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

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Saturday, December 13, 2003

The New Republic reports on the government's translator shortage:

The government has not only failed to hire new linguists; it may have difficulty retaining the ones it already has. In part, this is because many agencies continue to treat language capability as a secondary ability at best, and translators feel as though their skills are woefully underused. A group of linguists from Utah's National Guard and Reserves in Iraq recently complained to The Salt Lake Tribune that they spend their days as glorified gofers, chauffeuring intelligence collectors from one place to another. The Utah linguists--many of whom learned foreign languages on Mormon missions--are known for their prowess, but these men say their skills have atrophied in Iraq. That's probably because they speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, not Arabic. The men were apparently deployed as part of a reserve call-up without anyone noticing that they could be better employed studying Arabic. (Translation skills are, to an extent, transferable among languages, so linguists often learn several.) Although money has been allocated for the men to learn Arabic back in the United States, the military has extended their deployment orders, meaning they're still in Iraq "painting the rocks," as they call their inactivity on base. Guard officials fear many will opt not to re-up when their Iraq stint is over.

This article, like many others on the subject, is a sobering reminder of our problematic long-term prospects in the war on terror.


Clever title of the week: "Citizen Vain," the name given to a Globe and Mail review of an Orson Welles biography.


The son of Horace Busby, one of LBJ's top advisers, recently found his father's journal. He has described his discovery, and published excerpts from the memoir, in the British magazine Prospect.

I found the excerpts fascinating. Most of them dealt with the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, and one theme that stood out was the politics behind JFK's decision to tour Dallas in an open motorcade:

One night during this period, I came home to find my wife reading the Dallas Morning News. Mary V handed me the front page. "Read this," she said. "Someone has lost his mind."

It was a story announcing that on his visit to Dallas, Kennedy would ride in an open car motorcade from Love Field to the site of his luncheon address. "I can't imagine your friends in the secret service letting the president do that," she said. I agreed with her. The thought of serious danger to the president did not occur. Our memories were still fresh, though, of 1960 when the vice-president and Mrs Johnson were mobbed in a Dallas hotel lobby. An ugliness had crept into Dallas politics that perplexed many Texans. In October, there had been a nasty attack on Ambassador Adlai Stevenson when he spoke there. An open car motorcade was an invitation for more episodes - ugly signs, jeering chants or, perhaps, an egg tossed at the presidential limousine.

The next day I voiced my concern to Walter Jenkins, and learned that he shared it, too. In fact, he told me, Governor Connally, Cliff Carter and all the Johnson men were counselling against the Dallas motorcade. But our interests and the interests of the Kennedy people were hopelessly at odds. We were thinking, selfishly perhaps, of avoiding street incidents that would embarrass Johnson. The Kennedy advance men in charge of the visit were considering a far larger picture. It would be of considerable political value, nationally, to turn out a friendly parade route crowd for the president in the city that had been most hostile to him at the polls in 1960. The politics of John F Kennedy overruled the politics of Lyndon B Johnson in the decision to send the young president through the streets of downtown Dallas.

This passage shows the motives behind the political players in the administration in a compelling way: no one comes across as a Cassandra who feared for the president's life, but the different perspectives of the JFK and LBJ camps nonetheless show through. Other passages show the nation's anger at Texans after November 1963:

After seeing the horror of the second Dallas murder in the morning, the nation watched that Sunday afternoon the haunting ritual in Washington as President Kennedy's body was borne to the Rotunda of the Capitol; there, the beautiful young widow knelt and kissed the flag-draped coffin. No one could watch without being affected. But the effects were not all sympathetic. The second line taken by the callers who reached me was venomous, directed against Mrs Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, all the Kennedys. I was not prepared for it, I could not comprehend it, and I am sure I did not cope well with it. Profane and vulgar, the words were, in many instances, alarming. But the most memorable of such calls came near nightfall.

The caller identified himself carefully; he was an industrialist from upstate New York of some national standing and he also took an active interest in politics. With the identification out of the way, he proceeded to his blunt message: "I just want to say that you poor dumb Texas sons of bitches are letting them take it away from you." He proceeded with an explicit denunciation of the new president for going into hiding, and of the Kennedys for playing on the national emotions with "a royal funeral." "Mark my words," he ended bitterly, "you Texans will look like the bottom of a bird cage by the time this is over."

I was not the only member of the Johnson world receiving such calls. Liz Carpenter [Lady Bird's spokeswoman] telephoned. She, too, had been besieged by calls about the president's participation in the funeral march the following day. Her instinct had been to go to The Elms where the president and Mrs Johnson were spending Sunday; from her visit there, however, she had a still more disturbing story to report: "It's started happening," Liz said with anger. "They are slicing at him." Who are "they," I wanted to know. "Bobby, Bobby's people," Liz replied tersely.

