Bread in Ukraine: why a loaf means life

From 1843 Magazine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

14 Books About Refugees Trying to Reach Europe

From Electric Lit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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

From The Interpreter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Interpreter

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

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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


Happy Easter


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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

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

For modern autocrats, lying is more useful than killing

From The Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

I see their faces

From 1843 Magazine:

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine

Maria Aggressorovna

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Repair the Past?

From Public Books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Business Insider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Business Insider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poison Book Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Walking Among the University’s Ruins

From Public Books:

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

Could the same happen to universities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Atlas Obscura:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

St. Basil’s Guide to Cultural Appropriation

From First Things:

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at First Things

Ahmed’s Good Grief

From Public Books:

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

Against Any Intrusion

From The Paris Review:

February 14, 2019
Santa Monica, California

Dearest Gwen,

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143

From The Paris Review (1995):

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

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

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

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


When did you begin writing?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Are you writing about the siege of Sarajevo?


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

Link to the rest at The Paris Review (1995)

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

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

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

The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

Winston Churchill

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water

From The Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

Battle of the Books: When Historical Reassessments Collide

From Publishers Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From The History Channel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The History Channel

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

From Publishers Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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

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

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

Animals think, therefore…

From The Economist

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

Phantom Plague

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

A group of nuns goes viral for Jesus

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

From The Economist:

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at The Economist

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


From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalin’s Library

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

Why good thoughts block better ones: the mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung effect

From The National Library of Medicine via PubMed:

Abstract: The Einstellung (set) effect occurs when the first idea that comes to mind, triggered by familiar features of a problem, prevents a better solution being found. It has been shown to affect both people facing novel problems and experts within their field of expertise. We show that it works by influencing mechanisms that determine what information is attended to. Having found one solution, expert chess players reported that they were looking for a better one. But their eye movements showed that they continued to look at features of the problem related to the solution they had already thought of. The mechanism which allows the first schema activated by familiar aspects of a problem to control the subsequent direction of attention may contribute to a wide range of biases both in everyday and expert thought – from confirmation bias in hypothesis testing to the tendency of scientists to ignore results that do not fit their favoured theories.

Link to the rest at PubMed

From Wikipedia:

Einstellung literally means “setting” or “installation” as well as a person’s “attitude” in German. Related to Einstellung is what is referred to as an Aufgabe (“task” in German). The Aufgabe is the situation which could potentially invoke the Einstellung effect. It is a task which creates a tendency to execute a previously applicable behavior. In the Luchins and Luchins experiment a water jar problem served as the Aufgabe, or task.

The Einstellung effect occurs when a person is presented with a problem or situation that is similar to problems they have worked through in the past. If the solution (or appropriate behavior) to the problem/situation has been the same in each past experience, the person will likely provide that same response, without giving the problem too much thought, even though a more appropriate response might be available. Essentially, the Einstellung effect is one of the human brain’s ways of finding an appropriate solution/behavior as efficiently as possible. The detail is that though finding the solution is efficient, the solution itself is not or might not be.

Another phenomenon similar to Einstellung is functional fixedness (Duncker 1945). Functional fixedness is an impaired ability to discover a new use for an object, owing to the subject’s previous use of the object in a functionally dissimilar context. It can also be deemed a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. Duncker also pointed out that the phenomenon occurs not only with physical objects, but also with mental objects or concepts (a point which lends itself nicely to the phenomenon of Einstellung effect.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

Losing native languages is painful. But they can be recovered

From The Economist:

Memory is unfaithful. As William James, a pioneering psychologist of the 19th and early 20th centuries, observed: “There is no such thing as mental retention, the persistence of an idea from month to month or year to year in some mental pigeonhole from which it can be drawn when wanted. What persists is a tendency to connection.”

Julie Sedivy quotes James in a poignant context in her new book “Memory Speaks”. She was whisked from Czechoslovakia with her family at the age of two, settling eventually in Montreal. In her new home she became proficient in French and English, and later became a scholar in the psychology of language. But she nearly lost her first language, Czech, before returning to it in adulthood. Her book is at once an eloquent memoir, a wide-ranging commentary on cultural diversity and an expert distillation of the research on language learning, loss and recovery.

Her story is sadly typical. Youngsters use the child’s plastic brain to learn the language of an adoptive country with what often seems astonishing speed. Before long it seems to promise acceptance and opportunity, while their parents’ language becomes irrelevant or embarrassing, something used only by old people from a faraway place. The parents’ questions in their home language are answered impatiently in the new one, the children coming to regard their elders as out-of-touch simpletons who struggle to complete basic tasks.

For their part, meanwhile, the parents cannot lead the subtle, difficult conversations that guide their offspring as they grow. As the children’s heritage language atrophies, the two generations find it harder and harder to talk about anything at all.

Children often yearn desperately to fit in. Often this can mean not only learning the new language, but avoiding putting off potential friends with the old. Children, alas, can also be little bigots. At the age of five, researchers have found, they already express a preference for hypothetical playmates of the same race as them. They also prefer friends who speak only their language over those who speak a second one as well.

In theory, keeping a language robust once uprooted from its native environment is possible. But that requires the continuance of a rich and varied input throughout a child’s development—not just from parents, but through activities, experiences, books and media. These are often not available in countries of arrival. Parents are themselves pressed to speak in the new language to their children, despite evidence that their ungrammatical and halting efforts are not much help.

But a dimming language may not be as profoundly lost as speakers fear when, as adults, they visit elderly relatives or their home countries and can barely produce a sentence. Though the language may not be as retrievable as it once was, with time and exposure it can be relearned far faster than if starting from scratch.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Making Numbers Count

From The Wall Street Journal:

When Alfred Taubman was chief executive of the restaurant chain A&W, he came up with a clever way of challenging the competition: He offered a third-pound burger for the cost of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder. The result? More than half of A&W’s customers seethed, convinced that they were being asked to pay the same amount for what sounded to them like a smaller burger.

One lesson from this episode: “Math is no one’s native tongue.” So observe Chip Heath and Karla Starr in “Making Numbers Count,” a close look at the challenge of understanding—and communicating—numerical claims. The authors note that, once we get beyond 1, 2, 3, our ability to grasp numbers quickly deteriorates; it’s better, if possible, to translate them into “concrete, vivid, meaningful messages that are clear enough to make numbers unnecessary.”

Consider how we might describe the world’s water: 97.5% is salinated; the other 2.5% is fresh water, but 99% of that amount is trapped in glaciers, leaving only a small fraction that is actually drinkable. If you want people to “see and feel the numbers, not just read them,” Mr. Heath and Ms. Starr say, consider a visual analogy: Imagine “a gallon jug filled with water with three ice cubes next to it.” The jug represents the earth’s salt water, the ice cubes the glaciers, and “the drops melting off each”—that’s what’s available for consumption. Another eye-catching comparison, this one taken from a 2018 New York Times article: Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named “James” than there are women in total.

One way to make numbers come alive is through stories, which our brains process “better than statistics.” We’re unlikely to remember details about desperately low wages and unconscionably high interest rates in Bangladesh, for example, but we can’t forget the story of the economist Muhammad Yunus’s efforts to distribute small, transformative loans to grateful recipients.

Often the use of numbers is unavoidable, as Mr. Heath, a business professor at Stanford, and Ms. Starr, a science writer, readily concede. What to do? Since we process “user-friendly numbers” much better than decimals and percentages (as A&W discovered to its dismay), simple analogies can be useful. Global health data, for instance, might be translated into a representative village of 100, in which 29 people would be overweight and 10 would be going hungry. We can also employ culturally relevant frames of reference. The 6-foot social-distancing guidance for Covid has been compared to a hockey stick (in Canada), a tatami mat (Japan), a surf board (San Diego) and an ostrich-like cassowary (Australia). Other comparisons—24 buffalo wings (Buffalo, N.Y.) and 72 (presumably giant) pistachios (New Mexico)—seem more clever than useful.

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

Spies, Lies, and Algorithms

From The Wall Street Journal:

Computers have transformed many institutions and professions in the 21st century, and the world of espionage especially. In “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms,” Amy Zegart, a Stanford professor of political science and an occasional consultant to intelligence agencies, has provided a lucid and sobering account of how digital and other technological breakthroughs are “generating new uncertainties and empowering new adversaries” for the United States at a time when its intelligence agencies are uniquely stressed.

Ms. Zegart opens her book with a survey of the nation’s rapidly changing “threat landscape” (Russia, China, terrorist groups); the sudden arrival of “open-source intelligence” (live-streaming amateur videos, time-stamped Twitter and Facebook posts); the consequently high volume of internet data relevant to intelligence; and the challenge to the U.S. intelligence community of keeping up with it all. Her aim is to give the general reader a non-Hollywood understanding of 21st-century intelligence as well as the daunting challenges that American spy agencies now confront.

The U.S. intelligence community, outlined concisely by Ms. Zegart, is composed of 18 separate organizations, including two independent agencies: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees operations, and the Central Intelligence Agency, which runs spies and engages in covert action. There are nine Defense Department elements, including the National Security Agency, which makes and breaks code; the National Reconnaissance Office, which develops and deploys spy satellites; and the intelligence offices of the various armed forces. The other seven elements include divisions of the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and other government entities. Ms. Zegart catalogs the difficulties of coordinating these disparate organizations, each with its own culture and skill set and priorities.

