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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Friday, October 31, 2003

I plan to finish my application for an IREX fellowship sometime over the next few hours. Then I'll be leaving for the weekend. Posting, therefore, will be light.

Next week, however, I hope to start posting more original content. Possible subjects of blog entries include:

  • Michael Dirda's new memoir of growing up and learning to read.
  • The greatest disco song ever written. (Hint: it's about Russian history.)
  • The best novel I've ever read that was written in the present tense.
  • Why George Orwell was really cool.
  • Why grant applications are evil.

Until then, you'll just have to amuse yourselves for a while!


The other day, I was really glad to see that The Nation had an article on The Boondocks. Then I was really sorry to see that it was written by Michael Moore. As I expected, the article wasn't very good.

I was amused, however, by this entry in Bookslut:

Michael Moore writes about Aaron McGruder for The Nation. (He also wrote the foreword to the Boondocks collection Right to be Hostile.) Unfortunately, Journalista (which is where I stole this link) already claimed the best punch line, which I will just repeat for you here. "[Michael Moore] seems overly impressed with the fact that it's in the papers and, like, it's drawn by a black guy, you know?"

I feel a little silly quoting someone who's quoting someone, but in this case it seemed worth it. The comment was right on.

In order to test the intelligence and common sense of a political commentator, look at their reaction to The Boondocks and Michael Moore. The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby (a conservative columnist) has been known to over-react ridiculously to Aaron Magruder's comic, as has National Review's John Derbyshire. This is evidence that neither writer deserves to be taken seriously. (Hint to conservatives: Yes, The Boondocks sometimes pushes the line on issues of taste, but part of the humor results from the fact that it's so outrageous. If you take everything the comic says seriously you deserve to be mocked relentlessly.) Similarly, liberals and leftists who consider Michael Moore their hero deserve to be mocked. He's an obnoxious blowhard whose arguments have no intellectual rigor.


Personally, I find "the Bunny Man" more amusing than scary. This probably means that I'm about to be hacked to death by an axe-wielding lapine...


Did FDR really have polio? A new study suggests that he may have actually suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome instead...

In other FDR news, Newsweek has published a previously unknown letter to the president from Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his one-time lover.


Beryl Graves, the wife and muse to her husband Robert, has died at 88.


Something I've always wondered: do lemmings really commit suicide?

Also in today's New York Times: Europeans are getting fatter!


Is Theodor Adorno fashionable?

Thursday, October 30, 2003

I find myself in a very awkward situation in politics these days: I'm not very fond of any of the presidential candidates (I guess I'm probably a Kerry supporter, with a smallish chance that I could switch to Clark, Edwards, or maybe even Dean), but at the moment I'm rooting for Gephardt. This isn't because I want him to win--Gephardt has the annoying habit of switching back and forth between "unprincipled conservative" mode and "unprincipled liberal" mode, and he strikes me as the least intelligent of the Democrats with a shot at the nomination--but because he needs to beat Dean in Iowa if we're going to have an electable Democratic nominee. (Here's a recent Slate article on Gephardt's Iowa campaign.) I think there's an excellent chance that Gephardt's campaign will do exactly what it did in 1988 (that is, win the Iowa caucuses and then collapse), which is what I'm really hoping. I just don't know if a Gephardt bounce would push Dean even farther into pander-mode or whether it would force all the major contenders in a more reasonable, progressive direction. Perhaps we'll soon find out.


The New York Times reports on the controversy over an Italian court order demanding that a cross be removed from an elementary school in the town of Ofena.

Another NYT article discusses the decline of formality in the Japanese language.


In The Washington Monthly, Matthew Dallek describes the publication of That Man, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson's manuscript about FDR, and Bruce Clark reviews a book on the friendship between FDR and Churchill.


The Washington Times is warning its readers about the evils of Harry Potter! (The Chicago Sun-Times has a similar article on its front page this morning, but it doesn't seem to be online.)

