Empires and emperors are things of the past—in theory

From The Economist

From the decorative sovereigns of Europe to the more potent ones of the Gulf, monarchs still abound in the 21st century. But none of them is a real emperor. That is to say, there is no modern ruler who wields personal authority over a huge, diverse range of polities, thanks to a distinctive, mysterious swirl of dynastic and spiritual credentials.

That is the observation, delivered with a near-audible sigh of regret, of a historian who has devoted a professional lifetime to one empire in particular, that of Russia under the Romanovs, and to imperial regimes in general. Dominic Lieven brings to his latest work a striking, informed empathy for the dilemmas of mighty sovereigns, from Britain’s Queen-Empress Victoria to galloping lords of the steppes.

As his narrative whirls through the realms of Rome, India, the various Islamic caliphates (including the Ottoman one), the tsarist autocracy and colonial systems commanded from western Europe, he demonstrates an unmistakable soft spot not only for most of the empires of the past, but for their masters and mistresses too. Few readers will share that sentiment, but most will enjoy the journey.

Mr Lieven offers especially vivid portraits of some great empresses, from China’s Wu Zetian (who ruled from 690 to 705ad) to Russia’s Catherine the Great (1762-96), both of whom made shrewd use of their status as outsiders in male-dominated worlds. With verve, he describes the good-cop/bad-cop games played by imperial strategists: that mixture of light-touch suzerainty through local proxies, and occasional ruthlessness, which often let a handful of individuals hold sway over vast and scattered populations.

He presents empires as systems in which disparate cultures and technologies could co-exist creatively. He sees ethno-nationalism—the emergence of small and sharply defined states that slip the imperial bonds—as a destructive force. He is disarmingly frank about the personal history that colours this approach. His academic home is in Britain but he descends from Baltic-German nobles who served Russia; he grew up among Anglo-Irish folk in the twilight of British domination, and spends many months with his in-laws in Japan.

The title promises a focus on imperial claims to divinely ordained legitimacy, or to the plain divinity asserted by the rulers of ancient Rome and nearly modern Japan. And Mr Lieven does say a lot about the unifying and legitimising role played by religion in various empires, from Buddhism and Confucianism in China to Russian Orthodoxy. He writes well about the stark, compelling simplicity of Islam, which galvanised a previously unremarkable group of middle Arabians to overwhelm more sophisticated places.

But religion is only one of his themes. He is no less fascinated by the disproportionate role in history played by the fighting horsemen who, as he recounts, held sway over the north Eurasian grasslands for about 2,500 years—until well into the second Christian millennium. As Mr Lieven notes, the dynastic realms that once extended from modern China can be divided into those dominated by the Han Chinese (the Song and Ming), and the much larger territories governed by the Mongol, Qing and Tang dynasties, whose origins can be traced to “the nomadic warrior world of the Eurasian steppe”.

Both the Ottomans and (less obviously) the Russians, especially those of Moscow, could claim similar roots. Russians are taught at school that in 1480 their forebears threw off the yoke of their so-called Tatar-Mongol masters. This falsely conflates two peoples; it also understates the deep symbiotic link between the Slavic rulers of the Muscovy region and their overlords.

Having said that real empires are a thing of the past, Mr Lieven rather shyly makes the case that understanding them is still important. As he puts it, “most large countries in Asia remain more like empires than the European model of the ethno-national polity.” If the continent “catches the disease of European ethno-nationalism the planet might well not survive the resulting chaos.”

Modern India, he writes provocatively, is the product of the Mughal and British empires, which used divide-and-rule tactics, along with pomp and ceremony, to knit the subcontinent together. Having lost its anti-colonial legitimacy, Mr Lieven says, the Indian state is now succumbing to the plague of ethno-nationalism, and seems to be locked in an ever-more dangerous stand-off with Pakistan.

That analysis will be controversial in India. In any case, the argument for studying empires can be made more simply. Recall that since 2017 American strategy has avowedly been based on great-power competition, which means vying with Russia and China. Officially, neither is now an empire in the sense of being ruled by a sovereign. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are depicted as emperors in cartoons, but both emerged from an ideology that in theory abhorred inherited privilege.

What matters most, though, is not what they are, but what they think they are.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Patton’s Payback

From The Wall Street Journal:

Like any good soldier, Maj. Gen. George Patton wrote regularly to his wife, though perhaps not as tenderly as she would have liked: “I wish I could get out and kill someone,” he told her in the winter of 1942-43.

November had started out in pleasing fashion, with Patton commanding 35,000 soldiers and 250 tanks in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa that marked the first time that Americans had faced German and Italian troops in World War II. But within a few weeks he was stuck in Casablanca. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had him moving supplies and men to the front, while the rest of the Anglo-American army marched through Morocco and Algeria and into Tunisia. This wasn’t his idea of warfare. When it came to the enemy—in the words of his son-in-law, then-Col. John K. Waters—Patton expected “to hold them by the nose and kick them in the ass.”

That job had unfortunately been entrusted to a more timid two-star, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, who preferred to stay well away from the fighting. Even with roughly 90 miles between him and the Axis forces, as Stephen L. Moore tells us in “Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton’s Rise to Glory,” Fredendall ordered his engineers to dig “subway-like tunnels and underground complexes” to protect his headquarters in Tunisia from German bombers.

. . . .

Not until spring 1943 was Fredendall kicked upstairs, promoted and sent home to train young Americans for future combat—thus delaying Patton’s return to a front-line command. The hiatus doesn’t trouble Mr. Moore, who isn’t writing a campaign history. Instead, like a latter-day Ernie Pyle, he wants to tell the story of men at the tip of the spear. Letters home, diaries and postwar interviews are the grist for Mr. Moore’s mill, and he has a gift for melding them into a coherent narrative.

Thus we learn the story of the invasion and the subsequent march across North Africa through the eyes of the men who fought it. We read about the gallant Col. Bill Darby of the Ranger battalion and about enlisted soldiers like Pfc. Harley Reynolds, who in his first hour under fire notices that his platoon’s machine-gunner has frozen up. “Reynolds grabbed the gunner’s feet and yanked him away,” writes Mr. Moore, and another brave lad flops down beside him to feed the ammunition. At one point, we see troops just ahead of combat, as viewed by a lieutenant who is gauging their mental state: “Some chatted excitedly while heating C rations over their little stoves, while others enjoyed a few hours of sleep ‘after rereading by candlelight for the hundredth time a crumpled and smudged letter from home.’ ”

Such details are so absorbing that one scarcely notices that it is not until halfway through the book—and halfway across North Africa—that Patton takes charge. He shows up for breakfast at Fredendall’s bunker-like headquarters at 0700 hours (7 a.m.) on March 7, 1943. Only one other officer is present. “Patton immediately passed orders to the cooks that the mess hall would be closed at 0730 on this day and every day forward,” Mr. Moore tells us. Nor is that his only dictate. “Every man old enough will shave every day,” he decrees. “Officers will wear ties into combat. And anyone wearing a wool knit cap without a steel helmet will be shot.” Appearances are important to Patton, and he is seldom photographed without a tie, steel helmet, knee boots, flared cavalry breeches and an ivory-handled pistol on each hip.

He immediately gathers Fredendall’s scattered American forces—now 88,000 men in three infantry divisions, an armored division, a field artillery brigade and seven battalions of “tank destroyers” (basically heavy trucks, each with a cannon firing over the driver’s head)—into a unified command. His headquarters is never far from the fighting. More than once, the troops plead with him to get back, perhaps for fear that his three stars (he’s now a lieutenant general) will attract sniper fire.

. . . .

Since November 1942, as Mr. Moore reminds us, the Operation Torch troops (British, American and French) have taken a 1,000-mile swath of land, from Casablanca to central Tunisia, while another British army has pushed the enemy out of Egypt and across Libya to the Tunisian coast. Against orders, Patton tells his troops to drive for the coast

. . . .

[O]n April 14, Patton is called to Eisenhower’s headquarters and told to start planning Operation Husky, the forthcoming invasion of Sicily that will mark the Allies’ return to the European continent. “In a mere five weeks of command,” concludes Mr. Moore, “Patton had turned the tide. . . . He had charted a course for victory, and had whipped an ill-prepared army into shape.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)

One More for the Road

From Washington City Paper:

By my count, I’ve had a hand in producing roughly 450 print issues of Washington City Paper since I joined its staff as the City Lights editor in the fall of 2012. Several stand out for reasons good and bad—massive Best of D.C. books that had us working around the clock, stories we knew we’d beaten our competitors to, an issue sent to the printer so late that we feared it might not come out. The rest ebbed back into the ocean after cresting on Wednesday nights.

From a technical standpoint, my generation of City People has a significantly easier time producing print issues than our predecessors did, assembling our issues with trackpads and keyboard commands while they used knives and paste. In the paper’s nascent days, when it was still produced in Baltimore, the staff sent pages and materials back and forth on a massive fax machine. That was an improvement, former publisher Amy Austin says, over the previous method: On Monday nights, she used to deliver the necessary files to the Greyhound bus station, where they would be ferried north.

Print issues were commodities. Readers grabbed them from delivery drivers before they could even drop off a stack at a business or a street box. The need for news, for criticism, for event listings, for classified ads, or a good story was immediate, and the internet has only expanded that pleasure center.

In my time at City Paper, the issues shrunk. Advertisers moved online and found ways to reach the specific audiences they were looking for. Competitors arrived on the scene, offering their own irreverent takes on life in the District. Still we pushed forward, filing dispatches on abandoned car parts, shameless developers, and the characters entering and exiting the Wilson Building. Newer annual issues, such as the Answers Issue and the People Issue, still demanded a place on a coffee table or in your hand at a coffee shop. 

And then came a novel coronavirus, the enemy of almost everything but especially independent arts venues. We muddled through what we hoped was the worst of it, but eventually had to face a harsh reality: Our advertisers and many of our readers are elsewhere. We meet readers in their email inboxes more frequently than we meet them on the street. A bar that hosts live music is most focused on paying its staff right now.

So this is the last regular print edition of Washington City Paper you will see. In the weeks leading up to this issue, I found myself thinking about those departed characters whose shadows hang over the institution. Of Jim Graham, the AIDS advocate and former Ward 1 councilmember who would register his complaints every week without fail but still stop by a holiday party. Of Marion Barry, the main character of D.C.’s home rule era and of countless City Paper stories, who transformed the District in so many ways. Of Michael Mariotte, the punk-rock drummer who decided to kick this whole thing off. Of David Carr, the tough but transformational leader whose wisdom on craft and reporting are still being passed down to generation after generation of aspiring writers. What would they say? (Carr, I’m guessing, would tell us to keep working.)

. . . .

Washington City Paper will still be around, albeit in digital formats and with a smaller staff. And we will still do our damnedest to get it right.

Link to the rest at Washington City Paper

PG hadn’t heard of this particular newspaper in Washington, DC, before and is always a bit sad when he hears of any enterprise that people worked hard at starting and continuing is going out of business or cutting back substantially.

When PG started working a long time ago, he was in Chicago and the city had five newspapers, two that published in the morning, two in the afternoon and one daily paper that catered to the large African-American community.

When he entered the station, morning and evening, he would automatically buy a newspaper, read it while he rode on the train and deposit the paper in a trash can when he got off the train.

Chicago had a lot of good newspaper columnists during that era. PG’s favorite was Mike Royko, who had a unique, sarcastic and jaded take on a lot of things in Chicago.

Here’s an old Royko column, written in 1972, on the day Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team, died.

Jackie’s Debut a Unique Day

All that Saturday, the wise men of the neighborhood, who sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside the tavern, had talked about what it would do to baseball.

 I hung around and listened because baseball was about the most important thing in the world, and if anything was going to ruin it, I was worried.

 Most of the things they said, I didn’t understand, although it all sounded terrible. But could one man bring such ruin?

 They said he could and would. And the next day he was going to be in Wrigley Field for the first time, on the same diamond as Hack, Nicholson, Cavarretta, Schmitz, Pafko, and all my other idols.

 I had to see Jackie Robinson, the man who was going to somehow wreck everything. So the next day, another kid and I started walking to the ballpark early.

 We always walked to save the streetcar fare. It was five or six miles, but I felt about baseball the way Abe Lincoln felt about education.

 Usually, we could get there just at noon, find a seat in the grandstand, and watch some batting practice. But not that Sunday, May 18, 1947.

 By noon, Wrigley Field was almost filled. The crowd outside spilled off the sidewalk and into the streets. Scalpers were asking top dollar for box seats and getting it.

 I had never seen anything like it. Not just the size, although it was a new record, more than 47,000. But this was twenty-five years ago, and in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the white North Side at a Cub game.

 That day, they came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars.

 They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes·suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats. I’ve never seen so many straw hats.

 As big as it was, the crowd was orderly. Almost unnaturally so. People didn’t jostle each other.

 The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease.

 For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.

 We managed to get in, scramble up a ramp, and find a place to stand behind the last row of grandstand seats. Then they shut the gates. No place remained to stand.

 Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn’t the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.

 When Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The place went silent.

 He swung at the first pitch and they erupted as if he had knocked it over the wall. But it was only a high foul that dropped into the box seats. I remember thinking it was strange that a foul could make that many people happy. When he struck out, the low moan was genuine.

 I’ve forgotten most of the details of the game, other than that the Dodgers won and Robinson didn’t get a hit or do anything special, although he was cheered on every swing and every routine play.

 But two things happened I’ll never forget. Robinson played first, and early in the game a Cub star hit a grounder and it was a close play.

 Just before the Cub reached first, he swerved to his left. And as he got to the bag, he seemed to slam his foot down hard at Robinson’s foot.

 It was obvious to everyone that he was trying to run into him or spike him. Robinson took the throw and got clear at the last instant.

 I was shocked. That Cub, a hometown boy, was my biggest hero. It was not only an unheroic stunt, but it seemed a rude thing to do in front of people who would cheer for a foul ball. I didn’t understand why he had done it. It wasn’t at all big league.

 I didn’t know that while the white fans were relatively polite, the Cubs and most other teams kept up a steady stream of racial abuse from the dugout. I thought that all they did down there was talk about how good Wheaties are.

 Late in the game, Robinson was up again, and he hit another foul ball. This time it came into the stands low and fast, in our direction. Somebody in the seats grabbed for it, but it caromed off his hand and kept coming. There was a flurry of arms as the ball kept bouncing, and suddenly it was between me and my pal. We both grabbed. I had a baseball.

 The two of us stood there examining it and chortling. A genuine major-league baseball that had actually been gripped and thrown by a Cub pitcher, hit by a Dodger batter. What a possession.

 Then I heard the voice say: “Would you consider selling that?”

 It was the black man who had applauded so fiercely.

 I mumbled something. I didn’t want to sell it.

 “I’ll give you ten dollars for it,” he said.

 Ten dollars. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what ten dollars could buy because I’d never had that much money. But I knew that a lot of men in the neighborhood considered sixty dollars a week to be good pay.

 I handed it to him, and he paid me with ten $1 bills.

 When I left the ball park, with that much money in my pocket, I was sure that Jackie Robinson wasn’t bad for the game.

 Since then, I’ve regretted a few times that I didn’t keep the ball. Or that I hadn’t given it to him free. I didn’t know, then, how hard he probably had to work for that ten dollars.

 But Tuesday I was glad I had sold it to him. And if that man is still around, and has that baseball, I’m sure he thinks it was worth every cent.

Here’s a link to more Royko columns

PG felt a little sad as he read the Royko column because he can’t remember when he last read a physical newspaper.

Capricious Actions That Cross the Line

From Publishing Perspectives:

[A] digital annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) “would hardly be a meeting of publishers,” said AAP president and CEO Maria A. Pallante, “if we didn’t address the First Amendment.

“As we all know, across the country, thousands of books are being questioned with a scrutiny that’s newly chilling,” she said, “from novels to math books. This is not to say that parents and communities don’t have a say in public education, as the law is clear that they do. But that roll has constitutional limits. It does not extend to capricious actions that cross the line and amount to censorship. In fact, the line is important.”

Indeed it is. And the association shines most brightly when it operates with such outspoken clarity in public policy and political channels to protect and promote the place of the book industry and its freedom to publish.

“And so last month, in Missouri,” Pallante said, “we were proud to join with the booksellers, Authors Guild, and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to file a brief in support of the NAACP—a case involving the removal of books from school libraries, including award-winning books addressing race and sexuality, such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

“In our filing, we highlighted the constitutional rights of minors to receive intellectual information as well as the deep flaws in the school district’s assertion that the banned books were obscene and therefore removable.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests that Ms. Pallante needs a bit more understanding about public education and the constitution.

“This is not to say that parents and communities don’t have a say in public education, as the law is clear that they do.”

To PG’s sensitive ears, this statement sounds amazingly condescending. Public education is, by and large, funded by state and local taxes. To the best of PG’s knowledge, public school boards are elected in local elections by “parents and communities.”

Generally speaking, the public schools where most students are educated are determined by what geographical school district where the students reside. PG is aware that at least some states allow students in one school district to attend schools in a different district, usually, one adjoining the district where they reside. PG is not familiar with the state of vouchers across the United States but believes vouchers aren’t available to the large majority of children in public schools.

PG was raised in rural, sometimes very rural areas where getting to public school involved a school bus ride that lasted 20-30 minutes or more in some cases. Attending a more distant school would have required his parents to transport him there because public transportation was not available in any form. The only practical choice for his education was the local public school so even if “school choice” had existed, it would not have been practically exercisable.

Many states provide “educational vouchers” that allow families to fund attendance at private schools. Typically, private schools that accept vouchers (PG doesn’t think all do) receive an amount per student that is roughly equivalent to the money a public school would receive from local and state funds for a student’s education for a year.

Ultimately, educators receiving state and local funds for their salaries select textbooks for children to read in class, spending state and local funds to purchase those books. School principals and district superintendents are also paid from those funds.

PG suggests that parents have a right to pressure public school officials if they believe their tax money is being used to provide access to books they reasonably believe will cause harm to their children. When a large group of parents supports such objections, public school officials should realize that their concerns should be carefully considered and, in virtually every circumstance, be reflected in the school’s libraries and textbooks.

The Association of American Publishers is located in Washington, DC. Virtually all major trade publishers are located in New York City. PG suggests that these two cities, their inhabitants, and their values, priorities, and interests are quite different from the typical American and, in particular, typical American families with children who attend public school.

As PG has written previously, publishers of all sorts are controlled and managed by a group of people who are quite homogenous in their values and experiences and are atypical of American families with children who attend public school. These people ultimately control the content of traditionally-published books, school books, and a wide range of other media. He suggests that their values are also quite different from the typical American and, in particular, typical American families with children who attend public school.

If you would like to read the American Association of Publishers’ brief filed with the Federal District Court, it should be embedded below.

‘The Wordhord’ Review: Here Be Dragons

From The Wall Street Journal:

The language now known as Old English arrived in Britain in the fifth century, not long after the end of Roman rule, brought by settlers from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. It was in use for 700 years, but only about 200 manuscripts containing any Old English survive, mainly from the period between 900 and 1100, and they comprise a total of 3.5 million words—fewer than in the current U.S. tax code. Today most people who engage with Old English do so at college and treat it as a dusty relic of a less enlightened age. Those who have not encountered it tend to imagine it’s the stuff of archaic English pub signs. Worse, they assume it’s the name for the language of Geoffrey Chaucer (which is actually Middle English) or Shakespeare (which is technically Early Modern English, despite student protestations to the contrary).

Hana Videen is one of a rare and treasurable breed of enthusiasts who want to remedy such misconceptions. Since the fall of 2013, she has taken to Twitter every day, as @OEWordhord, to post a single example of an Old English word. More than eight years on, the fruit of this slow accumulation is her first book. I doubt that I’m alone in frowning at the proliferation of nonfiction that began life as burblings on social media, and there’s an undelightful subgenre of Twitterature consisting of volumes that merely pile up linguistic trivia. But Ms. Videen is both a passionate medievalist and a relaxed, lucid writer; the pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.

Some of the vocabulary presented in “The Wordhord” looks very familiar: One needs no help to understand what’s meant by the nouns “butere,” “sumer” and “wulf,” and it’s pretty easy to make sense of “leornung-mann,” a student, or even “ears-endu,” the buttocks. Yet many Old English words have a discouragingly odd appearance, not least because its alphabet boasted three letters that haven’t survived—ash (æ), thorn (þ) and eth (ð). Ms. Videen likens her book to an old photo album; many of the words she cites are “familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children.” And while she revels in showcasing lexical quirks, she has a larger mission: “As I gathered words like gems, I realised that they weren’t just funny, strange and beautiful, but that together they told a story about people’s lives more than a millennium ago.”

Instead of offering a comprehensive guide to Old English, “The Wordhord” leads the reader on a tour of those people’s everyday concerns: food, work, recreation, travel. You may be reassured (or dispirited) to learn that the most frequent topics of discussion in Old English included sickness and the weather—though it’s interesting that the latter was by default regarded as mild and that someone warning of an approaching deluge would refer to “un-weder.” A different kind of age-old preoccupation is evident in the description of Grendel, a vicious marauder in the epic poem “Beowulf,” who’s considered monstrous because he is a “mearc-stapa”—in other words, a “boundary-stepper,” lurking on the fringes of society and threatening the established order.

Yet, unsurprisingly, much about the world evoked in “The Wordhord” feels alien. One could pay one’s tax in fish, perhaps throwing in a few eels for good measure, or in honey, lumber or blankets. A person accused of a crime might be expected to hold an ounce of bread and cheese in his mouth; if he had difficulty swallowing it, he was guilty. The smallest unit of time measurement was the hour. There was no Old English word for “nature”; one simply referred to “sceaft” (creation).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)

What We Can Deduce From a Leaked PDF

From Matthew Butterick:

In 1979, Bob Wood­ward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren, a chron­icle of the Supreme Court during the tumul­tuous and conse­quen­tial terms from 1969 to 1975. Including, of course, the delib­er­a­tions around Roe v. Wade. I’ve recom­mended the book before—it’s my favorite work of legal jour­nalism.

At the time, The Brethren was contro­ver­sial. Despite the Supreme Court’s long­standing policy of secrecy around internal delib­er­a­tions, it was apparent that sources within the court had spoken to Wood­ward and Armstrong off the record. After the death of Justice Potter Stewart in 1985, Wood­ward confirmed that Stewart had been one of his key sources.

Thus, the bad news for those who contend that the recent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion is “unthink­able” or, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, a “singular and egre­gious breach”—the horse is long out of the barn. Indeed, with so many more ways to securely leak infor­ma­tion these days, the only surprise in recent years is that there haven’t been more.