That reminded me of my anger the previous Friday when, alone among the news agencies, the Voice of America - a part, I could only think at the time, of the Kennedy administration - put out the report that Lyndon Johnson had suffered a heart attack. It was, of course, nonsense; and for the government's own news agency to broadcast this around the world seemed to me inexcusable. The same old theme, that Johnson was ill - which we had heard so much in 1960 - was being replayed. Word had come from within the Kennedy family that the attorney general and the widow fully understood the new president's health problem. Accordingly, they were planning for him to ride in his limousine, rather than to walk in the procession with members of the family. Liz Carpenter, like myself, had been influenced by the influx of telephone calls and we both thought that he should not be exposed to the streets. But I knew before Liz told me what his reaction would be now. "There is not a chance in the world that he will ride tomorrow," she said. The poison had begun to flow. [He walked]

Scott Busby describes "the stares of hatred and words of anger that were directed at me, because I was from Texas," when he was a 12-year-old middle schooler in Washington after the assassination. At the same time, the rivalry between Kennedy and Johnson officials is evident in excerpts like the paragraph above. I don't think this material is terribly new, but I found it a lively and fascinating look at how the Johnson camp viewed the situation immediately following the Kennedy assassination.


Do most analyses of Greek mythology focus too much on people and not enough on gods? Mary Lefkowitz thinks so, according to this New York Times book review. The doctor Melvin Konner, meanwhile, has written an "anthroplogy of the Jews".


What was the turning point in the Civil War? Gettysburg, Antietam, or--as this Washington Times article suggests--Murfreesboro?


Mick Jagger has been knighted. I found this link via Invisible Adjunct, whose reaction to the ceremony amused me:

Mick Jagger has finally been knighted. This story predictably plays off the seeming paradox of the icon of rebellion turned icon of establishment: "once a scourge of the British establishment," it notes, the "60-year-old rock n'roll lothario" has now "received its ultimate accolade." Apparently this perpective is shared by the "craggy-faced" Keith Richards, who "claimed [Jagger] was betraying the band's principles by accepting the honor."

I beg to differ. For the past four decades, Jagger has comported himself like the most dissolute and debauched of ancien regime aristocrats, even as he behaved like the most rationally calculating and profit-maximizing of contemporary capitalists. I think the knighthood a fitting tribute to his remarkable ability to bridge the gap between the old establishment and the new.

The world could use more snarky historians (but not in adjunct-level jobs.)


Do the economic theories of Ronald Coase explain the rise of Howard Dean? This Washington Post op-ed argues that they do.

I've always thought that one of the neatest things about the law and economics movement is the way that its proponents use it to explain practically everything in society. Then again, sometimes I think that the most infuriating thing about the law and economics movement is the way that its proponents use it to explain practically everything in society. This article, though, was kind of cool (silly references to blog notwithstanding.)


Strom Thurmond's illegitimate African-American daughter has now come forward, and The Washington Post has a lengthy profile.

An excerpt:

While visiting Columbia during the late 1940s, Williams said, the governor arranged for his chauffeur-driven car to bring her to his office. Thurmond by then had married Jean Crouch, who popped her head into his office during the meeting, which soon became fodder for gossip.

Williams said that Thurmond lectured her on the importance of exercise and proper diet, his lifelong obsessions. Then, she said, he asked a memorable question.

Williams said Thurmond asked her, "How does it feel to have your father as governor and not be able to claim him?' " She said she told the governor it felt just fine.

The article is fascinating.


Archie Brown reviews William Taubman's new Khrushchev biography in The Guardian. The author of a new Aldous Huxlet biography, meanwhile, discusses what it's like to have a more famous predecessor.


There's some good stuff in today's New York Times:

Good stuff!

Friday, December 12, 2003

The Village Voice discusses Errol Morris's new documentary about Robert McNamara:

For Morris, Fog was an opportunity not just to re-examine 20th-century politics and warfare, but to experiment with the form of the historical documentary. "I like to think of this film as a perverse kind of biography and history," Morris continues. "It omits the standard things you usually see. It includes things that are incredibly subjective. This has been a dream of mine, to make a movie with one person. There's no attempt at what we consider journalistic balance. It sets up so many powerful things, the exclusion of others. You're forced into another place—you're forced inside his head. You're forced to think about that person and what he's thinking and why he's thinking it. You're forced to do things that you can normally avoid doing because you're always on the outside often being told what to think."

Unfortunately, the article does a better job of telling readers that the film "experiment[s] with the form of the historical documentary" than it does of telling us exactly what makes this documentary different from the rest of the genre or explaining the lessons that Morris draws from McNamara's career.


Bob Dornan is back and he's running for Congress.


