Lukashenko Regime Tells PEN Belarus That It’s To Be Closed

Trigger Warning – PG spent way too long researching and preparing this post and is posting it too late at night.

At this point, he thinks there may some interesting observations, but isn’t sure

From Publishing Perspectives:

Disturbing news from PEN America, which has issued a notice to the media this afternoon (July 22) saying that the Belarusian justice ministry has sent a letter to PEN Belarus, informing the organization that it’s to be closed.

The news follows government raids on offices of cultural and rights organizations and of media outlets, as described in our article from Friday (July 16).

. . . .

Early this week, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was in Washington for meetings with the Joe Biden administration’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, congressional lawmakers, the US Agency for International Development’s Samantha Power and US Agency for Global Media’s acting CEO, Kelu Chao.

One point she made to CNN’s Jim Sciutto–an international affairs specialist [book plug for Jim’s book omitted as irrelevant – PG] –is that she thinks of herself not as the opposition leader but as a figure in the majority.

Her reference was to the August 9 election, claimed by longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko as a victory but said by Tsikhanouskaya and her voters to have been a travesty. Tsikhanouskaya lives in Lithuania for safety at this point.

. . . .

The action reported by the PEN network of international chapters today coincides with the US-funded Radio Free Europe/RadioLiberty report on Minsk’s justice ministry also asking the country’s supreme court to shut down the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) for what the regime calls “repeated violations of the law”.

. . . .

It’s reported that the message from the ministry was received at PEN Centre Belarus on the same day that the organization released one of its detailed reports on cultural rights violations.

This new report from PEN Belarus is a first-half 2021 update on issues encountered and cites 621 violations between January and June. Like the first-quarter report we looked at at the time of Roman Protasevich’s arrest, six-month report pulls together what’s known of state actions taken against the community PEN represents and lists instances of censorship, “persecution for dissent,” and more.

Image: PEN Centre Belarus

In a section on literature, the PEN Belarus staff writes, “Starting from January of this year, non-state publishing houses, publishers, book distributors, independent press, including those with content on cultural topics, authors, and often readers themselves, have come under pressure.”

Interference and suppressive action against elements of the country’s publishing community include instances of detention; interrogation; raids; confiscations of computers, telephones, books; frozen finances; blocked book exports; and censorship.

As the PEN team writes in its report, “This is a tragic time for freedom of expression, freedom of creativity, freedom of opinion. The sociopolitical crisis is characterized by the violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms, persecution for dissent, censorship, an atmosphere of fear, and the expulsion of proponents of change.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

For those who seem to find dictators and autocrats behind every bush in a country governed by democratically-elected officials, this is what a real dictatorship looks like.

With respect to that general subject, PG is reading an excellent history focused on what happened in Eastern Europe after World War II, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum.

It is a well-written, highly-detailed and densely-footnoted account of the take-over of governments of all sorts, including democratically-elected ones, by Russian-backed Communists during the last days and the decade following the end of World War II in Europe.

If you have ever had a fancy to live in a Communist dictatorship, this book will put you off of that idea forever.

If you describe any Western democratically-elected government official a “dictator,” this book will help you understand you are using the term as a metaphor. (Yes, that includes Donald Trump.)

This goes down on PG’s highly-recommended list and he doesn’t believe the book falls in the literary equivalent of, “Eat your spinach! It’s good for you!”

When PG made this post, this heavy-duty book (over 1,000 pages) had 771 reviews with an average star rating of 4.6.

Sometimes, PG checks the one-star reviews to catch a flavor of the readers who didn’t like the book.

Here’s the first one-star review that appeared on the Amazon-USA site (paragraph breaks and spacing in the original):

She author is so bias against the Red Army and Soviet Union that she makes the Red Army and Soviet Union sound worse than the Nazis.
The Soviet Union due to the Nazi invasion and the war to save their country and destroy the Nazis lost at least 27 million people. Several of the East European countries (Romania, Hungary, Slovakia) that the author portrays as innocent victims supplied hundreds of thousands of troops to assist the Nazis in their goal of destroying the Soviet Union. Poland also during 1920-1 had a war with the Red Army in which the Poles defeated the Red Army. The Poles as the price for an end of the war took parts of Ukraine, and Belorussia which had few Polish residents and incorporated them into Poland. I have a question for the author or anyone else. Except for the Red Army who would have freed Poland and other Eastern European countries from the Nazis? The answer is no one. Only the Red Army was strong enough to thoroughly defeat the Nazis and force them out of Eastern European and eventually capture Berlin.
It is understandable that a nation that lost more than 15% of its’ population to invading armies would feel threatened if there were hostile nations on its’ borders. Stalin was paranoid. But it was not out of the question that the Nazis might try to convince the Western Allies that the Soviet Union was the real menace. General Patton advocated attacking the Red Army (which was an insane idea). The author is ridiculously anti-Soviet, I could not continue reading the book beyond the first several chapters.

(PG commentary – Comparison of the Nazis to the Soviets and finding that the Soviets are the better of the two is the ultimate race-to-the-bottom.)

But PG hasn’t fully delivered on the headline for this post!

Meet Alex, the World’s Most Successful Elected Official!

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, winner of the first free election in Belarus and five subsequent elections, an unbroken winning streak.
The only President Belarus will ever need!
Campaign slogan: “One Comrade, One Vote, One Time!!”
(Commentary by PG) (Sergei Gapon/Pool Photo via AP)
Lukashenko, winner of six straight elections as President of Belarus shares campaign secrets with one of his many fans. Description by PG, Photo Credit: February 15, 2019. Reuters

Here’s a link to a nine-minute PBS News Hour segment about Belarus dated July 20, 2021

Embedded Belarus video follows:

End of Belarus Update

The Point

It’s easy to consign the Belarus actions as isolated or archaic or otherwise something that real people would never take seriously.

However the tactics Comrade Lukashenko is ordering in Minsk are precisely those that were used during the the post-WWII period described in Ms. Appelbaum’s book. The dictators come and go, but the means of gaining and holding power in this part of the world haven’t changed in 100 years.

More to the point, Ms. Appelbaum sees hints of those same strategies and tactics in some Western Nations, as described in her latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (which PG hasn’t read, but intends to after finishing the current Appelbaum book he is reading – remember, it’s over 1,000 printed pages, and his Kindle says he’s about 30% finished.)

More than President Trump, PG is concerned about Cancel Culture, Critical Race Theory and similar movements arising as part of the backlash that lead to Trump’s narrow defeat in the last election. When PG first read much about these and other political concepts driving many activists during the last election cycle (before he started Ms. Appelbaum’s post WWII book mentioned at the top of this post), he was reminded of things he had learned from other reading concerning Soviet/Stalinist/Bolshevik strategies for taking and keeping power.

PG suggests that those who claim that western civilizations have somehow reached the end of history or that there is no chance of history repeating itself, that the arrow of progress inevitably points in the direction of greater freedom and cannot be reversed are simply incorrect. PG recalls reading that, at the beginning of the 21st century, about one-third of the nations of the world were democracies. Certainly, nondemocratic systems seem to regularly fail, but they are often followed by another nondemocratic system.

PG will point to the relatively widespread fears among certain groups that President Trump was going to be a dictator are some evidence that, even in large and longstanding democracies, there is no guarantee of continued democracy. Remember, Comrade Lukashenko began his rule by winning what was, by contemporary and local geographical standards, a reasonably open election. Around the turn of the 20th Century, China went through a period during which it appeared to be moving toward at least a type of democratically-elected government before gaining its latest Supreme Leader for Life. There were a few rulers that continued in power for a shorter period than Mao had.

Here’s Amazon’s product description for Ms. Appelbaum’s new book:

From the United States and Britain to continental Europe and beyond, liberal democracy is under siege, while authoritarianism is on the rise. In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum, an award-winning historian of Soviet atrocities who was one of the first American journalists to raise an alarm about antidemocratic trends in the West, explains the lure of nationalism and autocracy. In this captivating essay, she contends that political systems with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else. Elegantly written and urgently argued, Twilight of Democracy is a brilliant dissection of a world-shaking shift and a stirring glimpse of the road back to democratic values.


Minutiae

In the minutiae category, PG has concluded that, for him, reading a heavily-footnoted book in ebook form is a better overall experience than reading a paper version of the same. In an ebook (at least as read on a Kindle Paperwhite), the footnote numbers linking to the note are shown in the text and the notes are easily accessible, but you only see the text of the footnote if you tap the footnote number. Unless he taps, PG’s reading experience is similar to a book without footnotes.

When PG is reading a densely-footnoted printed book, many pages show only a few lines of text and a gaggle of footnotes visually dominate the page. For easily-distractible PG, the footnotes are a distinct temptation to examine and it’s not difficult for him to become involve in the fascinating details and lose track of the continuity of the text during that process.

Sometimes, his progress through such a paper book is:

  1. Read the text
  2. Examine any footnotes that include comments, quotes, etc.
  3. Go back and read the text again so he can pick up on the flow of ideas when he turns the page (odd-numbered pages are the worst, but even-numbered pages are not without the occasional speed-bump).
  4. Repeat this process for a thousand pages or so.

That said, despite being hip-deep in material filled rigid and beyond-argument doctrine, PG will not be doctrinaire regarding the ebook-vs.-print-and-footnotes question.

Comrades won’t lose their TPV Party Cards if they find fault with PG’s dictates.

(Promotional note – With your TPV Party Card, you get free delivery of Amazon ebooks to your local reading device! No more annoying shipping fees, Comrade!)

The Passion of Anne Hutchinson

From The Wall Street Journal:

How did a dispute within a small breakaway group of Protestants over a seemingly obscure point of theology become an iconic episode in American history? The issue was whether one could earn eternal salvation through godly behavior, or whether the gift of saving grace is bestowed without regard to a person’s conduct. To the side led by Anne Hutchinson, the difference was between a popish “covenant of works” and a true “covenant of grace.” To the other, headed by John Winthrop, “free grace” portended “antinomianism,” a world of free love and social disorder in which the laws of church and state did not apply to true believers.

The protagonists, as Marilyn J. Westerkamp shows in “The Passion of Anne Hutchinson,” (Oxford, 312 pages, $29.95) were worthy adversaries. Winthrop, the leader of the Great Puritan Migration to Massachusetts Bay, was the colony’s frequent governor and the man whose vision of a “city upon a hill” became the stuff of presidential speeches. Hutchinson (1591–1643), the daughter of a dissenting minister, was a charismatic matron with a reputation for piety. Caught in the middle was the Rev. John Cotton, a Cambridge-educated divine with a foot in each camp. Resonating through the centuries, the controversy plays out in the parties’ own voices in diaries and trial transcripts.

Hutchinson herself speaks to the modern interest in women’s history. Called by the scholar Michael Winship “the most famous—or infamous—English woman in colonial American history,” she has been cast as a martyr for religious freedom, a victim of the patriarchy, or a sacrifice to social order at a time when Massachusetts was threatened by belligerent Native Americans and a hostile Crown. She was a prophet, a Jezebel or both.

Hutchinson arrived in Boston, age 43, in September 1634, on board the same ship that a year earlier had brought her adored pastor, John Cotton, to the New World. Accompanying her was her husband, William, a successful cloth merchant, 10 of their 11 surviving children, and a handful of relatives and servants. The Hutchinsons joined their eldest son, who had already crossed the Atlantic with Cotton. Among the wealthiest émigrés, they received a house lot across the street from Winthrop, grazing rights on Taylor’s Island in the middle of Boston Harbor, and 600 acres of farmland near what later became Quincy. William soon became a town selectman and a member of the General Court. Anne became a sought-after midwife and herbalist, known for edifying religious counsel in the birthing room.

. . . .

By 1636, Anne was holding weekly prayer meetings for women in her home. At first, the gatherings followed the English custom of female “conventicles,” but as Anne’s fame spread her constituency broadened to include men. Eventually Hutchinson presided over two “public lectures” each week, attended by 60 to 80 followers. Her message—an increasingly strident condemnation of all the local clergy except Cotton—only exacerbated her challenge to the standing order.

In October, the colony’s embattled ministers held a private session with Cotton, Hutchinson and her newly arrived brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright. Cotton was conciliatory; the other two less so. While conceding that “sanctification,” or good behavior, might be evidence of salvation, Hutchinson and Wheelwright added a new point of contention, asserting that “the person of the Holy Ghost” dwelled within the justified believer. The “indwelling spirit” had been a byword for anarchy since the Reformation. It was exactly what Winthrop and the other institutionalists feared, and they swung into action. Over the next year, Winthrop was swept back into office, Cotton walked the fine line between supporting Hutchinson and placating his fellow clergy, and Wheelwright was banished for seditious contempt of authority. Then, in November 1637, Hutchinson was tried before the civil magistrates for troubling the peace of the commonwealth and its churches.

The trial lasted two days and Hutchinson clearly had the better of it, parrying wits and biblical knowledge with the colony’s best. Then, at the end of the second day, Hutchinson upended the proceedings when she proclaimed that her understanding of grace had come “by an immediate revelation.” (Scholars have long debated why she handed victory to her opponents—was she claiming her prophetic mantle, reassuring her base or suffering from exhaustion? Cotton, to his credit, argued on her behalf that such private revelation was within the Puritan mainstream.) More devastating was the public prophesy that followed: “I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things,” she proclaimed. “I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.”

Hutchinson was convicted and banished from the colony, her departure delayed until she could be excommunicated by her Boston church. In the end, even Cotton renounced her. She moved to Rhode Island but when Massachusetts threatened to annex the region, she and a small group fled to Dutch territory, not far from what is now the Hutchinson River in the northern Bronx. In 1643, all save one child were massacred by the local Native Americans. The leaders of Massachusetts Bay exulted: “The Lord heard our groans to heaven, and freed us from our great and sore affliction . . . this woeful woman.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that a great many histories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, established in 1620 with the landing of the first passengers from The Mayflower, tend to show the colonists as consistently virtuous people.

They certainly displayed substantial toughness, finally coming ashore in late December.

The Mayflower arrived in November of 1620, hence, the Thanksgiving celebration that was held in 1621 to celebrate a year’s survival. However, there was no place to live on shore, so work crews ferried back and forth from the ship until late-December.

Only very crude shelters could be constructed on shore, but they were better than staying on an intensely cold, leaky and filthy ship, being thrown about during nasty New England winter storms, which were much colder and more severe than passengers had experienced in England or Holland.

In addition to those who had died during the voyage across the Atlantic, 45 of the 102 passengers who were on the Mayflower when it sighted land died during the first winter due to illness (likely a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria that is spread by rat urine) poor nutrition and housing. A number of orphan children were taken in by families whose adult members had survived.

Based on PG’s reading, no one who made it through the first winter could have thought of themselves as among the privileged classes. He suspects a great many fervently wished they had never made the voyage. Even in the spring, their lives were miserable.

The colonists would have been much more likely to have died absent the miraculous appearance of Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been captured and enslaved by an earlier English explorer prior to his escape.

Unfortunately, the Pawtuxet tribe and other tribes were not immune to either leptospirosis or other European illnesses circulating among the settlers. These illnesses caused a great loss of life (almost certainly in much greater numbers than Mayflower passenger deaths) among the Native Americans in Massachusetts and adjoining areas. These large numbers of Native American deaths opened up a lot of vacant land for use by the Plymouth colonists and those who followed.

For those who may wish to assign blame for these deaths to the English settlers and crew, no one in Europe, let alone the Mayflower passengers, had any idea about the sources and causes of these types of illnesses. Evidence that microorganisms could cause disease wouldn’t be discovered until more than 250 years later. (Robert Koch, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1905)

That said, European diseases were invisible allies of a lot of different European explorers by decimating various Native American tribes. See, for example, Hernán Cortés and 500 Spanish soldiers. They managed to conquer the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan, estimated population, 200,000, in 1521. Tenochtitlan ruled an empire estimated to include 16 million people. By far the most important weapon was one about which Cortés knew nothing – smallpox.

PG remembers that some wealthy New England families cited their ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower as evidence of high breeding. Perhaps this belief still circulates in some circles, but both the Pilgrims (a minority) and non-Pilgrims were nobody’s idea of aristocrats in their own minds or in the minds of anyone in England who was aware of their existence.

Both PG and Mrs. PG have Mayflower ancestors. However, while we have enjoyed learning about them, neither of us feel more elevated by them than we do by the illiterate Swedes (PG) and the illiterate and impoverished Russians (Mrs. PG) who arrived in the United states in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

Further regarding Mayflower descendant’s superior breeding, it’s estimated that about one in seven Americans living today are descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower.

PG’s suggestion (for any who may be interested) is to celebrate and be grateful for your progenitors, regardless of how humble or grand they may be.

It may help to know that however grand some of your ancestors may seem, the nature of family trees is that the number of ancestors doubles with each generation one traces back. There aren’t enough kings, queens, dukes or duchesses to fill anyone’s family tree. (And that’s not even considering the number of your ancestors who were illegitimate children.)

Trump Is a Godsend for Book Publishers. He’s Also a Nightmare.

From Intelligencer:

The past six months have been good to the book-publishing industry. Book sales, helped along by pandemic-induced lockdowns, are up. Adult-fiction sales have risen 30 percent year over year. And most of all, Trump hasn’t been in office. “Postelection, there’s been a breath of Thank God, we don’t have to do Trump books anymore,” one editor told me.

The lull has come to an end. After a brief reprieve from the dishy ticktocks that emerged from the turbulence of the Trump era, publishers are gearing up for a flurry of books detailing the final days and aftermath of his presidency. The Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election and Michael Wolff’s third Trump book, Landslide, kicked things off on July 13. A week after that came Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s second Trump book, I Alone Can Fix It. In the coming months, we will see volumes by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and the New York Times’ Peter Baker, the Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, the Times’ Jeremy W. Peters, the Times’ Maggie Haberman, and the Washington Examiner’s David M. Drucker.

Most of the publishing insiders I spoke to responded to the coming wave of Trump books with an audible sigh and an eye roll. “After the first few, all of these books seemed repetitive,” the editor said. “At a certain point, you had to wonder — do readers really care about some absurd thing some aide heard Trump say? I’m skeptical about this current crop of books, but my skepticism has been proven wrong again and again.”

Publishers were initially slow to capitalize on the chaos of the Trump era. When the journalist David Cay Johnston pitched a book about Trump in 2015, he was met with silence from big publishers. (He did end up selling the book, which was released in 2016.) At first, no one thought Trump would get the Republican nomination, then no one thought he would win the presidency. Books take months, if not years, to produce — by the time Trump volumes started rolling off the presses, the thinking went, he would be back hosting The Apprentice.

The Trump boom didn’t really begin until January 2018, when Wolff’s Fire and Fury set the template for future blockbusters: full of juicy detail, mired in the swamp. Above all, it made Trump mad. Thanks in part to a pathetic cease-and-desist letter sent by the president’s lawyers, the book was an instant megaseller and inaugurated the industry’s version of a gold rush.

Success followed a predictable pattern. Excerpts and scoops would be published in tip sheets, newspapers, and magazines. Trump would respond by calling the author a hack and a liar. Sales shot upward before falling just as quickly. Fire and Fury sold nearly 2 million copies in three weeks before it faded from the headlines. Its paperback edition sold fewer than 10,000.

For people with #resistance in their bio, hitting BUY NOW was irresistible.

. . . .

The Trump boom also had career repercussions. “These last few years, if you weren’t working on the big Trump book, you’re under the radar,” one senior Simon & Schuster publicist told me.

. . . .

 For editors of fiction and “serious” nonfiction, the past few years were a nightmare. “There was a sense that people had spent their entire careers knowing how to publish serious, important books by serious, important people, and they were getting blown out of the water by trashy, [*****] tell-alls,” said the former marketing director.

It doesn’t help morale that readers don’t particularly seem to care either. “People approached these books like merch,” said literary agent Kate McKean. “We all buy books we intend to read but don’t — it’s not that the content doesn’t matter, but people buy them the way they buy a shirt, a hat, a sticker.”

“Many of these political books are bought to express support and opposition to something,” said Matt Latimer, founder of the literary agency Javelin, “to make you feel like you’re doing something. And you are! Many of the books that were published did upset the president.”

. . . .

Now, we’re entering what one Penguin Random House publicist calls the “Downfall stage” of Trump’s presidency, referring to the film. “It’s the same people who read books about Hitler’s last days,” the publicist said. “It’s victory porn.”

Link to the rest at Intelligencer

Point 1 – PG thinks this may be the first post on TPVx that has mentioned the former president, but he’s still a little Covid-crazy, so he may be wrong.

Point 2 – TPVx has not, is not and will never be a political blog, so this is not a signal of any new direction.

Point 3 – Regardless of how they voted in any presidential election, PG suspects that great hordes of Americans would not mind the prospect of never seeing Mr. Trump’s name in the newspapers (are there any actual newspapers left?) or anywhere else unless he’s building another apartment tower, in which case, they could breeze on by the story if they weren’t real estate professionals.

Point 4 – PG doesn’t expect to see the scenario described in Point 3 happen very often. Trump sells newspapers (or used to) and he attracts online clicks like Wolfgang Puck or a Las Vegas stripper’s latest blog post. After all, PG clicked on the link to the OP.

The bottom line is that stories about Trump sell as the number of books about Trump listed in the OP and the quotes therein confirm.

Point 5 – The next time anyone associated with the New York Publishing scene mentions that they and/or their employer are curators of culture, mention Trump books. (PG just checked and two out of the top-ten non-fiction bestsellers are about Trump. Those two are published by Penguin and Henry Holt, owned by Macmillan, each a giant curator of culture.)

The Mournfulness of Cities

EDWARD HOPPER, HOTEL WINDOW, 1955, OIL ON CANVAS, 40 X 55″. PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

From The Paris Review:

I am puzzled by the mournfulness of cities. I suppose I mean American cities mostly—dense and vertical and relatively sudden. All piled up in fullest possible distinction from surroundings, from our flat and grassy origins, the migratory blur from which the self, itself, would seem to have emerged into the emptiness, the kindergarten-landscape gap between the earth and sky. I’m puzzled, especially, by what seems to me the ease of it, the automatic, fundamental, even corny quality of mournfulness in cities, so built into us, so preadapted for somehow, that even camped out there on the savannah, long before we dreamed of cities, I imagine we should probably have had a premonition, dreamed the sound of lonely saxophones on fire escapes. What’s mourned is hard to say. Not that the mourner needs to know. It seems so basic. One refers to certain Edward Hopper paintings—people gazing out of windows right at sunset or late at night. They’ve no idea. I don’t suppose that sort of gaze is even possible except within the city. You can hear the lonely saxophone-on-fire-escape (in principle, the instrument may vary) cry through Gershwin. Aaron Copland. You remember Sonny Rollins on the bridge (the structure varies, too, of course). So what in the world is that about? That there should be a characteristic thread of melody, a certain sort of mood to sound its way through all that lofty, sooty jumble to convey so clear and, as it seems, eternal a sense of loss and resignation. How in the world do you get “eternal” out of “saxophone” and “fire escape”? It doesn’t make much sense. That it should get to you—to me at least—more sharply, deeply, sadly than the ancient, naturally mournful, not to say eternal, sound of breath through reed or bamboo flute.

Not too many years ago, as I began to wonder about the mournfulness of cities—its expression in this way—I brought a recording of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City concert piece to my then-girlfriend Nancy’s house on a chilly winter evening. She had friends or family staying, so we slept in the front bedroom, which, because of its exposure or some problem with the heater, was quite cold. So I remember all the quilts and blankets and huddling up together as if desperate in some Lower East Side tenement and listening to this music break our hearts about ourselves, our struggling immigrant immersion and confusion in this terrible complexity. The lonely verticality of life. And why should sadness sound so sweet? I guess the sweetness is the resignation part.

I’d like to set up an experiment to chart the sadness—try to find out where it comes from, where it goes—to trace it, in that melody (whichever variation) as it threads across Manhattan from the Lower East Side straight across the river, more or less west, into the suburbs of New Jersey and whatever lies beyond. This would require, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred saxophonists stationed along the route on tops of buildings, water towers, farther out on people’s porches (with permission), empty parking lots, at intervals determined by the limits of their mutual audibility under variable conditions in the middle of the night, so each would strain a bit to pick it up and pass it on in step until they’re going all at once and all strung out along this fraying thread of melody for hours, with relievers in reserve. There’s bound to be some drifting in and out of phase, attenuation of the tempo, of the sadness for that matter, of the waveform, what I think of as the waveform of the whole thing as it comes across the river losing amplitude and sharpness, rounding, flattening, and diffusing into neighborhoods where maybe it just sort of washes over people staying up to hear it or, awakened, wondering what is that out there so faint and faintly echoed, faintly sad but not so sad that you can’t close your eyes again and drift right back to sleep.

It isn’t possible to hear it all at once. You have to track the propagation. All those saxophones receiving and repeating and coordinating, maybe, for an interval or two before the melody escapes itself to separate into these brief, discrete, coherent moments out of sync with one another, coming and going, reconnecting, fading out and in again along the line in ways that someone from an upper-story window at a distance might be able to appreciate, able to pick up, who knows, ten or twenty instruments way out there faintly gathering, shifting in and out of phase along a one- or two-mile stretch. And I imagine it would be all up and down like that—that long, sad train of thought disintegrating, recomposing here and there all night in waves and waves of waves until the players, one by one, begin to give it up toward dawn like crickets gradually flickering out.

In order to chart the whole thing as intended, though, we will need a car, someone to drive it slowly along the route with the windows down while someone else—me, I suppose—deflects a pen along some sort of moving scroll, perhaps a foot wide and a hundred feet long, that has been prepared with a single complex line of reference along the top, a kind of open silhouette, a structural cross section through the route, with key points noted, from the seismic verticalities of Manhattan through the quieter inflections of New Jersey and those ancient tract-house neighborhoods and finally going flat (as I imagine, having no idea what’s out there) into what? Savannah, maybe? Or some open field with the final saxophonist all alone out there in the grass.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG’s in a distinctly contrary mood today. The title of the OP, The Mournfulness of Cities (which the first line narrowed to American cities) suggests sadness is embedded in their general character.

Then, the rest of the OP talks about New York City and New Jersey.

You got cold one night in Manhattan? Try Minneapolis in January!

Minnesota dogs stick to the sidewalks in January.

People plug in their gasoline-powered cars so electric engine block heaters will help to make sure their engines aren’t a solid block of frozen metal in the morning.

Minneapolis people go to Manhattan in January to warm up.

(I’m not forgetting you in January, Winnipeg. I know you go to Minneapolis to work on your tans when the Minneapolis people are all in Manhattan and hotel rooms are really cheap.)

Setting aside the weather, what about all of the other cities – Chicago, Denver, San Diego? All the same as Manhattan?

Au contraire tu es fou!!

PG has spent a lot of time in New York City, lived in Chicago, and spent lots and lots of time in many other large American cities.

He has to work hard to identify a city that is truly mournful. The only one that comes immediately to mind is Gary, Indiana. PG hasn’t been back to Gary for a long time, but it was pretty mournful when he last passed through.

You can certainly be downcast anywhere, including New York City, but PG’s memories of Manhattan (he’ll not speak to the Bronx) are filled with how much energy he picked up walking down the streets at all hours of the day and night.

He named Chicago (terrific city!), Denver and San Diego, but could have named dozens more that have an upbeat, unique vibe that isn’t really replicated anywhere else.

Outside the United States, he loves London and Paris. Oxford feels like he was born in one of the colleges. If heaven looks anything like Florence, PG can’t wait to get there. No mournfulness in Florence for PG.

Contrary and upbeat! That’s PG for the next ten minutes, maybe more!

Political Science Has Its Own Lab Leaks

From Foreign Policy:

The idea of a lab leak has gone, well, viral. As a political scientist, I cannot assess whether the evidence shows that COVID-19 emerged naturally or from laboratory procedures (although many experts strenuously disagree). Yet as a political scientist, I do think that my discipline can learn something from thinking seriously about our own “lab leaks” and the damage they could cause.

A political science lab leak might seem as much of a punchline as the concept of a mad social scientist. Nevertheless, the notion that scholarly ideas and findings can escape the nuanced, cautious world of the academic seminar and transform into new forms, even becoming threats, becomes more of a compelling metaphor if you think of academics as professional crafters of ideas intended to survive in a hostile environment. Given the importance of what we study, from nuclear war to international economics to democratization and genocide, the escape of a faulty idea could have—and has had—dangerous consequences for the world.

Academic settings provide an evolutionarily challenging environment in which ideas adapt to survive. The process of developing and testing academic theories provides metaphorical gain-of-function accelerations of these dynamics. To survive peer review, an idea has to be extremely lucky or, more likely, crafted to evade the antibodies of academia (reviewers’ objections). By that point, an idea is either so clunky it cannot survive on its own—or it is optimized to thrive in a less hostile environment.