Much as I enjoy Wood­ward’s writing, his sources are not neces­sarily well concealed. One just needs to ask: “which person in this story takes the fewest hits?” For instance, in Wood­ward’s earlier book about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, Fear, this line of thinking led inex­orably to former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Cohn publicly ques­tioned the accu­racy of the book. Tellingly, he didn’t specify any partic­ular fact it had gotten wrong. In general, when sources deny jour­nal­istic reporting, I trust the jour­nal­ists, because there are still serious legal conse­quences for news orga­ni­za­tions that publish false­hoods; mean­while, no conse­quences at all for sources who issue blanket denials.

(This dynamic isn’t limited to polit­ical reporting. In 2018, Bloomberg Busi­ness­week published a story called “The Big Hack” that was vigor­ously denied by Apple and Amazon. Based on these denials, certain tech blog­gers became convinced that the story was false. The fact that neither Apple nor Amazon sued Bloomberg for defama­tion—despite being extremely rich, finicky, and liti­gious—made nary a dent.)

To be fair, this exchange of favors is not unique to Wood­ward. Rather, it’s a long­standing feature—or bug, some might say—of Wash­ington polit­ical jour­nalism. Much of the oper­a­tion of govern­ment is committed to the public record. But much more is not. Thus, leaks become currency, traded constantly. Without them, there would be no national polit­ical news.

So when you hear the cater­wauling—“egad, the leakers!”—assume it refers to the leaks that the cater­wauler finds unflat­tering. Although disclosing actual clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion is a crime, much infor­ma­tion about the govern­ment doesn’t fall into that cate­gory. In partic­ular, it doesn’t appear that leaking a draft Supreme Court opinion breaks any law. So the hot-blooded idea that the leaker should be “pros­e­cuted” is misplaced.

Not every leak is published, however. Over time, one of the reci­p­rocal favors that Wash­ington jour­nal­ists have offered is to plug certain leaks rather than publi­cize them. For instance, during his first 10 years on the Supreme Court—including the time depicted in The Brethren—Justice William Rehn­quist became addicted to Placidyl, a powerful seda­tive. Never­the­less, this fact was not mentioned in Wood­ward’s book, nor much other jour­nalism of the time. As best I can tell, the Wash­ington Post didn’t explic­itly connect Rehn­quist to Placidyl until after he had completed a detox program in early 1982. (Current Chief Justice John Roberts clerked for Rehn­quist during the 1980–81 term.)

Bringing us to this week’s leak by Politico of a draft Supreme Court opinion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Orga­ni­za­tion. I don’t usually comment on current events. But the possi­bil­i­ties for typo­graphic foren­sics were too intriguing to ignore.

Consis­tent with the Wash­ington jour­nal­istic prin­ciple of leaks-for-favors, I infer that whoever leaked this draft must foresee a benefit from the leak—as usual, cui bono?

. . . .

So what can we tell from the docu­ment itself?

For thor­ough­ness, I ran the PDF through some meta­data checkers to see if there were any inter­esting tidbits left behind. There weren’t. Though I didn’t expect to find any, based on the appear­ance of the docu­ment.

How was it created? Let’s go in steps:

  • An orig­inal color PDF was created on a computer using the US Supreme Court’s usual type­set­ting soft­ware. (And what is that? Programmer Faiz Surani noticed (perhaps unin­ten­tional) refer­ences in the Supreme Court Style Guide to a tool called “Opin­ions 2003”, which he spec­u­lated is a custom version of Microsoft Word 2003 used by the clerks for drafting opin­ions. This sounds plau­sible. For the type­set­ting and layout, designer Dan Rhatigan noted that the Supreme Court once used (and likely still uses) an XML-based publishing system made by Miles 33, appar­ently called OASYS. I’ve seen theo­ries else­where that La­TeX is involved—this wouldn’t surprise me either, because to my eye, the line breaking in Supreme Court opin­ions resem­bles that produced by the La­TeX algo­rithm.)
  • It seems that the PDF was created on a modern computer and not with a different device because of the use of Arial in the upper right corner of the first page.
  • It seems that the PDF was created in color because the yellow high­light around “1st Draft” is a rectangle that perfectly fits the text. Thus, the box must’ve been present in the digital file, and not, say, drawn by hand with a high­lighting pen.
  • It seems the PDF was printed and stapled because of the pres­ence of staple holes on the top left corner of each page. The opinion is 98 pages, so that must’ve been a pretty big staple.
  • It seems that the printed PDF was unsta­pled and then rescanned. Why? The reso­lu­tion of the page itself is very coarse and uneven, which is a kind of typo­graphic degra­da­tion char­ac­ter­istic of sheet scan­ners. Further­more, the pages have been scanned at different angles, which indi­cates the use of a low-volume home-office device. A typical office scanner would have an auto­mated sheet feeder that would keep the sheets in a more uniform vertical orien­ta­tion.
  • The text of the PDF is search­able because OCR was run on the PDF after it was created. Perhaps by the leaker, but more likely by the recip­ient, Politico.

It’s possible that Politico received the printed docu­ment and made their own scan. If that were the case, however, I’d expect them to have better quality scan­ning equip­ment and produce a nicer PDF.

But Politico has a strong incen­tive to protect their source. By making their own scan from a paper orig­inal, they wouldn’t open them­selves up to the disclo­sures of confi­den­tial infor­ma­tion that have tripped up others. (That said, printed docu­ments are not neces­sarily free of meta­data, as Reality Winner found out the hard way.)

Is it possible the docu­ment was scanned twice—once by the leaker, once by the publisher? I don’t think so. If it had been, I’d expect to see more pecu­liar pixel-level arti­facts and distor­tions.

So what does the state of the PDF tell us about the iden­tity of the leaker?

  • I conclude it must be someone who only had access to a stapled, printed copy of the draft opinion. (If the person had access to the under­lying digital file, they wouldn’t have printed & stapled it just to unstaple it.)
  • As explained above, I don’t think the leaker was an oppo­nent of the opinion, because there would be no tactical value in doing so. More­over, if the objec­tive of the leak was indeed to recon­sol­i­date support, then the leak didn’t come from someone whose support is wobbling.
  • Further­more, notice also that the docu­ment is completely unmarked, so whoever owned this copy didn’t find anything to disagree with.
  • In sum—I’d suppose it’s a friend, spouse, or family member of a Supreme Court justice who has consis­tently opposed Roe v. Wade, acting with some­thing between autonomy and plau­sible deni­a­bility.

Link to the rest at Matthew Butterick

There are lots of enlargements of various parts of the original leaked document at the link.

Thomas Jefferson on Newspapers and its optimum organization, 1807

From MYZ:

“To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer ‘by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.’ Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood.
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day.

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, but no details can be relied on. I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. divide his paper into 4. chapters, heading the 1st. Truths. 2d. Probabilities. 3d. Possibilities. 4th. Lies. the 1st. chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. the 2d. would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. this however should rather contain too little than too much. the 3d. & 4th. should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.

Such an editor too would have to set his face against the demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces. defamation is becoming a necessary of life: insomuch that a dish of tea, in the morning or evening, cannot be digested without this stimulant. even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complacence to their auditors, and, instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves. it seems to escape them that it is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it’s real author.

Thomas Jefferson, 1807

Excerpt from letter to John Norvell, 11 June 1807

Link to the rest at MYZ

Link to the entire original HERE

Dancing in the Name of the Lord

From The Cut:

For 40 excruciating minutes, Melanie Wilking, a trained dancer-slash-influencer with more than 3 million TikTok followers, sat in front of a camera, flanked by her weeping parents. It was a dramatic departure from her usual smiling choreographed videos, which for years she’d performed with her older sister, Miranda. Now Melanie claimed that Miranda had been pulled into what she described as a “cult.” “Miranda is a part of a religious group and she’s not allowed to speak to us,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. Her sister and the other group members are “not in control of their lives,” she continued. “Someone else is controlling their lives, and they’re all victims of this.”

Both Miranda and Melanie had moved to Los Angeles to dance a few years ago, and soon their TikTok videos had made them internet famous. But their paths began to diverge last year when Miranda was signed to 7M Films, a talent-management agency founded by a doctor-turned-preacher with a roster of a dozen young dancers whose stylish, high-production choreographed dance videos you might have seen on TikTok or Instagram.

Melanie’s video on Instagram Live came on Miranda’s 25th birthday in February, the second that had passed since the family said they had been cut off from her, and they were desperate to reconnect. The hope for any professional dancer signing with a talent agency is to book the right sorts of jobs and receive the right sort of coaching that could lead to fame. For Miranda, it seemed to work: She now has 1.3 million Instagram followers and she’s posted hundreds of slick videos produced by 7M creators, danced with Mario Lopez on Access Hollywood, and walked the red carpet at the American Music Awards.

Before all that, Miranda and Melanie had been a package deal. The Wilking Sisters, as they billed themselves, had been dancing together since they were little kids, even starting a dance camp in their own backyard in their Macomb, Michigan, suburb, when they were still in elementary school.

Both attended a performing-arts high school. After graduation, Miranda moved to L.A., landing background-dancer gigs and teaching at the International Dance Academy in Hollywood. Melanie followed a year later, finishing up her senior year remotely. For years, they filmed videos together for Musical.ly and later TikTok; performed together in dance competitions; taught courses in hip-hop, funk, and jazz together at studios across L.A.; and danced at in-person events for the very online like VidCon and TikTok Gala. Though the sisters are two years apart in age — Melanie is 23 and Miranda is 25 — with their long brown hair, matching aquiline noses and toothy smiles, and coordinated outfits, they looked in those days like twins.

By late 2019, Miranda had become involved with a few creators who would go on to be part of 7M, but it wasn’t until January 18, 2021, that she withdrew from her family, Melanie said to the followers watching her Instagram Live. She and Miranda had been scheduled to fly home to Michigan for their grandfather’s funeral, but 30 minutes before their flight, Miranda called their parents and canceled. At first, Melanie said, Miranda claimed she had COVID — Melanie was suspicious since they’d both come down with it just the month prior. “She even admitted that it wasn’t because of COVID, she was just making that up,” Melanie told the Live viewers. Kelly Wilking, the sisters’ mom, added, “And that she was sorry, and that we won’t understand.”

Just before the funeral, Wilking’s parents, Kelly and Dean, flew to California and spoke face-to-face with Miranda. According to the Wilkings, Miranda was withdrawn and defensive, a different daughter than the one they knew. She eventually “stormed out” of the meeting. It would be the last time they saw or talked to Miranda for over a year, they said.

Link to the rest at The Cut

Academic Exile, Two Years On

From Quillette:

Two years ago, I was fired from my job as a professor at a small mid-western college. I was not fired because of poor teacher ratings, student complaints, data fraud, or any other job-related shortcomings. I was fired because I spoke and wrote openly about human psychological variation, and because I maintained that I would continue to speak and write candidly about that subject and about other potentially controversial topics.

At the time, this development left me shocked and bewildered. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable. Today, my overriding feeling is one of profound disappointment that my perception of an academia guided by evidence and argument instead of political ad hominem attacks proved to be illusory. Although I was quite naïve back then, I was never so foolish as to believe that scholarly debates are always cordial affairs between monocled gentleman who decorate their discourse with phrases like “my dear sir” and “I do beg your pardon.” But I did believe that academia encouraged open exploration and argument and discouraged character assassination and scientific censoriousness. I was wrong.

I encountered intimations of the problems that plague modern academia as soon as I began my college career, but I largely dismissed them because I was studying literature, not electrons, atoms, brains, birds, bears, or anything that could be pinned down. Nevertheless, as a sober-minded student, I was surprised by the popularity of implausible but fashionable ideological currents. So, like any curious scholar, I read the work that was celebrated by my professors and other eminent people in the field—Baudrillard, Barthes, Butler, Derrida, Freud, Jung, Kristeva, Foucault, and Lacan. Some of it was sensible and intelligible, but much of it was so obscure, involuted, or risibly unconvincing that I was left perplexed. For a while, I assumed that my brain simply could not apprehend the profundities of postmodern thought.

While wrestling unsuccessfully with poststructuralism, I also read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, both of which offered excellent overviews of Darwinian approaches to animal behavior. After many more books and articles and lively debates, I became persuaded of the general power and plausibility of evolutionary psychology. I was baffled by the persistence of literary criticism that remains uninformed by Darwinian analysis, and that even defies it (e.g., Freudianism). After all, why should we not use the best intellectual tools at our disposal to understand Shakespeare, Dickens, or Faulkner?

I was even more taken aback by the antipathy my professors (and other scholars) expressed toward evolutionary psychology. I had encountered many tendentious and hyperbolic denunciations of evolutionary psychology in the literature, but I figured these were the exaggerated attacks of sophisticated partisans, not manifestations of a widespread attitude. Yet, when I started to include evolutionary analyses in my papers, my arguments were vehemently attacked. Some professors even compared Darwinism to fascism and Nazism.

. . . .

My love for literature was propelled by a delight in language and a desire to explore the human condition. But many critics and influential professors seemed to be more interested in advancing avant-garde identity politics than in carefully reading texts and discussing the nuances of diction or symbolism. A popular textbook on literary criticism at the time, for example, included sections on Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, deconstruction, postcolonial and multicultural criticism, and eco-criticism. Man is a political animal, so I have no objection to thinking about the political motivations of authors or characters, but I do object to obsessing over these at the expense of other important features of literature. And I especially object to forcing texts onto a procrustean bed of progressive ideological concerns. (A popular critical activity was to search for what was not in the text to illustrate how that revealed the racism or sexism of the author or his society.)  

Link to the rest at Quillette and thanks to C for the tip.

From Educational Data:

The average debt for a 4-year Bachelor’s degree is $28,800.

  • The average 4-year Bachelor’s degree debt from a public college is $27,000.
  • 65% of students seeking  a Bachelor’s degree from a public 4 year college have student loan debt.
  • The average 4-year Bachelor’s degree debt from a private for-profit college is $39,900.
  • For private non-profit colleges, the average Bachelor’s degree debt is $33,700.

. . . .

Roughly 50% of Bachelor degree graduates who went to a private for-profit 4-year school owed over $40,000 in debt.

. . . .

Average 4-year Bachelor’s Degree Debt by State

The majority of the states with the highest levels of debt are located in the northeast. The low debt states are primarily concentrated in the west. In 26 states the average debt was over $30,000 – 5 of them in particular had an average over $35,000.

  • Over the past 17 years, the student debt load has grown by twice the rate of inflation in 18 states.
  • In 5 states, inflation outpaced the student debt load.
  • New Hampshire has the highest average debt for students with a 4-year Bachelor’s degree – $39,410.
  • Utah has the lowest average debt for students with a 4-year Bachelor’s degree – $17,935.
  • At 74%, New Hampshire and South Dakota are tied as the states with the most amount of students in debt.
  • At 40%, Utah is the state with the least amount of students in debt.

Table of Average Bachelor’s Degree Debt per State

StateAverage DebtPercent of Students with Debt
District of Columbia$32,03946%
New Hampshire$39,41074%
New Jersey$33,56664%
New Mexico$20,99145%
New York$31,15558%
North Carolina$26,58355%
North Dakota$32,74564%
Rhode Island$37,61459%
South Carolina$31,52460%
South Dakota$31,65374%
West Virginia$29,27267%

Link to the rest at Educational Data

PG notes that the average debt of graduates from Law School and Medical School are much higher.

According to the American Bar Association:

  • The average law school graduate owes approximately $165,000 in educational debt upon graduating.
  • More than 95 percent of students take out loans to attend law school.
  • More than 55 percent of students surveyed postponed buying a house, and nearly 30 percent postponed or decided not to get married.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 70% of medical degree recipients in 2019 had used student loans to pay for medical school. The median amount of medical education debt for those graduates was $200,000.

US News and World Report

Miłosz’s Magic Mountain

From The Babbler:

AT THE EDGE OF BERKELEY’S CAMPUS, where concrete meets traffic, Euclid Avenue stretches up and north into the hills beyond. I usually stopped on the first block for pizza and beer at La Val’s. But occasionally, on the way to a professor’s house or a graduate student party, I continued the climb on my creaky French bike, purchased in a misguided act of aspirational hipsterdom. Along Euclid’s curves, the ascent begins to level out, opening up a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. At the top, around the corner on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, stands a dark wooden house. For almost twenty years, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz lived here in obscurity, descending to teach Slavic literature to long-haired students he didn’t understand—until one day in 1980, when the Nobel committee called to inform him that he’d won their prize for literature.

Born in 1911 to Polish nobility in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), Miłosz personally witnessed many of the major events of the twentieth century: World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the rise of the Cold War. In Nazi-occupied Poland, he wrote poems including “Campo dei Fiori,” a haunting meditation on bystander apathy in which revelers ride a carousel outside the walls of the Warsaw ghetto as it goes up in flames: “That same hot wind/blew open the skirts of the girls/and the crowds were laughing/on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.” After moving to California in 1960, however, Miłosz largely turned away from history and politics to reflect on more internal questions. In a poem, he compared Berkeley to the setting of The Magic Mountain, the favorite novel of his youth. Thomas Mann’s hero, Hans Castorp, arrives at a Swiss sanatorium for a brief visit but invents an illness that allows him to stay for seven years, far from the war that will soon break out below. 

Miłosz is best known outside Poland for The Captive Mind (1953), his study of how Eastern European intellectuals were seduced by Stalinism. Through several character portraits, he showed how a combination of opportunism, exhaustion, and hope led Polish writers to swallow the pill of contentment in exchange for compliance. Some prospered, like “Alpha, the Moralist” (based on Jerzy Andrzejewski), a pious Catholic who became a celebrated Marxist. Others choked on their mixed feelings, like “Beta, the Disappointed Lover” (Tadeusz Borowski), an Auschwitz survivor and author of sardonic stories about life in the camp, who briefly wrote in a “socialist realist” mode before gassing himself to death at age twenty-eight. 

The Captive Mind became a classic study of “totalitarianism,” a framework bound up in Cold War narratives about the civilized West versus the backward East. I first read it in a PhD seminar in fall 2014, with little patience for a writer who seemed like a reactionary. My specialty was Soviet history, and I thought that Miłosz’s profile of Communist double-think—exemplified by the “Ketman,” who wears a mask that conceals his inner doubts—overlooked how the “free world” also ran on hypocritical conformity. We were living in a post-Fukuyama age, when trust in liberal democracy had dwindled while its slogans lived on. With President Obama deep into his second term and both parties unable to confront inequality or climate change, Miłosz’s warnings about fervent conviction felt far away. 

. . . .

With the Bay Area housing bubble reserving hillside real estate for senior scholars and the new tech elite, graduate students paid exorbitant sums to rent rooms on the city’s lower-altitude south side, which came with the earthbound awareness that we were preparing to enter a severely contracting profession. Thanks to our excellent health insurance, steady if inadequate stipends, and free food hoarded from campus events, we, too, found a degree of insular security in academia, if only for a while. 

. . . .

Recently, I returned to [The Captive Mind] in search of answers for why so many believe in systems that they know to be destructive—and how some decide to break ranks. Instead of an artist who saw himself as above the fray, I discovered a thinker who constantly grappled with the tension between engagement and resignation, certainty and doubt. The Captive Mind does not speak with the confidence of the unconverted. Miłosz wrote it to dispel his continued attachment to Communism and to his friends who remained within its fold.

From his student days, Miłosz expressed both pride and shame over his inability to commit. In his 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (translated into English as Native Realm), he writes that a sense of otherness as a Lithuanian-born Pole and instinctive “allergy to everything that smacks of the ‘national’” drew him toward the left. While reading The Magic Mountain, he identified with Castorp as well as Naphta, the Mephistophelean voice of ideological orthodoxy (Jesuit and Marxist alike) who faces off against the Enlightenment humanist Settembrini. Yet Miłosz’s self-styling as a revolutionary was short-lived: “Completely incapable of action, unfit for organizing or leadership or even blind obedience, I compared myself to my colleagues: they were drawing conclusions from their reading of Lenin; they were courageous and purehearted.” Convinced of the need for a more equal society but reluctant to back the Soviet Union or the aesthetics of its artists, Miłosz compared his discomfort with taking a clear position to Castorp’s retreat to the Berghof: “Did not Hans Castorp fabricate his fever so that he could stay in Davos on the Magic Mountain, far removed from the world, because the world terrified him?”  

After World War I, Vilnius had been incorporated into newly independent Poland. Miłosz attended university and worked at a radio station in this city of “narrow cobblestone streets and an orgy of baroque.” In September 1939, however, Stalin invaded Vilnius and transferred it to Lithuania, which belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence under the terms of his pact with Hitler. The following year, when the entire country was annexed into the Soviet Union, Miłosz fled Vilnius for Warsaw. There, he participated in the remarkably rich cultural life of Nazi-occupied Poland, translating plays for the Underground Theater Council and publishing illegal literature. According to Nazi ideology, Poles were racial inferiors who were destined either for enslavement or execution. Yet they were not subject to total extermination like the country’s Jews, three million of whom died in the Holocaust. In “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” Miłosz expressed his sense of complicity as one of “the helpers of death:/The uncircumcised.” He wrote elegies for friends who died during the war, including in the suicidal Warsaw Uprising of summer 1944, when the Red Army stood on the other side of Vistula River and watched as the Wehrmacht razed the city to the ground. In a 1945 poem, Miłosz addressed the fallen as “You whom I could not save.”

After the war, the new Polish nation established at Yalta fell under Soviet dominion. At the time, Miłosz believed that only Communism could abolish the country’s semi-feudal social structure and rebuild the region. Yet disheartened by seeing his home turned into a “Stalinist province,” he found a middle ground by working abroad as a diplomat, serving as a cultural attaché for the Polish embassy in the United States and France. The culture of loyalty and subservience grew to be too much for him, however, and he defected to France in 1953. There, while struggling with “the corroding effects of isolation”—according to biographer Andrzej Franaszek, he repeatedly considered suicide—Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind. He had misgivings about the book’s international success, which alienated him from both the left and members of the right who still saw him as a Communist lackey. In 1960, he received an invitation to teach at Berkeley and bid farewell to Paris for a new life in the Golden State.

Link to the rest at The Babbler

John Donne, a rake-turned-cleric, is a gift to biographers

From The Economist

The centenaries of both James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” fall in 2022. Reflecting on those twin monuments of modernism, readers might also give some thought to the writers of the past whom those authors revisited or revered. Eliot famously downgraded Milton—regarded for over two centuries as the greatest of English poets—and upgraded John Donne, for most of the same period largely forgotten. As a result, many poets of the mid-20th century hearkened to Donne, who died in 1631, as to a contemporary.

What made the metaphysical poet exciting, Eliot wrote in 1921, was that “a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” To give one example, Donne compares a woman lying on a bed to a map of the world awaiting exploration in “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. (“My Empirie/How blest am I in this discovering thee!”) Such unexpected pairings of the carnal with the energetically intellectual were compelling to 20th-century readers, and the map image, reminding readers that Donne lived in the Age of Discovery, brings the historical context of the work vividly close.