In The Spectator, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Conrad Black's new FDR biography. An excerpt:

Among the old New York aristocracy, the Roosevelts stood high, not quite the longest-settled and not quite as rich as some newer families, but well-respected and self-confident in the year 1882, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on their estate at Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson. ‘Delano’ (which later gave Mussolini much amusement: ‘of the anus’ in Italian) was originally de la Noye; FDR was prouder of that Huguenot ancestry than of the way the Delanos had made their recent pile in the opium trade. He received a conventional education at Groton and Harvard, where he didn’t do much work and wasn’t especially popular. By the time he became president, Roosevelt was reviled by the rich as a demagogic class traitor, and in this very detailed but always readable and often unlikely biography Conrad Black thinks there may have been an element of truth in this, or at least that he gained ‘some special gratification in running as a champion of the common man against caricatured groups of complacent and greedy inheritors’ (the fact that the biographer identifies so strongly with this tribune of the people against the greedy rich is what I mean by unlikely).

Another article suggests that computer estimates greatly overstate the impact of AIDS on Africa. I have no idea whether this argument is true, and I often didn't like its tone; nevertheless, it's an interesting read.


Michael Tomasky has written a smart and insightful essay on the Howard Dean candidacy, suggesting that Dean is helping to rebuild the party in a sense that Bill Clinton had missed out on.

Tomasky makes a couple historical analogies:

Besides, insurgents do win sometimes. Because the standard historical analogies to Dean (McGovern, Barry Goldwater) have now run their course, let me add two more to the mix. The first is Andrew Jackson—invoked, significantly, by Dean himself at the Dec. 9 endorsement event with Gore. Say all you want about 1828 being ancient history, but some things are eternal. Bringing new constituencies into the process and transforming politics through that infusion is one of them. Yesterday it was the pamphleteer, today it's the blogger; but the impulse and the ardor are the same. Another is Harold Washington. It was impossible, the experts said, for African Americans to elect a black mayor in Chicago. Couldn't be done. Well, it happened. He won the way Jackson did, which is the way Dean is hoping to.

I'm wary of the Jackson analogy--if you have to go back 175 years, your example may not be the most effective. I wish that we had a better recent example than Harold Washington of a politician who won office by mobilizing new constituencies. Winning the Chicago mayor's office isn't the same thing as winning the White House, after all. Nevertheless, I like Tomasky's argument--and hope that he's on to something.

Tangential update This New York Post article (found via the Drudge Report) describes a poll in which Bush would beat Dean by 27 points in New Hampshire. State polls aren't consistently reliable, and I wouldn't read too much into this one, but it's interesting nonetheless.


A charming essay in LA Weekly discusses the fall of Communism and the workings of seemingly secure social systems:

Still, even without constant state terror, communism was a calamity. Everywhere you looked there were signs of the niggling, small-souled despotism that made daily life hell. One gorgeous weekend afternoon in 1990 I went to Gorky Park, whose entrance has (as I recall) 10 large wrought-iron doors. Even though crowds were rushing to get in, the authorities only opened one of the doors. Just to enter the park, people wound up pushing and shoving and cramming themselves together, like a crowd being crushed at an English soccer riot. Why didn’t the authorities simply open the other doors and let people flow through freely? To remind everyone, even families out for a pleasant stroll, that the Party was still in charge.

We often talk about the absurdity and wastefulness of American capitalism, yet for sheer fatuous human waste, decade after decade, the communist system produced the purest absurdism: "We pretend to work," they used to say in Eastern Europe, "and they pretend to pay us." One day, on my trip to Eastern Europe that spring, a Polish businessman I'd met on a train drove me around Mazuria, a beautiful land of forests and lakes. Late in the day, we stopped by a state-owned farm whose huge region was surrounded by magnificent pines. After we wandered around for a few minutes, he gave me one of those glinting, ironic smiles that are a Polish specialty:

"What do you think they produce here?"

"I don’t know," I said. "Timber?"

"Artificial Christmas trees!" He cackled with bitter triumph. "The genius of communism!"

This article does a nice job of evoking both the evil and the pettiness in the Soviet system. I also liked the author's take on the present day: "These days, of course, the most potent alternative to our way of life is militant Islam, whose leaders have declared jihad against America. Their attacks on the West always make me think of the boxer Joe Louis' immaculate reply when asked, during World War II, why he would fight for a country that treated African-Americans so badly: 'There ain’t nothing wrong with this country that Hitler can fix.' "


Benito Mussolini's secret illegitimate daughter has published her memoirs, according to this London Times article (reproduced on the HNN site.)


The Guardian asks a question of great significance: is the number of nerds growing? (via ArtsJournal)


The British Library has released a series of recordings of authors reading from their work:

When J. R. R. Tolkien reads from "The Hobbit," he gives the sinister Gollum a hissing, whispery voice, full of sibilant menace, and makes a choking sound as he says of his creature, "He made a horrible swallowing noise in his throat. That is how he got his name, though he always called himself 'my precious.' "

Tolkien's version of Gollum, recorded in 1952, sounds remarkably like the computer-generated creature now familiar from the "Lord of the Rings" films. Andy Serkis, the actor who hisses "my precioussss," has said the voice was inspired by his cat coughing up a hairball, but the similarity is more a tribute to the power of Tolkien's description than to the hairball as muse.

