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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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Posting, not surprisingly, will be light-to-nonexistent for several days, what with Thanksgiving, a lot of grading of papers, and preparations for my first lecture.

In a New York Times article from last week, Sean Wilentz attacks the "counter-Camelot myth" that John F. Kennedy was "timid and ineffective" on domestic policy, arguing that--like Lyndon Johnson--Kennedy was a "master of the Senate." (via The History News Network)

How good a writer was Hans Christian Andersen? He is rarely, a Slate article suggests, seen as a literary artist.

But a new edition of Andersen's most famous tales, translated by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, means to change all that. The Franks declare their intention to treat Andersen as he is treated in his native Denmark: as a sophisticated modern writer, to be read and studied as seriously as his fellow Copenhagener, and one-time reviewer, Soren Kierkegaard. They translate Andersen's Danish into idiomatic contemporary English, capturing his deliberate colloquialism. More strikingly, they provide each of the 22 stories with footnotes, demonstrating their roots in Andersen's own life. In many ways the book itself strains against their scholarship--it is a luxurious, oversized volume, featuring 19th-century illustrations, obviously meant to be read to children at bedtime. In this setting, the Franks' introduction--which by Page 4 is analyzing Andersen's masturbation habits--seems oddly adult.

I'm sort of curious about the unhappy five-week visit Andersen paid to Charles Dickens...

The Telegraph asks why there are so few female movie directors, and suggests that financial calculations are the cause. (via ArtsJournal)

How do you study Thanksgiving in a school were most of the students are Mohawk? The New York Times reports.

The Washington Post profiles a newsletter editor who describes the arbitrariness of government secrecy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Guardian reports on Iraqi efforts to produce new textbooks for the post-Saddam era:

When it comes to dealing with controversial subjects such as the 1991 Gulf war, the texts won't be much help. Pressured to have the books reprinted in time for the new school year, the US-led ministry of education simply deleted all sections deemed "controversial", including references to America, Shias and Sunnis, Kurds, Kuwaitis, Jews and Iranians. Saddam's hand was heaviest in history, but his touch was everywhere. Some books lost sentences or paragraphs. In modern history, half of the text was deleted.


Even the teachers who say they are against the Ba'ath party are still products of two decades of Ba'ath party schooling. In many cases, they want to take out Ba'ath party propaganda, but they don't know what to replace it with. They know no other version of history. "We can change the text easily," Hussein said. "But the challenge will be to change the culture of the teachers."

Hussein is planning on putting together a curriculum team that represents all ethnic groups, religions and sectors of Iraq to properly debate history and rewrite each text - a process, he says, that will take years.

Even within Iraqi academic society there is tremendous debate over past and present history. What will they say were the reasons behind the Iran-Iraq war? And how will Iraqis ever agree on who supported Saddam and who opposed him? "The fall of Baghdad is very controversial," says Sami Al Kaisi, history professor at the Baghdad University Women's College of Education. "It's hard to say who stood against America at that moment. Who will we say betrayed Saddam? We will need 20 to 30 years to reflect on this before we can teach it properly."

Furthermore, Fuad Hussein said his team came under pressure from Iraq's religious groups hoping to make similar inroads into the school system that exist in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Sounds like quite a challenge...

An article in the new Canadian magazine The Walrus discusses why Poland has sent troops to Iraq. The situation is extremely complicated:

Though public-opinion polls give contradictory results, a substantial percentage of Poles remain opposed to the presence of Polish troops in Iraq. Surprisingly, a majority also believe that their mission will be successful. This might be seen as an expression of wishful thinking, or it might be a reflection of the still widespread belief here that America -- Poland's Big Brother in Iraq -- cannot get things wrong.

One unstated lesson of the article is that the oft-described division between "New Europe" and "Old Europe" has been exaggerated. Even in "New Europe," views toward the war are far more complicated (and far less straightforwardly pro-American) than some analysts suggest.

Archaeology is cool.

American anarchy: an In These Times article discusses the 1901 assassination of William McKinley.

Left-wing political violence in the early 1900s strikes me as an under-appreciated topic in American history. I don't know if academics have been studying it, but it has very rarely percolated into the public consciousness.

