When Ellen Bass and I published The Courage to Heal, a book that helped launch the incest survivor empowerment movement, it was 1988 and I was 31 years old. I was shocked when the book became a grassroots bestseller, catapulting me to fame for the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
During the years Ellen and I were writing the book, I was terrified about how my family would react. My fears were justified. When I outed my grandfather as my perpetrator, my already volatile relationship with my mother exploded, and I became estranged from her side of the family. Holidays and Mother’s Day became painful reminders of the price I’d paid for writing the truth.
But my fierce, dramatic mother and I shared something in common: a stubborn insistence on working our way back into each other’s lives. It took years, but we ultimately succeeded, in part by agreeing to disagree about the hot-button issue that had driven us apart. Grandchildren helped bring us together, and I rewove threads of connection with estranged relatives. I wrote books about other things.
Over the next two decades, I built a career as a writing teacher, and my own writing faded into the shadows. I never stopped writing, but I didn’t publish. To keep the peace, I had to avoid writing and publishing about the subjects closest to my heart. I didn’t want to lose my family again.
Yet the epic story of my mother and me still thrummed inside. When the reconciliation I thought we’d achieved was challenged a dozen years later by her sudden announcement that she was moving across the country to my town for the rest of her life, I was faced with caring for an 80-year-old woman whose developing dementia pushed every button I had. Could I possibly rise to the challenge of becoming the daughter she needed me to be?
Millions of people are in this position, caring for parents who in one way or another betrayed them; this story needed to be told. So, as I sat with my mother in doctor’s offices and hospital rooms. As we played 500 rummy in her tidy mobile home, I scrawled bits of dialogue on random scraps of paper. Late at night, I wrote the truth about being a caregiver for a parent whose proximity had never equaled safety.
As the pages piled up, I told myself, “I’m just writing this for myself. I don’t have to publish it.” That was the safe container I had to create for myself, because lurking on the edge of my consciousness were the relatives who’d rejected me the first time I’d entered this territory. How could I tell our mother-daughter story without once again writing about the sexual abuse, the conflict that had sundered us the most?
It wasn’t until my mother and the rest of her generation died that I seriously considered publishing The Burning Light of Two Stars.
Of the making of books about Napoleon Bonaparte, there seems to be no end. Two hundred years after the emperor’s death in 1821 on the island of St. Helena, he continues to be the subject of new biographies and speculations. His name and iconic image — the bicorne hat worn sideways, the army greatcoat, the hand inserted in the vest — are instantly recognizable the world over.
Even though ours is an age of billionaire boy wonders, Napoleon’s sheer precocity still dazzles: On Nov. 9, 1799, shortly after his 30th birthday, the former artillery officer from Corsica assumed dictatorial powers over all of France. Five years later, he crowned himself Emperor of the French. At 40, “the man on horseback”— Edmund Burke’s prophetic phrase — had conquered all of Western Europe. When Napoleon’s armies fought and lost the make-or-break Battle of Waterloo, he was all of 45. Imprisoned afterward on St. Helena, the deposed emperor eventually died of stomach cancer — or, possibly, arsenic poisoning if you’re conspiracy-minded — at a still-young 51.
What did Napoleon do during his six-year confinement on that tiny South Atlantic island? He grew flowers (the roses died), planted trees, constructed an aviary and harvested peas and beans. An engraving shows him wearing a straw peasant’s hat and leaning on a spade. In fact, contends Ruth Scurr in “Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows,” this world-shaking military genius had always turned to the natural world — and to two- or three-hour long baths — for succor from the ills of the spirit or the burdens of power.
In her book, Scurr tracks Napoleon’s rise and fall with hardly a glance at his battles, political maneuverings and mistresses (there were at least 21). Instead, we learn about the vegetable patch young Bonaparte kept while at school, his later attention to green spaces when undertaking urban renewal in Egypt, Italy and France, his enjoyment of reflective walks in the woods and his penchant for neoclassical landscape design. Straight lines, notes Scurr, along with “precision and order were central to his aesthetic.” In contrast, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, insisted on natural, parklike surroundings — the English style — for Malmaison, their private residence. As empress, she obsessively collected plants and animals from around the world and was apparently the first person to breed black swans in captivity.
. . . .
(The author0 prefers to devote greater attention to André Thouin, head gardener at the Jardin des Plantes. Thouin was among the 167 members of the Commission for Arts and Sciences that accompanied Napoleon’s army during his largely unsuccessful Egyptian campaign. Stationed in Cairo, the group soon created a 30-acre walled garden and research center, eventually producing an encyclopedic record of their labors in the landmark catalogue “Description of Egypt.” Later, many of the botanical and zoological specimens brought back from France’s scientific expeditions ended up in Thouin’s care.
. . . .
There’s just one battle in Thomas E. Crocker’s “Empire’s Eagles: The Fate of the Napoleonic Elite in America” and that’s Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat — “a near-run thing,” as his adversary Wellington admitted — the emperor’s family and his generals all realized they would soon be facing prison sentences or firing squads. Where should they flee? To many of them, America seemed a land of refuge and, perhaps, of renewed opportunity.
A scholar of early American history, Crocker opens with a riveting day-by-day account of Napoleon in the port city of Rochefort, waiting to escape from France, perhaps to Baltimore, where his younger brother Jerome had once been married to a local belle named Elizabeth Patterson. Revealing an uncharacteristic lack of decision, the emperor dillydallied, then trusted the English to be honorable and soon found himself en route to St. Helena. More fortunate, his elder brother Joseph made it to our shores, where he established himself in regal comfort at a vast estate near Philadelphia.
After other Napoleonic loyalists reached the United States they founded clubs and support groups, tried to establish a Utopian community devoted to viniculture in Alabama swampland and even planned a military operation to install Joseph as emperor of Mexico. All these activities Crocker relates in meticulous detail before devoting the second half of his book to a long-standing legend — that Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave,” faked his death before a French firing squad, then escaped to South Carolina, where he resurfaced as a schoolteacher named P.S. Ney. Could this possibly be true? Crocker, trained as a lawyer, lays out the evidence both for and against.
. . . .
In the end, the most tantalizing question about Napoleon remains open: Would the world have been better off had the man never been born (or born at a different time, as in Stephen Vincent Benét’s little classic of alternative history, “The Curfew Tolls”)? It’s a hard call. Napoleon led millions to their deaths, yet he also instituted laws and reforms comparable in importance to those of the U.S. Constitution.
The first quarter of the twenty-first century has been an uneasy time of rupture and anxiety, filled with historic challenges and opportunities. In that close to twenty-five-year span, the United States witnessed the ominous opening shot of September 11, followed by the seemingly unending Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the effort to control HIV/AIDS, the 2008 recession, the election of the first African American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the contentious reign of Donald Trump, the stepped-up restriction of immigrants, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the coronavirus pandemic, just to name a few major events. Intriguingly, the essay has blossomed during this time, in what many would deem an exceptionally good period for literary nonfiction—if not a golden one, then at least a silver: I think we can agree that there has been a remarkable outpouring of new and older voices responding to this perplexing moment in a form uniquely amenable to the processing of uncertainty.
When the century began, essays were considered box office poison; editors would sometimes disguise collections of the stuff by packaging them as theme-driven memoirs. All that has changed: a generation of younger readers has embraced the essay form and made their favorite authors into best sellers. We could speculate on the reasons for this growing popularity—the hunger for humane, authentic voices trying to get at least a partial grip on the truth in the face of so much political mendacity and information overload; the convenient, bite-size nature of essays that require no excessive time commitment; the rise of identity politics and its promotion of eloquent spokespersons. Rather than trying to figure out why it’s happening, what’s important is to chart the high points of this resurgence, and to account for the range of styles, subgenres, experimental approaches, and moral positions that characterize the contemporary American essay.
Of course, roping off a period like the year 2000 to the present and calling it “contemporary” is somewhat arbitrary, but one has to start somewhere. At least this artificial chronological box allows for the inclusion of older authors who made their mark in the twentieth century and had the temerity to keep producing significant work in the twenty-first (such as John McPhee, Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Lopez, Thomas Lynch). Just as set designers of period films make a mistake in choosing only articles of clothing or furnishings that were produced in that era, forgetting that we always live with the layered material objects of previous decades, so it would be wrong to restrict the literary flavor of an era to writers under forty. Indeed, what makes this period so interesting is the mélange of clashing generations and points of view. There are still tightly reasoned sequential essays being written in the classical mode, side by side with ones that resist that tidiness.
The essay has always been an adaptable, plastic, shape-shifting form: it may take the form of meditation, reportage, blog, humor piece, eulogy, autobiographical slice, diatribe, list, collage, mosaic, lecture, or letter. Contemporary practitioners seem bent on further testing its limits. For instance, Lia Purpura, Eula Biss, and Mary Cappello are drawn to the lyric essay, which stresses the essay’s associational rather than narrative or argumentative properties. Cappello has shrewdly spoken about essay writing—“that non-genre that allows for untoward movement, apposition, and assemblage, that is one part conundrum, one part accident, and that fosters a taste for discontinuity.” In line with Modernist aesthetics, a mosaic essay with “a taste for discontinuity” may be constructed from fragments, numbered or not, with white space breaks between pieces that connect intuitively or emotionally if not logically. It is up to the reader to figure it out. The list essay, which is highly generative of disparate materials, by its very nature evades an argumentative through line, and can seem initially as random as a poetic inventory by Whitman, though it may deepen subtly and organically. (For example, Nicholson Baker’s charming “One Summer,” which crisscrosses periods of his life, nevertheless builds to a revealing self-portrait.)
While the influence of poetic technique on the lyric essay has been largely acknowledged, less recognized is the short story’s impact on the contemporary essay. Many memoir essays exist in a kind of fictive space, progressing through scene and dialogue and a sensory-laden mood that stays tied to the moment by moment. The piece itself may be entirely factual, but the sentences give off a Minimalist frisson that shows the influence of short story writers such as Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore.