...

One of the great surprises is finding which writers actually do voices and which don't. When A. A. Milne reads from "Winnie-the-Pooh," his creations sound like Victorian gents — soothing, paternal Victorian gents reading a bedtime story, it's true, but rather Victorian nonetheless.

"He gave a little squeak of excitement," Milne reads about Piglet spotting a paw print, yet sounding not very excited at all.

He goes on: " 'Oh, Pooh! Do you think it's a — a — a Woozle?'

" 'It may be,' said Pooh. 'Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.' " With Milne pronouncing it tis and t'isn't, Pooh's very proper voice in this 1929 recording is far from the high-pitched sweetness Sterling Holloway later gave him in so many Disney cartoons.

...

The best of the discs is the "Writers" volume, recorded mostly in the 20's and 30's. There you can hear Tolkien again, speaking Elvish from "The Lord of the Rings." But the happiest surprise must be Joyce, as cerebral and intimidating a literary genius as the world has ever known, and by all accounts not an easygoing guy. Who would have guessed he'd play a washerwoman so convincingly?

Sounds like fun stuff. I also think it leads to an interesting question: to what extent does it matter when characters in film adaptations of books sound like their creators had imagined them? On the one hand, I know people who detest the Disney "Winnie the Pooh" cartoons for their immature and silly portrayal of Milne's work--and it sounds like Disney imagined some characters ratherly differently than Milne did. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Tolkien would have approved of the current Lord of the Rings movies--even if Andy Serkis's Gollum does sound very close to Tolkien's rendition. (Then again, I'm not sure this matters--though, for that matter, Tolken might have hated the movies more if his characters had sounded different.)

Perhaps the best way to conclude this entry is to write a trite, uninteresting statement that characters in film adaptations of books should, all else being equal, sound something like their creators imagined them--but that film-makers should be careful to avoid clinging so closely to the book that their artistic vision is hampered. I don't think I'll bother writing something like that, though.

Also on the children's lit front: a newly discovered photo shows J.M. Barrie pretending to be a pirate several years before he wrote Peter Pan. How charming.


In The Boston Review, Leo Marx discusses the discipline of American studies:

When I was teaching in England in 1957, Richard Hoggart, a founder of the British school of cultural criticism, told me about having met a young Fulbright scholar who identified himself as a teacher of something called "American studies." "And what is that?" Hoggart asked. An exciting new field of interdisciplinary teaching and research, he was told. "But what is new about that?" It combines the study of history and literature. "In England we’ve been doing that for a long time," Hoggart protested. "Yes," said the eager Americanist, "but we look at American society as a whole--the entire culture, at all levels, high and low." Hoggart, who was about to publish The Uses of Literacy, his groundbreaking study of British working-class culture, remained unimpressed. After a moment, in a fit of exasperation, his informant blurted out: "But you don't understand, I believe in America!"

"That was it!" Hoggart said to me, "then I did understand." It was unimaginable, he dryly added, that a British scholar would ever be heard saying, "I believe in Britain."

The idea that this intensely personal, essentially political, morally ambiguous motive may have had a crucial role in shaping the American studies project immediately struck a chord with me. I unapologetically keep retelling Hoggart’s story because it points to the unacknowledged agenda of many founders of American studies--an agenda that has taken on new meaning at each stage of the project’s history--and to the roots of the Americanists’ chronic identity crisis.

Via Arts and Letters Daily.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

What effect has punctuation had on history? Lynne Truss's new book discusses some interesting cases, according to this TLS book review:

It is the pitfalls of punctuation that fascinate. No book on the subject could overlook the Jameson Raid, which may or may not have been launched by a missing full stop, or the fate of Sir Roger Casement, said by some to have been "hanged on a comma". To these old faithfuls Truss adds the riddle of whether Graham Greene, by inserting a last-minute comma in his will, negated his intention. James Thurber would not have committed that error. A devout anti-comma man, he conducted a long, attritional war with Harold Ross, Editor of the New Yorker, who "seemed to believe there was no limit to the amount of clarification you could achieve if you just kept on adding commas". There are comma jokes galore. The title of this book, of course, hangs on a comma (think: gun-toting panda). Not funny enough? Then try the tale of the New Hampshire production of Macbeth in which "Go, get him surgeons" was rendered "Go get him, surgeons".

Mostly, of course, the book has nothing to do with history. Nevertheless, as thew review notes, it "is ringingly dedicated 'to the memory of the Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby precipitated the Russian Revolution'. " That's one way to look at the past, I suppose.