As the world has become more and more connected electronically, so much data is now online—Ms. Zegart estimates that 80% of what the intelligence community gathers comes from publicly available sources—that intelligence agencies are losing their traditional advantages to nongovernmental actors. Spy satellites and high-resolution cameras mounted on military aircraft, once the exclusive preserve of the government, now have rivals in small commercial satellites that can observe even license plates from space. Costs for users have plummeted; Google Earth is free. A “cottage industry of non-governmental nuclear intelligence collectors and analysts” who track nuclear efforts in North Korea and Iran has emerged, along with such phenomena as the Netherlands-based Bellingcat, a private community of journalists and researchers that has provided remarkable information about the secret Russian unit that has attempted to assassinate dissidents in Europe.

While there are obvious benefits to such activities, the privatization of intelligence also has costs and dangers. Ms. Zegart is at her best when describing cyber threats. “In many ways,” she writes, “cyberspace is the ultimate cloak-and-dagger battleground, where nefarious actors employ deception, subterfuge, and advanced technology for theft, espionage, information warfare, and more.” Enemy states and terrorist groups are “hacking both machines and minds,” not only within American institutions but in our living rooms. “Artificial intelligence is creating deepfake video, audio, and photographs so real, their inauthenticity may be impossible to detect. No set of threats has changed so fast and demanded so much from intelligence.”

. . . .

The anonymity of the internet combined with the widespread use of secure encryption has led to increasingly vitriolic and often hard-to-refute false claims clogging all channels of communication. Private technology companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook, incentivized to pursue profits and operating on a global scale, are often reluctant to surrender their users’ privacy even when democratic governments assert national-security claims. While China and other repressive regimes employ facial recognition software to harass, intimidate and imprison entire populations, many American Googlers have protested any cooperation by their employer with the American intelligence community.

The United States and other technologically advanced countries are increasingly vulnerable to large-scale cyberattacks that can corrupt data or compromise sensitive infrastructure. In 2015 a Chinese intrusion stole 21 million security-clearance records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; in 2020 Russia obtained access to several American nuclear labs, government departments and Fortune 500 companies.

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

A monk in 14th-century Italy wrote about the Americas

From The Economist:

That vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Christopher Columbus is well established. Their sagas told of expeditions to the coast of today’s Canada: to Helluland, which scholars have identified as Baffin Island or Labrador; Markland (Labrador or Newfoundland) and Vinland (Newfoundland or a territory farther south). In 1960 the remains of Norse buildings were found on Newfoundland.

But there was no evidence to prove that anyone outside northern Europe had heard of America until Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Until now. A paper for the academic journal Terrae Incognitae by Paolo Chiesa, a professor of Medieval Latin Literature at Milan University, reveals that an Italian monk referred to the continent in a book he wrote in the early 14th century. Setting aside the scholarly reserve that otherwise characterises his monograph, Mr Chiesa describes the mention of Markland (Latinised to Marckalada) as “astonishing”.

In 2015 Mr Chiesa traced to a private collection in New York the only known copy of the Cronica universalis, originally written by a Dominican, Galvano Fiamma, between around 1339 and 1345. The book once belonged to the library of the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. In Napoleonic times, the monastery was suppressed and its contents scattered. The owner of the Cronica let Mr Chiesa photograph the entire book and, on his return to Milan, the professor gave the photographs to his graduate students to transcribe. Towards the end of the project one of the students, Giulia Greco, found a passage in which Galvano, after describing Iceland and Greenland, writes: “Farther westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds.”

Mr Chiesa says that giants were a standard embellishment of faraway places in Norse folklore and, indeed, Galvano cautioned that “no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.” The Dominican was scrupulous in citing his sources. Most were literary. But, unusually, he ascribed his description of Marckalada to the oral testimony of “sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway”.

Mr Chiesa believes their accounts were probably passed on to Galvano by seafarers in Genoa.

. . . .

[I]t could help explain why Columbus, a Genoese, was prepared to set off across what most contemporaries considered a landless void.

Link to the rest at The Economist

An Excerpt from “We Are All Whalers”

From The University of Chicago Press blog:

Recently, I spent an early April day in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod Bay, in eastern Massachusetts, in the United States, with a friend. He had been at sea his entire working life, but had never knowingly been close to a right whale. His day job was master of an oil tanker on the Valdez, Alaska, to San Francisco, California, run, where he might have been close to a North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica).

He was vastly overqualified to skipper our boat, which he did while I piloted a small drone to measure the lengths and widths of the many feeding North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) we had found in a small area. There was no wind that day. The sea was like a millpond. It was crisp, cold, sunny, and quiet. We shut down the motor, drifted, watched, and listened. As each animal surfaced, exhaled, and immediately inhaled, we listened to the unique cadence of their breaths, and we watched their steady progress through the water with their mouths wide open, filtering the clouds of food close to the surface.

Periodically, they slowly closed in on the boat, and we could see into their open mouths, with small eddies of water peeling away from their lips. Much larger eddies formed in their wakes as their powerful tails and bodies pushed them along. They made tight turns, using their huge flippers and tails as rudders, to keep themselves within the food patches.

This went on all day. As the sun started to sink behind the cliffs on the nearby western shore of Cape Cod Bay, their creamy white upper jaws, just visible above the surface, turned to a vibrant golden hue. It was a peaceful, majestic, timeless sight, and a huge privilege to be permitted to study these animals.

At the end of the day, my friend said that he understood why I care so passionately for them. Words often fail when I try to express the awe and wonder that these animals elicit; this book is my attempt to do them justice, and keep them out of jeopardy.

My hope is to convince you that the welfare of individual North Atlantic right whales, and the very survival of the species, is in our hands. Few humans eat whale meat anymore, but fishing techniques unintentionally harm and kill whales. Even vegetarians contribute to the problem, as we all benefit from global shipping of consumer goods and fuel, which, in its current iteration, leads to fatal collisions with whales. Entanglement in fishing gear can sentence these animals to months of pain and a slow death.

Both the US and Canadian governments are stuck in a major conflict of interest: protecting the livelihoods and businesses of the marine transportation and fishing industries, but at the same time recognizing the value of biodiversity, animal welfare, and avoidance of species extinction. Recently, the latter values have taken a back seat. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the technology and the collaborations that are necessary to change the right whales’ future, but consumers have to use their wallets to make it happen. Hopefully, politicians still listen to their electorate.

. . . .

This is a story that began for me as a child in England, raised by caring people, learning from our challenges and traumas, as all families do. I was taught how to survive on the water, maintain boats, and explore. I trained as a veterinarian, but I also had the chance to pursue my own curiosity. I was shown the enormous wealth of a productive marine ecosystem, off eastern Newfoundland, but also the harsh reality of the trauma whales face when in conflict with humans harvesting a mutual food resource. An opportunity arose to document the remarkable efficacy of direct harvest of large whales in Iceland—a reality whose relevance to my later work took decades to come in to focus.

I then describe a small window I was given into the millennia of native subsistence harvest of the bowhead whale in the Arctic. The native hunters had truly conserved the whales’ habitat, and hence the whales, in spite of the best efforts of both nineteenth-century commercial whalers from New England to wipe out the species and recent oil exploration to degrade its habitat. The Alaskan Iñupiaq sense of the long view, and respect for the whales as a part of their culture, made me hope that modern marine industries could also sustainably coexist with right whales in their habitat.

As I slowly grew to understand the impacts of industrial fishing practices and vessel collisions on large whales, I fell into the role of a large whale trauma diagnostician. Along with a few dear colleagues, I provided a scorecard for government efforts aimed at reducing such impacts. We worked with all of the affected whale species in New England: humpback, blue, fin, sperm, minke, and right, in addition to smaller whales, dolphins, and seals.

But it was the right whales that were the most prominent and imperiled in their plight. But what is good for right whales will be good for the others, too. We tried to intervene with some sick whales, to reduce their suffering, but realized that prevention of the trauma was the only lasting solution. So now I work with scientists, engineers, fishermen, lawyers, government managers, and nongovernmental organizations to promote a safe, profitable, sustainable seafood harvest that will allow the North Atlantic right whale to turn another corner and prosper once more. Despite all I’ve seen, I have hope. I believe we can reverse the trend such that a thousand years hence, right whales will be as numerous as before we started killing them, whether with intent or by accident.

Link to the rest at The University of Chicago Press blog (paragraph breaks added to assist in online reading)

Hitler’s American Gamble

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most Americans, if asked, would probably say that Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Nazi Germany, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Since we were at war with imperial Japan, the logic would run, we were obliged to be at war with Japan’s Axis ally.

In fact, it was Adolf Hitler who declared war on the United States—four days after Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 11, 1941. By doing so, he managed to bring the full weight of America’s industrial might against him. The war declaration ranks as Hitler’s worst strategic blunder—even worse than his decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, when he pitted the Wehrmacht against an opponent with much greater manpower reserves and strategic depth.