Nonfiction has been agitated in recent years by certain ethical questions, such as, “How legitimate is it to insert fictional details in nonfiction?” or “Is it proper to appropriate the voice of some- one of a different ethnicity, sex, or social class?” That both can be done successfully can be seen in Hilton Als’s “I Am the Happiness of This World,” which channels the silent film star Louise Brooks’s ruminations, as though Brooks herself were dictating an essay to Als from the grave.
The role of technology—the internet and social media—in altering our rhetorical lives may even affect the typography of an essay (as evidenced in Ander Monson’s unshackled “Failure: A Meditation”). “Are we merging with our computers and turning into ‘spiritual machines’?” wondered the essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn. The blog, once viewed as a debasement or poor relation of the essay, has proven itself a useful invitation to free-flowing, self-surprising displays of consciousness (see Ross Gay, Eileen Myles). Some feminist essayists have expressed a desire to arrive at a “post-patriarchal essay,” implying that the very structure of linear argumentation is authoritarian and reinforces status quo sexist power relations. (Maggie Nelson’s influential Bluets and The Argonauts offer clues for shaking up the old model.) Yet all these ways to challenge and subvert the classic essay are in the tradition of the essay itself, whose very name bespeaks an attempt, an experimentation, a stab in the dark. All this is to suggest that the essay remains the most open-ended of forms. (It has even spilled out into other media, as witness the essay film and the graphic essay, subjects for another day.)
Perhaps nothing has so shaped the contemporary practice of essay writing as the rise of the personal essay. It scarcely matters whether the subject be illness (Floyd Skloot), loitering (Charles D’Ambrosio), or prisons (Joyce Carol Oates): some insertion of authorial character is likely to invade the text. Much the way journalism has increasingly surrendered its claims of objective neutrality and allowed reporters room for subjective voice, so the essay has come to rely more and more on an “I.” With that has come an infusion of raw honesty, vulnerability, and awkward admission such as would scarcely have been seen in earlier essays. Younger essayists are often willing to acknowledge confusion, psychological distress, thralldom to contradictory drives and uncontrollable desires. There is often a trade-off: more heat, urgency, diaristic excitement, less perspective. Younger essayists might struggle to resolve questions about their authentic nature and perplexing disparities, while older essayists might feel more at ease with the self’s mutable, impure, self-betraying nature. Those who are entering middle age will often situate their “I” characters on a moving platform that begins in childhood or adolescence and transitions into adulthood and sometimes even parenthood. The personal essayist can accommodate these chronological shifts between life’s passages more easily than the short story writer (unless you’re Alice Munro). As the essayists age, they are less likely to be writing from the midst of distressed confusion and more from a place of wry self-mockery and detachment. The younger the essayist—not all, of course—the more likely an identification with a generational perspective. Popular culture, rock music, or TV programs may be convenient markers for that shared membership. The sense of being part of a generation tends to fade as one grows older: one sees one’s unshakable limits and singularities, for better or worse.
It has long been the province of the personal essayist to turn one’s narrator into a character by asserting defining autobiographical facts, eccentric or contrarian notions, odd tastes, behavioral tics, and so on. Having done so, the essayist might then wish to parry that Crusoe-like separateness by analyzing to what extent he or she belongs to a larger group or tribe. Ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, physical or mental disability, national origin, generational awareness, social class, and political alignment are some of the categories increasingly tempting contemporary essayists to situate themselves in the midst of a group or at an ambivalent angle from it. This is especially true when the minority to which you belong is asserting its rights or finds itself under attack—when the question becomes unavoidably topical.
Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.
A few months earlier a friend asked how my dad was doing with his loss of memory. I told her he lives strictly in the present, unburdened by the past, free of expectations for the future. Forecasting based on previous experience, which is believed to be of evolutionary significance as well as one of the origins of storytelling, no longer plays a part in his life.
“So he doesn’t know he’s mortal,” she concluded. “Lucky him.”
Of course, the picture I painted for her is simplified. It is dramatized. The past still plays a part in his conscious life. He relies on the distant echo of his considerable interpersonal skills to ask anyone he meets a series of safe questions: “How is everything?” “Where are you living these days?” “How are your people?” Occasionally he’ll venture an attempt at a more ambitious exchange and become disoriented in the middle of it, losing the thread of the idea or running out of words. The puzzled expression on his face, as well as the embarrassment that crosses it momentarily, like a puff of smoke in a breeze, betrays a past when conversation was as natural to him as breathing. Creative, funny, evocative, provocative conversation. Being a great conversador was almost as highly regarded among his oldest group of friends as being a good writer.
The future is also not completely behind him. Often at dusk he asks, “Where are we going tonight? Let’s go out to a fun place. Let’s go dancing. Why? Why not?” If you change the subject enough times, he moves on.
He recognizes my mother and addresses her as Meche, Mercedes, La Madre, or La Madre Santa. There were a few very difficult months not long ago when he remembered his lifelong wife but considered the woman in front of him claiming to be her to be an impostor.
“Why is she here giving orders and running the house if she is nothing to me?”
My mother reacted to this with anger.
“What is wrong with him?” she asked in disbelief.
“It’s not him, Mom. It’s dementia.” She looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one. Surprisingly, that period passed, and she regained her proper place in his mind as his principal companion. She is the last tether. His secretary, his driver, his cook, who have all worked in the house for years, he recognizes as familiar and friendly people who make him feel safe, but he no longer knows their names. When my brother and I visit, he looks at us long and hard, with uninhibited curiosity. Our faces ring a distant bell, but he cannot make us out.
“Who are those people in the next room?” he asks a housekeeper.
“Really? Those men? Carajo. That’s incredible.”
There was an uglier period a couple of years earlier. My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over and over again is enormous. He would say, “I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me,” and then he would repeat it in one form or another multiple times an hour for half an afternoon. It was grueling. That eventually passed. He regained some tranquility and would sometimes say, “I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it,” or “Everyone treats me like I’m a child. It’s good that I like it.”
In September 2021, our book, Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, will be published by MIT Press. We’re two design historians, and between us we’ve had babies and books before. But DM, as our most recent offspring is affectionately known, has had the longest gestation of them all. This book sprung from our shared curiosity about why the material culture that defines our reproductive lives was so hidden, and also what it might take to change that. We write about the objects and systems that we came to call “design for the arc of human reproduction”: contraceptives, breast pumps, labor and delivery wards, and at-home abortion kits, to name just a few.
Such objects, spaces, and ideas should be among the most well-considered design solutions; designers should aspire to work on them. Yet these tools, techniques, systems, and speculations are treated as afterthoughts. They receive no attention in design studios or classrooms, and likewise are never present in design collections within cultural institutions. Instead, the subject is treated furtively or as unimportant—as something beneath debate or lacking in intellectual content. This gap inspired our book.
We were tired of society looking away. We wanted to make an image-rich book that could hold these designs to the light. If we told their wildly different—and sometimes totally contradictory—histories, then perhaps they could become part of the canon and, in doing so, could recalibrate it.
In 2017 we embarked on the journey of pitching Designing Motherhood as a public reckoning. We sent out the proposal to directors and decision makers at various presses, and waited with glee, ready to fend off multiple offers.
When the replies did trickle in, they were polite rejections: “Not sure there’s an audience for this….”
A constant refrain: “A women’s issue. We don’t really publish in that area.”
Though we were positive the audience for such a book would be far-reaching, no one seemed to see this topic with the same fervor and potential as we did. In our evenings and weekends, in times when children were napping or on lunch breaks from work, we began to write. We knew we’d need money for image permissions and so we started to think about applying for a Pew grant. The only problem was that we were individuals and we needed an institutional partner—and none of the institutions we knew or worked for were remotely interested.
At the 11th hour, we were introduced to Maternity Care Coalition. MCC has been working since 1980 to support pregnant people and their families with direct services, like doulas and lactation support, as well as advocating for policy change at the city and national level. It is an organization that envisions an equitable future, grounded in racial and social justice. They understood our project right away, because it was their project too. It took folks outside the museum and art and design worlds to “get it”—probably because that’s where the real work usually happens.
When we passed the first stage of the Pew application, we cowrote a proposal for a book, two exhibitions, and a set of public programs that would center the expertise of MCC’s staff. To our disbelief, we were awarded the grant, and MIT Press came on board as the publication partner.
We began writing, mainly during the pandemic. We had a lot to say and more to show—in the 350-plus images we chose to illustrate our writing, and with the 50-plus contributing artists, writers, and interviewees we spotlighted, we wanted to make sure we were as polyvocal as 344 pages would allow. All throughout the book, we cast a critical eye on designs that ultimately shape every living person. We partnered with the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design to devise the two exhibitions.
Bringing Designing Motherhood into the world was not easy or painless. But it was a good birth.
Trigger Warning – PG spent way too long researching and preparing this post and is posting it too late at night.
At this point, he thinks there may some interesting observations, but isn’t sure
From Publishing Perspectives:
Disturbing news from PEN America, which has issued a notice to the media this afternoon (July 22) saying that the Belarusian justice ministry has sent a letter to PEN Belarus, informing the organization that it’s to be closed.
Early this week, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was in Washington for meetings with the Joe Biden administration’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, congressional lawmakers, the US Agency for International Development’s Samantha Power and US Agency for Global Media’s acting CEO, Kelu Chao.
One point she made to CNN’s Jim Sciutto–an international affairs specialist [book plug for Jim’s book omitted as irrelevant – PG] –is that she thinks of herself not as the opposition leader but as a figure in the majority.
Her reference was to the August 9 election, claimed by longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko as a victory but said by Tsikhanouskaya and her voters to have been a travesty. Tsikhanouskaya lives in Lithuania for safety at this point.
. . . .
The action reported by the PEN network of international chapters today coincides with the US-funded Radio Free Europe/RadioLiberty report on Minsk’s justice ministry also asking the country’s supreme court to shut down the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) for what the regime calls “repeated violations of the law”.
. . . .
It’s reported that the message from the ministry was received at PEN Centre Belarus on the same day that the organization released one of its detailed reports on cultural rights violations.
