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, December 27, 2003

A collection of previously unpublished essays by Hannah Arendt has just been published. I can't tell if it sounds interesting or not.

The Washington Post describes Japan as "the empire of cool," arguing that its culture has become its leading export. I expected the article to be kind of lame, but there's some good stuff in it:

Sushi, once an urban trend, has become as globally ubiquitous as the Big Mac. Brazil's Veja Magazine reported this month that there are now more sushi restaurants than Brazilian barbeques in Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, where residents consume an estimated 278 sushi rolls per minute. And in Paris, on the Rue de la Gaite, the entire street has filled with sushi restaurants over just the past two years, said Patrice Jorland, cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Tokyo. "This is Paris, yes, Paris," he said.

The article looks at Japanese culture in the context of its military imperialism toward the end, noting--for example--that countries like South Korea that still remember Japan's role in World War II only increased the demand for Japanese cultural goods when they banned them.

A new website is chronicling the history of San Francisco graffiti, according to this Wired article.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Local newscasts are fantastic... When a handful of children are lost in a California mudslide, they describe what happened in great deal. When more than 5,000 people are killed in an Iranian earthquake, they don't mention the story at all. Does that seem odd to anyone else?

Boston, moreover, has a reputation for excellent local news. I can see why Channel 5 paid a lot of attention to the missing children, given how dramatic the story is. But couldn't the station's 6:00 newscast at least have mentioned the earthquake in Iran?

Given how obsessed I am with obituaries, I'm always fond of the New York Times Magazine's year-end "Lives they Lived" section--which tells about some of the people who died during the year. As always, some of the articles in the section are better than others, but I particularly enjoyed Walter Kirn's tribute to Kemmons Wilson (the founder of Holiday Inn), David Greenberg's article on Ted Rogers (Richard Nixon's image maker), Rob Walker's profile of Charles Douglass (the inventor of the laugh track), and Ira Glass's tribute to his mother Shirley (an expert on marital infidelity.)

I enjoy the section's basic approach--to describe the lives of people who aren't necessarily famous, but who did something interesting. The life sketches in the magazine also often look at the impact of their subject from a broader perspective. Consider this passage from Walker's profile of Charles Douglass:

In light of all this, it might seem a wonder that the great breakthrough of the Laff Box -- its ability to blend recorded laughter and other audience-sound loops to a create a huge range of prefab audible mirth -- has been used widely and consistently for decades. But Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, suggests one somewhat uncomfortable answer. ''Actually,'' he says, ''laugh tracks do increase the likelihood that you'll think a joke is funny and laugh at it. So what Charlie Douglass and company were doing was based in fact.'' This is the funny thing about laugh tracks: They work.

One often-cited early study, described in a 1974 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that subjects who were told a series of jokes both laughed more and rated them as funnier when the jokes were followed by recorded laughter. The canned merriment was described as a form of ''conformity pressure,'' suggesting that we laugh along in order to fit in. But Provine, who wrote the book on laughter (it's called ''Laughter'') has little patience for social-science explanations; numerous experiments over more than a decade have convinced him that neurology tells us more.

One of his experiments involved listening in on public conversations and observing when people laughed. ''Most laughter in everyday life,'' he says, ''follows things that aren't funny.'' (Just like in a sitcom!) We don't generally laugh for conscious reasons. A list of 25 ''typical prelaugh comments'' included such corkers as ''I'll see you guys later'' and ''It was nice meeting you, too.'' Often the person who laughs first is the one who has just spoken -- in what might be thought of as an attempt at a laugh track of one. And while many studies have confirmed the rather obvious idea that laughter is contagious, Provine effectively undercut the ''conformity'' idea with an experiment. Using a novelty-store gizmo, he simply pressed a button that emitted 19 seconds of laughter, in front of 128 students, in three groups. On the basis of this openly artificial stimulus, more than 90 percent smiled, and nearly half laughed.

I haven't, I'll admit, finished reading the section yet, but the Shirley Glass article was the one I've liked most so far. The article described her life, explained what made her research interesting and important, and gave all the material it covered a personal spin--not surprisingly, since it was written by Glass's son. Consider:

For my sisters and me, the strange thing wasn't really that our mother specialized in extramarital affairs; it was that she was a psychologist at all. Like most therapists' kids, we were skeptical of our parents' supposed powers of observation and psychological insight. After all, we'd been teenagers in her house. As adults, we'd watch her on ''Oprah,'' and it was hard to understand how it all happened. We were proud, sure, but incredulous. People actually seemed to be listening to what she said....