Today's New York Times features a borderline-hagiographical profile of Evgenii Evtushenko.


More Nixon tapes have been released.


The Guardian profiles Philip Pullman:

If all that didn't fuel a chap's vanity, Pullman has also been labelled anti-God because his good guys take on God. This, though, is to misread His Dark Materials, which tells the story of Lyra. In his trilogy, Lyra re-enacts the story of the original Eve. He takes, I say, the Jewish view of Eve. Namely, that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it (the story appears in Bereishit, the beginning of the Five Books of Moses, for that reason), and not the great Fall, or end of all good, which is the Christian version. "Exactly right," says Pullman.

Still, getting the label anti-God has added an edge to Pullman's intellectual credibility, which may account for the huge interest in the Lyra story. His Dark Materials, rich as it is in incident and invention, is not one of the greatest novels of all time. The characterisation is mostly two-dimensional, and the description of dawning teenage sexuality makes Britney Spears' PR sound realistic. His Dark Materials - too long by half - is not even Pullman's best work.

I'm not sure I buy all the stuff in the quotation above, but the article is worth reading.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The radio journalist Christopher Lydon has a fascinating blog--and I particularly enjoyed this entry on a Lydon interview with Will Hutton on the international effects of America's shift to the right.

I found Lydon's site through the blog of Dan Kennedy, whose latest latest Boston Phoenix column discusses a new book on Howard Dean. An excerpt:

Those were ugly days in Vermont. Two months earlier, Dean had signed the civil-unions bill, giving lesbian and gay couples many of the rights and protections of marriage. Signs emblazoned with TAKE BACK VERMONT were dotting the countryside--not-so-subtle code for a growing nativist backlash against gay-coddling outsiders such as Dean, who was a physician from New York before he became the governor of his adopted state. Later, Dean would reveal that he wore a bulletproof vest for much of that campaign.

Walking toward St. Albans City Hall, Dean spotted a long-time supporter and moved over to give her a hug. Before he could do so, though, an elderly woman walked up to the governor and said, "You fucking, queer-loving son of a bitch." Without batting an eye, Dean retorted, "You should clean up your mouth, lady. You certainly didn't learn how to talk like that in Franklin County."

The anecdote is revealing about Dean in two ways. On the one hand, he neither apologized for nor attempted to explain his support for civil unions. On the other, his combative response was pitch-perfect: he had managed to go on the offensive while turning his tormentor's personal invective against her.

It will be interesting to see whether this style helps Dean on the national stage.


DNA tests may show whether a Viking woman was the victim of a ritual killing. (via HNN)


The Japanese cabinet has endorsed the country's most significant military deployment since World War II--the dispatch of troops to Iraq.


Swiss nationalism, it seems, is on the rise.

That sentence may seem like a joke, but the rise of the Swiss right is a fascinating phenomenon that casts light on the workings of the right throughout Europe.


Robert Skidelsky, the author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, describes his struggle to learn Russian in this Guardian article. (via Languagehat, whose discussion of the article includes some interesting comments on language acquisition)

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Scotland's Sunday Herald discusses the dispute between the Tolkien family and the makers of the current LOTR film and the prospects for a film adaptation of The Hobbit. There are some problems with the article--the quotation attributed to C.S. Lewis near the end of the artcle is usually credited to another Inkling, for example--but it's still worth reading. (via TheOneRing.net)


A "stuck in the past" medievalist writes to The Guardian's career doctor for advice. The response includes this passage:

Most jobs are a waste of time, so why should yours be any different? String theory has added precisely nothing to our understanding of either maths or the universe - it's merely a piece of theoretical onanism - and the same has to be said about your fascinating take on the 100 years' war. It might impress a few cloistered academics. The rest of us can get along without it. But you get paid a decent whack, you're not actively harming anyone and it passes the time before you die, so relax.

I'm also not all sure what you mean by the term ornamental. If you really mean decorous - and having met a number of historians, I find that hard to believe - then say so. For surely, even as a medievalist, you must be aware that ornamentalism has its own specific meaning within history. Ornamentalism is the term - a parody of Edward Said's Orientalism - that David Cannadine coined to describe how the 19th-century British viewed their empire. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't based on race so much as class. The British colonialists hated their own working class as much as they hated foreigners - apart from a few maharajahs they treated as equals. Lesson over.

But I shouldn't be having to tell you this. If you want people to take history seriously, you must play the academic game. I understand you're piqued that a pie-eating maths and economics graduate has put the boot in, but you mustn't allow yourself to become provoked into becoming intellectually sloppy by using loosely words and ideas that have a precise meaning.