Think tanks and magazines like the Atlantic (or Foreign Policy) serve as metaphorical wet markets where wild ideas are introduced into new and vulnerable populations. Although some authors lament a putative decline of social science’s influence, the spread of formerly academic ideas like intersectionality and the use of quantitative social science to reshape electioneering suggest that ideas not only move from the academy but can flourish once transplanted. This is hardly new: Terms from disciplines including psychoanalysis (“ego”), evolution (“survival of the fittest”), and economics (the “free market” and Marxism both) have escaped from the confines of academic work before.

The “clash of civilizations” hypothesis is a good candidate for one of the more disruptive lab leaks in political science’s history. When the Harvard University scholar Samuel P. Huntington released his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (note the question mark, which disappeared in later versions) in Foreign Affairs in 1993, he spread a bold and simple hypothesis about the course of the post-Cold War world: “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. … The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Huntington’s thesis was not a conjecture based on careful empirical study—it was a speculation looking forward based on some cherry-picked contemporaneous examples. Many academic articles that sought to rebut Huntington by testing his hypothesis fell into this trap, attempting to show him wrong with sometimes quite impressive tests. But Huntington could not be disproved by mere facts. His idea was primed to thrive in the wild, free from the confines of empirical reality.

Facts, indeed, often appeared secondary to Huntington’s larger political project. In his follow-up book on the subject, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he illustrated his argument by sketching what he considered a plausible scenario: a Sino-U.S. conflict over Vietnam leading to a racialized third world war that ends with the destruction of Europe and the United States while India attempts to “reshape the world along Hindu lines.”

This writing led not to Huntington being ostracized but enhanced his reputation, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made his claim that “Islam has bloody borders” seem plausible to mainstream audiences. As late as 2011, the New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Huntington as “one of America’s greatest political scientists”—and even though that column ultimately judged Huntington as having gotten the “clash” hypothesis wrong, it did so with kid gloves: “I write all this not to denigrate the great Huntington. He may still be proved right.”

Another contender is the idea of managing great-power competition through game theory. During the 1950s and 1960s, political scientists and their counterparts in economics and elsewhere sought to understand the Cold War by using then-novel tools of game theory to model relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In their earliest forms, these attempts reduced the negotiations and confrontations between the two sides to simple matrices of outcomes and strategies with names like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, and the Stag Hunt.

The allure was obvious. Make some simplifying assumptions about what the players in these games want; specify the strategies they can employ to achieve them; assume that players know what the other players know; and calculate that they will choose their strategy based on the choice the other player will make to maximize their well-being. Voilà—a science of strategy.

It is easy to mock this approach—too easy, in fact. These simple assumptions perform pretty well within their theoretical boundaries. Every semester (when the world isn’t in a pandemic), I use in-person simulations of these basic games with my undergraduate students to show that changing the rules of the game can influence players’ willingness to cooperate, a finding well attested in generations of scholarly tests.

Yet there’s a huge leap in jumping from these general, aggregate findings to believing that such simple ideas can guide the behavior of complex states without an incredible amount of additional refinement. In international relations, the specific strategies that can be employed are vast (and new ones can be invented), the stakes of every contest are unknowable, actors have incentives to hide what they know from others, and, perhaps most important, players interact again and again and again. Even when playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game concocted to make cooperation a fool’s strategy, simply changing from playing a game once to playing it repeatedly can make cooperation an equilibrium.

Nevertheless, the general tendency of a certain influential sect of social science was to embrace the idea that game theory (to be fair, in somewhat more sophisticated terms) could provide not only insights into general features of world affairs but specific foreign-policy recommendations to guide the United States through the Cold War. In influential books like The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, the game theorist Thomas Schelling used those tools to make the Cold War seem easy to manage—an interaction in which cool head, logic, and a steely command of risk could make confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the Berlin Wall explicable and winnable.

All of this would have been harmless if these ideas had stayed inside the lab.

Link to the rest at Foreign Policy

Exhibit #MXWT-94837 in support of the proposition that smart people are perfectly capable of believing and doing really dumb things.

Some might argue that the conceit of thinking one is really smart will likely lead to doing more dumb things on a far grander scale than than will occur in the life of someone who is reasonably intelligent and believes her/himself to be reasonably intelligent. The second person will, of course, make mistakes, but, not extraordinarily large and incredibly stupid mistakes.

Which brings us to Hubris and Nemesis

From Greek Mythology:

Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution and revenge, who would show her wrath to any human being that would commit hubris, i.e. arrogance before the gods. She was considered a remorseless goddess.

. . . .

One myth concerning Nemesis is that of Narcissus. He was a young man who was very arrogant and disdained those who loved him. Nemesis led him to a pool, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. Unable to abandon his reflection, he died there.

Link to the rest at Greek Mythology

Examples of Hubris:

The Fall of Icarus

The story of Icarus was first written down in the first century AD in the Pseudo-Apollodorus, but the tale has a much older oral tradition. In the story, Icarus’s father made him a pair of wax wings and cautioned him not to fly too high with them. Becoming overconfident, Icarus flew as high as he wanted. The sun melted his wings, and he fell to his death.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex is a play by Sophocles, which was first performed about 429 BC. In this play, Kind Oedipus defies the gods’ prophecy that he will kill his father and murder his mother. Attempting to control and evade his own fate, he kills an old man who turns out to be his father. Later he marries the queen of Thebes, who turns out to be his mother. His attempt to defy the gods was considered hubris.

. . . .

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offers another example of hubris. Written in the late 1300s AD, it includes the character of Chaunticleer, a rich and educated rooster. His pride in his wealth and accomplishments leads him to lose track of what is real, and he is easily duped by a fox that flatters his vocal ability. The fox eats him.

. . . .

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Written in the late 16th century, Doctor Faustus tells the story of a man who is so proud of his own academic accomplishments and intelligence that he sells his soul to the Devil for more knowledge and academic superiority. He receives eternal damnation as a result.

Link to the rest at Your Dictionary

From The Rand Corporation:

[The Hubris-Nemesis] complex involves a combination of hubris (a pretension toward an arrogant form of godliness) and nemesis (a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary, especially one that can be accused of hubris). The combination has strange dynamics that may lead to destructive, high-risk behavior. Attempts to deter, compel, or negotiate with a leader who has a hubris-nemesis complex can be ineffectual or even disastrously counterproductive when those attempts are based on concepts better suited to dealing with more normal leaders.

Link to the rest at The Rand Corporation

What Authors Have Found in Substack

From Publishers Weekly:

When I first moved to California, it was a dream come true: an office right on the beach in Santa Monica in January. At break time, I ran out onto the sand to the water’s edge and stared in awe at the surf, the sun, and the people playing at the edge of the world. My colleagues chuckled and made comments along the lines of, “You must be new.”

I soon learned that the company I had joined, like so many others, was a bit of a way station for many of its employees. “What do you do?” I’d ask, to replies of, “Oh, I’m an actor,” or, “I write for TV,” or, “I do stand-up comedy.” Not a week went by without someone asking me for some time off to rush to an audition. It seemed LAX was overrun with arrivals dreaming the same dream. Nowhere did I see this more than in the restaurant scene, from Geoffrey’s in Malibu to Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica or Eveleigh’s on the Sunset Strip: everyone working the tables was an actor or writer or artist of some form.

Fast-forward to present-day Silicon Valley, land of a different dream. As venture capitalist Mark Suster recently put it, “The culture is driven by the 20-something irreverent founder with huge technical chops who in a David-versus-Goliath mythology takes on the titans of industry and wins.” The airports here disgorge a stream of would-be entrepreneurs who dream of creating the next unicorn, or billion-dollar startup. And, just like in Hollywood, reality hits soon and hits hard, with many making ends meet through side gigs in the euphemistically named gig economy, be it via DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Uber, or other such services.

What is a self-respecting aspirational author to do in such a world—one turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic? It takes time—an enormous amount of time—to write. It’s not trivial to be an ersatz taxi or delivery driver and write competently at the same time.

Yet most authors know it doesn’t pay much to write. Not all things beautiful, whether writing a book or painting or raising a child, are rewarded financially. The rewards are in the doing and in what the author or the painter or the parent brings to the world around them. Enter a new option: the paid subscription newsletter, the best-known version being Substack.

Originally designed to address the crisis in journalism, wherein the ad-supported business model evaporated like the morning dew and the incremental value of professionally written content drifted down to near nothing, paid newsletters give journalists a chance to be compensated directly for their hard work. Many of these writers were recently let go from their media houses. Others, with strong personal brands, believe they can be paid better as independents in control of their own work. A grand experiment is underway, with traditional media outlets like the New Yorker and the New York Times decrying the unravelling of the fifth estate. Look closer at what is actually happening and you’ll see something else—something that looks very familiar to the waiters in L.A. and the Uber drivers in Silicon Valley. For many writers on Substack and similar platforms, writing a paid subscription newsletter is the new side gig.

Take my example. Having published one book on strategy, I was looking for a way to write the next one. I had so much material and needed time, lots of time: time that was flexible enough to allow me to juggle the responsibilities of raising little children and of contributing to paying the bills, all under pandemic lockdown. Every little bit helps, and being paid while writing makes my dream of publishing the next book that much more of a reality. Or the example of JJ Ding, author of the ChinAI newsletter, who juggles graduate studies with corralling a community of dedicated English-Mandarin translators to make the world of AI research underway in China better understood outside the country, reducing the fear and mistrust between China and the U.S.

Or there’s the example of Animatou Sow, author of the Crème de la Crème newsletter, who juggles writing books, posting Instagram stories, and hosting podcasts, which all feature her incisive cultural commentary, such as, “Books are the answer to rampant 21st-century charlatanism.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG was generally familiar with Substack prior to reading the OP, but is interested to hear from those more knowledgeable about whether writing a paid subscription newsletter on Substack actually generates much money for most people (excluding extreme outliers).

How to turn down the noise that mars our decision-making

From The Washington Post:

A friend of mine was suffering such severe back pain that it was difficult for him to walk or stand. He consulted three doctors about the best course of treatment. The first was adamant that he needed surgery right away. The second advised my friend that he didn’t need surgery and that if he continued physical therapy, his condition would improve gradually over the coming months. The third prescribed strong steroids and recommended that, if his condition didn’t improve in a month, then he should have surgery. My friend followed the third doctor’s guidance, and it seems to be working. But he was mighty upset and confused by all those clashing perspectives. And he is still unsure whether that third doctor’s approach is the right one.

This undesirable variability in professional judgment is an example of noise, the ubiquitous and often-ignored human failing that is the focus of this well-researched, convincing and practical book. “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment” was written by the all-star team of psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, former McKinsey partner and management professor Olivier Sibony, and productive legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein. Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pathbreaking work with Amos Tversky on systematic biases in judgment. It prompted armies of psychologists and behavioral economists (including Sibony and Sunstein) to study the causes and remedies for many such faults, including overconfidence, stereotyping and confirmation bias — or seeking, remembering and placing excessive weight on information that supports our beliefs.

The authors kick things off by distinguishing between bias (systematic deviations) and noise (random scatter). The book then sustains a relentless focus on explaining and documenting the wallop packed by the simple and omnipresent error of noise — and what decision-makers can do about it. It blends stories, studies and statistics to make a compelling case that noise does at least as much damage as bias: undermining fairness and justice, wasting time and money, and damaging physical and mental health.

Kahneman and his colleagues show how unwanted variation in judgments (evaluations) and decisions (choices) creates “noisy systems” — which plague professionals including criminal judges, insurance underwriters, forensic scientists, futurists and physicians, who routinely make wildly varied judgments and decisions about similar cases. Systems are noisy, in part, because different professionals apply different standards. There is disturbing evidence, for example, that when multiple physicians evaluated identical cases for evidence of heart disease, tuberculosis, endometriosis, skin cancer and breast cancer, they agreed on diagnoses only about two-thirds of the time. In such noisy systems, errors add up rather than cancel each other out. As the authors put it, “If two felons who both should be sentenced to five years in prison receive sentences of three and seven years, justice has not, on average, been done.”

Systems are also noisy because, over time, the same professionals apply inconsistent standards. To illustrate, a study of 22 physicians who each examined the same 13 angiograms two times, several months apart, found that they disagreed with themselves between 63 percent and 92 percent of the time. To explain such swings, the authors use research on “occasion noise”: Fluctuations in a person’s mood, fatigue, physical environment and prior performance that are (objectively) irrelevant, yet shape judgments. Like the study titled “Clouds Make Nerds Look Good,” which examined 682 actual decisions by college admissions officers: They weighted applicants’ academic strengths more heavily on cloudier days and applicants’ nonacademic strengths more heavily on sunnier days.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG will certainly second the notion of judges hearing criminal cases being subject to “noise” in the OP.
Search for “inconsistent sentencing” on Google. You will find that a great deal of research and scholarship devoted to studying why criminal defendants that are convicted of or plead guilty to seemingly similar crimes receive widely divergent sentences from judges who are acting under similar laws.

More severe sentences imposed on racial minorities than on white defendants are the hot button in this legal field. On average, racial minorities in a given jurisdiction receive harsher punishment than non-minorities for the same crimes.

However, female criminals of all races are treated much more leniently than male criminals of the same race who are convicted of the same crimes.

“In 2012 Sonja B. Starr from University of Michigan Law School found that, controlling for the crime, “men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do,” and “[w]omen are…twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted”, also based on data from US federal court cases.” See SSRN

Having represented a judge in one case and a handful of attorneys in other cases in a past professional life, PG can assure you that going to law school or being elevated to the bench does not change a human into a machine.

Determining a suitable sentence for a criminal is anything but a precise process. There are zillions of factors that can come into play – far too many and far too subtle for any legislature to craft written legislation that addresses all of them.

Is the defendant remorseful or not? How remorseful or how not-remorseful? PG can attest that reading a defendant’s words as captured in a court transcript and watching and listening to the defendant as they speak is two different things.

Just as some people are better at fooling others when they are lying than other people, some people are better at conveying truthfulness than others, even when both tell the truth.

There are also different purposes for punishment. Simply punishing an individual for committing an evil deed is the most obvious. This is the simple application of the rule evil deeds must be penalized for fundamental justice in a society.

However, assuming that the defendant will be released from confinement at some future time, deterring that defendant from committing another crime is another purpose. Deterring other individuals from committing similar crimes is another purpose for punishment. Enforcing broad societal standards of behavior is another.

To take an extreme example, if everyone who exceeded the posted speed limit by five miles per hour or more were sent to prison for a minimum of 30 years, that would be quite a powerful deterrent. However, there is an inherent societal value that the punishment should fit the crime.

If our speeding driver received the same sentence as someone who killed another person with a knife, we would not feel that such a system was just and fair.

PG suggests that the “noise” described in the OP and what sounds like an interesting book is not the only reason why human judgment is complex to understand and assess fully.

The Howe Dynasty

From The Wall Street Journal:

On the hot afternoon of July 6, 1758, advance troops of a vast Anglo-American army probed through forest toward the French fortress of Ticonderoga, in what is now upstate New York. As skirmishing suddenly erupted, the woods crackled with gunfire. Casualties were minimal but momentous: Shot through the heart, and among the first to fall, was the army’s charismatic second-in-command, British Brig. Gen. George Augustus, Lord Howe.

Since arriving in America the previous summer, the dynamic and popular Lord Howe had galvanized hopes of reviving a flagging colonial war against the French. The calamity of his death was soon compounded by another: Two days later, the flustered Maj. Gen. James Abercromby authorized a frontal assault that was repulsed at a heavy cost in killed and wounded.

The loss of George Howe at age 33 was not simply a jarring setback in Britain’s struggle with France but a personal tragedy for the aristocratic family he headed. Back in England, his widowed mother, Charlotte, Lady Howe, led the official mourning. Despite her grief, she worked to ensure that the seat in Parliament left vacant by George’s sacrifice was filled by one of his surviving brothers rather than an outsider. It was an action that won widespread admiration, inviting comparisons with the stoical matrons of ancient Rome.

Yet as Julie Flavell reveals in “The Howe Dynasty,” it was just one example of the way in which extraordinary Howe women transcended their expected gender roles to enter spheres of influence dominated by men. Ms. Flavell, an independent scholar who specializes in British-American relations, traces the fortunes of Lady Howe and her extensive brood. Key characters include George’s younger brothers Richard and William, who likewise played prominent roles in Britain’s imperial conflicts, and their lesser-known—but no less remarkable—elder sister Caroline. During a long lifetime, Caroline Howe (1722-1814) was a dedicated correspondent, expressing opinions that not only provide a fresh perspective on her notoriously taciturn brothers but offer fascinating glimpses into the rarefied world of the English aristocracy.

Spanning almost a century of the Georgian era, “The Howe Dynasty” presents a richly detailed and lively saga of one of its most distinguished families. Challenging and insightful, it reflects impressive scholarship, grounded in exhaustive archival research on both sides of the Atlantic. An especially valuable source is the correspondence that Caroline Howe maintained over more than 50 years of friendship with Lady Georgiana Spencer, mother of the celebrated leader of fashion, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

“The Howe Dynasty” shows how women whose supreme function in life was to produce male heirs could nonetheless find a voice through informal “networking,” establishing crucial contacts in the drawing room or on the hunting field that could be mobilized to secure favors and control opinion.

Charlotte von Kielmansegg was only 15 when she married Emanuel Scrope Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, in 1719. At her husband’s death in 1735, Lady Howe had already borne him 10 children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. Her direction of family affairs was later aided by a redoubtable sister-in-law, Mary, Lady Pembroke. She dedicated herself to schooling Lady Charlotte and Caroline in the subtle arts of exercising influence at court and in the country. In Ms. Flavell’s assessment, mother and daughter alike became “apt pupils of their capable kinswoman.”

The Howes shared the same Hanoverian ancestry as their monarchs, and it was widely credited that Charlotte was the illegitimate offspring of King George I of Great Britain. Thanks to Lady Pembroke’s persistent lobbying, Charlotte became lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta, the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales. This was a vital conduit of patronage that proved pivotal for reviving the Howe fortunes. In her turn, Caroline established a rapport with the unconventional Princess Amelia—the aunt of George III—who shared her love of hunting, gossip and cards.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Faustian Bargain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Adolf Hitler gets the blame for lighting the fuse of World War II, and for good reason. Yet Germany had a partner in Soviet Russia, not only during the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 but well before, starting with the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Without his enablers in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that Hitler would have dared go to war against the rest of Europe.

In “Faustian Bargain” (Oxford, 384 pages, $29.95), Ian Ona Johnson shows how extensive Russia’s help was. He begins the story at the end of World War I, which had left the world with two pariah states: Germany because it had begun hostilities, Russia because the Bolshevik Revolution had transformed the country from a wartime ally to a postwar menace. Hardly had the ink dried on the punitive peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 than the two pariahs joined forces.

As Mr. Johnson chronicles, Russia offered a place for the German army to develop weapons and train men in violation of the treaty that its civilian government had just signed. In return, Russia would learn how to modernize the Red Army, huge in size but badly trained and poorly equipped. The agreement was formalized at Rapallo, Italy. “Poland must and will be wiped off the map,” wrote Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the man who established Sondergruppe Russland (Special Group Russia), the bureau that would manage military relations between Germany and Russia. Seeckt was referring, of course, to the country that Versailles had resurrected between them. (Poland had been divided between Germany, Russia and the now-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.) “It was not an unfair peace that motivated Seeckt and his fellow officers,” Mr. Johnson writes. “It was the far more ambitious aim of reversing Germany’s defeat in the First World War.”

Mr. Johnson, who teaches military history at Notre Dame, draws on American, British, German, Polish and Russian archives to describe a “secret school of war.” The resulting book has an academic flavor, but it’s consistently interesting and spiced by the occasional scandal, including one in which a German naval officer brings his Russian girlfriend home to Germany, supporting her through a movie studio he purchased with government money, planning to use it for military propaganda. When the studio goes bankrupt, damning details emerge, triggering high-level resignations and bringing to light “the breadth of Germany’s commitment to rearm.”

In the 1920s, without troubling the civilian government in Berlin, the Reichswehr (German defense force) set up a ring of bases south and east of Moscow. German companies like Junkers and Krupp contracted directly with the Soviet government to manufacture warplanes in Russia, deliver coveted German-built locomotives and train Red Army technicians. Versailles had banned all offensive weapons, but the “Black Reichswehr” in Russia included warplanes, battle tanks and poison gas. Russia, for its part, learned alongside the Germans. Stalin was so interested in Krupp’s tank designer Eduard Grotte that he ordered that the man be kept in Russia by “all measures up to arrest.”

It’s chilling to learn how much time and money Germany and Russia devoted to chemical warfare, hoping to develop gas bombs to be dropped from high altitude upon enemy cities. In the end, the effort failed. “The vision of cities obliterated by mustard gas was fading,” Mr. Johnson says of the situation in 1931, “with a war of machines—tanks and planes—rising in its place.”

Armored warfare seems to have been the most successful collaboration. The Reichswehr developed the doctrine: Heavy tanks with large guns were more valuable than speedy vehicles; they should be deployed in mass and accompanied by motorized infantry. Companies in Germany built the prototype Panzers, as they were called, and shipped them to Russia disguised as farm tractors.

. . . .

When Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, his obsession with “Jewish Bolshevism” cooled the relationship with Moscow. Nor did he worry about adhering to the terms of Versailles. The official and “black” Reichswehrs merged into the wartime Wehrmacht, with conscription supporting a huge army with modern tanks and a fully fledged air force, all made possible by Soviet Russia.

Cooperation between the two countries began again in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed to a “nonaggression pact.” The Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, the Russians on the 17th, and the two armies met at Brest-Litovsk on the 22nd.

. . . .

Meanwhile, German machinery, weapons and technology flowed east, and Russian oil, grain and raw materials helped equip and feed the Wehrmacht that occupied most of Western Europe in 1940. More quietly, the Soviet Union absorbed half of Poland, the Baltic countries, and strategic pieces of Romania and Finland. The mutual exchange continued until the Sunday morning in June 1941 when Germany crashed into the Soviet Union. “Invading German forces,” Mr. Johnson tells us, “marched on rubber boots made with materiel shipped over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Their rations included Soviet grain, which had continued to arrive up to the very day of the invasion.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has read a great deal of 20th century history, but the OP was the first time he had learned that extensive cooperation between Germany and Russia began in 1922 instead of 1939.

PG notes that the publisher of the book discussed in the OP, Oxford University Press, has elected to release the book in hardcover only, at least for the moment. PG may or may not check back later to see if an ebook is available or, more likely, put a hold on the book through his public library.

The author of the book, Ian Ona Johnson, is a an Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame who looks very young (which is a more revealing statement about PG than it is about Dr. Johnson). His author page does mention that he and his wife are the owners of a dog named Patton.

Speaking of his local public library, several years ago, PG and Mrs. PG culled their physical book collection to the tune of at least a couple of thousand books by donating them to that library. The librarian who accepted the donation glanced at the books and told PG that the library was likely to keep some of them instead of selling all of them off. Evidently, that was a compliment that the librarian did not customarily deliver when accepting book donations.

PG just checked and he still has nine oak bookcases (6 feet tall, except for one that is 7 feet tall, made to fit in a niche in a gone-but-not-forgotten law office and a bit tippy if not secured to the wall behind it, made by a former client of PG who owned a furniture factory in exchange for PG’s legal services).

Each of these bookcases is filled with physical books that will also make a trip to the local public library with the help of a couple of burly young men as and when Mrs. PG is willing to let them go.

Is the Pirate Queen of Scientific Publishing in Real Trouble This Time?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

It’s been a rough few months for Sci-Hub, the beloved outlaw repository of scientific papers. In January its Twitter account, which had more than 180,000 followers, was permanently suspended. In response to a lawsuit brought by publishers, new papers aren’t being added to its library. The website is blocked in a dozen countries, including Austria, Britain, and France. There are rumors of an FBI investigation.

And yet Alexandra Elbakyan, the 32-year-old graduate student who founded the site in 2011, seems more or less unfazed. I spoke with her recently via Zoom with the assistance of a Russian translator. Elbakyan, who is originally from Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and coded Sci-Hub herself. She lives in Moscow now and is studying philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Back when she started the site, which offers access to north of 85 million papers, she didn’t expect to be fending off lawsuits and dodging investigations a decade on.

“I thought Sci-Hub would become legal in a couple of years,” she said. “When the laws are obviously in the way of scientific development, they should be canceled.”

. . . .

It hasn’t been that simple. In 2017 a New York judge awarded Elsevier, the multibillion-dollar publishing company behind more than 2,500 journals, a $15-million default judgment against Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. The same year, a Virginia judge awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million. (With Elbakyan overseas and Sci-Hub’s financial situation somewhat mysterious, neither publisher is likely to collect a dime.) Courts have repeatedly forced Elbakyan to switch domain names.

The latest lawsuit, filed in India by three academic publishers, including Elsevier, asks the High Court of Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub throughout the country. While the case is pending, the court has instructed Sci-Hub to stop uploading papers to its database. The order is not unusual; what’s surprising is that Elbakyan has complied. She has a history of ignoring legal rulings, and the Indian court has no power over Sci-Hub’s activities in other countries. So why has she chosen, at this moment, to give in?

One reason is that Elbakyan believes she has a shot at winning the case, and her odds might improve if she plays by the rules. “I want the Indian court to finally support free access to science,” she said. If that happened, it would mark a significant victory for Sci-Hub, with reverberations likely beyond India. Victory remains a longshot, but Elbakyan thinks it’s worth the hassle and expense. She didn’t even bother to contest the two lawsuits in the United States.

In coverage of Sci-Hub over the years, Elbakyan is usually cast as an idealistic young programmer standing up to publishers who resell science at a steep markup. There’s some truth to that. Elsevier brings in billions in large part by charging colleges and universities for bundled access to its journals. Those without subscriptions often pay $31.50 for access to a single article. For an independent researcher, or one who works at a small institution that can’t afford to sign a deal with Elsevier, the cost of merely scanning the literature is prohibitive.

And you could argue, as Elbakyan does, that the company’s paywalls have the potential to slow scientific progress. She’s not the only one: More than 18,000 researchers have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its business practices.

The other option is to download a journal article’s PDF from Sci-Hub free. About a half-million people each day choose the latter.

Pirates and Publishers

So what’s wrong with using Sci-Hub? According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”

For the record, there’s little evidence that Sci-Hub is actually a threat to the scientific record. The papers on the site are the same papers you can download through official channels. It’s almost certainly true that articles that have been retracted or corrected remain up on Sci-Hub, but academic publishers themselves have a less-than-stellar record of policing and pruning the literature. Plenty of research that has failed to replicate, or should never have passed peer review in the first place, can be found in Elsevier’s archives.

The charge that Sci-Hub is a threat to personal data stems from Elbakyan’s practice of using, let us say, borrowed logins in order to download papers. That’s necessary because whenever publishers determine that a login is being used to download an unusual number of papers, they cut off access, forcing Elbakyan to constantly seek new logins. She’s done this for years and makes no secret of it. The publishers also allege that she uses “phishing attacks to illegally extract copyrighted journal articles.”

Elbakyan denies employing phishing attacks — that is, sending emails that trick people into revealing their login information — but allows that some of the accounts Sci-Hub has used might have been obtained with that technique. “I cannot check the exact source of the account that I receive by email,” she said. There’s no indication that Sci-Hub is using the logins for some other nefarious purpose.

Even so, courts have found that what Sci-Hub does isn’t legal. The question is whether, in the cause of sharing scientific information, her systematic ransacking of academic publishing is justified. In short, is Elbakyan doing more good than harm?

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Disclosure: A very long time ago, PG spent an unhappy three years working for what is now called RELX , which is the owner of the Elsevier which is the focus of the OP. (Combine Dutch and English top executives and you can come up with some of the most stupid company names in the universe.)

The business in which Elsevier and related companies is massively profitable for the following reasons.

  1. Elsevier and its associated companies obtain valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  2. Elsevier, etc., obtain expert editing and review of valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  3. Elsevier, etc., employees perform the most mundane tasks involved in putting together this free material into printed and (reluctantly) electronic publications for which they charge research academic libraries obscene prices to receive printed copies and access electronic copies of this material.
  4. Libraries at academic research institutions (every major and most minor universities, colleges, schools of law, medicine, etc., plus research institutions, etc.) must have access to this information so their scholars can perform research for a variety of purposes, including, prominently, writing new articles to submit to the editors of Elsevier’s prestigious journals to be considered for publication.
  5. The engine that drives this entire boat is called (at least in the United States) publish or perish. If you wish to move from a lowly graduate student into the world of assistant professors, associage professors, full professors, deans, etc., and have your employment in such roles protected by tenure, you need to publish in the sorts of journals Elesevier owns. The exact same work published via KDP won’t do the job.

By PG’s potentially-blinkered lights, this sort of system is possible because the people paying for these journals and funding the writing and review of the journal articles are spending other people’s money.

There is no direct cost to the dean of a medical school who requires that any candidate for an assistant professorship at the medical school have published a lot of articles in respected medical journals published by Elsevier or similar publishers.

In PG’s mind, there is no reason that an entrepreneurial University president could not start a University publishing organization that operates in the same manner as Elsevier and others do. Harvard University has had its own press for a long time but, to the best of PG’s knowledge, has limited itself to publishing books, not periodicals, The Harvard Business Review, published by the Harvard School of Business, is an example of a prestigious journal published by a private university.