This new report from PEN Belarus is a first-half 2021 update on issues encountered and cites 621 violations between January and June. Like the first-quarter report we looked at at the time of Roman Protasevich’s arrest, six-month report pulls together what’s known of state actions taken against the community PEN represents and lists instances of censorship, “persecution for dissent,” and more.
In a section on literature, the PEN Belarus staff writes, “Starting from January of this year, non-state publishing houses, publishers, book distributors, independent press, including those with content on cultural topics, authors, and often readers themselves, have come under pressure.”
Interference and suppressive action against elements of the country’s publishing community include instances of detention; interrogation; raids; confiscations of computers, telephones, books; frozen finances; blocked book exports; and censorship.
As the PEN team writes in its report, “This is a tragic time for freedom of expression, freedom of creativity, freedom of opinion. The sociopolitical crisis is characterized by the violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms, persecution for dissent, censorship, an atmosphere of fear, and the expulsion of proponents of change.”
It is a well-written, highly-detailed and densely-footnoted account of the take-over of governments of all sorts, including democratically-elected ones, by Russian-backed Communists during the last days and the decade following the end of World War II in Europe.
If you have ever had a fancy to live in a Communist dictatorship, this book will put you off of that idea forever.
If you describe any Western democratically-elected government official a “dictator,” this book will help you understand you are using the term as a metaphor. (Yes, that includes Donald Trump.)
This goes down on PG’s highly-recommended list and he doesn’t believe the book falls in the literary equivalent of, “Eat your spinach! It’s good for you!”
When PG made this post, this heavy-duty book (over 1,000 pages) had 771 reviews with an average star rating of 4.6.
Sometimes, PG checks the one-star reviews to catch a flavor of the readers who didn’t like the book.
Here’s the first one-star review that appeared on the Amazon-USA site (paragraph breaks and spacing in the original):
She author is so bias against the Red Army and Soviet Union that she makes the Red Army and Soviet Union sound worse than the Nazis. The Soviet Union due to the Nazi invasion and the war to save their country and destroy the Nazis lost at least 27 million people. Several of the East European countries (Romania, Hungary, Slovakia) that the author portrays as innocent victims supplied hundreds of thousands of troops to assist the Nazis in their goal of destroying the Soviet Union. Poland also during 1920-1 had a war with the Red Army in which the Poles defeated the Red Army. The Poles as the price for an end of the war took parts of Ukraine, and Belorussia which had few Polish residents and incorporated them into Poland. I have a question for the author or anyone else. Except for the Red Army who would have freed Poland and other Eastern European countries from the Nazis? The answer is no one. Only the Red Army was strong enough to thoroughly defeat the Nazis and force them out of Eastern European and eventually capture Berlin. It is understandable that a nation that lost more than 15% of its’ population to invading armies would feel threatened if there were hostile nations on its’ borders. Stalin was paranoid. But it was not out of the question that the Nazis might try to convince the Western Allies that the Soviet Union was the real menace. General Patton advocated attacking the Red Army (which was an insane idea). The author is ridiculously anti-Soviet, I could not continue reading the book beyond the first several chapters.
(PG commentary – Comparison of the Nazis to the Soviets and finding that the Soviets are the better of the two is the ultimate race-to-the-bottom.)
But PG hasn’t fully delivered on the headline for this post!
Meet Alex, the World’s Most Successful Elected Official!
It’s easy to consign the Belarus actions as isolated or archaic or otherwise something that real people would never take seriously.
However the tactics Comrade Lukashenko is ordering in Minsk are precisely those that were used during the the post-WWII period described in Ms. Appelbaum’s book. The dictators come and go, but the means of gaining and holding power in this part of the world haven’t changed in 100 years.
More to the point, Ms. Appelbaum sees hints of those same strategies and tactics in some Western Nations, as described in her latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (which PG hasn’t read, but intends to after finishing the current Appelbaum book he is reading – remember, it’s over 1,000 printed pages, and his Kindle says he’s about 30% finished.)
More than President Trump, PG is concerned about Cancel Culture, Critical Race Theory and similar movements arising as part of the backlash that lead to Trump’s narrow defeat in the last election. When PG first read much about these and other political concepts driving many activists during the last election cycle (before he started Ms. Appelbaum’s post WWII book mentioned at the top of this post), he was reminded of things he had learned from other reading concerning Soviet/Stalinist/Bolshevik strategies for taking and keeping power.
PG suggests that those who claim that western civilizations have somehow reached the end of history or that there is no chance of history repeating itself, that the arrow of progress inevitably points in the direction of greater freedom and cannot be reversed are simply incorrect. PG recalls reading that, at the beginning of the 21st century, about one-third of the nations of the world were democracies. Certainly, nondemocratic systems seem to regularly fail, but they are often followed by another nondemocratic system.
PG will point to the relatively widespread fears among certain groups that President Trump was going to be a dictator are some evidence that, even in large and longstanding democracies, there is no guarantee of continued democracy. Remember, Comrade Lukashenko began his rule by winning what was, by contemporary and local geographical standards, a reasonably open election. Around the turn of the 20th Century, China went through a period during which it appeared to be moving toward at least a type of democratically-elected government before gaining its latest Supreme Leader for Life. There were a few rulers that continued in power for a shorter period than Mao had.
Here’s Amazon’s product description for Ms. Appelbaum’s new book:
In the minutiae category, PG has concluded that, for him, reading a heavily-footnoted book in ebook form is a better overall experience than reading a paper version of the same. In an ebook (at least as read on a Kindle Paperwhite), the footnote numbers linking to the note are shown in the text and the notes are easily accessible, but you only see the text of the footnote if you tap the footnote number. Unless he taps, PG’s reading experience is similar to a book without footnotes.
When PG is reading a densely-footnoted printed book, many pages show only a few lines of text and a gaggle of footnotes visually dominate the page. For easily-distractible PG, the footnotes are a distinct temptation to examine and it’s not difficult for him to become involve in the fascinating details and lose track of the continuity of the text during that process.
Sometimes, his progress through such a paper book is:
Read the text
Examine any footnotes that include comments, quotes, etc.
Go back and read the text again so he can pick up on the flow of ideas when he turns the page (odd-numbered pages are the worst, but even-numbered pages are not without the occasional speed-bump).
Repeat this process for a thousand pages or so.
That said, despite being hip-deep in material filled rigid and beyond-argument doctrine, PG will not be doctrinaire regarding the ebook-vs.-print-and-footnotes question.
Comrades won’t lose their TPV Party Cards if they find fault with PG’s dictates.
(Promotional note – With your TPV Party Card, you get free delivery of Amazon ebooks to your local reading device! No more annoying shipping fees, Comrade!)
How did a dispute within a small breakaway group of Protestants over a seemingly obscure point of theology become an iconic episode in American history? The issue was whether one could earn eternal salvation through godly behavior, or whether the gift of saving grace is bestowed without regard to a person’s conduct. To the side led by Anne Hutchinson, the difference was between a popish “covenant of works” and a true “covenant of grace.” To the other, headed by John Winthrop, “free grace” portended “antinomianism,” a world of free love and social disorder in which the laws of church and state did not apply to true believers.
The protagonists, as Marilyn J. Westerkamp shows in “The Passion of Anne Hutchinson,” (Oxford, 312 pages, $29.95) were worthy adversaries. Winthrop, the leader of the Great Puritan Migration to Massachusetts Bay, was the colony’s frequent governor and the man whose vision of a “city upon a hill” became the stuff of presidential speeches. Hutchinson (1591–1643), the daughter of a dissenting minister, was a charismatic matron with a reputation for piety. Caught in the middle was the Rev. John Cotton, a Cambridge-educated divine with a foot in each camp. Resonating through the centuries, the controversy plays out in the parties’ own voices in diaries and trial transcripts.
Hutchinson herself speaks to the modern interest in women’s history. Called by the scholar Michael Winship “the most famous—or infamous—English woman in colonial American history,” she has been cast as a martyr for religious freedom, a victim of the patriarchy, or a sacrifice to social order at a time when Massachusetts was threatened by belligerent Native Americans and a hostile Crown. She was a prophet, a Jezebel or both.
Hutchinson arrived in Boston, age 43, in September 1634, on board the same ship that a year earlier had brought her adored pastor, John Cotton, to the New World. Accompanying her was her husband, William, a successful cloth merchant, 10 of their 11 surviving children, and a handful of relatives and servants. The Hutchinsons joined their eldest son, who had already crossed the Atlantic with Cotton. Among the wealthiest émigrés, they received a house lot across the street from Winthrop, grazing rights on Taylor’s Island in the middle of Boston Harbor, and 600 acres of farmland near what later became Quincy. William soon became a town selectman and a member of the General Court. Anne became a sought-after midwife and herbalist, known for edifying religious counsel in the birthing room.
. . . .
By 1636, Anne was holding weekly prayer meetings for women in her home. At first, the gatherings followed the English custom of female “conventicles,” but as Anne’s fame spread her constituency broadened to include men. Eventually Hutchinson presided over two “public lectures” each week, attended by 60 to 80 followers. Her message—an increasingly strident condemnation of all the local clergy except Cotton—only exacerbated her challenge to the standing order.
In October, the colony’s embattled ministers held a private session with Cotton, Hutchinson and her newly arrived brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright. Cotton was conciliatory; the other two less so. While conceding that “sanctification,” or good behavior, might be evidence of salvation, Hutchinson and Wheelwright added a new point of contention, asserting that “the person of the Holy Ghost” dwelled within the justified believer. The “indwelling spirit” had been a byword for anarchy since the Reformation. It was exactly what Winthrop and the other institutionalists feared, and they swung into action. Over the next year, Winthrop was swept back into office, Cotton walked the fine line between supporting Hutchinson and placating his fellow clergy, and Wheelwright was banished for seditious contempt of authority. Then, in November 1637, Hutchinson was tried before the civil magistrates for troubling the peace of the commonwealth and its churches.