Mom's choice of specialty still gets me into some odd conversations. An acquaintance recently made a point of telling me how much he just loved Mom's book, how it was so interesting, he picked it up and read it cover to cover, couldn't put it down. Now, I love my mom, and it's a decent book, but the only way it could possibly seem so fascinating to someone is if, you know, it struck a chord. So I faced this awkward choice. Do I smile and tell him that he's kind to say all these things, that my mom would have been pleased? Or do I sit him down with the question that's really going through my mind: Whom are you sleeping with at your job?

The coolest people, I've always thought, fall into one of two categories. Some are able to create something that becomes taken for granted by everyone in their society--like Douglass. (I've always thought that the person who invented the McDonald's Happy Meal--whoever he is--was the twentieth century's greatest unsung genius.) The other category is made up of people who use the methods of science or social science to change the way we think about everyday life--like Shirley Glass. Unfortunately, I don't think my chosen career path of Soviet history will allow me to join the ranks of either group.

Two researchers have developed a computer program that can automatically produce paraphrases of English sentences, according to this New York Times article. I was intrigued by a sentence saying that the program was based in part on "statistical techniques borrowed from gene analysis," but the article never explained this in full.

Update At Cliopatria, Jonathan Dresner shares some of his concerns about this development and how it will affect the intellectual development of his students. I've had similar thoughts.

Canada's National Post profiles the illustrator Quentin Blake, best known for his collaborations with Roald Dahl. (I've read speculation that Blake was responsible for some of the ideas that shaped Dahl's writing, which seems plausible to me: I always preferred some Blake-illustrated Dahl books--like The BFG and The Witches to better-known Dahl books like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Is the spectre of Christianity haunting Marxism? A book reviewer at In These Times thinks so...

As readers of this blog may know, I consistently find Stephen Hunter's Washington Post film reviews and essays irritating. Here's the start of his review of The Fog of War:

Is it me, or is Robert S. McNamara actually turning into Gollum? I think it's arguably the latter: at age 87, his luxuriant, brilliantined hair thinned to a few scraggily strands still moussed back, out of vanity, across a pate that somehow seems pasty, the odd, patchy discoloration here or there, the skin infirm, the eyes bright in the pallor of a desiccated face, the sense of robust confidence that he once radiated long since vanished. He looks like a reptilian cave dweller, full of seductive rhythms in a singsongy voice, his body language weirdly compelling.

Is it the tarnish of evil, which also explained Gollum's devolution? Or maybe, gee, the guy just got old. Anyway, that's the conundrum at the center of "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," Errol Morris's mesmerizing confrontation with the ex-whiz kid who sat in the engineer's cab through much of the war in Vietnam. For many, it'll be easy to impart on the current wizened wizard's sullied flesh a metaphor for contagion.

Hunter consistently emphasizes style over substance--there's nothing in this review that you couldn't get from one of the much better-written reviews in other newspapers, for instance, and his analysis of the film just isn't very insightful. (I don't get the sense that he knows much about history, either, and that's unfortunate when you're reviewing a historical documentary.) If you like his style, you might find this review entertaining, but I wouldn't recommend it otherwise.

A New York Times "Editorial Observer" column by Brent Staples describes how Strom Thurmond's deception over his mixed-race daughter ravaged two lives:

The Strom Thurmond who emerges from these recollections is a mercenary character. He had already been elected to the State Legislature and was laying the groundwork for the campaigns that would land him in the governor's office and lead him to the United States Senate. To see this plan through, he needed to prevent news of the black daughter, well known in the black community, from jumping into the white press.

When Ms. Washington-Williams said she wanted to go college, Mr. Thurmond naturally suggested South Carolina State, the segregated black college whose budget he would later control as governor. As a state official, he could visit there without fear of being outed. He ensured Ms. Washington-Williams' silence by manipulating her emotionally -- and funneling to her the envelopes full of cash that allowed her to pay the tuition.

Ms. Washington-Williams sees the meetings and cash transactions as proof of affection. But while doling out the money, Mr. Thurmond sometimes asked how she felt about having to keep their relationship secret and how she was holding up under pressure from reporters who had gotten wind of the truth. As an abandoned child, Ms. Washington-Williams made an understandable calculation; she decided that a fraction of a father who met her in back rooms but disowned her in public was preferable to no father at all.

