Saturday, June 30, 2007

Mini-Review, Under a Cruel Star

Heda Margolius Kovály has a poor sense of timing, She was in Prague when the Nazis showed up; they sent her to Auschwitz. She escaped from the Nazis and came back to Prague in time for the Communist takeover; they murdered her husband. She stayed on in Prague and very nearly passed up an opportunity to leave in the 1960s. Fate has seemed to treat her more kindly since then, giving her the means and leisure to produce her extraordinary memoir (link).

When I picked it up, I took (somewhat unthinkingly) to be “another holocaust memoir.” The holocaust figures—as well it might—but only for the first 20-odd pages. Most of the rest is about her life in post-war Prague, where the personal was the political. She is reunited with her beloved Rudolph; they are married and have a son. Rudolph and Heda are full of aspirations for the future in Czechoslovakia. Already trained as a lawyer, Rudolph schools himself as an economist and involves himself in issues of national trade policy. He (and, more reluctantly, she) finds himself drawn into the web of the emerging Czech communist party, which captures the government by coup d’état in 1948. On behalf of the Communist government, Rudolph goes to Britain and negotiates a critical foreign trade agreement. For his pains he (along with 13 others) is jailed, “tried” and finally hanged, in 1952.

Heda lives on. Under circumstances not much less desperate than what she faced in Auschwitz, she struggles to survive and to raise her son. At last the government issues an apology—grudging and half-hearted, worse almost than no apology at all. In the late 1960s, Heda finds herself free to leave. In the end she does leave—but even as she goes, her departure seems almost reluctant as if, after everything that has gone before, she still finds it hard to break the faith with her country, her past, and the memory of Rudolph.

Heda’s memoir is not a work of literary art on the order of, say, the camp memories of Primo Levi, although as a human story, it is equally affecting. Its cardinal virtue is that it is the best account I’ve ever seen of how a country might “slip into communism”—even a country with a history of democracy, even 20 years after the Russian revolution.

We see it all through the eyes of young people full of hope in a time of turmoil. They believe that demoracy failed them before World War II, when their elected leaders virtually lay down before the advancing Germans. They remembered life in the camps, where the communists were often among the bravest and most decent of the prisoners. But they also find themselves in the company of two other cohorts, neither promising allies in the march to a decent future. One are the hustlers and time-servers who had learned how to survive under the Germans—“hard-faced men,” said Stanley Baldwin in a closely similar context, “who looked like they had done well out of the war” (link) Indeed, Heda seems to show more bitterness for the “hard-faced men” (and women) than she does for her SS captors in the prison camps. The SS captors were, after all, just thugs and killers. The hard-faced ones were her neighbors, acting out a drama of betrayal.

Along with the true believers and the hard-faced men, there was a third component: people of small talent and less initiative who figured that their chance for survival depended on finding their niche in an authoritarian hierarchy Put these three together and you have a formula for disaster.

Rudolph was certainly no mediocrity, nor a hard-faced man. Remarkably, he wasn’t a very good communist either. He was an enthusiastic technocrat, convinced (until it was too late) that people of good will could work together to build a better country.

The story ends, as these things go, more or less happily. Ivan grows up and achieves a career and a family (he has written his own memoir, which goes on the list [link]). Heda comes to America and works as a librarian (I learn that in her retirement, she moved back to Prague). There is even the makings of a romance, though Heda doesn’t make much of it in the memoir—but that would be Pavel Kovály, who came to her aid in the dark hours after Rudolph’s murder, and in the sacrifice of his own career, married her. But that part is for Hollywood. One of the few tiny consolations from all the horrors of the 20th Century is the presence of these acts of memory, of witness. In distinguished company, Heda’s stands solidly on the shelf.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Mitt and Lyndon and Doggiegate

Just realized one advantage of Romney and doggiegate; it gives me a chance to revive one of my favorite stories from the Johnson Administration. Anyone watching TV tonight will have been reminded that Lyndon Johnson used to pick up his beagles by the ears. “My momma used to pick up me by the ears,” said Lyndon in defense, “and nobody raised a fuss.”

But there was the case of Victor Borge, the Copenhagen-born pianist who gave the term “Scandinavian humor” real content. Borge said he went to the White House once; Johnson picked him up by the ears and said:

“You, sir, are truly a great Dane.”

Romney Creepiness Watch--Again

Maybe the dog will get an hour on Larry King. Meanwhile, there’s no way I can top the story of Romney lashing his dog to the roof, but it does make me remember the story of Angus who was showing a visitor around his little town in Scotland.

“You see that house?” said Angus. “I built that house. Designed it and built it myself. Selected the timber, cut it all to fit, set in the insulation, tapped down the shingles on the roof. Tightest house in town. In fact I built all the houses in this town. Every one snug. But do they call me Angus the house builder? They do not.