The trial lasted two days and Hutchinson clearly had the better of it, parrying wits and biblical knowledge with the colony’s best. Then, at the end of the second day, Hutchinson upended the proceedings when she proclaimed that her understanding of grace had come “by an immediate revelation.” (Scholars have long debated why she handed victory to her opponents—was she claiming her prophetic mantle, reassuring her base or suffering from exhaustion? Cotton, to his credit, argued on her behalf that such private revelation was within the Puritan mainstream.) More devastating was the public prophesy that followed: “I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things,” she proclaimed. “I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.”
Hutchinson was convicted and banished from the colony, her departure delayed until she could be excommunicated by her Boston church. In the end, even Cotton renounced her. She moved to Rhode Island but when Massachusetts threatened to annex the region, she and a small group fled to Dutch territory, not far from what is now the Hutchinson River in the northern Bronx. In 1643, all save one child were massacred by the local Native Americans. The leaders of Massachusetts Bay exulted: “The Lord heard our groans to heaven, and freed us from our great and sore affliction . . . this woeful woman.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
PG notes that a great many histories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, established in 1620 with the landing of the first passengers from The Mayflower, tend to show the colonists as consistently virtuous people.
They certainly displayed substantial toughness, finally coming ashore in late December.
The Mayflower arrived in November of 1620, hence, the Thanksgiving celebration that was held in 1621 to celebrate a year’s survival. However, there was no place to live on shore, so work crews ferried back and forth from the ship until late-December.
Only very crude shelters could be constructed on shore, but they were better than staying on an intensely cold, leaky and filthy ship, being thrown about during nasty New England winter storms, which were much colder and more severe than passengers had experienced in England or Holland.
In addition to those who had died during the voyage across the Atlantic, 45 of the 102 passengers who were on the Mayflower when it sighted land died during the first winter due to illness (likely a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria that is spread by rat urine) poor nutrition and housing. A number of orphan children were taken in by families whose adult members had survived.
Based on PG’s reading, no one who made it through the first winter could have thought of themselves as among the privileged classes. He suspects a great many fervently wished they had never made the voyage. Even in the spring, their lives were miserable.
The colonists would have been much more likely to have died absent the miraculous appearance of Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been captured and enslaved by an earlier English explorer prior to his escape.
Unfortunately, the Pawtuxet tribe and other tribes were not immune to either leptospirosis or other European illnesses circulating among the settlers. These illnesses caused a great loss of life (almost certainly in much greater numbers than Mayflower passenger deaths) among the Native Americans in Massachusetts and adjoining areas. These large numbers of Native American deaths opened up a lot of vacant land for use by the Plymouth colonists and those who followed.
For those who may wish to assign blame for these deaths to the English settlers and crew, no one in Europe, let alone the Mayflower passengers, had any idea about the sources and causes of these types of illnesses. Evidence that microorganisms could cause disease wouldn’t be discovered until more than 250 years later. (Robert Koch, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1905)
That said, European diseases were invisible allies of a lot of different European explorers by decimating various Native American tribes. See, for example, Hernán Cortés and 500 Spanish soldiers. They managed to conquer the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan, estimated population, 200,000, in 1521. Tenochtitlan ruled an empire estimated to include 16 million people. By far the most important weapon was one about which Cortés knew nothing – smallpox.
PG remembers that some wealthy New England families cited their ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower as evidence of high breeding. Perhaps this belief still circulates in some circles, but both the Pilgrims (a minority) and non-Pilgrims were nobody’s idea of aristocrats in their own minds or in the minds of anyone in England who was aware of their existence.
Both PG and Mrs. PG have Mayflower ancestors. However, while we have enjoyed learning about them, neither of us feel more elevated by them than we do by the illiterate Swedes (PG) and the illiterate and impoverished Russians (Mrs. PG) who arrived in the United states in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.
Further regarding Mayflower descendant’s superior breeding, it’s estimated that about one in seven Americans living today are descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower.
PG’s suggestion (for any who may be interested) is to celebrate and be grateful for your progenitors, regardless of how humble or grand they may be.
It may help to know that however grand some of your ancestors may seem, the nature of family trees is that the number of ancestors doubles with each generation one traces back. There aren’t enough kings, queens, dukes or duchesses to fill anyone’s family tree. (And that’s not even considering the number of your ancestors who were illegitimate children.)
The past six months have been good to the book-publishing industry. Book sales, helped along by pandemic-induced lockdowns, are up. Adult-fiction sales have risen 30 percent year over year. And most of all, Trump hasn’t been in office. “Postelection, there’s been a breath of Thank God, we don’t have to do Trump books anymore,” one editor told me.
The lull has come to an end. After a brief reprieve from the dishy ticktocks that emerged from the turbulence of the Trump era, publishers are gearing up for a flurry of books detailing the final days and aftermath of his presidency. The Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election and Michael Wolff’s third Trump book, Landslide, kicked things off on July 13. A week after that came Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s second Trump book, I Alone Can Fix It. In the coming months, we will see volumes by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and the New York Times’ Peter Baker, the Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, the Times’ Jeremy W. Peters, the Times’ Maggie Haberman, and the Washington Examiner’s David M. Drucker.
Most of the publishing insiders I spoke to responded to the coming wave of Trump books with an audible sigh and an eye roll. “After the first few, all of these books seemed repetitive,” the editor said. “At a certain point, you had to wonder — do readers really care about some absurd thing some aide heard Trump say? I’m skeptical about this current crop of books, but my skepticism has been proven wrong again and again.”
Publishers were initially slow to capitalize on the chaos of the Trump era. When the journalist David Cay Johnston pitched a book about Trump in 2015, he was met with silence from big publishers. (He did end up selling the book, which was released in 2016.) At first, no one thought Trump would get the Republican nomination, then no one thought he would win the presidency. Books take months, if not years, to produce — by the time Trump volumes started rolling off the presses, the thinking went, he would be back hosting The Apprentice.
The Trump boom didn’t really begin until January 2018, when Wolff’s Fire and Fury set the template for future blockbusters: full of juicy detail, mired in the swamp. Above all, it made Trump mad. Thanks in part to a pathetic cease-and-desist letter sent by the president’s lawyers, the book was an instant megaseller and inaugurated the industry’s version of a gold rush.
Success followed a predictable pattern. Excerpts and scoops would be published in tip sheets, newspapers, and magazines. Trump would respond by calling the author a hack and a liar. Sales shot upward before falling just as quickly. Fire and Fury sold nearly 2 million copies in three weeks before it faded from the headlines. Its paperback edition sold fewer than 10,000.
For people with #resistance in their bio, hitting BUY NOW was irresistible.
. . . .
The Trump boom also had career repercussions. “These last few years, if you weren’t working on the big Trump book, you’re under the radar,” one senior Simon & Schuster publicist told me.
. . . .
For editors of fiction and “serious” nonfiction, the past few years were a nightmare. “There was a sense that people had spent their entire careers knowing how to publish serious, important books by serious, important people, and they were getting blown out of the water by trashy, [*****] tell-alls,” said the former marketing director.
It doesn’t help morale that readers don’t particularly seem to care either. “People approached these books like merch,” said literary agent Kate McKean. “We all buy books we intend to read but don’t — it’s not that the content doesn’t matter, but people buy them the way they buy a shirt, a hat, a sticker.”
“Many of these political books are bought to express support and opposition to something,” said Matt Latimer, founder of the literary agency Javelin, “to make you feel like you’re doing something. And you are! Many of the books that were published did upset the president.”
. . . .
Now, we’re entering what one Penguin Random House publicist calls the “Downfall stage” of Trump’s presidency, referring to the film. “It’s the same people who read books about Hitler’s last days,” the publicist said. “It’s victory porn.”
Point 1 – PG thinks this may be the first post on TPVx that has mentioned the former president, but he’s still a little Covid-crazy, so he may be wrong.
Point 2 – TPVx has not, is not and will never be a political blog, so this is not a signal of any new direction.
Point 3 – Regardless of how they voted in any presidential election, PG suspects that great hordes of Americans would not mind the prospect of never seeing Mr. Trump’s name in the newspapers (are there any actual newspapers left?) or anywhere else unless he’s building another apartment tower, in which case, they could breeze on by the story if they weren’t real estate professionals.
Point 4 – PG doesn’t expect to see the scenario described in Point 3 happen very often. Trump sells newspapers (or used to) and he attracts online clicks like Wolfgang Puck or a Las Vegas stripper’s latest blog post. After all, PG clicked on the link to the OP.
The bottom line is that stories about Trump sell as the number of books about Trump listed in the OP and the quotes therein confirm.
Point 5 – The next time anyone associated with the New York Publishing scene mentions that they and/or their employer are curators of culture, mention Trump books. (PG just checked and two out of the top-ten non-fiction bestsellers are about Trump. Those two are published by Penguin and Henry Holt, owned by Macmillan, each a giant curator of culture.)
I am puzzled by the mournfulness of cities. I suppose I mean American cities mostly—dense and vertical and relatively sudden. All piled up in fullest possible distinction from surroundings, from our flat and grassy origins, the migratory blur from which the self, itself, would seem to have emerged into the emptiness, the kindergarten-landscape gap between the earth and sky. I’m puzzled, especially, by what seems to me the ease of it, the automatic, fundamental, even corny quality of mournfulness in cities, so built into us, so preadapted for somehow, that even camped out there on the savannah, long before we dreamed of cities, I imagine we should probably have had a premonition, dreamed the sound of lonely saxophones on fire escapes. What’s mourned is hard to say. Not that the mourner needs to know. It seems so basic. One refers to certain Edward Hopper paintings—people gazing out of windows right at sunset or late at night. They’ve no idea. I don’t suppose that sort of gaze is even possible except within the city. You can hear the lonely saxophone-on-fire-escape (in principle, the instrument may vary) cry through Gershwin. Aaron Copland. You remember Sonny Rollins on the bridge (the structure varies, too, of course). So what in the world is that about? That there should be a characteristic thread of melody, a certain sort of mood to sound its way through all that lofty, sooty jumble to convey so clear and, as it seems, eternal a sense of loss and resignation. How in the world do you get “eternal” out of “saxophone” and “fire escape”? It doesn’t make much sense. That it should get to you—to me at least—more sharply, deeply, sadly than the ancient, naturally mournful, not to say eternal, sound of breath through reed or bamboo flute.