On the law school front, many law schools have published law reviews in which law professors seek to have scholarly publications published. Publications in law reviews satisfy the publish or perish obligations of law professors at a wide range of institutions. One cool feature for law schools is that quite a bit of work on the law reviews is performed by second and third-year law students who have performed well in law school. Indeed, being invited to become a member of the law review’s staff is an important résumé entry for a starting lawyer looking for a job.

Why can’t the medical school and the biology and chemistry and English departments do exactly the same thing? If the Stanford Medical School announced it would be starting a series of medical journals devoted to issues important to a variety of medical specialties and staffing it with the same sort of people Elsevier uses, Stanford publications would very quickly take their place at the top of the journal rankings and receive gobs of submissions from graduate students and professors elsewhere. Stanford could charge others for subscriptions to these publications and substantially burnish the medical school and the university’s already stellar reputation.

Yes, it would cost a university some money to start its own series of professional and scholarly journals, but such publications would allow a university to earn extremely large sums of money that its libraries and the libraries of other colleges and universities pay to Elsevier and its ilk.

Professors at colleges and universities would be happy to scratch each other’s backs by exchanging peer review services for colleagues at other institutions.

PG suspects that the reason that universities do not start these sorts of entrepreneurial ventures goes back to the Other People’s Money problem and a desire for a quiet life.

If others with to comment, criticize, expand, dismiss, etc., etc. PG’s thoughts on this subject, they should feel free to do so in the comments, in their own blogs (hopefully linking back to this post, but PG’s not going to sue anyone who quotes him with or without attribution plus ideas are not protected by copyright laws.)

The #OwnVoices Conundrum

From Publishers Weekly:

I was straight for part of my life. Most gay people were, at least when I was growing up. I kissed some boys and worried about finding a date to prom, all the while falling headlong for my friends who were girls. I thought everyone felt this way—at least until one of my crushes broke my heart so thoroughly that I had to reconsider my assumptions.

Then I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and the scales fell from my eyes. Simply put, since I had never been exposed to an alternative, I had reversed the definitions of like and love in my mind. It was 1992 when I figured that out; I was 17, and I flipped through the card catalog at my local library in suburban Chicago, desperate to find books about me so I could wrap my brain around this change in circumstances and maybe figure out how to envision my own future.

In case you were wondering, the pickings at the Libertyville Public Library were slim.

Since then, there’s been a fairly miraculous change in the world around me—first in representation of the LGBT+ community on film and in print and then in authentic stories finding greater purchase in publishing through the #OwnVoices movement. What I love about #OwnVoices is that people are starting to catch up (admittedly, not without some backsliding) with the very true idea that minority stories of all different types are relevant to everyone. At their foundation, stories transport, educate, and cradle us. Storytelling has always been a critical part of being human, and diverse storytelling is a critical part of crafting a global society that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.

I believe there’s been wide benefit from the #OwnVoices movement—both for writers finding outlets for their work as well as for readers who now have a much richer selection of stories available to them. I find it interesting, then, that the We Need Diverse Books organization has decided to stop using the #OwnVoices term. In a recent blog post, WNDB says it sees #OwnVoices as having become a “ ‘catch all’ marketing term” and is moving to particularize (and personalize) authors more in its descriptions. Bitch Media also ran an extensive article about the problems with this approach to promoting diversity and authentic storytelling.

But have we, in our push for progress, fallen into an unexpected trap?

I’ve been resistant to categorization my entire life (which, believe me, has not been easy for my parents). I splash around in the deep end of gray areas and kind of love that I’ve left a long trail of confounded people in my wake. I’ve had a career in technology for a quarter century, very often as the only woman on my team. I wear men’s clothes, do most of the cooking in my house, have a well-used sewing machine that’s almost as old as I am, and, okay, I get man crushes sometimes. So, as much as I’ve appreciated (and benefited from) the #OwnVoices label, labels in general make me suspicious.

The beauty of fiction is that it has always gone beyond the lived experience of the author: that’s what research is for, what networks are for, and how sensitivity readers can help. I write literature that explores love, family, and friendship, and I’m committed to writing authentic characters with universal experiences. After a lifetime of living in a world that either wasn’t quite sure what to do with me or was downright hostile, I don’t want to be boxed in with my art. I also don’t want a stupid hashtag to provide cover for inauthentic, substandard writing acquired to fill quotas or facilitate marketing and sales.

I want diversity in storytelling to be celebrated and promoted no matter who is writing, which requires much more than a hashtag; it requires diversity within the ranks of people in power—the gatekeepers, the tastemakers. It requires us all to try hard to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and challenge ourselves to deeply understand and empathize with a variety of experiences. Frankly, it requires more (and more delicate and thoughtful) work than I suspect most people want to put in.

Publishing is a business, and business thrives on formula, efficiency, and succinct and compelling marketing. But publishing is also a conduit for art, which means that everyone in it, writers included, needs to be held to a higher, more exacting standard. There are important stories to tell—stories that can bring us together and illuminate dark corners.

Maybe #OwnVoices isn’t the best solution to this, but bringing diversity and authentic voices to a broader audience has never been an easy problem to solve, and I’ve learned to take what I can get without stopping my push for something better.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Winning Is Not Uncomplicated

From Public Books:

Louisa Thomas is a singular sportswriter. In her wide-ranging coverage of tennis, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and more, statistics and scores are incidental. Instead, Thomas shows that the real sports stories are to be found elsewhere: in the intense psychological battles and interpersonal drama of tennis, the sociopolitical implications of underfunding women’s sports, the aesthetic pleasures of watching basketball players move through air, and the general joy of being triumphant.

Thomas never seems to take for granted that sports are intrinsically valuable, or even worthy of our attention. Somewhat paradoxically, it is this conscientious skepticism, evident in all her writing, that reveals how much there is to gain from immersing yourself in sports, whether as player or spectator. In a piece about how Simone Biles is the greatest athlete of all time, Thomas wrote, “There are certain irresolvable tensions within the ideals of sportsmanship: winning is the ultimate goal, but it isn’t everything; it’s all fun and games, but you better take your job seriously; be proud, but don’t show it. These unwritten rules have always been less kind to women than to men, who are typically given some leeway when it comes to embracing their greatness and making their names.”

To read Thomas is to join her on a quest to understand these irresolvable tensions and unwritten rules. She finds what remains ambiguous and complex and invites us to consider existential questions. Why do we watch sports? Why do we care so much about them? Should we? What, ultimately, are sports for? Her searching, elegant writing intimates that sports are not only important and beautiful, but also, more boldly, that they may be important because they are beautiful.

. . . .

Tara Menon (TM): Something that you do better than anybody, not just as a sportswriter but as a writer in general, is capture bodies in motion. The way you write about how Kim Clijsters moves on a tennis court is exemplary:

[She] would sprint for a ball in the corner, extend her leading leg as she began her backswing, and then slide. Her trailing leg would extend in the other direction, bringing her into a deep, sliding split. As she swept her right arm forward to make contact with the ball, her racquet following a simple, efficient path, her left hand would drop for balance. And then, after the shot, she would recover like a cat, using her tremendous strength and flexibility to pull her feet beneath her and accelerate toward the center of the court in one quick motion.

Another one that stands out for me is your description of Jamal Murray’s shot in game four of the NBA Western Conference finals in 2020: “As Murray went up to the rim, [LeBron] James leapt, right arm extended, a rising wall. And, midair, Murray shifted the ball to his left and then swung it under and behind James, finishing the layup with his right hand as he fell. It was a carbon copy of one of Michael Jordan’s most iconic shots—and it seemed to catch James’s attention.” Reading those sentences, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion replay with stellar commentary.

Louisa Thomas (LT): I appreciate your saying that, because I actually think that while there are certain things I do well, I don’t think that’s one of them. Partly because I’m not actually that good at describing things. If you tell me to describe the walls in here, I’d struggle to come up with something besides “pale green.” Those are sections that I spend a silly amount of time on. One reason why I think they might be effective is that I try not to overdo them. Sometimes a single sentence of action can sustain a whole piece.

TM: I know you were an English major as an undergraduate. How has that background influenced your writing?

LT: Oh, I certainly learned from poetry.

TM: Any particular poets?

LT: Wallace Stevens is a pretty good touchstone, partly because he taught me about pacing and the power of stripping away, as well as building up. He is very good at putting pressure on individual images. Think of some of his most famous poems: “Anecdote of the Jar,” or “The Snow Man,” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He’s able to distill an object or an idea into something essential without exhausting it. Every word, every beat, matters. I’m not, generally speaking, a maximalist when I write. I want my words to count, and I care a lot about the way things sound. I think I care much more about rhythm than your average writer, and I got that from poetry.

I’m almost more of an auditory writer than a visual writer. I often write in my head when I’m running, or when I’m walking, before I put something on the page. I’m speaking to myself in my head, and so my words are in my ear. Maybe I learned that from Stevens, too: he famously composed his poems while walking to work.

TM: You talking about putting pressure on a single image lets me naturally segue into my favorite moments in your pieces, which is when you compare athletes to animals—whether that’s Nikola Jokic as “more giant squid than great white shark,” or Kevin Durant as a “fawn.”

LT: That’s my favorite thing to do. You want to give the reader permission to have fun—and give yourself permission to have fun. It’s harder if you’re writing about a dark topic, like domestic violence, for example. But if you’re writing about Jokic and Durant, you want to have fun. Durant has these long, spindly legs and a blank gaze: hence, a fawn. And the introduction of animals is a signal that we’re going to get a little ridiculous, because sports are ridiculous, too. One of the things I like about sports is that they have an element of the absurd. This is a way of engaging in that aspect.

TM: I now feel unable to look at Kevin Durant as anything except a fawn. You also have other, nonanimal mini descriptions of people: Zion Williamson as “a linebacker crossed with Baryshnikov,” or Daniil Medvedev as “a character from Dostoevsky.”

My absolute favorite is tennis star Andy Murray as “a walking existential crisis.” [Laughter] When I read that, I thought, that’s exactly the feeling Murray evokes every time I see him. And you captured it in a single phrase. That line also captures what I find so compelling about tennis, which is that it seems so psychological. Does that appeal to you as a tennis writer?

LT: Yes, but it can also be a danger for me. I can be too ready to read facial expressions, and other sports are less impacted by psychology than tennis. In tennis, there’s such a mind-body connection. You can actually see when someone tightens. Their feet are not moving in the same way, or their racket is dropping on their serve because they’re literally tight. You also can see it on their face, and that I find really, really compelling. Regardless of the sport, I’m always only writing about humans.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Many Lives of Jewish Lore’s Favorite Monster

From Electric Lit:

In the late 16th century, rumors of an impending pogrom swirl around the Jewish ghetto. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague and an expert in the Kabbalah capable of bringing life to inanimate forms, decides to protect his community with a golem, a figure made from earth and animated through religious ritual. Golems do not speak and do not think for themselves. They have super strength, a dogmatic allegiance to their creator, and little else. In other words: they are perfect bodyguards. Under the cover of night, the Maharal gathers clay from the Vltava river to build a humanoid figure. When Rabbit Loew carves “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth” on the golem’s forehead, his work is done; the golem is alive. The golem curbs the violent threats against the Jewish ghetto and serves as a valuable handyman for its neighbors, completing chores and fetching water. However, the creature loses discipline. It runs amok, threatening the community it was created to defend. Rabbi Loew must destroy his monster. To do so, he erases the first letter of “emet,” leaving “met,” meaning “dead.”

The Golem of Prague is perhaps the most famous story of the golem, but Jewish people have crafted golems—in stories, at least—since long before the 16th century. Our clay creatures wind their way through religious texts, stories of rabbis, and Jewish folklore.

These tales aren’t always by Jewish writers and artists. German-Christian writers throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s examined Jewish communities and their golems. Famously, The Brothers Grimm include an iteration of the golem tale in their collected stories. In this version, the rabbi who creates the golem is killed, suffocated by the falling clay of his monster.

Once you know the monster you are looking for, golems are everywhere. 

But why? All things considered, golems are rather unassuming monsters. They are (canonically speaking) not very flashy; the word “golem” is used in modern Hebrew to mean dumb or helpless. And as far as Jewish representation goes, the golem’s unintelligent and potentially destructive nature directly contrasts with Judaism’s focus on learning, wisdom, and religious law. Yet even today, golems lurch through pages of novels, movie screens, and video games. In Prague, the legend of the golem thrives: Golem Biscuits cafe bakes golem cookies, nearly every gift store sells posters of Rabbi Loew and his golem strolling through cobblestone streets. And the appearance of golems in recent literature and media allows us to explore both experiences of Jewishness and popular perceptions of Jewish culture.

. . . .

In Jewish diasporic writing, the golem appears during moments of crisis: the pogroms of the 16th century, the heavy flow of Jewish immigration to the U.S. during the 1800s, and the Holocaust. The golem, it seems, is needed at points of crisis to alleviate Jewish pain.

Golems present a powerful model for Jewish resistance against antisemitic violence, especially in historical novels. In Alice Hoffman’s 2019 novel The World That We Knew, Jewish parents seek the help of a rabbi to create a golem to defend their daughter, Lea, against Nazi terror. Hoffman introduces golems as nearly omnipotent: communing with fish and birds, seeing the future, and speaking with the dead. It is necessary to kill the golem once it has fulfilled its purpose. The rabbi’s daughter accepts the task and builds a golem from river mud and menstrual blood. Hoffman’s golem is named Ava, “reminiscent of Chava, the Hebrew word for life,” signifying both Ava’s new life and the continued existence that Ava’s protection grants Lea.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Putting the Story Back in Science

From Public Books:

I first met Ainissa Ramirez at an astonishing venue: the Qatar National Convention Center, in Doha. The date was in October 2013. We were both speakers at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a biennial meeting organized by the Qatari royal family to showcase new ideas on educational reform. Dr. Ramirez, then a 44-year-old materials scientist and a former member of the Yale faculty, described herself as a “science evangelist,” and she had strong ideas to promote. The professor said she hoped to encourage a whole generation of young women, especially young women of color, to lend their talents to the scientific endeavor.

“You can do it,” she told some of the young women she met at the conference. “You can change the world through science.”

Not long after returning to the US, Ainissa Ramirez contacted me, inquiring if she might audit my Columbia Master’s in Sustainability Management class, “Writing about Global Science for the International Media.” She’d been thinking about switching her focus from academe to science journalism; she wanted to write more and do her teaching through the mass media. Dr. Ramirez already had one published book to her credit: a popular work she’d coauthored, Newton’s Football: The Science behind America’s Game. I really wanted to include her. But I was constrained by class-size limits, so I reluctantly said no.

Well, Ainissa Ramirez didn’t need my class, not for a nanosecond. She’s a brilliant storyteller, and she possesses an unusual talent for taking science stories and shaping them into a compelling narrative. That’s really the secret of great science writing: finding the story within the technical information, unspooling it, and then retelling it in a form that readers will find exciting. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. After all, science is a human endeavor, and most anything that human beings do is likely to be interesting. And yet, much of what is called science journalism fails to do it.

I have my own theories about why this is. One is that many science writers are themselves frustrated scientists, so they sometimes write with the same dryness they read in academic papers. Dr. Ramirez, however, has already labored as an academic scientist—Bell Laboratories, MIT, Yale—and is secure in her credentials. She knows what the other side of science journalism looks like, and she’s not worried that when she writes simply she might be “talking down.” Moreover, she doesn’t fret about the emotionality of an anecdote. In fact, she uses emotion (and irony) to drive her stories.

And that’s why Ainissa Ramirez is such a jewel. Her first solo book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, published by the MIT Press smack in the middle of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, tells the backstory of scientific inventions that influence our daily lives. Who knew that Christmas rituals were shaped by the growth of American railroads? That the size of modern humans was affected by the invention of the electric light? Ainissa Ramirez knows this and pulls readers into the technical story. The Alchemy of Us is one of those books that almost anyone in any field of endeavor will find interesting. That’s why more than a year after publication the work is still in print and has won much praise and a few prizes. Smithsonian magazine listed it as one of the best science books of 2020.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Intimate Strangers

From The Millions:

On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

. . . .

A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

Link to the rest at The Millions

From: Where Worlds Collide by Pico Iyer

They come out, blinking, into the bleached, forgetful sunshine, in Dodgers caps and Rodeo Drive T-shirts, with the maps their cousins have drawn for them and the images they’ve brought over from Cops and Terminator 2; they come out, dazed, disoriented, heads still partly in the clouds, bodies still several time zones—or centuries—away, and they step into the Promised Land.

In front of them is a Van Stop, a Bus Stop, a Courtesy Tram Stop, and a Shuttle Bus Stop (the shuttles themselves tracing circuits A, B, and C). At the Shuttle Bus Stop, they see the All American Shuttle, the Apollo Shuttle, Celebrity Airport Livery, the Great American Stageline, the Movie Shuttle, the Transport, Ride-4-You, and forty-two other magic buses waiting to whisk them everywhere from Bakersfield to Disneyland.

They see Koreans piling into the Taeguk Airport Shuttle and the Seoul Shuttle, which will take them to Koreatown without their ever feeling they’ve left home; they see newcomers from the Middle East disappearing under the Arabic script of the Sahara Shuttle. They see fast-talking, finger-snapping, palm-slapping jive artists straight from their TV screens shouting incomprehensible slogans about deals, destinations, and drugs. Over there is a block-long white limo, a Lincoln Continental, and, over there, a black Chevy Blazer with Mexican stickers all over its windows, being towed. They have arrived in the Land of Opportunity, and the opportunities are swirling dizzily, promiscuously, around them.

They have already braved the ranks of Asian officials, the criminal-looking security men in jackets that say “Elsinore Airport Services,” the men shaking tins that say “Helping America’s Hopeless.” They have already seen the tilting mugs that say “California: a new slant on life” and the portable fruit machines in the gift shop.

They have already, perhaps, visited the restroom where someone has written, “Yes on Proposition 187. Mexicans go home,” the snack bar where a slice of pizza costs $3.19 (18 quetzals, they think in horror), and the sign that urges them to try the Cockatoo Inn Grand Hotel. The latest arrivals at Los Angeles International Airport are ready now to claim their new lives.

Link to the rest at Where Worlds Collide

The OP and Mr. Iyer’s essay reminded PG of how happy he is not to fly for business all the time any more.

For a period of his earlier work life, he flew about 200,000 miles per year, about 90% on domestic US routes. Certainly, he knew people who flew more miles than he did, but he didn’t envy them.

The airline he used for 99% of his flights treated him very well.

Relatively speaking.

Perhaps PG should say the airline treated him as well as it could because he was definitely a frequent flier and, presumably, they didn’t want PG’s employer to spend all that money with another airline.

Not that another airline would have offered an experience that was any different than the first. (Different logos on identical airplanes and different uniforms on pretty-much identical flight crews don’t count as different. Plus the airport security line never changes, except sometimes they ask if you have a bomb in your suitcase in French. Non.)

As many people know, the main reward airlines provide for their customers who fly a lot is — more flying!

Suffice to say, when he moved on from the last job with a lot of travel, PG was terminally burned out on flying.

In a few weeks, PG and Mrs. PG will get on an airliner for a (thankfully) short flight across part of the United States for personal reasons. PG doesn’t mind taking road trips by car, but flying is the best choice for this trip.

When PG made the reservations, he was surprised that he still had a few antique frequent flier miles in his account in addition to digital spider webs, so he used most of them to upgrade the seating for Mrs. PG and himself from Sardine to SardinePlus class.

One of PG’s offspring is knowledgeable about the ins and outs of flying today, getting through airports, etc., etc., so PG will ask for a briefing to update his knowledge of the ever-changing ways airlines and the federal government Do Things in the Very Best Way.

PG hasn’t even started this round-trip and he’s already disliking it.

He anticipates that it will require the funeral of a first degree relative (there are fewer than there used to be) to get him on another airplane.

What an annoying grump PG is on some days!

He blames COVID, the aftereffects of which are still hanging around like cockroaches in a cheap New York City apartment.

The General’s Garden

From The Wall Street Journal:

On June 25, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at Malmaison, the late Empress Joséphine’s estate 7 miles west of Paris. His dream of holding on to the French throne had just shattered at Waterloo, costing the lives of tens of thousands. Five years earlier, he had divorced Joséphine because she hadn’t given him the heir his dynastic desires required. Now that she was dead, all he could think about was how much he missed her—how she used to walk under the trees she had planted, those cedars, cypresses and Japanese pagodas, how she would examine the flowers in her greenhouse or gather the roses she loved so much. The memory made Napoleon wince. “She was the most graceful woman I ever saw,” he told his stepdaughter Hortense. Too little, too late.

Joséphine, always “surrounded by colour and fragrance,” as the British historian Ruth Scurr’s beautiful new book describes her, was the gardener Napoleon never became. This is, indeed, how she appears in François Gérard’s 1801 portrait of her: languidly sunk into her sofa, a bouquet of freshly picked flowers by her side, her teeming garden behind her. Compared to Joséphine, Napoleon was at best a jardinier intermittent, an intermittent gardener, an epithet bestowed on him by a plaque installed on the small island of Île-d’Aix, where Napoleon is believed to have grafted an ash onto an elm (just as he, the native Corsican, had grafted himself onto native French stock).

It is an adjustment to think of Napoleon as a cultivator rather than as a conqueror, a planter rather than a planner.

. . . .

Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows,” [is] a book so saturated with detail that the reader can hear the gravel crunching under her characters’ feet.

. . . .

 Ms. Scurr [tells] the endlessly fascinating story of his life anew: not as a megalomaniac’s power-hungry ascent to temporary glory but as the constantly frustrated reaching for the plenitude and happiness that Joséphine’s found in her garden.

Napoleon’s botanical career, such as it was, began in military school in Brienne-le-Château, with a small plot he used to create an arbor so he could be by himself. It continued with attempts to salvage his father’s mulberry nursery on Corsica, and, as he cast his menacing shadow over much of Europe, culminated in a variety of designs for formal gardens at home and abroad, including a madcap scheme that would have turned the Roman Forum into a promenade. But even as Napoleon sought to reinvent himself as a modern amalgam of Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne and Alexander the Great, he kept finding himself sent back to islands, his fabulous empire shrunk to gardens of diminishing size and lushness. Napoleon’s last, scraggly garden was on Deadwood, aptly named, a rocky, mist-shrouded plateau on Saint Helena, one of the remotest islands in the South Atlantic.

. . . .

Napoleon never allowed himself to love gardens the way Joséphine did—for the surprises they can yield, the basketfuls of unexpected beauty they can fling one’s way. The gardens Napoleon dreamed up were manifestations of his might, rigid tools of imperial domination. Tolstoy, in “War and Peace” (1869), rightly mocked historians who would attribute the actions of the masses to the will of one man. The French, he wrote, did not nearly lose the Battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold that day. Napoleon would have agreed, if for a different reason. He liked to think of himself as an impersonal force, an inexorable vessel for historical necessity. “I am the clock that exists but does not know itself,” he told his secretary Las Cases, a remark meant to show that he did, of course, know himself very well. Trapped in the prison house of his restless intellect, Napoleon demanded of himself that he be a genius, and of the world that it perceive him as such.

Gardens helped Napoleon carry on: Banished to Elba, his island Lilliput, he was never more thrilled than when he saw that his gardener had arranged some heliotropes so that they formed a large “N.” And a garden played a part in his downfall, too: Ms. Scurr reminds us of the walled-in orchard of the Hougoumont estate at Waterloo, which, fiercely defended by Wellington’s troops, evaded Napoleon’s control. Visiting the site more than four decades later, novelist Victor Hugo could still see the bullet holes.

. . . .

Did things change during Napoleon’s final exile on Saint Helena? Ms. Scurr suggests as much in the poignant chapter that wraps up her account. His health deteriorating rapidly, having grown, visitors reported, “enormously fat,” Napoleon heeded his doctor’s advice and grabbed a spade: “I will dig the ground.” Soon his old penchant for control flared up again: He helped construct a turf wall, 2.7 meters high, and a maze of sunken paths meant to shield him from his guards. But on Deadwood little would linger, not the fish in his pond, not the birds in his aviary, not the oaks he had transplanted (one held on). As his garden faltered, so did the botanizing ex-Emperor. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Chasing the Thrill

From The Wall Street Journal:

Begin it where warm waters halt / And take it in the canyon down, / Not far, but too far to walk. / Put in below the home of Brown.

From there it’s no place for the meek, / The end is ever drawing nigh; / There’ll be no paddle up your creek, / Just heavy loads and water high.

Have you ever heard of the Lost Dutchman Mine and the Beale Cipher? How about the Oak Island Money Pit? Or the artist Kit Williams’s “Masquerade” (aka the Quest for the Golden Hare) and the magician David Blaine’s “The Mysterious Stranger” (aka the Search for the Golden Orb)? I hadn’t either. But now I know all about treasure hunts and those who plan them—especially one eccentric denizen of the American Southwest, whose self-published memoir of 2010 contains the near-incomprehensible verse-clues quoted above.

Reading Daniel Barbarisi’s “Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt” might feel a bit like watching a Discovery Channel documentary, but the book is quite a yarn. In fact, it’s an exhaustive account of one of the oddest episodes in the crowded annals of bizarro Americana.

The impresario of “Chasing the Thrill” is Forrest Fenn, a former Vietnam War fighter pilot who made a fortune peddling Native-American artifacts and other works in arty Santa Fe, N.M. As we learn from Mr. Barbarisi, a former Wall Street Journal sportswriter and the author of an earlier book on fantasy-sports gambling, Fenn, at age 80, got the notion to hide a treasure chest in the rough country north of Santa Fe. He then printed a slim autobiography called “The Thrill of the Chase,” whose final chapter released his poetic arrows into the public imagination—verses containing nine gnomic pointers to the whereabouts of the trove of 265 gold coins, dozens of gold nuggets, plastic baggies of gold dust, a block of $1,000 bills, plus rare Mayan relics, Chinese jade and more. The 42-pound cache—secreted in a smallish 12th-century Italian lock box—was valued at up to $2 million.

Word of the Fenn lode predictably set off a gold rush of tens of thousands of ambitious, greedy and often deeply disturbed “clue solvers” who spent the next decade busting their brains and pondering maps, draining their bank accounts and risking their lives. They scoured “The Thrill of the Chase,” followed Fenn’s frequent interviews, watched and re-watched a 2013 “Today” segment he’d done, besieged his Santa Fe compound, corresponded by email, and followed a bunch of Fenn-obsessed blogs and YouTube channels. Then they traipsed through northern New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and southern Montana, certain that the Fenn treasure—like the mythical Land of Prester John in the Middle Ages—was just over the horizon.

The author spent years commuting from his home, job and family in Boston to the Southwest. He immersed himself in the Fenn hunters’ subculture, and pursued a number of failed solves with his wingman, Jay Raynor, a Canadian fantasy-sports wizard and crypto-currency trader. He then cozied up close to the magus, trying to get to the bottom of what motivated Fenn to launch his quest. Was he chasing a kind of pop immortality for himself? Or was he more a sadistic puppet master, savoring the spectacle of addicted hunters abasing themselves to win his favor in hopes of priceless hints to the solution? Or was he, as one cynical solver had it, simply a “media whore” hooked on attention. In any case, he writes, “Fenn had managed to mythologize his own past.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has spent significant portions of his life living in dry and sparsely-populated parts of the United States. He will say that the open desert can be very beautiful, but will also acknowledge that it can attract some individuals who are a bit off and move farther in the off direction the more time they spend alone in the desert.

Princeton Dumbs Down Classics

From The Atlantic:

My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.

. . . .

But then I remembered my own language training, and I’ve come around to Princeton’s point of view. My classical education started, oddly enough, just like Owen Wilson’s. We attended the same private school about a decade apart, and like all students, we were subjected to a mandatory year of Latin. (After that requirement was abolished, Wilson and his co-screenwriter Wes Anderson made the film Rushmore, in which the nixing of Latin from a prep-school curriculum is a plot point.) We had the same teacher, who told me that Wilson was one of the worst students he’d ever taught. I took another five years of Latin, plus four of Greek, while Wilson went off to find his fortune in Hollywood. I think even Ælfric would agree he got the better end of that deal.

I never met Wilson, but I clearly remember many classmates squirming in their seats, struggling to give a damn about whether nauta was masculine or feminine, or how to turn it into a dative plural, or what the hell a dative plural was anyway. They off-loaded all knowledge of Latin seemingly seconds after handing in their final exam. Some of us did give a damn, however, and after a couple of years of Latin-grammar boot camp, we could read erotic poetry from 2,000 years ago and be genuinely, uh, moved. I remembered that difference years later when I met linguists who were recruited as spies by the United States government. To assess their abilities, the government would invent complicated languages and give them tests to figure out who would catch on. The best candidates were the ones who liked the process so much that they asked if they could please have more tests to take home—you know, just for fun.