“And you see this fine stone wall? I built this wall. I clawed the stones out of the dirt; I rolled them downhill and uphill again, and I rolled them into place, and I tamped in the mortar. Look around you, miles around. All my walls. Best walls you can imagine. But do they call me Angus the wall builder? Ah, no…”

[Portentous pause.]


Romney the dog lasher. Hee.

Begum of Bengal

Just ran across one of my favorite Mark Twain stories. He was responding to a toast at a dinner in his honor presented by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool:

Many & many a year ago I read an anecdote in Dana's book, "Two Years Before the Mast." A frivolous little self-important captain of a coasting-sloop in the dried-apple & kitchen-furniture trade was always hailing every vessel that came in sight, just to hear himself talk, & air his small grandeurs. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by, with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks & yards swarming with sailors; with macaws & monkeys & all manner of strange & romantic creatures populating her rigging; & thereto her freightage of precious spices lading the breeze with gracious & mysterious odors of the Orient. Of course the littlecoaster-captain hopped into the shrouds & squeaked a hail: "Ship ahoy! what ship is that, & whence & whither?" In a deep & thunderous bass came the answer back, through a speaking-trumpet: "The Begum of Bengal, 123 days out from Canton—homeward bound! What ship is that?" The little captain's vanity was all crushed out of him, & most humbly he squeaked back: "Only the Mary Ann—14 hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point with—with nothing to speak of!"

Pretty sure I remember Hal Holbrook doing that one as part of his enduringly popular Twain shows back in the 60s.

Live épaul d’agneau Blogging

It’s a lovely day here in Palookaville and we disport ourselves in unseasonably balmy breezes while we await the 112-degree temperatures that will surely arrive next month. Also en route to Chez Buce: weekend guests, so I undertake to whip up a batch of Paula Wolfert’s épaul d’agneau à la Catalane—Lamb with Garlic and White Beans (en pistache). As an achievement of Western culture, I’d say this dish ranks right up there with Le Nozze di Figaro and E-MC2. This recipe is not nearly as difficult as physics or opera, but it does take time and attention: when Paula Wolfert says to do something, you do exactly what she says, and your whole life will be better. Also, I admit I am never nearly as fast as the cooks who create the recipes—when Wolfert says “one hour,” I get ready for “two” (and I must say, I don’t understand why Rachel Ray’s pants are not permanently on fire).

I’ve learned that I can’t work without something in my ear, so last night I downloaded an audio of Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy (link), with high hopes of learning a little something about the Middle East. This morning I found I couldn’t find my favorite earphones, so I lugged the laptop out to the kitchen and, positioning it suitably far enough away from the counter, I fired up the BBC. So, what shall it be? News? No, I’d learned enough about Gordon Brown’s new cabinet last night, and I figured I’d learn more than I wanted to know about the nail-bombing without even trying. So I flipped over to the on-demand streaming and picked up a lovely James Naughtie series on the history of music (link). After I got sick of Naughtie, I tried to link over to a performance of Tom Stoppard’s Albert’s Bridge. Couldn’t find it (am I too early?) so I had to settle for a dramatization of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (link).

Meanwhle Mrs. Buce was puttering in the garden. She’s not particularly self-confident about pruning, so she recruited our neighbor Brian, who has spent a lot of his life managing farm property, to give her a hand (note to self, bake some bread for Val and Brian). Brian now and I can see she has her Ipod on: from the look on her face, I’ll bet she is basking in Juan Diego Flórez’ Barber of Seville (link).

And so it goes. There is nothing particularly novel here, so I will settle for two perhaps already well known to all of my readers.

  • You can live anywhere. In a long and not terribly corrupt life, I’ve spent time in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Washington, with predictable sidetrips elsewhere. I won’t say Palookaville is “better” (maybe Rome?). I will say it really doesn’t matter. With the whole galaxy an earbud away,it hardly matters. And price of real estate is lower.

  • What a bunch of spoiled brats we are. That we is inclusive—not just us, though it certainly includes us.

Beans are bubbling, gotta run.

Fn.: The lamb cassoulet is in Wolfert’s The Cooking of South-West France 292-4 (1983) (link).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

God and Mr. James

Yesterday I showcased Cynthia Ozick’s perplexity over her relationship to the Bible. Here’s another appreciator, more secular but no less enthusiastic and less conflicted:

The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions, done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability…. Those responsible for the [New English Bible] probably did realize that they were atheists: otherwise they could scarcely have been so determined to leave not one stone standing upon another. For those of us unable to accept that the Bible is God’s living word, but who believe that the living word is God, the successful reduction of once-vital language to a compendium of banalities was bound to look like blasphemy, and the perpetrators like vandals. When I joined in a public protest against the rejigging of the Book of Common Prayer, a practising Christian among the London editors—it was Richard Ingrams of Private Eye—accused me of being in bad faith. He hated the new prayer book even more than I did, but thought I could have no reason for sharing his contempt. But it was my book too. I had been brought up on the scriptures, the prayers and the hymns. I had better reasons than inertia for deploring their destruction.