Not too many years ago, as I began to wonder about the mournfulness of cities—its expression in this way—I brought a recording of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City concert piece to my then-girlfriend Nancy’s house on a chilly winter evening. She had friends or family staying, so we slept in the front bedroom, which, because of its exposure or some problem with the heater, was quite cold. So I remember all the quilts and blankets and huddling up together as if desperate in some Lower East Side tenement and listening to this music break our hearts about ourselves, our struggling immigrant immersion and confusion in this terrible complexity. The lonely verticality of life. And why should sadness sound so sweet? I guess the sweetness is the resignation part.
I’d like to set up an experiment to chart the sadness—try to find out where it comes from, where it goes—to trace it, in that melody (whichever variation) as it threads across Manhattan from the Lower East Side straight across the river, more or less west, into the suburbs of New Jersey and whatever lies beyond. This would require, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred saxophonists stationed along the route on tops of buildings, water towers, farther out on people’s porches (with permission), empty parking lots, at intervals determined by the limits of their mutual audibility under variable conditions in the middle of the night, so each would strain a bit to pick it up and pass it on in step until they’re going all at once and all strung out along this fraying thread of melody for hours, with relievers in reserve. There’s bound to be some drifting in and out of phase, attenuation of the tempo, of the sadness for that matter, of the waveform, what I think of as the waveform of the whole thing as it comes across the river losing amplitude and sharpness, rounding, flattening, and diffusing into neighborhoods where maybe it just sort of washes over people staying up to hear it or, awakened, wondering what is that out there so faint and faintly echoed, faintly sad but not so sad that you can’t close your eyes again and drift right back to sleep.
It isn’t possible to hear it all at once. You have to track the propagation. All those saxophones receiving and repeating and coordinating, maybe, for an interval or two before the melody escapes itself to separate into these brief, discrete, coherent moments out of sync with one another, coming and going, reconnecting, fading out and in again along the line in ways that someone from an upper-story window at a distance might be able to appreciate, able to pick up, who knows, ten or twenty instruments way out there faintly gathering, shifting in and out of phase along a one- or two-mile stretch. And I imagine it would be all up and down like that—that long, sad train of thought disintegrating, recomposing here and there all night in waves and waves of waves until the players, one by one, begin to give it up toward dawn like crickets gradually flickering out.
In order to chart the whole thing as intended, though, we will need a car, someone to drive it slowly along the route with the windows down while someone else—me, I suppose—deflects a pen along some sort of moving scroll, perhaps a foot wide and a hundred feet long, that has been prepared with a single complex line of reference along the top, a kind of open silhouette, a structural cross section through the route, with key points noted, from the seismic verticalities of Manhattan through the quieter inflections of New Jersey and those ancient tract-house neighborhoods and finally going flat (as I imagine, having no idea what’s out there) into what? Savannah, maybe? Or some open field with the final saxophonist all alone out there in the grass.
PG’s in a distinctly contrary mood today. The title of the OP, The Mournfulness of Cities (which the first line narrowed to American cities) suggests sadness is embedded in their general character.
Then, the rest of the OP talks about New York City and New Jersey.
You got cold one night in Manhattan? Try Minneapolis in January!
Minnesota dogs stick to the sidewalks in January.
People plug in their gasoline-powered cars so electric engine block heaters will help to make sure their engines aren’t a solid block of frozen metal in the morning.
Minneapolis people go to Manhattan in January to warm up.
(I’m not forgetting you in January, Winnipeg. I know you go to Minneapolis to work on your tans when the Minneapolis people are all in Manhattan and hotel rooms are really cheap.)
Setting aside the weather, what about all of the other cities – Chicago, Denver, San Diego? All the same as Manhattan?
Au contraire tu es fou!!
PG has spent a lot of time in New York City, lived in Chicago, and spent lots and lots of time in many other large American cities.
He has to work hard to identify a city that is truly mournful. The only one that comes immediately to mind is Gary, Indiana. PG hasn’t been back to Gary for a long time, but it was pretty mournful when he last passed through.
You can certainly be downcast anywhere, including New York City, but PG’s memories of Manhattan (he’ll not speak to the Bronx) are filled with how much energy he picked up walking down the streets at all hours of the day and night.
He named Chicago (terrific city!), Denver and San Diego, but could have named dozens more that have an upbeat, unique vibe that isn’t really replicated anywhere else.
Outside the United States, he loves London and Paris. Oxford feels like he was born in one of the colleges. If heaven looks anything like Florence, PG can’t wait to get there. No mournfulness in Florence for PG.
Contrary and upbeat! That’s PG for the next ten minutes, maybe more!
The idea of a lab leak has gone, well, viral. As a political scientist, I cannot assess whether the evidence shows that COVID-19 emerged naturally or from laboratory procedures (although many experts strenuously disagree). Yet as a political scientist, I do think that my discipline can learn something from thinking seriously about our own “lab leaks” and the damage they could cause.
A political science lab leak might seem as much of a punchline as the concept of a mad social scientist. Nevertheless, the notion that scholarly ideas and findings can escape the nuanced, cautious world of the academic seminar and transform into new forms, even becoming threats, becomes more of a compelling metaphor if you think of academics as professional crafters of ideas intended to survive in a hostile environment. Given the importance of what we study, from nuclear war to international economics to democratization and genocide, the escape of a faulty idea could have—and has had—dangerous consequences for the world.
Academic settings provide an evolutionarily challenging environment in which ideas adapt to survive. The process of developing and testing academic theories provides metaphorical gain-of-function accelerations of these dynamics. To survive peer review, an idea has to be extremely lucky or, more likely, crafted to evade the antibodies of academia (reviewers’ objections). By that point, an idea is either so clunky it cannot survive on its own—or it is optimized to thrive in a less hostile environment.
Think tanks and magazines like the Atlantic (or Foreign Policy) serve as metaphorical wet markets where wild ideas are introduced into new and vulnerable populations. Although some authors lament a putative decline of social science’s influence, the spread of formerly academic ideas like intersectionality and the use of quantitative social science to reshape electioneering suggest that ideas not only move from the academy but can flourish once transplanted. This is hardly new: Terms from disciplines including psychoanalysis (“ego”), evolution (“survival of the fittest”), and economics (the “free market” and Marxism both) have escaped from the confines of academic work before.
The “clash of civilizations” hypothesis is a good candidate for one of the more disruptive lab leaks in political science’s history. When the Harvard University scholar Samuel P. Huntington released his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (note the question mark, which disappeared in later versions) in Foreign Affairs in 1993, he spread a bold and simple hypothesis about the course of the post-Cold War world: “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. … The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
Huntington’s thesis was not a conjecture based on careful empirical study—it was a speculation looking forward based on some cherry-picked contemporaneous examples. Many academic articles that sought to rebut Huntington by testing his hypothesis fell into this trap, attempting to show him wrong with sometimes quite impressive tests. But Huntington could not be disproved by mere facts. His idea was primed to thrive in the wild, free from the confines of empirical reality.
Facts, indeed, often appeared secondary to Huntington’s larger political project. In his follow-up book on the subject, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he illustrated his argument by sketching what he considered a plausible scenario: a Sino-U.S. conflict over Vietnam leading to a racialized third world war that ends with the destruction of Europe and the United States while India attempts to “reshape the world along Hindu lines.”
This writing led not to Huntington being ostracized but enhanced his reputation, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made his claim that “Islam has bloody borders” seem plausible to mainstream audiences. As late as 2011, the New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Huntington as “one of America’s greatest political scientists”—and even though that column ultimately judged Huntington as having gotten the “clash” hypothesis wrong, it did so with kid gloves: “I write all this not to denigrate the great Huntington. He may still be proved right.”
Another contender is the idea of managing great-power competition through game theory. During the 1950s and 1960s, political scientists and their counterparts in economics and elsewhere sought to understand the Cold War by using then-novel tools of game theory to model relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In their earliest forms, these attempts reduced the negotiations and confrontations between the two sides to simple matrices of outcomes and strategies with names like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, and the Stag Hunt.
The allure was obvious. Make some simplifying assumptions about what the players in these games want; specify the strategies they can employ to achieve them; assume that players know what the other players know; and calculate that they will choose their strategy based on the choice the other player will make to maximize their well-being. Voilà—a science of strategy.
It is easy to mock this approach—too easy, in fact. These simple assumptions perform pretty well within their theoretical boundaries. Every semester (when the world isn’t in a pandemic), I use in-person simulations of these basic games with my undergraduate students to show that changing the rules of the game can influence players’ willingness to cooperate, a finding well attested in generations of scholarly tests.
Yet there’s a huge leap in jumping from these general, aggregate findings to believing that such simple ideas can guide the behavior of complex states without an incredible amount of additional refinement. In international relations, the specific strategies that can be employed are vast (and new ones can be invented), the stakes of every contest are unknowable, actors have incentives to hide what they know from others, and, perhaps most important, players interact again and again and again. Even when playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game concocted to make cooperation a fool’s strategy, simply changing from playing a game once to playing it repeatedly can make cooperation an equilibrium.
Nevertheless, the general tendency of a certain influential sect of social science was to embrace the idea that game theory (to be fair, in somewhat more sophisticated terms) could provide not only insights into general features of world affairs but specific foreign-policy recommendations to guide the United States through the Cold War. In influential books like The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, the game theorist Thomas Schelling used those tools to make the Cold War seem easy to manage—an interaction in which cool head, logic, and a steely command of risk could make confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the Berlin Wall explicable and winnable.
All of this would have been harmless if these ideas had stayed inside the lab.
Exhibit #MXWT-94837 in support of the proposition that smart people are perfectly capable of believing and doing really dumb things.
Some might argue that the conceit of thinking one is really smart will likely lead to doing more dumb things on a far grander scale than than will occur in the life of someone who is reasonably intelligent and believes her/himself to be reasonably intelligent. The second person will, of course, make mistakes, but, not extraordinarily large and incredibly stupid mistakes.