Since Mr. Thurmond's black daughter came forward to claim him, his descendants have been fretting about how people look at them in church -- and whether they will be invited to the right parties. The tragedy of this case played out in the life of a needy child who was abandoned by her father and then misused for political purposes. If the Thurmonds are looking for something to be ashamed of, this is it.

I don't think any of Staples's conclusions will come as a shock to anyone who's been following the case, but his essay is more forceful than anything I can remember seeing on a major newspaper's editorial page.

(This column reminded me of a question I've asked myself in the past: The New York Times has a lot of really good writers on its editorial board, so why are its editorials so boring? Its "editorial observer" columns--written by board members, speaking for themselves and not the newspaper, but located on the editorial page rather than the op-ed page--are often fun to read.)

What is the state of the Mao personality cult in China today? In The Boston Globe, Ross Terrill argues that Mao is still a powerful icon for many in his home country:

MAO ZEDONG, alone among 20th-century dictators, enjoys a largely benign life after death. Taxi drivers in China hang a Mao photo on the steering wheel to ward off accidents. Department stores use a pink plastic model of Mao to display silk pajamas. Farmers clutch a Mao image as they fend off flood waters.

Mao, born 110 years ago today, has transcended communism backward into Chinese history. He has escaped the harsher verdicts on Stalin and Hitler by entering Chinese folklore, becoming a version of the semi-mythical Yellow Emperor for an age of space capsules and the WTO.

In addition, Beijing needs Mao, and here the picture grows darker. The Chinese Communist Party cannot dismiss Mao as a Stalin, because he was also the Lenin as organizer and the Marx as philosopher of the Chinese Revolution.

The website Shanghai Eye (which I found via Butterflies and Wheels) also has a fascinating dicussion of "dictator kitsch" and Mao iconography:

By now, however, the Mao cult must compete with a thriving civil culture, and it can no longer set the terms. The Mao icon is dunked into the turbid soup of consumer society, and there is no way of telling how he'll eventually turn out. While the Party still has the means of imposing a brutal veto on the debate, it is merely one voice among many. Mao, as Warhol had envisaged in his famous prints, has now been packaged, both ideologically and commercially, and for the youngsters in modern-day China, he is nothing more than a old name in desperate need of rebranding. That, at least, explains the hip-hop.  

I may come back and comment more here, but that will depend on how busy I am in the post-Christmas rush... It's easier (and faster) to find and read fun articles than it is to put your thoughts into coherent written form, after all...

The Battle of Algiers is set to be rereleased in theaters in January, and J. Hoberman describes the history and politics behind the film in The American Prospect:

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it 'the way it was,'" Walter Benjamin wrote in his final essay. "It means appropriating a memory as it flashes by in a moment of danger." Arguably the key political movie of its period, replete with a reception comparable in tumult to that accorded Battleship Potemkin, The Battle of Algiers was produced in the mid-1960s, set a decade earlier and made in the style of a 1940s newsreel. Which memory has been appropriated in 2004?

Authenticity has always been crucial to the movie's authority. If The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece of Third Worldist cinema -- and, per Pauline Kael, "the one great revolutionary 'sell' of modern times" -- it is because it looks like a news bulletin and moves like a thriller. Commissioned by the Algerian government, influenced by The Wretched of the Earth and operating, as Pontecorvo would say, under the "dictatorship of truth," the director and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, projected the post-World War II neorealism of Open City and La Terra Trema into a new arena: the barrio of colonized underdevelopment.

His article is worth reading.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Merry Christmas to any of my readers who celebrate it! I hope that, if you do, you have better things to do than read this silly little blog; I suspect that many of you who don't have better things to do don't celebrate Christmas, and so won't care about my holiday greetings anyway. Nevertheless, happy holidays!

Lots of documents are missing from the State Archive in Milan, it seems... (via ArtsJournal)

This Moscow Times article sounds a little familiar (could they be reprinting something they published earlier this year, or perhaps recycling the same fun anecdotes?), but it's worth a read:

KGB agents in scuba gear used to swim under Nikita Khrushchev's boat, putting fish on his hook. They used to chain wild boars to trees so Leonid Brezhnev could blast them with his hunting rifle; they used to hide behind trees to throw furry little rabbits out for Brezhnev to peer at through his thick eyeglasses and gun down.

More recently, Viktor Chernomyrdin was once chauffeur-driven along a newly lain road to a den of sleeping bears, so he could shoot a rousted mama bear and cubs, hand his rifle to someone and get back in his car. When Boris Yeltsin came to Karelia to fish, terrified local officials airlifted in 10,000 extra fish for the old tsar's pleasure.

