most of your competitors to most questions involving Ibsen.

The difference, as I see it, is that quizbowl offers more of an outlet for people actually interested in the information in question. If you enjoy writing questions, you can actually get something intellectually satisfying out of the game. If you're unwilling to memorize characters from random plays you've never read, you can still be a very competitive player. (I've never learned anything for quizbowl, for instance, but--given that I've been on the circuit quite a few years--I can't really claim that my knowledge is pure.)

The best (and most interesting) quizbowl players, I've always thought, are those who recognize that the game isn't an especially intellectual pursuit, but who recognize the inherent interest of the subject matter covered by quiz questions and who read a lot for reasons other than a desire to win. Players who think that the game is intellectual (and that they, therefore, are more intellectual if they can use shallow means to get ahead) don't tend to be terribly intelligent or interesting people. People who don't see the game as terribly intellectual but who don't really know much about the world--and hence can't write good questions or engage in an interesting conversation on anything but sports or pop culture--can be competitive players, but I don't have much respect for them or their view of the circuit.

I'm afraid that this entry has turned out a little trite: it's probably boring both to those of my readers who follow quizbowl and to those who don't. The only way I can think of to make the post more interesting, though, would be to name names and to criticize people (or to praise the good players who actually know something and sound like I'm kissing up to them.) But somehow I don't think that would be a good way to make myself popular around the circuit...


Another article I missed while I was in Russia: In The New York Times, Nicholas Wade reports on the possible biological origins of music. (via About Last Night)


Tim Judah reports in The Observer about the controversy over Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul.


Newsday reviews the new book on the mutiny on the Bounty.

A horrible confession: I have an unfortunate tendency to confuse The Mutiny on the Bounty with The Caine Mutiny. This is a sign of my over-arching ignorance, I suppose, like my occasional tendency to confuse Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair. (Yes, I really do know which is which... Most of the time.)


William Kristol and Steven Lenzner discuss what Leo Strauss was "up to" in the latest issue of The Public Interest. Other articles debate whether the country needs more scientists and look at the demographics of the "peace party."


The ex-wife of Peter O'Toole (the star of Lawrence of Arabia, one of my favorite movies despite its wildly inaccurate take on history) has written a memoir.


Marshall Poe has published a new book on "the Russian moment in world history."


Weird article of the day: Was Hitler hypnotized? (via The History New Network)


Like JFK, Howard Dean never expected to run for office: his older brother was the family member destined for politics. The Boston Globe profiles Dean, his early life, and his quick rise in Vermont politics.


Stephen Kotkin, a historian of Soviet history at Princeton, discusses Eric Hobsbawm in the latest New Yorker.


Have China's hippies found their Berkeley in Tibet? Or is Lhasa their Disneyland?


Ronald Reagan: Snoopy's biggest fan? A collection of his recently discovered letters has just come out, with coverage both in The Guardian (see previous link) and Time. (Time also includes some examples, like this letter on his reactions to the movie Patton. The coverage of the letters interested me more than the letters themselves, though--I don't know if this says more about the book or about the particular letters from it that Time chose to publish.)

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The question of the day: do bad historians make bad policy-makers?

This question occurred to me as I read this column by James McPherson (the well-known Civil War historian), a discussion of the use of the disparaging phrase "revisionist history" by members of the Bush administration. The column ended with the following paragraph:

The judgmental tone of Rice's derogatory reference to "revisionist historians" brings to mind a review of her book The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948–1983, in the December 1985 issue of the American Historical Review (p. 1236) when she was an assistant professor at Stanford. The reviewer claimed that Rice "frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation." In addition, according to the reviewer, she "passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts" and her "writing abounds with meaningless phrases." I cannot testify for or against the accuracy and fairness of this review. But I am tempted to wonder, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, whether we are experiencing deja vu all over again.

The review itself sounds quite reasonable. (It makes one obvious mistake--referring to Condoleezza Rice as a man--but this seems relatively trivial, given her low profile at the time.) Like McPherson, I'm not knowledgeable enough about Czechoslovak history or about Rice's book to vouch for the review's accuracy, but it rings true: Rice's reputation as a scholar is far higher in the media than in academia, from all I've heard. I've seen criticisms of her more recent book--a volume about German unification that she co-wrote with a fellow member of the first Bush administration--that mirror these criticisms: the book is often said to have been shallow in its use of German and Soviet sources and to have had a clear pro-U.S. bias.

There are times when I'd be happier if our current national security adviser were a non-academic. Rice's high profile as a scholar can make the administration seem more intellectually serious than it really is.


Randomness:

Less random comments to follow later.


My first trip to Europe was in 1988, when my family lived in West Germany for six months. One of my clearest memories of my return home has to do with the crowd at Boston's Logan airport: I can remember looking at the other people waiting for their luggage and thinking that they seemed different from crowds in European airports in an extremely difficult-to-describe way. At that very moment, a man in the crowd burst into a rousing rendition of the song "I've got a booger on my finger and I can't shake it off." I don't know whether the song was a sign of American boorishness or of Yankee creativity (though I lean toward the latter view), but this anecdote is one of my favorite memories of my trip back from Germany.

Unfortunately, I don't have a similar anecdote for my latest trip home from abroad. My just-completed trip to Chicago and my 1988 return to Boston do have something in common, though: once again, I feel very glad to be home.