Do readers today still feel as Eliot did? Yes, says Katherine Rundell in “Super-Infinite”, a new biography. She proclaims that “Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language” and finds his love poetry sexy and appealing to 21st-century sensibilities. She argues for Donne’s uniqueness, perhaps exaggerating: Shakespeare, for instance, is equally frank, but then his sonnets are weighed down with a guilt and self-disgust quite foreign to Donne’s cheerfully boastful randiness.

. . . .

Despite her palpable enthusiasm for Donne’s love poetry and the gift to a biographer of his swashbuckling early years—he was imprisoned for marrying an underage woman without her father’s consent and went to sea on privateering missions—Ms Rundell is at her best when writing of his maturity. He became famous as Dean of St Paul’s and was an enthralling preacher and laureate of death. Not for nothing are poems such as “Death Be Not Proud” often recommended readings for funerals.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Man Who Understood Democracy

From The Wall Street Journal:

The title of Olivier Zunz’s biography of Alexis de Tocqueville—“The Man Who Understood Democracy”—would appear to be a direct appeal to readers who believe democracy is, to use one popular formulation, “under assault.” Anxiety over the fate of democracy has become the de rigueur emotional stance of the nation’s enlightened influencers. Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, asserted this week that “our very democracy is on the brink” and that one of the country’s major parties has dedicated itself to “the destruction of democratic norms.” Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times, headlined “DeSantis, Disney and Democracy,” registered the same sentiment. Barack Obama, in a speech on “disinformation” at Stanford University on April 21, spoke mournfully of “democratic backsliding” and “the weakening of democratic institutions” at home and abroad. 

In none of these or a thousand other lamentations is it clear what the authors mean by “democracy.” It is perhaps an opportune time to consider the life and work of a man who, as this book’s title has it, “understood” the thing Mr. Obama et al. want to rescue and revive.

Mr. Zunz, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia and a respected scholar of Tocqueville, has written an exhaustively researched and discretely focused biography of the great Frenchman. Readers unfamiliar with “Democracy in America” are best advised to read that work first. Its two volumes appeared in 1835 and 1840, after Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, spent 9 ½ months touring the American Northeast, Midwest and South in 1831-32. “Democracy in America” is, as its reputation suggests, a masterpiece of political reflection. It is also, as I was reminded by Mr. Zunz’s biography, a work of stylistic grace. Tocqueville—this is apparent even in English translations of his work—constantly revised his writing to achieve maximum clarity and felicity. 

The crucial fact of Tocqueville’s upbringing and early adult years—he was born into an aristocratic family in 1805—was that a large number of his elder relatives had lost their property or their heads during the Terror of 1793-94. Surviving nobility were permitted a gradual return, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored after the fall of Napoleon in 1814-15, though in constitutional, not absolutist, form. Tocqueville’s familial provenance led many to assume that he would defend the pro-Bourbon, backward-looking “Legitimist” cause even after the July Revolution of 1830 and the inauguration of the more liberal and reformist regime of Louis-Philippe.

. . . .

Mr. Zunz’s biography situates Tocqueville’s great treatise in its French context. Americans, this reviewer included, tend to read “Democracy” as though the author were explaining America to Americans. He was in fact asking France’s political class to consider the promise—and the perils—of political equality.

Tocqueville often used the term “equality” as a synonym for democracy, since democratic reforms by definition bring citizens into closer parity with each other. “Democracy in America” sought in essence to answer this question: Would the work of cultivating equality destroy liberty? That question haunts every modern democratic state, but the United States more so than any other.

Tocqueville, despite a retiring demeanor and ill health, would use his reputation as a first-rate political mind to press his way into elective government. There, too, as Mr. Zunz relates, he would labor to reconcile liberty and equality in French political life. In the 1840s, as a member of the Chamber of Deputies (the French Parliament’s lower chamber), he tried to find a middle path between the French left’s insistence that all children be educated by the state and the clergy’s use of education as a way to retain political influence. He didn’t succeed in that effort, but the episode reminds us that problems of educational curriculum were known to societies far less pluralist than our own. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (should be a free perma-link)

What is it Like to Be a Blind Writer Writing for Sighted Readers?

From The Literary Hub:

What is it like to be blind in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by sighted individuals? Jessica Powers, founder and publisher at Catalyst Press, spoke to George Mendoza and Kristen Witucki about crafting stories for sighted readers, finding community and release in fiction, and battling ableism in traditional publishing and publicity.

Jessica Powers: When did you both start writing?

Kristen Witucki: My favorite toy as a child was the tape recorder. I destroyed my first one by pouring water on it so that I could hear the sound of water. Once I got that life lesson out of the way (and did not kill myself, as my mother worried), it became my best tool for telling stories, writing, and revising, long after I learned how to read and write. I wanted to write because I love to read and to live in stories, and I want to create that experience for others and for myself.

I wrote (on paper) my first “novel” when I was 12. It was based on my grandmother’s life; she had to take care of her mother while her brothers could continue in school. My mother unearthed the manuscript 25 years later, and it has every literary stereotype gone amuck. (Think Caddie Woodlawn, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anne Shirley mushed together.) I might never be able to fix it, but it was mine. My teacher took me the whole way through the drafting, revising, and publication-seeking process, and a very kind editor realized that a child wrote this and gently turned it down in a way that I emerged from the experience thinking, “Ok, I was rejected this time, but so is everyone else, and I can do this sometime.”

But I came to writing and the subject of disability during college in my composition classes when my professors asked me to work on the blindness stories more. And as a senior in college, I was fortunate to hear the author Jhumpa Lahiri speak as our college’s writer-in-residence. At the time she was writing about the experiences of immigrants from India and their first-generation American children and the lives they were forging here; she was also writing about love and loss, commitment and betrayal, human longing. She said that writing gave her a center and a way to be a participatory observer in the world, and I thought maybe I could try this as a blind person.

George Mendoza: I come from a family of writers and artists so I guess in a way it is an inherited gift. However, because I went blind at 15, I really had no other choice but to find my creative juice. Creativity saved my life! I grew up listening to talking books for the blind, books like The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. Books took me away from my own suffering and doubts. I am a painter, too. I find painting very relaxing, while writing and working on a novel is hard work and labor intense.

Jessica Powers: The world of books has long been associated with sight, with the exception of books in braille. But now there are audiobooks, voice-activated text to page, software that can read emails and books to you. What technology do you two use to read books? What technology do you use to write?

Kristen Witucki: I grew up reading with braille and audio, and I still use both those methods. I write on either a small braille notetaking computer or on my laptop using Jaws, a screen reading program.

. . . .

George Mendoza: I use Jaws computer software to write with on my computer. Jaws has a human-like voice. When I type, the program reads the words back to me so am directed with my sentences as I construct them. Jaws also lets me proofread to make sure the sentences read well and make sense. When I proofread, the spell check is once again using a human voice.  It is not perfect, but it is the best thing next to a human proofreading for me. As for reading, I listen to digital audiobooks provided to the blind by the New Mexico Library for the Blind.

Jessica Powers: I know writers who have to physically write their books, others who use their computers, writers who read their books out loud to revise, writers who cut and paste physically. What is the process of writing like for you that might be different than a sighted person? How do you think that changes both your experience of writing and changes the book that you end up writing?

George Mendoza: My writing process goes something like this: I usually dream about the words I am going to write about while sleeping. Then I write down some notes in very large print, because of my blindness. I review them and then I write those words and scenes on my computer using the Jaws speech system for the blind. I dream in color and I can actually see the words on a printed page.

Kristen Witucki: I think the computer has brought my process of writing closer to that of a sighted person so that writing itself is very similar. If I send a manuscript for feedback, I still find it easier to respond to narrative comments written in the body of an email than I do to comments embedded into the text. But I’ve learned to work with all of these features.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Academic Publishing: Elsevier’s ‘Research Futures 2.0’

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its second round of research-into-research, Elsevier has returned to the field of its initial inquiry in 2019, when a study sequence was begun in an attempt to look at how research might look and fare in a decade.

With input from more than 1,000 researchers in an internationally structured study, the company in 2020 (1,173 respondents) and 2021 (1,066 respondents) continued the work, releasing nine days ago, on April 20, a new set of insights targeting pressures on publishing, funding, and women in research, with an eye to opportunities developing in funding sources, technology, and collaboration.

. . . .

  • In the United States, 40 percent of researchers predict that a longer-term impact of COVID-19 will be a greater dependency on technology, such as artificial intelligence, when doing research–that compares to 47 percent of researchers internationally
  • Internationally, it’s less widely thought (than other predictions) that a longer-term consequence of the pandemic will be more higher-quality research being produced and shared (24 percent) or that it will lead to more students going to university in the next two to five years (17 percent)
  • However, researchers in the States are even less optimistic than the international average, with only 17 percent predicting more quality research, and only 12 percent predicting more university students.

. . . .

For women, a key area of our conversation with Kolman, unique challenges persist, in the purview of the new study.

“Women reported having less time to do research during lockdowns,” the company reports, “which could slow or hamper their future career prospects. Sixty-two percent reported they were finding it difficult to find a good work-life balance during the pandemic, compared to just 50 percent of male researchers—a trend that could have significant negative long-term effects on the careers of women in research.”

Ironically, women in research were also seen embracing technology “faster than their male counterparts: 53 percent of women scientists [said they] think the use of technology in research will accelerate over the next two to five years versus 46 percent for men.”

And women are deemed in this study to be more likely to have shared their research with the public than men, 60 percent women vs. 55 percent men saying they’ve shared their work publicly.

In the chart below, you see study response analysis indicating that more women and younger researchers said they’d seen project stoppages during the pandemic years.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War

Not exactly PG’s normal choice of topic, but certainly relevant to the concerns of many around the world at present.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Russia conducted its first test of the Sarmat, an intercontinental ballistic missile that carries a heavy nuclear payload, on April 20. Vladimir Putin and his advisers have issued nuclear warnings throughout the war in Ukraine, threatening the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with attack if they escalate their involvement. Moscow recently threatened Sweden and Finland with a pre-emptive strike if they join NATO.

The reality is that unless the U.S. prepares to win a nuclear war, it risks losing one. Robert C. O’Brien, a former White House national security adviser, proposed a series of conventional responses, which are necessary but not sufficient to deter Russian nuclear escalation. Developing a coherent American strategy requires understanding why Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons and how the U.S. can recalibrate its strategic logic for a nuclear environment.

Russia’s war is being fought on two levels. At the military level, the battlefields have been restricted to Ukrainian and, in a handful of instances, Russian territory. But the conflict is also a war against NATO, given Ukraine’s position as an applicant, NATO’s military support for Ukraine, and NATO’s willingness to embargo Russian products and cut off Russian energy.

Mr. Putin had two objectives in going to war. First, he hoped to destroy Ukraine as an independent state. Russia planned to drive into Kyiv within hours, install a quisling government, and months later stage referendums throughout the country that would give the Kremlin direct control of its east and south. Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus, and perhaps the Central Asian despots, would fall in line. Mr. Putin would therefore reconstitute an empire stretching to the Polish border.

Ukrainians thwarted that plan. Much depends on the next few weeks, as Russia stages a major offensive in the east designed to destroy the Ukrainian military’s immediate combat capacity, tear off eastern provinces, and solidify a land corridor to Crimea. But there is a serious possibility that Ukraine wins this next round of fighting. Russia has no reserves beyond its mobilized forces; its units have dwindling morale; and those formations withdrawn from around Kyiv are trained to conduct armored, mechanized, and infantry operations and poorly suited for combat. Meantime, the Ukrainians are receiving heavier weapons from the West and have begun a counteroffensive around Kharkiv, which, if successful, will spoil Russia’s attack.

If Russia’s military situation appears dire, Mr. Putin has a dual incentive to use nuclear weapons. This is consistent with publicly stated Russian military doctrine. A nuclear attack would present Ukraine with the same choice Japan faced in 1945: surrender or be annihilated. Ukraine may not break. The haunting images from Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere demonstrate Russia’s true intentions. A Russian victory would lead to mass killings, deportation, rape and other atrocities. The Ukrainian choice won’t be between death and survival, but rather armed resistance and unarmed extermination.

Nuclear use would require NATO to respond. But a nuclear response could trigger retaliation, dragging Russia and NATO up the escalation ladder to a wider nuclear confrontation.

Perhaps a conventional response to a Russian nuclear attack would be sufficient. What if the U.S. and its allies destroyed Russian military units deployed to the Black Sea, Syria and Libya; cut all oil pipelines to Russia, and used their economic clout to threaten China, and other states conducting business with Russia, with an embargo?

Each of these steps is necessary. But Russia’s goal in going nuclear is to knock NATO out of the war. The Kremlin believes its resolve outstrips that of the U.S. A conventional American response would confirm this—and create incentives for additional Russian nuclear use.

The Kremlin is resurrecting the arcane art of nuclear war fighting. These weapons have a military purpose. They also have a political one. The U.S. should reframe its thinking in kind.

This isn’t to say the U.S. should use nuclear weapons—again, a nuclear response would make global nuclear war more likely. But America and its allies can take steps against Russia’s nuclear arsenal that undermine the Russian position at higher escalation levels. The U.S. Navy’s surface ships, for example, could be re-equipped with nuclear weapons, as they were during the Cold War.

Most critically, if Russia used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. could use its naval power to hunt down and destroy a Russian nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, the backbone of Russian second-strike capability. Late in the Cold War the U.S. Navy threatened to do exactly that, pressuring the Soviet Union’s nuclear bastions, the protected littoral areas from which Soviet subs aimed to operate with safety. In a series of naval exercises during the Reagan administration, the U.S. and its allies simulated assaulting the Sea of Okhotsk and Barents Sea bastions, while U.S. submarines probed and shadowed Soviet boats in both areas. Post-Cold War evidence reveals that American naval pressure had a major impact on Soviet policy making: Despite Moscow’s priority of armaments over all other state needs, the U.S. showed it would still be able to fight and win a nuclear war.

The ability to win is the key. By arming surface ships with tactical nuclear weapons as well as attacking a nuclear-missile sub and thus reducing Russian second-strike ability, the U.S. undermines Russia’s ability to fight a nuclear war. The Soviets were deeply afraid of a pre-emptive strike by NATO. That fear has morphed, under Mr. Putin’s regime, into a fixation on the “color revolutions,” pro-democracy uprisings in former Soviet republics. Jeopardizing Russian second-strike capability would tangibly raise the military stakes. Mr. Putin could no longer unleash his nuclear arsenal with impunity. Instead, he would need to reckon with the possibility that NATO could decapitate the Kremlin—yes, suffering casualties in the process, but still decapitate it.

A nuclear war should never be fought. But the Kremlin seems willing to fight one, at least a limited one. If the U.S. demonstrates it is unwilling to do so, the chance that the Kremlin will use nuclear weapons becomes dangerously real.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

COVID-19 infection linked to increased nightmare frequency

From PsyPost:

People who have had COVID-19 tend to report having more nightmares than people who have not been infected by the virus, according to research published in Nature and Science of Sleep.

Previous research has indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with changes in sleep and dream activity among healthy individuals. A study published in 2021, for example, found that pandemic-related stress was associated having nightmares revolving around specific apocalyptic themes.

But Luigi De Gennaro, a professor at the University of Rome Sapienza, and his colleagues noted that whether dream activity in COVID-19 patients differed from dream activity in healthy people had not yet been investigated.

Link to the rest at PsyPost

PG suspects a great many people experienced thoughts, fears, dreams, etc., etc., regarding “apocalyptic themes” during the past couple of years regardless of whether they were asleep or awake.

Vladimir Putin’s Rewriting of History Draws on a Long Tradition of Soviet Myth-Making

From Smithsonian Magazine:

History has ever been a harbor for dishonest writing—a home for forgers, the insane or even “history-killers” who write so dully they neutralize their subjects. Direct witnesses can be entirely unreliable. The travelogue of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, which he dictated while in prison in Genoa to a romance writer who was his fellow inmate, is about two-thirds made up—but which two-thirds? Scholars are still debating. Survivors of Josef Mengele’s vile experiments at Auschwitz recall him as tall and blond and fluent in Hungarian. In fact, he did not speak that language and was relatively short and dark-haired. The director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel has said that most of the oral histories collected there were unreliable, however honestly contributed.

Many of these instances can be ascribed to the quirks of human memory. Actual fakery, though, has a long history. As Tacitus begins his Annals, “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” In England in the 16th century, it was common to share made-up stories about your ancestors in the hope of achieving greater social standing.

Most countries at one time or another have been guilty of proclaiming false versions of their past. The late 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan is known for his statement that “forgetfulness” is “essential in the creation of a nation”—a positive gloss on Goethe’s blunt aphorism, “Patriotism corrupts history.” But this is why nationalism often views history as a threat. What governments declare to be true is one reality, the judgments of historians quite another. Few recorders set out deliberately to lie; when they do, they can have great impact, if only in certain parts of the world.

. . . .

“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” wrote George Orwell in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” The problem continued to trouble him. Three years later, he went further: “Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.” Chief among the culprits were the falsifiers of the Soviet Union, in particular Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

. . . .

In her history of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum writes of the “peculiarly powerful combination of emotions—fear, shame, anger, silence—[that] helped lay the psychological groundwork for the imposition of a new regime,” Stalin’s Soviet Union. The completeness of the state, the pervasiveness of every institution from kindergarten schools to the secret police, put an end to independent historical inquiry. In this brave new world (Orwell described Soviet commissars as “half gramophones, half gangsters”), historians were not just to do Stalin’s bidding; if, in his eyes, they failed to do so, their lives were ruined and often shortened. For instance, Boris Grekov, director of Moscow’s Russian History Institute, had seen his son sentenced to penal servitude and, in terror, made wide-ranging concessions to the Stalinist line, writing books and papers to order.

Another leading historian, Yevgeny Tarle, was one of a group of prominent historians falsely accused of hatching a plot to overthrow the government; he was arrested and sent into exile. Around the same time, between 1934 and 1936, the Politburo, or policy-making body, of the Russian Communist Party focused on national history textbooks, and Stalin set scholars to writing a new standard history. The state became the nation’s only publisher. Orwell had it right in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Records Department is charged with rewriting the past to fit whomever Oceania is currently fighting. The ruling party of Big Brother “could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

Stalin, too, wrote his own version of events, contributing part of a “short course” on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. In his teens, vozhd (the boss), as he liked to be called, had been a budding poet, and now he contributed verse for the national anthem, improved on several poets’ translations and even made changes to the film script of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. He was a master of what could be done with language; under him, the euphemism “extraordinary events” was used to cover any behavior he considered treasonable, a phrase that covered incompetence, cowardice, “anti-Soviet agitation,” even drunkenness. The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was to refer to Stalin ironically as “the Great Linguist” for his corruption of language.

“Uncle Joe” himself died peacefully, aged 74, on March 5, 1953, after three decades of bloody rule. Three years later, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, announced a special session in which he gave delegates a four-hour “secret speech” denouncing the former leader and providing a radically revisionist account of Soviet history that included a call for a new spirit in historical work. Practitioners were admonished to upgrade their methods; to use documents and data to explain rather than simply proclaim past Bolshevik views; and to write a credible account—one that would include setbacks, confusions and real struggles along with glorious achievements.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

What is a Philologist?

From Language Humanities:

A philologist is a type of linguist, though the exact meaning of the term has changed over the years. Philology literally means “love of words,” and the field often deals with literature more than other branches of linguistics do. In the modern academic world, the term is usually understood to mean the study of written texts, usually ancient ones.

It was much more common in the 19th century than it is today for a linguist to be called a philologist. Philology was the precursor to today’s linguistics, which has changed to favor spoken data over written data. Comparative and historical linguistics, in which words from different languages are compared and contrasted to determine the current or historical relationships between languages, have their roots in the 19th century field.

In an earlier era, this person focused his or her study on language as it pertains to literature and culture. Individual words, their history, and the common history of words in different languages were also of interest. Literary interpretations and the study of language went hand in hand; in this respect, the modern field of comparative literature can also be seen as having its roots in philology.

. . . .

In an earlier era, this person focused his or her study on language as it pertains to literature and culture. Individual words, their history, and the common history of words in different languages were also of interest. Literary interpretations and the study of language went hand in hand; in this respect, the modern field of comparative literature can also be seen as having its roots in philology.

Link to the rest at Language Humanities

Here’s a photo of a portion of The Rosetta Stone:

PG apologizes for the Object code fragment at the top of this post, but couldn’t track it down to apply a fix during the time he had to post today.

The Palace Papers

From The Wall Street Journal:

One of these days, barring a revolution, the barely United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will acquire a new monarch. After decades in waiting, the present Prince of Wales will become Charles III, a king as unlikely to lose his head (see Charles I) as he is to be nicknamed the Merry Monarch (see Charles II), for here is a man who eats what his family calls “birdseed” for breakfast and is prone to gloomy reflections. Some of which may be explained by the crude fact that “only the monarch’s firstborn wakes up every morning knowing that to advance to the ultimate prize, all he has to do is stay alive.”

Which is hardly a nice thing to have pointed out to one. But then Tina Brown, the writer making the comment in her new royal potboiler, is not, in that sense, nice. A sharpshooting journalist rightly admired for her stylistic accuracy and flair, Ms. Brown has several trophies to her credit including the past editorships of Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Her previous targets include the late Princess Diana, whom she sympathetically dissected in her 2007 volume “The Diana Chronicles.” Ten years later, Ms. Brown broadened her range with “The Vanity Fair Diaries,” which conjured up the “Crazy Eighties” in all their tawdriness and which also charted the author’s ascent in Manhattan, where every putdown she received was lobbed back as a challenge. “When [Robert] Gottlieb tells her that as an English person she could never understand The New Yorker,” one reviewer wrote, referring to that magazine’s earlier editor, “we know exactly where she’s headed.”

And now it’s back to Buckingham Palace, where, my goodness, that family has been through the wringer. Though the weddings, at least, went well. True, Charles and Camilla’s had to be postponed when John Paul II died (“not just any pope,” Ms. Brown points out), and the ceremony then clashed with the Grand National steeplechase (which the Queen managed to sneak off to watch). Meghan and Harry’s day was fine; no embarrassing relatives showed up though some of the famous guests were strangers. (When asked how they knew Meghan, the Clooneys replied, “We don’t.”) But the worst was yet to come: Megxit! Andrew! And the worst has always brought out the best in Ms. Brown, whose latest book, “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil” finds her eager as ever to rummage in the royal laundry basket.