I love these stories -- I've mentioned them before in this space. They seem so perfectly illustrative of life under totalitarianism: When there are no laws and no rights, only the Dear Leader and his whims, then everyone goes to hysterical and demeaning lengths to keep the Dear Leader cheerful.


Other stories I like -- and these too I've mentioned from time to time -- are events that occur in America to zero comment, but would have provoked all sorts of dire comment if they had occurred in Russia instead. (For example, when George W. Bush encourages people to exercise, he's applauded; when Vladimir Putin does the same, everyone groans about Soviet-style forced calisthenics.)

The anecdotes early in the article are fun, and I was intrigued by the last paragraph in the block quote above--and by the description of a recent "hunting" trip by Dick Cheney, who would have done Brezhnev proud.

Oh, and if you want to learn the Russian phrases associated with picking people up, read this Michele Berdy column.

Margaret Drabble looks at the nature of food in utopian writings. Yum! Well, sort of...

A group of Civil War historians is criticizing the portrayal of history in the movie Cold Mountain. As The Washington Post points out,

The professors' assignment is a harder one. They are to judge the historical accuracy of what they've just seen.

On its face, this task is absurd. Director Anthony Minghella's take on the Civil War era, after all, is a second-generation work of fiction, based as it is on novelist Charles Frazier's 1997 bestseller of the same name.

Yet if you want to understand the way Americans process their past, the analysis of such fictional "history" is a perfectly reasonable enterprise. For, as real historians know all too well, the Hollywood Version has more influence on what we believe than all their efforts combined.

The article is a fun read. "Some inauthenticities were corrected by the filmmakers themselves," the article points out. "Jay Tavare, who plays a Cherokee character in Inman's regiment, 'wanted to fight Ninja style,' Kraus says. 'I heard Anthony say, 'Jay, you're not an action figure.' ' But other flaws inevitably crept in." The most serious of these, the historians who have reviewed the film argue, is that the film-makers have completely "ducked" on the issue of slavery.

I enjoyed this blog entry by Dan Kennedy on secularism and Howard Dean. Here's an excerpt:

But is it the religion of the politician that matters, or the politics of the religious? Earlier this week, the Boston Globe published a column by its former Washington-bureau chief, David Shribman, on a well-known phenomenon: the overwhelming preference that Christian fundamentalists have for Republicans. (You can find it here, on the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Shribman is the executive editor.)

Shribman notes: "In the 2000 election, Bush swept more religiously observant voters by large percentages - and, in the case of white evangelical Protestants, by a margin of more than five to one."

Shribman doesn't quite connect the dots, so I will: this wide split took place despite such Gore-ian ick as his wearing a WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") bracelet. For the fundamentalists, it's not whether you were born again; it's where you stand on such cultural issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

It doesn't matter to me whether a candidate is a secular Protestant, such as Dean; a Catholic, such as John Kerry; or someone like Wesley Clark, whose father was Jewish and who apparently switches to a different Christian denomination every couple of years.

Then again, I suppose I'm one of those secularists who Joe Lieberman's mother warned him about.

Of course, perhaps religious voters were scared off in part by the "Gore-ian ick"--maybe a more appealing (and seemingly sincere) religious Democrat would have been more successful. I always found Bill Bradley's secular side (say, his unwillingness to end his speeches with meaningless phrases like "God bless you") one of the more appealing parts of his candidacy--but I suspect that this secularism, combined with his aloofness and arrogance, would have hurt him in November. The biggest problem with Dean's secularism, I think, isn't that he'll scare evangelical voters away--it's that he'll bring evangelical voters out in force for the Republicans. But does anyone doubt that religious conservatives will be well mobilized next year anyway?

Ultimately, the key to Dean's success will be how his overall public persona is defined. If he emerges as a strident, angry, Bush-hating liberal, some voters will see his secularism as just one more damning trait of an unpalatable candidate. If his image is more positive and less angry, I don't think his secularism will make as much difference. Dean's secularism, then, is one of several issues that the Bush campaign may use to define him as an unelectable--even un-American--extremist, but it's just one of many issues the Democrats need to think about.

Update At Tapped, Matthew Yglesias discusses recent articles on the subject by Franklin Foer and Amy Sullivan. Maybe I'll read those articles when I get the chance...

