Mildly Malevolent

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

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

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Saturday, November 08, 2003

In a new book reviewed by The Washington Times, David Herbert Donald discusses Abraham Lincoln and his friends.

Moscow, according to the BBC, is considering a ban on kissing in public.

A less fluffy BBC article discusses the problems facing Georgian leader Eduward Shevardnadze.

The New York Times profiles "the Zelig of Japanese diplomatic history," Toshikazu Kase:

Descended from a long line of scholars, he graduated from Amherst in 1927 and was immediately posted to Japan's embassy in Berlin, where he got to know a fast-rising politician named Adolf Hitler. At his next posting, in London, he counted Winston Churchill among his dinner guests. Back in Tokyo, running the North America desk, he was on duty the weekend of the Pearl Harbor attack, in December 1941.

"A very unfortunate situation prevailed at our embassy in Washington on that gray day," he said in an interview, seated in a leather easy chair, his legs swathed in a blanket, his voice reedy thin but his memory clear. Embassy officers, he recalled 62 years later, "went out drinking" and ignored instructions to decode and deliver a cable from Tokyo.

"The instruction was to deliver the ultimatum one hour in advance of the commencement of the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor," he said. "Whether that would have freed us from the sneak attack curse, well, that is a good question for historians."

Historians generally agree that the ultimatum did not in any case constitute a formal declaration of war.

The article has some other interesting tidbits as well.

The Leo Frank lynching is the subject of an excellent Washington Post book review.

The Washington Post Outlook section discusses the decline of American interest in Russia. The article's opening section:

"Russia is so over." That was the instant response of a young magazine editor when I proposed an article on a magnificent exhibition of rare manuscripts and prints, titled "Russia Engages the World: 1453-1825," currently at the New York Public Library.

I reminded the editor -- whose magazine prides itself on cultural sophistication -- that 2003 marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. I also mentioned that the library exhibition is rich in documents, never before seen by the public, chronicling imperial Russia's contacts with the Muslim world.

At the mention of Muslims, the editor perked up. "Could you just write about the Islamic angle?" he asked.

Our conversation was so over. But the editor's dismissive attitude toward Russia extends far beyond a trend-obsessed New York media subspecies. It is symptomatic of a nationwide loss of interest in Russian culture, politics and language since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The phenomenon is driven not only by changing American attitudes toward Russia itself but by a deeper governmental and societal failure to appreciate the need for specialists with knowledge of other languages and cultures.

I've heard mixed things about whether the decline in students studying Russian has now leveled off, but the picture certainly isn't good.

This American Prospect article on a new Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara is worth reading. I thought that the author--Sidney Schanberg--sometimes injected his own opinions into the piece in a slightly awkward way, but I found the article fascinating.

I hadn't known, for example, about McNamara's role in the firebombing of Tokyo:

One of the movie's most powerful passages covers McNamara's little-known service in World War II, when he was attached to Gen. Curtis LeMay's 21st Bomber Command stationed on the Pacific island of Guam. LeMay's B-29s showered 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs in 1945, softening up the country for the two atomic blasts to come. McNamara was a senior planning officer. He describes in particular the firebombing of Tokyo, then a city of wooden houses and shops. "In that single night," says McNamara, his eyes filling with tears, the first of his several emotional moments in the film, "we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo -- men, women and children." Newly retrieved military film taken from the air pans across 50 square miles turned to ash.

At this point, Morris abruptly asks McNamara if he knew "this was going to happen." McNamara replies: "Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient." McNamara then recalls a moment after the war ended when he was standing with LeMay and the controversial general said to him, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." "And I think he's right," says McNamara. "He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals."

Another interesting passage discusses how McNamara--one of the most prominent members of the "best and brightest"--constantly tried to describe how smart he was;

You can hear McNamara's neediness throughout this film. He compulsively says at every turn how smart he is, and how at every stage of his life he rose above the rest. In grammar school, he recalls, smiling in remembered triumph, he had a teacher who gave a test every month and put the pupil with the highest grade in the first seat on the left-hand row. "I worked my tail off to be in that first seat," McNamara says. His competition, he adds, "were Chinese, Japanese and Jews," and they tried and tried "to beat that damn Irishman. But they didn't do it very often."

And then on to college at the University of California, Berkeley, where, McNamara happens to mention, he was one of only three out of his class of 3,500 to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of the sophomore year. After Berkeley, Harvard Business School, where he did so well they asked him back as an assistant professor. World War II was approaching and the business school, to keep from losing all its students to the draft, negotiated a government contract to set up an officer-training school in "statistical control" for the Air Force. And that's how he got to be a lieutenant colonel on Guam.

After the war, Ford Motors grabbed up McNamara and a bunch of other classmates from Harvard, gave them tests ("In some tests, we actually had the highest marks that had ever been scored.") and installed them in executive positions. In 1960, he got the top job. ("I was the first president of the company -- in the history of the company -- that had ever been president other than a member of the Ford family.") Less than five weeks later, a newly elected U.S. president, John Kennedy, asked him to be secretary of defense. McNamara was flattered and honored, so despite the smaller government paycheck and his ties to Ford ("I was one of the highest-paid executives in the world, and the future was, of course, brilliant."), he took the job.