--Clive James, Cultural Amnesia 488 (2007)

Young Folks Nowadays...

If this is what the world is coming to, I'm just as glad I've gone inactive (link).


I figure Tyler Cowen’s search for the most overrated novel will have 200 comments before tonight, so I won’t presume to add anything direct, but rather to move the ball downfield a bit with a slightly different response. That is: reading the early returns, I would say that there are different ways of being overrated; not all overrated books are overrated in the same way.

Example: a lot of readers weigh in with their grievances about compulsory school reading, like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. My guess is that neither of these is a “great” novel—but they are perfectly straightforward and accessible and hey, nobody is going to like what is assigned to them in high school anyway (or even read it, as I said of myself a few days ago).

I doubt that John Barth is much assigned in high school and that if he is “rated” at all, it is by a pretty small treehouse assembly—so also William Gaddis and others not yet on the Tyler list: John Hawkes, Paul Bowles, Gilbert Sorrentino and there ilk. What the share is not necessarily awfulness—there is no accounting for tastes, and readers are perfectly welcome to like them if they want— but they do lend themselves to a good deal of posturing and scoldidng. Pynchon is a special case here: people do use him to beat up on their alleged inferiors, but he does seem to have a bona fide following of serious enthusiasts.

Ayn Rand, by contrast shouldn’t be judged as a novelist at all, but rather as a social phenom: the better comparison would be the Left Behind novels, whose readers for a band (no, a multitude) of passionate devotees, convinced of and committed to a highly particular world-view. As a developmental stage, its perfectly innocuous; most Ayn Rand readers outgrow it, and it’s a shame only that the same can’t be said for the Left Behind fans (I’ll put in a good word, though, for the “other” Ayn Rand novel—We the Living, about Russia during the revolution, which would be interesting and worthwhile even if its author were named Aylyce Rundt).

The debate over “the masters” takes place on a different plane. Re Henry James, my own taste tells me (pace Tyler’s early responders) that Portrait of a Lady may be his best novel—the later “grand style” entries seem to me just over the top. Re Virginia Woolf, I tend to think she can write splendid sentences even if not a great book (maybe her best work is in her letters and journals). Re Joyce, I tend to believe Ulysses may be over the top—I suspect he never improved on the best stories in The Dead. But, hey, all three of these are forces of nature, part of an entirely different dialogue or debate.

PS to Tyler: When you say "Sartre," maybe you are thinking of everything but the novels; the novels are, I think, actually pretty good.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

God and Mr. Darcy

Cynthia Ozick has a din in her head, but it doesn’t mean she is crazy. She’s just feeling “that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.” She finds its source chiefly in “the art of the novel; in the novel’s infinity of plasticity and elasticity.” (162)

Is God a character in a novel? In God: A Biography, by Jack Miles, God (per Ozick)

has an indelible, even a familiar, human personality, not unlike the mercurial protagonist of an epic, or an opera, or a labyrinth of motives by Henry James. (234)

Ozick isn’t happy with this view:

[I]f the God of the Bible is not “real,” then—in creative-writing-course argot—the Bible’s stories won’t and don’t work. For the faithless skeptic or rationalist confronting Scripture (a category of modernity that includes, I suppose, most of us), there is nothing more robust to lean on than suspension of disbelief, the selfsame device one brings to Jane Austin. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightly, salvational creations both, are not real; we believe in them anyway. Causality deserves better. Causality escapes the mere “comes to life” of character. (Id.)

And in the Bible, she says,

[T]he antique words, on their own power, and even in a latter-day language, draw us elsewhere, to that indeterminate place where God is not a literary premise but a persuasive certainty—whether or not we are willing to go there.

It is (I mean this without disrespect) a decidedly odd conclusion, or non-conclusion. God in the Bible is a success because he "doesn't work?" The point invites, to put it mildly, more development. Ozick says that “most of us” read Scripture as faithless skeptics or rationalists. Does she, I wonder, include herself?