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

LA Weekly is fast becoming one of my favorite sources for political news. I enjoyed Harold Meyerson's article (linked to below); the same issue of LA Weekly also includes two solid articles on Errol Morris's new film The Fog of War. Marc Cooper reviews the film, discussing its strengths and weaknesses, and Scott Foundas interviews Morris.

The newspaper's "Quark Soup" column, moreover, has a fun article on the physics of snowflakes. Did you know that Johannes Kepler wrote a 1611 tract called "The Six-Cornered Snowflake," which compared snowflake symmetry to flower symmetry? Neither did I.

In LA Weekly, Harold Meyerson argues that Joe Lieberman has become "Scoop Jackson Redux": like the conservative Democrat from Washington who ran a losing presidential campaign in 1972, Lieberman is "willing to blow apart his party in a last-gasp attempt to resurrect his own failed candidacy." Rick Perlstein made a similar argument about Lieberman in October--likening him instead to Al Gore, whose 1988 attacks on Mike Dukakis set the stage for the Willie Horton ad. It's hard to measure the impact of either Jackson or Gore on the Democratic party's past electoral failures--I suspect that both McGovern and Dukakis would have lost by a significant margin even if Jackson and Gore had withdrawn early from the race--but it's ridiculous for Lieberman to make claims like "the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression."

Let's hope that the Democratic party's history doesn't repeat itself.

Today's Russian word of the day: naglost', "an unseemly blend of shamelessness and arrogance." (The only Russian dictionary I have here in Boston defines it more boringly as "impudence" or "cheek.") I learned this word from an Atlantic Unbound interview with the writer Andrew Meier. An excerpt:

In your descriptions of the personality of Moscow, you use the Russian word "naglost," which I believe translates as "an unseemly blend of arrogance and shamelessness." How does the personality of Moscow differ from what one encounters in New York or Paris?

Well, that's a good question. In any big city--but especially in New York and to a lesser extent London and other places in Europe--there is a kind of intimacy because you're forced to share another person's space. Whether through glimpses of intimacy or shared conversation, life overlaps.

In Moscow there is a real extreme between the public and the private. If you come to Russia and don't know anyone and only see people on the street you wonder, Why does everyone look so unhappy? Why are their faces so dour? But if you enter the private realm of their homes you see a very different face, and there's an incredible warmth.

In Moscow, people must always be prepared for the intrusion of the State on that personal self. When you feel that you feel the full brunt of naglost. It's a constant slap in the face. In America, of course, the President rides in a limousine and officials stop traffic. It can be an inconvenience. But in Moscow it can go for hours. They close off whole sections of the city. All traffic stops. It is a reminder that you are in the presence of greatness. Not just of a figurehead or an elected official, but a person who controls your fate.

I'm not sure that my experiences with Russians are quite the same as Meyer's, but the interview is fun nonetheless.

In Reason, Virginia Postrel discusses the relationship between Christmas lights and economic prosperity.

I'll admit that I haven't read her essay very carefully, but I'm not sure I find it convincing. She begins by writing that "As Christmas lights go up on homes around the country, you've probably noticed that the displays seem to get more elaborate every year. " Is this true? I'm really not sure. I get the sense that the styles and varieties of Christmas lights change every few years: reindeer made of a white frame with small light bulbs were popular several years ago, then icicle lights took off, and now atrociously ugly illuminated inflatable Santas and snowmen are popular. But are displays getting more elaborate? The number of lights have probably risen somewhat, and there are new styles of lights that seem somewhat more elaborate than those of ten years ago, but I can't say that the change has been enormous. What's more, I'm mildly skeptical about the level of demand for the "holiday contractors" Postrel describes.

I'm not saying that Postrel is wrong, mind you: I don't know much about the subject, and she seems to have done a little reporting on it. I just don't feel that her argument is very convincing overall. Of course, the style and frequency of Christmas lighting seems to vary geographically--I think it's fair to say that there's more lighting in the Chicago suburbs I've visited the last few years than in the Boston suburbs where I am now, for example. (I can't say for sure whether the difference is economically or regionally based, however.) Perhaps Christmas lighting is changing at a more rapid place in some regions than in others. Perhaps I'm underestimating the changes it's made in the Northeast. Who knows?

I find this a fascinating topic nonetheless. I've often felt that the history of Christmas lights would be a fascinating subject for historical research--my sense is that, in the past, they varied more significantly in style in different parts of the country. (Forty years ago, would we have seen as many Christmas candles in windows?) Part of this, I suspect, is based on ethnic differences--are candles in windows, say, more Irish than German? Some enterprising person willing to do a lot of research could write a fascinating book on the subject...