If the precise use of words were the key to success, then I'd be in luck! (Not that you can tell this from my blog, of course...) In any case, I found this response somewhat entertaining. I can't quite picture an American newspaper publishing something similar. The same issue of The Guardian also has a profile of the historian Richard Evans, a scholar of Nazi Germany and a star witness at the David Irving trial. (via Historiological Notes)


J.M. Coetzee's Nobel lecture.


I found this Invisible Adjunct post, in part a response to a comment by Tim Burke, really fascinating. Read the comments too, as well as the Clifford Geertz speech IA links to.


In Slate, Jim Lewis sings the praises of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, noting that an "appropriate celebration of its semicentennial would see M.F.A. programs dismantled nationwide, with students given copies of Mimesis instead, along with instructions to go home and write as if its author was still around to be impressed."

I've only read excerpts of Mimesis, but I think I remember enjoying what I read. One of these days I plan to go back both to it and to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I'll have to wait a while, I think.


The Iraqi "brain drain" of the 80s and 90s is being reversed as academics return to Baghdad, this Christian Science Monitor article reports.


The Washington Post describes the film-maker Robert Drew and his documentary "Primary," likening it to reality TV and "fly on the wall history." (via the History News Network)


The Supreme Court has declined to dismiss a lawsuit against the rap group Outkast by civil rights icon Rosa Parks.


A new biography of Zhou Enlai has rattled the Chinese establishment: was he a moderate who tried to save purge victims during the Cultural Revolution, or an eager stooge of Mao?

Published in Hong Kong, the 615-page work is based on internal Communist Party documents and interviews with senior party officials. The author is Gao Wenqian, who worked for 13 years as a senior researcher in the Communist Party's Central Documents Office before immigrating to the United States in 1993. He depicts Zhou as a tragic backroom schemer, a puppet of his master Mao, and a man who was so imbued with a Confucian sense of duty that he did almost everything Mao asked him -- including signing the arrest orders for his own brother and a goddaughter.

The book challenges the view that Zhou tried his best to save hundreds of purged officials during the Cultural Revolution, portraying him instead as an eager participant in the ultra-leftist campaign during which hundreds of thousands of people were dispatched to the Chinese gulag. "Party documents show that Zhou only protected people after first checking with Mao, his wife Jiang Qing, Mao's no. 2 Lin Biao and others," Gao wrote. "If Zhou sensed any opposition to protecting someone, he would drop his protection."

The story behind the book is fascinating: Gao copied some documents, memorized others, and collected a massive assortment of notes while working in the Chinese archives, and then wrote his book during a fellowship at Harvard.


Was Edvard Munch's "The Scream" inspired by the eruption of Krakatoa? The New York Times reports.

Monday, December 08, 2003

In today's New York Times, Douglas Brinkley describes Thomas Hart Benton's creepy and savage "Year of Peril" series of propaganda paintings from World War II:

For those accustomed to seeing Norman Rockwell's uplifting "Four Freedoms" paintings as representative of the country's propaganda art during World War II, the "Year of Peril" series comes as a shock. Benton's proto-Surrealist imagery shows a crucified Jesus being stabbed by Nazis, a blond American woman being raped by Japanese soldiers, an ogre tossing skulls out of a seed bag, and a United States battleship sinking as a gasping American sailor drowns.

I wonder about the implications of art like this for our understanding of average Americans' motives in the war. It's easy to remember World War II as a simple crusade for 1950s-style values or against the forces of evil, but World War II wasn't fought merely, say, for the benefit of the endangered people of Europe. (It would be interesting to study anti-Japanese rhetoric by American politicians and citizens and compare it to anti-German rhetoric, though that's a subject for another day: the topic of revenge, I suspect, had a much larger role in U.S. war motives than is often recognized.) This article suggests that U.S. propaganda in the war was more complicated than I'd realized. Then again, the government eventually cancelled the exhibition of Benton's art and ceased producing posters based on it, not--Brinkley writes--because of questions about its taste, but because it "feared that any young person viewing Benton's nauseating war depictions would go AWOL."


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Salvador Dali's birth, but almost no one mentions one of the more disturbing parts of his life story--his enthusiastic support for the Franco regime:

Dali supported the fascist coup by Franco; he applauded the brutal repression by that regime, to the point of congratulating the dictator for his actions aimed "at clearing Spain of destructive forces" (Dali's words). He sent telegrams to Franco, praising him for signing death warrants for political prisoners. The brutality of Franco's regime lasted to his last day. The year he died, 1975, he signed the death sentences of four political prisoners. Dali sent Franco a telegram congratulating him. He had to leave his refuge in Port Lligat because the local people wanted to lynch him. He declared himself an admirer of the founder of the fascist party, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. He used fascist terminology and discourse, presenting himself as a devout servant of the Spanish Church and its teaching--which at that time was celebrating Queen Isabella for having the foresight to expel the Jews from Spain and which had explicitly referred to Hitler's program to exterminate the Jews as the best solution to the Jewish question. Fully aware of the fate of those who were persecuted by Franco's Gestapo, Dali denounced Bunuel and many others, causing them enormous pain and suffering.