In “Hitler’s American Gamble,” Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman—historians at the University of Cambridge and King’s College, London, respectively—provide an engaging and insightful account of the forces that shaped Hitler’s fateful decision. The authors note that, far from being an irrational or impulsive gesture, Hitler’s war on America “was a deliberate gamble.” It was driven, in part, by “his geopolitical calculations” and “his assessment of the balance of manpower and matériel.” The decision derived as well, the authors assert, from Hitler’s tortured view of the relations among Britain, the U.S., and, not least, the Jews in both Europe and America.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Hitler was heavily engaged in waging war on Britain, and he seemed close to winning. Yet he was hesitant to deliver the knock-out blow. He had already missed an opportunity to do so in the spring of 1941, when Britain evacuated Greece and Crete and Rommel’s Afrika Korps was scoring success after success against British forces in North Africa. Hitler believed that his real enemy was Winston Churchill, not the British people, and that the British people would eventually give up the fight and accept Nazi hegemony in Europe. At the same time, he was well aware that it was the U.S. and its supplies of food and war matériel—sent across the Atlantic under the terms of Lend-Lease—that were keeping Britain in the fight.

In Hitler’s mind, then, America was a grave threat to his plans for German hegemony—indeed, Germany was locked in deadly combat with “the Anglo-Saxon powers,” Britain and the United States. But that is not all. Hitler believed that, as Messrs. Simms and Laderman put it, “ ‘the Jews’ had manipulated the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ into war with the racially kindred Reich.” Race-paranoia was a critical component of Hitler’s “gamble.”

Hitler was convinced that Japan’s surprise attack would divert U.S. resources and attention just long enough to secure Britain’s isolation and surrender. And the German panzer divisions poised only 12 miles from Moscow signaled the imminent collapse of his only other opponent, Russia. In the event, he was wrong on both counts. What was about to collapse in Russia wasn’t the Red Army but the Wehrmacht, as Hitler’s panzers were thrown back from Moscow and nearly half a million German soldiers perished in the winter of 1941-42. Meanwhile, Japan’s victories in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor proved to be too brittle to last.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if it stops working, PG apologizes for the paywall.

Live Like the Ancient Cynics

From The Atlantic:

There are a growing number of Marxists today. By which I mean followers of Groucho, not Karl. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” Marx sang in his 1932 film, Horse Feathers. “I don’t know what they have to say / It makes no difference anyway.”

What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism—the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest—dominates American culture. Since 1964, the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has fallen 53 points, from 77 to 24 percent. Sentiments about other institutions in society follow similar patterns.

Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.

The problem isn’t cynicism per se; it’s that modern people have lost the original meaning of cynicism. Instead of assuming that everyone and everything sucks, we should all live like the ancient Greek cynics, who rebelled against convention in a search for truth and enlightenment.

The original cynicism was a philosophical movement likely founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and popularized by Diogenes of Sinope around the fifth century B.C. It was based on a refusal to accept the assumptions and habits that discourage people from questioning conventional dogmas, and thus hold us back from the search for deep wisdom and happiness. Whereas a modern cynic might say, for instance, that the president is an idiot and thus his policies aren’t worth considering, the ancient cynic would examine each policy impartially.

The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (“This is stupid”), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (“This may be right or wrong”). “Modern cynicism [has] come to describe something antithetical to its previous meanings, a psychological state hardened against both moral reflection and intellectual persuasion,” the University of Houston’s David Mazella wrote in The Making of Modern Cynicism.

There were no happiness surveys in Antisthenes’s times, so we can’t compare the ancient cynics’ life satisfaction with that of those around them who did not share their philosophy. We can most definitely conclude, however, that modern cynicism is detrimental. In one 2009 study, researchers examining negative cynical attitudes found that people who scored high in this characteristic on a personality test were roughly five times more likely to suffer from depression later in life. In other words, that smirking 25-year-old is at elevated risk of turning into a depressed 44-year-old.

Modern cynics also suffer poorer health than others. In 1991, researchers studying middle-aged men found that a cynical outlook significantly increased the odds of death from both cancer and heart disease—possibly because the cynics consumed more alcohol and tobacco than the non-cynics. In one 2017 study on middle-aged Finnish men, high cynicism also predicted premature mortality. (Although both of these studies involved only men, nothing suggests that the results are gender-specific.)

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

America’s Ever-Expanding Criminal Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

How many federal crimes has Congress created? The question seems like it ought to have a straightforward answer that citizens can look up. In fact it’s more like asking, “how many genes are in the human genome?” The answer is in the many thousands, but despite decades of counting, no one knows for sure.

A new project by the Heritage Foundation and George Mason University’s Mercatus Center says it is “the first effort to ‘count the Code’ since 2008.” The researchers created an algorithm with key phrases like “shall be punished” and “shall be fined or imprisoned” to search tens of thousands of pages in the U.S. Code.

In the 2019 Code, they found 1,510 criminal sections. By examining some of those sections at random, they estimated that they encompass 5,199 crimes in total. The Heritage Foundation report notes that “there is no single place where any citizen can go to learn” all federal criminal laws, and even if there were, some “are so vague that . . . no reasonable person could understand what they mean.”

By running their algorithm on past versions of the U.S. Code going back to 1994, the researchers also estimate the rate at which criminal laws are proliferating. There were about 36% more criminal sections in 2019 than 25 years earlier, for an overall growth rate of 1.27% per year. More than half of the growth took place from 1994 through 1996. Since the mid-1990s, the biggest annual increases were in 2005-2006 (2.48%) and 2011-2012 (2.76%).

These figures, the report emphasizes, don’t cover the 175,000 page Code of Federal Regulations, which contains an unknown number of crimes created by executive-branch officials under authority delegated by Congress. The results can be grimly amusing. Defense lawyer Mike Chase has highlighted many examples, such as a 2006 regulation that creates a potential five-year prison sentence for bringing more than $5 of nickels out of the U.S.

But even when it comes to conduct everyone agrees should be criminal, the inexorable expansion of the Code has serious consequences for justice and federalism. The Constitution envisioned that most lawbreaking would be handled by state governments, while the federal government’s jurisdiction would be narrower.

As Congress asserts jurisdiction over conduct already criminalized by states, however, that division erodes. “Duplicative” laws mean prosecutors can “charge different people committing the same offenses with different crimes, opening the door for bias,” the report notes.

Or they can be prosecuted twice for the same offense. The Supreme Court has held (most recently in 2019’s Gamble v. U.S.) that consecutive state and federal prosecutions don’t violate the Fifth Amendment’s double-jeopardy clause.

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

In lieu of a rant, a sense of PG’s thoughts concerning the WSJ article, from The Oxford Eagle:

Lavrentiy Beria, the most ruthless and longest-serving secret police chief in Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia and Eastern Europe, bragged that he could prove criminal conduct on anyone, even the innocent.

“Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime” was Beria’s infamous boast. He served as deputy premier from 1941 until Stalin’s death in 1953, supervising the expansion of the gulags and other secret detention facilities for political prisoners. He became part of a post-Stalin, short-lived ruling troika until he was executed for treason after Nikita Khrushchev’s coup d’etat in 1953.

Beria targeted “the man” first, then proceeded to find or fabricate a crime. Beria’s modus operandi was to presume the man guilty, and fill in the blanks later.

Link to the rest at The Oxford Eagle

The triumph of culture

From The Economist:

They tore down the statue and rolled it into Bristol harbour, and none of them denied it. Yet this month a jury in England acquitted four people over the toppling of a likeness of Edward Colston, an English philanthropist and leading slave-trader who died in 1721. Part of the case for the defence was unusual for a courtroom, and revealing of the intellectual mood in Britain and beyond. The real offence, said the accused, was that the monument to such a monster was still standing. Facing criminal charges, they made an argument about art, and about history.

In an era of rising nationalism and seething partisanship, some borders—including those between countries and political camps—can seem to be hardening. But others are blurring, such as between politics and culture, statecraft and stagecraft. When the news vies for attention with entertainment, and is relished as meme and soap opera, entertainers have a political edge—and from France to Ukraine, television personalities have exploited it. Poets may no longer be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but activist sports stars and outspoken children’s authors have a pretty big say.

The substance of public debate has evolved with the personnel, not least in the erosion of another distinction, between the present and the past. Witness the saga of Colston, who splashed back into the news 300 years after his death. A decade ago, the idea that Conservative ministers might lambast the National Trust, staid steward of English country houses—as they have over its interest in slavery and colonialism—would have seemed outlandish. (So, to American voters, would one run for the White House by the star of “The Apprentice”, let alone two.) Whoever controls the past may indeed control the future, but from the streets of post-imperial Britain to the school boards of America, they have a fight on their hands first.

Disputes over whose history is told, how and by whom, in part reflect a struggle over claims on power and virtue today. Adherents of “cancel culture”, that dismal oxymoron, believe some people, living and dead, are too discredited to be heard at all. In these rolling culture wars, The Economist has no fixed side. But neither are we neutral. Our liberal principles suggest that controversial voices should generally be audible—and that some statues should come down.

. . . .

Culture’s role in politics is not the only way it has become more salient. During lockdown, stories on the page and screen have offered vicarious adventures, and a sense of solidarity in adversity, to people across the world. Even as theatres and galleries closed, the technology of culture has developed to match this craving. If covid-19 has coloured the experience of the arts, meanwhile, in time the reverse will also be true: writers and artists will shape how the pandemic is understood and remembered, and we will be watching.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG is more than a little concerned about cancel culture wherever it appears.