Which brings us to Hubris and Nemesis
From Greek Mythology:
Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution and revenge, who would show her wrath to any human being that would commit hubris, i.e. arrogance before the gods. She was considered a remorseless goddess.
. . . .
One myth concerning Nemesis is that of Narcissus. He was a young man who was very arrogant and disdained those who loved him. Nemesis led him to a pool, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. Unable to abandon his reflection, he died there.
The story of Icarus was first written down in the first century AD in the Pseudo-Apollodorus, but the tale has a much older oral tradition. In the story, Icarus’s father made him a pair of wax wings and cautioned him not to fly too high with them. Becoming overconfident, Icarus flew as high as he wanted. The sun melted his wings, and he fell to his death.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Oedipus Rex is a play by Sophocles, which was first performed about 429 BC. In this play, Kind Oedipus defies the gods’ prophecy that he will kill his father and murder his mother. Attempting to control and evade his own fate, he kills an old man who turns out to be his father. Later he marries the queen of Thebes, who turns out to be his mother. His attempt to defy the gods was considered hubris.
. . . .
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offers another example of hubris. Written in the late 1300s AD, it includes the character of Chaunticleer, a rich and educated rooster. His pride in his wealth and accomplishments leads him to lose track of what is real, and he is easily duped by a fox that flatters his vocal ability. The fox eats him.
. . . .
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Written in the late 16th century, Doctor Faustus tells the story of a man who is so proud of his own academic accomplishments and intelligence that he sells his soul to the Devil for more knowledge and academic superiority. He receives eternal damnation as a result.
[The Hubris-Nemesis] complex involves a combination of hubris (a pretension toward an arrogant form of godliness) and nemesis (a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary, especially one that can be accused of hubris). The combination has strange dynamics that may lead to destructive, high-risk behavior. Attempts to deter, compel, or negotiate with a leader who has a hubris-nemesis complex can be ineffectual or even disastrously counterproductive when those attempts are based on concepts better suited to dealing with more normal leaders.
When I first moved to California, it was a dream come true: an office right on the beach in Santa Monica in January. At break time, I ran out onto the sand to the water’s edge and stared in awe at the surf, the sun, and the people playing at the edge of the world. My colleagues chuckled and made comments along the lines of, “You must be new.”
I soon learned that the company I had joined, like so many others, was a bit of a way station for many of its employees. “What do you do?” I’d ask, to replies of, “Oh, I’m an actor,” or, “I write for TV,” or, “I do stand-up comedy.” Not a week went by without someone asking me for some time off to rush to an audition. It seemed LAX was overrun with arrivals dreaming the same dream. Nowhere did I see this more than in the restaurant scene, from Geoffrey’s in Malibu to Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica or Eveleigh’s on the Sunset Strip: everyone working the tables was an actor or writer or artist of some form.
Fast-forward to present-day Silicon Valley, land of a different dream. As venture capitalist Mark Suster recently put it, “The culture is driven by the 20-something irreverent founder with huge technical chops who in a David-versus-Goliath mythology takes on the titans of industry and wins.” The airports here disgorge a stream of would-be entrepreneurs who dream of creating the next unicorn, or billion-dollar startup. And, just like in Hollywood, reality hits soon and hits hard, with many making ends meet through side gigs in the euphemistically named gig economy, be it via DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Uber, or other such services.
What is a self-respecting aspirational author to do in such a world—one turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic? It takes time—an enormous amount of time—to write. It’s not trivial to be an ersatz taxi or delivery driver and write competently at the same time.
Yet most authors know it doesn’t pay much to write. Not all things beautiful, whether writing a book or painting or raising a child, are rewarded financially. The rewards are in the doing and in what the author or the painter or the parent brings to the world around them. Enter a new option: the paid subscription newsletter, the best-known version being Substack.
Originally designed to address the crisis in journalism, wherein the ad-supported business model evaporated like the morning dew and the incremental value of professionally written content drifted down to near nothing, paid newsletters give journalists a chance to be compensated directly for their hard work. Many of these writers were recently let go from their media houses. Others, with strong personal brands, believe they can be paid better as independents in control of their own work. A grand experiment is underway, with traditional media outlets like the New Yorker and the New York Times decrying the unravelling of the fifth estate. Look closer at what is actually happening and you’ll see something else—something that looks very familiar to the waiters in L.A. and the Uber drivers in Silicon Valley. For many writers on Substack and similar platforms, writing a paid subscription newsletter is the new side gig.
Take my example. Having published one book on strategy, I was looking for a way to write the next one. I had so much material and needed time, lots of time: time that was flexible enough to allow me to juggle the responsibilities of raising little children and of contributing to paying the bills, all under pandemic lockdown. Every little bit helps, and being paid while writing makes my dream of publishing the next book that much more of a reality. Or the example of JJ Ding, author of the ChinAI newsletter, who juggles graduate studies with corralling a community of dedicated English-Mandarin translators to make the world of AI research underway in China better understood outside the country, reducing the fear and mistrust between China and the U.S.
Or there’s the example of Animatou Sow, author of the Crème de la Crème newsletter, who juggles writing books, posting Instagram stories, and hosting podcasts, which all feature her incisive cultural commentary, such as, “Books are the answer to rampant 21st-century charlatanism.”
PG was generally familiar with Substack prior to reading the OP, but is interested to hear from those more knowledgeable about whether writing a paid subscription newsletter on Substack actually generates much money for most people (excluding extreme outliers).
A friend of mine was suffering such severe back pain that it was difficult for him to walk or stand. He consulted three doctors about the best course of treatment. The first was adamant that he needed surgery right away. The second advised my friend that he didn’t need surgery and that if he continued physical therapy, his condition would improve gradually over the coming months. The third prescribed strong steroids and recommended that, if his condition didn’t improve in a month, then he should have surgery. My friend followed the third doctor’s guidance, and it seems to be working. But he was mighty upset and confused by all those clashing perspectives. And he is still unsure whether that third doctor’s approach is the right one.
This undesirable variability in professional judgment is an example of noise, the ubiquitous and often-ignored human failing that is the focus of this well-researched, convincing and practical book. “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment” was written by the all-star team of psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, former McKinsey partner and management professor Olivier Sibony, and productive legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein. Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pathbreaking work with Amos Tversky on systematic biases in judgment. It prompted armies of psychologists and behavioral economists (including Sibony and Sunstein) to study the causes and remedies for many such faults, including overconfidence, stereotyping and confirmation bias — or seeking, remembering and placing excessive weight on information that supports our beliefs.
The authors kick things off by distinguishing between bias (systematic deviations) and noise (random scatter). The book then sustains a relentless focus on explaining and documenting the wallop packed by the simple and omnipresent error of noise — and what decision-makers can do about it. It blends stories, studies and statistics to make a compelling case that noise does at least as much damage as bias: undermining fairness and justice, wasting time and money, and damaging physical and mental health.
Kahneman and his colleagues show how unwanted variation in judgments (evaluations) and decisions (choices) creates “noisy systems” — which plague professionals including criminal judges, insurance underwriters, forensic scientists, futurists and physicians, who routinely make wildly varied judgments and decisions about similar cases. Systems are noisy, in part, because different professionals apply different standards. There is disturbing evidence, for example, that when multiple physicians evaluated identical cases for evidence of heart disease, tuberculosis, endometriosis, skin cancer and breast cancer, they agreed on diagnoses only about two-thirds of the time. In such noisy systems, errors add up rather than cancel each other out. As the authors put it, “If two felons who both should be sentenced to five years in prison receive sentences of three and seven years, justice has not, on average, been done.”
Systems are also noisy because, over time, the same professionals apply inconsistent standards. To illustrate, a study of 22 physicians who each examined the same 13 angiograms two times, several months apart, found that they disagreed with themselves between 63 percent and 92 percent of the time. To explain such swings, the authors use research on “occasion noise”: Fluctuations in a person’s mood, fatigue, physical environment and prior performance that are (objectively) irrelevant, yet shape judgments. Like the study titled “Clouds Make Nerds Look Good,” which examined 682 actual decisions by college admissions officers: They weighted applicants’ academic strengths more heavily on cloudier days and applicants’ nonacademic strengths more heavily on sunnier days.
PG will certainly second the notion of judges hearing criminal cases being subject to “noise” in the OP. Search for “inconsistent sentencing” on Google. You will find that a great deal of research and scholarship devoted to studying why criminal defendants that are convicted of or plead guilty to seemingly similar crimes receive widely divergent sentences from judges who are acting under similar laws.
More severe sentences imposed on racial minorities than on white defendants are the hot button in this legal field. On average, racial minorities in a given jurisdiction receive harsher punishment than non-minorities for the same crimes.
However, female criminals of all races are treated much more leniently than male criminals of the same race who are convicted of the same crimes.
“In 2012 Sonja B. Starr from University of Michigan Law School found that, controlling for the crime, “men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do,” and “[w]omen are…twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted”, also based on data from US federal court cases.” See SSRN
Having represented a judge in one case and a handful of attorneys in other cases in a past professional life, PG can assure you that going to law school or being elevated to the bench does not change a human into a machine.
Determining a suitable sentence for a criminal is anything but a precise process. There are zillions of factors that can come into play – far too many and far too subtle for any legislature to craft written legislation that addresses all of them.
Is the defendant remorseful or not? How remorseful or how not-remorseful? PG can attest that reading a defendant’s words as captured in a court transcript and watching and listening to the defendant as they speak is two different things.
Just as some people are better at fooling others when they are lying than other people, some people are better at conveying truthfulness than others, even when both tell the truth.
There are also different purposes for punishment. Simply punishing an individual for committing an evil deed is the most obvious. This is the simple application of the rule evil deeds must be penalized for fundamental justice in a society.
However, assuming that the defendant will be released from confinement at some future time, deterring that defendant from committing another crime is another purpose. Deterring other individuals from committing similar crimes is another purpose for punishment. Enforcing broad societal standards of behavior is another.
To take an extreme example, if everyone who exceeded the posted speed limit by five miles per hour or more were sent to prison for a minimum of 30 years, that would be quite a powerful deterrent. However, there is an inherent societal value that the punishment should fit the crime.