Update: The Washington Post has its own article on "Harry Potter headaches."

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Is J.K. Rowling a radical tree hugger? Probably not, but she is joining with Greenpeace to try to convince her publisher to use more environmentally friendly paper.


Why is it that essentially every article about Eric Hobsbawm and his memoirs focuses on his Communist past, treating him as a cute and charming old dinosaur who can't seem to admit that he was wrong?

There are exceptions to this, of course--usually in the form of right-wing screeds that denounce Hobsbawm for his outmoded and offensive ideology. No one, however, seems terribly interested in Hobsbawm's ideas about history or in how his ideology shaped his work. Instead, he appears as a mere curiosity--a mostly unrepentant Communist in a post-Soviet world. That's a shame.


The Memorial Foundation for the Murdered Jews of Europe recently decided that a German affiliate of a chemical company that supplied poison gas to the Nazis should not be a subcontractor for the Berlin memorial to the Nazis' victims, but it turns out that company has a sterling record in paying restitution and critically examining its past. Which leads to a fascinating question: at what point does a company earn exoneration for its past deeds?


The New York Times addresses the controversy over The Bookseller of Kabul, which is about to be published in America.


Were the bones of Robin Hood dug up 250 years ago? Some English guy thinks so, but I feel just a tad skeptical. Don't you? (via The History News Network)


Yesterday, if I'm not mistaken, was the 100th anniversary of Evelyn Waugh's birth. Today The Guardian asks a question that many critics have pondered: just how bad was Waugh's best-known work, Brideshead Revisited? According to Stuart Jeffries, the novel "eloquently, if unwittingly," expresses "a nostalgia among the English for a privileged stately home past that by definition only a negligible number of them enjoyed." More specifically, Jeffries argues,

As the British empire was dismantled and as working-class people left their home towns for colleges to lead lives that were trenchantly described by the social commentator Richard Hoggart as "uprooted and anxious", the attendant intellectual liberation that would have sustained a positive interpretation of the value of these changes never happened, thanks in great measure to books like Waugh's. And it never has happened.

We still look back to an England that either never was or a purported Arcadia in which, really, my ancestors were stuck on the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It's a vision sustained by the popularity for standing behind the velvet ropes of old aristos' pads, for revelling in the televised pomp of Regency bosoms and well-filled britches and forbearing from being harsh on Waugh's class politics. It's one that reveals the self-hatred and inadequacy at the core of our postwar culture and it's one whose persistence shows how distant we are from a truly classless society.

Jeffries, it seems, doesn't like Waugh very much.

I'm not going to express an opinion on Jeffries's argument: I simply don't know enough about the reception of novels like Brideshead Revisited (or about the prevalence of the class politics that this article derides in the English literature of its day) to say anything intelligent on the subject. I had a mixed reaction to Waugh's novel when I read it this summer: I enjoyed parts of the book, but found the writing overly sentimental and, in the end, somewhat unsatisfying. It would be entertaining to deepen this critique into a denunciation of the novel's role in the decline of modern-day Britain, but that's a temptation I think I can resist for now.

(For what it's worth, another article in today's Guardian claims, among other things, that the problem with contemporary Britain is that water pressure is too low and you can't take a decent shower. Or something like that.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Via Arts and Letters Daily, here's a review of Richard Dawkins's new book. That review, in turn, led me to this review of a book on the role of the NSF in funding biology research in the 30 years after World War II and this review of a book on American psychiatry and eugenics. Interesting stuff!


Truth in advertising: My blog, it seems, really is "mildly malevolent." To be more precise, it's 36% evil and 64% good. I learned this through The Gematriculator, a website "that uses the infallible methods of Gematria developed by Mr. Ivan Panin to determine how good or evil a web site or a text passage is." (via (gasp!) The Corner)


Syrian press censorship doesn't do a very good job of stopping rumors, it appears.