In one respect, the actions of the cancel culture mobs – physical and intellectual – can be classed with book burning. In the Twentieth Century, book burning was most prominently practiced by the Nazis, who burned the books of Jewish authors.

Book burning has a long history, too. The first recorded state-sponsored book burning was in China in 213 BC, according to Matthew Fishburn, the author of Burning Books. The burnings were ordered by Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who also started the Great Wall and the Terracotta army.

. . . .

On June 22, 2011 a group in The Netherlands burned the cover of The Book of Negroes, by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, continuing both an ancient and modern tradition.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

. . . .

Panhandling Repertoires and Routines for Overcoming the Nonperson Treatment

In this article, I present panhandling as a dynamic undertaking that requires conscious actions and purposeful modifications of self, performances, and emotions to gain the attention and interest of passersby. I show that describing and theorizing panhandling in terms of dramaturgical routines is useful in understanding the interactions and exchanges that constitute panhandling. In addition, repertoires rightly portray panhandlers as agents engaging the social world rather than as passive social types. From this perspective, sidewalks serve as stages on which panhandlers confront and overcome various forms of the nonperson treatment.

This facet of human nature – oppressing or attacking the Other – is most prevalent and dangerous when a group uses force/violence to punish one or more individuals who are perceived to be from a different tribe, species, race or social position – some sort of nonperson who is not a member of whatever group of Übermenschen have the power to threaten an individual or group which lacks legal, social or physical power sufficient to deter mistreatment.

Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting within the norms of a social group and, thus, may be treated in a manner different from those who are members of a social group, racial, ethnic, educational, professional class, etc.

It is an effect that influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group. Othering also involves attributing negative characteristics to people or groups that differentiate them from the perceived normative social group.

It is an “us vs. them” way of thinking about human connections and relationships. This process essentially involves looking at others and saying “they are not like me” or “they are not one of us so I am not required to give them the same respect I give those who are like me.”

It takes a mob to cancel an individual.

Othering is a way of negating another person’s individual humanity and, consequently, those that are have been othered are seen as less worthy of dignity and respect.

On an individual level, othering plays a role in the formation of prejudices against people and groups. On a larger scale, it can also play a role in the dehumanization of entire groups of people which can then be exploited to drive changes in institutions, governments, and societies. It can lead to the persecution of marginalized groups, the denial of rights based on group identities, or even acts of violence against others.

In the United States, unfortunately, racial/ethnic minorities, religious minorities and language minorities have all been subject to some degree of the cancel culture of a time and place, sometimes geographically localized and at other times widespread.

PG argues that the actions of college students who “cancel” the ideas or speech of an individual or group are operating under the influence of the same class of degraded human nature that resulted in Jews being sent to concentration camps eighty years ago or the Native Americans being killed or forcibly ejected from their homes in the United States or the evil bourgeoisie who owned the means of production being attacked and killed because, by their nature, they were enemies of the proletariat.

Dominant languages can spread even without coercion

From The Economist:

Never think the world is in decline. A recent book, “Speak Not” by James Griffiths, looks at the bad old days when it was seen as acceptable to impose a culture on others through force. The author tells the stories of Welsh and Hawaiian—languages driven to the brink of death or irrelevance before being saved by determined activists.

. . . .

Americans fomented a coup in Hawaii that led to its eventual annexation. Missionaries built schools and fervently discouraged local customs like the hula, a performance in honour of ancestors that the Americans considered lascivious. Oppression of culture and of the language went hand in hand: by the late 20th century the only fluent Hawaiian-speakers were worryingly old. But activists fought to expand teaching of it, and eventually brought Hawaiian into many schools. The number of speakers is now growing. Even some of the state’s many citizens of other ethnicities find it fashionable to learn a bit.

Welsh survived centuries of union with England largely because of Wales’s relative isolation and poverty. But in the 19th century British authorities stepped up efforts to impose English; schoolchildren had to wear a token of shame (the “Welsh Not”) if they spoke their native language, the kind of tactic seen in language oppression around the world.

Again, activists fought back. In 1936 three of them set fires at an air-force training ground built despite local opposition. The perpetrators turned themselves in, then refused to speak any language but Welsh at their first trial. It ended in a mistrial; their second resulted in a conviction, but on their release nine months later the arsonists were feted as heroes. They had lit a fire under Welsh-language nationalism, which in later decades would not only halt the decline in Welsh-speakers, but reverse it. Today the right to speak Welsh at trial (and in many other contexts) is guaranteed.

Mr Griffiths’s book ends with a sadder tale. Though Mandarin is the world’s most-spoken native language, China still has hundreds of millions of native speakers of other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (often misleadingly called “dialects”), as well as non-Han languages like those used in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Evidently regarding this variety as unbefitting for a country on the rise, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to get everyone speaking Mandarin—for instance by cutting down Cantonese television and resettling Han Chinese in Tibet, part of a wider bid to dilute its culture. A regime indifferent to the tut-tutting of outsiders can go even further than American and British colonialists.

But English spreads by less coercive means, too. Rosemary Salomone’s new book, “The Rise of English”, tells the tale of a language that has gone from strength to strength after the demise of Britain’s empire and perhaps also of America’s global dominance. These two forces gave English an impetus, but once momentum takes hold of a language, whether of growth or decline, it tends to continue. Everyone wants to speak a language used by lots of other influential people.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Hotel of the Idle Moon

From The Millions:

It feels safe to say that no other writer of great stature wrote more often than William Trevor about old people. Only Alice Munro comes close—perhaps V. S. Pritchett. Here’s an incredibly stupid admission: when I first encountered Trevor, it made perfect sense to me that he would write so much about old people, since he so perfectly embodied the platonic ideal of an old person. Those twinkly, wise eyes! That signature Irish walking hat! I was in my 30, in the late aughts, when I first read Trevor, and he was in his late-70s. It did not occur to me that he had not always been in his late-70s, that many of the multitude of stories were written when he was my age at the time.

But enough about my stupidity, which I would prefer to reveal slowly over the course of this project, rather than all at once in an information dump. I mentioned Trevor’s interest in the elderly in a previous entry, the way aging is simpatico with his central theme, i.e. coming to terms with one’s life. But it’s more than that. Advanced age and accompanying senescence are, if not an obsession, a fixation. Sometimes, with writers, you viscerally sense the person, place, thing, idea, or general theme that quickens their pulse—you can hear the fingers tap that much faster on the typewriter. With Charles Portis, it’s cars, or more broadly, mechanical objects; with Ottessa Moshfegh it’s any bodily-related function: peeing, pooping, barfing. I sense, in Trevor’s stories, that quickening when it comes to senility, sundowning, the general incapacity of age.

In several of these stories we’ve covered already, an old person’s vulnerability provides a key plot point: Miss Winton’s fuddled inability to wrest control of the situation in “The Penthouse Apartment;” Miss Efoss becoming overwhelmed and subsumed by the Dutt’s desire for a child in “In at the Birth;” General Suffolk’s progressive drunkenness and weakness in “The General’s Day.” Even the titular Miss Smith, a relatively young person, undergoes a sort of premature dotage. This week’s story, “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” provides the most explicit version of this yet, as a pair of married con artists, the Dankers, invade the country home of the ancient Marstons and their equally ancient servant Cronin. They likely poison Lord Marston, and proceed to consign the Lady and Cronin to a small wing of the house while they convert the rest into a hotel. Cronin dreams of cutting their throats with a razor strop, but in the end, he understands it to be absurd that he “imagined himself a match for the world and its conquerors.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

Dear John

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘If the Army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” It’s an oft-repeated quip within the armed forces. As Susan Carruthers demonstrates in “Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America,” it takes a very sturdy relationship to survive the institutional culture of the military.

Ms. Carruthers, a professor of U.S. and international history at the University of Warwick in England, takes as her central motif the “Dear John letter”—a breakup note sent by a woman at home to her man in uniform overseas. The term was first used, we are told, in a national newspaper in October 1943. Such letters have since become a symbol of the female treachery that can damage a man as deeply as the wartime loss of life or limb.

The author acknowledges that women had written rejection letters before—Ernest Hemingway received one after being hospitalized during World War I. But World War II involved more troops and lengthier overseas service, putting more romantic relationships under strain for longer periods of time.

In subsequent years, during the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Dear Johns have been mythologized within both popular culture and the armed forces. In 1953, Jean Shepard warbled: “Dear John oh how I hate to write / Dear John I must let you know tonight / That my love for you has died away like grass upon the lawn / And tonight I wed another dear John.”

The armed forces’ distrust of romantic relationships—and the apparent misogyny that underlies this view—ripples throughout Ms. Carruthers’s prose. From the start, the military feared that wives posed an alternative pole of attraction, pulling enlisted men’s attention away from duty and discipline. Writing in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1942, the advice columnist Gretta Palmer told readers: “Among the officers, there is an unofficial belief that ‘a colonel must have a wife, a major should, a captain may and a lieutenant mustn’t.’ ”

Women who wrote letters to their sweethearts or husbands on the front were encouraged to make their missives sunny and supportive. A soldier’s rage at receiving a Dear John letter reflected his sense of betrayal. This sentiment was captured by Gen. George Patton when he said that women who wrote Dear John letters “should be shot as traitors.” There was no room in this picture for a woman’s gnawing anxieties, loneliness or sense of abandonment.