The Spectator reviews two biographies of Lord Haw-Haw, the pro-Nazi British propagandist:

On 22 April 1945, when he was still working, Haw-Haw wrote in his diary, ‘Has it all been worthwhile? I think not. National Socialism is a fine cause, but most of the Germans, not all, are bloody fools.’ That is typical of his plain speaking. He was brave and quick-witted and showed no self-pity, but he was also coarse, violent and mentally unbalanced. His trial turned on what duty of allegiance he owed the British Crown. In law, it was very hard to show, as an American and then a German citizen, that he owed any: he had obtained his British passport by deceit, and A. J. P. Taylor remarked that he was hanged for making a false statement on a passport, for which the usual penalty was a fine of two pounds. But by his own lights Haw-Haw was undoubtedly a traitor, a fierce supporter of the British empire who then did all he could to bring about its destruction. He looked forward, in his gloating way, to Churchill’s execution, and would surely have felt contemptuous if the British state had let him off on a technicality.

A fun read, though I might have been more critical of Haw-Haw.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, an editor at The New Press discusses the state of Japanese publishing and the high number of translations of scholarly works into Japanese:

Still, compared with what has happened to publishing in the West, the situation in Japan is extraordinarily impressive. The drive for profit has been kept in check, and has not yet limited the amount of serious publishing going on. The Japanese are still more likely to translate one of our demanding books than any other country. Part of that is because they still see publishing as a necessary conduit to what is happening in the rest of the world. And part is because they still see publishing more as a personal undertaking, an expression of a publisher's own interests, than a business. That elusive "general reader" we are all hoping to reach can still be found in Japan.

Fascinating stuff, like this old American Prospect review of a book by the author of the Chronicle article.

Wired discusses idiot savants and the "key to genius". (via Artsjournal)

Daniel Drezner discusses the return of Opus.

The Georgian protestors who brought about Eduard Shevardnadze's fall, it seems, consciously modelled themselves on the Serbians who toppled Slobodan Milosevic.

Last week, an arsonist destroyed an Indiana museum on the Holocaust. Its owner, an Auschwitz survivor, promises to rebuild it.

Just how ignorant of history are the American people? In The Wall Street Journal, NEH Chairman Bruce Cole describes poll results that suggest that Americans don't know much about the past:

I'll give just a few examples. One study of university students found that 40% could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. Only 37% knew that the Battle of the Bulge took place during World War II. A national test of high school seniors found that 57% performed "below basic" level in American history. What does that mean? Well, over half of those tested couldn't say whom we fought in World War II. Eighteen percent believed that the Germans were our allies!

These poll results are striking, and undoubtedly show just that far too many Americans don't know much about the past. I'm a little wary of reading too much into these figures, however. I don't think it's a tragedy that only a third or so of the poll respondents knew that the Battle of the Bulge took place in World War II, after all: it would be nice if they were a little more knowledgeable, but there are more important things to know about history than the names of battles. I'd also be willing to bet that the 18% of college students who "believed that the Germans were our allies" in World War II included quite a few people who knew perfectly well that we fought the Nazis (and that the Nazis were German), but got confused in some other way. We should still work to eliminate this ignorance, but I don't know if factoids from polls should be taken at face value.

It would be interesting to design a more sophisticated poll to look at Americans' knowledge of history and at their genuine historical understanding--both to see how many people recognized basic facts about the past and to test their more conceptual understanding of history. I'm not sure exactly how to do that, though.

Monday, November 24, 2003

The National Post reviews Simon Sebag Montefiore's book on Stalin's court. An excerpt:

Joseph Stalin sang beautifully; his tenor was "rare" and "sweet," and he was gifted with perfect pitch. His police chief, Lavrenty Beria, was an incorrigible prankster who enjoyed slipping rotten tomatoes or chicken bones into a colleague's suit pocket. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was a study in contrasts. He could be a sanctimonious prig, complaining about the bathrooms in Winston Churchill's country mansion, but he passionately addressed his wife as "bright love, my heart and happiness, my pleasure honey, Polinka."

I have no idea how good this book is, but it sounds like a fun read.

Michele Berdy discusses Russia's language of betrayal.

Henry Farrell's post on Crooked Timber is one of the most sensible reponses I've seen to Stephen King's recent appearance at the National Book Awards. I thought that Harold Bloom's recent denunciation of the NBA for giving an award to King was pompous and silly, but far too many people went overboard praising King's writing when they responded to Bloom. Farrell's response is much more sensible, though I don't like Wodehouse as much as he does.