Has Peter Jackson Lifetime-ized the Lord of the Rings? A writer for National Review Online thinks so...

Britain has been punc'd: Canada's Globe and Mail discusses Lynne Truss and the new punctuation craze.

Geek news from The Guardian:

Monday, December 22, 2003

And they gave this guy a Pulitzer? (Not that I attach much of any significance to Pulitzers, but still...) I've never been impressed by Stephen Hunter, the Post's movie critic, but this Hunter essay on war movies just seems dumb, whether he's making shallow and obvious statements about the genre, writing a weird comment about the movie Independence Day, or filling his writing with the words "blah blah blah." Hunter thinks he has something intelligent to say, but just drones on about various stuff. Blah blah blah.

Sometimes I think that every movie reviewer who thinks he's funny needs a lot of people to tell him he's not. (I'd have said "him or her" in the last sentence, but I'm having trouble thinking of a female movie critic other than the late Pauline Kael... There are probably a bunch I'm just not thinking of.) Roger Ebert and Stephen Hunter share the unfortunate delusion that their writing is amusing; even Anthony Lane, who can be hilarious and charming, might benefit from someone trying to tell him not to make so many jokes.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

A Washington Post reporter describes her years-long search for the truth about Strom Thurmond's past. She began by researching a series of articles on Thurmond's political career and soon reached more controversial topics:

Sex also emerged as a consistent theme, the stories usually told with a nod and a wink. A veteran congressman from Thurmond's South Carolina stomping grounds, the late William Jennings Bryan Dorn, fleshed out the legend of Thurmond's youthful affair with a married woman, Sue Logue, who eventually went to the electric chair for her role in a dramatic vengeance murder. Thurmond's younger twin sisters, Mary and Martha, recalled the family's reliance on a staff of black domestic servants and gleefully told how their Southern Baptist mother would scold Strom for secretly "scooting out" of his upstairs bedroom window for romantic trysts with unnamed women. Steamy love letters were buried in Thurmond's gubernatorial papers, and stories of his pinching, kissing and hugging women on elevators and in the hallways of the Senate abounded.

By 1981, I began probing the deeper story. My first interview was with Modjeska Simkins, by then frail and elderly but in her day a feisty pioneer of the South Carolina civil rights movement. Like Thurmond, Simkins had once worked with children in the schools of Edgefield, only she was assigned by virtue of her race to the segregated black schools, some of them housed in one-room schoolhouses that were remnants of slave days. Back in the early 1920s, state funding for the education of a black child was little more than $10 a year, a fraction of what each white child received. Simkins had applauded Thurmond's position, when he became school superintendent in 1929, to improve the lot of black students and wipe out illiteracy.

"You know he has a black daughter," Simkins stated bluntly, midway through the session.

"Well," I said cautiously, "I know that's been rumored, but no one's ever proven it." Political writer Robert Sherrill had mentioned it in a classic Thurmond profile in his 1968 book, "Gothic Politics in the Deep South."

"Oh no, it's not a rumor. It's true," she continued. "I've seen the child."

She went on to tell a bare-bones tale of a mixed-race baby born to a teenage domestic in the Thurmond home, a girl so poor that her neighbors had to help feed and clothe the child. She described the effort to get the baby out of Edgefield so that she could be raised in a more prosperous and respectable environment with an aunt somewhere in Pennsylvania.

It's a fun read.

Another New York Times article discusses whether women are "just bored of the rings." A lot of the article was trite and dull, but I was struck by one passage:

Who would have thought that Peter Jackson would direct such soulless films? At his best he has mixed fantasy and everyday reality to stunning effect, as in his 1994 movie, "Heavenly Creatures," about two adolescent girls who commit a murder rather than be separated. Throughout their friendship, they create storybook tales that come alive on screen, as their tiny clay figures of knights and princesses take the eerie shapes of green-faced, life-size actors. It is easy to draw a direct line from those girls dancing with their imaginary friends to "The Lord of the Rings." But while Mr. Jackson makes the characters in "Heavenly Creatures" all too human (perhaps because the film is based on a true story), he rarely infuses the "Rings" trilogy with a human feeling.