. . . .

Analysis of military wives ramped up in the 1970s as Army psychiatrists and psychologists began publishing studies of their behavior. During the Vietnam era, according to these studies, these women were full of inexpressible rage against both their absent husbands and the pressures to satisfy their husbands’ emotional needs while endlessly stifling their own. Returning prisoners of war were shocked to find that, in their absence, some of their wives had joined the antiwar movement. “The ending of marriages was woven into a larger national tapestry of loss,” Ms. Carruthers argues. “A lost war, lost respect for traditional values, lost male authority, lost national valor all tied together by allegations of individual and institutional disloyalty.” Yet Ms. Carruthers finds no evidence that any Dear John letter was prompted by disapproval of the war.

In her chapters dealing with emotional injuries and suicide, Ms. Carruthers discusses how the association between lost loves and lives lost became entrenched, especially after 2003, when the armed forces began compiling suicide statistics. The proposition that a romantic breakdown was the No. 1 precipitating event for active-duty suicide was treated as a claim that needed no further corroboration.

Yet, as Ms. Carruthers points out, precipitants are not necessarily causes. There are many contributing factors to the suicide of a psychologically vulnerable soldier, not leastof which is that distance aggravates existing problems in a marriage. A relationship that already included domestic violence, infidelity, money problems, sexual dysfunction or other conflicts will not blossom when one partner is in Kansas and the other is in Kabul. The author suggests that “it was (and still is) easier for some military commanders and psychiatrists to castigate failing relationships than to candidly reckon the psychological toll of prolonged war-waging.” A raft of new programs has recently been introduced to help soldiers build resilient relationships, but the programs still imply that “it’s the job of women to preserve ‘their’ soldier’s mental health.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

What a previous iconoclastic period reveals about the present one

From The Economist:

They struck
 at night, but many people must have seen them. First a group of young men stretched ropes across Cheapside, an east-west thoroughfare in the City of London, to block traffic. Then they attacked one of the largest, most famous images in Britain.

Cheapside Cross was a stone monument to Eleanor of Castile, queen consort of Edward I, which had stood in the capital since the 1290s. It was a tiered structure, rather like the candle-powered Erzgebirge pyramids that some put on their Christmas tables. It contained statues of God, Mary, a dove representing the Holy Ghost and other things offensive to contemporary eyes.

The iconoclasts probably could not reach the crucifix on top of the monument, which was as much as ten metres from the ground. They tried toppling lower statues by yanking on ropes, but failed. So they plucked the infant Christ from Mary’s lap, defaced her and smashed the arms off other images. Then they vanished. A reward was offered for information on the attackers, but there were no takers.

That attack took place in June 1581. It was just one of many on images in Britain between the 1530s and the 1640s. Indeed, it was only one of those on Cheapside Cross. The monument was assaulted again in 1601—when Mary lost her child for a second time and was stabbed in the breast—and was finally demolished in 1643, on the orders of the Parliamentary Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry. Change a few details, though, and it could have been in 2021.

Britain is in the midst of an image controversy, centred on the many public statues erected by the Victorians. In June 2020 a crowd inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement used ropes to pull a 125-year-old statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader and local benefactor, from its plinth and dumped it into Bristol harbour. Other statues were sprayed with paint. Local governments hurriedly removed some objects before crowds could get to them. A statue of Thomas Picton, a particularly violent governor of colonial Trinidad, was boxed up in Cardiff City Hall; Robert Milligan, a slave owner, was hauled out of West India Quay in east London on a flatbed lorry.

Local authorities and other organisations have launched inquiries into statues, monuments, murals and street names. Some of these have already begun to report. An impressively detailed one for the Welsh government found 13 items commemorating slave traders, as well as 56 memorials to people who owned plantations or benefited directly from slave labour, 120 to people who opposed the abolition of slavery and still others to colonialists. Officials have not yet decided what to do about many of them. Other investigations, including one commissioned by the mayor of London, continue.

The reaction to this assault on historical images has been just as fervent. Vigilantes, most of them polite, have formed protective cordons around statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Baden-Powell. Newspapers and politicians rail against vandals both unofficial and official. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2021, Boris Johnson condemned “know-nothing cancel-culture iconoclasm”. His government has written to museums, threatening to cut their funding if they remove images.

Large differences exist between the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries and today’s rows. The earlier iconoclasts had different motivations and different ideas about how images worked on the mind. They were far more destructive than modern iconoclasts. Medieval churches were filled with murals and painted statues of saints, almost all of which have been destroyed. Not one English parish church retains all its pre-Reformation stained glass; St Mary’s Church in Fairford, in the Cotswolds, comes closest.

But there are similarities between the iconoclastic waves, too, which ought to discomfort conservatives. Those who oppose removing or destroying images today often argue that people should learn about history, not try to eradicate it. They mean that historical figures should be studied in the round and placed in the context of their times, rather than judged solely by modern criteria. But iconoclasm also has a history, which in Britain is long and largely triumphant: the hammers tend to prevail.

Although Renaissance iconoclasts sometimes erased political symbols, most of their targets were religious. They were following divine law, as they interpreted it. British Protestants argued that the words of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” began a separate commandment—the second—which specifically proscribed idolatry. They also cited examples from the Old Testament of believers destroying images. Moses burned the golden calf and ground it into powder. A statue of Dagon, a Philistine god, was magically destroyed when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in its temple, losing its head and its hands.

The reformers believed that images were actively dangerous. Objects were thought to interact with the people who gazed upon them, including by staring back. To look at an image was almost to embrace it or consume it. As Margaret Aston, the leading historian of English iconoclasm, pointed out, medieval churchgoers usually experienced the Eucharist only by looking at it. They believed it had a powerful effect on them nonetheless. Iconoclasts believed that images worked on people through their eyes, tugging them back into idolatry. Those images had to go.

. . . .

This is far removed from the modern understanding of images. Those who argue for the removal of statues today claim not that images are harmful in themselves, but that their presence in public places signals institutional reluctance to root out racism and other enormities. Students at Oriel College in Oxford who want a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be taken down from its perch above the High Street argue that it “can be symbolically communicative of a subtler and insipid prejudice in Oriel and the university”.

Modern iconoclasts are also far more restrained than their predecessors. Topple the Racists, a website that lists images and memorials deemed offensive (some of which have already been removed) contains 151 items. In 1643, during the English civil war, the zealous iconoclast William Dowsing eradicated at least 120 images in Jesus College, Cambridge in a single day. Attacks were often violent. In 1559 a congregation in Perth, in Scotland, smashed a tabernacle above the altar by flinging stones at it during the service.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG is generally opposed to any action that impairs the understanding of history, regardless of whether it offends the sensibilities of some of those who weren’t alive when that history was made.

The method in history’s madness

From The Guardian (in 2007):

As with all good ideas, one wonders why this one had not been thought of before. Despite countless books about the second world war, [Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-41 is] the first to examine the key decision-making processes during this crucial early period in sequence, and how fortunate that it is Ian Kershaw bringing his immense knowledge and clarity of thought to the task.

Major wartime decisions often appear either inevitable or idiotic, but that is because we view them in retrospect and often in isolation. Kershaw’s great strength is to explain the emotions as well as the circumstances that framed the choices. And he then shows how one decision affects the next. History may be “one damn thing after another”, but cause and effect is everything.

Kershaw begins with Churchill’s war cabinet in May 1940. French resistance had virtually collapsed and the British army, retreating towards Dunkirk, seemed to be doomed to destruction. French leaders wanted to approach Mussolini to discover what Hitler’s terms would be. The British war cabinet came close to following down that track, mainly influenced by the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, but Churchill and others realised the danger just in time. Even to ask about conditions would undermine any attempt to fight if the terms were unacceptable. Churchill called it “the slippery slope of negotiations”.

Britain’s decision to fight on was crucial to the fate of western Europe. Only America had the power to reverse Nazi conquest, and Britain provided the only base to fight back. Hitler, whose main objective was the total subjugation of the Soviet Union, faced a quandary. Should he attack Britain directly with Operation Sealion? That was too dangerous with the Royal Navy and RAF intact. Should he follow the so-called “peripheral strategy”, of crushing British power in the Mediterranean and Middle East, although it would be impossible to reconcile the conflicting expectations of Mussolini, General Franco and Marshal Pétain? Or should he ignore the Bismarckian taboo of fighting a war on two fronts, and invade the Soviet Union before the United States could intervene? A rapid defeat of the Red Army, he argued, would force Britain to capitulate before Roosevelt could coax a reluctant Congress into all-out support. “It was madness,” concludes Kershaw, “but there was method in it.”

Roosevelt had to keep Britain in the war. The United States, he declared, should be the “great arsenal of democracy”. The first symbolic step was to hand over 50 antiquated destroyers. The next, and incomparably greater one, was Lend-Lease, providing the money and the weapons for the war. FDR suspected he could not carry the country until one of the Axis powers attacked the United States. Churchill was privately exasperated, but it is hard to fault Roosevelt’s instincts and his handling of events.

