Non-Fiction

An Investigation into the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld Goes Gonzo

13 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Mads Brügger’s decision to revisit the 1961 death of the United Nations secretary-general through a gonzo lens might seem like a peculiar choice.

But that gamble appears to have paid off. The Danish documentarian’s “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” opens in the U.S. on Friday with momentum, having won the 47-year-old Mr. Brügger an award for best director in world cinema documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The film investigates the case of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat who died 58 years ago when the airplane he was traveling in crashed in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane went down as he was flying to the mineral-rich region of Katanga in an attempt to prevent it seceding from what was then known as the Republic of Congo.

The circumstances of the crash are still unclear: A Swedish inquiry in 1962 cited pilot error. But others, including former President Harry S. Truman, questioned whether foul play was involved. Mr. Brügger first became interested in the case in 2011 when he read an article about a Swedish private investigator, Göran Björkdahl, who had interviewed the surviving witnesses of the crash.

“Cold Case” examines Mr. Björkdahl’s claim that their testimony was ignored in the original investigation because they were black Africans.

. . . .

His habit of smoking with a cigarette-holder and making documentaries in which he plays the part of truth-seeker have led to comparisons with the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

“I like the energy in the gonzo approach,” Mr. Brügger says.

He says that “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” started out as an inquiry into Mr. Hammarskjöld’s death but grew to encompass secret mercenary organizations, apartheid in South Africa and the spread of HIV.

The documentary took nearly seven years to make. “There were moments of despair and desperation because the financing for the film was falling apart,” he says. “Every year I had to meet consultants of the Danish Film Institute and explain why I wasn’t being able to finish off the film.”

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

PG notes that, as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld’s death was a big deal in 1961, covered in front-page news stories around the world. Then-President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”

In the years since, despite three separate investigations, no satisfactory evidence has been located that conclusively resolves the cause of the crash.

A quick search of Google archives discloses that news organizations are still interested in the case.

From the Associated Press via CTV in 2013:

America’s National Security Agency may hold crucial evidence about one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Cold War — the cause of the 1961 plane crash which killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, a commission of prominent jurists says.

Widely considered the U.N.’s most effective chief, Hammarskjold died as he was attempting to bring peace to the newly independent Congo. It’s long been rumored that his DC-6 plane was shot down, and an independent commission set up to evaluate new evidence surrounding his death on Monday recommended a fresh investigation — citing radio intercepts held by the NSA as the possible key to solving the case.

“The only dependable extant record of the radio traffic, if there is one, will so far as we know be the NSA’s,” Commission Chairman Stephen Sedley said in his introduction to the report. “If it exists, it will either confirm or rebut the claim that the DC-6 was fired on or threatened with attack immediately before its descent.”

Hammerskjold’s aircraft went down on the night of Sept. 17, 1961, smashing into a forested area just short of Ndola Airport in modern-day Zambia. A host of hard-to-answer questions about the crash have led to a glut of conspiracy theories.

Among them: Why did it take 15 hours to find the wreckage, just a few miles from the airport? Why did Hammarskjold’s bodyguard, who survived the crash for a few days, say that the plane “blew up”? Why did witnesses report seeing sparks, flashes, or even another plane?

Hammarskjold was flying into a war zone infested with mercenaries and riven by Cold War tension. Congo won its freedom from Belgium in 1960, but foreign multinationals coveted its vast mineral wealth and the country was challenged by a Western-backed insurgency in Katanga, which hosted mining interests belonging to United States, Britain, and Belgium. They were also jockeying for influence with the Soviet Union, which was trying to spread communism to the newly independent nations of Africa.

All four powers had a stake in the outcome of Congo’s struggle, and all four have been fingered as potential suspects in Hammarskjold’s death.

. . . .

Zambian eyewitnesses told Williams of a bright flash or a second smaller aircraft pursuing Hammerskjold’s plane. But one of her most powerful witnesses was thousands of kilometers away on the night of the crash. In his testimony to the commission, Cmdr. Charles Southall — stationed at an NSA eavesdropping post in Cyprus — said he heard an intercepted radio conversation apparently from the pursuing plane.

“I’ve hit it,” Southall said he heard the mystery pilot say. “There are flames. It’s going down. It’s crashing.”