Princeton’s deliberation about Greek and Latin requirements amounts to asking: Should our classics department, which is devoted to all aspects of the study of antiquity, introduce the subject with a sequence of classes most hospitable to the oddly built minds of language fanatics? The classical world appeals to philosophers, archaeologists, historians, poets, rhetoricians, and others. To study the history or mythology of Greece and Rome in a state of total ignorance of those civilizations’ language sounds to me like a sad imitation of a classical education. But if a student becomes initially interested in classics by reading a Greek myth, it is not obvious to me that requiring her to chant the principal parts of the verb βαινω for a semester will tend the flame of her curiosity rather than snuff it out. Is she more like me, or more like Wilson?

A classicist at Princeton told me that his department expects to teach just as much Greek and Latin as it ever did. No classes will be cut. But instead of making these courses a gateway to the classics, they’ll be an option the majority of majors will take—without the implication that philology is the best or only way to get into the subject. If that hypothesis is correct, he said, and classics attracts more undergraduate majors and most of them take Greek and Latin, Princeton will have more students proficient in these languages after dropping the requirement. (Con artists and drug dealers will recognize the move here, enticing the customer with a harmless product, only to hook them later on the harder stuff.) Conversely, students may begin to regard Greek and Latin the way English majors regard Middle and Old English: as antique curiosities that only the strangest of their fellow students spend much time on.

The classicist I spoke with is more optimistic. Those who do not take Latin and Greek would, he supposes, be from the minority of undergraduates with niche interests relatively remote from Latin or Greek grammar. “We have students who are using computational and CGI modeling of ancient Greek architecture,” he told me. “We want those students to be in classics.”

But will those students really be in classics—or just in the classics department? To be classically educated, as I understood it, meant taking one’s place in a line of students stretching back two or three thousand years. Each of those students learned many of the same things, and learned them roughly the same way, so that if you were to travel back in time (either by DeLorean or by library card), you could converse with anyone in that line and have access to that person’s knowledge. That access is Ælfric’s key, and if you skip the philology and substitute in CGI classes, the key doesn’t fit anymore, and the culture traced by that line of students, from Hesiod to Derek Walcott, is locked away.

. . . .

“People are very sensitive about tradition right now,” the Princeton classicist told me. (He asked not to be named, because of the incessant trolling his department has received for its decision.) “And these changes can look to an ungenerous eye like they are not giving due respect to tradition.” That would be the case, he said, if Princeton were trying to persuade students to learn less Latin and Greek, rather than more, while recruiting students with other original interests and backgrounds. Various fields have already made this shift. After all, you can now study English without knowing much about the history of English; at Princeton and many peer institutions, a single course on Shakespeare is enough to satisfy one’s requirement for pre-1700 study of the English language. You can write a senior thesis on Thomas Pynchon, and no one will make you start your education by learning when the dual dropped out of English grammar, or by deciphering Chaucer. Princeton students can still learn about these things, and I think they should. But the grammarians and Chaucerians are not posted like riddling bridge-keepers outside the department.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

  1. PG agrees with the “Dumb Down” headline.
  2. The quotes from the various Princeton professors in the OP demonstrate (for PG) one of the reasons that professors et al should teach and competent administrative minds should be recruited to actually operate the various academic departments.
  3. PG suspects this change will not be looked back upon as the beginning of the rebirth of Classics at Princeton.
  4. PG predicts that, absent the Atlantic article (which was a decision by an Atlantic editor that puzzles PG), no one other than a few classicists at other institutions would have noticed this change.
  5. Yes, PG did take Latin in college, but quit without completing the first year. That makes him an expert on this topic.

7 Character Lessons from a Real Life Heroine

From Writers in the Storm:

This week on June 8 was Women’s Fiction Day, celebrating strong female protagonists. More and more stories these days are bringing us great female characters. In thrillers and military fiction, one challenge is to write those strong women as authentic, well-rounded female personalities rather than alpha males with lady parts.

One good way to address this challenge is to study the real-life heroines of the past, who used wits, wiles, cunning, determination, and subterfuge to stay alive and conquer their foes. Today, we’ll take a look at the life of a real-life heroine who was feared by the Nazis as “the most dangerous spy in all of France,” Virginia Hall Goillot.

. . . .

Say the name “Virginia Hall” to anyone in the Clandestine Services, and they may well get choked up with reverence. Being a woman with no special physical ability and lacking one leg, no recruiter then or now would entertain thoughts of Virginia being capable of military service, especially behind enemy lines.

Nevertheless, she was determined to serve an active role in the battle against Nazi Germany, and serve she did, becoming one of the most revered 20th-century icons in the Intelligence Community. Altogether remarkable, she is a breathtaking example of selflessness, courage, and commitment and a true role model for both the Intelligence Community, and for fiction writers.

Virginia Hall was born on April 6, 1906, to a wealthy family in Baltimore, Maryland. Having a gift for languages, she studied French, German, and Italian at Radcliffe College and Barnard College. She then traveled to Europe to continue her education in Austria, France, and Germany. Her goal was to enter the US Foreign Service.

After finishing her studies in 1931, she worked as a Consular Service clerk at the US Embassy in Warsaw. From there, she was assigned to a consulate office in Izmir, Turkey, where a hunting accident forced her to have her lower left leg amputated. She obtained a wooden prosthetic leg, which she named “Cuthbert.” She was then assigned to the US consulate in Venice.

When Virginia requested permission to take the US Foreign Service Exam, she was informed that, due to her injury, she could not apply for a position as a diplomat. She returned to the United States and attended graduate school at American University in Washington, DC.

. . . .

Virginia was visiting Paris when Germany invaded France in 1940. She immediately volunteered with the French Ambulance Corps and drove ambulances to evacuate wounded French soldiers from the front. When France surrendered to Germany, Virginia escaped to Spain and then on to England.

In London, Virginia applied for service in the British Special Operations Executive (“SOE”) and was accepted. With the SOE, Virginia trained in weapons, communications, and as a resistance organizer for occupied France, and in August of 1941, she infiltrated Vichy in France. Some sources state that she was the first female SOE agent to do so.

The United States was not yet directly involved in the war, so Virginia posed as a news correspondent for the New York Post. Once the United States did enter the war in December of 1941, the sensible thing for her to do would have been to hustle back to England. Fortunately for the Allied effort, she declined to escape and went underground.

At the time Virginia infiltrated Vichy in 1941, operating there under the Pétain government was more dangerous for an SOE agent than operating in the Nazi-occupied region of France. The Vichy government had command of the French police departments, and with so many reliable local assets, it could more easily discover infiltrators and resistors. Most SOE agents sent into Vichy in 1941 and 1942 were killed or captured within days.

. . . .

Virginia quickly earned a reputation as a great recruiter and resistance organizer in France. She was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of downed Allied aviators, and she arranged their safe return to England. She also organized a network of safe houses and coordinated numerous air drops of weapons and supplies to the French Resistance at a time when most drops were being intercepted by the Vichy police and the Gestapo.

Virginia’s successes did not go completely unnoticed by the Vichy government and the Nazis. The Gestapo branded her as the most dangerous spy in all of France, and they made her capture a priority. When the Germans took over Vichy in November of 1942, infamous Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie demanded that “the woman with the limp,” as Virginia was known, be captured and brought directly to him so that he could personally strangle her.

Virginia used her one good leg to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo, and that November, she escaped on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain. Some convincing sources say she was alone on this trip. Some other convincing sources say she was not alone on this trip. It is possible that she made more than one trip over the Pyrenees.

. . . .

Once in Spain, Virginia had no identification papers at a time when such documents were crucial. The Spanish arrested her and incarcerated her for several weeks. When the US consulate in Barcelona learned of this, they claimed Virginia as a legitimate US citizen and demanded her release.

After four months working undercover in Spain, Virginia returned to England in 1943 in the hope of doing more “useful” work. Once there, Virginia left the SOE to join the fledgling American OSS and volunteered to return to occupied France.

Virginia dyed her hair gray and disguised herself as an elderly farmer. Since her wooden leg made a nighttime parachute drop too dangerous for her, she was infiltrated back to Bretagne, France, on a British torpedo boat. Using the alias “Marcelle Montagne” and the code name “Diane,” she made her way to central France, where she set up radio communications with London.

In addition to transmitting intelligence back to London, Virginia again organized successful supply drops for the French Resistance, established safe houses, helped train three battalions of Free French guerrilla forces, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allied invasion. In spite of Klaus Barbie’s personal vendetta against her, Virginia avoided capture and continued operating until the Allies liberated central France in 1944.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir (the daisies will bloom at night) by Jeffrey W. Bass via Wikipedia. This image is a work of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a Work of the United States Government, this image or media is in the public domain in the United States.
French identification certificate for “Marcelle Montagne” forged by OSS

The OP draws from the following book, Key Figures in Espionage:

June 10, 1942: The Lidice Massacre

From Fishwrap:

The village of Lidice was located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) during WWII. In reprisal for the assassination of a Nazi official in the Spring of 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the assassination of all men in Lidice, aged 16 and older. The women and children were taken to concentration camps or gassed, and the village of Lidice was destroyed.

In 1939, the area around Lidice came under Nazi control. Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German official, was appointed Deputy Reich Protector of the area. Heydrich was one of the principal architects of the Holocaust. He was known for brutality, murder, and efforts to destroy any Nazi resistance. On May 27, 1942, Heydrich was being driven to his headquarters at Prague Castle when his car was attacked by two Czechoslovak resistance operatives. The operatives were trained in Great Britain and operated under the approval of the Czechoslovak government. Heydrich was wounded and died less than a week later.

German officials declared a state of emergency and established a curfew in Prague. They began a massive search for the attackers, promising that anyone involved, and their families, would be executed. Days later, when they failed to locate any conspirators, they decided to destroy the village of Lidice in reprisal. They chose Lidice because its residents were suspected of harboring members of the local resistance.

On June 10, 1942, German police and SS officials surrounded Lidice to block off any escape route. They rounded up 192 boys and men from Lidice and marched them to a farm on the edge of town, where they lined them up and shot them in groups.

Nazi officials separated the women and children and loaded the women onto rails cars for transport to concentration camps. Most went to Ravensbrück, where 60 died. A few of the children considered racially pure were handed over to SS families. The rest were likely killed in late June when Nazi official Adolph Eichman ordered the children to be gassed to death at Chelmno extermination camp.

In all, some 340 people from Lidice died and the town was destroyed. Nazi officials shelled the village, set it on fire, and plowed over the remains. To further erase the memory of Lidice, the name of the village was removed from all local municipal records.

Link to the rest at Fishwrap

More grisly details from Wikipedia:

Men

Horst Böhme, the SiPo chief for the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, immediately acted on the orders. Members of the Ordnungspolizei and SD (Sicherheitsdienst) surrounded the village of Lidice, blocking all avenues of escape. The Nazi regime chose this village because its residents were suspected of harbouring local resistance partisans and were falsely associated with aiding Operation Anthropoid team members. Post-war memorial ceremony to honour victims

All men of the village were rounded up and taken to the farm of the Horák family on the edge of the village. Mattresses were taken from neighbouring houses where they were stood up against the wall of the Horáks’ barn to prevent ricochets. The shooting of the men commenced at about 7:00 am. At first the men were shot in groups of five, but Böhme thought the executions were proceeding too slowly and ordered that ten men be shot at a time. The dead were left lying where they fell. This continued until the afternoon hours when there were 173 dead. Another 11 men who were not in the village that day were arrested and murdered soon afterwards as were eight men and seven women already under arrest because they had relations serving with the Czech army in exile in the United Kingdom. Only three male inhabitants of the village survived the massacre, two of whom were in the RAF and stationed in England at the time. The only adult man from Lidice actually in Czechoslovakia who survived this atrocity was František Saidl (1887–1961), the former deputy-mayor of Lidice who had been arrested at the end of 1938 because on 19 December 1938 he accidentally killed his son Eduard Saidl. He was imprisoned for four years and had no idea about this massacre. He found out when he returned home on 23 December 1942. Upon discovering the massacre, he was so distraught he turned himself in to SS officers in the nearby town of Kladno, confessed to being from Lidice, and even said he approved of the assassination of Heydrich. Despite confirming his identity, the SS officers simply laughed at him and turned him away, and he went on to survive the war.

Women and children

Maria Doležalová, one of the children kidnapped from Lidice, testifies at the RuSHA trialMemorial to the murdered children of Lidice

A total of 203 women and 105 children were first taken to Lidice village school, then the nearby town of Kladno and detained in the grammar school for three days. The children were separated from their mothers and four pregnant women were sent to the same hospital where Heydrich died, forced to undergo abortions and then sent to different concentration camps. On 12 June 1942, 184 women of Lidice were loaded on trucks, driven to Kladno railway station and forced into a special passenger train guarded by an escort. On the morning of 14 June, the train halted on a railway siding at the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The camp authorities tried to keep the Lidice women isolated, but were prevented from doing so by other inmates. The women were forced to work in leather processing, road building, textile and ammunition factories.

Eighty-eight Lidice children were transported to the area of the former textile factory in Gneisenau Street in Łódź. Their arrival was announced by a telegram from Horst Böhme’s Prague office which ended with: the children are only bringing what they wear. No special care is desirable. The care was minimal and they suffered from a lack of hygiene and from illnesses. By order of the camp management, no medical care was given to the children. Shortly after their arrival in Łódź, officials from the Central Race and Settlement branch chose seven children for Germanisation. The few children considered racially suitable for Germanisation were handed over to SS families.

The furore over Lidice caused some hesitation over the fate of the remaining children but in late June Adolf Eichmann ordered the massacre of the remainder of the children. However Eichmann was not convicted of this crime at his trial in Jerusalem, as the judges deemed that “… it has not been proven to us beyond reasonable doubt, according to the evidence before us, that they were murdered.” On 2 July, all of the remaining 82 Lidice children were handed over to the Łódź Gestapo office, who sent them to the Chelmno extermination camp 70 kilometres (43 miles) away, where they were gassed to death in Magirus gas vans. Out of the 105 Lidice children, 82 died in Chełmno, six died in the German Lebensborn orphanages and 17 returned home.

Lidice, die Zerstörung (The Destruction of Lidice) – Wikimedia Commons – This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
The destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, in a propaganda photograph released by the Nazis. (Archive, Lidice Memorial)
Maria Doležalová, one of the children kidnapped from Lidice, testifies at the RuSHA trial – The RuSHA trial against the SS racial policies (officially, United States of America vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al) was the eighth of the twelve trials held in Nuremberg by the U.S. authorities for Nazi war crimes after the end of World War II. (via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
This is Nazi Brutality, poster by Ben Shahn, 1943, published by the US Department of War Information, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Eighty-two statues of children are depicted in Marie Uchytilová’s “A Monument of children’s war victims.” (Archive, Lidice Memorial via Wikimedia Commons)

PG hasn’t put together this litany of horrors to ruin your day.

He is concerned that the great wars of the Twentieth Century and their aftermath are being forgotten. Virtually all of Europe and large swaths of Asia were terribly damaged. The exact number of deaths will never be known, but an estimated 20 million deaths were caused by World War I and 70-85 million people were killed in World War II. In each case, the civilian deaths exceeded deaths of members of the military.

In addition to deaths by violence, there were 19 to 25 million war-related famine deaths in the USSR, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India caused by World War II that are not usually included in war casualty figures.

Like others, PG is sometimes disturbed by Wokesters who are triggered by seeing the statue of a Civil War General and claim deep hurt and lasting harm from this experience.

Boxing’s Moral Quandary

From The Wall Street Journal:

To use all the old metaphors, Tris Dixon’s “Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing” is a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, a kick in the groin. Given that this remarkable, long-overdue treatise on the mental and physical ravages of boxing doesn’t hold anything back, it’s fitting that Mr. Dixon’s book lands with power and precision. For boxing fans, it’s a wake-up call. To remain a fan of the sport—to cheer on the punishment that takes place in the ring, then choose to ignore its consequences—constitutes a cruel form of enabling.

Even for readers who are not aficionados of the sweet science, “Damage” hits hard. At its core is the public adoration of athletes as modern-day gladiators—or, at least, icons of physical prowess—and what we demand of them: the courage and sacrifice that we celebrate from the peanut gallery. “This is a sport in which bravery can be measured by the amount of punishment one can withstand,” Mr. Dixon tells us. Meanwhile, in the ring, “bravery” is a surefire prescription for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a deterioration of the brain caused by repeated head trauma.

A veteran boxing journalist in the U.S. and England, Mr. Dixon tackles his subject with great compassion. He interviews neurologists, psychologists and overseers of the sport—managers, trainers and commissioners—but mostly he spends time with the fighters. Some are remarkably sanguine about the physical and mental toll they can see coming. “I’m on the back end, I know what it’s like,” says former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs, who is still fighting as he nears his 50thbirthday. “I know I’ve got something wrong with me, I know all these punches are going to eventually catch upto me, so I’m reading about CTE and I started taking CBD,” Mr. Briggs tells the author, referring to cannabidiol, the cannabis-derived compound. “I poured the [antidepressant] pills down the toilet the day I tried cannabis.”

Like lambs to the slaughter, boxers trudge on, only to wind up on “queer street.” The most notable example is Muhammad Ali. In his prime, Ali was known for his ability to slip punches and avoid punishment, but his career was long and brutal. He fought the best and toughest fighters. And, like nearly all boxers, he stayed in the ring too long. “Age thirty is the cusp,” Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s onetime fight doctor, is quoted saying. “Thirty-five is over the line. I don’t care how good you are, after age thirty-five you’re getting brain damage.” Ali had six fights after the age of 35; he lost three of them. The result may well have been Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s and other maladies—dementia; memory loss; the rapid deterioration of verbal skills and motor functions such as bowel control, breathing and walking—are all common results of CTE.

In the past, the image of the punch-drunk fighter was a source of humor and playful ridicule, on stage and on screen. Mr. Dixon cites the example of “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, a light-heavyweight from the 1930s who had 298 professional fights. Following his boxing career, he became a comic actor in movies and on television, where he lampooned the tortured speech patterns and lumbering mannerisms of a late-career palooka. But after generations of concussions, cerebral hemorrhaging and deaths in the ring, by the early 21st century the image of a brain-damaged boxer was no longer funny. Unlike Rosenbloom, most wound up in asylums, hospitals and sanitariums.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Why We Find Certain People More Attractive Than Others, According to Science

PG would not normally post an item that indicates by its title that it relies on “Science” but will make an exception in this case.

From Medium:

If I were to ask you what you find attractive, what would you say? Would you date someone shorter/much taller than you? Do you think you could fall in love with someone who is not your type?

I decided to look for meaningful connections with people instead of falling for looks, and it’s the best decision I ever made. The first message I received from my boyfriend on the online dating app was not the best introduction of all times. However, we did have a great conversation, and I liked his profile pictures. When we first met, I felt happy instantly. We had arranged to meet at a park on a beautiful sunny Sunday. He stood there with his bicycle and grinned at me. I liked his charisma, which radiated pure optimism and joy, which blew me away. After the first awkward seconds of saying hello, we had such a ball, laughing, giggling, and talking for five hours straight. In short: We hit it off right away.

Today, I love our conversations and his opinion on the many things I write about. Truth be told, he influences much of what I write and is an avid critic of my work. Also, I think he is the most handsome guy on this planet — seriously, he is awesome in any way imaginable. Just recently, I asked him what he thought when he saw me for the first time. His answer: I think I thought you were hot and easy to talk to.

Easy communication influences attractiveness

Although we had sent each other several messages beforehand, I couldn’t tell for sure from the photos whether I found him truly attractive. How could I? I didn’t know how old or new the photos were, whether he still had his hair like that, or whether he had gained or lost weight in the meantime. And, more importantly, I wanted to get to know the person behind the profile.

A study found that after a good in-person meeting, people find their future dates more attractive. With online dating platforms such as Tinder, users try to manage the vast number of profiles by picking the seemingly most attractive people. However, rating someone’s attractiveness by judging pictures is not the best way to find a partner. We can overlook crucial aspects such as what makes for a good conversation. The qualities of a good conversational partner influence how attractive they are in our eyes.

But not only smooth communication impact the attractiveness of our date, but also whether the person radiates certain security and commitment. While dating and throughout relationships, we want to know how our partner feels about us and know their intentions. This is why uncertainty, at least to some extent, is a relationship killer.

Being uncertain about love interests is devastating

Before we met for the first time, he told me that he could definitely commit to a relationship. Therefore, we both knew what we were getting into and what our intentions were. For me, it was not like additional pressure, but a kind of security, which I liked very much. So I knew that I was going to meet someone who cared about getting to know me. That was very important to me at that moment.

It’s exactly that sense of security we need, according to several studies. Furthermore, being unsure of a potential romantic partner’s interest in you could cause you to view them as less sexually appealing. Basically, since we are afraid of disappointment, we deceive ourselves into thinking that someone is less desirable. Because we want to know how much our date likes us — if someone doesn’t let us know how they feel, we are inclined to see that person as less attractive.

But it’s not just our fear of possible rejection that influences whether or not we find someone attractive, but also how often we see a person. Or, to put it another way: Proximity plays an integral role in who we find attractive.

Link to the rest at Medium

The OP includes several links to a website called Futurity, which PG had not encountered before. Futurity appears to cite at least some of its articles to individuals who say they are related to one university or another, e.g. “Algorithm Takes the Grunt Work Out of Quilting” – “Stanford” by a person who is apparently writing a doctoral dissertation for the Computer Science Department in the vicinity of Palo Alto.

PG has enough experience in his field to judge articles written by lawyers about legal issues, but claims no expertise with respect to quilting or computer science (although he’s not diametrically opposed or non-diametrically opposed to either field of endeavor (whatever winds your clock)).

Whenever PG reads an article like the OP, he is very grateful to have been married to Mrs. PG for a long time and hopes to remain in that state for a much longer time in the future.

Man Sues After Field Drug Test Says His Daughter’s Ashes Are Meth And Ecstasy

In keeping with the Anne Frank uproar described in the post immediately below this one.

From Above the Law:

Cops like cheap field drug tests. They don’t like them because they’re accurate. They like them because they’re cheap. And since you get what you pay for, they’re way cheaper (in the long run) then sending for a drug dog.

Field drug tests are probable cause at $2 a pop. They’re even more unreliable than drug dogs when it comes to correctly identifying drugs. That’s why some prosecutors — the nominal best friends of law enforcement — are refusing to accept plea deals for drug charges stemming solely from field drug tests.

Field drug tests have said donut crumbs, cotton candy, and honey are methamphetamines. They’ve said bird poop on a car’s hood (!!) and bog standard aspirin are cocaine. Whatever a cop imagines to be drugs can usually be “confirmed” by the test kits they carry with them. Once the vial says it’s drugs, the cops are free to search, seize, and arrest.

Cops don’t need to be this wrong about drugs. But there’s no penalty for being this wrong. So, it continues. Prosecutors may have to drop a few cases when the drug lab says the supposed drugs aren’t actual drugs, but plea deals tend to go into place before labs get around to testing the evidence. And that’s if the evidence even makes its way to a lab. Cops aren’t the best at paperwork, which is convenient when it’s their word against yours. Even if a cop gets sued for turning non-contraband into contraband and drug charges, they’re usually indemnified by the city they work for or granted qualified immunity for relying on what they thought was actual science.

. . . .

Newschannel 20 and FOX Illinois obtained new body camera video of the incident sparking Dartavius Barnes to sue the City of Springfield.

In the suit, Barnes claims his vehicle was unlawfully searched on April 6, 2020 when he was pulled over near Laurel and 16th Streets in Springfield.

He says officers placed him in handcuffs while they searched his vehicle without consent, valid warrant, or probable cause.

During the search, Barnes says officers took a sealed urn of his daughter’s ashes, unsealed it, opened it without consent, and spilled out the ashes.

If you think that’s terrible, just wait for the backstory. Barnes’ daughter Ta’Naja Jones was only two when she died. And she may have been killed. The girl’s mother and her current boyfriend were both arrested on murder charges.

The ultimate insult to Ta’Naja Jones and her father happened here. Ta’Naja Jones’ final resting place wasn’t in the urn Barnes kept in his car. It was in a field drug test that officers performed because they just couldn’t bring themselves to believe it might be the last remains of a loved one.

According to law enforcement’s favorite faulty test equipment, the ashes of Ta’Naja Jones were possibly ecstasy. And that conclusion was reached after the ashes failed to test positive for cocaine.

An officer presented the officer whose body camera was rolling with a narcotics test kit.

“I checked for cocaine, but it looks like it’s probably molly,” the officer said.

“X pills,” the other added, citing the street name for ecstasy.

In the end, the cops decided the ashes were a combination of meth and ecstasy because that’s how drug users carry their drugs: all mixed together in a single container. 

. . . .

Field drug tests allow cops to work backwards from their conclusions. If it doesn’t test positive for one drug, it’s probably some other drug. And if it doesn’t test positive for anything, it might still be drugs because sometimes drugs are carried in containers.

Link to the rest at Above the Law

The Literature of the Con: Great Books About Grifters and Swindlers

From CrimeReads:

Con men flourish in two diametrically opposite times—when the people have nothing and are desperate for anything that will raise them out of poverty; and when there is boundless plenty for the vast majority, when countries are newly awash with easy money, and there are countless newly rich men and women who can just as easily be separated from their money as they acquired it.

My book How To Kidnap The Rich is set in India, a country which is in both of these moments at once. For hundreds of millions of its very poorest, very lowest caste people, many former agricultural workers newly urbanised, every day can be a pitfall in being separated from their hard earned pittance of a salary by the army of hustlers, petty politicians, policemen, middle-men, holy men that prey on their hopes and dreams, and their precarious existence on the edge of poverty. For the few tens of millions of the upper middle class, India is the latter, where their incomes have grown tenfold since the 90s, and they fight now for the intangibles, for status, for culture, for art and experiences, and for that most important status good of all—their children’s educations.

Con men do very well in this newly rich India, and are often men from the first India looking to strike out a path in the second in search of their own wealth and escape from the strictures of a society that enforces social status with an iron fist.

Here is a list of my favourite books about hucksters, hustlers, con men big and small, desperate for their own piece of the action. You’ll notice how many of the books are set in mid-twentieth century America, a country which was the richest place that had ever existed in the history of the world, filled with newly rich citizens ripe for exploitation, ripe for crime, ripe for the taking, as well as an underclass, outlaws of wealth, race, gender, sexuality, who were cut off from social protections, social advancement, even social existence.

Huey Long, by T. Harry Williams

One of the quintessential political biographies, dazzlingly researched and written, about a figure who’d do as well in India today as he did in the America of the 1930s. A consummate liar, an abuser of mass media politics and showmanship, a political machine embezzler who used populism to break the old interests and replace them with his own. Long would tell diametrically opposed stories of his childhood to different audiences on the same day, and walk away with their votes. A genius at vote bank politics who produced a political machine that survived his death by 50 years. Williams shows that the best grifts are always the ones blessed outwardly by legality, inwardly by emotion, so much so that many Americans revere Long as a socialist genius long after all of his various tricks have been long exposed.

. . . .

The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

The quintessential American novel. Everything that can be said about it has—gender, class, sexuality, the meeting of the worlds Old and New. I’ve always read it with a nod to modern India—how does a person break out of a rigid social, educational and class system when every exit is barred? By stealing someone else’s life, it turns out, and being handsomely rewarded all the way. Many modern millennial novels, post-crash, post-2008, post-meritocracy, post-Obama, are clearly deeply influenced by it, but lack the playful and delightful immorality of Tom Ripley, as well as Highsmith’s trademark lack of judgement.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Talking About Censorship and Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

Can we talk?

In last week’s Publishers Weekly, I summarized the principles of “The Freedom to Read,” a statement essential to the ethical foundation of the library and publishing community since 1953. The statement did more than expound principles: It committed the signatories to fight for them.

Today this commitment is being questioned by people within the library and publishing communities. Many do not believe that publishers should release books that express dangerous ideas or books that are written by bad people. They reject the idea that the best answer to a bad book is a good one.

How are we to resolve these differences? So far, there have been Twitter debates. Petitions have been circulated. There has been a lot of talk about harmful books, but much less about how demands for suppression conflict with the commitment to publish a broad range of ideas. There has been little dialogue and almost no give-and-take. Yet there is strong evidence that conversation works, if not to fully resolve differences at least to build greater interpersonal understanding and lower the temperature of conflict, opening the way to further communication.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has some experience in this area. In 2017, building on groundwork by the American Booksellers Association, we launched a pilot program, the Open Discussion Project, that sought to bring liberals and conservatives together in independent bookstores to discuss the issues that divide them. This seems even more foolhardy today than it was four years ago, but we did our homework. We learned that political polarization was not new. Researchers had identified the problem in the 1970s, and nonprofits have been trying to find a solution ever since.

There were some encouraging results from experiments with groups that were small enough to let the members get to know one another. They developed empathy, making it possible for them to discuss their differences.

. . . .

(T)wo of the stores continue to hold meetings and others are considering restarting their groups. The Bipartisan Book Club, which began at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., includes liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Now operated by its members, the club meets every six weeks to discuss books that present different perspectives. The topics include policing, gender identity, social cohesion, capitalism, antifa, and diversity.