Mussolini showed the opposite of caution. Feeling patronised by Hitler, he launched a hopelessly inept attack on Greece from Albania without warning Berlin. Hitler was furious that the Balkans should be stirred up at the worst moment. The Wehrmacht then invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in the spring of 1941, which at least secured the southern flank for the invasion of the Soviet Union and protected Romanian oil reserves. Hitler, who remained sceptical of the airborne invasion of Crete in May, was reassured that the Allies could not use it later as a bomber base to attack the Ploesti oilfields. Hitler later claimed that this diversion southwards delayed the opening of Operation Barbarossa with fatal consequences, because the Wehrmacht was unable to reach Moscow before the winter. But Kershaw rightly discounts this. The heavy rains in central Europe that spring prevented the Luftwaffe from deploying to forward airfields.

Stalin, meanwhile, had persuaded himself that Hitler would never invade the Soviet Union before defeating Britain. The Nazi leader played cleverly on this idea, claiming that the troops massing on the border were being concealed there from the RAF while he prepared his assault on southern England. The Soviet dictator did not dare face the truth, because the Red Army was still in such a pitiful state after the purges and the neglect of his own crony, Marshal Voroshilov. He instinctively viewed British warnings of a Nazi attack as a deliberate “provokatsia” to force the Soviet Union to help an imperilled British Empire. Hitler, however, suffered from his own blind spot. He had failed to see any lessons in Japan’s cruel war in China launched in 1937. The vastness of China meant that the imperial army was overstretched, and its conspicuous brutality was counterproductive. It provoked resistance, not submission.

Ironically, the Wehrmacht’s overwhelming defeat of France had been the trigger for Japanese hopes, their “golden opportunity” to seize the French, Dutch and British colonies of southeast Asia. The hubris of the military-dominated Japanese government grew. Its leaders decided to strike south into the Pacific rather than attack the Soviet Union, partly because its army had received a bloody nose in 1939 at Khalkin-Gol from Red Army divisions commanded by General Georgi Zhukov. During the late summer and autumn of 1940, while Hitler began to plan his immense gamble, they considered attacking western colonies on the Pacific rim.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

It appears that PG has been in a Twentieth-Century military history frame of mind today.

While this will not be a permanent focus of TPV, as long-time visitors know, PG is of the opinion that the aftermath of World War II, which began over 80 years ago, continues to have a profound impact on the shape of the word today.

For one thing, the ending of the war divided Europe into two spheres of influence, the border of which was the approximate boundary between United States and Soviet Union’s armies at the time the war ended. The Western portion would be under the protection of the United States and Eastern Europe would lie in the Soviet sphere. Germany would be divided between areas controlled by Western and Soviet militaries. Berlin, the wartime capital which lay in East Germany, was similarly divided between Russia and West (US, Britain and France were each in charge of a portion of the West Berlin).

As one important and lasting economic change, in the aftermath of the war, the shattered economies of Western Europe received some important help from The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, enacted in 1948, under which the United States, which had not been subject to invasion or substantial land battles during the war, provided significant financial aid to help rebuild cities, industries and infrastructure in Western Europe.

In 1951, France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), integrating their coal and steel industries, began the process of removing long-standing trade barriers between the nations of Western Europe. In 1967, six European nations met in Rome to create what was then known as the European Economic Community, which would develop into the European Common Market which removed inter-European tariffs and other trade barriers. The accession of the United Kingdom to the European Communities was finalized in 1973.

This process was encouraged by the United States, which had not been subjected to the destruction of its homeland during the war. Additionally, the lack of trade barriers between the individual states in the United States provided an example of the economic benefits that open borders could provide.

Creating a Classic of Military Literature

From Publishers Weekly:

In the summer of 1942, during the first seven weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Japanese on Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomons, the Americans were watched over by a young correspondent from the International News Service, Richard Tregaskis. In his pockets he carried notebooks, on which he wrote key details about the brutal conditions faced by the Marines in this first major combat offensive in the Pacific theater.

Tregaskis would transfer the information nightly into a black, gilt-edged diary. “The theory and practice was that I could get all the details I needed by referring to the notebook number—one, or three, or four—when and if I could later get to writing a book from my notes,” he recalled.

After leaving Guadalcanal on a B-17 Flying Fortress on September 25, Tregaskis went to New Caledonia, where he was waiting for a military transport plane to take him to Honolulu, and began writing his book. In Hawaii, his writing had to be done in the Navy offices at Pearl Harbor, under the supervision of a censor. Every morning he would go there to work, and every night, his diary was locked in a safe; he never got it back and could not find out what happened to it. “And as fast as I could write my manuscript, a naval intelligence officer took my efforts and hacked away with a pencil and a pair of scissors,” Tregaskis reported. “That was the way it was with sharp-eyed military censorship in those days.”

Tregaskis’s manuscript describing his time on Guadalcanal, arranged in an easily understood diary format, was sent to the INS offices in New York City in early November 1942. Barry Faris, INS editor-in-chief, wrote Tregaskis that he had turned the manuscript over to Ward Greene, executive editor of King Features, which was owned and operated, as was INS, by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Faris said Greene would work to get the manuscript accepted by a book publisher and subsequently serialized in magazines. “I did not have a chance to read it thoroughly as I would have liked,” Faris informed Tregaskis, who would be splitting the proceeds from the book 50/50 with his employer, “but from what I did see I think you did a magnificent job on it.”

One person who took the time to read Tregaskis’s writing from beginning to end was Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House. Greene had distributed copies of the manuscript to nine publishers and asked them to bid on it, a method “that had never been done before,” Cerf noted. Just the day before he received Tregaskis’s text, he had been telling his colleagues that the first book published about Guadalcanal would be “a knockout,” because “Guadalcanal marked the turning of the tide” in the war in the Pacific.

Cerf received the manuscript from King Features on November 11 and read it that night. The next morning, he called Greene and told him, “I’ve got to have this book.” A pleased Cerf related years later that Random House had signed the young reporter’s work before “any of the other eight publishers had even started reading it.”

The publisher’s prediction that the American public would be interested in learning more about the Marines and their pitched battles on a remote island thousands of miles away turned out to be accurate. Rushed into print on Jan. 18, 1943, Guadalcanal Diary made a steady climb up the bestseller charts, reaching, the publishing company’s advertisements were quick to report, the #1 position on lists compiled by the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune. Sales of the book were boosted by positive reviews from critics, who praised Tregaskis not for his literary flair but for his factual and honest reporting about what the Marines faced during combat.

John Chamberlain of the New York Times wrote that Tregaskis’s book served as “a tonic for the war-weary on the homefront,” showing that a country “doesn’t necessarily have to love war in order to fight it.”

Interest in the book was so great that Guadalcanal Diary became the first Random House book to sell more than 100,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

We need more than deplatforming

From The Mozilla Blog:

There is no question that social media played a role in the siege and take-over of the US Capitol on January 6.

Since then there has been significant focus on the deplatforming of President Donald Trump. By all means the question of when to deplatform a head of state is a critical one, among many that must be addressed. When should platforms make these decisions? Is that decision-making power theirs alone?

But as reprehensible as the actions of Donald Trump are, the rampant use of the internet to foment violence and hate, and reinforce white supremacy is about more than any one personality. Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to exploit the architecture of the internet in this way, and he won’t be the last. We need solutions that don’t start after untold damage has been done.

Changing these dangerous dynamics requires more than just the temporary silencing or permanent removal of bad actors from social media platforms.

Additional precise and specific actions must also be taken:

Reveal who is paying for advertisements, how much they are paying and who is being targeted.

Commit to meaningful transparency of platform algorithms so we know how and what content is being amplified, to whom, and the associated impact.

Turn on by default the tools to amplify factual voices over disinformation.

Work with independent researchers to facilitate in-depth studies of the platforms’ impact on people and our societies, and what we can do to improve things.

These are actions the platforms can and should commit to today. The answer is not to do away with the internet, but to build a better one that can withstand and gird against these types of challenges. This is how we can begin to do that.

Link to the rest at The Mozilla Blog

The History of Book Banning

From Publishers Weekly:

As a historian of literacy, I coined the phrase “the literacy myth” to identify, explain, and criticize the former consensus that reading and writing (and sometimes arithmetic) are sufficient in themselves, regardless of degree of proficiency or social context, to transform the lives of individuals and their societies.

In late 2021, I’m confronted with an unprecedented “new illiteracy”—another version of the ever-shifting literacy myth. The historical continuities are shattered by, first, the call to ban books in innumerable circumstances; second, the banning of written literature without reading it; and, third, calls for burning books. This constitutes a movement for illiteracy, not a campaign for approved or selective uses of reading and writing.

Banning books from curricula, erasing them from reading lists, and ridding them from library shelves has mid-20th-century precedents; the burn books movement does not. Nor does the banning of books without censors reading them to identify their offending content.

Banning books is an effort, unknowingly, to resurrect the early modern Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against both radical Catholics and early Protestants, which attempted to halt unauthorized reading, including curtailing the ability of individuals to read for themselves. Then seen as a “protest,” individual access to written or printed texts was perceived as threatening in ways that controlled oral reading to the “masses” by a priest or other leader was not. It enforced orthodoxy and countered both collective and individual autonomy.