Link to the rest at CTV

 

 

The Intelligence Trap

6 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Every year brings more books about how stupid we are. Apparently humans are impulsive, gullible and prone to making all sorts of bad decisions. We are also fascinated by our shortcomings, if the shelves at airport bookstores are anything to go by. The latest contribution to the pile is from David Robson, a London-based science journalist, who offers an intriguing angle on our flawed habits of mind. In “The Intelligence Trap,” he argues not only that we are walking, talking, error-making machines, but also that the cleverest among us may make the biggest mistakes.

Anyone who has spent time on a college campus has probably intuited that innate intelligence and common sense don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But Mr. Robson bolsters his case with a raft of studies that show all the ways in which a fine mind can trip up. People with high SAT scores, for example, are less likely to either take advice or learn from their blunders. Folks with multiple degrees and professional expertise are often blind to their own biases. The consequences of these gaffes are often merely personal and embarrassing, but sometimes they are catastrophic. In American hospitals, one in 10 patient deaths appear to be the result of diagnostic mistakes.

To help distinguish between smarts and wisdom, Mr. Robson offers the analogy of a car. A fast engine can get you around quickly, but horsepower alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll arrive at your destination safely. Without a proper understanding of the rules of the road, a speedy driver is, in fact, a menace. Philosophers have perceived the shortcomings of sharp minds for millennia, but the pursuit of “evidence-based wisdom” really gained steam after the financial crash of 2008, when nearly everyone suffered from the costly mistakes of “experts.” New institutions such as Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom now apply scientific techniques, including randomized control trials, to explore and understand human reason. “The study of wisdom now seems to have reached a kind of tipping point,” Mr. Robson tells us.

. . . .

Beliefs often arise from emotional needs, which we intellectually rationalize post hoc. Clever people are as prone to irrationality as everyone else—a phenomenon called “dysrationalia”—yet they are often even more skilled at justifying their superstitions. College graduates are more likely than those with less education to believe in extrasensory perception and “psychic healing.” High-IQ types are just as likely to have financial problems, even though they often have better jobs with higher salaries. Because many “brainiacs” expect to outsmart others, they are often more heedless of risks and less aware of their own flaws in thinking. As the 19th-century psychologist William James once said, “a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

. . . .

The good news is that wisdom, unlike intelligence, can be taught, and these lessons bear real fruit.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)
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Charles I’s Killers in America

5 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

We Americans look to the Founding Fathers when we think about the American experiment in democracy. But to whom did the Founders turn for guidance? More than a few found inspiration in the England of the previous century, when the conflict between Parliament and King Charles I erupted into civil war. The victorious parliamentary leaders—mostly Puritans—abolished the monarchy, executed Charles for treason in 1649, and established England’s first and only republic, led by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.

Cromwell’s death in 1658, however, left a power vacuum that, two years later, was filled by Charles’s eldest son and the restoration of the monarchy. Fortunately for him, and for Great Britain, Charles II was a shrewder, more tolerant and certainly less obdurate man than his father, who died for his belief in the divine right of kings. Charles II’s return from exile in 1660 was eased by a general policy of toleration and lenience. Only a handful of the surviving parliamentarians who had signed his father’s death warrant a dozen years earlier were ineligible for amnesty.

Charles I’s Killers in America” tells the story of two regicides who sought refuge in the American colonies, Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe. Whalley and Goffe were figures of some importance in the civil war, and in Cromwell’s commonwealth, but they are more prominent in American annals than English ones. In the summer of 1660 they fled to the Puritan stronghold of Massachusetts Bay. In the colonies, they led an uncertain existence until Whalley died in 1674-75 and Goffe about 1679. No one is entirely certain where or when either died, or where they are buried.

. . . .

Whalley and Goffe were invoked in revolutionary pamphleteering, and they make appearances in novels and plays of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including some minor fiction of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A cave in which they hid in New Haven, Conn., for several months features a plaque commemorating their presence. In 1794, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, wrote a hagiography that included them titled “A History of Three of the Judges of Charles I.”

. . . .