The result of Ms. Brown’s research is a handsome volume—enriched by footnotes and telling photographs—that spans 25 years of a monarchy afflicted by recurring bouts of silliness and sleaze. The players are, of course, familiar: Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Diana, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, Andrew and Fergie, Andrew and, ahem, other people. Their dramas unfold in chapters with titles such as “Sex and Sensibility,” “Privacy and Prejudice.” And if some of the revelations are inevitably a little stale, all are richly seasoned. Indeed, when it comes to pithy asides, Ms. Brown can be positively Wildean. She notes, for example, that Camilla “left school with one O Level, a good address book, and the ability to fence,” and that Charles, while married to Diana, “followed the traditions of upper-class adultery by pausing while the breeding was done.” She reminds us that “until he lost his hair, Prince William was probably the biggest heartthrob to be heir to the throne since the pre-obese Henry VIII,” and mercilessly depicts Andrew’s “guffawing, boob-ogling pickup style.”

. . . .

The Queen, we are reminded, does not collaborate, grant interviews or explain herself. The Queen simply is. “I have to be seen to be believed,” she reportedly pointed out when an adviser suggested cutting back on appearances. And while the most intimate glimpses here are those of a monarch squelching happily across Balmoral in her Wellies or scrutinizing her heating bills, the complete portrait is one of a shrewd and diligent manager. In 2019, for example, with the Meghan/Harry psychodrama still feeding a tabloid frenzy, the Queen, preparing to deliver her televised Christmas speech, indicated a snapshot of them on her desk and said, “I suppose we don’t need that one.” Heads still roll, just a little more gently these days.

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

Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea

From The Wall Street Journal:

When the Argonauts—so the story goes—sailed toward the Black Sea, they had to deal with giants, harpies and murderous women. When, in April 2018, Jens Mühling, a German journalist and a writer, arrives on the Black Sea coast during the early stages of the journey he so vividly describes in “Troubled Water,” he ends up drinking—a river of alcohol flows through this book—with a Russian (Oleg, naturally) and a Crimean Tatar (Elvis, naturally) in the courtyard of a rundown fishing cooperative on the western tip of Russia’s Taman Peninsula. A mile away, a newly built bridge awaits its formal opening. It connects the peninsula with Russian-occupied Crimea: “We screwed up our eyes, shelled Black Sea shrimps, and observed the world’s largest country in the act of growing.”

That bridge or, more precisely, the circumstances that led to its construction, casts a shadow over Mr. Mühling’s narrative—a shadow longer even than he had intended. Informative and often entertainingly wry, “Troubled Water” was published in Germany in 2020. Today it is impossible to read Simon Pare’s English translation without thinking of the horror that has since enveloped much of the region to the Black Sea’s north and west.

In 2018, Mr. Mühling spots warships at anchor off the Russian city of Novorossiysk, “armour-clad giants, grey, hulking, and motionless, like crocodiles digesting the banquet they had devoured in Crimea,” a banquet now proven to have been no more than an hors d’oeuvre. Another passage unwittingly offers a small glimpse of what lay ahead for Russia itself: With economic sanctions in force after Crimea’s annexation, Western fast-food chains could no longer do business there. But a good number of their outlets were enjoying a rogue afterlife, operating more or less as before, but with local proprietors and, not infrequently, a name hinting at past glories. A Burger King had become a Big Burger, a Starbucks a Starducks, its logo replaced by a duck. Never mind that the actual Starbucks logo, as Mr. Mühling notes, depicts Mixoparthenos (half-maiden, half-snake), a creature out of ancient Black Sea myth.

In an epilogue, the author returns to the region eight months after his original journey to cross (rather than circle) the Black Sea, leaving on a freight ferry from Chornomorsk, a Ukrainian port south of Odessa, a city that has this year come under Russian missile attack. Worse probably is in store for Odessa, where Mr. Mühling admires the “splendid imperial facades” and finds the latest generation of a once large and famously vibrant Jewish community, drastically reduced by a World War II massacre (Odessa was occupied by Germany’s Romanian allies), Soviet-era assimilation, and emigration. Mr. Mühling discovers reopened synagogues, “a Jewish newspaper, a small museum, a few kosher restaurants—and Jews too, their number estimated at 10,000 by some, 30,000 by others. The community lived on.” That, a rabbi tells him, is “exactly what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to show that we cannot be destroyed. Hitler is gone, Stalin is gone, but we are still here.” So much for “Nazi” Ukraine.

Jason voyaged to the Black Sea to steal the Golden Fleece. Mr. Mühling sought the stories of the extraordinary mix of peoples who inhabit a littoral over 2,500 miles long. They are the descendants of settlers and conquerors, as well of those who were there long before—populations, or in some cases, the remnants of populations, scythed through, swamped and reshuffled by invaders, autocrats, ideologues and the repeated collision of cultures. Much of “Troubled Water” describes Mr. Mühling’s encounters with those he meets, using their lives and his own experiences to illuminate the here and now as well as the then.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Why We Fight

From The Economist:

AS WHAT COULD end up as Europe’s bloodiest war since 1945 grinds on, this is an apposite time for a book explaining why and when human beings fight and, at least as importantly, why they do so rarely. A dismal belief holds that people are hard-wired to settle disputes by violent means. Christopher Blattman, a Canadian development economist specialising in the study of conflict, says the opposite is true.

Even people with a reputation for making extreme violence the basis of their business models, such as gang members in Chicago or the leaders of Medellín’s drug combos—both of whom the author got to know well—have strong incentives to do deals with rivals, thus avoiding the high costs and uncertainty of fighting. The Colombian combos may hate each other, and their bargaining power comes from the barrel of a gun, but it still makes sense to avoid war because it is so destructive and the outcomes are so unpredictable.

As long as both sides have a realistic appreciation of the huge price of fighting, Mr Blattman writes, the rational option is almost always to avoid it. Nuclear weapons have been extraordinarily effective in preventing hot wars between the countries that have them, because mutually assured destruction is the ultimate deterrent. This approach to preventing war works most of the time, but, obviously, not always. Mr Blattman identifies five “logical ways” why, despite all the reasons to compromise, people opt to fight. All five map quite neatly onto the war in Ukraine.

The first is what the author calls “unchecked interests”. This is when the interests of rulers differ from those of the ruled—who have no means of influencing their overlords. Vladimir Putin may have invaded Ukraine to stop it turning West and becoming a successful liberal democracy, an example that could undermine his grip on power. Or he may have hoped his legacy would be the recreation of the tsarist empire. Perhaps he did take into consideration the killing and maiming of young Russian soldiers and economic hardship for ordinary people due to the imposition of sanctions. But he did not much care and there was nobody to stop him.

“Intangible incentives” are the second of Mr Blattman’s “five logics”. People will fight over values and ideas that a realist view of economic self-interest fails to capture. Ukraine’s heroic resistance and willingness to absorb suffering arose because its people, like most when given the choice, want to live in a liberal democracy that is free to determine its own destiny.

The author’s final reason why wars start is “misperception”. Do states and leaders really understand the other side—or even themselves? As well as underestimating Ukraine’s sense of national identity, Mr Putin must have been highly confident in the capability of his armed forces to deliver a quick victory. He may also have convinced himself that a decadent and divided West would fail to exact more than a petulant slap on his Patek Philippe-clad wrist

Link to the rest at The Economist

Is virtue signalling a vice?

From Aeon:

As a quick stroll on social media reveals, most people love showing that they are good. Whether by expressing compassion for disaster victims, sharing a post to support a social movement, or denouncing a celebrity’s racist comment, many people are eager to broadcast their high moral standing.

Critics sometimes dismiss these acts as mere ‘virtue signalling’. As the British journalist James Bartholomew (who popularised the term in a magazine article in 2015) remarks, virtue signallers enjoy the privilege of feeling better about themselves by doing very little. Unlike the kind of helping where you have to do something – help an old lady cross the street, volunteer to give meals to the dispossessed, go door-to-door to fundraise for a cause – virtue signalling often consists of completely costless actions, such as changing your profile picture or saying you don’t like a politician’s stance on immigration. Bartholomew complains that ‘saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness’.

Virtue signalling can be easy – but why does that make it seem bad?

To answer this question, and understand virtue signalling in general, we need to take a couple of steps backs. In everyday discourse, the people who accuse others of virtue signalling are often not interested in doing real moral analysis – mostly, they want to discredit their political opponents. My allies are heroically rallying for a just cause, people on the other side are virtue signalling. It might be more illuminating to look at what science says on the subject. Why do we have the strong emotions we have about virtue signalling, and is it actually good or bad?

Over the past few decades, scientists in a variety of fields have developed sophisticated analyses of signalling as a general phenomenon – how humans (and other animals) send signals designed to convey information to other individuals. The insights of signalling theory can be counterintuitive, and have had a huge impact on biology and the social sciences. They also tell us that virtue signalling is more nuanced and more interesting than the picture painted by conventional wisdom and political rhetoric. As it turns out, there are bad and good things about virtue signalling – but probably not for the reasons you think.

Why do we scold virtue signallers for having it easy? The urge to dismiss someone’s actions because they took no effort is powerful. But does it not make more sense to focus on what that action actually achieves? Why do we often focus on the costs people pay rather than how effective they are at making the world better?

A few decades ago, biologists and economists struggled with similar questions. Why are peahens so attracted by the peacocks with the most extravagant tails – which are very costly to maintain but otherwise seemingly useless? Why do employers care that you put yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get an Ivy League degree in sociology with no obvious relevance to the job?

In the 1970s, the zoologist Amotz Zahavi and the economist Michael Spence offered a provocative answer. They argued that the cost paid by the peacock (or the college graduate) is the whole point. Their argument (which won Spence a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001) is a bit subtle, so it is worth carefully looking at how it works. Communication is difficult because individuals have incentives to lie. Employers are looking for certain qualities (intelligence, conscientiousness, ambition) in their employees. They could ask the people they interview if they are intelligent and conscientious, but why wouldn’t the job candidates simply lie?

Instead, employers select their employees on the basis of signals that are difficult to fake, such as university degrees. In general, having the qualities that employers value makes it easier to get a degree. People who do not have the right mix of intelligence, conscientiousness and ambition will find college more difficult, and either drop out or spend much more time completing their studies. People who anticipate that getting a degree would be too costly for them will opt out.

So, in principle, even if nothing you had learnt was relevant to the job you want, completing the degree still sends a valuable signal to potential employers: you are the kind of person for whom this high-effort achievement is easy enough. Because it sends a valuable signal, it is in your interest to get a degree, and in the employer’s interest to hire you on its basis.

People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status

A similar argument applies in the biological domain, but with natural selection in the driver’s seat. Growing an extravagant tail is moderately costly for a healthy peacock – but a diseased bird would put its life at risk if he spent that much energy growing the ornament. Therefore, only the peacocks in good enough condition can afford to grow an elaborate tail. As such, natural selection favours peahens who prefer peacocks with a long tail, because these peahens mate with healthy males, and get healthy offspring as a result.

Costly signals – signals that are honest because of the fact that they are costly – are ubiquitous. Why do people give flowers to their romantic interests, or take them to overpriced restaurants? Probably because these acts are costly: were the suitor not interested in a long-term relationship, he would have little incentive to invest such effort. His gifts function not because roses are particularly useful items, but because they are a costly signal of his commitment.

Here is why this matters for virtue signalling. Dishonesty is a major problem in the moral domain. People want to appear good, because it wins them friends and social status. Our moral sense evolved because people who convince others of their moral qualities reap such social benefits. But what prevents someone from pretending to be a good person, reaping all the social benefits, and not following through?

Throughout human evolution, being able to discriminate true allies (who stick with you no matter what) from fair-weather friends (who abandon you when you fall ill) could make the difference between life and death. As such, humans are obsessed with moral hypocrisy. We carefully scrutinise potential romantic partners, friends or team members for signs that they’re not only in it for the money. And since – per the logic of costly signalling – the costs that people are willing to pay are a reliable signal of their commitment, we pay extra attention to these costs when we evaluate other people. Social psychologists have found that, when we see someone perform an altruistic act, we’re suspicious that they’re really being altruistic if they derive some benefit from the act. Clever cognitive psychology experiments even show that we categorise other people on the basis of the costs they are willing to pay to benefit their group – but not on the basis of the amount of benefits they actually provide.

This is probably why we find virtue signallers irritating. They are doing things that might gain them social status – the approval of society, a place on the right side of history. But are they actually committed to the causes they support? Or are they just interested in the social benefits? When they are not paying any meaningful costs, virtue signallers activate the alarm bells that millions of years of evolution put in our heads to protect us from fair-weather friends and other moral hypocrites.

So let’s concede that some virtue signalling is fake, but does that mean it is bad? Here it is useful to take a step back from our default mode of thinking. Evolution designed our brain to make us good at small-scale interaction, but we are not very good (or especially concerned) at evaluating the large-scale social effects of things. As such, it is easy for a polemist to throw discredit on someone who virtue-signals by pointing out that there is no guarantee that the person actually shares your moral values. But is this the right yardstick by which to evaluate these signals?

In defence of virtue signallers, research on signalling theory shows that even cheap talk can be useful.

Life is rife with coordination problems. Consider passing someone on the street going the other way. You both have a shared incentive to coordinate about which side of the sidewalk to walk on, so that you don’t bump into each other. Even though the other person is a complete stranger, there is no particular reason she would try to deceive you. In such circumstances, people will send signals (eg, stop before making a sudden exaggerated movement toward one side) to successfully coordinate. Mathematical models show that these costless signals can be crucial in helping people solve otherwise thorny coordination problems.

Coordination is crucial in the moral domain too. Imagine you live in a society that practises slavery, and you think you are the only one morally revulsed by it. Should you speak out about your concerns? If you think that everyone else is indifferent, you might be afraid that others will think you are weird, that the people benefiting from the system will punish you, and that you stand no chance to make a difference anyway.

The paradox is that, even if many people are in this situation – everyone is concerned but convinced that no one else is – they might fail to act, despite having the majority opinion. But speaking up can start a chain reaction. The more individuals raise their voice to denounce what they see as a moral problem, the more the initially silent people realise they are not alone and speak up in turn.

When everyone can expect everyone to know, it is harder for you to claim ignorance as a defence

Loud and public signals are especially effective as establishing common knowledge of a moral norm ­making sure that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone else knows that everyone knows about the moral norm, that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows (and so on). Psychology experiments have demonstrated that common knowledge is a powerful determinant of social behaviour: people are much more likely to coordinate on a joint action when everyone knows that everyone knows that working together will generate good outcomes.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG’s Rabbit Hole Warning: There are lots and lots of intriguing links in the OP that can burn up several hours of your time, seemingly in a heartbeat.

One Way to Live Longer: Stop Worrying About Getting Old

From The Wall Street Journal:

Want to live an extra seven years? Think nice things about old people.

A new book on the psychology of aging argues that positive beliefs about growing old can add an average seven-and-a-half years to a person’s lifespan. Such good thoughts give the mind greater power over longevity than steps like lowering blood pressure (which adds roughly four years, according to the book), cutting cholesterol (four years), quitting smoking (three years) or losing weight (one year).

Becca Levy’s “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” uses scientific research to explore the impact of negative age beliefs on memory and hearing loss, cardiovascular issues and dementia.

What she found was a startlingly powerful mind-body connection, which is sometimes worsened by ageism and negative stereotypes about the elderly that can sabotage one’s future.  

“When it comes to how we age, society is often the cause,” she writes, “and biology the result.”

The book released last week offers hope for those who feel discouraged by the effects of aging, showing how people can improve their health by shifting their outlooks. It outlines what individuals and society can do to counter misconceptions about growing old. It examines cultures that revere the elderly, argues that genetics aren’t necessarily destiny and shows how physical accomplishments are possible even in old age. 

. . . .

How do negative thoughts affect health in older people?

People who take in more-positive age beliefs from their culture tend to eat healthier diets, exercise more, and they are more likely to take prescribed medications. When we strengthen positive age beliefs, people tend to have lower levels of different kinds of stress biomarkers—lower levels of cortisol over time, lower cardiovascular response to stress. And we have found evidence that they have higher levels of well-being and self-efficacy that can lead to beneficial health changes over time.

You challenge assumptions about old people and memory. Is the “senior moment” a myth?

The term is often used for labeling any kind of forgetfulness, which we know we can experience at any age. There are a lot of different reasons for it—somebody was distracted or stressed or angry—that can reduce our ability to encode information.

Some studies show that the ability to remember vocabulary and metacognition, or the ability to intentionally think about your own thought processes, can improve in later life. I talked with people for the book who showed some impressive examples of later-life cognitive mastery, like the 84-year-old actor who memorized the 60,000-word poem “Paradise Lost.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Biographer Antonia Fraser Tells the Stories of Women Who Made History

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Antonia Fraser’s bestselling biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette probed the unique travails of female monarchs in eras dominated by men. Her 1984 book “The Weaker Vessel,” about the grim lives of women in 17th-century England, has been hailed by critics as a pioneering feminist work.

Yet despite her familiarity with historical sexism, Ms. Fraser was shocked when she learned about Caroline Norton. a well-born Englishwoman and prolific writer, who in 1836 was publicly accused by her husband George of having an affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. George punished Caroline by stealing away their three young children and keeping the proceeds from her writing for himself. “The fact that she was found innocent of adultery, yet George Norton could throw her out of the house, legally take away their three children and live off the copyright of her books, that absolutely stunned me,” Ms. Fraser, 89, says over video from her home in London, while her two cats sashay around the room. “I was surprised by the appalling state of women’s legal rights. It seemed there’d been no progress since the 17th century.”

In “The Case of the Married Woman,” published in the U.S. next month, Ms. Fraser writes that Caroline Norton was witty, beautiful and charismatic, the author of over a dozen well-received novels, plays and volumes of poetry. Yet the writings she is best known for today are her pamphlets arguing for the rights of married women. “A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men,” Norton once lamented. Her advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, arguably the first feminist legislation in English history, which made it possible for mothers to petition the courts for custody of their children. She was also instrumental in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which expanded access to divorce and gave women legal protection from exploitation by their husbands.

“The more I knew about her, the more I admired her,” Ms. Fraser says. When it came time to write about the tragic and needless death of Norton’s youngest son while he was in the negligent care of his father, she admits “there was a tear in my eye, because I identified so much with her at that point.” This sense of “tremendous kinship” came largely from the fact that Norton was both a writer and a mother—“those two strong calls, which I experienced, too,” Ms. Fraser says.

Ms. Fraser had just given birth to the last of her six children with her first husband, the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser, when she began writing her first work of serious historical biography, “Mary Queen of Scots.” Published in 1969 when she was 36, the book was a bestseller in 11 languages, and Ms. Fraser says it changed her life overnight. Her latest is her 30th book, including 10 novels, two memoirs and two books for children. She credits the daunting output to her discipline during her “sacred” working hours between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. “According to my children, there was a notice on the door saying only come in if you’ve broken a leg. I deny it,” she says with a mischievous smile. She now has 20 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren: “There’s something so exciting about babies, though they do grow into teenagers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Bread in Ukraine: why a loaf means life

From 1843 Magazine:

On March 7th, less than a fortnight after Russia invaded Ukraine, an industrial bakery in Makariv, near Kyiv, was hit by Russian shells. At first people hoped that no one had been working there at the time. But this is Ukraine, where bread is taken seriously: 13 people had been killed. In the Guardian newspaper Andrey Kurkov wrote a lament for Makariv bread, “a soft, white, brick-shaped loaf”, remembering the fragrance of it, its taste when dipped in fresh cow’s milk or spread with butter and salt, and his sense that after the bombing it might instead taste of blood.

Nine days after the bakery bomb, more people died as they queued for bread farther north in Chernihiv. The city was under heavy bombardment and later encircled by Russian forces, but where bread was concerned there was no question that citizens should continue to go out with shopping bags and stand in a line, easy victims. How else could they obtain the very stuff and staff of life, the food a hungry human first thinks of? In other towns, bread was being delivered by busy volunteers. Around the same time, the mayor of the village of Hostomel was shot dead as he distributed bread to residents. He was handing out medicine, too. In terms of comfort and reassurance, there is not much difference.

The Ukrainian flag is really an abstract landscape: a cobalt sky – perfect harvest weather – above a yellow wheatfield

Meanwhile, the bakers of Ukraine have been working harder than ever. Brick-shaped and flute-shaped loaves have been layered like munitions into rattling metal trays, part of the war effort. In Kherson, one man has been working 20 hours a day, producing thousands of loaves of “Victory Bread” to hand out from his truck round the streets of the beleaguered city. At a certain point he was kneading dough so long and so hard that his wrists seized up and he couldn’t open doors. Why this extraordinary effort? Because bread, he explained, is visceral to Ukrainians.

In Ukraine, people have been baking since the dawn of time. The very aroma of the crust stirs a deep feeling for the Motherland, a love of the earth in which the wheat and rye seeds germinated. The Ukrainian flag, after all, is really an abstract landscape: a cobalt sky – perfect harvest weather – above a yellow wheatfield.

he importance of bread to Ukrainians, both physically and spiritually, has been clear far beyond the country. Refugees reaching Poland are given a warm drink and a piece of simple, ungarnished bread. In Parabiago, outside Milan, Matteo Cunsolo is making and selling “peace bread” in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In shape it is much like Makariv bread, a heavy oblong, different from anything Italians themselves eat; the bottom half is stained with saffron, the top coloured blue with an infusion of the butterfly-pea flower. Meanwhile the Bakehouse in Kyiv, which is handing out thousands of loaves to residents, is being supported by Proof Bread of Mesa, Arizona, to buy flour and yeast.

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine (sorry if you hit a paywall)

The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper?

From The Guardian:

When was the last time you saw a scientific paper? A physical one, I mean. An older academic in my previous university department used to keep all his scientific journals in recycled cornflakes boxes. On entering his office, you’d be greeted by a wall of Kellogg’s roosters, occupying shelf upon shelf, on packets containing various issues of Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychophysiology, Journal of Neuropsychology, and the like. It was an odd sight, but there was method to it: if you didn’t keep your journals organised, how could you be expected to find the particular paper you were looking for?

The time for cornflakes boxes has passed: now we have the internet. Having been printed on paper since the very first scientific journal was inaugurated in 1665, the overwhelming majority of research is now submitted, reviewed and read online. During the pandemic, it was often devoured on social media, an essential part of the unfolding story of Covid-19. Hard copies of journals are increasingly viewed as curiosities – or not viewed at all.

But although the internet has transformed the way we read it, the overall system for how we publish science remains largely unchanged. We still have scientific papers; we still send them off to peer reviewers; we still have editors who give the ultimate thumbs up or down as to whether a paper is published in their journal.

This system comes with big problems. Chief among them is the issue of publication bias: reviewers and editors are more likely to give a scientific paper a good write-up and publish it in their journal if it reports positive or exciting results. So scientists go to great lengths to hype up their studies, lean on their analyses so they produce “better” results, and sometimes even commit fraud in order to impress those all-important gatekeepers. This drastically distorts our view of what really went on.