More evidence of success is the response to Nadine Strossen’s book Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. As the president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008 and a prominent defender of civil liberties, Strossen has always had a busy speaking schedule. But between the publication of her book in May 2018 and the beginning of the pandemic, she made more than 300 appearances, mostly to talk about hate speech.

Though Strossen often speaks to junior high and high school students, many of her events were on college campuses where activists were organizing against racism. Instead of fearing the wrath of students, she urged those who had invited her to actively reach out to students who disagree with her. Many did attend speeches and rejected her argument that restrictions on hate speech are ineffective, but other students were convinced by her argument that the best way to fight hate is to continue to organize and protest against it.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG agrees that social media certainly has its benefits and many people enjoy using it, he will observe that Twitter debates are but one evidence that this form of communication has its limits.

Human nature plays a role as well. One can demonize an effectively anonymous opponent online with much less concern about the consequences of a backlash than if one seriously antagonizes a next-door neighbor with verbal abuse. Drive-by verbal violence works much better online than in meatspace.

Evolution Gone Wrong

From The Wall Street Journal:

In Voltaire’s “Candide,” the protagonist’s servant asks his master to explain the meaning of optimism. To which his master replies: “It is the mania for insisting that all is well when all is by no means well.” There is perhaps no more perfect description of the human condition, as all is manifestly not well. How could it be? From the moment of our inception, a silent biological clock begins the countdown to the end of our existence. Our genome contrives to mutate itself into a smorgasbord of potential pathologies, each capable of corrupting and unraveling us. We respond with attempts to medicate and therapize ourselves, to correct the built-in flaws and shining imperfections that make us so irresistibly human.

In Alex Bezzerides’s entertaining “Evolution Gone Wrong: The Curious Reasons Why Our Bodies Work (or Don’t),” the author’s quest is to determine the origins of the “aches and pains of the masses and why they happen”—not the mechanical causes of our maladies but the evolutionary ones. The explanation, Mr. Bezzerides concludes, may be found in our anatomical shortcomings—“trade-offs” made during our continuing evolutionary history. The result is that even healthy bodies operate at the edge of acceptable performance, while also being prone to fail in predictable ways.

The catalog of human fallibilities that Mr. Bezzerides assembles begins with an account of our suboptimal dentition. For many individuals, the textbook display of 32 neatly arrayed teeth, systematically configured to produce a perfect Hollywood smile, is at best hopeful and more frequently fictional. Reality more typically involves a procession of braces, extractions and eccentric protrusions. So why don’t our teeth fit into our mouths?

The answer, according to Mr. Bezzerides, is that four million years ago our ancestors transitioned from a fruit- and leaves-based diet to one of grasses and sedges. Their molars ballooned out to gargantuan proportions, which was not at first problematic, since their substantive jaws readily accommodated the newly enlarged teeth. But as humans controlled fire, learned to cook, became cooperative, and developed hunting techniques and an accompanying armamentarium of cutting implements, the requirement for robust dentition diminished. We were nevertheless stuck with the legacy of “a mouth full of large teeth.” Jaw and tooth size subsequently began to decrease, yet the distinct genetic programs controlling each led to a disconnect between their relative rates of reduction. While the human jaw enthusiastically embraced its “great shrink,” tooth-size reduction struggled to keep up. Hence the modern tooth-jaw mismatch.

Our imperfectly functioning eyes suffer similarly from constraints imposed by our distant evolutionary history. More than half of European adults have visual defects, while a quarter of U.S. children require visual correction. The problem, according to Mr. Bezzerides, is that the eyes of our vertebrate ancestors evolved to function underwater. When vertebrates first moved onto land 375 million years ago, their eyes had already existed for more than 100 million years. The reconfiguration of such established biological hardware was not trivial, leaving us with short-sightedness and a range of oddities, including the need to blink up to 14,000 times a day while deploying a Coke can full of lubricating tears.

Our evolutionary history may also have impacted our ability to perceive color. The nocturnal nature of the species predating the evolution of mammals may have led to a reduction in the number of photoreceptor types enabling human color perception. While many fish, reptiles and birds perceive color using four types of photoreceptors, we make do with three. As a result, the humble gecko perceives the world in up to a magnificent 100 million shades of technicolor, while we are limited to no more than one million.

Other aspects of visual performance also appear to have been affected by our evolutionary history. Unlike the eyes of the honeybee, the human eye filters out ultraviolet light—most likely to prevent DNA damage—making the bees’ nectar-guides invisible to us. Intriguingly, Mr. Bezzerides speculates that the late works of Claude Monet may have been influenced by the artist’s likely newfound ability to perceive ultraviolet light following cataract surgery at the age of 82.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

While not an expert in evolutionary biology, PG suggests that evolution develops various capabilities of living things to a “good enough” standard.

While a perfect set of teeth by 21st century aesthetic standards in some cultures may require braces, etc., a less-aligned set of teeth that we receive at birth may do a perfectly fine job of their principal purpose in our lives, masticating our food so our bodies can properly digest it. In PG’s understanding, evolution tends to work to a “good enough” standard rather than some subjective standard established by groups of humans.

If future humans are unable to find mates due to a lack of cosmetically-preferred dentation, perhaps evolution will then step in and, over several centuries, put orthodontists out of business.

Likewise, if three types of photoreceptors allow humans to find where they need to go and avoid danger, they’re good enough to permit humans to survive and thrive. While being able to perceive 100 million shades of technicolor might be fun, is such perception necessary for human life to continue?

Additionally, what percentage of the gecko’s brain is devoted to processing these 99 million additional colors? Might that that be one reason why the Theory of Relativity was discovered by a human and not a lizard?

Types of Intuition

From The London Review of Books:

The​ philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly after the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then left Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.

Another philosopher, when I told him this story, commented drily that what it showed was that Hampshire was a very poor choice for the assignment. But I tell it here not in order to determine whether Hampshire did the right thing in failing to lie to the prisoner in these circumstances. I offer it as a real-life example of the force of a certain type of immediate moral reaction. Even those who think that Hampshire should, for powerful instrumental reasons, have made a false promise of life to this man facing certain death can feel the force of the barrier that presented itself to Hampshire. It is an example of the sort of moral gut reaction that figures prominently in the recent literature of empirical moral psychology. I assume that a scan of Hampshire’s brain at the time would have revealed heightened activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Much intellectual effort has gone into the delineation of the protective boundaries around people that ordinary morality says we must not cross. Usually the examples designed to call forth our intuitions are more artificial than this one – as in the famous trolley problem. But the phenomenon is real, and an inescapable part of human morality. I am interested in the question of how to decide what authority to give to these moral judgments, or perceptions, or intuitions – what kind of thinking can lead us either to affirm them as correct and fundamental, or to detach from them so that we come to regard them as mere appearances without practical validity – or alternatively perhaps to step back from them but nevertheless allow them some influence in our lives that is not fundamental but is derived from other values. This problem has been around for a long time, and much of what I say about it will be familiar. But recent discussion prompts another look.

It is a question of moral epistemology: not the kind of epistemological question posed when we consider how to respond to a general scepticism about morality, or about value, but an epistemological question internal to moral thought. There is a venerable tradition of scepticism about whether any moral judgments, or the intuitions that support them, can be regarded as correct or incorrect, rather than as mere feelings of a special kind that we express in the language of morality. I am not going to enter into that larger debate here. I will proceed on the assumption that it makes sense to try to discover what is really right and wrong, and that moral intuitions provide prima facie evidence in this inquiry. The problem I want to discuss arises because, for some of our most powerful intuitions, there are various possible explanations, both moral and causal, that would, if correct, undermine their claim to fundamental authority – the claim that those convictions should be taken at face value as perceptions of the moral truth. Challenges of this kind present us with the task of finding a way to conduct ourselves that is consistent with the best understanding of ourselves from outside – as biological, psychological, social or historical products.

The question has broad legal and political importance because in liberal constitutional regimes many of the rights and protections of the individual against the exercise of collective power appear initially as intuitive boundaries of this type. Freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association, sexual and reproductive freedoms, protections of privacy, prohibitions of torture and cruel punishment are all supported and in part identified by an immediate sense of what may and may not be done to people, a constraint that precedes cost-benefit calculations.

Even though it is possible to construct more or less plausible consequentialist justifications – justifications in terms of long-term costs and benefits – for strict legal rules embodying such protections, that is not the moral aspect under which they immediately present themselves. The violation of an individual right seems wrong in itself, and not merely as the transgression of a socially valuable strict general rule. The question is whether this is an illusion – a natural illusion built into our moral psychology. Though Hampshire’s uncrossable boundary arose in the context of an individual decision, it feels similar to the boundary which bars the state from employing torture to get information, even against its enemies and for reasons of national security. And as we have seen in our own time, the bar against torture is not uncontested.

. . . .

John Rawls gave the name ‘reflective equilibrium’ to the process of putting one’s moral thoughts in order by testing general principles against considered judgments about particular cases, and adjusting both until they fit more or less comfortably together. The process does not treat particular judgments as unrevisable givens, or general principles as self-evident axioms, so it need not be conservative: it can lead to radical revision of some of the considered judgments with which one begins. But it must take intuitive value judgments as starting points, and in order to dismiss some of those judgments as mistaken, it must rely on others – just as we must rely on perceptual evidence when dismissing some perceptual appearances as illusions. I think there is no alternative to this method for pursuing answers to moral questions in which we can maintain some confidence, even in the face of disagreement.

. . . .

Here are the familiar features of ordinary moral thought that give rise to our problem. We evaluate many different kinds of thing, but important among them are states of affairs or outcomes, on the one hand, and actions or policies, on the other. To evaluate states of affairs we use the concepts of good and bad, better and worse. To evaluate actions we use in addition the concepts of right and wrong. The classical problem is whether there is an independent aspect of morality governing the rightness and wrongness of acts and policies – either of individuals or of institutions – or whether the only truly fundamental values are good and bad, so that standards of right and wrong must be explained instrumentally, by identifying the types of actions and policies that lead to good and bad outcomes. The latter possibility was given the name ‘consequentialism’ by Elizabeth Anscombe, and its best-known version is utilitarianism. The opposite view, that the right is at least in some respects independent of the good, doesn’t have a name, but the principles that it identifies are usually called ‘deontological’ – an ugly word, but we seem to be stuck with it. Deontological principles say that whether an act is morally permitted, prohibited or required often depends not on the goodness or badness of its overall consequences but on intrinsic features of the act itself. In a case like Hampshire’s, the calculation of probable consequences is clearly in favour of lying to the prisoner, so if it would be wrong to do so, that would have to be for some other reason.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

What Does Your Vacation Smell Like?

PG thought this might contribute to a useful writing prompt.

From The Wall Street Journal:

RARELY do we go rummaging through our brain’s olfactory files for reminders of an impressive vacation. But this is a great time to give a workout to what chef Marcus Samuelsson calls our “smell muscle,” using our sense of smell to experience more of the world. You’re sure to get your heart pumping.

Emerging from the cocoon we were unceremoniously stuffed into a year ago, many of us are starting to dream of returning to a favorite place—a beloved getaway spot that has been frustratingly off-limits for the past 14 months. While photos or particularly vivid TV shows might conjure the image of those out-of-reach destinations, they can’t reproduce the feeling of being there. “When we smell things we are directly experiencing little bits of that place, the materials that make up that place,” said author Harold McGee, whose most recent book, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide To The World’s Smells,” came out in the fall. The aroma of the place is perhaps the only experience we can’t transport as a souvenir.

. . . .

Not that it hasn’t been tried. Versions of Smell-O-Vision or Scentovision, a system that transmits smells during films or television shows, first wafted onto the scene in the 1960s after Swiss scientist Hans Laube introduced it in 1939 at the World’s Fair. “It didn’t work,” said Mr. McGee, but hold tight for another decade or so and we’ll be able to visit India and share the smell experience when we return home, he predicted. Until then, we asked Mr. McGee as well as six other professionals for whom scent plays an important role to share the aromas that evoke their strongest memories of places they’re eager to sniff once again.

. . . .

Harold McGee

Author, food scientist

“I live in San Francisco and we’ll often go on a driving trip up the coast to Mendocino. I smell the ocean and the redwoods. The redwood forests have a particular smell—moist, evergreen, woody,” said Mr. McGee, adding that the bark on the massive trees tends to be flaky, which may contribute to the aroma. Other indelible scent memories are less agreeable. “I love visiting New York, Paris and London. I think of the smell of the subways,” said Mr. McGee. “In Paris, the subways have rubber wheels, and that may be what gives it its distinct smell. The London subways are deep underground. You feel the stifle of air. In New York, walking along the streets you pass the subway grates, you smell the subway more than the street. Not always pleasant.”

. . . .

Marcus Samuelsson

Chef and owner of Red Rooster and Marcus restaurants

“Pre-pandemic I’d take my son to Ethiopia. We’d visit the markets in Addis Ababa,” said Mr. Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia. “There’s a sound in the markets, and there’s a smell….of spices, of berbere [a traditional blend of chile peppers, coriander, ginger, garlic, basil, among other spices]. In Sweden, where I grew up in a fishing village, you can smell the ocean for miles and the fish in the smokehouses. In late summer to early fall I’d go foraging with my uncles. Going into the woods and pulling up lingonberries, blueberries, mushrooms—these memories for me are all about smell.”

. . . .

Denise Porcaro

Floral designer and owner of New York City’s Flower Girl

“Whenever I think of Europe I think of the lemon trees and orange blossoms,” said Ms. Porcaro. “Driving along the Amalfi coast the smell is citrusy, soft and powdery.” The fragrance is reminiscent not only of a place for her, she said, but a time: summer.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

New York’s Hyphenated History

From The Paris Review:

In the midst of an unusually hot New York City spring in 1945, Chief Magistrate Henry H. Curran was riding the metro downtown to a meeting at City Hall. Curran, the former commissioner of immigration at the Port of New York, and former president of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, had forgotten to bring his copy of the paper that morning. As a result, he found himself reading the various ads surrounding him on the colorful New York City subway.

Curran tried to focus on different advertisements to distract himself from the heat, and from his growing restlessness. Until, that is, one particular ad seized his attention. It was an ad for the “New-York Historical Society.” Innocuous enough at first, it was the tiny piece of orthography that caught Curran’s eye and sent a wave of heat through his body. Was that—could that be a hyphen? Sitting unabashedly between the words New and York? The anti-hyphenate politician was furious.

Curran swiftly exited the subway, marched into City Hall, and got his friend Newbold Morris, president of the New York City Council, on the phone. Later that week, the New York WorldTelegram—oh, the irony of the hyphen placement in the publication that reported the incident—documented the conversation between Morris and Curran.

“This thing—this hyphen—is like a gremlin which sneaks around in the dark … you should call a special meeting of City Council immediately and have a surgical operation on it! We won’t be hyphenated by anyone!” Curran reportedly said to Morris.

What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The NewYork Times until the late 1890s.

It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.

Curran was no exception to the wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia sweeping the nation at the time of Roosevelt’s speech and in the lead-up to World Wars I and II. During his time as commissioner of immigration, he penned a famous article that appeared in the recently unhyphenated New York Times entitled, “The Commissioner of Immigration Shows How He Is Hampered.” The essay was Curran’s response to outrage over the deportation of an immigrant mother who had arrived at Ellis Island with her young children, only to be sent back “home” while her children were to remain in the U.S. In the piece, Curran called for the public to afford the judges of such decisions “sympathy more than censure.”

Writing in 1924, several years after Roosevelt’s speech, Curran accused New York society of being overly judgmental, noting that “it is Ellis Island that catches the devil whenever a decision comes along that does not suit somebody. Of course, we are now in the midst of the open season for attacks on Ellis Island. We have usurped the place of the sea serpent and hay fever. We are ready to be roasted.” For the next twelve years he served as commissioner of immigration, Curran became more staunchly anti-immigrant, and his hatred was fueled by the anti–hyphenated Americanism espoused by people like Roosevelt and, later, Woodrow Wilson.

Curran was outraged that his beloved city would appear hyphenated, and he continually insisted that Morris call a meeting to pass a law that barred the use of a hyphen in New York. Meanwhile, curators, historians, and librarians banded together with antidiscrimination and immigrants’ rights defenders to defend a hyphenated New-York. Curran could not win this time, they insisted. The curators and librarians at the Historical Society bravely stood by the hyphen in their name, confirming that they had been founded in 1804, that the hyphen was in the original configuration of New-York, and that, no, this hyphen would not be erased. Hyphenated Americans and activists throughout New York City worried that this erasure would signal that they would not be welcome in the one city that was supposed to be a bastion of openness in America.

In the days leading up to the meeting, head librarian Dorothy Barch proclaimed that despite all of their research, no one had found any documentation indicating that the hyphen in New-York had ever been officially deleted by the government or any lawmaking body in the city, state, or country. The day before the meeting, curator Donald A. Shelley declared that they couldn’t even change their name if they wanted to because it is “chiseled in stone on the front of our building.”

The press and the pressure to enact an anti-hyphenation law were mounting in the lead-up to the meeting. Curran insisted that the hyphen was a scourge and that it should be erased completely, as it threatened to divide American society. In erasing the hyphen, Curran wanted to delete hyphenated Americanism altogether. He was firm: the hyphen divides, and as a divider, it threatened the future of the city, the state, the country. As he had done in his role as commissioner of immigration, he felt strongly that any immigrant or child of immigrants who identified as anything other than an American should be returned to whatever country was on the other side of that “filthy hyphen.” As such, he was emphatic in his attempt to whip the votes of his fellow council members in the lead up to the meeting.

All of this activity garnered a range of emotional reactions. Some people felt that this anger and energy, coming amid World War II, was misplaced. The upcoming meeting became the subject of mockery for artists and social commentators alike. At the meeting, a group of musicians and composers performed a song they had written entitled “The Hyphen-Song.” The words, written by popular songwriter Leonard Whitcup, included:

Take a boy like me, dear

Take the girl I’m dreaming of—

Add a hyphen, what’ve you got?

You gotUMMyou’ve got love!

Me without youyou without me

It’s a sad affair—

But take a tip from the hyphen—

And baby we’ll get somewhere

The musicians performed to great acclaim. Activists gathered outside, tying ribbons to the stone etching of the hyphen to highlight the need to protect the orthographic mark that suddenly had so many political and social reverberations.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Confidence Men

From The Wall Street Journal:

Tales of spunky prisoners of war suffering horrifying privation or outfoxing their sadistic or imbecilic captors are a staple of military history and the movies. John McCain devotes much of his Vietnam memoir “Faith of My Fathers” to his ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, and “Stalag 17,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape” and “Unbroken” are great films. Fact or fiction, few of them can match the latest entry in the genre for screwball comedy.

Margalit Fox’s “The Confidence Men” tells the tale of two Allied officers captured by the Turks during World War I who escaped their remote prison camp by pulling an ingenious and elaborate spiritualist con on the camp’s greedy commandant. A onetime writer of obituaries for the New York Times and the author of three other books, Ms. Fox brings a deadpan touch to her story.

Close your eyes and you can picture the young Sean Connery and Michael Caine of “The Man Who Would Be King” playing the two leads in a film based on the book. The impresario of the bizarre escape plan was Elias Henry Jones, 33, an Oxford-educated barrister and onetime magistrate in Burma during the British Raj. The son of a Welsh lord, Jones, a second lieutenant in the Indian Army Reserve, was captured after the disastrous siege of Kūt-al-‘Amāra, in what is now Iraq, in April 1916. His accomplice was Cedric Waters Hill, just 25, an Australian mechanic who became a pilot and just happened to be a skillful amateur sleight-of-hand artist.

After a hideous 62-day trek with other POWs covering nearly 2,000 miles, Jones was deposited in the Yozgat camp, a cluster of repurposed buildings in a small village in remote Anatolia, “the Alcatraz of its day.” Hill showed up not long after. The camp was commanded by Kiazim Bey, an aging autocrat who lived in fear of his prisoners escaping. His young aide-de-camp and translator was Moïse Eskenazi, a diminutive, officious Ottoman Jewish soldier, known to the prisoners as “the Pimple.” The British officers endured quarters crawling with vermin and choked down rotten food, but they were an enterprising lot. They formed an orchestra, gave lectures, held classes and staged entertainments. Jones fashioned a Ouija board from scrap, and using an inverted glass as a planchette, began giving mock readings for his fellow captives—the inspiration for his escape plot.

“The Confidence Men” is essentially a shaggy-dog thriller, so a tick-tock of their intricate scam with its twists and turns and near-disasters would cheat the reader. But it won’t spoil anything to report that their scheme involved a half-dozen spirits “summoned” by Jones surreptitiously manipulating the board, the chief of whom was “the Spook.” There was also a fiendishly complicated mind-reading act based on a memorized system of word clues relayed by the stooge to the sham mentalist. And a code using Welsh words to fool the Turkish censors while communicating with family back in Britain. Plus “trance-talking”—when the Ouija board was unavailable—not to mention the “Telechronistic Ray,” the “Four Cardinal Point Receiver,” a staged double hanging, and six months of feigned madness in a Turkish hospital.

All of this was in service of Jones and Hill’s long con—persuading Kiazim and the Pimple that the Spook could lead them to a treasure worth millions buried near Yozgat by a rich Armenian before he was slaughtered in the genocide. Speaking through the supposedly entranced Jones, the imperious Spook manipulated the commandant and his flunky so that they eagerly facilitated the wily prisoners’ lurch for freedom.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Why the tailored suit — not ruffles and lace — became synonymous with power

From The Washington Post:

On the subject of fashion, men have been quite the sly devils over the years. They’ve used fashion to enhance their authority and elevate their stature, all while communicating a message of elegant refusal. Generations of men would have the culture believe that they’re far too preoccupied with business, government, technology and other so-called serious pursuits to involve themselves with the flourishes of fashion. In their repetitive dress code of tailored suits, khaki trousers and golf shirts, they send the message that they’ve renounced superficiality and frivolousness as beneath their gender’s dignity.

Fashion, and all of its precious silliness, is left to the ladies. And this masculine dress code has served men well.

Centuries have gone into the making of these rules and assumptions — and a bit of sleight of hand, as well. Men were not always inclined toward minimalism. For a good portion of human history, they were flamboyant in their dress, prone to peacocking their social rank, financial success and sexual prowess from 100 paces. They wore bold colors and luxurious silhouettes and shimmering fabrics. But then, in the late 18th century, over the course of about three decades, “men throughout Europe abandoned the styles that had signified wealth and power for centuries,” writes Richard Thompson Ford in “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.” “In their place, elite men adopted the sober, self-abnegating garb anticipated by Thomas More in ‘Utopia’ and first favored by religious Puritans: simple wool and linen in sober hues of dark blue, brown, gray, and black.” This was later described as the “Great Masculine Renunciation,” and it’s a constant theme in Ford’s thoughtful history of the rules and rituals of attire.

. . . .

Ford isn’t a fashion historian but rather a professor at Stanford Law School. As such, he doesn’t wallow in the minutiae of Savile Row tailoring or wander into the weeds of Seventh Avenue personalities. Instead, he has a lawyer’s eye for the ways in which legislation and common law have helped shape attitudes about fashion, along with a fan’s sustained curiosity about fashion’s visual language.

Ford’s most memorable brush with sartorial fame, he writes, was when he entered Esquire’s 2009 competition for the magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man. Ford didn’t win — he didn’t even make the cut for the free trip to New York — but the experience forced him to consider how he dressed and why.

We choose our clothes for a host of reasons: comfort, appropriateness, self-expression, tradition. Our wardrobe is also filled with coded messages about power, wealth and status. Ford explores the ways in which our laws and traditions have dictated dress — and how those rules serve to maintain order. There was a time when only women of questionable morals wore earrings. Black men and women were kept at the bottom of the social hierarchy by codes that dictated the degree to which they could indulge in finery — and woe to those who were perceived to be dressing above their station. It was often only on churchgoing Sundays that these men and women were allowed to wear their best.

But fashion is perhaps at its most powerful when shaping our understanding, and misunderstanding, of gender. Legal battles have been fought over standards of attire that did not treat men and women equally. Women have lamented the “pink tax,” which reflects all the ways they are forced to pay a premium because of their gender, including the cost of their clothing and the upkeep of it. And fashion and gender are at the heart of a combustible conversation about individual identity and the room that this country makes for the full expression of it.

. . . .

Historically, men and women could be punished for wearing clothes that didn’t adhere to the gender rules of the day. Ford quotes a local ordinance, passed in 1848 in Columbus, Ohio, that spelled things out. “No person shall appear upon any public street or other public place in a state of nudity or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.”

San Francisco passed a similar decree in 1863: “If any person shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, he should be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall . . . pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars.”

. . . .

“The Great Masculine Renunciation overturned the symbols of status, sex, and political power established in the late Middle Ages and created a new sartorial vocabulary for the expression of individual personality. It made understatement into a new kind of status symbol, which required savoir faire as well as ready cash to exhibit,” Ford writes. “And, because it was a masculine phenomenon, it excluded women who sought power and status.”

This transformation created layers of contradictions and countless hurdles for anyone who wasn’t fluent in this new, subtle language. It’s why Ford sees prudence in historically Black colleges and universities, such as Morehouse, proactively emphasizing the nuances of establishment professional dress — if only to ensure that students fully understand the norms they may wish to eschew. This sartorial shift also makes plain the challenges that women in power continue to face. Feminine dress codes — bright colors, decoration, vivacity — have long been seen as the attire of the powerless.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG believes he still has a couple of lawyer suits in his closet, but is a bit dubious about whether they can still contain his impressive body.

He enjoyed wearing suits when he was young, just out of college and making enough money so he could purchase fashionably designed (for the era) suits that hugged his then-trim body. Besides, his first couple of employers required suits.

After law school, he was in Southern California where suits were costumes one put on when necessary, but not what reasonable people wore to do brain work. That attitude stayed with PG long after he left places where winter forgot to happen. To this day, he wears suits when the occasion requires him to do so, but not otherwise.

The Great Covid Sheltering-in-Place creation of a Nation (World?) of Hermits has meant that no suit occasions have arisen in a very long time, so PG isn’t certain what the new normal will be moving forward.

Perhaps Amazon will offer a one-piece suit costume with a long zipper that PG can use to pass muster, at least in poorly-lit places.

There Plant Eyes

From The Wall Street Journal:

A gospel soloist belted it outside a Brooklyn firehouse on the evening of September 11, 2001. President Obama crooned his own a cappella version after the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. And in my own childhood Baptist church “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most famous Christian hymn, was a touchstone: We’d sing it as a Sunday morning benediction, men on the first verse, women on the second, the pipe organ’s tremolos on the third, and the entire congregation bringing it home, full-throated, on the fourth.

I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see. It’s just this sanctified conception of blindness that M. Leona Godin skewers in her elegant, fiercely argued “There Plant Eyes,” a cultural history of blindness seasoned with bits of autobiography. (The title is plucked from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a hint to the book’s playful erudition.) Ms. Godin’s eyesight began to deteriorate in adolescence, and she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually worsened to blindness in adulthood. But as she declares in her Introduction, her condition defies a strict binary: “Blindness and sight—as well as their analogs darkness and light—constitute, in the Western imagination, a fundamental dichotomy, but that has not been my experience and is not the experience of most blind people . . . I, too, now that I am blind, find that I do not live in darkness. Rather, I am bombarded with light. The constant, hallucinogenic, pulsating pixelated snow-fuzz that is the remainder of my vision actually keeps me from experiencing the blackness of night.” The plurality of blindness will be our compass as she guides us though her book.

A native of San Francisco, Ms. Godin dropped out of high school only to circle back to education via a community college, then the University of California at Santa Cruz, followed by a doctoral program at New York University. Sixteenth and 17-century English literature fired her imagination. While a graduate student she taught a course called “Conversations of the West,” and the most intriguing sections in “There Plant Eyes” form a kind of seminar, close readings of texts through the prism of blindness: Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Milton. Ms. Godin targets the blind seer, such as the archetypal Tiresias, whose disability gives him a sixth sense, almost a clairvoyance, echoed in the eye-gouged characters of Oedipus and Shakespeare’s Gloucester, and later in the reverence for John Milton, who composed epics in his head and then dictated to a scribe. To Ms. Godin’s dismay outer blindness always yields inner revelation: “It is better to see (understand) metaphorically than to see physically (with one’s eyes), just as it is better to tend to the soul rather than to the body.” This trope, old as the Greeks, was later adopted by Christianity, exalting the blind as vessels of purity and wisdom, God’s mouthpieces on earth, and in Ms. Godin’s view, stripping them of their humanity, and embedding a falsehood within one of the most enduring metaphors for truth.