Found via ArtsJournal. On the same site, the historian Peter Linebaugh discusses the 1798 death of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the "first paramount leader of the struggle for an independent Irish republic." I'd never heard of him.


Chris Mooney has written a long and interesting post on "the cynical politics of peer review," arguing that a little-known law has given a big boost to industry-sponsored attempts to undermine good science. Calpundit, in turn, has termed this "conservative Lysenkoism" and part of the "growing conservative assault on scientific results that don't support their preferred ideologies."

I think this is all true--one can argue, of course, over whether "Lysenkoism" is slightly strong a term, but it's presumably not meant to be taken literally. The point is worth extending beyond science policy, however. Just look at the efforts of conservatives in Congress to keep a closer watch on the scholarship of foreign language and area studies programs funded under TItle VI. (There must be a good link out there discussing Title VI plans in more detail, but here's another article on the subject.) I find the current administration and its allies to be disturbingly anti-academic in all branches of policy, not just science.


I thought the Bush administration approved of organized religion. How naive of me!


The Washington Post reports on the efforts of Congressman Mark Souder to place Ronald Reagan's image on the dime. Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern is a critic of Souder's plan:

McGovern said he admires Reagan but that changing the dime is the wrong way to honor him.

"He served this country with distinction, and he has received many honors," McGovern said. "National Airport is now named after him, as is a major federal building in Washington, and schools, roads and bridges around the country. . . . I'm not quite sure that to honor Reagan you have to dishonor Roosevelt."

McGovern points out that FDR is on the dime because of a specific connection to the coin. In 1937, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a group that raised funds to find a cure for polio. The next year, comedian Eddie Cantor asked Americans to mail dimes to the White House to help the foundation. The donations were referred to as a "March of Dimes," a name that stuck to the foundation.

There's a lot of fun stuff in this article. I hadn't realized FDR's relationship to the "March of Dimes," for example, though I feel like I probably should have. I enjoyed McGovern's quotation, since I've always felt that a federal office building is the perfect way to honor Reagan (given his attitude toward the bureaucracy and his administration's dramatic increase in the federal budget.) The article also discussed one difficulty facing Souder: plenty of Congressmen didn't know whose image is on the dime now. ("One member insisted to me the whole night that Roosevelt's not on the dime, it's Eisenhower," Souder said. "We went around looking for a dime to resolve it." ) Finally, I was struck by the respectful tone many Democrats have used in describing Reagan--not a huge surprise given his age and the current stage of his health, but a significant change from the past.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Worth reading: this Independent article on the "discovery" of the sacred language of the Maya, as well as this Languagehat entry on the article.


Have cliched visions of the Vietnam veterans memorial come to dominate the architecture of American monuments? An essay by the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic asks this question.


An English playwright believes that he has learned the identity of Shakespeare's Dark Lady. I'm not convinced.


The Moscow Times reviews the memoirs of Eric Hobsbawm:

After he moved to England, Hobsbawm became a "watcher in politics." If this seems an unpromising premise for autobiography, we should remember that Hobsbawm lived a colorful life. In retrospect, wouldn't we all like to have been part of the English delegation to Cuba in the '60s, where Hobsbawm briefly translated for Che Guevara ("as fine a figure of a man as he looks on the famous photo, though he said nothing of interest")...

The theme of "Interesting Times" is the ceaseless and sometimes random motion of life in an age of catastrophe. It is an appropriate theme for the son of displaced European Jews, who in his adolescence, when teenagers in less interesting times are falling in love or idling about, found himself at the epicenter of a world "that was simply not expected to last."

It is also a Marxist theme. Marx claimed that all of our ideas are products of the material conditions of our time, which are always in flux. Properly understood, Marx's claim is a powerful antidote to his own dogmatism, because it actually teaches us that our opinions are ruled by who we are and where we are coming from, rather than by some world-historical Truth.

I've quoted the above passages for a couple reasons. First, I enjoyed the reference to Che Guevara. Second, I can't decide if the third paragraph is profound or silly. (My tentative view is that it oversimplifies Marx but isn't necessarily a bad point overall.) Someday, when I'm an aged historian tired of writing about the Soviet Union, I'll write my general theory of historical change; contingency will play a major role in that theory. I'll have a lot to ponder before then.


Spain's crown prince recently announced his surprise engagement to a TV journalist--representing, this New York Times article suggests, the "democratization of the monarchy." The match has not been without its share of critics:

While the monarchy-mad country is mostly in a swoon over the impending wedding, it can't help but raise a collective eyebrow at her curriculum vitae. After all, the term blue blood, sangre az?l, was coined by the Castilian aristocracy to describe their pure pedigree. Their skin was so translucent, the saying went, it radiated the blueness of their veins.