If our speeding driver received the same sentence as someone who killed another person with a knife, we would not feel that such a system was just and fair.
PG suggests that the “noise” described in the OP and what sounds like an interesting book is not the only reason why human judgment is complex to understand and assess fully.
On the hot afternoon of July 6, 1758, advance troops of a vast Anglo-American army probed through forest toward the French fortress of Ticonderoga, in what is now upstate New York. As skirmishing suddenly erupted, the woods crackled with gunfire. Casualties were minimal but momentous: Shot through the heart, and among the first to fall, was the army’s charismatic second-in-command, British Brig. Gen. George Augustus, Lord Howe.
Since arriving in America the previous summer, the dynamic and popular Lord Howe had galvanized hopes of reviving a flagging colonial war against the French. The calamity of his death was soon compounded by another: Two days later, the flustered Maj. Gen. James Abercromby authorized a frontal assault that was repulsed at a heavy cost in killed and wounded.
The loss of George Howe at age 33 was not simply a jarring setback in Britain’s struggle with France but a personal tragedy for the aristocratic family he headed. Back in England, his widowed mother, Charlotte, Lady Howe, led the official mourning. Despite her grief, she worked to ensure that the seat in Parliament left vacant by George’s sacrifice was filled by one of his surviving brothers rather than an outsider. It was an action that won widespread admiration, inviting comparisons with the stoical matrons of ancient Rome.
Yet as Julie Flavell reveals in “The Howe Dynasty,” it was just one example of the way in which extraordinary Howe women transcended their expected gender roles to enter spheres of influence dominated by men. Ms. Flavell, an independent scholar who specializes in British-American relations, traces the fortunes of Lady Howe and her extensive brood. Key characters include George’s younger brothers Richard and William, who likewise played prominent roles in Britain’s imperial conflicts, and their lesser-known—but no less remarkable—elder sister Caroline. During a long lifetime, Caroline Howe (1722-1814) was a dedicated correspondent, expressing opinions that not only provide a fresh perspective on her notoriously taciturn brothers but offer fascinating glimpses into the rarefied world of the English aristocracy.
Spanning almost a century of the Georgian era, “The Howe Dynasty” presents a richly detailed and lively saga of one of its most distinguished families. Challenging and insightful, it reflects impressive scholarship, grounded in exhaustive archival research on both sides of the Atlantic. An especially valuable source is the correspondence that Caroline Howe maintained over more than 50 years of friendship with Lady Georgiana Spencer, mother of the celebrated leader of fashion, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
“The Howe Dynasty” shows how women whose supreme function in life was to produce male heirs could nonetheless find a voice through informal “networking,” establishing crucial contacts in the drawing room or on the hunting field that could be mobilized to secure favors and control opinion.
Charlotte von Kielmansegg was only 15 when she married Emanuel Scrope Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, in 1719. At her husband’s death in 1735, Lady Howe had already borne him 10 children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. Her direction of family affairs was later aided by a redoubtable sister-in-law, Mary, Lady Pembroke. She dedicated herself to schooling Lady Charlotte and Caroline in the subtle arts of exercising influence at court and in the country. In Ms. Flavell’s assessment, mother and daughter alike became “apt pupils of their capable kinswoman.”
The Howes shared the same Hanoverian ancestry as their monarchs, and it was widely credited that Charlotte was the illegitimate offspring of King George I of Great Britain. Thanks to Lady Pembroke’s persistent lobbying, Charlotte became lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta, the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales. This was a vital conduit of patronage that proved pivotal for reviving the Howe fortunes. In her turn, Caroline established a rapport with the unconventional Princess Amelia—the aunt of George III—who shared her love of hunting, gossip and cards.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
Adolf Hitler gets the blame for lighting the fuse of World War II, and for good reason. Yet Germany had a partner in Soviet Russia, not only during the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 but well before, starting with the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Without his enablers in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that Hitler would have dared go to war against the rest of Europe.
In “Faustian Bargain” (Oxford, 384 pages, $29.95), Ian Ona Johnson shows how extensive Russia’s help was. He begins the story at the end of World War I, which had left the world with two pariah states: Germany because it had begun hostilities, Russia because the Bolshevik Revolution had transformed the country from a wartime ally to a postwar menace. Hardly had the ink dried on the punitive peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 than the two pariahs joined forces.
As Mr. Johnson chronicles, Russia offered a place for the German army to develop weapons and train men in violation of the treaty that its civilian government had just signed. In return, Russia would learn how to modernize the Red Army, huge in size but badly trained and poorly equipped. The agreement was formalized at Rapallo, Italy. “Poland must and will be wiped off the map,” wrote Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the man who established Sondergruppe Russland (Special Group Russia), the bureau that would manage military relations between Germany and Russia. Seeckt was referring, of course, to the country that Versailles had resurrected between them. (Poland had been divided between Germany, Russia and the now-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.) “It was not an unfair peace that motivated Seeckt and his fellow officers,” Mr. Johnson writes. “It was the far more ambitious aim of reversing Germany’s defeat in the First World War.”
Mr. Johnson, who teaches military history at Notre Dame, draws on American, British, German, Polish and Russian archives to describe a “secret school of war.” The resulting book has an academic flavor, but it’s consistently interesting and spiced by the occasional scandal, including one in which a German naval officer brings his Russian girlfriend home to Germany, supporting her through a movie studio he purchased with government money, planning to use it for military propaganda. When the studio goes bankrupt, damning details emerge, triggering high-level resignations and bringing to light “the breadth of Germany’s commitment to rearm.”
In the 1920s, without troubling the civilian government in Berlin, the Reichswehr (German defense force) set up a ring of bases south and east of Moscow. German companies like Junkers and Krupp contracted directly with the Soviet government to manufacture warplanes in Russia, deliver coveted German-built locomotives and train Red Army technicians. Versailles had banned all offensive weapons, but the “Black Reichswehr” in Russia included warplanes, battle tanks and poison gas. Russia, for its part, learned alongside the Germans. Stalin was so interested in Krupp’s tank designer Eduard Grotte that he ordered that the man be kept in Russia by “all measures up to arrest.”
It’s chilling to learn how much time and money Germany and Russia devoted to chemical warfare, hoping to develop gas bombs to be dropped from high altitude upon enemy cities. In the end, the effort failed. “The vision of cities obliterated by mustard gas was fading,” Mr. Johnson says of the situation in 1931, “with a war of machines—tanks and planes—rising in its place.”
Armored warfare seems to have been the most successful collaboration. The Reichswehr developed the doctrine: Heavy tanks with large guns were more valuable than speedy vehicles; they should be deployed in mass and accompanied by motorized infantry. Companies in Germany built the prototype Panzers, as they were called, and shipped them to Russia disguised as farm tractors.
. . . .
When Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, his obsession with “Jewish Bolshevism” cooled the relationship with Moscow. Nor did he worry about adhering to the terms of Versailles. The official and “black” Reichswehrs merged into the wartime Wehrmacht, with conscription supporting a huge army with modern tanks and a fully fledged air force, all made possible by Soviet Russia.
Cooperation between the two countries began again in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed to a “nonaggression pact.” The Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, the Russians on the 17th, and the two armies met at Brest-Litovsk on the 22nd.
. . . .
Meanwhile, German machinery, weapons and technology flowed east, and Russian oil, grain and raw materials helped equip and feed the Wehrmacht that occupied most of Western Europe in 1940. More quietly, the Soviet Union absorbed half of Poland, the Baltic countries, and strategic pieces of Romania and Finland. The mutual exchange continued until the Sunday morning in June 1941 when Germany crashed into the Soviet Union. “Invading German forces,” Mr. Johnson tells us, “marched on rubber boots made with materiel shipped over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Their rations included Soviet grain, which had continued to arrive up to the very day of the invasion.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
PG has read a great deal of 20th century history, but the OP was the first time he had learned that extensive cooperation between Germany and Russia began in 1922 instead of 1939.
PG notes that the publisher of the book discussed in the OP, Oxford University Press, has elected to release the book in hardcover only, at least for the moment. PG may or may not check back later to see if an ebook is available or, more likely, put a hold on the book through his public library.
The author of the book, Ian Ona Johnson, is a an Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame who looks very young (which is a more revealing statement about PG than it is about Dr. Johnson). His author page does mention that he and his wife are the owners of a dog named Patton.
Speaking of his local public library, several years ago, PG and Mrs. PG culled their physical book collection to the tune of at least a couple of thousand books by donating them to that library. The librarian who accepted the donation glanced at the books and told PG that the library was likely to keep some of them instead of selling all of them off. Evidently, that was a compliment that the librarian did not customarily deliver when accepting book donations.
PG just checked and he still has nine oak bookcases (6 feet tall, except for one that is 7 feet tall, made to fit in a niche in a gone-but-not-forgotten law office and a bit tippy if not secured to the wall behind it, made by a former client of PG who owned a furniture factory in exchange for PG’s legal services).
Each of these bookcases is filled with physical books that will also make a trip to the local public library with the help of a couple of burly young men as and when Mrs. PG is willing to let them go.
It’s been a rough few months for Sci-Hub, the beloved outlaw repository of scientific papers. In January its Twitter account, which had more than 180,000 followers, was permanently suspended. In response to a lawsuit brought by publishers, new papers aren’t being added to its library. The website is blocked in a dozen countries, including Austria, Britain, and France. There are rumors of an FBI investigation.
And yet Alexandra Elbakyan, the 32-year-old graduate student who founded the site in 2011, seems more or less unfazed. I spoke with her recently via Zoom with the assistance of a Russian translator. Elbakyan, who is originally from Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and coded Sci-Hub herself. She lives in Moscow now and is studying philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Back when she started the site, which offers access to north of 85 million papers, she didn’t expect to be fending off lawsuits and dodging investigations a decade on.
“I thought Sci-Hub would become legal in a couple of years,” she said. “When the laws are obviously in the way of scientific development, they should be canceled.”
. . . .