The scientific revolution changed all that, as experiment began to displace religion’s authority over knowledge; eye “prostheses” such as the microscope and Galileo’s telescope opened up invisible worlds and the mysteries of our solar system. Ms. Godin is particularly strong here, from Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”—which swaps perspectives between Lilliputians and giants—to the French philosophes. She calls our attention to a passage in which Denis Diderot imagines the blind mathematician Nicholas Saunderson sternly rebuking a clergyman who insists Saunderson himself is a sort of divine miracle: “I am astounded by Diderot’s intuition here. Every blind person I know has been gawked at and congratulated for the silliest things—hearing a smile in a voice, recognizing by feel the turn in a road, getting one’s fork into the mouth—that, although he created Saunderson’s response out of his imagination, it feels very authentic. The sighted tend to admire the blind for things that are not at all marvelous to us.”

The author’s dry wit runs throughout “There Plant Eyes.” We sense the influence of weighty critics such as Harold Bloom, but Ms. Godin leavens her narrative with pop-culture references: “Bloom was not, like me, weaned on David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.” Her anecdotes sparkle: a sidebar on Eleanor Brown, the first blind American woman to earn her Ph.D.; a paean to the transformative Louis Braille; a little-known account of Helen Keller’s midlife stint in vaudeville. There is a tutorial on the ubiquitous white-colored walking stick, which originated in England a century ago, its tap-tap-taps later codified as the “Hoover Method” by a World War II rehab specialist.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Indispensables

From The Wall Street Journal:

The military historian Patrick O’Donnell is known for his books on 20th-century elite units, including “First SEALs.” In “The Indispensables,” his second foray into the American Revolution, he does for the soldier-mariners of Marblehead, Mass., what he earlier accomplished for the Continental Army’s First Maryland Regiment in “Washington’s Immortals.” Readers who have enjoyed Mr. O’Donnell’s earlier books will not be disappointed with this one, his 12th.

The climax of Mr. O’Donnell’s novel-like account unfolds on Christmas night, 1776, when the “weathered, salty” men of the Marblehead Regiment—many of them veterans of the French and Indian War—rowed George Washington, his 2,400 troops and their artillery across the “fast-flowing, ice chunk-filled” Delaware River. By facilitating the Continental Army’s surprise attack on Hessian and British forces at Trenton, N.J., they turned the tide of the war. Washington is typically the focal point of that momentous scene, as he is in Emanuel Leutze’s painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” But Mr. O’Donnell’s gaze remains fixed on the valiant men who delivered him.

The author begins their story on the Atlantic Ocean in 1769, off Massachussetts’ Cape Ann, where the Royal Navy has stopped the Pitt Packet. Boarding the Marblehead-based brig under pretense of searching for contraband, a British press-gang is instead intent on kidnapping colonists and compelling them into service for Britain. The American sailors are not fooled. Mayhem ensues. One of the Marbleheaders, Michael Corbett, hurls “his harpoon with the practiced skill of an experience mariner,” impaling and instantly killing Henry Panton, a British lieutenant. Corbett, writes Mr. O’Donnell, was one of the first to offer “deadly defiance against the Crown.” He epitomizes the sea-hardened men of Marblehead.

Not all Marbleheaders were as obscure as Corbett. Elbridge Gerry, an “ardent abolitionist” and the “intellectual mainspring behind Marblehead’s revolutionary movement,” signed the Declaration of Independence and later became vice president under James Madison. (Today he is remembered mostly for the term “gerrymandering.”) John Glover, “short, scrappy, and tenacious,” was commander of the Marblehead Regiment and instrumental in forming Washington’s navy. Capt. John Manley—who captured the British brigantine Nancy, one of the war’s greatest prize ships—was celebrated in prose and song. Caleb Gibbs led Washington’s Life Guard, “a small, hand-picked, elite unit.” Nor were those associated with Marblehead all revolutionaries. We also meet the treacherous Dr. Benjamin Church, whose mistress lived in Marblehead, and the loyalist Ashley Bowen, a Marblehead sail-rigger and “prolific diarist” of the Revolution.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Imperialism: A Syllabus

From Public Books:

Opposition to imperialism unites the struggles of our times. From classrooms to city streets, it has never been more essential to engage with the continuing history of imperialism. The urgency of our imperial moment is at once fierce and everywhere to behold: in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements, opposition to heteropatriarchy, resistance against violent anti-Asian racism, global Black Lives Matter. While some would argue that empires are relics of the past, imperialism continues to shape our contemporary world.

Imperialism denotes the repertoires of power necessary for one entity to maintain control over subject territories and populations. Yesterday and today, the sharpest analyses of imperialism have come from those who have positioned themselves in opposition to empires, and so this syllabus—the product of a conversation between a historian of the United Kingdom and one of the United States—emphasizes approaches to empire that are anti-colonial. To borrow a formulation from the great anti-imperialist writer and intellectual Dionne Brand, no syllabus is neutral.

Many of imperialism’s critics have employed Marxism to explain the relationship between imperialism, capitalism, and racism. This makes sense, as Karl Marx was born into a world produced by imperialism and by resistance to it. His theory of history emphasized that human societies moved through progressive stages, and it was this framework that explained British dominance in India as a necessary transformation before a socialist revolution would be possible. V. I. Lenin argued that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism: as European finance capitalists extinguished internal markets, they sought consumers and raw materials outside Europe. As Lenin set to work on his influential pamphlet, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that Europe’s wealth derived “primarily from the darker nations of the world.” Eric Williams, the historian and the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, later pointed out that it was profits from Caribbean slavery that fueled the English industrial revolution. In Williams’s formulation, empire was not an outcome of capitalism, but created the foundations for it. Claudia Jones, meanwhile, centered gender and race in her theorizing of formal and informal imperialism. And Cedric Robinson, himself a chronicler of the Black radical tradition, contended that imperial expansion was an ultimate outcome of racial distinction and colonialism within Europe. To this day, thinkers working with Marx show how histories of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy are deeply intertwined with imperialism.

Empires are predicated on defining groups of people and distinguishing between them. In the Americas, the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the rise of chattel slavery demanded intricate distinctions of race and hierarchy. In maintaining racial order and perpetuating imperial power, white-supremacist ideologies were crucial. As Stuart Hall formulated, these ideologies of race operated on two registers: the biological and the cultural. From the dawn of transatlantic slavery, Europeans theorized human difference; many argued that the distinctions between races were based in the body. But racism could also operate on a cultural level, leading to distinctions of custom, habit, and tradition. And it is on these distinctions that modern imperialism depended in order to maintain rule.

By the late 19th century, European empires dominated the globe, but that dominance was increasingly challenged by colonial subjects. Dadabhai Naoroji, a wealthy merchant in India, argued that rather than benefiting Indians, British rule had drained India of its wealth. In England, C. L. R. James wrote about the importance of Haiti for Black anti-colonial resistance, while from the Caribbean Suzanne Césaire wrote about how racism and fascism were entangled in Europe. In China, Mao Zedong gave the peasantry pride of place in theorizing how imperialism might be undone. By the 1960s, campaigns for decolonization had transformed the political map, but Indigenous peoples throughout settler-colonial societies continued to contest the ongoing colonial relations between nation-states and what George Manuel called “the Fourth World.”

Today, struggles for decolonization occur within education, as well as in ongoing contestations for land, rights, and sovereignty. These struggles remind us that although we live in a world of nation-states, imperial relations continue to shape the operation of power. To recognize empire is to break the hold of the nation-state on our political imaginaries and take a necessary step toward a more just world.

. . . .

In the late 10th and early 11th century, the Persian poet Ferdowsi chronicled the mythical and historical kings of Persia and their encounters with neighboring empires. In Ferdowsi’s account, Sikander—or, as he is known in English, Alexander the Great—sought not only to conquer Persia, but to know it. Empire does not only entail the political subjugation of territory, but also requires the cultural incorporation of populations.

While we live in the aftermath of the European empires of the modern era, empires and imperialism are a much broader phenomenon in human history. Empires determine which places are deemed central and which places are marginal; for most of human history, the western end of the Eurasian landmass was insignificant compared to powerful imperial states that emerged and contended with each other elsewhere.

. . . .

One of modern imperialism’s foundational structures is settler colonialism. This entails, as George Manuel noted, Indigenous resistance to expropriation of land, denial of sovereignty, and attempted replacements of peoples and societies. Aspiring to Indigenous negation, settler colonialism is intertwined with other structures of power, such as capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and anti-Black racism.

This week’s readings offer two main points of emphasis. The first is that this settler form of colonialism unfolds in ongoing struggle with Indigenous peoples and knowledges. It is a structure, but one that needs to be constantly remade in response to Indigenous challenges to its totalizing project. These challenges occur in transnational registers and affinities, through Indigenous politics of refusal and resurgence, and through confrontation with imperial states and extractive economies. At the same time, Indigenous and settler struggles span multiple geographies, as we see in the colonial relations of transnational lives, in Pacific contextualizations of Māori identity, and in settler-colonial formations across Latin America, on the African continent, and in Israel and Palestine.

The second thematic emphasis this week is that while settler colonialism operates by its own logics, it isn’t a singular structure. Instead, it derives its power from its entanglement with other terms of racial, gendered, and place-based imperial order. By preparing the ground for already emergent forms of racial capitalism, and by facilitating the theft of Indigenous land while simultaneously constituting it as property, settler colonialism also reworks economic and racial relations. To challenge settler colonialism, then, is to take on an array of interlocking structures of power.

. . . .

In his video installation Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah meditates on the beauty and terror of the ocean, and the way the ocean has served as a site of human suffering, in the past and the present. Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved man who became an advocate for abolition, serves as a witness to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and its contemporary resonances in migrant voyages.

An Atlantic plantation complex, in which slaveholders and imperial states brutally exploited enslaved people to produce commodities for an expanding European market, propelled the growth of modern European empires. The first voyage recorded in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database occurred in 1520, between Portuguese Guinea and San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the time Haiti declared its independence as an abolitionist nation, in 1804, slavery stretched from Nova Scotia to Rió de la Plata. It would take 84 more years before Brazil would become the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery. In that time, enslavers forced over 12 million Africans to embark on transatlantic slave voyages. More than 1.5 million died before seeing the Americas.

The history of slavery is more than a history of numbers. The enslaved were forcibly transported but carried with them their beliefs, their culture, and their politics. In the Caribbean, enslaved Africans waged constant battle against their enslavers, drawing on ties of ethnicity and political allegiance from the African continent. The experience of slavery was gendered, and enslavers valued enslaved women both for their agricultural labor and their reproduction of an enslaved workforce. Gendered difference was a crucial component of the racial ideologies that emerged from and justified slavery. Gendered histories of slavery from around the Atlantic World expand our understandings of resistance and freedom.

Emancipation occurred across the Americas throughout the 19th century. However, imperial ideologies and economic exploitation continued to limit the freedom of Black communities around and beyond the Atlantic world. Black resistance pushed the question of abolition, both in gradual efforts in British North American colonies and in the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the first abolitionist state in the Americas. After the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, in 1807, discourses of humanitarianism propelled the creation of African colonies to resettle the formerly enslaved. In Jamaica, post-emancipation colonial governance revealed a question at the heart of imperial liberalism: Could the formerly enslaved be free moral subjects, or did they continue to require imperial protection? The racial ideologies that emerged in the post-emancipation moment shaped colonial accounts of Black political capacity well into the era of decolonization, and into our own.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG will comment only briefly.

The problem with imperialism as a topic is that it almost inevitably becomes entangled with Marxism and communism. In its 20th and 21st century instantiations, imperialism was principally a construct created by Marxists to serve as a perpetual enemy.

In terms of enslavement and exploitation of the less-powerful, PG posits that the Marxist/communist powers, large and small, of the last hundred years have engaged in far more enslavement and oppression of more people than any power that can be remotely described as imperialist.

Russia and its satellites have had a hundred years of communism. How did that work out? Is there anything good that can be said about Cuba? In terms of oppression of disfavored racial and ethnic groups, is there any place in western Europe or North America that compares to China?

Is there any political/economic means of organization that is perfect when viewed from the standpoint of perfect political freedom and meaningful economic opportunity for every single person?

No. PG tends to believe than none will appear in the near-term future.

One standard PG tends to apply is which direction are the emigrants/refugees flowing?

Are boat people escaping from Florida regularly picked up off the coast of Cuba? Are citizens of Colombia fleeing across the border into Bolivarian/Marxist Venezuela?

And are residents of Hong Kong are staying or leaving for Australia, Canada, the UK, the US and elsewhere? Is there any countervailing large flow of Australians into Hong Kong or China to start new lives there?

Undoubtedly, there are people who will declare that the UK, Australia, Canada and Columbia are imperialists. (PG has spent a lot of time in Florida and can’t claim to have encountered anyone that he could say remotely resembled an imperialist.)

But, on the good/evil scale, where do people want to live if they have any sort of choice on the subject?

University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal’

From BBC News:

More than 2,500 UK university staff have called for an investigation into the “scandal” of excessive pricing of academic e-books.

“Price rises are common, sudden and appear arbitrary” with some digital books increasing by 200%, they say in a letter to Education Committee MPs.

Organiser Johanna Anderson said some e-texts can cost 10 times print copies, with taxpayers and students the losers.

Publishers say the costs are due to the different formats and shared-use.

But Ms Anderson said the situation had become so financially serious for university libraries that it was time for MPs and competition authorities to hold publishers to account.

She cited the example of an economics book that costs £44 for a print copy but is £423 for a single e-book user and £500 for three users. An employment law book costs £50 for a hard copy, but is £1,600 for three users of the digital version.

In another case, a book on working in childcare is listed at £30 for a hard copy but online costs £1,045 for unlimited access for a year. “There are many, many more examples,” Ms Anderson said.

‘Learning suffers’

Prices have been rising for some time, but the University of Gloucestershire librarian said there were reports of increases during lockdown, when access to libraries and bookshops was restricted and getting course material difficult.

“It’s a scandal. It’s public money,” she said. “Students are shocked when I tell them just how much it costs to get them their texts.

“People just assume we can get books for the prices they see on Amazon and Kindle. It just doesn’t work like that for universities.

“The academic publishing business model is broken, and as you can see from the number of people who have signed the letter we think it is time for an investigation,” she said.

Lectures are increasingly having to be designed around what texts are available and affordable, not what is best for learning, Ms Anderson said.

Buying multiple copies of print books is not the answer and simply not practical in the digital age when so much is moving online, she added.

. . . .

Licensing, copyright, book-buying “middlemen” and a trend for publishers to “bundle up” access to books into one expensive package all play a role in what texts are available and at what cost. “In some cases, it’s like having to buy the whole of Waterstones to get access to a couple of books,” Ms Anderson said.

Librarians, lecturers, researchers and other representatives from almost every university in the UK have attached their names to the letter. It says:

  • A monopoly created by copyright law is the root cause of “these huge pricing differentials” and there is no justification for it
  • Earlier this year at least two well-known academic publishers raised the cost for a single-user e-book by 200% with no warning
  • Licences of e-books are often confusing and frequently restrictive
  • Publishers can withdraw e-book licences previously purchased by universities and enforce new ones.

Link to the rest at BBC News

PG notes The Bookseller had a similar story about librarians being upset at ebook pricing, but it was behind a paywall.

PG suggests that, especially for introductory classes, it’s foolish for colleges and their professors to have students purchase textbooks. A professor or group of professors can get together and select a set of materials that are either not subject to copyright or for which the author can provide permission to copy for academic purposes, have the campus bookstore or a local copy shop create copies and bind them at a low price. Student employees could handle the entire process.

Is Introduction to American Literature going to change from year to year? How about Biology 101? Introduction to Sociology? As PG has mentioned before, once he learned how little these books changed from year to year, he switched to used textbooks on an almost exclusive basis.

It’s a waste of money to have students purchase books from a commercial publisher which adds no or little value to the basics of the course.

At annual meetings of various groups of college professors, a general exchange of materials in digital form could take place. Or whatever association to which everyone belongs could host materials on a website available to its members for download.

Within a year or two, with professors fact-checking and correcting such publications, the academic publishers would withdraw with a huff or two.

Is Academic Research Too Hard To Read? The Academics Say Yes

From Publishing Perspectives:

It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory when so many have questioned so much scientific research. Almost any guidance from public health scientists today triggers questions and challenges from citizens exhausted by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. People who don’t know an mRNA vaccine from a shot of vodka are in researchers’ faces, while government health services are continually assailed for changing the protocols and contradicting their own precautions.

So it’s an interesting time, then, for the United Kingdom’s Emerald Publishing—a scholarly publisher working in health care and other fields—to have issued today (May 11) the results of a survey looking at researchers’ views of how academic research is currently presented and what it might take to boost its usability.

A total 1,500 academics in an international pool drawn from more than 100 countries were queried for this study, which is of importance to both researchers themselves, of course, and to consumers of research literature.

The researchers, needless to say, want their work to be accessible as well as discoverable.
Users—as those COVID-weary mask-wearers demonstrate—want science to produce its best work in an intelligible way.
“Overall,” according to Emerald’s spokespeople today in their media messaging on the topic, “the key insight from this research is that there’s a strong desire from the academic community to change the way research is presented to make it more useable in a post-COVID world.”

Does this mean, then, that the scientific community is now better at perceiving how their often critical work can be missed or misunderstood (or even purposefully mangled by political operatives) in time of crisis?

Sally Wilson, who heads up publishing at Emerald, says, “The pandemic has clearly accelerated the desire for research to make a difference and solve big, real world problems,” she says, “and has highlighted once again that academia’s culture and incentive structures need re-imagining.

“As publishers, we have a clear role to play working with other scholarly stakeholders, including funders, member organizations and higher education institutions, to highlight the barriers created by academia’s current incentive structures.”

Those incentives, she says, “value the publication of the traditional research article in ‘impact factor’ journals over the research output and content formats that move us beyond the article.

“While other content formats are not new and have been used by researchers to complement the journal article or book chapter, it’s still not as common in the less well-funded social sciences. We need to do our part in re-imagining content forms that appeal to the next generation of learners as well as those outside of academia.”

. . . .

  • Three in five academics say they believe research is difficult to use outside of academia
  • Some 45 percent of academics questioned say they agree that research papers are too long and 57 percent say they feel that research summaries could help to more effectively present findings to decision-makers outside of academia
  • An impressive 64 percent of academics surveyed say they believe there needs to be greater focus on real world experiences and “bringing the outside world in” more to improve the learning experience from academic research
  • An equally impressive 64 percent of academics asked say they believe that content forms such as videos, podcasts, and infographics could help when presenting research

. . . .

It turns out that only 30 percent of students generally read a full research article, the new study tells us, and 32 percent of those students say they’d like to see some videos, podcasts, and/or infographics used in presenting research to them.

. . . .

When looked at by geographical region, researchers in North America seem to have been the most put out with how research is currently presented, 33 percent saying it’s “very difficult” and 47 percent saying it’s “difficult” to use outside of  academia. But nowhere was anyone very happy with how research is put forward, with fewer than one in five respondents saying they think that presentation of research material is “easy” or “very easy” to be used outside the academy.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that what can be said about academic publishing in general also applies to academic publishing by legal scholars.

He doubts that traditional academic or scientific publishers are likely candidates to lead any sort of accessibility revolution. The reason is very simple – academic publishing is a very profitable business if you do it properly.

Large academic publishing conglomerates, Routledge, Springer, Elsevier, etc., etc. make very large sums of money from a wide range of obscure-sounding titles.

Here’s a list of some of Elsevier’s big-sellers:

  1. The Lancet
  2. The Cell
  3. Journal of the American College of Cardiology
  4. Biomaterials
  5. Neuroimage

The Lancet publishes dozens of journals, including:

  • The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology
  • The Lancet Digital Health
  • The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology
  • The Lancet Global Health
  • The Lancet Haematology
  • The Lancet Healthy Longevity
  • The Lancet HIV
  • The Lancet Infectious Diseases
  • The Lancet Microbe
  • The Lancet Healthy Longevity
  • The Lancet Neurology
  • The Lancet Oncology
  • The Lancet Planetary Health
  • The Lancet Psychiatry
  • The Lancet Public Health
  • The Lancet Respiratory Medicine

An annual subscription to The Lancet costs £181.00 GBP + applicable taxes.

An annual subscription to one of the sub-journals, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, costs £150.00 GBP + applicable taxes.

Academics and scientists provide their work to The Lancet at no charge. Indeed, there is quite a competition to be published in this and other publications because of the publish or perish mandate common to a great many institutions of higher learning and some learned professions.

The Lancet’s publications are, to the best of PG’s knowledge, all peer-reviewed which means that the most costly expert content review and resultant editing is, effectively free to the publisher.

PG suspects that The Lancet has some sort of computer cite-checking program to make certain that this element of its publications is without error. (Cite-checking/cite-correction programs have been common in the legal world for a very long time.)

All academic/scientific libraries will have to subscribe to Lancet publications almost regardless of price. Ditto for teaching hospitals.

PG suggests that publishing an academic/scientific journal is a very enjoyable and profitable venture once a publication is established (The first issue of The Lancet appearaed in 1823).

And The Lancet is hardly alone. There are dozens and dozens of similar publications.

Band of Sisters

Female inmates in rows of five.
PHOTO: YAD VASHEM, THE WORLD HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE CENTER

From The Wall Street Journal:

Gwen Strauss writes movingly in her book “The Nine” about the courage and luck that enabled nine young women to escape German imprisonment during World War II and return to their homes in France and Holland. Offering incisive images of life inside concentration camps and on death marches, Ms. Strauss relies, as any skilled researcher would, on archives and interviews, but as an accomplished poet and short-story writer, she also calls on her vibrant imagination to portray the emotional and physical traumas visited upon these young women. It is this poetic sensitivity, conveyed through a transparent style, that offers readers a nuanced perspective on what took place more than 75 years ago.

These nine young women—six French, two Dutch and one Spanish; one with a Jewish father, another from a Jewish family—were captured by the Gestapo, then sent to Ravensbrück, Germany’s primary concentration camp for women. Soon they were “loaned out” as laborers to a munitions plant owned by one of Germany’s largest arms manufacturers. It was there that the nine met. In the early spring of 1945, as the Allied fronts closed in from the east and west, Nazi authorities ordered the labor camps emptied, and so began the death marches across Germany. Taking bold chances, the nine women escaped from a casually monitored march and made their way into the fields and woods of Saxony.

Ms. Strauss’s narrative takes place during perhaps the most violent phase of the war in Europe—its final six months—but her book transcends that period and speaks to the humanity of all who are oppressed. “The Nine” is defined by examples of solidarity, empathy and perseverance. As they searched for color in a barren landscape, the women held fast to the belief that goodness had not disappeared.

Ms. Strauss is careful to identify geographical markers so that, with the help of a good map, a reader can trace the women’s long trek home. And the author is astute in keeping us mindful of the weather that a rude spring visited upon them. Her meticulous descriptions of the social and surveillance conditions in the horrific camps—gender and racial hierarchies, the treatment of ill and pregnant women, the murderous use of the dreaded daily roll call where dozens would faint or fall and be immediately executed—form the foreground of this narrative of unfathomable courage.

All nine women had been arrested for acts of resistance or for nonviolent political activities while still in their 20s. In fact, it was their youth and good health that allowed them to survive the devastating abuse their bodies would endure before and during their escape. The fugitives traversed a no-woman’s-land of a battered nation, filled with suspicious and resentful inhabitants. Once free of the camp, the greatest threats of their odyssey were hunger and men. Finding potatoes, raw or—less frequently—cooked, is a recurrent theme that encapsulates the anthropology of concentration camps and forced marches. Hunger hung persistently over the lives of the group. They never knew, when they knocked on a farmer’s door, whether they would be chased away or given a good meal. Men are generally depicted as at best indifferent to these women’s plights or, at worst, brutally abusive. The constant fear of being raped, beaten or murdered weakened them as much as their physical distress.

. . . .

From the beginning, Ms. Strauss tells her readers, “I am not a historian. I was trained as a poet.” And though she avails herself of archival evidence, much of her narrative finds her imagining (a word she uses frequently) what it must have been like for nine women to escape annihilation together. Her notes reveal how carefully she intertwines interviews with survivors and their descendants and how she was deeply influenced by two remarkable books: Lise London’s “La Mégère de la rue Daguerre” (“The Shrew of Daguerre Street”) and Suzanne Maudet’s “Neuf filles jeunes qui ne voulaient pas mourir” (“Nine Young Girls Who Did Not Want to Die”). Maudet was one of the nine escapees.

. . . .

Ms. Strauss, an American who has lived in France for more than 20 years, comments several times about the hesitancy that interrupted her writing. “I felt I was breaking a taboo. The voices in my head told me it was not my business; I should be ashamed of myself for exploiting [this] story.” More important, “How do we hold on to the past’s truths without letting the past hold us back from living in the present?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG doesn’t usually give this big a blurb for a given book, but his current reading concerning World War I and his extensive prior reading concerning World War II makes him believe that the stories of the incredible suffering and bravery of so many who were caught up in the World Wars of the 20th Century need to be remembered.

In an era in which many Woke Warriors and Political Correctness Enforcers explode with angry emotions and bitter denunciations at the slightest deviation from whatever standards are current at the moment, PG thinks it’s important to remember and reflect on truly monstrous behavior causing real and often deadly harm and the incredibly brave responses on the part of those whose lives and the lives of their families and friends, not just their feelings, were actually on the line.

Part of PG’s concern is that some of the tactics the Woke direct at their enemies are straight out of communist/fascist playbooks and he believes we need to remember what consequences resulted from similar runaway extreme behaviors and strategies in the past.

For the Nazis, the best-known enemy was the Jews and anyone who associated with or supported them, but Romani, blacks, those of mixed races, Slavs, other members of “the masses from the East” and all manner of other untermenschen, including those of any ethnic group who were regarded as physically or mentally disabled, were also put through horrors we find difficult to imagine today.

“Serbia must die!”

The term “under man” was first used by American author and Ku Klux Klan member Lothrop Stoddard in the title of his 1922 book The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man.

“Untermensch is usually translated into English as “sub-human”. The leading Nazi attributing the concept of the East-European “under man” to Stoddard is Alfred Rosenberg who, referring to Russian communists, wrote in his Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (1930) that “this is the kind of human being that Lothrop Stoddard has called the ‘under man.'” [“…den Lothrop Stoddard als ‘Untermenschen’ bezeichnete.”]Quoting Stoddard: “The Under-Man – the man who measures under the standards of capacity and adaptability imposed by the social order in which he lives”.”

. . . .

Nazis repeatedly used the term Untermensch in writings and speeches directed against the Jews, the most notorious example being a 1942 SS publication with the title Der Untermensch, which contains an antisemitic tirade sometimes considered to be an extract from a speech by Heinrich Himmler. In the pamphlet “The SS as an Anti-Bolshevist Fighting Organization”, published in 1936, Himmler wrote:

We shall take care that never again in Germany, the heart of Europe, will the Jewish-Bolshevik revolution of subhumans be able to be kindled either from within or through emissaries from without.

In his speech “Weltgefahr des Bolschewismus” (“World danger of Bolshevism”) in 1936, Joseph Goebbels said that “subhumans exist in every people as a leavening agent”. At the 1935 Nazi party congress rally at Nuremberg, Goebbels also declared that “Bolshevism is the declaration of war by Jewish-led international subhumans against culture itself.”

This poster (from around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read ‘[A] New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.”

During the Warsaw Uprising, Himmler ordered the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto because according to him it allowed the “living space” of 500,000 subhumans.

Italicized paragraphs and poster above from Untermensch on Wikipedia

The Aryan certificate (German: Ariernachweis) was a document which certified that a person was a member of the presumed Aryan race. Beginning in April 1933, it was required from all employees and officials in the public sector, including education, according to the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. It was also a primary requirement to become a Reich citizen for those who were of German or related blood (Aryan) and wanted to become Reich citizens after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935. A “Swede or an Englishman, a Frenchman or Czech, a Pole or Italian” was considered to be related, that is, “Aryan”. Iranians were also considered to be Aryans after an 1936 decree from the Hitler Cabinet which declared Iranians to be “pure-blooded Aryans”.

The Candidate from Yale

“O your college paper, I suppose?”

“No, I never wrote even a letter to the editor.”

“Took prizes for essays?”

“No, I never wrote if I could help it.”

“But you like to write?”

“I’d like to learn to write.”

“You say you are two months out of college–what college?”

“Yale.”

“Hum–I thought Yale men went into something commercial; law or banking or
railroads. ‘Leave hope of fortune behind, ye who enter here’ is over the
door of this profession.”

“I haven’t the money-making instinct.”

“We pay fifteen dollars a week at the start.”

“Couldn’t you make it twenty?”

The Managing Editor of the News-Record turned slowly in his chair
until his broad chest was full-front toward the young candidate for the
staff. He lowered his florid face slowly until his double chin swelled out
over his low “stick-up” collar. Then he gradually raised his eyelids until
his amused blue eyes were looking over the tops of his glasses, straight
into Howard’s eyes.

“Why?” he asked. “Why should we?”

Howard’s grey eyes showed embarrassment and he flushed to the line of his
black hair which was so smoothly parted in the middle. “Well–you see–the
fact is–I need twenty a week. My expenses are arranged on that scale. I’m
not clever at money matters. I’m afraid I’d get in a mess with only
fifteen.”