There are some possible fixes that change the way journals work. Maybe the decision to publish could be made based only on the methodology of a study, rather than on its results (this is already happening to a modest extent in a few journals). Maybe scientists could just publish all their research by default, and journals would curate, rather than decide, which results get out into the world. But maybe we could go a step further, and get rid of scientific papers altogether.

Scientists are obsessed with papers – specifically, with having more papers published under their name, extending the crucial “publications” section of their CV. So it might sound outrageous to suggest we could do without them. But that obsession is the problem. Paradoxically, the sacred status of a published, peer-reviewed paper makes it harder to get the contents of those papers right.

Consider the messy reality of scientific research. Studies almost always throw up weird, unexpected numbers that complicate any simple interpretation. But a traditional paper – word count and all – pretty well forces you to dumb things down. If what you’re working towards is a big, milestone goal of a published paper, the temptation is ever-present to file away a few of the jagged edges of your results, to help “tell a better story”. Many scientists admit, in surveys, to doing just that – making their results into unambiguous, attractive-looking papers, but distorting the science along the way.

And consider corrections. We know that scientific papers regularly contain errors. One algorithm that ran through thousands of psychology papers found that, at worst, more than 50% had one specific statistical error, and more than 15% had an error serious enough to overturn the results. With papers, correcting this kind of mistake is a slog: you have to write in to the journal, get the attention of the busy editor, and get them to issue a new, short paper that formally details the correction. Many scientists who request corrections find themselves stonewalled or otherwise ignored by journals. Imagine the number of errors that litter the scientific literature that haven’t been corrected because to do so is just too much hassle.

Finally, consider data. Back in the day, sharing the raw data that formed the basis of a paper with that paper’s readers was more or less impossible. Now it can be done in a few clicks, by uploading the data to an open repository. And yet, we act as if we live in the world of yesteryear: papers still hardly ever have the data attached, preventing reviewers and readers from seeing the full picture.

The solution to all these problems is the same as the answer to “How do I organise my journals if I don’t use cornflakes boxes?” Use the internet. We can change papers into mini-websites (sometimes called “notebooks”) that openly report the results of a given study. Not only does this give everyone a view of the full process from data to analysis to write-up – the dataset would be appended to the website along with all the statistical code used to analyse it, and anyone could reproduce the full analysis and check they get the same numbers – but any corrections could be made swiftly and efficiently, with the date and time of all updates publicly logged.

This would be a major improvement on the status quo, where the analysis and writing of papers goes on entirely in private, with scientists then choosing on a whim whether to make their results public. Sure, throwing sunlight on the whole process might reveal ambiguities or hard-to-explain contradictions in the results – but that’s how science really is. There are also other potential benefits of this hi-tech way of publishing science: for example, if you were running a long-term study on the climate or on child development, it would be a breeze to add in new data as it appears.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As PG has mentioned on a couple of prior occasions here, the current mode of publishing scientific and academic papers is extraordinarily profitable for the those who do the publishing. The authors and those other academics and scientist who review the articles don’t get paid anything.

The universities and large research institutions that financially support the academics and scientists receive nothing from the sale of the research through journals despite the fact that those who employ the academics and scientists pay dearly to obtain subscriptions to the publishers of academic and scientific papers so their employees can read what other academics and scientists have published in the journals.

The publishers of the journals, commonly private companies owned by excessively wealthy European families who are heirs to hereditary fortunes receive and keep every bit of the shamefully large subscription revenues from the publication of other people’s work.

PG suggests that virtually any alternative would have to be better than the current, badly-outdated system.

Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jake Kasdan’s 2019 movie “Jumanji: The Next Level” opens with returning hero Spencer already at low ebb—he’s lonely at college, browbeaten at work and sharing his bedroom with Grandpa Eddie. But the thing that pushes him over the edge, driving him back into the dangerous alternate reality of the movie’s title, is the idea that life’s inevitable decline has already begun.

“Getting old sucks,” Eddie says, as he fiddles with the portable oxygen machine on his bedside table. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Social psychologist Becca Levy spends much of “Breaking the Age Code” doing exactly that, weaving together case studies and her own research to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to suck at all. The expectation that aging means decay, Ms. Levy shows, is actually a major reason it so often does—our negative view of aging is literally killing us. Chipping away at this widespread and deeply ingrained conviction has a measurable effect on health after just 10 minutes.

The first part of the book is so full of flabbergasting results that they become almost monotonous. In 2002 Ms. Levy combined results from the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement with data from the National Death Index to reveal that, on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years—an extraordinary 10% of current life expectancy in the United States. In 2012 memory tests showed that positive age beliefs allowed people to outperform their peers with negative beliefs by 30%. The stereotype of failing memory is so strong in the West that occasional lapses are called “senior moments.” But in China, where attitudes to the elderly are much more positive than in the U.S., Ms. Levy says older people “can expect [their] memory to work basically as well as [their] grandchildren’s.” Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing and physical function.

Ms. Levy leavens this research summary with portraits of inspiring elders, from the actor who started memorizing the whole of “Paradise Lost” when he was 60, to the 91-year-old nun who runs triathlons. She also shows the scientific method at work, as when she describes how statistical analysis helped her establish that positive age beliefs bring better health—instead of the other way around—and how lab results demonstrated that those who were exposed to positive age beliefs walked faster and with better balance.

A combination of factors makes us “particularly susceptible . . . to negative age beliefs,” Ms. Levy argues, citing the World Health Organization bulletin that declared ageism “the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice today.” We first encounter ageism when we are least likely to resist it, decades before it might apply to us and our peers. Older people are often segregated in Western society for living, working and socializing, leading younger people to conclude these divisions are “caused by meaningful, inherent differences between age groups.” And these stereotypes are then reinforced over the course of our lives, as we are “bombarded by messages in advertisements and media about older people.”

All is not lost, however, for despite the “pervasiveness and depth” of ageism in Western society, these beliefs are “in fact quite brittle: they can be chipped at, shifted and remade.” In one striking study from 1996, Ms. Levy primed some people with positive words such as “wise” or “alert,” and others with negative ones such as “senile” or “confused.” Ten minutes of priming saw participants in the positive stereotypes group improve in memory tests, while the negative stereotypes group declined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

14 Books About Refugees Trying to Reach Europe

From Electric Lit:

Today, the world is divided between those who can easily travel and those who cannot, separated by the simple luck of where they happened to be born. Yet many of the unlucky dare to try, setting out on epic journeys out of desperation or necessity, even when the odds are stacked against them.

My non-fiction book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, is based on years of communication with refugees who were caught on the Mediterranean sea and locked up indefinitely in Libyan migrant detention centers for trying to reach Europe.

While writing it, I read widely—history, poetry, journalism and novels—in an attempt to learn more about how these stories have been told and understood throughout time. In reality, I was also grappling with a bigger question: why do we still have so little empathy and understanding, and why do we continue to inflict horrors on people who are simply trying to reach safety?

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees by Matthieu Aikins

Matthieu Aikins goes “undercover” as an Afghan refugee named Habib to accompany his friend Omar, former translator for the US forces in Afghanistan, on his asylum seeking journey to Europe. This work of non-fiction takes place right as the so-called “European migrant crisis” is winding down due to increasingly restrictive policies aimed at stopping movement from the Middle East to Europe.

This book is a love story, between Omar and his landlord’s daughter Laila, as well as a mediation on what it means to be a journalist from the rich world, with a passport that opens borders, while colleagues are unable to access the same privileges. Aikins is always conscious that he does not have to be on this route, unlike those he is accompanying. The book includes descriptions of life in Kabul before the Taliban takeover, limbo in Moira camp on Lesbos, time spent with activists in Athens, and firsthand experience of various parts of the smuggling routes.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Does a 2006 Russian Novel Provide Clues to Putin’s Next Move?

From The Interpreter:

Two months ago, Mariya Snegova, a Russian sociologist at Columbia University, suggested that Vladimir Putin was drawing on Mikhail Yuryev’s 2006 novel, The Third Empire, as a guide to his moves against Ukraine and as a source for a new imperial ideology.

Snegova’s conclusions about the impact of Yuryev’s thinking on Putin have been eerily confirmed by subsequent events. And that in turn suggests that Putin, who often cites the works of other writers and who is said by aides to identify The Third Empire as his favorite novel, may plan to act in the future in ways the novelist wrote about eight years ago.

Consequently, because the Columbia scholar proved so prescient about Putin and Ukraine, it is worth revisiting what she wrote in early March as well as considering the broader implications for Russian policy contained in the Yuryev novel itself, the text of which is available online.

Over the past dozen years, Snegova noted, Putin has regularly cited Russian writers like Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyev and Ivan Ilin, all of whom argued that Russia must have an enormous role in the international arena and build to that by promoting “Orthodoxy on the territories under its control.”

Indeed, despite the suggestion of many that the Kremlin leader does not have an ideology, Putin’s reading of these and other books suggests that he not only does but has been developing it for some time. Among the books that have most influenced him, she argued, is Yuryev’s The Third Empire: The Russian Which Must Be” published in 2006.

That book is a description of the world in 2054 purportedly written by a Latin American as a Russian history textbook. Drawing on Samuel Huntington’s vision, the book says that by 2053, “as a result of global wars,” there remained only “five state-civilizations, one of which was Russia in the form of the Third Empire.” (The tsarist and Soviet states were the first and second.)

In Yuryev’s telling, Snegova said, “the construction of the Third Empire began with the coming to power of Vladimir II the Restorer (the first, Vladimir Judas was Lenin) who was able to restore Russia to the status of a great power and to gather the Russian lands.”

That Putin views himself this way is clear, but what is more intriguing is Yuryev’s suggestion that “initially Vladimir the Ingatherer concealed his pro-imperialist impulses, built up reserves and waited for the weakening of the West,” that his state was “based on state corporatism and economic protection,” and that he destroyed the oligarchs and other “pro-Western agents of influence.”

In his book, Yuryev said that Vladimir the Ingatherer began with “an explosion in Ukraine” that led people in the eastern portions of Ukraine to appeal to Moscow to defend them “against ‘Western rule.’” Russia dispatched 80,000 troops, sparking a war with NATO.

As a result of this conflict, Ukraine was divided in two parts, one in the center and west linked with Europe and the West and a second, “Russian” part, consisting of Kharkiv, Dneprpetrivsk, Mykolayev and Odessa regions and oriented toward Moscow. Yuryev did get the date for all this wrong: he wrote that it would happen in 2008.

As Snegov wrote, Yuryev suggested that under Vladimir the Ingatherer, Russia would “gradually unify the territory of the Second Empire” because in his telling – and now in Putin’s – “the disintegration of the Second Empire in 1991 was not by the will of the peoples but rather was the result of a special operation of the West” in conjunction with internal “traitors.”

Yuryev then said that Vladimir the Ingatherer would, in order to establish “the real equality of all the peoples” of the Third Empire, disband the Russian Federation and replace it with a Russian (Eurasian or Customs!) Union.” Having restored a state with more than 200 million people and more than 20 million square kilometers, Russia begin a new “cold war” with the West.

Link to the rest at The Interpreter

Two Charles Darwin Notebooks Disappeared More Than 20 Years Ago. They Mysteriously Reappeared.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks, which went missing more than 20 years ago, have been returned to the Cambridge University Library unscathed. 

The university said Tuesday that the nearly 200-year-old notebooks were found March 9, left in a public area of the library inside a bright pink gift bag with a note wishing the librarian a “Happy Easter.” 

The notebooks, the size of postcards, contain Mr. Darwin’s notes as he worked out his theory of evolution. One of the notebooks contains the naturalist’s “Tree of Life” sketch from 1837, which sought to map out evolution and the relationship between species. Above the sketch are two words: “I think.”

Dr. Jessica Gardner, the university’s librarian, said that a colleague spotted the pink bag and brought it in. They looked inside to find a brown envelope with a typed message:


Happy Easter


“That note is quite unusual,” Dr. Gardner said. “It absolutely adds to the mystery.”

. . . .

Within the envelope was a box they recognized as belonging to the library. Inside, the two notebooks were wrapped in plastic wrap, which isn’t how the library stored them. Still, Dr. Gardner recognized the notebooks and was sure it was the missing ones. She didn’t remove the plastic wrap until the police gave the OK to do so six days later. 

“It was a really thrilling moment,” Dr. Gardner said about unwrapping the notebooks and looking through the pages. 

The notebooks are believed to have gone missing in 2000, when they were taken out of the library’s archive to be photographed. The library didn’t notice they were gone until a routine check in 2001. Some at the library thought they may have just been misplaced. 

. . . .

It isn’t currently known where the notebooks were. Dr. Gardner, who became the university’s librarian in 2017, said the police have the pink gift bag and the envelope, as well as security camera footage from the day they were returned.

. . . .

The notebooks will be displayed in a free exhibition at the library in July. But for now, they’re hidden away.

“They’re safe and tight in a vault,” Dr. Gardner said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (where there are photos)

For modern autocrats, lying is more useful than killing

From The Economist

Russia did not invade Ukraine. Ukrainians are shelling their own cities. A Jewish president is actually a Nazi. Dictators have always told lies, so the Kremlin’s recent whoppers have precedent. Dictators have often used terror, too, so what Vladimir Putin is doing to civilians in Ukraine is nothing new, either. But the balance between lying and killing has changed, argues a fascinating new book. For most modern autocrats, lying matters more.

In “Spin Dictators”, Sergei Guriev, a Russian economist living in exile, and Daniel Treisman, a political scientist, describe how this shift has occurred. For much of the 20th century, despots were ostentatiously violent. Hitler, Stalin and Mao slew millions. Lesser monsters such as Mobutu Sese Seko, a Congolese tyrant, hanged cabinet ministers in public. The aim was to terrify people into submission.

The authors contrast such “fear dictators” with “spin dictators”, who kill fewer people, and deny it when they do. The latter are now more common. Among autocrats who took power in the 1960s, roughly a quarter killed more than 100 dissidents a year; among those who took power in the 2000s, less than a tenth did.

Spin dictators pretend to be democrats. They hold multiparty elections and seldom claim to have won more than 90% of the vote, as was the norm for non-democracies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They rig less and gerrymander more. In 2018 Viktor Orban, Hungary’s spinner-in-chief, turned less than half the vote for his party into a two-thirds supermajority in parliament. He will be hard to dislodge at the election on April 3rd.

Fear dictators’ propaganda was crude and relentless. Busts of Stalin were placed on 38 mountain peaks in Central Asia. So many Mao badges were produced that China’s aircraft industry ran short of aluminium. It was often absurd, too. Mussolini and Kim Jong Il could supposedly conjure up rain and teleport from place to place, respectively. This absurdity was itself a weapon, demonstrating the regime’s “capacity to force people to repeat nonsense”.

Spin dictators like to project an image of competence. Nursultan Nazarbayev used to address Kazakhs from behind a stack of papers, reading out lists of bread-and-butter policies and chiding his ministers for not serving the public better. Spin dictators seldom have a coherent ideology, but use humour to paint themselves as noble and their opponents as vile. They even weaponise light entertainment. In Peru under Alberto Fujimori, a Jerry Springer-style show featured screaming guests, allegations of infidelity and calm words from the host praising the president.

. . . .

The goal of a spin dictator is to appear to allow political competition while making it nearly impossible in practice. Rather than criminalising dissent, he imprisons his opponents for non-political crimes, such as fraud or rape, of which they are innocent. Sometimes he locks them up for short periods, so they do not become martyrs, and often, so their work is constantly disrupted. Rather than banning opposition parties, he tangles them in red tape or bankrupts them with fines and lawsuits. For extra deniability, the task of making dissidents’ lives hell can be outsourced to a youth militia or army of online trolls, who may rough them up, publish their addresses or leak embarrassing photos.

Link to the rest at The Economist

I see their faces

From 1843 Magazine:

On the first day of the war, Sasha woke up to the sound of bombing at 4am. It was roughly “the same time that Hitler began his invasion” of the Soviet Union in 1941, he told me. From the direction of the explosions, Sasha (not his real name) reckoned that the Russians might be attacking the airport at Hostomel, several kilometres from his apartment in central Kyiv. He drove his wife and two sons out of the city. They went with his brother-in-law’s family to the border, where they crossed into Poland. Sasha was a reservist, having spent a year in the Ukrainian army on national service in 2007-08. Once his family was safe, he returned to Kyiv to fight. “If I did not”, he said, “I could not look my sons in the eye.”

. . . .

It was a calm, sunny day, which felt strange, said Sasha, after the constant shelling in Kyiv. He shuffled a tablet out of a pack of anti-inflammatories: “I have had a terrible headache, especially since yesterday. There was a lot of shooting.”

When he joined the Ukrainian army after Russia invaded, Sasha was issued with a set of camouflage fatigues, a Kalashnikov with a wooden stock (“It’s not very accurate,” he said with a wry half-grin, “but it’s very powerful”), and webbing containing two clips of ammunition, ear plugs, plastic protective glasses, a black balaclava, a flick knife and a medical pack with pressure bandages, painkillers, clotting agents, antiseptic, syringes and a tourniquet. He was also given an armoured vest with steel plates at the front and back. I asked him if steel was better than ceramic. Sasha shook his head and showed me a photo on his phone of a similar vest with a bullet hole.

. . . .

Sasha’s unit of 12 men is made up of a mix of regular soldiers, reservists and two Ukrainian former members of the French Foreign Legion. He had known some of these men before the war; a couple were friends. “But we all now trust each other with our lives,” he told me. “I am sure of them 100%.” Each one has his own specialism: Sasha is the sniper. They look like any ordinary Ukrainian unit, perhaps one assigned to guard supply routes. “But no one knows what we really do.” “What do you do?” I asked. “We kill the bad guys,” he replied.

Sasha sounded both proud and regretful. To me, it seemed that he needed to say out loud what he did to truly believe it. His life had turned from peace to war so recently, so fast and so thoroughly that he had no time to catch his breath. He is in his late 30s, a father who in peacetime worked as a manager in a construction company. His hair was cropped close in a military style, but his blue eyes were large and boyish, simultaneously sad, sure and scared. From time to time a muscle flexed in his cheek and he bit the inside of his lip. He was one of those people who, in ordinary life, would probably have a smile ready for everyone and any situation.

It was obvious that he was under stress, and could already see that the war was changing him. He sat straight in his chair, his hands cupped around a vape in his lap. “I didn’t smoke before the war,” he said, “I only started two weeks ago.” “Does it help?” I asked him. “No.”

. . . .

Sasha explained that his unit was responsible for finding and intercepting Russian saboteurs who try to infiltrate Ukrainian lines. These groups, he said, might lay mines or booby traps, mark targets for Russian artillery, place hidden cameras and other kinds of signalling devices, or attack Ukrainian checkpoints to clear a path for advancing troops. (1843 magazine has confirmed that Sasha is a member of this unit. Of necessity, we have relied on his testimony alone for details of its activities.)

The nightly curfew in Kyiv is partly designed to make it easier to identify suspicious activity, though inevitably a few ordinary Ukrainians drive about after dark. “Of course we can’t shoot at every car. We have to stop them, check their documents, listen to their explanation. If it’s a medical emergency we might follow them to the hospital.”

Approaching cars is dangerous. At night it’s impossible to see if someone is hidden on a back seat, or if the occupants are carrying guns, until you’re almost at point-blank range. The saboteur hunters deem a car suspicious if it’s driving too slowly, zigzagging, has more than three occupants or if the driver flashes his lights to blind Ukrainian patrols. When his unit stops a car, the men shout for everyone to put their hands up and get out. As well as checking documents, they inspect the boot and bonnet, and peer inside the footwells.

We speak Russian and they speak Russian. It’d be easier if the Taliban had invaded”

It’s tense work. “Saboteurs are dressed in ordinary clothes”, said Sasha “and it’s hard to tell who is a civilian and who is a saboteur…We speak Russian and they speak Russian. It would be easier if the Taliban had invaded.” Russian soldiers have also been known to wear Ukrainian army and police uniforms. Recently Sasha’s unit received a warning that some saboteurs were female. To counter such threats, there is a password for military and police that changes every day: “Usually something in Ukrainian that is difficult for Russians to pronounce.”

Satellite images allow Ukraine’s armed forces to see enemy movements in real time. “We see everything. We know where they are and where they are headed,” said Sasha. His unit usually gets word about the whereabouts of a Russian group and is sent to intercept it. Sometimes they set an ambush. They secure firing positions, scout exit routes, send up a drone with night-vision cameras and then wait, sometimes for two or three hours.

. . . .

One night Sasha’s unit received information about a group of saboteurs in a car. They knew the licence plate, the make and colour, but didn’t know how many people were in it. They stopped a vehicle on a deserted road between two villages. Inside were three men in their late 20s or early 30s. One member of the unit approached and saw a gun. “He shouted ‘Contact!’ We opened fire and killed them.” They knew they’d found the right target because all the men had guns and telephones with Russian phone numbers. The police and Ukrainian military intelligence turned up to take the bodies away.

The operation affected him deeply. “It is impossible for me to return to my normal state of mental health,” said Sasha. “I had never killed people before.” Sasha has not told his mother that he is serving in the army; she thinks he’s still sheltering at home. “I don’t want to worry her. I want her to be able to sleep at night.” He talks to his wife every day, though she doesn’t know exactly what he does either. “She tells me to take care of myself and I say, of course.” He offered a small laugh at this absurdity, then sighed, long and heavily.

I asked him if he was frightened. “Every time”, he said. “You begin to get scared when you hear everyone sliding the bolts of their guns.” He took up his Kalashnikov and demonstrated the action. It made a hard, metallic, fatal sound. “Then the adrenaline kicks in and you don’t feel anything.” Sasha was more worried for his family’s safety than his own. “For me personally, I am not afraid to die – everyone has their fate…” He screwed his knuckles into his eye sockets. “I see their faces”, he said, talking about the Russians he had killed in the car. “I have these people’s faces in front of me all the time.”

. . . .

He sleeps fitfully. “All you need is 30 minutes a day,” he said, not very convincingly. “The apartment is very close to one of our air-defence batteries.” The worst noise is when the Ukrainians manage to intercept a Russian missile and all the windows shake.

“I hate the Russians because they made me into a killer”

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine

Maria Aggressorovna

From The Wall Street Journal:

This may not be the timeliest moment to proclaim Russia’s creative superiority, but the musical facts are incontrovertible. Over the past century, Russia has produced most of the world’s outstanding pianists, from Rachmaninov and Horowitz at the dawn of recording to Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit right now.

The Soviet system didn’t interrupt the flow of talent. If anything, it accelerated the production line. Any serious music lover can enumerate without difficulty three-dozen Soviet pianists who made important Beethoven recordings. At their head are Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels—one a bull-headed law unto himself, the other a petrified Party flag-bearer—and behind them are legions of relative unknowns who were denied the right to travel abroad or obtain a comfortable lifestyle.