All quotations from Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head: Essays (2006).eadHead

Hoo Boy

We pulled into a roadside restaurant outside Salem, Oregon, one day a few months back, and remarked on how everybody in the place seemed to (a) weigh at least 250 pounds and (b) be enjoying a three-egg omelette with hash browns and choice of meat. Then it struck us: prison guards. But I wouldn't have guessed this:

While we usually think of ourselves as being involved in making goods or delivering services, a lot of employees are devoted to enforcing ownership of stuff. This so called “guard labor” makes up an astonishing 26% of the work force, estimate Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute and Arjun Jayadev at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. That is more than four times as much as in 1890, they say. Measured differently, guard labor represents 22% of the work force, second highest of 18 developed countries, behind only Greece.

What’s behind this? The authors argue in The Economists’ Voice, an online journal published by Berkeley Electornic Press, that guard labor is highly correlated with “conflicts between classes, ethnic or racial groups, and political factions,” and with “economic polarization.”

Source: WSJ blog, via this guy. Picture: Oregon State Penitentiary, at Salem.

Strass and Spangles

Le Monde, discussing the ascension of Gordon Brown, speaks of

qu'un parlementaire du Labour a appelé le style "strass et paillettes" de Tony Blair.

OK: “the style that one Labour parliamentarian has called,” um, well “fake jewels and spangles.” Actually, it turns out that “strass” is in English dictionaries. Here’s

strass (străs) n.

See paste1 (sense 2).

[German Strass or French stras, both after Joseph Strasser, 18th-century German jeweler.]

Under “paste (sense 2),” we have:

  1. A hard, brilliant, lead-containing glass used in making artificial gems.
  2. A gem made of this glass. Also called strass.

So I could have said “strass and spangles.” But do Labour politicians actually use language like this in public? Does John Prescott? If not, what exactly did he say, and why does it get translated as “strass?”

Fn.: may think it’s English, but MS-Word does not: I keep getting that little red, squiggly line underneath “strass” in my word processor.

Update: Ah, silly me. Turns out there is a lot I have been missing here:

In 1758, a Viennese, Joseph Strasser, developed a type of glass which served for a long time as a substitute for diamond. It could be cut and was, in fact, very similar to diamond in appearance, due to its high refractive index. Even though production and sale was prohibited by the Empress Maria Theresa, this diamond imitation, called strass, reached the European trade via Paris.

--Walter Schumann, Genstones of the World 268 (2006)

Retrieved at Google Books (link)

Mother of All Affinity Vacations

"I never met a crowd,” said the bellhop “that drank more and screwed less than this one.”

It’s a convention joke. Catch is, I think I’ve heard it about every convention I ever intended. Too much of anything is funny: a convention of undertakers is wackily quiet, a convention of law professors is wackily loud, so they are different but the same, both wacky.

So there is nothing uniquely hilarious about the idea of a boatload of Natinal Review readers in the middle of the ocean—Johann Hari’s sendup in TNR is good fun but the sendup itself is part of a genre; P. J. O’Rourke apparently created the form back in 1984.

[Hari’s piece is here; it’s paywalled, but chunks of it are popping up like mushrooms around the blogosphere. O’Rourke’s original doesn’t seem to be on line but a crisp summary can be found here.]

But if the conservatives really want to achieve some product differentiation, I offer a proposal: skip the tried-and-true venues like the Mediterranean or the Northern Pacific Coast: next year, do an affinity vacation at Guantanamo. Tony Snow has been telling us for years that it is a kind of paradise, and surely folks have been dying to try out those skateboardy looking thingies next to the dunk tank that promise a thrill ride better than anything at Disney World (I know, poor choice of verb). One indisputable advantage: if you are cooped up in solitary, you won’t have to get yammered at by John Bolton.

They could follow it up with an optional add-on health walk through the streets of Baghdad. Does wonders for the adrenaline when you never know which moment will be your last.

Against Damnification

Yeh, I know that wacky translations are old stuff, but I must share the following encomium for the Huan Qui special electronic wave heat lamp:

It has been scientifically demonstrated to have physical therapy function such as closely parenchyma damnification, onitis, pelvic infection, strain of Lumbar muscles, rheumatic arthritis, wound iffection, diarrhea.

Ha! You may laugh, but “parenchyma damnification” gets 30 Google hits (31 now, I guess). It’s apparently a specialty at Dalian Municipal No.5 People's Hospital (link), “the first hospital in Northeastern China which established solicitude wards for people on their deathbed.”

Yes, That About Gets It

Mark Kleiman gets the mike (link):

The current Republican ruling clique is sometimes reactionary, sometimes plutocratic, sometimes theocratic, and sometimes kleptocratic, and always chauvanistic, but never, in any traditional sense of that term, conservative. Too bad.

As my friend Anon likes to say: I am tired of these bums making me feel like a liberal.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Milestone, of sorts: I see that I've passed 1,000 profile hits. In the blogocracy, that is laughable, minuscule, peanuts, not even a blip on the radar. That's okay with all of us at Underbelly Central. We still like to take Thursday afternoons off and sit on the bank to watch the bluebottles buzz. But it is a bit of a kick to think that we've picked up idlers, gawkers, stalkers, spookers from Alpha Centauri to Zeta Eta Pi. C'mon in, don't be a stranger. Like some pie?