“My dear young man,” said Mr. King, “I started here at fifteen dollars a
week. And I had a wife; and the first baby was coming.”

“Yes, but your wife was an energetic woman. She stood right beside you and
worked too. Now I have only myself.”

Mr. King raised his eyebrows and became a rosier red. He was evidently
preparing to rebuke this audacious intrusion into his private affairs by a
stranger whose card had been handed to him not ten minutes before. But
Howard’s tone and manner were simple and sincere. And they happened to
bring into Mr. King’s mind a rush of memories of his youth and his wife.
She had married him on faith. They had come to New York fifteen years
before, he to get a place as reporter on the News-Record, she to
start a boarding-house; he doubting and trembling, she with courage and
confidence for two. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and opened
the book of memory at the place where the leaves most easily fell apart:

He is coming home at one in the morning, worn out, sick at heart from the
day’s buffetings. As he puts his key into the latch, the door opens. There
stands a handsome girl; her face is flushed; her eyes are bright; her lips
are held up for him to kiss; she shows no trace of a day that began hours
before his and has been a succession of exasperations and humiliations
against which her sensitive nature, trained in the home of her father, a
distinguished up-the-state Judge, gives her no protection, “Victory,” she
whispers, her arms about his neck and her head upon his coat collar.
“Victory! We are seventy-two cents ahead on the week, and everything paid
up!”

Mr. King opened his eyes–they had been closed less than five seconds.
“Well, let it be twenty–though just why I’m sure I don’t know. And we’ll
give you a four weeks’ trial. When will you begin?”

“Now,” answered the young man, glancing about the room. “And I shall try to
show that I appreciate your consideration, whether I deserve it or not.”

It was a large bare room, low of ceiling. Across one end were five windows
overlooking from a great height the tempest that rages about the City Hall
day and night with few lulls and no pauses. Mr. King’s roll-top desk was at
the first window. Under each of the other windows was a broad flat table
desk–for copy-readers. At the farthest of these sat the City Editor–thin,
precise-looking, with yellow skin, hollow cheeks, ragged grey-brown
moustache, ragged scant grey-brown hair and dark brown eyes. He looked
nervously tired and, because brown was his prevailing shade, dusty. He rose
as Mr. King came with young Howard.

“Here, Mr. Bowring, is a young man from Yale. He wishes you to teach him
how to write. Mr. Howard, Mr. Bowring. I hope you gentlemen will get on
comfortably together.”

Mr. King went back to his desk. Mr. Bowring and Howard looked each at the
other. Mr. Bowring smiled, with good-humour, without cordiality. “Let me
see, where shall we put you?” And his glance wandered along the rows of
sloping table-desks–those nearer the windows lighted by daylight; those
farther away, by electric lamps. Even on that cool, breezy August afternoon
the sunlight and fresh air did not penetrate far into the room.

“Do you see the young man with the beautiful fair moustache,” said Mr.
Bowring, “toiling away in his shirt-sleeves–there?”

“Near the railing at the entrance?”

“Precisely. I think I will put you next him.” Mr. Bowring touched a button
on his desk and presently an office boy–a mop of auburn curls, a pert face
and gangling legs in knickerbockers–hurried up with a “Yes, Sir?”

“Please tell Mr. Kittredge that I would like to speak to him and–please
scrape your feet along the floor as little as possible.”

The boy smiled, walking away less as if he were trying to terrorize park
pedestrians by a rush on roller skates. Kittredge and Howard were made
acquainted and went toward their desks together. “A few moments–if you
will excuse me–and I’m done,” said Kittredge motioning Howard into the
adjoining chair as he sat and at once bent over his work.

Howard watched him with interest, admiration and envy. The reporter was
perhaps twenty-five years old–fair of hair, fair of skin, goodlooking in a
pretty way. His expression was keen and experienced yet too self-complacent
to be highly intelligent. He was rapidly covering sheet after sheet of soft
white paper with bold, loose hand-writing. Howard noticed that at the end
of each sentence he made a little cross with a circle about it, and that he
began each paragraph with a paragraph sign. Presently he scrawled a big
double cross in the centre of the sheet under the last line of writing and
gathered up his sheets in the numbered order. “Done, thank God,” he said.
“And I hope they won’t butcher it.”

“Do you send it to be put in type?” asked Howard.

“No,” Kittredge answered with a faint smile. “I hand it in to Mr.
Bowring–the City Editor, you know. And when the copyreaders come at six,
it will be turned over to one of them. He reads it, cuts it down if
necessary, and writes headlines for it. Then it goes upstairs to the
composing room–see the box, the little dumb-waiter, over there in the
wall?–well, it goes up by that to the floor above where they set the type
and make up the forms.”

“I’m a complete ignoramus,” said Howard, “I hope you’ll not mind my trying
to find out things. I hope I shall not bore you.”

“Glad to help you, I’m sure. I had to go through this two years ago when I
came here from Princeton.”

Kittredge “turned in” his copy and returned to his seat beside Howard.

“What were you writing about, if I may ask?” inquired Howard.

“About some snakes that came this morning in a ‘tramp’ from South America.
One of them, a boa constrictor, got loose and coiled around a windlass. The
cook was passing and it caught him. He fainted with fright and the beast
squeezed him to death. It’s a fine story–lots of amusing and dramatic
details. I wrote it for a column and I think they won’t cut it. I hope not,
anyhow. I need the money.”

“You are paid by the column?”

“Yes. I’m on space–what they call a space writer. If a man is of any
account here they gradually raise him to twenty-five dollars a week and
then put him on space. That means that he will make anywhere from forty to
a hundred a week, or perhaps more at times. The average for the best is
about eighty.”

“Eighty dollars a week,” thought Howard. “Fifty-two times eighty is
forty-one hundred and sixty. Four thousand a year, counting out two weeks
for vacation.” To Howard it seemed wealth at the limit of imagination. If
he could make so much as that!–he who had grave doubts whether, no matter
how hard he worked, he would ever wrench a living from the world.

Just then a seedy young man with red hair and a red beard came through the
gate in the railing, nodded to Kittredge and went to a desk well up toward
the daylight end of the room.

“That’s the best of ’em all,” said Kittredge in a low tone. “His name is
Sewell. He’s a Harvard man–Harvard and Heidelberg. But drink! Ye gods, how
he does drink! His wife died last Christmas–practically starvation. Sewell
disappeared–frightful bust. A month afterward they found him under an
assumed name over on Blackwell’s Island, doing three months for disorderly
conduct. He wrote a Christmas carol while his wife was dying. It began
“Merrily over the Snow” and went on about light hearts and youth and joy
and all that–you know, the usual thing. When he got the money, she didn’t
need it or anything else in her nice quiet grave over in Long Island City.
So he ‘blew in’ the money on a wake.”

Sewell was coming toward them. Kittredge called out: “Was it a good story,
Sam?”

“Simply great! You ought to have seen the room. Only the bed and the
cook-stove and a few dishes on a shelf–everything else gone to the
pawnshop. The man must have killed the children first. They lay side by
side on the bed, each with its hands folded on its chest–suppose the
mother did that; and each little throat was cut from ear to ear–suppose
the father did that. Then he dipped his paint brush in the blood and daubed
on the wall in big scrawling letters: ‘There is no God!’ Then he took his
wife in his arms, stabbed her to the heart and cut his own throat. And
there they lay, his arms about her, his cheek against hers, dead. It was
murder as a fine art. Gad, I wish I could write.”

Kittredge introduced Howard–“a Yale man–just came on the paper.”

“Entering the profession? Well, they say of the other professions that
there is always room at the top. Journalism is just the reverse. The room
is all at the bottom–easy to enter, hard to achieve, impossible to leave.
It is all bottom, no top.” Sewell nodded, smiled attractively in spite of
his swollen face and his unsightly teeth, and went back to his work.

“He’s sober,” said Kittredge when he was out of hearing, “so his story is
pretty sure to be the talk of Park Row tomorrow.”

Howard was astonished at the cheerful, businesslike point of view of these
two educated and apparently civilised young men as to the tragedies of
life. He had shuddered at Kittredge’s story of the man squeezed to death by
the snake. Sewell’s story, so graphically outlined, filled him with horror,
made it a struggle for him to conceal his feelings.

“I suppose you must see a lot of frightful things,” he suggested.

“That’s our business. You soon get used to it, just as a doctor does. You
learn to look at life from the purely professional standpoint. Of course
you must feel in order to write. But you must not feel so keenly that you
can’t write. You have to remember always that you’re not there to cheer or
sympathise or have emotions, but only to report, to record. You tell what
your eyes see. You’ll soon get so that you can and will make good stories
out of your own calamaties.”

“Is that a portrait of the editor?” asked Howard, pointing to a grimed
oil-painting, the only relief to the stretch of cracked and streaked white
wall except a few ragged maps.

“That–oh, that is old man Stone–the ‘great condenser.’ He’s there for a
double purpose, as an example of what a journalist should be and as a
warning of what a journalist comes to. After twenty years of fine work at
crowding more news in good English into one column than any other editor
could get in bad English into four columns, he was discharged for
drunkenness. Soon afterwards he walked off the end of a dock one night in a
fog. At least it was said that there was a fog and that he was drunk. I
have my doubts.”

“Cheerful! I have not been in the profession an hour but I have already
learned something very valuable.”

“What’s that?” asked Kittredge, “that it’s a good profession to get out
of?”

“No. But that bad habits will not help a man to a career in journalism any
more than in any other profession.”

Link to the rest at The Great God Success (1901) by John Graham (David Graham Phillips)

In part, the author of The Great God Success, intended his book to be a critical treatment of the crass and shallow world of newspaper publishing in New York City (and elsewhere) and its two great competing publishers, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

Phillips spent his career in this business. There was no pretense of objectivity or printing anything like both sides of political disagreements in that era’s newspapers. Papers owned by Pulitzer and Hearst (and papers owned by many others) were blatantly biased in their coverage of political issues and personalities.

From Wikipedia:

[David Graham] Phillips worked as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, Ohio, before moving on to New York City where he was employed as a reporter for The Sun from 1890 to 1893, then columnist and editor with the New York World until 1902. In his spare time, he wrote a novel, The Great God Success, that was published in 1901. The royalty income enabled him to work as a freelance journalist while continuing to write fiction. Writing articles for various prominent magazines, he began to develop a reputation as a competent investigative journalist. Phillips’ novels often commented on social issues of the day and frequently chronicled events based on his real-life journalistic experiences. He was considered a Progressive and for exposing corruption in the Senate he was labelled a muckraker.

Phillips wrote an article in Cosmopolitan in March 1906, called “The Treason of the Senate,” exposing campaign contributors being rewarded by certain members of the U. S. Senate. The story launched a scathing attack on Rhode Island senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and brought Phillips a great deal of national exposure. This and other similar articles helped lead to the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, initiating popular instead of state-legislature election of U. S. senators.

David Graham Phillips is known for producing one of the most important investigations exposing details of the corruption by big businesses of the Senate, in particular, by the Standard Oil Company. He was among a few other writers during that time that helped prompt President Theodore Roosevelt to use the term “Muckrakers”.

The article inspired journalist Charles Edward Russell to insist to his boss William Randolph Hearst, who had just recently purchased the Cosmopolitan magazine, that he push his journalists to explore the Senate corruption as well. Philips was offered the position to explore more information about the corruption and bring it into the public’s eye. Philips’ brother Harrison and Gustavus Myers were hired as research assistants for Philips. Hearst commented to his readers about Philips starting a series that would reveal the Senate corruption so much, that most Senators would resign. This held true for some of the Senators, such as New York Senators Chauncey M. Depew and Thomas Collier Platt. Philips exposed Depew as receiving more than $50,000 from several companies. He also helped educate the public on how the senators were selected and that it was held in the hands of a few bosses in a tight circle, helping increase the corruption level. As a result of these articles, only four of the twenty-one senators that Philips wrote about were still in office. Philips also had some of the greatest success as a muckraker, because he helped change the U.S. Constitution, with the passage of the 17th Amendment, creating popular election for senators.

His talent for writing was not the only thing that helped him stand out in the newsroom. Philips was known to dress in a white suit with a large chrysanthemum in his lapel.

Phillips’ reputation cost him his life in January 1911, when he was shot outside the Princeton Club at Gramercy Park in New York City. The killer was a Harvard-educated musician named Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra who came from a prominent Maryland family. Goldsborough believed that Phillips’s novel The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig had cast literary aspersions on his family. To be more precise, Phillips was shot and killed by a paranoid who levied the false accusation that Phillips had used the paranoid’s sister “as a model for the complaisant heroine” of the novel. When confronting Phillips, Goldsborough yelled, “Here you go!” After Phillips collapsed, he yelled something akin to “And here I go!”, shooting himself in the head. He died as a result of his injuries. Admitted to Bellevue Hospital, Phillips died a day later. A 1992 novel by Daniel D. Victor, The Seventh Bullet, imagines a Sherlock Holmes investigation into Phillips’s murder.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

Light in the Palazzo

From The New York Review of Books:

In 1968 the Roman aristocrat Alessandro Torlonia, Prince of Fucino, applied for a permit to repair the roof of his family’s private museum, a nineteenth-century industrial building just outside the ancient Porta Settimiana in Trastevere that had been transformed by his great-grandfather, another Alessandro, into a sprawling seventy-seven-room venue for the family’s vast collection of ancient sculpture. Decked out in neoclassical splendor, the Torlonia Museum opened in 1876, but only to visitors inscribed in the Golden Book of Italian Nobility, a manuscript in the Central State Archive in Rome that provided the definitive list of Italian peerage. In 1947 Rome’s superintendent of antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, made his way into the sanctum by dressing as a janitor. The disguise played a superbly Tuscan practical joke on his unwitting hosts. Bianchi Bandinelli was a Sienese count who could trace his lineage back to a twelfth-century pope. He could have entered the Torlonia Museum as a nobleman, but the Italian Constitution of 1948 had stripped aristocratic titles of any legal significance and rendered the Golden Book of Italian Nobility a relic of the past.

As superintendent, moreover, Bianchi Bandinelli, a fervent Communist, represented this new, egalitarian Republic of Italy. And the republic, in turn, had its eye on the Torlonia collection: 620 statues, 619 of marble and one of bronze, an assemblage second only to the Vatican Museums in size and quality, and jealously hidden from public view. The humble disguise, by making the superintendent invisible to class-conscious eyes, allowed him to take inventory as he never could have done in his official capacity.

Twenty-one years later, armed with his permit to repair the roof, Prince Alessandro threw an opaque construction fence around the Torlonia Museum and turned its galleries into ninety-three mini-apartments (some of them adapted in recent years to provide classrooms for John Cabot University). He crammed the displaced antiquities into three storerooms; in an anguished open letter to UNESCO in 1979, the journalist Antonio Cederna described them as “stacked on top of each other like junk.” By February 1977, with the backing of a new young superintendent of antiquities, Adriano La Regina, the Roman magistrate Alberto Albamonte had charged Prince Alessandro with illegal construction and damaging cultural heritage (the transport from galleries to storage had been anything but careful), charges that gave the Italian state leverage to sequester first the building and then the collection.

In timeless Roman fashion, the statute of limitations for the charge of illegal construction expired, and an amnesty restored the palazzo and collection to its princely owner, but the charge of damage to Italy’s cultural heritage went all the way to the country’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 1979 that “the transfer [to storage] inflicted material and immaterial damage to the collection,” and that the statues were kept “in cramped, inadequate, dangerous quarters…unbelievably crowded together side by side without any historical relationship or principle of consistency,” “condemned from a cultural standpoint to certain death.” Prince Alessandro responded by letting the Torlonia Marbles continue to languish under a growing layer of filthy Roman dust, shrouded in plastic and malign neglect.

In 2015 the decades-long standoff finally began to show signs of shifting, accelerating after Prince Alessandro’s death in 2017 at the age of ninety-two. In October 2020, after years of negotiation, ninety-one Torlonia Marbles (and the bronze), newly restored and carefully analyzed, emerged from their decades of captivity to inaugurate a newly refurbished wing of Rome’s Capitoline Museums, the Palazzo Caffarelli, built over the site of the colossal ancient temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. “The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces,” an exhibition curated by two eminent classicists, Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, and designed by the English architect David Chipperfield, opened several months late because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before it closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, a limited number of visitors were admitted into the galleries, but once admitted, they could linger as long as they liked. Wandering among the intimately scaled displays, in that storied setting, with a comfortable number of people rather than a horde, provided as close to a perfect experience as anyone could want. The catalog, in keeping with the momentous occasion, is stylish, dense, and complete in every respect but one: Prince Alessandro has been given the benefit of the ancient Roman rule de mortuis nihil nisi bonum. But at least two of the contributors to the catalog have provided a fuller account of his treatment of the collection to the press.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The following are from the collection:

Artgate Fondazione Cariplo, CC BY-SA 3.0
Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Sailko, CC BY 3.0

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Word Order: Audiobook First

From The Wall Street Journal:

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book opens with ominous sirens, planes droning overhead and a powerful explosion.

Unlike most audiobooks, which are offshoots of a traditional text manuscript, “The Bomber Mafia” was conceived first as an audio project. Only later, after there was a completed script, was it offered to a major publisher. The print and ebook versions, as well as the audiobook, go on sale April 27.

“The Bomber Mafia” is part of an effort by Pushkin Industries Inc., an audio company that Mr. Gladwell co-founded, to become a major provider of highly produced “original” audiobooks. Such projects sound more like podcasts than traditional audiobooks, since they often feature original scores, as well as archival and interview tape.

Industry giants including Bertelsmann SE’s Penguin Random House and Amazon.com Inc.’s Audible also produce high-production original audiobooks with sound effects and a cast of multiple actors, representing significant competition for Pushkin.

As a writer, Mr. Gladwell has been a star on the pop-culture circuit for more than two decades, thanks to such bestsellers as “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outliers.” His ability to look at popular subjects in fresh and unexpected ways has made him an arbiter of human behavior and social phenomena.

Mr. Gladwell later applied that approach to podcasting with “Revisionist History,” a show launched in 2016 that looks to shed new light on past events. When the company that produced the podcast exited the medium, he launched Pushkin with former Slate Group Chairman and Editor in Chief Jacob Weisberg to keep “Revisionist History” going.

Today, the company has 12 podcasts, including Dr. Laurie Santos’s “The Happiness Lab,” which focuses on the science of well-being, and Dana Goodyear’s “Lost Hills,” a tale of true crime, which recently hit No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts. Ms. Goodyear, like Mr. Gladwell, is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

In a move likely to raise Pushkin’s profile, the company this week agreed to create an audio content subscription program called “PushNik” for a new podcast subscription service Apple Inc. is expected to launch next month. The offering will include ad-free versions of Pushkin’s various podcasts as well as a weekly news roundup and other exclusive audio content.

. . . .

Mr. Gladwell conceived the idea for “The Bomber Mafia” while recording the fifth season of “Revisionist History,” several episodes of which are about the life of Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and the World War II bombing campaign against Japan.

“We were looking for some audiotape of Curtis LeMay, and realized that there were archives at the Air Force with audiotape of literally every major military leader involved in the air wars over Europe and Japan,” said Mr. Gladwell. “It was then I realized—I could do a whole book on this story.”

“The Bomber Mafia” will be Pushkin’s fifth audiobook. The first title it published, “Fauci,” came out about six months ago, and quickly rose to No. 1 on Audible’s nonfiction bestseller list. The title includes exclusive conversations with infectious-diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci and his wife, Christine Grady, as well as key colleagues and peers, archival recordings and an original score.

The budget for some Pushkin audiobooks can top six figures, significantly higher than the estimated industry average of $10,000 to make a typical title.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

.

The Free World

From The Wall Street Journal:

There was once a time—Louis Menand recalls at the beginning of “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War”—when “people cared. Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” Even criticism mattered. It was a time when “people believed in liberty, and thought it really meant something.” The United States was “actively engaged with the rest of the world.” To be sure, the 20 years that followed World War II didn’t frame a utopia: a fifth of the nation lived in poverty, “white men” dominated “virtually every sphere of life,” the U.S. “intervened in the internal political affairs of other states, rigging elections, endorsing coups, enabling assassinations,” and “invested in a massive and expensive military buildup that was out of all proportion to any threat.” Nevertheless, Mr. Menand suggests, something extraordinary took place. American and European cultures were transformed by what transpired, and somehow the concept of “freedom” was bound up in it all as “the slogan of the times.” This epic book—at once brilliant and exasperating, illuminating and confounding, absorbing and off-putting—is his attempt to examine what happened and to explain why, by the end of the Vietnam War, America was a very different country from the one that led the “free world” just after 1945.

This would be a daunting project even if Mr. Menand had established some disciplinary boundaries, but as readers of his criticism in the New Yorker know, his interests and insights range widely. Though he teaches English literature at Harvard, he writes as an intellectual and cultural historian. He takes on eclectic subjects with dedication and imagination, whether teasing out the aesthetic behind Pauline Kael’s film criticism, tracing the complicated tensions between the ideas and personalities of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, two of the most imposing black literary figures of the Cold War period, or arguing, as he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 book “The Metaphysical Club,” that late 19th-century pragmatism helped shape the character of modern American democracy.

In this 857-page tome he pulls together a decade of writing and research, but it doesn’t take long for us to see that this project is both overtly unsystematic and highly selective. We begin with what appears to be a conventional examination of George Kennan’s diplomatic career, his secret 1946 telegram from Moscow outlining the expansive ambitions of the Soviet Union in the postwar period, and his recommendation of a policy of “containment”—a geopolitical foreign strategy that was almost immediately adopted to deal with postwar confrontations. But no sooner have we begun to get a feel for Kennan’s views than we are carried into an analysis of George Orwell’s dystopian visions and the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger. And Hannah Arendt and totalitarianism. And the development of Abstract Expressionist painting. Eventually we accommodate ourselves to a nonstop, nearly phantasmagorical display of erudite inquiry. What was John Cage up to with Merce Cunningham? What was the nature of Lionel Trilling’s relationship with Allen Ginsberg? Why was the 1964 arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. a pop-cultural tsunami? What role did academic literary criticism play in the transformation of American high culture? What were the differences between Simone de Beauvoir’s and Betty Friedan’s visions of the status of women? How was the film “Bonnie and Clyde” a tribute to postwar French cinema? What went wrong in Vietnam?

Clearly, even with hundreds of pages at the author’s disposal, none of these chapter-length probes can do its theme full justice, particularly because Mr. Menand’s approach is not to make a systematic argument but to focus on particular individuals and advocates, noting their characters and interactions and ultimately implying that cultural and political change might be discernable in statistics but is largely accidental, full of misunderstandings and unintended consequences. Many things that happened, he implies, could not have been expected, or if they could have been, people might not have noticed. When these tracings of lives and encounters are combined with the explication of some difficult ideas, the result can be unusually illuminating. Some revelations may be trivial (Sartre did terrific Donald Duck imitations; John Cage won a quiz show on Italian television by naming all 24 species of white-spored mushrooms—in alphabetical order) and others suggestive (Orwell was influenced by James Burnham’s 1941 book “The Managerial Revolution,” which predicted that society’s new social elite would include managers, executives and government administrators), but under Mr. Menand’s guidance, something always can be learned.

But why then, should this book also exasperate? First, because much of the interpretation is left to the reader. There is no attempt to shape the narrative into anything cumulative or conclusive. If there are varieties or notions of “freedom” and “liberty” in play here, they are only vaguely defined and never put in careful order, nor are we directed to any larger understanding of their interaction. It is strange: Much of the book is very concrete but it all ends up feeling rather amorphous. We wind up knowing quite a bit about Andy Warhol or about Elvis Presley’s early career but are left unsure about the relevance of the Cold War to either.

The book comes closest to suggesting connections in its early chapters, which deal most directly with America’s tensions with the Soviet Union. But these chapters also tend to minimize the confrontation’s stakes, suggesting they were, in retrospect, exaggerated. “Each nation,” we read, “honestly believed that history was on its side.” Each also claimed to be a “grand civilizing” nation. (Mr. Menand points out that while Kennan may be thought of as the first analyst of the Cold War, he was warning the U.S. of the Soviet Union not because of the dangers of communism but because of the nature of Russian history; he was also, surprisingly, wary of thinking of the conflict as a “moral” one.) Mr. Menand doesn’t really accept Cold War symmetry, though sometimes he seems tempted to do so. He notes that the confrontation was about “ideas in the broadest sense,” such as “civic and personal values, modes of expression, philosophies of history, theories of human nature.” But this is still too bloodless a description of the East-West contest. We don’t really understand the Cold War or its effects, because we can’t really understand the other side.

Mr. Menand alludes to it in a theoretical way, in a discussion of totalitarianism, but it might have helped if, for example, he’d provided an account of the notorious Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace staged at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1949. There the Soviet Union attempted to undermine Western suspicion of its aims by presenting itself in a supposedly enlightened embrace of peace and brotherhood, bringing over some of its own artists and intellectuals and luring the support of Western fellow travelers (including Lillian Hellman and Pablo Picasso and Leonard Bernstein). On one panel, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich famously sweated in terror as his watchers made sure he gave no hint of the recent killings and purges that led him to fear—yet again—for his own life.

. . . .

Mr. Menand’s tendency is also to moderate his interpretations of some figures so that they and their ideas seem less polemical. The literary movement known as “deconstruction,” for example, is treated almost as a variety of liberal skepticism, even though, over time, its members engaged in ever more radical attempts to dismantle the philosophical premises of Western culture and society. And many of Mr. Menand’s aesthetic explorers may well have been influenced by the Cold War to become overtly antagonistic to the American perspective—and to so-called bourgeois culture. That certainly was the case with Sartre and, in a subtler way, with some of the American artists that Mr. Menand discusses. Is it possible, for example, to look at Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1955), which displays an American flag painted on top of a newspaper collage, without seeing it as having a countercultural comment on the news of the day? The symbolism of the flag, disarmingly straightforward, is, beneath the painting’s surface, subtly undercut.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Be the Change You Want to See In Kids’ Books

From Publishers Weekly:

Books have always played an important role in my life. Books about social issues and activism nudged me into my career path. It’s only now, though, that I see where the gaps in children’s literature are and am in a position to do something about it.

As a young child books about activists were a mixed experience for me: moving, but also scary and sad. It appeared that most people did not do anything to support the activists, powerful people were against them, their paths required suffering and single-mindedness, and many faced beatings, jail, and untimely deaths. Only bold, extraordinary people could have such conviction, make such sacrifices. I did not feel extraordinary. I did not even feel bold. Yes, I was taught to do the right thing and help others, but I was also expected to be polite, not yell, not demand, and definitely not challenge the adults enforcing the rules. Obviously, I did not have what it takes to be an activist—and even if I did, no path was offered to that destination.

As an elementary school teacher the books about activists I had were mostly historical. I would finish a read-aloud title about women’s suffrage, desegregation, or labor rights and tell students there is still much more to do, that it isn’t all solved yet! There’s still discrimination, limitations, power imbalances. We need you! I knew there were vibrant organizations out there doing crucial work on issues like labor rights and immigration reform, but I didn’t have a way to capture it and bring it into the reading circle, the curriculum. I remember one student, Joselyn, who acted out but thrived when given leadership positions. Where was the book that showed an undocumented young girl like her how to be an agent of change?

As an activist I enjoy the deep sense of meaning of being part of a movement. Most days, I marvel about how lucky I am to get paid to do something I care about. I get to learn about issues, develop skills to address them, work with people I admire and respect. Where are the children’s books that show how joyful and satisfying this career is—and also how normal it is?

. . . .

As a parent I sneak in as many social justice books as I can get away with, but my kids can smell “lessons” coming from a mile away. I wish I had more books about social change that don’t feel like history textbooks—that are funny or surprising, and that have three-dimensional characters whom my kids can relate to instead of flattened-out “heroes.” I could sneak in a lot more books that way. I look for books that make activism seem fun, cool, and right for them. It’s not easy, as, currently, their passions are mainly riding scooters and making fart jokes. I wish I had books that showed them that no matter what they are interested in—science, cooking, sports, coding, business, art—there are ways to put these in the service of something that will change the world.

As an author, in my new book, For All/Para Todos, about a young undocumented girl who becomes an activist, I want to lift up the stories of people who are making change but not making it into headlines or lesson plans. And I want to do something more subversive—I want the reader to address a range of questions: What do you think about this? What do you care about? What do you think is fair? I want to make sure kids fully own their power as agents of change. And I want to question all of us: What role do we have in this issue? How are we complicit?

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG wonders if the author of the OP realizes how many people find stereotypical activists to be annoying and how many parents sincerely hope none of their children grow up to be activists, in part, because Thanksgiving dinner would be unbearable.