Among them, two women—Maria Grinberg and Maria Yudina—deserve universal recognition, if much belated. Grinberg (1908-1978) was a committed Communist whose father was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937. Thirty years later, when the Kremlin accused the Israeli state of aggression in the Six-Day War, Grinberg signed autographs with a caustic new patronymic: “Maria Aggressorovna.” The Kremlin could never control her.

Yudina (1899-1970) rejected communism from the outset, converting to Russian Orthodoxy in 1919. She risked life and liberty supporting exiled priests in Siberia, all the while maintaining an ambivalent relation to the official church and displaying a wild-haired defiance at the heart of Moscow’s concert life. She played Stravinsky when he was officially banned, as well as the music of the mystical Leningrad recluse Galina Ustvolskaya. In Elizabeth Wilson’s “Playing With Fire,” the first English-language biography of Yudina, there is a fabulous 1962 photograph of the pianist in a scruffy raincoat and uncombed hair facing down the manicured Tikhon Khrennikov, a Stalinist apparatchik who ruled the lives of Soviet composers for half a century. Yudina was not afraid.

Lest anyone be tempted to buy the book under false pretences, Ms. Wilson—the cellist-daughter of a 1960s British ambassador to Moscow—is quick to debunk the only story about Yudina that anyone knows outside Russia. It appeared in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony(1979), a bestselling account that was published as the smuggled-out memoirs of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who had died in 1975.

According to Shostakovich (in Mr. Volkov’s account), Stalin, upon hearing Yudina play a Mozart concerto (K.488) one night on the radio, asked for a recording of it. There was none, so his minions hustled Yudina, an orchestra and three frightened conductors into a studio in the dead of night and pressed a single copy for the Great Leader. Stalin, delighted, sent Yudina a prize of 20,000 rubles. She wrote back saying that she was giving the money to her church and would pray to the Lord to pardon “your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you.” The story forms the opening scene of Armando Iannucci’s quirky 2017 film, “The Death of Stalin.” According to a further legend, Yudina’s Mozart record was found spinning on the turntable beside Stalin’s lifeless body.

During the 1917 Revolution, Yudina rejoiced at the fall of the czar, joined a “people’s militia” and formed a group to run a play-school for working-class children. But a short trip home plunged her into an intoxicating circle of Hegelian and Kantian philosophers who, mostly Jewish converts to Christianity, drew her toward the Russian Orthodox Church. Yudina’s atheist father was outraged, but she was helplessly in love with her mentor, a textual critic by the name of Lev Pumpyansky, the first of a string of unsuitable, ephemeral lovers. When she declined his offer of marriage, Pumpyansky set out to assault her father, who threw him down the stairs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be free, but PG doesn’t know if the link degrades over time.)

Can We Repair the Past?

From Public Books:

n late 2020, I, an American citizen, became an Austrian, through a new law granting citizenship to the descendants of victims of the Third Reich. (Germany has long had a similar law; Austria, far worse in their anti-Semitism, according to my late grandfather, was much slower on the uptake.) My family was exiled and imprisoned. Wealthy Austrian Jews had assimilated into metropolitan Viennese life; many were able to flee and thus avoid the camps and the gas chambers, opportunities not afforded most other Jews across Europe. They arrived in the US, Australia, Israel, England, and Brazil with copious amounts of documentation of the crimes against them. These materials not only allowed family members to claim money from a number of different funds set up to atone for the violent plunder and taking by the Nazis but also recently provided a path back to membership in the Austrian nation.

I keep coming back to the ideas of possession, place, and property when I consider my new status as an Austrian. I’ve never been to the country; my only attachment to it now is a red passport. But the nature of lineage and changing laws mean I have the right to claim.

Can the harm done to our ancestors be remedied through reparative acts in the present? Perhaps we can grant ownership of what was lost, but does that correct historical violence? Such questions frame Menachem Kaiser’s new memoir, PlunderIndeed, I was drawn to the book in part because of my own recent forays into reparative justice for Nazi-era atrocities. Nominally centered on the author’s attempts to reclaim a Polish building his Jewish grandfather lost during World War II, Plunder takes its reader on an audacious journey through Polish property ledgers, Nazi treasure hunting, and the mundane urbanism of Eastern European cities remade after many rounds of occupation and Jewish extermination. At its heart, the book considers rights to property and ownership as central to historical legacies of memory and place.

Kaiser is keenly aware that his regaining ownership of the building will change the lives of its inhabitants, introducing uncertainty and even fear of the loss of their home. In the West, we are taught that property and its rights are natural and ordered, producing good citizens and harmonious communities. Yet property, and by extension possession, always relies on dispossession, a taking from one to give to another, at least at first. It is, in the crudest terms, a form of loot or plunder. His possessing the building will take something from its inhabitants. Not as violent as the Third Reich seizing heirlooms from Jewish ghettoes across its growing empire (what a friend recently referred to as the “shtetl belt”—we Jews love to joke about past horrors), but still a kind of theft. As Kaiser wades into the various laws regarding property, discovered objects and antiquities, and descent, he reveals how possession is tenuous and fraught, rife with conflict between individuals, nation-states, and competing historical narratives.

Like Kaiser, I have been somewhat bemused by this turn of events. My relationship with Austria is tenuous at best. I already have citizenship in the wealthiest country in the world, something millions long for (granted, options at this particular historical juncture are great to have, but wouldn’t the passport be better used by one of the millions, if not billions of people at risk of violence, political oppression and war, and the ravages of climate change?). But I am also unclear as to whether this is a means of righting a historical wrong or simply the logic of jus sanguinis, blood citizenship.

Kaiser writes poignantly about his family’s internal struggles over his quest for reclamation, interlacing them with his own confusion about the nature of his journey. Here he toys with language, searching for the precise terms to describe what he is doing. Is it reclamation? Or, as he alights on, assertion? What might be the difference? And what of the myriad other terms he does not use, such as recuperation, and of course most critical for our present conjuncture, reparation?

What if, like Kaiser’s, our attachment to the place of our ancestors’ suffering is fleeting, a historical filament? He admits that he has no real affective relationship with his grandfather’s Poland. Kaiser never met his grandfather, who died several years before he was born. Until his death, his grandfather, for whom he is named, sought to reclaim the multistory building that had been his family patrimony at the onset of war in the Polish city Sosnowiec.

The author decides to take up his ancestor’s reclamation project, in part as a way of connecting with a relative he never got to know. As he delves in, he encounters a lively cast of characters and makes a detour into rural Silesia. There treasure hunters—or are they explorers?—search for Nazi-era loot within a series of underground bunkers and tunnels Jewish slave laborers built at the apogee of the war. Rumors, myths, and historical fabulations abound in the lush forests and industrial ruins.

By placing his effort to reclaim family property against the unfolding dramedies of his new explorer friends, Kaiser makes us ruminate on the book’s title. As noted above, possession requires dispossession; the restoration of plunder might require plundering in turn.

At points, he seeks to justify his planned taking—plundering?—by rendering inheritance straightforward, a question of lineage. Moreover, he does not deploy the term reparations, seeing his claim for property as an assertion of inheritance and lineage. However, inheritance is never so simple, hence a canon of literature on its anxieties, from Howards End to Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest to a plot point in the recent Sex and the City rebootMany of those works, too, concern property and its rightful (or proper) place. To whom does what belong? Is it a question of what is written in the property ledger or the cadastral map? Or is it about sentimental attachments and the affective relationships we develop to places?

Link to the rest at Public Books

As PG has opined before, while he understands the deep and terrible things that were done to human beings by other human beings during the 20th Century, providing something tangible – land, money, etc. – to the descendants of those who were treated terribly will not provide any benefit to those who were actually harmed by such wrongdoing.

PG suggests that going down this path leads to the nurturing of national and/or racial hatred that characterizes the endless enmity between ethnic/religious/etc. groups. As an example, some radical Muslims identify Christians of European descent as Crusaders, referring to a period generally agreed to have lasted from 1095 – 1291 AD.

There is no one on this planet who was harmed by an actual Crusader. Ditto for a child or grandchild of someone who was harmed by a Crusader.

One of the beneficial aspects of traditional societies in the US is that they left their ancestral feuds behind them. While African Americans were harmed by slavery and its aftermath, no one alive today has been a slave or the son/daughter, grandson/granddaughter of a slave. Racial prejudice, where it still exists in the United States, has a more contemporary source than 150 years ago.

With respect to Native Americans, serious injustices did occur at the hands of some European immigrants and their descendents . On the other hand, some of the earliest British settlers in the United States, experienced terrible race/nationality-based atrocities at the hands of Native Americans.

If we’re going to get specific, it’s likely that far more Native Americans and their civilizations were harmed by Spanish colonists and soldiers than by English colonists and soldiers. So, do the descendants of British or Swedish or Russian colonists have a gripe against those who claim they owe something to the Native Americans in South and Central America whose ancestors were displaced by Spanish or Portuguese invaders?

Many are familiar with a concept in American and British law known as a statute of limitations.

Here’s one description of the purpose of statutes of limitations:

Legislative act(s) restricting the time within which legal proceedings may be brought, usually to a fixed period after the occurrence of the events that gave rise to the cause of action. Such statutes are enacted to protect persons against claims made after disputes have become stale, evidence has been lost, memories have faded, or witnesses have disappeared.

If your great-grandfather killed my great-grandfather in cold blood in 1900, even if my great-grandfather’s wife were still alive, she would have no claim for damages against your great-grandfather if he were still alive. Any claim would be barred by a statute of limitations.

The principle is even clearer for PG if we’re talking about the descendents of the great grandfathers and great-grandmothers.

Finland’s people now strongly back joining NATO, poll says, a massive political shift that would enrage Russia

From Business Insider:

A survey of people in Finland found that a majority wanted the country to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The survey by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum Eva think tank found that 60% of people supported Finland joining NATO, a massive jump from previous years. Eva polled 2,074 people between March 4 and March 15.

Finland shares a long border with Russia and was once part of the Russian Empire. After it gained independence, it was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939 but fought back and was not defeated.

The country has for decades maintained a careful balance between Russia and Western countries, which involved avoiding NATO membership.

At the time of the last Eva survey in 2021, most Finns seemed to support that position, with only 34% backing NATO membership.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another non-NATO country, prompted a change — almost doubling support for NATO membership.

Ilkka Haavisto, the research manager at Eva, said of the results: “Russia has shown that it does not respect the integrity of its neighbors.

“The war in Ukraine has concretely shown what the horrors of a defensive war on Finland’s own territory would be and made it clear that NATO countries cannot use their military forces to help defend a nonaligned country.”

Link to the rest at Business Insider

PG realizes that the OP is not like his usual offerings for TPV.

He has a close friend who was born and raised in Finland, served a mandatory period of time in the Finnish army, then came to the United States on a university track and field scholarship. He is the only member of his family of origin who is living in the United States and returns to Finland on a regular basis.

From this friend, PG learned that a number of Finns who were caught on the wrong side of the boundary that ended The Winter War, also known as the First Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-40. World opinion generally favored the Finnish cause and, although vastly outnumbered, the Finns inflicted significant damage to the Red Army.

About 12,000 volunteers from other nations volunteered to join the Finnish Army, mostly from Sweden, Denmark and Norway. However, there were also volunteers from Hungary, Italy, Estonia and America (predominantly Americans with Finnish backgrounds ) who joined the Finns in fighting the Soviets.

Pursuant to the peace treaty that ended this war, Finland ceded about 9% of its land area to the Soviet Union. That wasn’t enough for Stalin who kept demanding more land from Finland after the treaty was signed.

The poor performance of the Red Army fighting against the Finns encouraged Adolph Hitler to attack the Soviets fifteen months later in Operation Barbarossa.

When PG’s Finnish friend returns to Finland each year, he always buys provisions and takes them over the Russian border to help the Finns who still live there and speak Finnish as their first language. He says the contrast between contemporary Finland and the lives of the Finns trapped in Russia is profound. “Everything is gray,” is one way he describes it.

The Poison Book Project

From The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works:

In early spring 2019, I started treatment on a Victorian-era publisher’s case binding bound in bright green bookcloth, never anticipating that this mass-produced binding would set into motion an engrossing exploration of a hidden hazard in library collections.

Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1857) had been requested for exhibit in the Winterthur galleries, and while working under the microscope to remove a waxy accretion, I was surprised to see the bright green colorant flake readily from the bookcloth with even the gentlest touch of my porcupine quill. I began to wonder whether this bright green hue came from a pigment rather than a dye, and if that might account for the lack of cohesion in the bookcloth’s colored starch coating. Aware of recent literature about Victorian wallpapers, apparel, and other household goods colored with toxic emerald green pigment, a dubious concern grew in my mind: could this same toxic pigment have been used to color nineteenth-century bookcloth?

In Winterthur’s Scientific Research and Analysis Lab, Dr. Rosie Grayburn conducted X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) on Rustic Adornments and identified the strong presence of arsenic and copper in the bookcloth. She followed the elemental analysis with Raman spectroscopy, confirming the compound copper acetoarsenite, or emerald green pigment. This revelation halted my treatment efforts and spurred us to create the Poison Book Project, an investigation of potentially toxic pigments used to color Victorian-era bookcloth. Working with library staff and conservation interns, we analyzed over 400 cloth-case publisher’s bindings in both the circulating and rare book collections at Winterthur Library. After an initial test batch in a range of colors, we decided to focus exclusively on green bookcloth for the initial phase of the project. We identified nine books bound in arsenical emerald green cloth, four of which had been housed in the circulating collection. We found a tenth emerald green binding on the shelf of a local used book store (and purchased it for $15). After scanning the Winterthur Library collection for emerald green, we reached out to The Library Company of Philadelphia. Their unique shelving practice of arranging the Americana collection chronologically allowed us to complete in a single day what had taken months to accomplish at Winterthur Library. Using Winterthur’s hand-held XRF device, we found 28 volumes among The Library Company’s nineteenth-century American and British publisher’s bindings that tested positive for arsenic. We will be expanding our data set even further in cooperation with the University of Delaware Library Special Collections.

Once we knew emerald green book cloth is not uncommon, we needed to understand what sort of risk it actually poses for library staff, researchers, and book collectors. We reached out to the University of Delaware Soil Testing Lab for quantitative analysis of a destructive sample of bookcloth. The results were higher than any of us had anticipated. A toxic dose of emerald green, when ingested or inhaled, can be as low as 5 mg/kg of body weight, and much lower, chronic doses have been linked to non-lethal health complications. The amount of emerald green colorant in the tested bookcloth averaged 2.5 mg/cm2. Pick-up tests conducted by rolling a dry cotton swab across the surface of the bookcloth also showed a significant degree of arsenic in the pigment offset. These tests were performed on a single binding, so further research is needed to understand whether all or most emerald green bookcloth exhibits this level of friability.

The director of environmental health and safety at the University of Delaware, Michael Gladle, provided us with context from an industrial hygiene perspective. Without a U.S. safety standard for arsenic exposure, as there is for lead, he cautioned us to consider any direct exposure unacceptable. Based on his recommendations, Winterthur Library will encourage patrons to turn first to digitized versions of books bound in emerald green cloth. However, given the nature of our researchers, who are attracted to our collections in American material culture primarily in their tangible form, we are also working to develop a safe handling protocol and training procedure. This conversation must involve multiple stakeholders including library staff, conservation staff, division leaders, industrial hygiene consultants, and legal counsel. For staff who must handle these books, wearing nitrile gloves followed by hand-washing is our current best practice. Winterthur Library has relocated all emerald green books into the rare book collection, where they will be stored in a single location. Storing the books together will make cautionary labeling easier and more effective and will also facilitate safer salvage response in case of a collections emergency. Emerald green books are individually sealed in zip-top, polyethylene baggies to isolate the friable pigment and to prevent offset from the bookcloth rubbing against neighboring books on the shelf. For conservators who must treat a book bound in emerald green bookcloth, Michael Gladle strongly recommends wearing nitrile gloves and working under a certified chemical fume hood, because the use of liquid adhesives or heat can increase the risk of arsenic exposure.

. . . .

Currently, project interns are working on scanning the Winterthur Library collections for chromium-based pigments, which are significantly less toxic than arsenic but are still cause for concern when found in library collections. Next steps for the project will involve scanning for additional pigments; deeper archival research into the manufacture of nineteenth-century English bookcloth; partnering with other institutions to expand our data set of arsenical bindings; and creating a publicly-accessible, searchable database of bindings which have been analyzed at Winterthur and other institutions.

Link to the rest at The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Walking Among the University’s Ruins

From Public Books:

Universities might be facing a moment similar to what befell early modern English monasteries under Henry VIII. For generations, explains Ronald Musto in The Attack on Higher Education (2021), monasteries were the center of English intellectual and religious life. They were innovators that developed new ideas. But, following the dissolution acts of 1535 and 1539, “the monasteries’ daily routines, chants, liturgical hours, processions, rituals, instructions, and labors concentrated in particular places simply ceased to exist.”

Could the same happen to universities?

It’s already happening. Today, we walk among the ruins of an institution that once had a larger purpose. It’s not clear what role universities should play in society, and to what or to whom they are accountable, other than their corporate interests.

To some, that’s not a problem, at least, according to Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt in The Great Upheaval (2021). They see higher education undergoing the same transformation that reshaped the music, film, and newspaper industries. Rather than place-based education overseen by tenured professors, they anticipate “the rise of anytime, anyplace, consumer-driven content and source agnostic, unbundled, personalized education paid for by subscription.”

Between Musto’s existential fears of disruption and Levine and Van Pelt’s embrace of it lies a third path. It takes the form of a wager—outlined by Ronald Daniels in What Universities Owe Democracy (2021)—that universities can and should continue to matter because of their importance in civic democratic life.

How did we get here? Under globalization, the modern university lost its referent, as Bill Readings wrote in his book The University in Ruins (1996). By this, Readings meant that the university no longer understood “the end and meaning of its activities.” Universities had once connected the education they offered to preparing citizens and the knowledge they produced to serving national interests and “uphold[ing] national prestige.”

But today, these purposes no longer animate our institutions. Even in 1996, Readings concluded that the university no longer functioned as “an ideological apparatus of the nation-state.” Instead, he warned, it had become “a relatively independent bureaucratic system.” It is this context, I argue, that makes the wager Daniels offers in What Universities Owe Democracy so urgent.

Ronald Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University, which is billed as America’s first research university. The pandemic reminded us of how essential these universities are, as Hopkins and others took the lead in generating and sharing information about the coronavirus. Hopkins, in this sense, lived up to its founding president Daniel Coit Gilman’s aspiration in 1885 that universities be places that acquire, conserve, refine, and distribute knowledge. Amid the ruins, Daniels argues for the need to reconnect this important work to higher civic purposes in order to rescue universities from a skeptical public, tight-fisted policy makers, and culture warriors on and off campus.

Universities, Daniels asserts, have four essential functions: (1) providing access in ways that encourage social mobility; (2) educating democratic citizens; (3) creating expert knowledge; and (4) encouraging students—and citizens—to engage in dialogue across difference. These four purposes are not particularly novel; other writers, indeed, have made similar claims. But the purposes are important at a time when elite institutions, in particular, often re-create existing inequalities and when universities are being pressured to replace liberal education with vocational majors. Importantly, Daniels recognizes that the public’s willingness to support higher education’s democratic mission depends on universities reengaging with the nation-state.

Daniels believes not only that universities “serve and enrich liberal democracy” but that they have the obligation to do so. By seeking truth, speaking truth to power, and creating campuses in which dialogue across difference checks dogmatism, “colleges and universities are among liberal democracy’s cornerstone institutions.” Although Canadian by birth, Daniels gives his book an “American focus.” Universities must make the case that they serve not just democracy, but American democracy.

Will Daniels’s wager work? It’s not clear. Administrators and faculty these days do not seem particularly committed to the nation-state. “Internationalization” and “globalization” are all the rage. Cynically, one might view this as a way to bring in tuition dollars from foreign students, but it also reflects the professoriate’s genuine intellectual and political commitment to a world that overcomes national parochialism. On campus today, it is suspect to call oneself a patriotic American, as if love of country is something reserved for those other people in red states.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG does not claim to be an expert on the American university system, either as a whole or in part. He does, however, read articles about universities as part of his desire to understand what is going on in the United States as a whole and his friends include university professors and executive administrative staff.

From the outside looking in, PG believes that a great many institutions of higher learning are shamefully overpriced. The pricing philosophy seems to be to hit the rich and near-rich with the increasingly high sticker price and use scholarships and large government-backed student loans for those who would otherwise be unable to attend.

As PG has mentioned before, he attended a very respectable private university in ancient times, making his way via scholarships, student loans and working one or two jobs during the term. Payments on his student loans were an amount that he could manage without a great deal of difficulty on his post-university salary working for a couple of large business organizations. In PG’s assessment, his degree and where he got it was important for his obtaining his first job after graduation and not very important for any jobs he had after the first one.

That said, the amount of student debt is just extraordinarily high at a great many private universities.

Per the Education Data Initiative, the average non-profit university bachelor’s degree graduate has $33,700 in student loan debts. The equivalent average debt from a public university is $27,000.

Looking at average student debt on a state-by-state basis, 74% of bachelor’s graduates (from both private and public institutions) in New Hampshire graduate with student loan debt. The average amount of debt accrued by a New Hampshire graduate is $39,410.

85% of Black graduates had debt compared with 66% of White graduates. Black graduates have nearly $8,000 more debt on average than White graduates.

A higher percentage of female students incur debt than male students and the total debt average at graduation for women is somewhat higher than for men.

Between 2004 and 2016, average student debt at graduation doubled.

The average medical school graduate owes $241,600 in total student loan debt. The average law school graduate owes $160,000 in student loan debt.

The total student loan debt in the United States is currently $1.75 trillion,

It takes student borrowers over 20 years on average to pay off their student loans. The average medical school graduate’s salary is not sufficient to make their student loan payments.

Don’t forget that student loan debts are accruing interest, so payments must cover the amount borrowed plus interest. Most borrowers have to use 10-20% of their salaries to pay off their student debts, so in some cases, marriage, children and acquiring a home are deferred.

The overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%. Nearly a third of college freshmen drop out before their sophomore year. 38% of college dropouts – the largest portion – said they left due to financial pressure.

Again, PG obtained all his cost, dropout, etc., information from The Education Data Initiative

A Struggling Actress’s Greatest Role Was as a Real Civil War Spy

From the Atlas Obscura:

THE PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN WITH the dark curls was searching for her lost brother. That wasn’t unusual in the summer of 1863. The American Civil War had been raging for two years. Hundreds of thousands had died and the chaos of ongoing battles meant that family members on both sides of the conflict went without news from their loved ones, living or dead, for weeks and months at a time. This bereft sister had traveled from Nashville, which had recently fallen to U.S. forces, toward eastern Tennessee, which was still held by the Confederacy, to find her kin. She discovered no news of her brother there, but then, she hadn’t expected to: He was a fiction.