[Most-gawked recent post topic: Ron Paul. But the big winner is still Hogzilla.]

F'Gods Sake, How?

My cousin Dave hears that Elizabeth Edwards embarrassed Ann Coulter on the Chris Matthews show.

Dave is skeptical; he says it can't be done. Dave remembers the two old sourdoughs:

OSD 1 I just shot Joe

OSD 2 F'Gods sake Why

OSD 1 He insulted my gal

OSD 2 F'Gods sake, How?
For the main event, go here and/or here.

Quote of the Day

From Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California (via C-span):
Never be a leader when your soldiers follow you out of sheer curiosity.
[And did I here him say that his hero is Robert E. Lee? Or did he mean this guy?]

[For what the fuss is all about, go here.]

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

I often wonder where I would be if I had bought just one slot machine when I was 15.

(two-beat pause).

Penitentiary, probably... (ka-THUNG!)

This is my Coarse Grand Salami,
Broken for Thee...

Mark Frauenfelder is amused by the Baby Jesus Sausage from Lyon (link). But he can find it closer to home, at Salumeria Biellese on Eighth Avenue at 29th Street in Manhattan (link):

This dry coarse grand (sic, ground?) salami is bursting with rustic flavor. Fits nicely in any anti pasto platter or with a chunk of crusty bread, and a glass of wine.

He probably doesn’t want this

Fn.: Baby Jesus sausage link, get it, oh tee hee...

Bong Hits for Whom?

I think the most extraordinary thing about Morse v. Frederick is not that the kid got five days for a banner urging "Bong Hits for Jesus," but that he got an extra five days for quoting Thomas Jefferson.

Evidently he quoted Jefferson saying "speech limited is speech lost" (link).

I wonder what the Juneau School District Protocol would have prescribed if he had uttered this other Jefferson fave (link):
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.

Fn.:I was going to use "the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants," which I remember using in a college public speaking class 40 years ago. Turns out he didn't quite say it; he was quoting somebody else. Or at any rate, here's Bartleby :

THOMAS JEFFERSON, letter to William Stephens Smith, November 13, 1787.—The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, vol. 12, p. 356 (1955).

A related idea was later expressed by Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac in a speech to the French national assembly, January 16, 1793: “L’arbre de la liberté… croît lorsqu’il est arrosé du sang de toute espèce de tyrans (The tree of liberty grows only when watered by the blood of tyrants),” Archives Parliamentaires de 1787 à 1860, vol. 57, p. 368 (1900).

And much earlier Tertullian had said: “Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum (We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed),” Apology, trans. T. R. Glover, pp. 226–27 (1931).

I gather that "speech limited is speech lost" may itself be a paraphrase, but I'm getting pedantic.

The Lady Named Harrison

That last post (on George Wallace and his fez) makes me remember myh mother’s favorite limerick:

I once knew a lady named Harrison
Who longed to make love to a Saracen.

She had to confine her
Intent to a Shriner

Who suffered, I fear, by comparison.

Actually, she liked a lot of limericks.

Monday, June 25, 2007


The college kid was cleaning the hallway at Chez Buce this morning when the vacuum began to puff black smoke. Mrs. Buce hied herself off to Sears for a conversation with the appliance salesman.

--Oh, look at this one, I have one at home, it’s wonderful.

--Um hm. Show me how you change the belt.

--Oh, it’s easy. I have one at home.

--So show me.

--Clyde? Do you know how to open this vacuum cleaner?

--Hm. Well, it’s stuck, but as soon as we find the instruction manual, I can show you how it is done. Did I tell you I have one at home?

From an 1859 dictionary (link):

Spiff "The percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock."

I bet the reason this kid had one at home is that the boss laid it on him at a discount to get it off the floor.

Respectable Blue

A friend looks at my movie list and asks--Unbearable Lightness of Being?

Yes. Is it not the best espectable blue movie ever made? My stars, the things Lena Olin can do with a bowler hat...

Perlstein on Will on Wallace

I’ve got all sorts of admiration for Rick Perlstein the blogger and Rick Perlstein the author, but I think he strikes the wrong note in his takedown of George Will, where he undertakes to recall and situate George Wallace (link). Will says that Wallace’s role was “giving an aggrieved minority a voice.” Near ballistic, Perlstein responds:

Of course this is nonsense: the people he was giving voice to was an aggrieved majority--e.g., white people.