I think there's a broader point here. Earlier this afternoon I wrote a snarky blog entry about Roger Ebert's review of Gothika. Ebert doesn't pretend that Gothika is a great movie--he even begins by writing that "The sainted Pauline Kael taught us: The movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we might as well stop going." I can't help but agree with this sentence, but I think Ebert's wrong about Gothika and that Kael would be an infinitely better judge of "great trash" than Ebert. Slate's David Edelstein is a far more convincing critic than Ebert, and when he praises a bad movie, I'm far more likely to think that he's on to something. Far too often, our society doesn't realize that there's a difference between populism and a tolerance for stupidity and incompetence. How many movie critics can convincingly write a favorable review of a popular-but-mediocre movie? How many snobs write off bad movies as bad just because they're popular?

I honestly don't know if King made a convincing case for popular fiction at his speech, but far too many people wrote him off before he even started, or assumed he was right before he'd made his case. That's a shame.

Update Would Stephen King have won the Stalin Prize for literature if he had lived in the Soviet Union?

Update 2 (via Bookslut) The Christian Science Monitor looks at the controversy and at King's career. Awards like King's have been given before, the article points out:

King is not the first sci-fi king or commercial figure to wear the literary laurels. The National Book Foundation award went to Ray Bradbury in 2000. The year before, Oprah Winfrey won it for her quest to popularize the novel. But King's nomination has touched a literary nerve - mostly, say experts, because of genre, productivity, and his wild success.

What I find most intriguing about the article is the use of the phrase "judas goat." Those of you who know me will understand.

A fascinating Washington Post article suggests that the KGB helped spread conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but it's fascinating.

Should Republicans be worried that Katherine Harris wants to run for the Senate?

This week's Boston Globe ideas section was unusually good:

Fun stuff!

Here's a fascinating TNR profile of Dick Cheney.

Still more evidence that Roger Ebert is a moron: he liked the movie Gothika. (Quoth the critic: "I cherished this movie in all of its lurid glory.")

Last week, the Pulitzer Board decided not to revoke the award given to Walter Duranty of The New York Times. (Here's an AP report on the decision from Newsday and here's a lengthy Columbia Journalism review article on the controversy.) (via Ralph Luker)

I don't really feel qualified to render a firm judgment on the question. Duranty's reporting sounds horrendously bad, but I haven't actually read his work; I don't know whether the reporting was so horrendously bad that Duranty's Pulitzer should be revoked or merely a major embarasment, though I'm inclined to think that a revocation of the Pulitzer would do very little for anyone. (Leaving the award in place might also be a nice reminder about the errors of the past.) I also wonder about the motives of Duranty's critics--most historians of the Soviet Union would probably dispute the argument (stated in the summary of the CJR article) that the 1931-1932 events in Ukraine constituted a "government-engineered famine" or the argument of one Duranty critic quoted in the piece that Duranty was complicit in a "famine-genocide." (The most common view of the famine in the historical community is that it was the result of criminal negligence and incompetence rather than of genocide: Stalin deserves moral condemnation for the tragedy, but probably didn't intentionally cause it. This doesn't let him off the hook, of course: just because he wasn't as morally responsible for the famine as he was for the other horrors of collectivization and dekulakization doesn't mean that he shouldn't be condemned for the extreme incompetence and callousness that allowed the famine or for his willingness to use the famine for his ends.)

Random fact I learned today: Duranty may have coined the term "Stalinism."

Update: I've edited this entry slightly to make it clearer that I don't think that Stalin should be let off the hook about the famine and to differentiate the famine from dekulakization.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

John F. Kennedy wasn't the only famous man to die on November 22, 1963--so did Aldous Huxley (I believe) and C.S. Lewis, the subject of this New York Times op-ed piece.

On the History News Network, Sheldon Stern discusses JFK's leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

The evidence from the missile crisis tapes is anomalous and even surprising, but no less true: John Kennedy often stood virtually alone against warlike counsel from ExComm, the Joint Chiefs and Congress during those historic thirteen days. Nonetheless, he never really abandoned efforts, even after the Cuban missile crisis, to undermine the Cuban regime and get rid of Fidel Castro.

The article is worth reading in full. David Greenberg, meanwhile, has written a Slate article on conspiracy theories linking the Kennedy assassination and Watergate.

The Guardian reviews Umberto Eco's book on translation. (An excerpt is available here.)

The British cover of Paul Krugman's book is the center of controversy, it seems.

Quotation of the weekend (overheard in the hall at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies conference in Toronto): "I hate being a grad student at a conference full of professors. I want to be important too!" Overhearing that made me almost ashamed to be a grad student...

Overall, the conference was like most conferences: some good moments, lots of okay moments, lots of silly or pointless moments. It was a lot of fun to meet people and get a better sense of the field, however.