Pauline Cushman—struggling actress and U.S. spy—made up the story to talk her way into Confederate territory. There, she met a sympathetic soldier in gray who was drawing up a map of the fortifications built by the Army of Tennessee. She had been ordered by U.S. Colonel William Truesdail to simply observe the enemy and report back on their preparations, but Cushman instead stuffed the map in her boot and fled for safety. She had almost made it to safety when she was captured on June 12, 1863, by Confederate troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest near Franklin, Tennessee. “Her fine talents are, doubtless, occupied at present time in planning an escape,” reported the Savannah Republican, a Confederate newspaper.

Before joining the war effort, Pauline Cushman was an actress in Louisville, Kentucky. BRADY-HANDY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION.

Cushman’s legend was already growing and then, as now, it was difficult to separate fact from fiction, says William J. Christen, author of Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland. As the story goes, Cushman joined the war effort in Louisville, Kentucky, in April 1863, when a pair of Confederate soldiers offered her an astonishing $300 to raise a toast to the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, in the play she was performing. Cushman promptly informed U.S. Colonel Orlando Hurley Moore of the request, earning his trust, and when she praised Davis from the stage at Moore’s direction, she earned trust among the Confederates, too. Moore then offered her a job as a spy. In the following months, she was credited with posing as a Southern woman to befriend a boarding house owner and thwart her plans to poison U.S. soldiers, and with dressing as a man and playing the role of an undercover Confederate agent to capture a woman smuggling contraband to the rebels.

. . . .

And, as the newspaper feared after her capture in June, she may have used her performing to plan an escape. Convicted of espionage and sentenced to death, Cushman fell ill, which some thought to be a ruse. When the U.S. forces threatened, the fleeing Confederates left her behind. She made a full recovery.

“The greatest heroine of her age,” trumpeted P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman of his. Before the war had even ended, he contracted the actress to perform a one-woman play about her exploits as a daring spy behind enemy lines. An 1865 book, Life of Pauline Cushman, the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout, by Ferdinand L. Sarmiento, added even more drama to the tale.

After her exploits in the Civil War in the summer of 1863, Pauline Cushman was given the honorary title of “Major.” LILJENQUIST FAMILY COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION.

Whatever the truth of her actions, Cushman’s contributions earned her the honorary title of “Major,” and she received special permission from generals Gordon Granger and James Garfield to wear a military-style riding dress presented to her by the ladies of Nashville. She then took her show on the road, touring the North and giving fervent speeches against the Confederacy. In New York in June 1964, as General Ulysses S. Grant confronted General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Cushman declared, “My sufferings at the hands of those who are now arrayed against the flag of our Republic have been far more than requited by seeing the cause of justice triumph. To-night our noble troops are besieging the capital of treason; and with them and you I united my feeble voice in the cry, ‘Long live the Union!’”

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

St. Basil’s Guide to Cultural Appropriation

From First Things:

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the European Renaissance was the profound harmony it achieved between the classical and Christian elements in Western history. That harmony remained characteristic of Western schools down to recent times. It is worth reflecting on how it came about.

By the mid-fourteenth century, when Petrarch invented the studia humanitatis or humanities, the clamor of the ancient battle between pagan classical culture and Christianity, whose greatest monument was St. Augustine’s City of God, had been largely stilled. A new Christian civilization had grown up since the twelfth century that fed with gusto on the rich fare of Roman grammar, rhetoric, and law as well as Greek philosophy and medicine. Canon lawyers, above all Gratian—compiler of medieval Europe’s most influential canon law textbook—agreed that formed Christians in universities could read pagan books without damage to their faith. Medieval universities were in essence corporate bodies created and loosely supervised by religious and secular authorities. For the most part they were highly effective in preventing heresy and political subversion. Most university students intended to make careers in the Church or in lay government, and could be counted upon to do and say nothing that might blight their prospects of advancement.

Petrarch and the Christian humanists of the Renaissance were proposing something different. They wanted to train the children of the elite in classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, with the goal of spreading virtue and eloquence among the future leaders of society. The graduates of their schools would be faithful Christians who combined great personal distinction with devotion to family and country. Christendom would be strengthened, it was thought, if its leaders could draw upon the neglected reservoirs of Roman virtue and Greek wisdom.

. . . .

St. Basil’s letter-treatise on education, entitled To Young Men, How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature, had an enormous influence on Renaissance culture when it was first translated into Latin around 1397-99. The translator was the great humanist scholar-official Leonardo Bruni. Bruni was a protégé of Coluccio Salutati, a pious Christian humanist who at the time was involved in an epistolatory controversy with another of his protégés, one Giovanni da San Miniato. Giovanni, whom Salutati had personally urged to take up the monastic life years before, had now aligned himself with the more severe critics of humane studies and had questioned the utility of teaching pagan literature to the young. Bruni’s translation was the perfect response. The little work became by far the most influential patristic text of the Renaissance.

St. Basil (A.D. 330-379), apart from being a saint, had credibility with Christian ascetics, being a monk of a particularly austere disposition. His mother and great-grandfather had died in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. He was also a bishop and had two brothers who were bishops. Basil had had a fine classical education in the pagan university town of Athens, but could never be accused of being a literary dilettante with no serious commitment to the faith.

In his letter-treatise, St. Basil argued that humanistic studies would not only help students in the secular duties of life, but would also prepare their souls for Christian teachings. He urged young men finishing their first training in grammar to go on to classical literature. They should not be discouraged by the philistine attitude of some fellow Christians, but should recognize the extraordinary value of pagan literature. Not that everything in those authors could be approved: Students should take only what was useful to them as Christian members of society. They should avoid acquiring a pagan spirit and should not “surrender the rudder of their minds” to the pagan authors. They should be discriminating, like bees who take only what they need from the best flowers. The present life is nearly worthless compared to the life to come, but at their age they were unable to appreciate the full wisdom of Christ. Just as men who wanted to be soldiers must start with physical exercises that might seem to have nothing to do with fighting, so young scholars should be exercised in “the poets and historians and orators” and other writers who could improve their minds. Like fullers preparing cloth to receive its eventual color, the classical authors prepare us with tou kalou doxa, a correct opinion of the Good, before the heavenly Dyer fixes in us the true colors of faith. Moses acquired the learning of the pagan Egyptians before becoming leader of the Israelites, and Daniel, counselor to the kings of Babylon, learned the lore of the Chaldaeans while remaining true to the God of Israel.

Crucially, Basil was far more positive about the merits of studying pagan literature than either St. Augustine or Martianus Capella, hitherto the two most influential authorities available in Latin on the use of the classics in Christian education. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote that pagan learning should only be acquired insofar as it furthered the goal of salvation, in particular in preaching and the interpretation of the Bible. Martianus Capella—Augustine’s contemporary and a fellow African—also narrowed the range of disciplines Christians should accept from pagan Rome. He reconfigured them into seven liberal arts that emphasized linguistic skills (the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and skills involving numbers (the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musical harmony). Both authors, in other words, focused on useful knowledge. Neither mentioned the possibility of learning virtue or wisdom from non-Christian authors.

St. Basil, by contrast, urged his young men to take lessons about virtue from pagan poets, orators, and philosophers. “All the poetry of Homer is praise of virtue.” The right pagan philosophers, above all the moral philosophers, can teach us how to escape from the prison of the body’s passions. To be worthy of the prize of eternal life we must do our allotted tasks in this life well, and the study of pagan classical authors will help the young Christian keep his soul in tune while performing his earthly duties and awaiting the fuller light that will come as he approaches his heavenly reward.

Link to the rest at First Things

Ahmed’s Good Grief

From Public Books:

I am a serial complainer within a history-plagued institution: a school that tells a story of being keenly interested in attracting more students and faculty of color; expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and becoming less overwhelmingly white. What is it to be a serial complainer? In my case, it means that I have complained with and on behalf of students who have been sexually assaulted, who have received racist and sexist fraternity invitations, and who have had access to fewer resources than their peers. I have accompanied colleagues in their complaint processes, and I have experienced my own.

As I discuss in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (2016), institutions that have trouble preventing sex- and race-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation (often in the staff and faculty ranks) have no shot at dealing well with sexual assault and other types of violence (often crossing over into the student ranks). Having a formal complaint process burdened by the weight of a deeply risk-averse general counsel—who communicates each step and each action to the administrators in power—means having a complaint process that will always favor the people complained about, and not those who have complained.

My first exposure to the university’s complaint system was when I was placed at its helm for a year. I learned quickly that handwritten notes from the general counsel meant that something wasn’t to be formally documented and that whatever couldn’t be documented usually wasn’t right. I should have known immediately that I wasn’t cut out for a job that did not allow me to be forthright about processes and procedures. Being a serial complainer also means having the privilege and/or the damned foolishness to stick your neck out because you think it is the right thing to do. To speak out against the actions this culture engenders is to complain, to introduce a germ in the system, to attempt to undo almost three centuries of white heteropatriarchy.

But, despite these experiences, it seemed I had more to learn about what it really means—or what it should really mean—to complain. In Complaint!, prolific UK-based author Sara Ahmed reveals that true complaints cannot be contained by mere word or action. What we need to do is seek and implement more creative, enduring solutions to institutional problems of bullying, harassment, and unequal working conditions.

Why do we need to change the way we address complaints? Because, as Ahmed makes clear—and as my own experience has demonstrated—the current system simply doesn’t work. To register a workplace complaint is to express grief and lament, and to go through the institution’s endogamic complaint system is to bring grief upon yourself in a seemingly fruitless effort to effect change. Writes Ahmed, “Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation: to complain is to become a container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over.” The exclamation point in the book’s title serves as an exhortation—to do something. “We have to push harder,” says Ahmed, who also winks at her readers by addressing us in the second person: “(Some of you, I expect, are complainers too).”

Link to the rest at Public Books

Against Any Intrusion

From The Paris Review:

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, “Time is a strange substance,” and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how: like tuning a radio so that the crackling sound of the airwaves is slipstreamed into words. Maybe the sound of surf, or of rushing water, is actually the echoes of voices that have been similarly distorted through time. I don’t suppose this is true, and you don’t either. But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.

We are both painters. We can connect to each other through images, in our own unvoiced language. But I will try and reach you with words. Through talking to you I may come alive and begin to speak, like the statue in Pygmalion. I have painted myself in silent seated poses, still as a statue, and so have you. Perhaps, through you, I can begin to trace the reason for my transformation into painted stone.

It has been a time of upheaval for me and I have been trying to gather my thoughts. So many things have ended, or are ending. New beginnings, too. I have been thinking a lot about the past, about our past, and it has never struck me so forcibly as now, when I am nearly sixty years old, just how much our lives have been stamped with a similar pattern.

. . . .

We both work best from women. Your mother died when you were only eight whereas mine died when I was fifty-five, yet mothers are of central significance to both of us. We are both close to our sisters, one in particular: you to Winifred, whom you often painted, I to Kate, my younger sister, who is my most regular sitter. The two men I have been most intensely involved with, Lucian Freud and my husband, Steven Kupfer—in both cases their girlfriend before me had been called Kate; I had suffered terrible jealousy at Kate’s birth and felt supplanted by her in my mother’s affection, but then grew to love her particularly. Jealousy heightens love; the special intensity with which we observe the object of our mother’s (or lover’s) devotion narrows the beam of our focus. Who was it who said that love was the highest form of attention?

One of the main reasons I want to speak to you now is because I’ve become increasingly aware of how both of us are regarded in relation to men. You are always associated, in the public’s eyes, with your brother Augustus and with your lover, Auguste Rodin. I am always seen in light of my involvement with Lucian Freud. We are neither of us considered as artists standing alone. I hate the term in her own right—as in “artist in her own right”—because it suggests that we are still bound to our overshadowed lives, like freed slaves. I hate the word muse, too, for the same limiting reason. We are both referred to as muses, and you have repeatedly been described as “a painter in her own right,” as I have. Why are some women artists seen for what they are uniquely? What is it about us that keeps us tethered? Both of our talents are entirely separate from those of the men we have been attached to—we are neither of us derivative in any way. Do you think that, without fully understanding why, we are both of us culpable?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143

From The Paris Review (1995):

Susan Sontag lives in a sparsely furnished five-room apartment on the top floor of a building in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan. Books—as many as fifteen thousand—and papers are everywhere. A lifetime could be spent browsing through the books on art and architecture, theater and dance, philosophy and psychiatry, the history of medicine, and the history of religion, photography, and opera—and so on. The various European literatures—French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etcetera, as well as hundreds of books of Japanese literature and books on Japan—are arranged by language in a loosely chronological way. So is American literature as well as English literature, which runs from Beowulf to, say, James Fenton. Sontag is an inveterate clipper, and the books are filled with scraps of paper (“Each book is marked and filleted,” she says), the bookcases festooned with notes scrawled with the names of additional things to read.

   Sontag usually writes by hand on a low marble table in the living room. Small theme notebooks are filled with notes for her novel in progress, “In America.” An old book on Chopin sits atop a history of table manners. The room is lit by a lovely Fortuny lamp, or a replica of one. Piranesi prints decorate the wall (architectural prints are one of her passions).

   Everything in Sontag’s apartment testifies to the range of her interests, but it is the work itself, like her conversation, that demonstrates the passionate nature of her commitments. She is eager to follow a subject wherever it leads, as far as it will go—and beyond. What she has said about Roland Barthes is true about her as well: “It was not a question of knowledge . . . but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention.”

   Sontag was interviewed in her Manhattan apartment on three blisteringly hot days in July of 1994. She had been traveling back and forth to Sarajevo, and it was gracious of her to set aside time for the interview. Sontag is a prodigious talker—candid, informal, learned, ardent—and each day at a wooden kitchen table held forth for seven- and eight-hour stretches. The kitchen is a mixed-use room, but the fax machine and the photocopier were silent; the telephone seldom rang. The conversation ranged over a vast array of subjects—later the texts would be scoured and revised—but always returned to the pleasures and distinctions of literature. Sontag is interested in all things concerning writing—from the mechanism of the process to the high nature of the calling. She has many missions, but foremost among them is the vocation of the writer.


When did you begin writing?


I’m not sure. But I know I was self-publishing when I was about nine; I started a four-page monthly newspaper, which I hectographed (a very primitive method of duplication) in about twenty copies and sold for five cents to the neighbors. The paper, which I kept going for several years, was filled with imitations of things I was reading. There were stories, poems and two plays that I remember, one inspired by ÄŒapek’s R.U.R., the other by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria de Capo. And accounts of battles—Midway, Stalingrad, and so on; remember, this was 1942, 1943, 1944—dutifully condensed from articles in real newspapers.


We’ve had to postpone this interview several times because of your frequent trips to Sarajevo that, you’ve told me, have been one of the most compelling experiences of your life. I was thinking how war recurs in your work and life.


It does. I made two trips to North Vietnam under American bombardment, the first of which I recounted in “Trip to Hanoi,” and when the Yom Kippur War started in 1973 I went to Israel to shoot a film, Promised Lands, on the front lines. Bosnia is actually my third war.


There’s the denunciation of military metaphors in Illness as Metaphor. And the narrative climax of The Volcano Lover, a horrifying evocation of the viciousness of war. And when I asked you to contribute to a book I was editing, Transforming Vision: Writers on Art, the work you chose to write about was Goya’s The Disasters of War.


I suppose it could seem odd to travel to a war, and not just in one’s imagination—even if I do come from a family of travelers. My father, who was a fur trader in northern China, died there during the Japanese invasion—I was five. I remember hearing about “world war” in September 1939, entering elementary school, where my best friend in the class was a Spanish Civil War refugee. I remember panicking on December 7, 1941. And one of the first pieces of language I ever pondered over was “for the duration”—as in “there’s no butter for the duration.” I recall savoring the oddity, and the optimism, of that phrase.


In “Writing Itself,” on Roland Barthes, you express surprise that Barthes, whose father was killed in one of the battles of the First World War (Barthes was an infant) and who, as a young man himself, lived through the Second World War—the Occupation—never once mentions the word war in any of his writings. But your work seems haunted by war.


I could answer that a writer is someone who pays attention to the world.


You once wrote of Promised Lands: “My subject is war, and anything about any war that does not show the appalling concreteness of destruction and death is a dangerous lie.”


That prescriptive voice rather makes me cringe. But . . . yes.


Are you writing about the siege of Sarajevo?


No. I mean, not yet, and probably not for a long time. And almost certainly not in the form of an essay or report. David Rieff, who is my son, and who started going to Sarajevo before I did, has published such an essay-report, a book called Slaughterhouse—and one book in the family on the Bosnian genocide is enough. So I’m not spending time in Sarajevo to write about it. For the moment it’s enough for me just to be there as much as I can—to witness, to lament, to offer a model of noncomplicity, to pitch in. The duties of a human being, one who believes in right action, not of a writer.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review (1995)

Given the situation in the Ukraine (Kiev is about 750 miles by air from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina – another place most Americans couldn’t pick out on a map on short notice), PG thought the Sarajevo references in the OP were ironic.

As many of the visitors to TPV already know, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were shot dead in Sarajevo on on June 28th, 1914, an event the precipitated World War I. Sarajevo is located on the Balkan Peninsula.

The Balkans are also the location of the first advanced civilizations. Vinča culture developed a form of proto-writing before the Sumerians and Minoans. The Tărtăria clay tablets found there date back to around 5300 BC. This area was claimed by the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire among many others.

The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

Winston Churchill

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water

From The Economist

In the autumn of 2016 two young men were deposited in Moria refugee camp, a notorious detention centre on the Greek island of Lesbos. They had just braved a dangerous crossing in a dinghy from Turkey, on their way from Afghanistan to Europe. But the pair were not quite what they seemed. One was Afghan; the other was an undercover Canadian journalist, who was accompanying his friend on his perilous journey to a new life.

Both were shocked by the squalor they encountered, the result of a fire that had gutted the camp the previous week. As well as the grim conditions, the men had to contend with souring attitudes towards newcomers across Europe. More than a million migrants and refugees reached the continent by sea in 2015, but, a year on, countries were increasingly putting up fences and closing their borders. With public hostility outstripping sympathy, the road to asylum became more difficult, as the swelling number of detainees at the camp on Lesbos demonstrated.

Matthieu Aikins, a journalist partly of Japanese descent, had been working in Afghanistan for seven years when he agreed to make the trip with Omar, his pseudonymous companion. They had developed a close friendship during assignments on which Omar served as Mr Aikins’s fixer-cum-driver. But they came from drastically different worlds. As a child, Mr Aikins played ice hockey in a Canadian suburb; Omar grew up in exile in Iran and Pakistan. From a young age he had shined shoes, picked pistachios and taken construction jobs in the Iranian city of Shiraz to support his parents. His family moved back to Afghanistan soon after the American invasion of 2001.

By the time Omar left Kabul with Mr Aikins in 2016, his mother and father had already fled their war-torn country for a second time. Some of his siblings were already living in Europe; the rest of his close relatives were in Turkey, hoping to go west. His own trip had been delayed after he fell in love. He eventually sold his prized car, a gold Corolla, and steeled himself for the trials ahead.

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water”—the title is a Dari proverb—is a chronicle of the two men’s odysseys. Omar entrusts himself to smugglers and risks his life to cross mountains and seas; Mr Aikins, who assumes the name Habib as part of his disguise, is his companion for some, but not all, of the voyage. Unlike his friend, he does not enter Turkey from Iran. Instead, he attempts to fly in from Italy, but is denied entry at a time of heightened tension after an attempted coup. So Mr Aikins travels by bus to Bulgaria before illegally slipping across the Turkish border.

The hazards they share mask the gulf in their circumstances—up to a point. Mr Aikins, who passes as Afghan because of his “black hair” and “wiry beard”, knows that, when push comes to shove, his friend must rely only on his luck, while he can always fall back on his Western citizenship. The question of who has the right to travel across borders looms large in his courageous reporting. So do the dangers some people are obliged and willing to take along the smuggler’s route into Europe. Boys stow away in lorries, families board unseaworthy inflatable boats, men and women cross deserts. As they near their destination, a border guard’s snap decision can determine their future “in a heartbeat”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Battle of the Books: When Historical Reassessments Collide

From Publishers Weekly:

Historians know the past is a battleground. History as studied and taught is part of a contest to control the present and alternative visions of the future. Today is different. The contest between fact and truth and fiction and lies is unique to this moment. Each of today’s “competing” visions is embedded in book form from a range of publishers.

The nondebate is encapsulated in false competition over the “origins” of the American experience—as if there were a single origin—between the Pulitzer Prize–winning, groundbreaking 1619 Project, led by the New York Times’ (now Howard University’s) Nikole Hannah-Jones and colleagues, and the alternative contentions of the 1620, 1776, and Texas’s 1836 Patriotic Education projects.

The 1619 Project, revised from its 2019 releases in the New York Times’ print and online editions, was published in November 2021 by Penguin Random House’s imprint One World. Peter Wood’s 1620 was published by Encounter Books (“for smart conservatives”) in 2020. The 1776 Project was published in book form in 2021 by Flag & Cross Store in regular, large-print, and coffee-table versions, and on the Project’s website. 1836 exists on a website.

Notice the repeated declarations of “project.” Despite misrepresentations, 1619 is a specific proposal to reorient American history by systematic inclusion of peoples of color whose first nonnative constituents arrived as enslaved persons in Virginia in 1619. Documented articles, lesson plans, and historical sources accompany it. Unlike other projects, 1619 readily admitted to errors of fact and emphasis when presented with evidence and arguments. The authors corrected and revised.

Despite distortions, the 1619 Project never claims to date all American history from 1619. It underscores the underacknowledged but singularly symbolic date for basic understandings of American history. The 1619 Project is subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, including entire books and trivial “fact checking.” It is called “racist” and “un-American,” when its foundations are the opposite.

By contrast, each competing “project” claims the status of new or substitute gospel. They presume to account for all American history, despite almost complete exclusion of racial and minority groups, most immigrants, and women.

The 1619 Project includes the work and testimony of professional historians as well as veteran journalists. The “alternatives” rarely involve trained scholars. There are claims but no record of contributors for the 1776 Project. The only exception is the historian of Southern slavery Peter Wood of Duke University. The contents of Wood’s 1620 are significantly less than the title implies; Massachusetts is not his specialty.

Wood proposes the founding of the white, Protestant, Mayflower Covenant as an alternative to 1619. That date and events are significant, but they do not compare in historical impact or symbolism to Black African slavery. Wood ignores the relationships of the Massachusetts Puritans to Indigenous peoples, and the bitter divisions among various English Protestant immigrant groups and other Christians.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From The History Channel:

On the morning of November 11, 1620, when the Mayflower dropped its anchor off the coast of Cape Cod, the group of English Separatists later known as the Pilgrims fell to their knees and blessed God for bringing them safely across the “vast and furious ocean” to a new life in the New World.