In truth, what makes Whalley and Goffe interesting is not their influence on the young American nation—or, as Mr. Jenkinson puts it, “why their story was manipulated, twisted, and distorted to suit different political sympathies and cultural tastes”—but what their sojourn in the colonies tells us about the politics of a neglected chapter in American history. Massachusetts Bay was founded and governed by Puritans, who were naturally sympathetic to their Puritan brethren in the civil war and commonwealth. Accordingly, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 was greeted with a certain ambivalence in Boston, and, initially, Whalley and Goffe were welcomed by the royal governor, John Endecott.

But the governments of the New England colonies were also dependent on London’s patronage and protection and, of course, on trade with England. Whalley and Goffe’s hero status soon grew ambiguous. The king issued warrants for their arrest, and agents were dispatched to hunt them down and return them to England. The royal governments of Massachusetts Bay and neighboring Connecticut, where the regicides soon took refuge, were obliged to do London’s bidding. But they did so in a decidedly half-hearted, sometimes comically deceptive, fashion, as Mr. Jenkinson shows—and Charles II, contrary to legend, seems not to have pressed the matter too hard.

For several years, Whalley and Goffe subsisted, first in New Haven and later in Hadley, Mass., in a kind of twilight status, protected by local Puritan clergy, living largely incognito, evading arrest but not too dangerously imperiled.

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

PG has read some American history and has some ancestors which were hanging about Massachusetts and Connecticut during the relevant period, but was entirely unaware of the story of Whalley and Goffe.

 

An Author Heads to the Stage

3 August 2019
Comments Off on An Author Heads to the Stage

From Publishing Perspectives:

As I bundled up my 225-page memoir manuscript and mailed it to editor Jane Rosenman, I hoped she would reveal the magic formula for transforming my pages into a book. I’d received glowing rejections but still no takers for my story, The Inheritance, about how, six weeks after my mother died, I discovered that she had disinherited me, and my quest to understand why.

Although Rosenman found much to praise, some aspects of my story still weren’t working, including a whiff of bitterness on the page. Yet who wouldn’t be bitter after being blindsided from beyond the grave? But the problem with bitterness, I later discovered, is that it lacks drama.

As I was revising the manuscript, I received an invitation to perform a 10-minute story with Portland Story Theater in Oregon, where I live. When I walked onto the stage, into the pressure cooker of live performance, something happened: my bitterness transformed into humor, and I discovered a liveliness and emotional depth that had not been as evident on the page.

Was I onto something that could help me crack open my story? To find out, I enrolled in a solo performance class with Seth Barrish at New York City’s Barrow Group Theatre, who I then hired to help me craft a performance of my story. With script in hand, I secured a director—Lauren Bloom Hanover—and performed the 50-minute, one-person show, retitled Firstborn, at Performance Works Northwest in Portland, as part of the Fertile Ground Festival. My minitour culminated with my off-Broadway performance at the United Solo Theatre Festival last October, where Jane was in the audience.

. . . .

By telling my story on stage, I found not only its through line but also its beating heart. Writing for performance also gave me more to work with than just the words. Now I had my body, voice, lighting, and music, plus props and images. Also, I could take shortcuts: a transition could be made with a turn of my body or a look to the audience. As Jane said when I spoke with her afterward, the demands of performance helped me get to the “nub of the story.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

 

Library of Congress Seeks Help Transcribing Suffragist Documents

3 August 2019

From BookRiot:

Fast typists, adept transcribers, and fearsome keyboard clackers, lend me your ears! The Library of Congress needs your help. The Smithsonian reported on July 30 that the Library seeks help transcribing more than 16,000 pages of suffragist diaries, letters, speeches, and other documents. All are available on the library’s crowdsourcing program, By the People, and they’re hoping volunteers will help in the effort to bring more suffragist stories to light.

Women’s suffrage consisted of the fight for equality and women’s voting rights. You may have heard of the powerful slogan “Women, Their Rights, and Nothing Less.” Suffragists were literary activists as well as reformers, and Book Riot covered many notable writes from the movement in this fantastic list.

The Library of Congress seeks to shed light on both recognizable and unknown individuals who took part in the movement by transcribing correspondence, diaries, and other documents to its website.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

‘Because Internet’ Review: How We Talk Online

2 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

What do you say on the internet when there’s no one to hear you scream? If you’re a digital native you might keysmash “asdjkhjf;lfdl;k” or use an unpronounceable emoticon when there are no words to convey quite what you’re feeling. But if you’re part of the dwindling population of people for whom internet life remains alien, such weird, wordless linguistic innovations might render you speechless and possibly a little panicked.