Philadelphia Magazine profiles political correspondent Jake Tapper. Is it just me, or is ABC News's hiring of people like Tapper and George Stephanopoulos a clear sign of its decline?


"Were Baroque listeners uncultured idiots? Or did they have a healthier attitude toward music’s place in society?", Alex Ross asks in the current New Yorker. "At about the time audiences began treating composers like gods, it would seem, the truly godlike composers began to disappear."


A word I plan to use more often, now that I know what it means: emetic. (From Andrew O'Hagan's criticism of the "Big Read" as "un-literary" and "anti-literary.")


Weird article of the day: The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, discusses the history of the Brawny man, the world's only paper towel icon.


The Forward reviews Naumov and Brent's new book on "Stalin's Last Crime." (via Arts and Letters Daily)


Was J. Marion Sims the "father of gynecology" or a racist and sexist "Father Butcher"? The New York Times reports.

Monday, October 27, 2003

In The Boston Globe, David Shribman reviews Lou Cannon's new book on Governor Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan's governorship is a fascinating topic. As Shribman writes,

In Sacramento, Reagan, who didn't once describe himself as a ''conservative'' in his first campaign, embraced taxes to fight the budget deficit he inherited from Governor Edmund G. Brown, signed legislation broadening abortion rights, sided with prison-reform advocates, and built a strong environmental record. Much of this his acolytes would call pragmatism.

But he also was a relentless foe of permissivism - that's a word you don't hear anymore - on campus, he reshaped welfare in a state that had just become the nation's biggest, and he won a struggle to provide property-tax relief. He was on his way - to history, to the presidency, to forging a new conservatism.

...

It is no surprise to anyone that Reagan was possessed of one big idea but required considerable tutoring on the details. Cannon, however, paints a captivating portrait of a politician-in-training, explaining how a crusty California assemblyman named Charles J. Conrad ''explained to him how legislation was passed and the governor's role in the process.'' Then, according to Cannon, Reagan's handlers hired a team of behavioral psychologists who produced eight briefing books that eventually formed the bedrock of Reagan's gubernatorial program.

But they - the handlers, the behavioral psychologists - didn't make Reagan. His childhood in Illinois, his years as a lifeguard and radio broadcaster, his roles on the screen, his struggles in the political crucible of Hollywood, his evenings giving speeches in grim banquet halls - all these, plus the Depression and world war that shaped his entire generation - sculpted the Ronald Reagan who took that oath in the dark of early morning in Sacramento. He was of his time, of course - and he was his own man.

I'm curious exactly what the behavioral psychologists did for Reagan. And I find this era in American history--typically seen as a left-wing era, but a period in which the right wing grew rapidly as a political and social movement nonetheless --really fascinating.


Leipzig's bid to host the 2012 Olympics has been dealt a blow by the revelation that the head of the PR firm promoting it once worked for the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police.


From The Observer:

  • The existence of a previously unknown, 36-year-old massacre during the Vietnam War was recently revealed by an American newspaper--not by The New York Times or The Washington Post, but The Toledo Blade. What does this say about American journalism? Will the Pulitzer board notice?
  • A really smart New Yorker runs a high-IQ society. He says he wants to help solve real problems and denies that his organization is a scam.

America needs more fun periodicals.


America isn't the only country where the separation of church and state is an issue, as this case from Italy demonstrates.


What's the best way to teach the writing of fiction? Charles Johnson's writing workshop sounds like fun...


Major Rudolf Anderson was one of 11 American U-2 pilots during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he was the only one to die. Does this make him the most heroic? The Washington Post Magazine discusses this question.


The constitutional scholar John Hart Ely has died at 64. Ely was the author of the book Democracy and Distrust, a fascinating, thought-provoking, and charming volume that proposed a "participation-oriented, representation-reinforcing" approach to the Constitution. (I never completely bought his argument, but it's a theory worth grappling with; Democracy and Distrust may also be the most amusing academic book I've ever read.)