Grammar-Nerd Heaven

From The New Yorker:

It’s hard not to mythologize Bryan A. Garner. He is the Herakles of English usage. As a boy growing up in Texas, he lugged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) to school one day to settle an argument with a teacher. When he was sixteen, he discovered “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” and swallowed it whole. By the time he was an undergraduate, he knew that he wanted to write a usage dictionary. Instead of going into academia or publishing, the traditional career paths for English majors, he went into law, a field where his prodigious language skills could have broad applications. His first usage dictionary was “Modern Legal Usage,” published in 1987. “Garner’s Modern American Usage” came out in 1998 and is in its fourth edition; with a significant tweaking of the title, it’s now “Garner’s Modern English Usage.” Move over, Henry Fowler.

Garner’s success—he is a highly sought-after speaker among lawyers and lexicographers—has enabled him to indulge his passions as a bibliophile and an antiquarian. A selection of sixty-eight items from the Garner Collection is on view at the Grolier Club (47 East Sixtieth Street, through May 15th), with a sumptuous hardcover limited-edition catalogue that serves as a companion guide. To enter the exhibit, titled “Taming the Tongue: In the Heyday of English Grammar (1713-1851),” via a discreet door on the second-floor landing of a stairwell at the Grolier, is to climb aboard the Grammarama ride at Disneyland for Nerds.

Above the mantel hangs a portrait of Samuel Johnson, the father of the English dictionary. An uncut first edition of Johnson’s two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is open to the pages for words beginning with “con” (“confectionary” to “confine”). What makes the dictionary eligible for the sweet confines of a grammar exhibit is that it contains an essay Johnson wrote, expressly for the dictionary, called “A Grammar of the English Tongue.” Johnson was not that interested in writing about grammar, and his treatment is said to be half-hearted.

Johnson’s portrait is flanked on the left by one of Noah Webster, his American counterpart. Webster didn’t set out to be a grammarian, either—he had studied law, but did not have a very successful practice—yet, as the author of “A Plain and Comprehensive Grammar,” he had strong opinions on the subject. A first edition, which looks to have been well used, is in the exhibit, along with several of Webster’s letters, most of them cranky. To the right of Johnson is Lindley Murray, who, though the least known of these three presiding spirits, came to be called the father of English grammar. Murray was a Quaker, American born, who was living in York, England, when he published his “English Grammar,” in 1795. The full title—“English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners”—makes it sound like an early version of “Grammar for Dummies.”

The selection on view at the Grolier is a mere sliver of Garner’s collection; at home in Dallas, he has two more first editions of Johnson’s dictionary, along with a lot of other stuff that will make a language enthusiast’s eyes bulge. The catalogue for the exhibit has two subthemes. One is a running count of how many parts of speech are defined in each grammar book: anywhere from two (nouns and verbs) to thirty-three (don’t ask). (The traditional number is eight.) The other thread is rivalry and backbiting among authors. In that era, a Grammar was second only to a Bible as a necessary object in a God-fearing household. While the Bible provided moral instruction, the Grammar, as a guide to correct linguistic behavior, might shore up confidence and help one get ahead in the world. A pageant of pedants, both male and female, squabbled for their share of the market. The major conflict on exhibit is between Webster and Murray—or perhaps simply within Webster. Garner suggests that it may have all begun with a handwritten document labelled “Articles of Agreement for the Sale of Land in Lower Manhattan by Lindley Murray to Noah Webster,” dated December 20, 1794.

. . . .

At the time, Webster, the author of the aforementioned grammar as well as of a spelling book and a reader for schoolchildren, was living in New York, where he was the editor of the Minerva, the city’s first daily newspaper, a pro-Federalist mouthpiece. Murray was in York, so the sale was handled by his brother John. Garner writes that it would have been natural for John Murray to pass along to Lindley any pertinent information about the prospective buyer, notably his authorship of a grammar book, and that this may have given Lindley the idea for a grammar book of his own. Webster certainly thought so. Or, at least, Murray’s interest in grammar seems to have arisen rather suddenly. To be fair, there was a recognized need for such a book in Quaker schools, but the timing of its appearance is suspicious: “English Grammar” was published in the spring following the real-estate deal. Webster accused Murray of stealing his material, although he had said himself, when accused of plagiarism, that “the materials of all English grammars are the same.” It would be difficult to get a patent on, say, the objective case.

Murray instructed his brother not to respond to any of Webster’s claims. (He, too, was a lawyer.) “Whoever writes a Grammar, must, in some degree, make use of his predecessors’ labours,” he contended. Webster subsequently pointed out perceived errors in Murray’s work (“The word that is never a conjunction. It is a pronoun or pronominal adjective in every sentence in which it is used”). For decades, he pressed his case for copyright reform, eventually becoming known as the father of American copyright law. Meanwhile, Murray’s Grammar was popular on both sides of the Atlantic; with its sequels, he ultimately sold more than fifteen million books. Webster fell back on lexicography.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Nuclear Folly

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Oct. 23, 1962, a delegation of prominent Romanians arrived at the Kremlin to meet Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Their host was foul of mood. Boorish and suspicious by nature, the strongman had spent a sleepless night deliberating with the Presidium over what to do in the escalating crisis for which Khrushchev himself was responsible: his secret installation, across that summer, of nuclear-weapons systems and some 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba.

Aerial reconnaissance revealed the installations to the Americans on Oct. 14, and President Kennedy, in a televised address eight days later, announced a naval quarantine to block delivery of additional weapons to the island. All sides—with the exception, perhaps, of Fidel Castro, who relished Havana’s role at the center of world events—feared that any display of aggressiveness, or miscalculation, could trigger an apocalyptic nuclear exchange.

At the reception in their honor, the Romanians watched Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Malinovsky approach his boss with bad news: The U.S. Navy was on high alert, readying the blockade. “Khrushchev flew into a rage,” Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a Romanian communist leader, reported later to Romanian intelligence. The premier was “yelling, cursing and issuing an avalanche of contradictory orders.” He “threatened to ‘nuke’ the White House, and cursed loudly every time anyone pronounced the words America or American.”

The vast literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis has made it a case study across scholarly disciplines: intelligence analysis, nuclear brinkmanship, game theory, organizational psychology. To this literature, the Oct. 23 Kremlin outburst—which appears midway through Serhii Plokhy’s superb “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis”—would appear to mark a significant contribution: an eyewitness account of one of the saga’s two key decision makers exhibiting not only uncontrolled anger but delirium. Khrushchev’s threat to “nuke” the White House, his “avalanche of contradictory orders,” constitute the most troubling behavior we could imagine in a leader “managing” such a crisis.

. . . .

This time the bad news came from the KGB’s Vladimir Semichastny: a cable reporting that Kennedy had canceled a trip to Brazil to oversee the quarantine. Mr. Plokhy, a professor of history at Harvard, provides this account, drawing on Gheorghiu-Dej’s report: “Khrushchev’s face grew red as he read the cable. He started ‘cursing like a bargeman,’ threw the paper on the floor, and stamped on it with his heel. ‘That’s how I’m going to crush that viper,’ he shouted, also calling Kennedy a ‘millionaire’s whore.’ ”

Another arresting passage unmentioned in the earlier books relates the confession of Vasilii Kuznetsov, the Soviet deputy foreign minister: “From the very beginning of the crisis, fear of the possible course of further developments arose within the Soviet leadership and increased with every passing hour.”

Mr. Plokhy’s endnotes frequently cite Russian and Ukrainian sources: declassified KGB documents, memoirs of retired Soviet apparatchiks, studies by Russian scholars, much of it new to English readers. The range of such references conveys the scope of the author’s research and explains how he could add so much to the documentary record of a subject covered so voluminously. “Nuclear Folly” is an immense scholarly achievement, engrossing and terrifying, surely one of the most important books ever written about the Cuban Missile Crisis and 20th-century international relations.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Minds Without Brains?

From Commonweal:

n the view of many scientists, Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t living up to the hype of its proponents. We don’t yet have safe driverless cars—and we’re not likely to in the near future. Nor are robots about to take on all our domestic drudgery so that we can devote more time to leisure. On the brighter side, robots are also not about to take over the world and turn humans into slaves the way they do in the movies.

Nevertheless, there is real cause for concern about the impact AI is already having on us. As Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis write in their book, Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust, “the AI we have now simply can’t be trusted.” In their view, the more authority we prematurely turn over to current machine systems, the more worried we should be. “Some glitches are mild, like an Alexa that randomly giggles (or wakes you in the middle of the night, as happened to one of us), or an iPhone that autocorrects what was meant as ‘Happy Birthday, dear Theodore’ into ‘Happy Birthday, dead Theodore,’” they write. “But others—like algorithms that promote fake news or bias against job applicants—can be serious problems.”

Marcus and Davis cite a report by the AI Now Institute detailing AI problems in many different domains, including Medicaid-eligibility determination, jail-term sentencing, and teacher evaluations:

Flash crashes on Wall Street have caused temporary stock market drops, and there have been frightening privacy invasions (like the time an Alexa recorded a conversation and inadvertently sent it to a random person on the owner’s contact list); and multiple automobile crashes, some fatal. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a major AI-driven malfunction in an electrical grid. If this occurs in the heat of summer or the dead of winter, a large number of people could die.

The computer scientist Jaron Lanier has cited the darker aspects of AI as it has been exploited by social-media giants like Facebook and Google, where he used to work. In Lanier’s view, AI-driven social-media platforms promote factionalism and division among users, as starkly demonstrated in the 2016 and 2020 elections, when Russian hackers created fake social-media accounts to drive American voters toward Donald Trump. As Lanier writes in his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, AI-driven social media are designed to commandeer the user’s attention and invade her privacy, to overwhelm her with content that has not been fact-checked or vetted. In fact, Lanier concludes, it is designed to “turn people into assholes.”

As Brooklyn College professor of law and Commonweal contributor Frank Pasquale points out in his book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, the loss of individual privacy is also alarming. And while powerful businesses, financial institutions, and government agencies hide their actions behind nondisclosure agreements, “proprietary methods,” and gag rules, the lives of ordinary consumers are increasingly open books to them. “Everything we do online is recorded,” Pasquale writes:

The only questions left are to whom the data will be available, and for how long. Anonymizing software may shield us for a little while, but who knows whether trying to hide isn’t itself the ultimate red flag for watchful authorities? Surveillance cameras, data brokers, sensor networks, and “supercookies” record how fast we drive, what pills we take, what books we read, what websites we visit. The law, so aggressively protective of secrecy in the world of commerce, is increasingly silent when it comes to the privacy of persons.

Meanwhile, as Lanier notes, these big tech companies are publicly committed to an extravagant AI “race” that they often prioritize above all else. Lanier thinks this race is insane. “We forget that AI is a story we computer scientists made up to help us get funding once upon a time, back when we depended on grants from government agencies. It was pragmatic theater. But now AI has become a fiction that has overtaken its authors.”AI-driven social-media platforms promote factionalism and division among users, as starkly demonstrated in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

In Marcus and Davis’s view, the entire field needs to refocus its energy on making AI more responsive to common sense. And to do this will require a complete rethinking of how we program machines.

“The ability to conceive of one’s own intent and then use it as a piece of evidence in causal reasoning is a level of self-awareness (if not consciousness) that no machine I know of has achieved,” writes Judea Pearl, a leading AI proponent who has spent his entire career researching machine intelligence. “I would like to be able to lead a machine into temptation and have it say, ‘No.’” In Pearl’s view, current computers don’t really constitute artificial intelligence. They simply constitute the ground level of what can and likely will lead to true artificial intelligence. Having an app that makes your life much easier is not the same thing as having a conversation with a machine that can reason and respond to you like another human being.

In his Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, co-written with Dana McKenzie, Pearl lays out the challenges that need to be met in order to produce machines that can think for themselves. Current AI systems can scan for regularities and patterns in swaths of data faster than any human. They can be taught to beat champion chess and Go players. According to an article in Science, there is now a computer that can even beat humans at multiplayer games of poker. But these are all narrowly defined tasks; they do not require what Pearl means by thinking for oneself. In his view, machines that use data have yet to learn how to “play” with it. To think for themselves, they would need to be able to determine how to make use of data to answer causal questions. Even more crucially, they would need to learn how to ask counterfactual questions about how the same data could be used differently. In short, they would have to learn to ask a question that comes naturally to every three-year-old child: “Why?”

“To me, a strong AI should be a machine that can reflect on its actions and learn from past mistakes. It should be able to understand the statement ‘I should have acted differently,’ whether it is told as much by a human or arrives at that conclusion itself.” Pearl builds his approach around what he calls a three-level “Ladder of Causation,” at the pinnacle of which stand humans, the only species able to think in truly causal terms, to posit counterfactuals (“What would have happened if…?”).

But then a further question arises: Would such artificial intelligence be conscious the way we are? Or would it simply be a more advanced form of “smart” machine that exists purely to serve humans? There is reason for skepticism. As philosopher David Chalmers told Prashanth Ramakrishna in a New York Times interview in 2019, intelligence does not necessarily imply subjective consciousness:

Intelligence is a matter of the behavioral capacities of these systems: what they can do, what outputs they can produce given their inputs. When it comes to intelligence, the central question is, given some problems and goals, can you come up with the right means to your ends? If you can, that is the hallmark of intelligence. Consciousness is more a matter of subjective experience. You and I have intelligence, but we also have subjectivity; it feels like something on the inside when we have experiences. That subjectivity—consciousness—is what makes our lives meaningful. It’s also what gives us moral standing as human beings.

In Chalmers’s view, trying to prove that machines have achieved consciousness would not be easy. “Maybe an A.I. system that could describe its own conscious states to me, saying, ‘I’m feeling pain right now. I’m having this experience of hurt or happiness or sadness’ would count for more. Maybe what would count for the most is [its] feeling some puzzlement at its mental state: ‘I know objectively that I’m just a collection of silicon circuits, but from the inside I feel like so much more.’”

Link to the rest at Commonweal

Censorship Competition Heats Up

From The Wall Street Journal:

By now it is clear that wokeness is a contagious malady. Amazon.com made headlines in February when it suddenly delisted Ryan Anderson’s book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” a thoughtful, humane and deeply researched investigation of a controverted subject of public debate.

As the publisher of that 2018 bestseller, I was taken aback by reports that Mr. Anderson’s book was unavailable at “the world’s largest bookstore.” At first, I wondered whether there was some mistake.

But no. It was a deliberate act of censorship. Moreover, like the earl of Strafford, Amazon’s motto was “Thorough.” They didn’t just stop selling the book. They pushed it into the digital oubliette, erasing all trace of it from the Amazon website. They did the same thing at their subsidiaries Audible, which sells audiobooks, and AbeBooks, which sells secondhand books.

Now it turns out that Bookshop.org, which bills itself a scrappy alternative to the Bezos Behemoth, is up to the same game. A couple of weeks ago, a reader alerted us that Mr. Anderson’s book had gone missing from the Bookshop.org website.

The organization never responded to our queries. But on Friday we learned from our distributor that Bookshop had deep-sixed the book. “We did remove this title based on our policies,” Bookshop wrote to our distributor—without, however, explaining what those “policies” might be. “We had multiple complaints and concerns from customers, affiliates, and employees about the title.”

Perhaps other customers, affiliates and employees expressed “complaints and concerns” about Heather Mac Donald’s “The War on Cops,” another Encounter bestseller. That book has also been disappeared from the Bookshop website.

. . . .

I couldn’t help but note that at least one of my own books, “Tenured Radicals,” is missing in action there. Apparently there were no “complaints and concerns” about Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” however. That book is available in a variety of editions, as are the anti-Semitic lucubrations of Louis Farrakhan and many other similarly unedifying effusions.

Underdogs make for good copy, so it was no surprise that Bookshop was hailed as a brave upstart, a feisty David to the Goliath of Amazon. “Bookshop.org hopes to play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire,” ran the headline of a valentine in the Chicago Tribune.

Bookshop turns out to be little more than another minion for the Emperor of Wokeness. For the past couple of weeks, the first item advertised on its home page is that bible of antiwhite woke sermonizing, “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Many readers, I’d wager, would have “complaints and concerns” about that screed. But that doesn’t mean that Bookshop should stop selling it. Nor would it, regardless of how many complained.

The move to squash Mr. Anderson’s book is the vanguard of a larger effort to silence debate and impose ideological conformity on any contentious issue in which the commissars of woke culture have made an investment. It has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with power.

Amazon and now Bookshop have sided firmly with the bullies. Doubtless there will be more interdictions, delistings and suppressions. They can do it, so they will do it.

One of the more tiresome canards from the courtiers is that entities like Amazon and Bookshop are private companies and therefore that they can choose to sell, or not sell, whatever they want.

This is true, but also irrelevant. What we are witnessing are not the prerogatives of the free market but the clashings of a culture war. Those clashings may adopt, as camouflage, the rhetoric of free enterprise, but their end is control and obliteration of opposing points of view.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Lest any visitors to TPV should have any doubts, PG is concerned about viewpoint discrimination on the part of Amazon.

He acknowledges that, as a private business, Amazon has the right to choose what products it will and will not sell, but this decision drops the company into the middle of a political controversy that it needn’t have joined.

Amazon is a very large target for those across the political spectrum and a serious antitrust investigation of the company’s activities and policies could substantially harm its business.

More than one giant US company has been hamstrung and permanently impaired by a lengthy antitrust probe. Classic examples are AT&T, Kodak and Standard Oil.

Most recently, Microsoft was involved in a lengthy antitrust suit.

Bill Gates later said that the antitrust suit prevented Microsoft from completing development on Windows Mobile, its cell phone operating system (which left the field open to Apple and Android). Apple’s annual revenue is now about twice as large as Microsoft’s.

Gates also cited the stress of the antitrust suit as a contributing factor in his decision to step down from the leadership of Microsoft in 2000. PG is not alone in believing that Microsoft has not been the same company since Gates left.

There has been a growing sentiment in the United States that the big technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook have become too large and powerful.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had what was widely regarded as a poor showing in his videoconference testimony before the House Antitrust Committee last summer. He recently declined an invitation to testify before a Senate committee investigating “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.”

PG notes that TPV is not a political blog and requests that comments not devolve into political name-calling. He is concerned about Amazon’s future primarily because it is the only significant marketplace where indie authors can publish their books on an equal basis with books from traditional publishers and Amazon provides a very large portion of the royalties that indie authors earn from their books.

How to ‘Update’ Beliefs

From The Wall Street Journal:

Metaphors carry us from one idea that is difficult to understand to another that is easier to grasp. Many subjects are notoriously incomprehensible, making the use of metaphors essential.

The Newtonian “mechanical universe” metaphor, for example, transfers us from the difficult idea of gravity and the spooky notion of action-at-a-distance to the more understandable “clockwork” of gears and wheels. Enlightenment thinkers used the mechanical metaphor to explain everything from the human body (with its levers and pulleys of joints, tendons and muscles) to political systems (the king as the sun, his subjects as encircling planets) and even economies: François Quesnay modeled the French economy after the human body, likening the flow of money through a nation to blood coursing through a body’s veins; he compared ruinous government policies to diseases that impeded economic health, and therefore recommended laissez-faire.

The workings of the human mind are especially enigmatic, so scientists have long invoked metaphors such as hydraulic mechanisms, electrical wires, logic circuits, computer networks, software programs and information workspaces to help explain what’s going on. In “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t,” Julia Galef, a co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and host of the popular podcast “Rationally Speaking,” uses a military metaphor of scouts and soldiers.

According to Ms. Galef’s divide, the soldier mindset leads us to defend our beliefs against outside threats, seek out evidence to support our beliefs, ignore or rationalize away counterevidence and resist admitting we’re wrong—as that feels like defeat. The scout mindset, by contrast, seeks to discover what is true through evidence, and reasons toward conclusions that lead to a more accurate map of reality—“the motivation to see things as they are,” Ms. Galef explains, “not as you wish they were.”

The differences between these two mindsets are striking and, Ms. Galef argues, explain how thinking goes right or wrong. Soldiers rationalize, deny, deceive and self-deceive, and engage in motivated reasoning and wishful thinking to win the battle of beliefs. “We talk about our beliefs as if they’re military positions, or even fortresses, built to resist attack,” the author writes. This soldier mindset leads us to defend against people who might “ ‘poke holes in’ our logic,” “shoot down” our beliefs or confront us with a “ ‘knock-down’ argument,” all of which may leave our beliefs “undermined,” “weakened” or even “destroyed.” Soldiers thus become “entrenched” in their beliefs, resisting “surrender” to an opposing position.

When our beliefs are true, of course, this can be effective. The problem is that almost all reasoning and decision-making happens under uncertainty, so the soldier mindset can easily lead to a perpetuation of error. In seeking truth—that is, an accurate map of reality regardless of which belief is right—scouts engage in more open-minded discovery, objectivity and intellectual honesty. “I was wrong” and “I changed my mind” become virtues instead of vices.

Soldier-types are more likely to believe that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness, or that it is important to persevere in beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them. Scouts are more likely to take into consideration evidence that goes against their own beliefs, or think it may be more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with them than to those who agree.

Scouts, Ms. Galef explains, “revise their opinions incrementally over time, which makes it easier to be open to evidence against their beliefs.” They also “view errors as opportunities to hone their skill at getting things right, which makes the experience of realizing ‘I was wrong’ feel valuable, rather than just painful.” In fact, the author suggests, we should drop the whole “wrong” confession and instead describe the process as “updating”—a reference to Bayesian reasoning, in which we revise our estimations of the probability of something’s being true after gaining new information about it. “An update is routine. Low-key. It’s the opposite of an overwrought confession of sin,” Ms. Galef continues. “An update makes something better or more current without implying that its previous form was a failure.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most of us like to think of ourselves as enlightened, thoughtful observers of the world around us, skeptical of irrational claims, crazy ideas and silly theories. It is only other people, members of eccentric subcultures in far-off places, who are susceptible to such foolishness. It is a flattering self-portrait. But is it true?

In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

We all remember the self-esteem programs that beguiled grade-school educators in the 1980s and 1990s. The idea was that, by handing out more prizes and encouraging self-affirming rhetoric, young people would do better in their studies and in life generally. But, as Mr. Singal notes, self-esteem failed to “ ‘unlock the gates’ of success.” Nor did it help to reduce—as promised—crime, teen pregnancy and a host of other social ills.

Then there was power-posing for women in the workplace: the claim that, by adopting assertive positions (legs astride, hands on hips) for two minutes before, say, going into a job interview, or while giving a presentation, a new confidence will be engendered as well as an improved status among otherwise dismissive men. A TED talk by an originator of power-posing and its chief evangelist, a Harvard psychologist, garnered 61 million views. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook was a fan. But it turned out that standing like Wonder Woman didn’t give women the promised testosterone boost and confidence they sought.

A MacArthur Fellowship-winning social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania championed a mental trait called “grit” (aka stick-to-itiveness). Teaching “grit” became a wildly popular way to build character or boost grades in school-aged children across the country. It didn’t deliver. As Mr. Singal notes, established concepts such as conscientiousness and IQ were far better at predicting performance.

Eventually the psychologists who created the test conceded that it had severe measurement problems. Among other things, it turned out that the IAT had notoriously low reliability, meaning that a subject could score “prejudiced” one day but not the next. And the test lacked predictive power or, as the creators acknowledged, was “problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination.” Nonetheless, the IAT has a vast reach. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of employees of corporations, foundations, universities, government agencies and police departments have taken the IAT—and have been told of the biases they possess but do not feel. After the killing of George Floyd, the popularity of the IAT exploded, despite the fact that it can’t predict the behavior that creates a racially unjust society.

What is the allure of these interventions? Humans will instinctively respond to a novel and simple—but not too alien—story about a subject of great social concern. What is more, fads are based on behavioral science conducted by researchers at esteemed institutions. Some of their colleagues grasp the exaggeration of their claims, but, as Mr. Singal writes, “it’s unrealistic to expect the average human resources manager or school principal or other institutional decision-maker to possess such skill and knowledge.”

On the supply side, psychologists have incentives to promote simple rather than complex theories. In a competitive academic field, a sexy press release can get one noticed. Even if fad originators were sincere at first, and most appear to have been, they often become too personally invested in what they are promoting. As Mr. Singal notes, they are “able to charge higher speaking fees, pursue lucrative consulting jobs, secure book deals, and enjoy the perks of minor celebrity.”

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

High Conflict

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amanda Ripley, a journalist whose first book, “The Unthinkable,” was about how people survive disasters, has covered “all manner of human misery.” Her latest book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” is prompted by misery of the American political kind. After the 2016 election, Ms. Ripley reflects, journalists who cared about telling the truth in all its complexity were preaching to a “shrinking choir of partisans.” Those who still read the news searched it for weapons to use against enemies. It “felt like curiosity was dead.”

Curiosity is a casualty of “high conflict,” a term that Ms. Ripley uses to describe our bitter politics and much else. We need conflict because human beings, limited in experience, biased but needing to act, are natural partisans. We find ourselves in conflict with other partisans. But under the best circumstances, that conflict, even when “stressful and heated,” keeps us “open to the reality that none of us has all the answers.” In “healthy conflict,” we defend what we hold dear but understand what others do, and, even when we don’t revise our views, find a way to work with them. In contrast, high conflict imagines an “us,” whose ideas must prevail, and a “them,” whose books must burn. It appears to clarify matters by narrowing vision.

. . . .

Our culture and values, Ms. Ripley argues, can also draw us into high conflict. We all experience humiliation, but a member of Curtis’s gang learned to perceive small slights as humiliations that required a forceful response. What humiliates and how one responds to humiliation, she argues, are “socially informed,” sometimes by “conflict entrepreneurs,” bad actors who “exploit high conflict for their own ends.”

. . . .

Ms. Ripley has more to offer than Baha’i wisdom when she turns to how people escape from high conflict. The most important insight of this part of the book is that you can’t beat high conflict with scolding it, however high-mindedly. Curtis Toler takes a step back from the Stones because he is a parent as well as a gang leader. He maintains his distance because he is offered another way to matter, working with those most likely to perpetrate or become victims of violence. Mark Lynas, the environmental activist, permits himself to see his mistakes only when he meets scientists whose “dedication to empirical evidence over ideology” he comes to admire. He sees a way to matter, and continue to pursue the aims he cares about.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that all experienced authors know conflict is a highly-useful (perhaps almost necessary) element in successful fiction.

‘Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue’ Review: The Taxman Cometh, Again

From The Wall Street Journal:

Wherever they stand in their annual tussle with the American income-tax system, vexed readers in what is dolefully called tax season may agree with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill when he declared that “our tax code is an abomination.”

If it’s any consolation, your taxes might have been both abominable and even sillier than they already are. Over the centuries, rulers have imposed levies on beards, livestock flatulence and even urine (valued in ancient Rome for its ammonia). In 1795, Britain imposed an annual tax of one guinea on the right to apply fragrant powders to smelly wigs. Since pigtails were common, those taxpayers became “guinea-pigs.”

Such are the tax-free dividends on offer in “Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue,” an erudite yet good-humored history of taxation with a particular focus on Britain and its tax-allergic offspring, the United States. The authors, economists Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod, demonstrate at surprisingly engaging length that, “when it comes to designing and implementing taxes, our ancestors were addressing fundamentally the same problems that we struggle with today.”

Among those problems are the search for fairness, the appearance of which is necessary for a tax to gain public acceptance; the inevitable metastasizing of a tax code’s complexity; the burden of administration, particularly when the task is intrusive (an English tax on hearths was resented because inspectors had to come into the home and count them); and the iron law of unintended consequences, which haunts public policy generally and taxation in particular. In Britain from 1697 to 1851, a tax on windows—not a bad proxy for affluence in those days—made work for carpenters and masons hired to close them up. The resulting loss of light and air exemplifies the so-called excess burden of taxation beyond the sum of money levied. So does your accountant’s tax-preparation fee.

The problem of “tax incidence”—figuring out who actually pays a tax, regardless of who writes the check—is especially fraught. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, is a reverse tax that aims to reduce poverty while encouraging work. But for every dollar that single mothers get from the EITC—at least according to one estimate—employers of low-skill labor capture 73 cents. The EITC, after all, encourages low-skill workers to enter the labor force, increasing the labor supply and presumably driving down workers’ wages.

. . . .

The Rosetta Stone, the authors note, “describes a tax break given to the temple priests of ancient Egypt.” That taxpayers should have some say in taxation was laid out (though not fully settled) in the Magna Carta. Later struggles over this question played a role in the English Civil War, the American War of Independence (remember “taxation without representation?”), and the French Revolution. “It was the ‘long nineteenth century,’ from 1789 to 1914,” the authors report, “that finally saw the emergence in the West of a stable, adequate, and broadly consensual tax structure.”

One of the book’s many insights is that taxes and war have always gone hand in hand, enabling not just each other but the social changes that often follow. “The world wars, and especially the second one,” the authors note, “created both the machinery that made the welfare state possible and the political environment that ensured it would become reality.”

Since many readers have just filed their income taxes, a word on the history of this levy may be in order. Britain’s first genuine income tax was introduced in 1799 to pay for the French and Napoleonic wars. America’s was put in place by the North to pay for the Civil War (the rate hit 10% in 1864). Eliminated in 1872, an income tax was soon back on the political agenda because of discontent with the tariffs and state and local levies that predominated in its absence.

Ultimately a constitutional amendment was required, and in 1913 a federal income tax became law. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)