[I think he means i.e., but I’ll give him that one]. He goes on to offer up a bill of particulars to show that the Wallace campaign was a stew of racist violence

Well, you know what? The Wallace campaign was a stew of racist violence. But its supporters—at least the rank and file—certainly felt that he was “giving an aggrieved minority a voice.”

And, pace Perlstein, a minority the were. Not “white people,” but a particular slice of white people—mostly lower middle class, notably urban, and mostly—and this is vital—deeply insecure, both economically and socially, teetering on the edge of downward mobility. They weren’t always good company—we’re talkin’ Archie Bunker here, or “Married with Children” (Homer Simpson is actually much too nice). Neither Perlstein nor I (nor, I suspect, George Will) want to spend a lot of time in their company. But they’ve got real fears, and they are afraid of real things. Perlstein might want to reread some critical passages of Anatol Lieven:

The 1960s and 1970s saw defeats for the culture of the White South and the Heartland which, put together, were greater than anything experienced since the Civil War. The term “Negro socio-economic revolution,” used by some authors to describe aspects of the 1960s, is overdrawn, but certainly reflects the way many Whites felt then and even to a degree feel today. Civil rights for Blacks, coupled with inner-city rioting and pressure for concessions in education and housing, terrified and infuriated large sections of the White middle classes.

--Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong 142 (2004)

And it’s not just that these people think that bad things are going to happen in society; they think that if they happen, then they are going to bear the cost. And on the evidence, they were right all the way around: heartland whites have been major losers over the last generation. They’ve lost economic security and social prestige. And when their betters have fiddled with the social matrix, it is they who, most often, have borne the cost.

This isn’t to excuse Will. Quite the contrary: It’s Will’s kind of condescension that feeds this insecurity and exploits it to advantage. But the way to cope with him is not to put all the Wallaceites into the hands of the Birchers and the Klansmen (though heaven knows there were enough of both). It’s to recognize them as what they are, deserving of at least as much respect as, probably a lot more than, George Will.

Personal fn.: As a newspaper reporter, I covered bits of the ’68 Wallace campaign—his handlers, as I believe I’ve said before, were about the most civil and courteous among campaign operatives. Wallace himself was a piece of business: he spilled out energy, enterprise, shrewd judgment, and not a little hate. I remember him on the tarmac at Standiford Field in Louisville, fulminating about these hippies and their funny clothes. He was wearing a Shriner fez, which I thought a nice touch.

Butterfly Catchers, Street People
And other Counter-Signals

Tyler Cowen finds this interesting (link):

The guy in jeans at the Sotheby's auction is more likely to buy a $40 million Picasso than the guy in the suit, who is probably just an art dealer.

Tyler calls it "counter-signaling." I’d agree, it is interesting, but perhaps not as novel as he may think. It’s like Chris Rock’s distinction between rich and wealthy. Shaq is rich. The white guy who brings him his check every week is wealthy.

More generally, this is the kind of thing a good cop knows as a matter of practicing his trade. Example, we have a famous professor at our University—call him Professsor X. He’s a lovely guy and a great institutional citizen, but he looks like he gets his clothes out of the dumpster. He’s also a world-renowned authority on the butterfly, which means he spends a lot of time hanging out under bridges.

My friend Anon says it is the responsibility of the University policed to know the difference between Professor X and a street person.

Anon also says that if you see a man over 30 wearing a tuxedo that fits, then it’s not his. If it’s his own, he has had it since his college days and he’s too fat for it. If it fits, it’s rented.

Did I mention that Anon’s father was a police court judge? They know things like this.

For more on this kind of counter-signaling, go here.

Hillary Clinton, Hélas!

Matt Yglesias huffs at Jon Chait and David Broder as they ponder the need for a third-party presidential candidate link . "It makes you think,” (sound effect: dripping irony).

if only, instead of the party that's been governing the country for the past six years, there was some kind of second major party whose elected officials supported substantial policy shifts on Iraq, immigration, energy, and health care. Wouldn't that be great? It could almost make this Bloomberg business irrelevant.

I’m sympathetic with what he says here, but I don’t think he grasps how frustrated people like, well, me, are with the Democratic roster. Stipulated that it’s light-years less God-awful than the other lot. Stipulated that politics is the art of compromise and that we never get exactly what we want. And for sure I don’t want another Ralph Nader (come to think of it, I never much wanted the first one).