The internet is the big linguistic disruption of our time, changing the way we communicate at dizzying speeds. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? As the linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues in her book “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” it’s just a thing (as the internet would say). Language has always changed to meet our needs. The “boundless creativity of internet language,” in fact, is evidence of how online text is moving from a dry and rule-bound writing technology to inventively spontaneous digital speech, as we chat with our friends across great distances, with all the feels.

Even the way online text looks, Ms. McCulloch observes, has acquired new social significance. Something as innocuous as punctuation can change how a message affects us. Text written in all caps now conveys shouting and emphasis, something we might not want to overdo. Too few exclamation points in a message makes for an unenthusiastic response. Too many starts to seem insincere. It can be hard to wrap your head around what these conventions mean if you don’t live on the internet. Ms. McCulloch aims to guide readers through the mire and makes a linguist’s case, essentially, not to panic.

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

 

‘A Compelling Power’: When Mesmerism Came to America

24 July 2019

From The New York Review of Books:

Cynthia Gleason, a weaver at a Rhode Island textile mill, went into her first trance in the fall of 1836. According to her mesmerist, a French sugar planter and amateur “animal magnetist” named Charles Poyen, she had been suffering for years from a mysterious illness; he called it “a very serious and troublesome complaint of the stomach” in one account and “a complicated nervous and functional disease” in another. For months Poyen had been giving lectures insisting that mesmerists like himself had mastered a technique for putting people in somnambulistic trances, curing their diseases, and managing their minds. When Gleason’s physician called him in to make magnetic “passes” over her body with his hands, Poyen wrote in his dubiously self-serving memoirs, she said she’d “defy anyone to put her to sleep in this manner.” But after twenty-five minutes, “her eyes grew dim and her lids fell heavily down.”

The next day, he reported, she said she felt better. Her sessions attracted more and more local interest; within a week, Poyen was putting her to sleep in front of groups of “distinguished gentlemen” and challenging the spectators to wake her up. (In Providence, they rang “a large tavern bell” next to her ear, put “a bottle of ammoniacal gas” under her nose, and shot a pistol “within five feet of her head.”) By February Poyen and Gleason had gone on tour, giving more private lectures and three public performances. He claimed, unpersuasively, that she refused “any pecuniary reward” except room, board, and “the means of satisfying the strict necessities of life.”

Before long, the mesmerism they exhibited had become the object of fevered speculation and imitation across New England and New York. Gleason could make oracular announcements from within her trance states; physicians started asking her to diagnose difficult cases. “This power is also the most constant and certain we have observed in her,” Poyen wrote. “Out of nearly 200 patients, of all descriptions, she has examined within eight or nine months, I have known but two or three failures.” He himself was rarely in good health and claimed that, at one point, Gleason had given a precise summary of his nervous disorders, including a suggested treatment. Moments like those, the literary scholar Emily Ogden argues, suggested that the rapport could go two ways: “In the case of Gleason’s diagnosis of Poyen, who controlled whom?”

Control is a coveted possession in Credulity, Ogden’s illuminating recent study of American mesmerism. The mesmerists and skeptics she studies all seem to want it; at any rate, they want to consider themselves rational and self-possessed enough not to fall under anyone else’s. During this brief, strange moment between 1836 and the late 1850s, mesmerizing another person—or seeing someone get mesmerized, or denouncing mesmerists as charlatans—became a way of stockpiling control for one’s own use.

. . . .

Mesmerism was a belated import. In the late 1770s, the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer claimed to have discovered an invisible vital substance that coursed through his patients’ bodies. In one formulation, according to the historian Jessica Riskin, it became “a fluid from the stars that flowed into a northern pole in the human head and out of a southern one at the feet.” At his clinic in Paris, he promised to cure a wide range of illnesses by clearing up blockages to the movement of the magnetic fluid; one notice mentioned “dropsy, paralysis, gout, scurvy, blindness,” and “accidental deafness.” Everything about his salon “was designed to produce a crisis in the patient,” the historian Robert Darnton wrote in his Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968):

Heavy carpets, weird, astrological wall-decorations, and drawn curtains shut him off from the outside world and muffled the occasional words, screams, and bursts of hysterical laughter that broke the habitual heavy silence… Every so often fellow patients collapsed, writhing on the floor, and were carried by Antoine, the mesmerist-valet, into the crisis room; and if his spine still failed to tingle, his hands to tremble, his hypochondria to quiver, Mesmer himself would approach, dressed in a lilac taffeta robe, and drill fluid into the patient from his hands, his imperial eye, and his mesmerized wand.