It hasn’t been that simple. In 2017 a New York judge awarded Elsevier, the multibillion-dollar publishing company behind more than 2,500 journals, a $15-million default judgment against Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. The same year, a Virginia judge awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million. (With Elbakyan overseas and Sci-Hub’s financial situation somewhat mysterious, neither publisher is likely to collect a dime.) Courts have repeatedly forced Elbakyan to switch domain names.
The latest lawsuit, filed in India by three academic publishers, including Elsevier, asks the High Court of Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub throughout the country. While the case is pending, the court has instructed Sci-Hub to stop uploading papers to its database. The order is not unusual; what’s surprising is that Elbakyan has complied. She has a history of ignoring legal rulings, and the Indian court has no power over Sci-Hub’s activities in other countries. So why has she chosen, at this moment, to give in?
One reason is that Elbakyan believes she has a shot at winning the case, and her odds might improve if she plays by the rules. “I want the Indian court to finally support free access to science,” she said. If that happened, it would mark a significant victory for Sci-Hub, with reverberations likely beyond India. Victory remains a longshot, but Elbakyan thinks it’s worth the hassle and expense. She didn’t even bother to contest the two lawsuits in the United States.
In coverage of Sci-Hub over the years, Elbakyan is usually cast as an idealistic young programmer standing up to publishers who resell science at a steep markup. There’s some truth to that. Elsevier brings in billions in large part by charging colleges and universities for bundled access to its journals. Those without subscriptions often pay $31.50 for access to a single article. For an independent researcher, or one who works at a small institution that can’t afford to sign a deal with Elsevier, the cost of merely scanning the literature is prohibitive.
And you could argue, as Elbakyan does, that the company’s paywalls have the potential to slow scientific progress. She’s not the only one: More than 18,000 researchers have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its business practices.
The other option is to download a journal article’s PDF from Sci-Hub free. About a half-million people each day choose the latter.
Pirates and Publishers
So what’s wrong with using Sci-Hub? According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”
For the record, there’s little evidence that Sci-Hub is actually a threat to the scientific record. The papers on the site are the same papers you can download through official channels. It’s almost certainly true that articles that have been retracted or corrected remain up on Sci-Hub, but academic publishers themselves have a less-than-stellar record of policing and pruning the literature. Plenty of research that has failed to replicate, or should never have passed peer review in the first place, can be found in Elsevier’s archives.
The charge that Sci-Hub is a threat to personal data stems from Elbakyan’s practice of using, let us say, borrowed logins in order to download papers. That’s necessary because whenever publishers determine that a login is being used to download an unusual number of papers, they cut off access, forcing Elbakyan to constantly seek new logins. She’s done this for years and makes no secret of it. The publishers also allege that she uses “phishing attacks to illegally extract copyrighted journal articles.”
Elbakyan denies employing phishing attacks — that is, sending emails that trick people into revealing their login information — but allows that some of the accounts Sci-Hub has used might have been obtained with that technique. “I cannot check the exact source of the account that I receive by email,” she said. There’s no indication that Sci-Hub is using the logins for some other nefarious purpose.
Even so, courts have found that what Sci-Hub does isn’t legal. The question is whether, in the cause of sharing scientific information, her systematic ransacking of academic publishing is justified. In short, is Elbakyan doing more good than harm?
Disclosure: A very long time ago, PG spent an unhappy three years working for what is now called RELX , which is the owner of the Elsevier which is the focus of the OP. (Combine Dutch and English top executives and you can come up with some of the most stupid company names in the universe.)
The business in which Elsevier and related companies is massively profitable for the following reasons.
Elsevier and its associated companies obtain valuable intellectual property at no cost.
Elsevier, etc., obtain expert editing and review of valuable intellectual property at no cost.
Elsevier, etc., employees perform the most mundane tasks involved in putting together this free material into printed and (reluctantly) electronic publications for which they charge research academic libraries obscene prices to receive printed copies and access electronic copies of this material.
Libraries at academic research institutions (every major and most minor universities, colleges, schools of law, medicine, etc., plus research institutions, etc.) must have access to this information so their scholars can perform research for a variety of purposes, including, prominently, writing new articles to submit to the editors of Elsevier’s prestigious journals to be considered for publication.
The engine that drives this entire boat is called (at least in the United States) publishorperish. If you wish to move from a lowly graduate student into the world of assistant professors, associage professors, full professors, deans, etc., and have your employment in such roles protected by tenure, you need to publish in the sorts of journals Elesevier owns. The exact same work published via KDP won’t do the job.
By PG’s potentially-blinkered lights, this sort of system is possible because the people paying for these journals and funding the writing and review of the journal articles are spending other people’s money.
There is no direct cost to the dean of a medical school who requires that any candidate for an assistant professorship at the medical school have published a lot of articles in respected medical journals published by Elsevier or similar publishers.
In PG’s mind, there is no reason that an entrepreneurial University president could not start a University publishing organization that operates in the same manner as Elsevier and others do. Harvard University has had its own press for a long time but, to the best of PG’s knowledge, has limited itself to publishing books, not periodicals, The Harvard Business Review, published by the Harvard School of Business, is an example of a prestigious journal published by a private university.
On the law school front, many law schools have published law reviews in which law professors seek to have scholarly publications published. Publications in law reviews satisfy the publish or perish obligations of law professors at a wide range of institutions. One cool feature for law schools is that quite a bit of work on the law reviews is performed by second and third-year law students who have performed well in law school. Indeed, being invited to become a member of the law review’s staff is an important résumé entry for a starting lawyer looking for a job.
Why can’t the medical school and the biology and chemistry and English departments do exactly the same thing? If the Stanford Medical School announced it would be starting a series of medical journals devoted to issues important to a variety of medical specialties and staffing it with the same sort of people Elsevier uses, Stanford publications would very quickly take their place at the top of the journal rankings and receive gobs of submissions from graduate students and professors elsewhere. Stanford could charge others for subscriptions to these publications and substantially burnish the medical school and the university’s already stellar reputation.
Yes, it would cost a university some money to start its own series of professional and scholarly journals, but such publications would allow a university to earn extremely large sums of money that its libraries and the libraries of other colleges and universities pay to Elsevier and its ilk.
Professors at colleges and universities would be happy to scratch each other’s backs by exchanging peer review services for colleagues at other institutions.
PG suspects that the reason that universities do not start these sorts of entrepreneurial ventures goes back to the Other People’s Money problem and a desire for a quiet life.
If others with to comment, criticize, expand, dismiss, etc., etc. PG’s thoughts on this subject, they should feel free to do so in the comments, in their own blogs (hopefully linking back to this post, but PG’s not going to sue anyone who quotes him with or without attribution plus ideas are not protected by copyright laws.)
I was straight for part of my life. Most gay people were, at least when I was growing up. I kissed some boys and worried about finding a date to prom, all the while falling headlong for my friends who were girls. I thought everyone felt this way—at least until one of my crushes broke my heart so thoroughly that I had to reconsider my assumptions.
Then I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and the scales fell from my eyes. Simply put, since I had never been exposed to an alternative, I had reversed the definitions of like and love in my mind. It was 1992 when I figured that out; I was 17, and I flipped through the card catalog at my local library in suburban Chicago, desperate to find books about me so I could wrap my brain around this change in circumstances and maybe figure out how to envision my own future.
In case you were wondering, the pickings at the Libertyville Public Library were slim.
Since then, there’s been a fairly miraculous change in the world around me—first in representation of the LGBT+ community on film and in print and then in authentic stories finding greater purchase in publishing through the #OwnVoices movement. What I love about #OwnVoices is that people are starting to catch up (admittedly, not without some backsliding) with the very true idea that minority stories of all different types are relevant to everyone. At their foundation, stories transport, educate, and cradle us. Storytelling has always been a critical part of being human, and diverse storytelling is a critical part of crafting a global society that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.
I believe there’s been wide benefit from the #OwnVoices movement—both for writers finding outlets for their work as well as for readers who now have a much richer selection of stories available to them. I find it interesting, then, that the We Need Diverse Books organization has decided to stop using the #OwnVoices term. In a recent blog post, WNDB says it sees #OwnVoices as having become a “ ‘catch all’ marketing term” and is moving to particularize (and personalize) authors more in its descriptions. Bitch Media also ran an extensive article about the problems with this approach to promoting diversity and authentic storytelling.
But have we, in our push for progress, fallen into an unexpected trap?
I’ve been resistant to categorization my entire life (which, believe me, has not been easy for my parents). I splash around in the deep end of gray areas and kind of love that I’ve left a long trail of confounded people in my wake. I’ve had a career in technology for a quarter century, very often as the only woman on my team. I wear men’s clothes, do most of the cooking in my house, have a well-used sewing machine that’s almost as old as I am, and, okay, I get man crushes sometimes. So, as much as I’ve appreciated (and benefited from) the #OwnVoices label, labels in general make me suspicious.
The beauty of fiction is that it has always gone beyond the lived experience of the author: that’s what research is for, what networks are for, and how sensitivity readers can help. I write literature that explores love, family, and friendship, and I’m committed to writing authentic characters with universal experiences. After a lifetime of living in a world that either wasn’t quite sure what to do with me or was downright hostile, I don’t want to be boxed in with my art. I also don’t want a stupid hashtag to provide cover for inauthentic, substandard writing acquired to fill quotas or facilitate marketing and sales.
I want diversity in storytelling to be celebrated and promoted no matter who is writing, which requires much more than a hashtag; it requires diversity within the ranks of people in power—the gatekeepers, the tastemakers. It requires us all to try hard to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and challenge ourselves to deeply understand and empathize with a variety of experiences. Frankly, it requires more (and more delicate and thoughtful) work than I suspect most people want to put in.
Publishing is a business, and business thrives on formula, efficiency, and succinct and compelling marketing. But publishing is also a conduit for art, which means that everyone in it, writers included, needs to be held to a higher, more exacting standard. There are important stories to tell—stories that can bring us together and illuminate dark corners.
Maybe #OwnVoices isn’t the best solution to this, but bringing diversity and authentic voices to a broader audience has never been an easy problem to solve, and I’ve learned to take what I can get without stopping my push for something better.