Interesting--I hadn't known the origins of the term "blue blood." I was also interested in the article's assessment of the Spanish king and queen:

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, for example, are much beloved at home, largely because they have learned to capture ordinary life without seeming ordinary. It is a skill that their son, Felipe, who received a master's degree from Georgetown University, in addition to going to nightclubs and dating a model, will now take one step further.

I'd have been interested in a more detailed description of how Juan Carlos has "captured everyday life" in his reign. I was also intrigued by the article's comparison of the British royal family to those of Spain, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, whose crown princes have all married prominent commoners:

This is in marked contrast to the British royals, the wealthiest, most isolated of the lot. It is no coincidence that they sit at the top of an overtly class-conscious society. The Windsors are still struggling to find the path to modernity. They had it, and lost it, in Diana, at least for now.

Did the Windsors really "find the path to modernity" in Diana? I'm not convinced. And is the difference between the British monarchy and other European monarchies as big as this article suggests--or, in a few years, will we be able to add Prince William to the list of European crown princes whose wives aren't traditional blue bloods?


Hugh Kenner wasn't just a "literary critic," this Boston Globe article points out; he was also a "pattern recognizer" who sought "patterned integrities":

Like all gifts, Kenner's virtuosity at pattern recognition came with certain liabilities. While it's simply not true, as some have said, that he was an apologist for Pound's fascism or anti-Semitism, he could seem uncharacteristically obtuse when he took up such questions, impatient to get on to what really mattered in the "Cantos." His books on Beckett are refreshingly attentive to Beckett's comedy and to what might be called his combinatorial delight. (The Beckett trilogy comprising "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable," Kenner writes, "is, among other things, a compendious abstract of all the novels that have ever been written, reduced to their most general terms." Pattern again.) Yet while this offered a much-needed corrective to the heavy-breathing, self-consciously "dark" tone of many early interpretations (we're in the abyss together -- aren't we sophisticated!), there was something in those readings -- something that almost every reader of Beckett feels -- that Kenner, disdainful of cant and clich, missed.

But such failures do not diminish the usable example he has left, of an alert, curious engagement with the inexhaustible world. Kenner moved without strain from Joyce's "Ulysses" to Chuck Jones's classic Warner Brothers cartoons (to which he devoted a book, one of his best); "high art" and popular art, literature and technology were all part of the same conversation. "In no other country" but America, Kenner observed in "A Homemade World," his 1975 study of American modernist writers, "would it have been plausible for the telephone to be invented, which allows one to enter another's house without the ceremonies of entrance or introduction, and moreover without actually going there."

I was less impressed by another article in this week's ideas section--this Christopher Shea article on "the next memory war." It describes the "Orwellian nightmare" faced by an Elizabeth Lofrus, academic who was once the scourge of the "recovered memory" movement and who has now become entangled in another ethics controversy. The case sounds complicated, and the details are really interesting, but I'm not sure what lesson we're supposed to glean from the article. We're presumably supposed to feel bad for the researcher, but I can't say from the article whether this is reasonable or not. A more detailed account would have been more useful, but presumably wasn't possible under the circumstances.

Update This Guardian article (found via Arts and Letters Daily) discusses the work of Loftus.


Diarmaid McCulloch's new history of the Reformation may be a great book and a good read, but how good a Christmas present is it likely to be? Lisa Jardine asks this question in today's Guardian.

The book sounds entertaining:

A master of understatement, MacCulloch also makes good use of a nicely downbeat turn of phrase, notably in the transitions at the beginning and end of chapters. Sometimes these have a tinge of 1066 and all That to them, such as MacCulloch's laconic characterisation of Archbishop Laud, scourge of reformers in the England of Charles I: 'Laud showed engaging affection for his pet cats and his giant tortoise [a beast that survived all the subsequent upheavals at Lambeth Palace until it was accidentally killed by a gardener in the mid-eighteenth century]. His tidy-mindedness and humourless dedication appealed to King Charles, another self-contained little man.'

Jardine doesn't present an especially compelling answer to this question, instead observing that the book "was never intended, surely, to be a bestselling page-turner" and that " it is probably cheaper, and certainly better value, than those other perennial gifts of last resort, the pure wool scarf or a pair of designer socks." Though Jardine isn't enthusiastic about the Christmas-time gift prospects of MacCulloch's book, I think an "austere" but "charming" work of "big history" is just what a lot of people need. Then again, I'm a bit of a snob that way, and if no one reads the books they're given, what's the point?

Also in The Guardian:

  • Tony Kushner writes a glowing tribute to his friend Maurice Sendak.
  • According to a German historian, the December 1914 Christmas truce between the Germans and the British may have takenn place only because many of the German soldiers on the front had previously worked in Britain. (via Arts and Letters Daily)

Good stuff!