Does anyone really—I mean really, really—think that if we chose presidents by merit, we’d end up with any one of this lot? Or indeed anyone else from a process that seems so structurally corrupted that it can’t begin to churn up the kind of candidates we so badly need? They asked André Gide, who was the best French novelist? --“Victor Hugo, hélas!” I suppose I’ll vote for Hillary, holding—not my nose, precisely, but surely my breath, hoping against experience and expectation that she won’t annoy me quite as much as I expect her to do.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Throwing Away Books

The NYT touched on an issue that is a bit of a sore point around Chez Buce. It’s the matter of throwing away books (link). Mrs. Buce thinks that, oh, say, around 2,000 ought to be enough books for any house. I lean towards 3,000 (nb: that catalog link at left connects to only a partial accounting). So we compromise at 2,000, which means a good deal of sloughing off. And you know what? It’s actually easier than it looks. I think it is John Updike who wrote something somewhere about sloughing off former selves, like insects shedding their skins. A good many of these are indeed remnants of my past—but often as not, a past that I’m well rid off and can happily set behind me. Others are clearly transitional stuff that I really ought to acknowledge that I have outgrown—I still have (or had, until lately) some of the old Fontana Modern Masters that I picked up when I was first scarfing down culture in London in 1976 (link)—indeed, a quick skim of the Amazon listings suggests that a lot of mine have been superseded by later editions.

The more challenging question, though, is—what to do with old reference books, the kind I once thought indispensable, but which now may (or may not?) have been superseded by the Internet. I still cling to my International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences from, I think, 1979—I think I got it as a book club premium and no, I am not moved to get the new one on offer from Reed Elsevier at $10,495 (link). So also the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, another book club premium I bet, acquired about the same time, even though I suspect I haven’t consulted either of them in several years. With perhaps even less justification, I’m hanging onto my Oxford Classical Dictionary (Second edition, 1978 reprint) and no, I don’t want to know how many times it has been superseded.

[I note two problems here: whether the earlier stuff is superseded, one, by the web; or two, by itself—I find a lot of my old faves have been replaced by later editions, even ignoring the internet.]

Other things have a bit more than sentimental value. I find I still haul out my New (Ha!) Columbia Encyclopedia (4th ed. 1975)—somehow, I can sometimes find things here that Google just doesn’t urp up. So also my old second-hand copy of Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed. 1940)—the “great Scott.” I also have the “Middle Liddell” and the “Little Liddell,” and I find that I poke in all three of them from time to time.

But what shall we do with the New York Public Library Desk Reference (First ed. 1989)? I thought it would be indispensable when I bought it; in fact I have never used it very much, and I can’t imagine that there is anything here not better done by Google. So also, I think, its companion, the New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (First ed. 1990). And so also, I am almost sure, The Almanac of American History (1993)—into the bin it goes.

There are also a few that are sufficiently distinctive that they stand out as good reading on their own account. I actually have two copies of the Reader’s Encyclopedia, aka Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, after William Rose Benét, its first editor. Benét has been dead since 1950, but the book seems distinctively pithy in a way that defies abandonment. And I just now realized I cannot find my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable—I used to buy copies in bulk and pass them out to friends. I’ll just have to check and see if the current edition (the 17th?) justifies my continued support.

Anyway, off to the Public Library they go, notionally for their summer book sale. But as the NYT suggests, if they go straight from there to the dumpseter, I really don't want to know.

There are Attlees and Attlees...

Josh Marshall marvels that Clement Attlee’s grandson John has turned up in the House of Lords as a Tory (link). For someone as well schooled as Josh, this represents an odd lack of historical perspective: in fact, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. Lloyd George, the last liberal prime minister—two of his kids crossed the aisle. His son Gwylim wound up as a conservative home secretary, while his daughter Megan went labour (link). Franklin Roosevelt’s youngest son John became a Republican so he could vote for Eisenhower (link)—and, come to think of it, Eisenhower’s son John returned the compliment in 2004 when he voted for John Kerry and against George w. Bush (link).

But there are two other reasons why there might be less here than meets the eye. One, Attlee was hardly a man of the left. Yes, he presided over the first labour government, brought in socialized medicine and whatnot. But Attlee himself was temperamentally the most conservative of men—the wonk’s wonk, the little man with the bowler hat. Indeed, he and his labor cohort won the 1945 election because they had demonstrated that they could run the country during the World War II—it was Attlee and the labourites who kept the home fires burning as part of the wartime coalition government while Winston Churchill ran the war.

Two, the transition from then to now may not be as radical as it seems. It was John’s father, Martin Attlee (Clement’s son) who left the labourites; he switched to the Social Democrats back in 1982, when labour had toppled into hard leftism (link). Wiki says that John began his career on the cross benches but joined the conservatives in 1997 (link). His brief is “transport,” particularly “heavy transport,” which sounds a lot like a wonk’s brief for me—Wiki desribes his industry specialty as “field of commercial vehicle recovery and repair.” I don’t marvel so much at the idea of Lord Attlee as a conservative than I do at the notion of his grandfather driving a tow truck.