Two facts I did not know: Ely was the youngest staff member of the Warren Commission and wrote the first draft of Abe Fortas's legal brief in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.


The New York Times profiles the Free State Project, whose goal is to convince 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire to reshape the state's politics. (The movement also considered moving to Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming; a frequently asked question on the organization's website was therefore "Can't you make a warmer state an option?")


So who's manlier--Donald Rumsfeld or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Midge Decter thinks that the answer is clear: she's written a new book about the allure of the man dubbed "the Rumstud" by his boss, George W. Bush.

David Foster Wallace, meanwhile, thinks that infinity is a much more alluring subject for a book.


According to this Guardian article, Dylan Thomas was a "cut-price Dionysiac" who didn't much like the Welsh.


Someday, after I've become a rich historian and published my three brilliant works of fiction, I plan to write a reference book. (I haven't decided what the topic will be: perhaps I'll write about something conventional--Soviet politicians, say--or perhaps I'll write about something more entertaining, like the residents of hell.) Whatever my topic turns out to be, I'll enjoy writing at least one entry on a person who doesn't really exist. It's always fun to look for made-up entries in reference books, after all, and I've wasted more time than I care to admit in this activity.

There are, of course, disadvantages to this pursuit: I once spent several days under the misconception that the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer had never existed after reading a silly-sounding account of his life in a mediocre reference book. Grillparzer, it seems, had a frustrating career in the Austrian civil service before finally becoming the head of its division of archives. "The central idea of his plays," we are told, "is that an individual's salvation depends on his being able to remain aloof." He was engaged for years, but never married; he became so upset at the poor reception of his play Woe to the Liar (Weh dem, der Luegt) that he quit publishing his work; the world, then, never learned of his play Libussa (about "the myth of the founding of Prague") until after he died. Grillparzer summed up his life in an epigram which was only discovered posthumously: "Cleverly thought and stupidly done–/ That's how the course of my life has run.")

A story like that had to have been made up, I once believed. Why would anyone write a play about the legend of Prague's founding? Does anyone really believe that the key to salvation is "remaining aloof"? Since I first read about Grillparzer, I've discovered that the University of Chicago library owns copies of several of his plays. I have therefore come to the reluctant conclusion that Grillparzer did, indeed, exist--or else that the conspiracy to convince the world of his existence is even larger than I suspected.

When I first began writing this blog entry a few minutes ago, I planned to inform my readers that I'd discovered a genuine "fake" entry: a summary of the life of a made-up poet named Aleksei Tsvetkov in the useful reference book A Handbook of Russian Literature. Tsvetkov's life, like Grillparzer's, seemed too good to be true. The entry about him was full of details that sounded like parodies of over-written reference book entries: a reference to Tsvetkov's "self(?)-imposed exile," a list of odd jobs Tsvetkov had held (hospital porter, night-watchman, stagehand), a list of credits including a translation of Nabokov's Pale Fire, and a long listing of obscure movements and journals that Tsvetkov had been associated with. (The entry--unlike essentially all the others in the book--does not list a patronymic for Tsvetkov, and the website for Dickinson College--which is said to employ Tsvetkov--does not list him as a faculty member.) The oddities I've just listed weren't enough to make me think that Tsvetkov was a fake, however. (Plenty of Russian writers have had unusual jobs, after all.) What convinced me was the entry's pompous final paragraph:

Sharing Tsvetkov's belief that poetry does not lend itself to translation, I do not regret that his poems have not appeared in English. I do regret, however, that his mastery of the Russian word cannot, at this time, be enjoyed by a wider audience in his homeland. For he is unquestionably among the finest, if not the finest, Russian poet of our time. His poetry is characterized by an unequaled sophistication and facility of technique, both formal and semantic (due in part to his vast and--rare in latter-day Russian intelligentsia--profound erudition), juxtaposing the lofty and the common in self-reflexive irony; a provocative, insightful, and often painful view of things--but let's not take ourselves too seriously. The presence in his poems of that unnameable, ungraspable, which is the difference between the live and the lifeless, makes it worthwhile to read Tsvetkov in the original.