I was even intrigued by the technology of the documentary: Morris apparently uses a "modified Teleprompter" called the Interotron in his work, to establish eye contact between the interviewee and the audience. The review of this documentary is fascinating, and the movie itself sounds worth watching.

Anthony Grafton reviews a biography of Primo Levi.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Browsing books is fun.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Why are American obituaries so bad?

On Sunday I linked to this extremely boring and mediocre AP obituary of the political scientist Richard Neustadt; it was printed in The New York Times, America's newspaper of record. I had hoped that the Times would eventually publish a more interesting obit, but the piece they published on Monday was only slightly better.

Today, however, I came across links to several British obituaries of Neustadt while browsing on the blog Sitting on a Fence. Compare the New York Times Neustadt obituary with this obituary from The London Telegraph and this obituary from The Independent. Both are far more informative--even though Neustadt was an American academic, not a prominent Briton. (He did live in England, and was married to a prominent British politician, but still...)

The Independent's obituary was stylistically very different from standard American obituaries:

Neustadt was a wise and hard-working man. His first wife, Bert, died of multiple sclerosis, and the care with which he nursed her through her final months and years moved everyone who saw the two of them together. Bert, knowing she was dying and determined that Dick should be happy after she was gone, decided she knew whom Dick should marry; their old British friend, temporarily single, Shirley Williams. Neustadt proposed in 1986. She accepted. He gave her some of the happiest years of her life.

He also gave great happiness to more other people than he can possibly have realised. Although he would have been appalled and embarrassed to hear anyone say so, there was always more than a whiff of saintliness about him.

Personally, I found the writing a little too flowery and would have preferred an obituary that spent more time repeating neat facts from Neustadt's life. (And I'm not just saying this because I enjoy nasty obituaries!) Even so, The Independent's obituary was vastly better than the one that appeared in The New York Times. Will Americans ever learn?

The Washington Post reports on a petition sent to the Smithsonian, protesting the institution's decision to display the Enola Gay at its new facility near Dulles Airport without discussing the number of casualties from the atomic bomb. The Smithsonian's current plan is to show a display that focuses on the plane's design with text that is "factual but not interpretive."

The petition (organized by a group of scholars, writers, and activists) is available on the web, but I'm still not sure what to make of it. The petitioners generally seem reasonable--they do not, for example, object to the display of the Enola Gay, but to the its failure to "initiate [a]desperately needed national conversation on nuclear arms policy." Is this really the proper role for the Smithsonian, however? I have the feeling that any discussion of nuclear policy that's supported by the petitioners would be an inappropriate role for an institution like the Smithsonian, whose mission should generally--I would argue--be more narrowly educational and less policy-oriented. Moreover, I'm not sure I agree fully with what the petition's "statement of principle" claims. The statement quotes two Japanese groups who've written that "The display rationalizes the bombing and as such it is absolutely unforgiveable....Atomic bombs massacre civilians indiscriminately and are weapons that cannot be justified in humanitarian terms. Even now, many victims continue to suffer the after-effects." The second part of this excerpt seems undeniable to me--but I'm not convinced that the display "rationalizes the bombing."

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian's exhibit strikes me as highly flawed. According to The Washington Post, "The text that will accompany the plane describes how it was an improvement over other bombers, such as its use of pressurized compartments for the crew. " Jack Dailey, the director of the museum, has announced that "We are displaying [the Enola Gay] in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement." But would the Smithsonian have any interest displaying the Enola Gay if it hadn't dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Is the plane significantly different from other bombers of the era? I'm skeptical.

What we're left with, then, strikes me as a flawed protest against a flawed museum exhibit. The ideal, I think, would be a historical exhibit on the Enola Gay like that which was planned for 1994--an interpretive exhibit that would explain the bombing and its historical context. The Smithsonian's proposed 1994 exhibit was flawed, but could have been salvaged, and its cancellation was in many ways an act of cowardice. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to see anything like that exhibit again.

I had debated blogging about CBS's decision to cancel its Reagan mini-series, but two other writers have now said exactly what I would have written.

Here's the beginning of Josh Marshall's recent blog entry on the controversy:

According to Reuters, CBS is seriously considering canceling its miniseries on the Reagans. What an utter joke.

Since I haven't seen it, I have no idea if the thing is complete tripe, biased, maudlin, lame or whatever. From my experience with TV miniseries, it's probably all of those things.

(Of course, not having seen it doesn't seem to be much of a problem since, from what I can tell, none of the critics have actually seen it either.)

Somehow I just can't get around to feeling too bad about the cancellation of a bad mini-series, even if it wasn't actually cancelled for the "right" reasons. (The phrase "bad mini-series" seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it?)