Before they could begin this new life, however, they had to solve some very practical problems. Their solution was to draft an agreement, later known as the Mayflower Compact, that became a first in consensual government and ensured everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws.

Back in England, the Separatists had signed a contract with the Virginia Company to establish a colony near the Hudson River, which at the time was part of Virginia. By its terms, the stockholders who financed the journey would share in the new colony’s profits.

In order to increase the voyage’s chance of success, the Pilgrims recruited a number of other people—ordinary merchants, craftsmen and workers, along with their families and indentured servants—to come along with them. These “strangers,” as the Pilgrims called them, had their own reasons for joining the journey, and didn’t share the goal of separating from the Church of England.

After bad weather during the Atlantic crossing pushed the Mayflower hundreds of miles further north, to Cape Cod, the “strangers” didn’t think they should be subject to the contract’s provisions anymore. As William Bradford later wrote in his famous History of Plymouth Plantation, some of them made “discontented and mutinous speeches” claiming that since they were not in Virginia, “none had power to command them.”

Before departing the ship, then, the Pilgrims decided to draw up an agreement to bind them and the “strangers” together, and ensure that everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws. The result, a document drafted and signed aboard the ship by nearly all of the adult male passengers, would become known as the Mayflower Compact.

While they intended to form a government for their new colony, the Pilgrims and others aboard the Mayflower were not declaring their independence: The Mayflower Compact (though the Pilgrims never called it that) began with a clear statement of loyalty to King James of England, along with a commitment to God and to Christianity.

In settling the first colony in the “Northern parts of Virginia,” the document continued, the Pilgrims and the other Mayflower passengers would “covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politick.” As part of this united body, they pledged to make and abide by the same “laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, and offices” in order to further “the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

In its form and content, the Mayflower Compact echoed that of earlier covenants that Separatist Christian groups had drawn up when they established their churches in England and Holland, to bind them to each other as well as to God.

The agreement also drew on the secular tradition of the social contract, the idea of covenants between men themselves, which went back to ancient times, but would later be made more famous by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

According to a list printed by Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, in his 1669 pamphlet New England’s Memorial, 41 of the adult male passengers on the Mayflower signed the agreement, including two of the indentured servants aboard. Soon after signing it, they elected John Carver as the first governor of the new colony, which they called Plymouth Plantation.

While 400 years earlier, the Magna Carta had established the idea of the rule of law, this had previously meant the king’s law. In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims and strangers were pledging their loyalty to laws they would make themselves. As historian Rebecca Fraser wrote in her book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America: “Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”

The Mayflower Compact was clearly a religious document, in that it held that the people derived their right of self-government from God. But it did not mention a specific church, or method of worship, leaving it open for acceptance by both the Separatist Pilgrims, and the “strangers,” many of whom remained loyal to the Church of England.

Finally, as the first written constitution in the New World, the Mayflower Compact laid the foundations for two other revolutionary documents: the Declaration of Independence, which stated that governments derive their powers “from the consent of the governed,” and the Constitution.

In 1802, speaking at Plymouth, the future president John Quincy Adams underscored the lasting importance of the agreement signed aboard the Mayflower more than 180 years earlier, calling it “perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.”

Link to the rest at The History Channel

Why Amazon’s New LGTBQ+ Children’s Category Matters

From Publishers Weekly:

“The addition of this category is certainly something to celebrate. It also raises the question: why was queer representation an afterthought?”

As the marketing director for a small publisher, I’m very familiar with the power of Amazon categories. Although I am Team Bookstore, not Team Bezos, Amazon is not just a reseller—it has become the search engine for books.

Amazon has more than 10,000 book categories to choose from—including subjects as niche as woodworking and Arthurian folktales. Choosing the right category affects a title’s discoverability and even credibility with bestseller lists.

Which is why it was surprising when an author I work with, Julie Schanke Lyford, noticed something missing from the Amazon page for her children’s book, Katy Has Two Grampas: there was no LGBTQ+ category for kid lit.

This felt like an oversight—Amazon is known for its sophisticated algorithm. Many general categories have children’s books counterparts, such as physics, Renaissance history, and disaster relief and preparedness. Classification gets granular: fiction vs. nonfiction, print vs. Kindle, and even paid vs. free e-books. But representation for queer kid lit was noticeably missing.

“The hardest thing was having LGBTQ+ still thought of as something other than family,” Lyford explained. Her picture book, which she coauthored with her father, Lambda Literary Award finalist Robert A. Schanke, is one of the few picture books to depict married, gay grandfathers as part of the family unit.

So beginning in December 2020, Lyford contacted Amazon’s support team via emails, phone calls, and even snail mail. Sometimes representatives expressed surprise that the category didn’t already exist. Other times they recommended that she choose an existing children’s category, like Growing Up and Facts of Life.

But Lyford was persistent. And the LGTBQ+ Families children’s book category launched just a few days before January 2022. [Amazon declined to comment for this article.]

“Amazon adding this category is a huge win for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Alaina Lavoie, program manager at We Need Diverse Books. “Many people intentionally seek out children’s books that include LGBTQ+ parents and families. This makes it much easier to find these books as the category grows.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG will remind one and all that he does not agree with everything he posts on TPV.

That said, although PG is and has always has been a throughgoing heterosexual, he had a couple of college friends who were in and out of the closet over a period of years. Their problems were significant during that era and each had a tough, closeted life until reaching their 30’s.

Thereafter, one took the path toward homosexuality and the other was eventually married to a member of the opposite sex. PG has only heard about them and not seen them since leaving college, but he has always wished them well and respected them as intelligent, kind and capable human beings.

Animals think, therefore…

From The Economist

IN 1992, at Tangalooma, off the coast of Queensland, people began to throw fish into the water for the local wild dolphins to eat. In 1998, the dolphins began to feed the humans, throwing fish up onto the jetty for them. The humans thought they were having a bit of fun feeding the animals. What, if anything, did the dolphins think?

Charles Darwin thought the mental capacities of animals and people differed only in degree, not kind—a natural conclusion to reach when armed with the radical new belief that the one evolved from the other. His last great book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, examined joy, love and grief in birds, domestic animals and primates as well as in various human races. But Darwin’s attitude to animals—easily shared by people in everyday contact with dogs, horses, even mice—ran contrary to a long tradition in European thought which held that animals had no minds at all. This way of thinking stemmed from the argument of René Descartes, a great 17th-century philosopher, that people were creatures of reason, linked to the mind of God, while animals were merely machines made of flesh—living robots which, in the words of Nicolas Malebranche, one of his followers, “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”

. . . .

For much of the 20th century biology cleaved closer to Descartes than to Darwin. Students of animal behaviour did not rule out the possibility that animals had minds but thought the question almost irrelevant since it was impossible to answer. One could study an organism’s inputs (such as food or the environment) or outputs (its behaviour). But the organism itself remained a black box: unobservable things such as emotions or thoughts were beyond the scope of objective inquiry. As one such “behaviourist” wrote in 1992, “attributing conscious thought to animals should be strenuously avoided in any serious attempt to understand their behaviour, since it is untestable [and] empty…”.

By then, though, there was ever greater resistance to such strictures. In 1976 a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, Donald Griffen, had taken the bull by the horns (leaving aside what the bull might have felt about this) in a book called “The Question of Animal Awareness”. He argued that animals could indeed think and that their ability to do this could be subjected to proper scientific scrutiny.

In the past 40 years a wide range of work both in the field and the lab has pushed the consensus away from strict behaviourism and towards that Darwin-friendly view. Progress has not been easy or quick; as the behaviourists warned, both sorts of evidence can be misleading. Laboratory tests can be rigorous, but are inevitably based on animals which may not behave as they do in the wild. Field observations can be dismissed as anecdotal. Running them for years or decades and on a large scale goes some way to guarding against that problem, but such studies are rare.

Nevertheless, most scientists now feel they can say with confidence that some animals process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experience. They agree that animals, from rats and mice to parrots and humpback whales, have complex mental capacities; that a few species have attributes once thought to be unique to people, such as the ability to give objects names and use tools; and that a handful of animals—primates, corvids (the crow family) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins)—have something close to what in humans is seen as culture, in that they develop distinctive ways of doing things which are passed down by imitation and example. No animals have all the attributes of human minds; but almost all the attributes of human minds are found in some animal or other.

Consider Billie, a wild bottlenose dolphin which got injured in a lock at the age of five. She was taken to an aquarium in South Australia for medical treatment, during which she spent three weeks living with captive dolphins which had been taught various tricks. She herself, though, was never trained. After she was returned to the open sea local dolphin-watchers were struck to see her “tailwalking”—a move in which a dolphin stands up above the water by beating its flukes just below the surface, travelling slowly backwards in a vaguely Michael Jackson manner. It was a trick that Billie seemed to have picked up simply by watching her erstwhile pool mates perform. More striking yet, soon afterwards five other dolphins in her pod started to tailwalk, though the behaviour had no practical function and used up a lot of energy.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Phantom Plague

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1992, a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the Institute of Medicine published “Emerging Infections: Microbial Threats to Human Health in the United States.” The report was a broadside aimed at the “complacency of the scientific and medical communities, the public, and the political leadership of the United States toward the danger of emerging infectious diseases and the potential for devastating epidemics.” A stream of like-minded books followed—Laurie Garrett’s “The Coming Plague,” David Quammen’s “Spillover.” But the risks were hard to calculate, and despite some near misses (including Ebola and SARS-1), the possibility of a new plague seemed remote from day-to-day life. The warnings went unheeded.

The Institute of Medicine report mentioned tuberculosis, which had started a resurgence by taking advantage of patients suffering from AIDS. In the years since, a chorus of voices has been gathering strength, warning us of a looming microbial threat that can seem as esoteric and far away as bat viruses once did: multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB).

Add Vidya Krishnan’s “Phantom Plague” to the chorus. Covid-19 is a new infectious disease, but old foes have not gone away. Antibiotic resistance by the tuberculosis bacterium represents a continuing evolutionary arms race between biomedical science and one of the great killers of all time. In the middle are millions of victims, mostly poor, caught in the ancient vice grip between destitution and disease.

Tuberculosis—“consumption,” the “white plague”—could rightfully claim to be the great infectious disease. Bubonic plague, smallpox and influenza were more explosive, but only malaria can contend with tuberculosis for the steady, relentless toll taken on our species. The keys to TB’s success are tenacity and stealth. Most of history’s notorious germs cause acute infection—short and dramatic. TB is one of a handful of really successful agents of chronic infection. It lurks inside the immune cells meant to protect us, then patiently grinds down its victims.

TB is primarily a disease of the lungs, spread via the respiratory route. It thrives where human hosts are crowded together in squalor. Probably no infectious disease has killed more humans throughout history, but as Ms. Krishnan vividly reminds us, TB is not a disease of the past. Up to one quarter of the global population carries the bacterium in a latent state. Every year, some 10 million people fall sick, and in 2020 more than 1.5 million died of a disease that is preventable and treatable. Indeed, the TB bacterium was the deadliest microbe on the planet before it was dethroned by SARS-CoV-2. It is a safe bet that TB will soon resume its place atop the rankings.

. . . .

As we have recently learned, the bacterium that causes TB has not existed time out of mind. Both ancient bacterial DNA recovered from archaeological skeletons and massive data sets of modern DNA are allowing us to piece together the hidden back story of TB (and so many other human pathogens). The TB bacterium is only 4,000 to 5,000 years old, a product of the Bronze Age. It emerged when humans first built cities and long-distance trade networks, and it has opportunistically thrived on human progress ever since.

. . . .

When bubonic plague, smallpox and typhus were brought under control, TB was left to claim a larger share of the victims. Children, especially of the working classes, suffered most. Thomas Malthus gave voice to the widespread recognition that the “closeness and foulness of the air” in places like London was especially “unfavourable to the tender lungs of children.” In the early 19th century, TB came to account for upward of one third of all deaths in industrial cities, an almost unfathomable share.

The decline of TB in the West was late but miraculous; accomplished between about 1870 and 1940, it has been the subject of one of the most resonant debates in the history of health. Mortality from TB was reduced thanks to a combination of three factors: improved living standards that liberated people from desperate poverty; public health measures (such as bans on spitting, a government-driven behavioral change that Ms. Krishnan colorfully narrates); and biomedical interventions (from the BCG vaccine to antibiotics).

. . . .

What makes Ms. Krishnan’s book worth the price of admission is the tableau she paints of the current plague. She writes with authority about the current state of TB globally, especially in her native India, which is the epicenter of the disease today. A 20-year veteran of medical journalism, Ms. Krishnan is a powerful storyteller, and her accounts of frustration, suffering, grief and resilience are moving.

There is the case of 11-year-old Piya, whose ankle bone was infected with an extensively drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. Her disease presented as a limp, which eventually led to a diagnosis that upended the lives of everyone in her family. For Piya, it meant a daunting regimen of ineffective pills that turned her teeth yellow and her face flush red. The side effects only added to the stigma and shame of the disease itself. Meanwhile, she had to undergo excruciating debridement surgeries, in which infected tissue is scooped out. Fortunately for Piya, her plucky father flew to Tokyo and managed to arrange an audience with Otsuka, the Japanese pharmaceutical company that sells delamanid, one of the two relatively new drugs used to treat the hardest cases. Against the odds, he was able to have his daughter qualified for a compassionate-use case, and she has recovered.

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

A group of nuns goes viral for Jesus

Not exactly about books, but PG is exercising his proprietor’s privilege and thought some visitors would be entertained.

From The Economist:

Laughter was the first thing your correspondent noticed when he visited the Daughters of St Paul (also known as the “Media Nuns”) on the outskirts of Boston. It reverberated off the marble saints and through the convent’s hallways. The primary sources of the mirth are Sisters Orianne Pietra René, 31, and Danielle Lussier, 38. The two form a comedy duo. They giggle as they explain that their cars are named after saints (some share the same patron, which causes confusion). This cheerfulness explains their surprising popularity outside the convent. They have more than 155,000 followers on TikTok, a social-media app.

Their posts, which have gathered over 15.5m views, blend convent life with popular culture. Last year, for example, they posted their rendition of a viral song that spoofs a melodramatic exchange on Facebook about a rental property (a prospective tenant enquires about the property’s availability before turning hostile and threatening to call the attorney-general). The nunnified version turns it into a struggle against temptation, which culminates with the nun threatening the devil with Jesus. The post has 3.3m views.

The nuns quickly became an internet sensation, earning their own hashtag (#nuntok). The sisters are unfazed by their sudden popularity. They would rather pray, which they do a lot. They pray for every person who watches their videos. They pray for those who send them direct messages. They even pray for the trolls who leave nasty comments.

. . . .

They say TikTok is also helping people realise that nuns are normal people. Their online interactions have led to conversations about faith and even to friendships. A few fans have visited the nuns in person.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Although not a member of a faith which has nuns and definitely not an expert on the topic, PG has always felt an admiration and appreciation for the types of services they perform for humanity.


From The Wall Street Journal:

Love is blind, or so the rumor goes. There’s nothing quite like marriage for restoring its sight. That seems to be the message of Heather Havrilesky’s “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage.” Ms. Havrilesky, the sage behind “Ask Polly,” an entertaining long-form advice column, offers up her own union—warts and all, matrimony and acrimony, 15 years and counting—for close observation.

Never mind the book’s subtitle. Tedium, divine and otherwise, is but a small piece of the story. Ms. Havrilesky aims to explore marriage in full: “the feeling of safety, the creeping darkness, . . . the tiny repeating irritations, the rushes of love, the satisfactions of companionship, [and] the unexpected rage of recognizing that your partner will probably never change.”

Ms. Havrilesky met her own future partner, Bill, over email. The connection was swift. “There was clever banter, a mutual puppet show, a shared fantasy that this might mean something. Salvation loomed, quickening the pulse.” “Foreverland” chronicles the couple’s flirty exchanges, first date, first trip abroad together and, of course, their wedding. The bride is three months’ pregnant, so parenthood follows quickly. Eventually there’s an impulsive and ill-conceived move to the suburbs, an extramarital temptation, and a health crisis.

Ms. Havrilesky and her husband are, by turns, at each other’s throats—notably on a family trip to the Great Barrier Reef that features terrible food, squawking birds and recalcitrant offspring—and in each other’s arms. “Somehow, you’ll manage it together,” she writes of a giddy period right after the birth of their first child.

For the record, she’s high-strung and judgmental, needy and opinionated, self-loathing, bossy, hyper-articulate and controlling. “I’m PMSing right now. Don’t propose while I’m still PMSing,” she directs Bill when she thinks he’s about to pop the question. “And don’t buy me some bubble-gum-machine ring. I want a real engagement ring. Don’t propose until you have a real ring.”

He, by contrast, is mind-bogglingly patient and a bit recessive, kind (“he was the first person I’d ever known who told me to be good to myself,” Ms. Havrilesky writes), defensive, tolerant (he listens with admirable calm when she tells him she’s having vivid fantasies about another man), and disinclined to anatomize his feelings. Let the games begin.

Many chapters in “Foreverland” feature an unmet expectation, a misunderstanding, a meltdown and an event that is likened to a bomb exploding. Ms. Havrilesky writes of being “wired like a dirty bomb” during an ego-deflating trip to visit her husband’s family. “My nervous system is the trampoline that takes every bit of emotion hurled its way and launches it in some other direction, like a bomb,” she notes of a fight with her husband about proper diaper-bag maintenance—though of course it’s about so much more.

Perhaps because of her day job as a dispenser of wise counsel, Ms. Havrilesky is well-versed in the minutiae of bad behavior, poor judgment and hurt feelings and very good at summoning words of encouragement and exhortation—sardonic, sympathetic, profane, stern, as needed. Quarrels and chapters in “Foreverland” are often topped off with “this is what we’ve learned, class” summations: “Love, like Monopoly, seems to boil down to raw luck, once you subtract the brutality out of the picture.” Or: “It’s not that easy to tame your desires. Sometimes you just want more.”

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

The more PG sees/reads of the marriages of other people, the more grateful he is that he married Mrs. PG.

A lifetime ago, when PG was doing a lot of divorces as an attorney, he got peeks at a variety of other marriages that hadn’t turned out well. Often, it felt like he was dealing with visitors from other planet with a different culture, different way of thinking and a much different idea about how to get along with others.

To be sure, some of PG’s clients were perfectly normal individuals who had made a disastrous decision about who to marry. In some cases, the client realized in retrospect that he/she had made a poor choice. In other cases, the spouse had, for one reason or another changed quite radically from the person PG’s client married. Drugs and/or alcohol were often, but not always involved.

While PG had a policy not to represent a crazy person and avoided a huge number of miserable cases by discerning an individual’s craziness and declining to represent them, on more than one occasion he was fooled and ended up on the crazy and irrational side of a dispute.

In those cases, he usually soldiered on and attempted to persuade his client to come to a reasonable settlement regarding children, property, etc. Crazy people are not always attracted by reasonable settlements, however, so in those cases, PG told them that they would need to let the judge decide the disputes they couldn’t settle. After all, that’s what judges are for.

PG’s understanding of the scope of human nature and behavior was greatly expanded by these many experiences. Whenever he came home from a nasty divorce trial, he always gave thanks for Mrs. PG and grateful that he had chosen well.

Stalin’s Library

From The Wall Street Journal:

Edward Gibbon sits proudly upon my bookshelf. A set of volumes that I own, neatly stacked, comprises his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What do you make of me because it is there? The set might indicate that I am a classicist, a scholar. It could signal my ambition—or my vanity. Perhaps it marks me as an anachronism: In this impatient, up-to-the-second moment, I display something written almost 250 years ago about a subject that is itself far older. While you form your judgment, let me divulge a secret. I have not read to the end of the famous series. Somewhere between Julian’s residence at Antioch and the revolt of Procopius, I lost the thread and laid Gibbon aside.

A famous reader who is the subject of a fascinating new study would have sniffed me out. Joseph Stalin went into the libraries of Communist Party officials to see if their books had truly been read or merely served to decorate the room. Stalin prized his own books and used bookmarks rather than dog-earing a page, good man. Yet his literary hygiene was not above reproach. One lender complained that Stalin smudged the pages of books with greasy fingerprints. As the party’s general secretary, he sometimes disregarded due dates. After he died in 1953, many of the volumes he had borrowed from the Lenin Library were quietly returned, the late fees unpaid.

Why should this matter of a cruel tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of people? Geoffrey Roberts, a professor emeritus of history at University College Cork in Ireland, notes in Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books that Stalin kept no diary and wrote no memoirs. Therefore his personal library, which he carefully maintained and treasured, offers a unique window into his thoughts. “Through an examination of these books,” Mr. Roberts writes, “it is possible to build a composite, nuanced picture of the reading life of the twentieth century’s most self-consciously intellectual dictator.”

That is a complex claim. Mr. Roberts doesn’t assert that Stalin’s books or the marks he made in them hold the key to his psyche. And the word “intellectual” will raise an eyebrow—the man was as coarse as smashed rocks—although “self-consciously” is an essential qualifier. Stalin wasn’t a gifted rhetorician or purveyor of original ideas like his contemporaries Lenin and Trotsky, yet he lived in their highbrow shadow. Mr. Roberts writes that “complexity, depth and subtlety” were not his strengths. Instead, his “intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and popularizer.” The American diplomat Averell Harriman observed that Stalin possessed “an enormous ability to absorb detail.” He came to meetings “extremely well-informed.”

. . . .

Books were his secret weapon. During World War II, Stalin read widely on topics like military strategy, artillery and field tactics. At other times, he devoured volumes on history and Marxism. He had always been a reader, Mr. Roberts says. As a boy, Stalin was a bookworm; in the seminary, he was censured for reading forbidden novels on the chapel stairs. His daughter, Svetlana, said that in his Kremlin apartment there was scarcely room for art on the walls because they were lined with encyclopedias, textbooks and pamphlets, many well-thumbed. Stalin often asked others what they were reading and was known to interrupt meetings by taking down a volume of Lenin’s to “have a look at what Vladimir Ilyich has to say.”

At the time of his death, Mr. Roberts estimates, Stalin’s personal library ran to approximately 25,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Roughly 11,000 were classics of Russian and world literature by authors like Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo and Shakespeare. The remainder were nonfiction titles in Marxism, history, economics and other fields. Lenin was far and away the most represented author, at nearly 250 publications—there were also scores of works by Bukharin, Trotsky and Engels. Stalin had his own ex-libris stamp and classification system. The centerpiece of his Moscow residence was its library, although he preferred to store his collection off-site and have an assistant bring him reading material upon request.

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