To me, that paragraph still sounds too silly and too pompous to be genuine. Unfortunately, however, the University of Chicago library seems to own several books by Tsvetkov, so it appears that my theory is an untenable one. Fake reference book entries do indeed exist--the late, lamented Lingua Franca once had a delightful article on this subject--but I'll just have to continue my search. The world, it seems, is a more interesting place than I'd given it credit for, and sometimes the pomposity or silliness of reference book entries can be better explained by the pomposity or silliness of their authors or subjects than by the sense of humor of the reference book's compiler.

Update: it seems that I'm not the only person to draw attention to the Tsvetkov entry mentioned above. I just ran a search for "Aleksei Tsvetkov" in JSTOR and found the following, in Russian Review's book review of the Handbook of Russian Literature:

The main purpose of any handbook must be to convey information. This one does so handsomely. Inevitably, however, "opinion" appears. Occasionally it is outrageous (the entry on Aleksei Tsvetkov must be the volume's one hidden intentional leg-pull), but far too much is of the "received" variety and does little to challenge old views.

I also found several reviews that criticized collections of dissident or samizdat literature for failing to include Tsvetkov, as well as a review of a volume of Nabokov criticism which chided the author for getting Tsvetkov's name wrong (listing it as Oleg instead of Aleksei.) It seems that Tsvetkov is a real, but obscure, Russian poet.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Will "neuromarketers" change the way that advertising works? What happens if you run the Pepsi Challenge while monitoring the brain activity of subjects using an M.R.I.? Clive Thompson reports on these questions in The New York Times Magazine.


What if Leonard Bernstein (and not his "West Side Story" collaborator, Stephen Sondheim) had gone on to reshape Broadway? The Boston Globe addresses this question.


George Orwell's notebook listing suspected Communist sympathizers will soon go on display for the first time.


The Guardian isn't terribly fond of the official biography of Douglas Adams.

Elsewhere in The Guardian: Pablo Picasso--painter of violence?


It can be hard to write a story set in another culture, Carlin Romano writes in a review of a collection about Russia.


Curious about the writings of Walter Duranty, the Stalin-era New York Times Moscow reporter whose Pulitzer Prize may be revoked? Today's Week in Review section has excerpts from his work.


The New York Times reports on a study by two Berkeley economists that suggests that parents of girls divorce more often than parents of boys.


How effective are the judges of the Booker Prize in selecting literature that will appeal to generations of readers? How good are judges of other artistic competitions in recognizing great works of lasting significance? According to this Boston Globe article, a Belgian researcher believes that aesthetic judging is often highly flawed.

I'm not especially impressed by the methodology of the Belgian's study, but parts of the article were very interesting:

Those who rely on critics may be most rattled by Ginsburgh's discussion of the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition, which is held annually in his native Brussels. This highly prestigious competition has helped ignite the careers of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Leon Fleischer, and Emanuel Ax, among others. It's extremely rigorous: In the finals, the pianists perform a concerto written especially for the occasion, which they've studied for only a week. Yet in his statistical analysis of the years from 1952 to 1991, Ginsburgh uncovered a troubling pattern: The players who perform last in any given evening, or late in the week-long contest, disproportionately get the best marks. In other words, the judges tend to rate highest whomever they've just heard. Clearly, something besides artistic merit is swaying their decisions.

This raises some alarming questions: Who among our greatest classical musicians got a big bounce at the start of their careers simply through the luck of the draw? And were any potential geniuses unfairly derailed? Perhaps critics' blurbs on CDs should come with a disclaimer.

Of course, maybe some other factor (besides how late in a competition certain pianists competed) was playing a role here. I'm curious whether the same conclusions apply to other music competitions.


An article in today's Boston Globe examines the role of private funding in the public schools, focusing in part on the town where I grew up.