As a story, "Return" improves on the previous films because it is marginally less impressed with its own FX wizardry; we've seen it all before. Yet true emotions are still hard to find, even though the finale desperately plays out every parting scene imaginable. The characterizations are so haphazard that the most touching figure is not the heroic hobbit Frodo or even Aragorn, technically human but more a fairy-tale king than a man. It is Frodo's sidekick, Sam, who will literally follow Frodo into fire. Sam is played so well by Sean Astin that this affectingly loyal hobbit seems the most human figure on screen.

On one level, this argument is silly: why is the fact that Sam was played well a sign of the movie's haphazard characterization? Any Tolkien fan could tell you that Sam has one of the most developed--and appealing--personalities in the books, and his part is very well acted by Sean Astin. What's more, it's just not true to say that Peter Jackson "rarely infuses the 'Rings' trilogy with a human feeling": the first and second movies, in particular, struck me as heartfelt and moving films.

It's true that The Return of the King is the least human film in the trilogy. Oddly enough, however, I disagree with this article's claim that it "improves on the previous films because it is marginally less impressed with its own FX wizardry." If anything, I think this movie depends more on special effects: the battle scenes look fantastic but barely have a human element at all, except--say--when Gandalf talks to Pippin about death or Theoden watches his niece defeat the Witch King before he dies. Perhaps I'm in a minority on this issue, but I think many reviewers have gotten The Return of the King almost exactly wrong--treating it as the crowning moment in a fantastic trilogy rather than as an excellent movie slightly weaker than its two predecessors. Some reviewers, I believe, are making up for their past underappreciation of Jackson's work by (slightly) overpraising the trilogy's final installment.

Was Strom Thurmond's mixed-race illegitimate child the product of an "affair"? A New York Times piece discussing this question (whose answer, I think, is a definitive "no") includes the following passage:

There was another reason for the silence. The law. Often these "affairs" were illegal, under a number of provisions. And had Mr. Thurmond been caught and prosecuted, history might have been a little different. In 1925, a man convicted of illicit sex could have lost his right to vote - and hold office.

Shortly after Carrie Butler gave birth to his child, Mr. Thurmond began his political career as school superintendent, going on to become state senator, governor, a candidate for president in 1948 and then the longest-serving United States senator in history (48 years).

He is best known for his fiery segregationist speeches of 1948, when he said things like "all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes," though much later in life he became a supporter of civil rights. Mr. Thurmond died in June at 100.

In 1925, he could have been prosecuted for "fornication," described as extramarital sex and punishable by a fine of at least $100. And if Carrie Butler was 15 when they had sex (she was 16 when the baby was born), Mr. Thurmond could have been tried for "carnal knowledge of a woman child," though scholars said no Jim Crow jury would have convicted him. Members of Mrs. Williams's family have said they don't know how old her mother was when she and Mr. Thurmond became intimate.


What is so curious about the episode is that despite the enormous social barriers between Mr. Thurmond and his half-white, half-black daughter, he maintained a relationship with her for years - even while electrifying crowds with his talk of racial separateness.

Were white men caught and prosecuted under this law? I doubt it (and the penultimate paragraph in the block quote seems to agree.) I'm also very interested in the point raised in the final paragraph--on how unusual it was for Thurmond and his daughter to have "maintained a relationship... for years." How large a role did Thurmond's financial payments (and his desire to make the payments in person rather than by mail) have in keeping up this relationship? Does it say something good, bad, or neutral about Thurmond that he kept the relationship up (without providing other support)?

Charming obituary of the week: Harold von Braunhut, a "seller of sea monkeys," has died at 77. According to The New York Times:

Mr. von Braunhut was to quirky inventions what Barnum was to circuses. His X-Ray Specs, which advertisements said allowed wearers to see through flesh and clothing, are still selling after 50 years of guffaws. Hermit crabs as a pet? Thank Mr. von Braunhut for Crazy Crabs.

And yes, perhaps only this verbally snappy holder of 195 patents could have realized that what the world needed was Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters, which allow a child to add water to a card and watch hair grow on the previously bald pate of the monster depicted there.

But Mr. von Braunhut's piece de resistance was Sea Monkeys -- which come from dried-up lake bottoms, not the sea, and are not monkeys but brine shrimp. His extravagant claims for the crustaceans -- for example, that they come back from the dead and that they can be trained and hypnotized -- are convincing because they are sort of true. (The shrimp do follow light.)

Oddly enough, Braunhut was a member of the KKK and the Aryan Nation, even though his relatives said that he was Jewish. Just as bizarrely, there's apparently a Sea Monkey aphrodisiac--though the obituary doesn't explain whether it's used to make sea monkeys or people fall in love. (I assume the latter, but prefer the former explanation.)