And here's the conclusion to Tim Noah's quite sensible take on the controversy:

Ironically, conservatives like Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who called on CBS to cancel The Reagans, were probably acting against their own interest. Airing a miniseries about Ronald Reagan on network TV would likely have enhanced the aura of glamour that already surrounds him. According to Rutenberg in the Times, the miniseries "does give Mr. Reagan most of the credit for ending the cold war and paints him as an exceptionally gifted politician and a moral man who stuck to his beliefs, often against his advisers' urgings." So what if it fails to credit President Reagan with creating a lengthy economic expansion (though not as lengthy as the one overseen by Bill Clinton) or with "delivering the nation from the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years" (achieved mainly by a drop in oil prices)? Even its clearly false notes could easily burnish rather than harm Reagan's image. For instance, its apparent picture of Reagan as a homophobe ("They that live in sin shall die in sin," he says by way of justifying inaction on AIDS) is much more flattering than the truth, which is that Reagan was (in Hendrik Hertzberg's exquisite formulation) a "closet tolerant" who back-burnered the AIDS issue out of political expediency. Biographies and TV dramas about the Kennedys have grown steadily more critical and salacious over the years, but they don't seem to have diminished the nation's Camelot obsession. By rendering criticism of Ronald Reagan taboo, conservatives act against their long-term interest in maintaining his status as a culture hero. It's very difficult to sustain passion, over time, for a plaster saint.

The mini-series apparently would have spread the myth that Reagan ended the Cold War, which is another good reason that it was cancelled.

The Washington Post reports on the government's shortage of Arabic translators. The article has lots of interesting tidbits, like a reference to "computers that translate texts automatically or can sort through vast amounts of data to find the most telling passages."

Question of the day: what's the real cause of the "Hogwarts headache"?

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

What impact is Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter having on France's National Front? The Spectator looks at the party's present and future.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

As Margaret Talbot pointed out in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, a new report from the Brookings Institute challenges the widespread view that America's schoolchildren are doing more homework now than ever before. But why do so many people disagree with this finding? Talbot's answers are interesting...

An art installation at the Corcoran Gallery discusses the atomic bomb and recreates the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos lab. Is it art? Is it a threat to national security? I don't care much about the first question, and I think the answer to the second is no, but this sounds like a cool exhibit in any case.

(via Arts and Letters Daily) Skeptical Inquirer looks at the Rorschach test:

[I]t's possible that these Rorschach wizards possessed a special clinical insight, a heightened intuition, that allowed them to surpass ordinary human limitations. Drawing on their unique clinical talents and their experience with thousands of patients, they developed an uncanny skill that allowed them to extract unexpected insights from inkblots.

Of course, this is the view that Rorschach devotees have generally preferred. Even today, many psychologists exhibit an extraordinary faith in the powers of clinical intuition. However, belief in the intuitive powers of Rorschach wizards is difficult to reconcile with the revelations of research. As we mentioned earlier, when the supposedly extraordinary insight of Rorschach experts has been tested in rigorously controlled studies, results have been disappointing. Given such findings, it's implausible that the Rorschach wizards of the 1950s were possessed of extraordinary clinical insight. Thus, we have to consider a second explanation for their extraordinary performances: Maybe they were frauds.

Fun stuff.

Last Friday, when I was too busy to read the New York Times op-ed page, Philip Pullman wrote a charming piece called "Why I Don't Believe in Ghosts." (I've now found it thanks to Bookslut.) The essay describes Pullman's attitudes on the supernatural, on fantasy literature, and on the process of writing. Check it out.

An excerpt:

So that's why I welcome Halloween, and it's why, although I revere the great realists and read their work with devoted admiration, I know I'm not one of them. My imagination comes to life only in the presence of the uncanny; the despot I serve is the part of my mind that feels a thrill as fierce and sudden as lust when it encounters a deserted graveyard, or comes on the idea of personal daemons, or hears those old familiar words: "Once upon a midnight dreary. . . ."

And, if you haven't read any of Pullman's books, go do that, too.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Today Slate features an article on Russia's new pulp writers. I don't necessarily agree with all the author's conclusions, but I don't have time to critique the piece right now... Go ahead and read it instead.

The Los Angeles Times has a fascinating profile of Under-Secretary of State John Bolton. Paul Wolfowitz isn't the only scary man in the administration, it seems!

If you're interested in politics, Ruy Teixera's weblog is a great place to go. Over the weekend, the site included two posts (here and here) on how Wesley Clark can win the Democratic nomination.

What interested me most was the site's link to this Washington Post article on the impact of "momentum" on presidential campaigns. The article cites some academic work with three surprising findings: money doesn't matter as much as most people think, front-runners often stumble but rarely blow their leads, and sudden changes in momentum rarely affect the outcome of a campaign.

One of my former American Prospect editors has written a Washington Post book review of Virginia Postrel's new book.

Younger and younger high school students are taking AP exams. This strikes me as a bad idea: in my experience, almost no AP courses are as good as real courses at good colleges, and giving college credit for them is--at best--highly questionable.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

What's the relationship between entertainment and the writing of history? Eric Hobsbawm discusses this question.

(more later)

The Boston Globe ideas section has an interesting (if overly favorable) profile of Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian of Russia.

Another article in the section discusses a 1938 puff piece about Hitler in the British magazine Homes and Gardens.

Peter Jacon's Lord of the Rings movies have helped the New Zealand economy, it appears.

The political scientist Richard Neustadt has died at 84.

Where have all the women in New York politics gone?