The similarities and differences between today and a half millennium ago are powerful. Both movements are inseparable from ignorance, rooted in fear, and expressed in both legal and extralegal struggles for control and power. Both are inextricably linked to other efforts to restrict free speech, choice and control over one’s body, political and civil rights, public protests, and more.

Once led by the established church, censorship crusades to ban written materials of all sorts are today supercharged by right-wing politicians, radical evangelicals, and supporting activists. In the eyes of some, these politicians are opportunistic.

Despite media comments and condemnation by professors, teachers, librarians, and First Amendment attorneys, these issues are poorly understood. Parents of school-age children are confused. The young, supposedly in the name of their protection, face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.

This movement harkens back well beyond the “ban books” and “read banned books” movements of the 1950s and ’60s, with their obsession with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Even Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who tried to use the U.S. Postal Service to limit the circulation of obscene literature and destroyed books, did not aim to empty libraries.

Compare this history to efforts in Virginia to ban Nobel Prize– and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison’s classic novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Or Texas school districts’ ban of young adult novelist Ashley Hope Perez’s award-winning Out of Darkness, based on a single paragraph taken out of context. In all these cases, the new illiterates either do not, or cannot, read the supposedly offending texts.

Perhaps the most revealing example is Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause’s campaign stunt of releasing a list of 850 books that he wants to be “investigated” for some unspecified violations. He demands school superintendents provide him with lists of texts that deal with certain subjects relating to race and sex, a probably illegal fishing expedition.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that the left wing can and does ban books and “deplatform” unpopular authors and speakers in the same manner and with at least the same frequency as the right wing does, at least in contemporary America.



verb (used with object)

to prohibit (a person or people) from sharing their views in a public forum, especially by banning a user from posting on a social media website or application:Some viewers boycotted the advertisers connected to the show in an effort to deplatform the controversial co-host.

How to Send Messages That Automatically Disappear

Not exactly about books, but it’s New Years Day and the pickins are slim. (See also, Slim Pickens)

From Wired:

MANY MYSTERY AND spy movies are based on the premise that you can send messages that self-destruct, but you don’t need to be an international secret agent to do the same with your own texts.

In fact, most popular chat apps now include some kind of disappearing message feature—which means that if you don’t want a permanent record of your conversation, you don’t have to have one. In fact, encrypted messaging app Signal made its disappearing message feature the default.

While it’s handy to have chat archives to look back on for sentimental and practical reasons (recipes, addresses, instructions, and more), there are other times you’d rather nothing was saved. Here’s what to do.

There is a caveat here for all of these apps, in that the people you’re communicating with can take screenshots of what you’ve said—or, if screenshots are blocked, they can take a photo of the screen with another device. Some of them promise to notify you if your messages have been screenshotted or downloaded, but there’s always a workaround. That’s something to bear in mind when choosing who to chat with and how much to share.


The disappearing messages feature in Signal is an option for every conversation you have, and now it’s available by default or by an individual conversation: You can switch between disappearing messages and permanent messages at any time in any thread. To do this, tap the top banner in any thread, then pick Disappearing messages.

You can choose anywhere from one second to four weeks for your messages to stick around after they’ve been viewed (or choose Off to disable the feature). You can even set a custom timer—you could tell a message to be gone in 60 seconds. An alert appears in the chat whenever you’ve changed this setting, and anything you send from then on follows the rules you’ve set.

To set a default expiry time for messages in all your chats, open the main app settings page and choose Privacy and Default timer for new chats (under Disappearing messages). This applies to every chat you initiate from then on, not to the existing conversations on your phone.

. . . .


Instagram has now gone way beyond photo-sharing to cover Snapchat-style stories, direct messaging, and more. The direct messaging component lets you send photos and videos that stay on record or disappear once they’ve been viewed, though text always stays in place.

Head to your conversation list in the Instagram app, then open the thread that you want to send the disappearing message to (tap the compose icon, top right, if you can’t see it). Tap the camera icon on the left of the compose box and capture the photo or video you want to send.

Down at the bottom of the screen, you’ll then see various options for what you’re sending: View once, Allow replay (which is really view twice), and Keep in chat. Pick whichever you prefer before confirming with the Send button.

Link to the rest at Wired

Security by obscurity is far from a foolproof solution, but if PG were planning to send a bunch of secret messages, he would be inclined to set up a bunch of free email addresses for the purposes of both sending and receiving secret messages.

PG and his secret correspondent would each write their secret message offline, then encrypt the message offline using one of many open-source encryptions programs then send the message to one of the free email addresses.

PG would identify each free email address with a common name like Jim or Becky and provide his correspondent with the list.

In each encrypted email, PG and his online correspondent would mention one of the names in an offhand manner like, “I think Jim might be interested in seeing this.” The friend’s name (or the name of the last friend mentioned in the email) would identify the next email box to be used to send/receive the next encrypted message.

A variation on this system might involve setting up several free email addresses to automatically forward messages to other free email addresses.

Using both US-based email services as well as non-US email services would make tracking messages even more difficult.

Every couple of weeks, PG would create an entirely different set of free email addresses and send the encrypted list to his correspondent. PG might also be inclined to send out encrypted garbage to a whole bunch of email addresses that weren’t his intended recipient.

If PG and his correspondent were able to use computers at various locations and connecting to different Internet Service Providers, more obscurity would result. Throw a VPN with multiple nodes in multiple countries and rotating VPN locations increases the complexity of interception.

PG is informed that large government agencies are capable of cracking a great many encryption algorithms. One reason why PG would be inclined to use open-source encryption is that the source code is available for all to see for debugging and security-checking purposes. This doesn’t mean that open-source encryption can’t be cracked, but with many eyes watching (unlike the situation with encryption software than is not open-source) any cracking weaknesses in the open-source system are probably more susceptible discovery than a black-box encryption program.

Again, PG understands that a super-duper-mega-encryption system created by geniuses is the single best way to communicate confidentially, but demonstrating that such a system is uncrackable is quite difficult, perhaps even impossible.

PG expects that some of the visitors to TPV are far more fluent on this topic than he is and is happy to hear critiques, comments, etc., from one and all.

7 Books About Life After a Civil War

From Electric Lit:

I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.

I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.

. . . .

Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.  

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasm

Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”

The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Best We Could Do
Dark Tourist

Brilliant Together: On Feminist Memoirs

From Public Books:

During my first year of college, in 1991, I experienced a feminist awakening, in my horror at the spectacle of Anita Hill’s public humiliation in front of the Senate and the nation. But I didn’t stop to consider how the compound factor of race made her situation both different and worse. The stories we heard from second-wave feminists—our mothers’ generation—were likely to include Gloria Steinem and Take Back the Night. They were less likely to mention Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective.

My cohort of women was born between 1965 and 1980, the Pew Research Center’s parameters for Generation X. We grew up with the advances won by first-wave feminists (the right to vote, for example) and by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s (widespread access to contraception, civil rights legislation that extended affirmative action to women, legal abortion, and large-scale public conversations about violence against women). The lazy, clichéd view of Gen Xers presumes us to be slackers, cynics, and reflexive ironists; we don’t even merit our own dismissive “OK, boomer” meme.

But we are also women in our 40s and 50s, the inheritors of feminism’s second wave and instigators of the third wave, and we are now in positions of power. With a fourth wave of feminism upon us, what should my generation of activists preserve from earlier stages of the movement, and what should we discard? How should feminist stories be told, and by whom? In particular, what elements of our foremothers’ second-wave feminism still feel essential to us in the 21st century, and how might we consider and address their failures, especially their failures of inclusion? How can we redefine the collective aspects of the feminist movement in a way that will endure?

One of the most important outcomes of the racial reckonings of 2020 is an influx of new feminist memoirs that reexamine the women’s movement from nonwhite perspectives—memoirs that deal explicitly with race and the failings of mainstream white feminism. And even before the events of last year, white second-wave feminists were beginning to engage more meaningfully with these issues, although an enormous amount of work remains.

Recent memoirs by Nancy K. Miller and Honor Moore, white women who are both public intellectuals and active participants in feminism’s second wave, make clear how the gains of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s enabled some women to rewrite their narratives. Instead of stories of birth, marriage, and death, they tell stories about friendship, intellectual and artistic development, relationships between mothers and daughters, political and cultural movements, and, above all, the struggle for women’s voices to be heard (and their bodies protected) in a patriarchal society.

Reading these stories now feels like tapping into a larger ongoing narrative, one that celebrates gains made while reminding us how fragile those gains are. Notably, both memoirs take on more than one woman’s story, suggesting that another way to rewrite women’s narratives is to bring them together, to see the power in what is shared. There is no single narrative of a woman’s life, no universal set of markers that defines women’s experience, and no one retrospection that can answer what feminism will become.

In her foundational Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), feminist literary critic and scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observes that writing the lives of notable women poses a challenge because their narratives don’t fit a heroic masculine mode of storytelling. Heilbrun argues that women can’t emulate or draw inspiration from biographies and memoirs that don’t exist:“Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. … Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”1 In the same way, feminist biographies and memoirs—and scholarship, journalism, and novels, too—can only make sense of their subjects by changing the way the story is told.

