Mildly Malevolent

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

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

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Wednesday, December 31, 2003

In case you haven't noticed, this isn't going to be a very blog-heavy week for me. (What with flying home, celebrating New Year's tonight, and visiting grandparents this weekend, I'll have other things to do.) Happy New Year!

The New York Times describes how September 11 shaped David Macaulay's approach to his new book on mosque construction:

The construction effort is the picture of religious harmony, or at least, cooperation. With about 1,000 workers, half are skilled craftsmen, half of those, mostly blacksmiths and bricklayers, are Christians, the other half Muslim. Jewish merchants provide ore that Christian blacksmiths turn into the connectors that give strength to the walls of a structure where Muslims will worship.

Mr. Macaulay took this picture from accounts of the building of hundreds of mosques in Istanbul in the 16th century. To him, this cooperation among diverse religions was the most surprising element of the effort. "Can you imagine the size of the Muslim work force on a Gothic cathedral?" he asked. It would not be very large.

I remember enjoying Macaulay''s other books when I was a kid.

My favorite headline of the week: Bookworm Squished. According to the first sentence of the article (which I found via Bookslut, " A bizarre book-loving pack rat tried to stack one tome too many in his tiny Bronx apartment Saturday - and wound up being buried alive in the buff for two days under heaps of fallen debris." I hope nothing like this ever happens to me...

Back when I was in high school, I can remember irritating one of my teachers when I disagreed with what he said about the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. This teacher had repeated the conventional wisdom that since radio listeners thought Nixon had won, and television viewers thought Kennedy had won, Nixon had prevailed on substance and Kennedy on image. This has always sounded wrong to me: it might be true that Nixon's responses were substantively more impressive than Kennedy's, but one factoid about reactions to the debates doesn't prove it. It merely shows that different media help shape audiences' reactions to candidates in different ways. Isn't it plausible that radio listeners would prefer the candidate with the better radio voice, after all? Isn't it possible that radio discouraged some listeners by emphasizing Kennedy's Massachusetts accent--the impact of which was balanced by his appearance on TV? Can we really jump to conclusions about debate performance based on one small fact?

I was reminded of these thoughts on Monday, as I flew home to Chicago from Boston. On the way, I read Louis Menand's review of two new books on presidential images--David Greenberg's book on Nixon and a book by the art historian David Lubin on images of Kennedy. Here's a passage that would have made me very happy back when I was in high school:

Theodore H. White, who subscribed fully to Kennedy’s view that the debates had made the difference in the election, complained, in “The Making of the President 1960,” that television had dumbed down the issues by forcing the candidates to respond to questions instantaneously. “Neither man could pause to indulge in the slow reflection and rumination, the slow questioning of alternatives before decision, that is the inner quality of leadership,” White said. He also believed that Kennedy’s “victory” in the debates was largely a triumph of image over content. People who listened to the debates on the radio, White pointed out, scored it a draw; people who watched it thought that, except in the third debate, Kennedy had crushed Nixon. (This little statistic has been repeated many times as proof of the distorting effects of television. Why not the distorting effects of radio? It also may be that people whose medium of choice or opportunity in 1960 was radio tended to fit a Nixon rather than a Kennedy demographic.)

I'm always a little irritated by people who whine about the impact of television on politics without fully thinking about the issue. It's true that TV has had some very unfortunate effects, of course, but the picture is often more complicated than people believe. (What's more, oo many critics of TV's impact tend to have an overly idyllic view of pre-1945 politics.) The impact of the Kennedy-Nixon debates is a great example of how people's perceptions of this question can be a little simplistic.

I enjoyed Menand's article overall. One passage does a very good job summing up some of the conclusions of the two books he's reviewing:

As both books remind us, the striking fact is that Nixon was much more sophisticated about image manipulation than Kennedy was. Of course, the Kennedys used the media for political purposes. They were neither innocents nor purists—unlike, for example, Adlai Stevenson, who, in his acceptance speech at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, called political advertising “the ultimate indignity to the democratic process” (a phrase quoted by Greenberg). But, as Lubin’s analyses make clear, the artistry in most of the famous photographs of the Kennedys was due not to the Kennedys but, largely, to the photographers. People loved to take pictures of the Kennedys; the Kennedys were beautiful, and they photographed beautifully. They didn’t need to do much to stage-manage their photo ops. Nixon was neither beautiful nor photogenic. For him, image manipulation was not a supplement to political life; it was close to a basic necessity.

It's not a coincidence, after all, that many of Nixon's key operatives began their careers in advertising.

Monday, December 29, 2003

The Washington Post asks if voters care as much as they used to about the height of presidential candidates.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

The Washington Post describes the construction of a new memorial at the site, in Poland, of one of the Nazis' first mass extermination camps:

The Belzec memorial, due to be formally inaugurated next spring, is especially significant because it is being built on the site of one of the six Nazi extermination camps in Poland where the bulk of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were murdered. It will also be a Holocaust memorial unlike any other. Visitors will be confronted with a flat, featureless site bereft of vegetation, covered with gravel. As they enter, they will begin to descend a path about 180 yards long that will slowly take them deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Earth. Walls will rise above them on either side as they continue to descend, finally reaching a point 60 feet beneath the surface where they will come to a halt facing a wall of remembrance. To one side, they will see the names of individual victims as well as of the scores of Jewish communities that met their end in Belzec.

The construction is the result of Polish and American cooperation.

How did academics help shape American espionage at the dawn of the Cold War? In this Boston Globe article, Jeet Heer argues that "Mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, the most controversial figure in CIA history, began his career as an apprentice of the New Critics on Yale's English faculty, and his literary training in "close reading" may have shaped his hyper-skeptical (some would say paranoid) approach to counterintelligence":

The key to understanding Angleton's genius, or madness, may lie in his training as a literary theorist. Angleton once defined counterintelligence as "the practical criticism of ambiguity." (As William Epstein observes, this phrase is "derived from the titles of two of the most influential texts of formalist criticism, Richards's `Practical Criticism' and Empson's `Seven Types of Ambiguity."')

The New Critics famously attacked the "intentional fallacy," arguing that the meaning of a text could not be identified with its author's intentions. They also put a high value on paradox, indirection, and all the many ways in which a written artifact does not mean what it seems to mean.

In his rigorous questioning of Soviet defectors, Angleton was a New Critic par excellence. He almost never took them at their word, fearing as he did that they might be double agents sent to spread disinformation. "The more solid the information from a defector, the more you should not trust him, and the more you should suspect he has something to hide," he once observed.

For Angleton, history resembled a novel by Ford Madox Ford or Henry James, with a plausible surface story that hid a very different and more troubling tale if you read it closely enough. He speculated that Joe McCarthy might have been a KGB agent sent to make anticommunism look bad, and believed the Sino-Russian split was a ruse. Convinced that a KGB defector named Yuri Nosenko was a fraud, Angleton and his followers at the CIA went to elaborate if fruitless lengths to get him to admit the "truth" about his deception: They held him in isolation for at least two years, tortured him and injected him with truth serums. As a massive wave of suspicion engulfed the agency, many began suspecting that Angleton himself was the Big Mole.

Heer also discusses the case of Wilmarth Lewis, a Horace Walpole scholar who became chief of a government agency called the Central Information Division (CID).