Bruce Cumings challenges many of our assumptions about North Korea in this Boston Globe interview: the Korean War, he says, was part of a Korean civil war that began with America's division of the country in 1945, and its recent reforms have been more significant than most people believe. I'm not convinced by everything he says (though parts are very compelling), but the recent Iraq war showed that it's worth listening to people whose views on U.S. foreign policy are very different from those of the Bush administration.

The Economist discusses the history of European coffeehouses. I tend to find comparisons between the internet and various historical phenomena (like coffeehouses) trite and annoying, but there's some fun stuff in the article. In particular, I was intrigued by these passages on coffee's reputation as an almost anti-alcoholic beverage:

Coffee, the drink that fuelled this network, originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, where its beans were originally chewed rather than infused for their invigorating effects. It spread into the Islamic world during the 15th century, where it was embraced as an alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden (officially, at least) to Muslims. Coffee came to be regarded as the very antithesis of alcoholic drinks, sobering rather than intoxicating, stimulating mental activity and heightening perception rather than dulling the senses.

This reputation accompanied coffee as it spread into western Europe during the 17th century, at first as a medicine, and then as a social drink in the Arab tradition. An anonymous poem published in London in 1674 denounced wine as the “sweet Poison of the Treacherous Grape� that drowns “our Reason and our Souls�. Beer was condemned as “Foggy Ale� that “besieg'd our Brains�. Coffee, however, was heralded as

...that Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
that heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
and cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.

The contrast between coffee and alcoholic drinks was reflected in the decor of the coffee-houses that began to appear in European cities, London in particular. They were adorned with bookshelves, mirrors, gilt-framed pictures and good furniture, in contrast to the rowdiness, gloom and squalor of taverns. According to custom, social differences were left at the coffee-house door, the practice of drinking healths was banned, and anyone who started a quarrel had to atone for it by buying an order of coffee for all present. In short, coffee-houses were calm, sober and well-ordered establishments that promoted polite conversation and discussion.

The passages on coffee-houses' reputations as centers of sedition aren't bad either--Charles II didn't like them--and the comparison between England and France was fun too. (via Languagelog)

Katherine Powers, a book columnist at The Boston Globe, sings the praises of the movie Master and Commander and criticizes Stanley Kauffman and Jason Epstein for their pompous dismissals of both book and movie:

There are, however, some people, victims of literary snobbishness and a creeping piety of soul, who do not know how to have a good time. A dozen years ago I knew of any number of this sort, who, often without having read them, dismissed O'Brian's novels as mere generic naval action dramas. Somehow, and certainly silently, many of them came around when it became intellectually fashionable to admire O'Brian's work -- about the time the author appeared at the 92d Street Y in New York in 1994. Now, today, the same sort of people cannot countenance the movie.

Stanley Kauffmann, film critic for The New Republic, has, for a wonder, never departed from the principled position of dismissing O'Brian's novels without reading them ("feeling that this particular niche in my literary experience had been well filled by C. S. Forester"). The same jaded disdain informs his view of the movie, which he calls an "old-time sea-faring epic," and wonders how we can "be concerned with such a blatantly romantic view of war." Unless Kauffmann saw a version of the movie that left out the death, mutilation, and blood that transformed a friend of mine into a protesting heap in her seat beside me, he is being intentionally misleading and ill willed.

The essay, then, is a lively defense of O'Brian from his critics--though it's more effective in highlighting the pomposities of Kauffmann and Epstein than in proving the artistic merit of O'Brian's series.

The essay goes on to discuss another related book:

The explanation of why this movie is as good as it is may be found in "The Making of 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,' " by Tom McGregor (Norton, paperback, $19.95). Here are explained the decisions that went into the movie's narrative content, including why events begin in the middle of things and not as they do in "Master and Commander," with the fateful meeting of Aubrey and Maturin (to circumvent the cliches of a buddy movie). We discover here too that the members of the nonspeaking cast, a rough-looking lot, were drawn in large part from the former Soviet bloc and, as such, possessed faces free of the homogeneity and blandness that is one product of a modern, marketed lifestyle.

McGregor is guilty of a couple of mistakes about O'Brian's novels, which will scandalize some readers as much as it did me. Still, this is an excellent book of its kind and will please the O'Brian fans on your holiday gift list -- should you be so improvident as to have one unfinished.

Does the last sentence in the first paragraph sound as weird to you as it does to me?