Feminism itself has never been an uncontested narrative. Debates over the definition of “feminist,” including the right to use this word regardless of political ideology, or the ability of women to support other women while distancing themselves from the label, take up a lot of space in public discourse. In a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert suggests that:

Whatever the history, whatever the nuances, whatever the charged sentiments associated with political activism, being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic. They should be able to vote. They should have equal protection under the law and equal access to healthcare and education. They should be paid as much as their male counterparts are for doing exactly the same job. Do you believe in these things? Then, you are a feminist.

Link to the rest at Public Books

If PG wanted to become a Public Intellectual, how would he go about doing it?

Is there an exam?

Do you major in “Public Intellectual Studies” in college?

Is it inherited? Do one or both of your parents have to be public intellectuals? Will a Public Intellectual grandparent do?

Is there a fee?

Do you get a Public Intellectual certificate to hang on your wall?

How about a Public Intellectual wallet card for when you’re not in your Public Intellectual Study?

Those visitors to TPV who are more informed about this topic than PG can feel free to enlighten him in the comments.

Looking for Trouble

From The Paris Review:

In March 1937, eight months into the Spanish Civil War, Virginia Cowles, a twenty-seven-year-old freelance journalist from Vermont who specialized in society gossip, put a bold proposal to her editor at Hearst newspapers: she wanted to go to Spain to report on both sides of the hostilities. Despite the fact that Cowles’s only qualification for combat reporting was her self-confessed “curiosity,” rather astonishingly, her editor agreed. “I knew no one in Spain and hadn’t the least idea how one went about such an assignment,” she explains innocently in the opening pages of Looking for Trouble, the bestselling memoir she published in 1941. She set off for Europe regardless.

In the four years between arriving in Spain and the publication of Looking for Trouble, Cowles travelled the length and breadth of Europe. She was something of an Anglophile, having been captivated as a child by the stories of King Arthur and his Knights, and thus happily relocated to London, stoically braving its inconveniences—the “lack of central heating, the fogs, the left-hand traffic”—in order to benefit from the front-row seat it offered her to the “sound and fury across the Channel.” In her words, living in the English capital in the late 1930s was “like sitting too near an orchestra and being deafened by the rising crescendo of the brass instruments.”

In 1937, Cowles arrived in Madrid, wearing high heels and a fur coat—the first of quite a few sartorial descriptions in the volume, usually given because the inexperienced Cowles finds herself inadvertently under or overdressed!—but was soon gamely venturing out to the frontlines, ducking to avoid the bullets that whined “like angry wasps” overhead. When not in the midst of the action, she was holed up in the now famous Hotel Florida, alongside Ernest Hemingway—“a massive, ruddy-cheeked man who went round Madrid in a pair of filthy brown trousers and a torn blue shirt”— and other war reporters. Among them, too, was fellow female journalist Martha Gellhorn, with whom Cowles would forge a close friendship; the two later co-wrote a play loosely based on their experiences, ‘Love Goes to Press’ (1946).

This was the beginning of Cowles’s relatively brief but impressively prolific career in war reporting. She was in Prague during the Munich crisis, and Berlin on the day Germany invaded Poland. In early 1939 she escaped “the gloom of London” by means of a six-week trip to Soviet Russia, hoping for what might be “almost a holiday.” She soon stood corrected, determining Moscow to be “the dreariest city on earth,” the depression of which “penetrated [her] bones like a damp fog.” She’d probably have felt less grim if she wasn’t so cold, but yet again, she’d arrived inadequately attired: this time without any woollen stockings, naively assuming she’d be able to buy what she needed when she got there. “Good heavens! Do you really think you can buy woollen stockings here?” a shocked French journalist asked when she tried to enlist his help in tracking some down. A year later, she was in Finland—this time clad in a thick suit, fur-lined boots and a sheepskin coat—travelling north towards the Arctic Circle to report on the Winter War, the bloody battle being waged by the Finns against the invading Russians. In June 1940, as everyone else fled the city, she flew into Paris to cover its fall to the Germans. Three months later, she was in London on the first day of the Blitz

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

When Women Ruled the World

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1558, John Knox, the energetically tub-thumping Scottish reformer, railed against what would become even more true with the coronation of Elizabeth of England, the future Gloriana herself, a few months later: the unlikely and—to him—hideous rush of women into positions of supreme power in late 16th-century Europe. The cards of the game of birthright were serially falling in a female direction.

Knox’s ire was aimed at Marie de Guise, James V of Scotland’s French widow, who was serving as regent for her daughter Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. He also targeted Mary Tudor—Mary I—who was, for a fleeting but feverish five-year spell, England’s first queen in her own right, until Elizabeth I succeeded at her (natural) death. Knox’s notorious “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” contains his argument in a nutshell: “To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is: A. Repugnant to nature. B. Contumely to GOD. C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

Although Knox tried to apologize to Elizabeth for his trollish tract after she ascended the throne—it was only Catholic queens that troubled him, he explained—she never let him travel through her realm. He had to take to the perilous seas or stay put in Scotland. The following year his misery was complete: France’s King Henri II, died leaving his widow Catherine de’ Medici as La Reine Mère, effectively ruling France as the dominant mother of three French kings for the next few decades.

In 1565, Catherine encouraged or commanded her illustrious court poet, Pierre de Ronsard, to refute Knox’s diatribe in a book that celebrated female rule in elegant fashion. The whole is dedicated to Elizabeth, yet the central poem, the bergerie of “Elégies, mascarades et bergeries,” addresses Mary, Queen of Scots. Three decades later, Mary would be brutally and inefficiently beheaded for treason (the ax had to be swung three times), when she was discovered to have plotted against Elizabeth. But now Catherine saw no reason why a gift dedicated to both queens would trouble either: She “utterly discounted any personal jealousy,” according to Maureen Quilligan, and indeed religious difference, in favor of a we’re-all-queens-together spirit of cooperation. History proves that this was wishful thinking on Catherine’s part. Or does it?

This is the bold terrain of “When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe” by Ms. Quilligan, emerita professor of English at Duke University and author of books on medieval and Renaissance literature. She has come up with an intriguing, inter-disciplinarian, revisionist argument: that through such “inalienable” gifts as poems, books, jewels and tapestries—that is, the sort of dynasty-defining possessions that are passed through generations—we should reappraise relations between these 16th-century queens presumed to loathed and envied one another. We should pay attention to their collaborations in life rather than just their competition to the death. Elizabeth and Catherine de’ Medici, for example, negotiated the Treaty of Troyes, succeeding where Henry VIII and François I had failed and achieving a lasting peace between France and England, certainly for their lifetimes.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if, perchance it doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes.)

The Book of Mother

From Vogue:

Violaine Huisman’s debut novel, The Book of Mother, tells the story of a 20th- and 21st-century Parisian woman’s life and legacy. Part One is told from the perspective of Violaine, the younger of her two daughters, who is ten when Maman—her beautiful, charismatic, and wildly excessive mother—suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized. Part Two traces the arc of Maman’s, aka Catherine’s, life—from the emotional penury of her hardscrabble, working-class childhood; through her early success (earned through the harshest discipline) as a dancer; to a second marriage that finds her navigating a high-wire act between her life as a woman and the demands of motherhood, while feeling entirely out-of-place amidst the gauche caviar of upper-class Parisian intellectuals; to the betrayals of her third husband, which lead to her undoing. In Part Three, her daughters, now grown women, deal with Maman’s complex legacy.

I lived with the novel’s larger-than-life characters for months while translating Huisman’s winding, revved-up (and at times, improbably comic) Proustian sentences. I heard their voices and felt the shadow of history and the Shoah hanging over them as they breathed the heady air of Paris in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with its boutiques, salons, and swinging night clubs. More recently, I sat down with Violaine, who had returned briefly to New York—her home for the past 20-years—in the midst of an extended sojourn in France, to talk about The Book of Mother. The conversation that follows, over lunch at Café Sabarsky, has been edited and condensed.

In all our discussions about the book while I was translating it, I never asked you, how did you come to write The Book of Mother?

There were two moments of genesis. Ten years before the book’s publication in France [in 2018], I wrote my mother’s life story, but as a monologue, using only her voice. It was similar to the voice that I use in the novel for her tirades and harangues—that long, digressive, angry, wild tone.

I showed that manuscript to a publisher who admired it and gave me some suggestions, but I couldn’t find a way to revise it. Then, one year later, my mother died, and it became impossible to revise it. And then, two years after my mother died, I had my first child, and two years later, the second one.

So there was all this time of, literally, gestation. I realized that becoming a mother gave me a completely different perspective on who my mother was. I started understanding the conflict that she had faced, between her womanhood and her motherhood. So that was a huge turning point for me.

And then, days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth to my younger child, with the baby on my lap, I read 10:04, Ben Lerner’s second novel, and I had this epiphany, which was that in fiction—whether you are writing about your own stories or those of others—facts don’t matter. Facts are only relevant when it comes to history. I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother’s story, to create a coherent narrative. That’s something that Ben Lerner writes and talks about very beautifully, that fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living.

Because life makes no sense.

Life makes no sense. And the truth is, my mother didn’t know, my father didn’t know, why things happened that way. But fiction has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal.

And then, when the structure of the novel came to me—its organization in three parts—I knew even before I started writing exactly how it would be laid out. And that’s how I was able to write it.

Link to the rest at Vogue