In 1784 a commission, of which Benjamin Franklin was one of the chairs, issued a withering report about Mesmer that denied the existence of the magnetic fluid and emphasized his patients’ credulity.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The Aesthetic Beauty of Math

22 July 2019

From The Paris Review:

In 1939, as the buildup to war in Europe intensified, a brilliant French mathematician named André Weil made a plan to emigrate to the U.S. He was thirty-three and didn’t want to serve in the army; his life’s purpose was math, he felt, not soldiering. His escape turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated, in part because, as he would write in his memoir, “the Americans, who so warmly welcome those who do not need them, are much less hospitable to those who happen to be at their mercy”—as we’ve gone on to prove repeatedly since then.

He was vacationing in Finland when the war broke out, and he tried to lay low in Helsinki but was arrested and returned to France, where he sat in jail during the spring of 1940, awaiting trial for desertion. While there, he took some consolation from the fact that jail allowed him to work undisturbed, as well as to read novels and write letters, in particular letters to his sister, Simone Weil, who was also remarkably talented, a philosopher and spiritual thinker.

Though her brother’s incarceration infuriated her, Simone saw an opportunity. His work in advanced mathematics was, to her as it would be to most of us, esoteric. Since you have some spare time on your hands, she wrote to him, why don’t you explain to me exactly what it is you do?

There wouldn’t be any point, he replied. Trying to explain my work to a non-mathematician, he wrote, would be like trying to explain a symphony to someone who can’t hear. Later he would rely on another metaphor, calling math “art in a hard material.”

Mathematics is an artistic endeavor, his words suggest. Yet Simone was skeptical. What kind of art? What is the material? Even poets have language, but your work seems to rely on sheer abstraction, she wrote her brother.

That math is an art, that one of its signature qualities is its beauty—these are ideas that continue to be articulated by mathematicians, even as non-mathematicians may wonder, as Simone did, what that could possibly mean. I myself become wary when a mathematician or scientist speaks about the beauty of her discipline, since it can seem vague and high-handed. Yet not wrong.

In the same year that André Weil spent months in jail, British mathematician G.H. Hardy penned what is perhaps still the most eloquent attempt to give non-mathematicians a sense of math’s aesthetic appeal, in the form of a book-length essay called A Mathematician’s Apology. As with the letters between the Weil siblings, it was the war that occasioned and shaped Hardy’s book, prompting him to argue that math has an intrinsic value unrelated to any military uses. His Apology is a stylish work and a wistful one. Hardy, then in his sixties, felt that he was past his prime and that writing about mathematics—as opposed to doing mathematics—was symptomatic of his decline.

“A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns,” he wrote. “If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” Hardy went on to characterize what makes a mathematical idea worthy: a certain generality, a certain depth, unexpectedness combined with inevitability and economy.

. . . .

Philosophers can argue whether beauty is the property of an object or lies in our perceptions of it; Hardy would have it both ways. The best mathematics is eternal, he maintained, and like the best literature, it will “continue to cause intense emotional satisfaction to thousands of people after thousands of years.” Recent research in neuroscience has lent support to this idea of “emotional satisfaction.”  A few years ago, a neurobiologist in London, Semir Zeki, performed fMRI scans of mathematicians while they contemplated equations they’d rated as beautiful, and a region of their brains lit up which has been associated in other studies with perceptions of visual and musical beauty. (Contemplating equations they found less inspiring, on the other hand, did not activate that part of the mathematicians’ brains.) In the brain, a mathematician’s affective response to math is similar to, or maybe the same as, the way in which we respond to beauty in the arts.

And there’s another sense in which math could be considered beautiful. In addition to the aesthetic appeal of a particular equation or a proof, there’s a kind of cumulative marvelousness to math, to its landscape of ideas. Here is an elaborate model world, in which the more you explore, the more fantastic it gets. “’Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one,” Hardy wrote.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

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