The Evolving Presidency

We’ll always remember Lyndon (link):

But Valenti does tell a wonderful story about campaigning in an open car with the president, through Brooklyn, in October 1964. When riding through an Italian district, Johnson hoisted Valenti’s arm while his aide was introduced as “the closest man to the president”; a few minutes later, when they headed into a Jewish neighborhood, Johnson’s “voice was low but firm. ‘O.K., Jack, you can get out now.’ ”

That’s Thoms Mallon, reviewing a memoir by the late Jack Valenti (NYT), in which Valenti recalls his life as a faithful dogsbody to Lyndon B. Johnson. Over at the WP Berton Gellman and Jo Becker report on Vice-president Dick Cheney (link):

When particulars rise to presidential notice, Cheney often steers the preparation of options and sits with Bush, in side-by-side wing chairs, as he is briefed.

Can anybody imagine, even for an instant, Lyndon Johnson sitting “in side-by-side wing chairs” with his vice-president, Hubert H. Humphrey?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Opera Guyed

Okay, you talked me into it. I gave a plug for Newman Levy’s Opera Guyed, in which Levy presents doggerel synopses of famous operas (link). Levy was the ideal doggerel versifier: his father was a famous and influential lawyer who pushed—bullied, one might say—his son into the bar, against the wishes of a young man who really seemed to prefer to lie around being amusing. I have vague recollections of reading as personal memoir by Levy fils—as I recall it was redolent of ease and good nature, none of the kind of bitterness you might expect from an intergenerational war of wills (I seem to remember something about his father reciting Shakespeare in the bathtub, so a literary bent seems to have been situated somewhere on the genome).

My copy of Opera Guyed, which I picked up a couple of years ago on the web, bears what I take to be a Levy autograph. Rather a double autograph; it says:

For Louise and Irwin* with love.


June 20, 1960

*I mean Erwin--


July 21, 1965

A quick surf suggests a general consensus that his masterwork is his send-up of Thais by Jules Massenet (Renée Fleming did it for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2003). I once got together a quarter of law professors to sting it at a student amateur show. We wore three-piece black suits and billed ourselves as “the vested remainders”—lawyer joke. Here’s Thais:

One time in Alexandria, in wicked Alexandria
Where nights were wild with revelry and life was but a game,
There lived, so the report is, an adventuress and courtesan
The pride of Alexandria, and Thais was her name.

Nearby, in peace and piety, avoiding all society
There dwelt a band of holy men who'd made their refuge there,
And in the desert's solitude, they spurned all earthly folly to
Devote their lives to holy works, to fasting and to prayer.

Now one monk whom I solely mention of this band of holy men
Was known as Athaneal, he was famous near and far.
At fasting bouts and prayer, with him, none other could compare with him,
At plain and fancy praying he could do the course in par.

One day while sleeping heavily, from wresting with the Devil he
Had gone to bed exhausted, though the sun was shining still
He had a vision Freudian, and though he was annoyed, he an-
Alyzed it in the well-known style of Doctors Jung and Brill.

He dreamed of Alexandria, of wicked Alexandria.
A crowd of men was cheering in a manner rather rude.
And Athaneal glancing there at THAIS, who was dancing there
Observed her do the shimmy, in what artists call The Nude!

Said he,"This dream fantastical disturbs my thoughts monastical,
Some unsuppressed desire, I fear, has found my monkish cell.
I blushed up to the hat o' me to view that girl's anatomy
I'll go to Alexandria and save her soul from Hell!"

So, pausing not to wonder where he'd put his winter underwear
He quickly packed his evening clothes, a toothbrush and a vest
To guard against exposure he threw in some woolen hosiery
And bidding all the boys Adieu, he started on his quest.

The monk, though warned and fortified was deeply shocked and mortified,
To find, on his arrival, wild debauchery in sway.
While some were in a stupor, sent by booze of more than two percent,
The rest were all behaving in a most immoral way.

Said he to Thais, "Pardon me. Although this job is hard on me,
I've got to put you straight to what I came out here to tell:
What's all this boozin' gettin' you? Cut out this pie-eyed retinue,
Let's hit the road together, kid, and save your soul from Hell!"

Although this bold admonishment caused Thais some astonishment,
She quickly answered,"Say! You said a heaping mouthful, Bo!
This burg's a frost, I'm telling you. The brand of hooch they're selling you
Ain't like the stuff you used to get, so let's pack up and go!"

So off from Alexandria, from wicked Alexandria
Across the desert sands they go, beneath the burning sun.
Till Thais, parched and sweltering, finds refuge in the sheltering
Seclusion of a convent in the habit of a nun.

And now the monk is terrified to find his fears are verified
His holy vows of chastity have cracked beneath the strain!
Like one who has a jag on, he cries out in grief and agony
"I'd sell my soul to see her do the shimmy once again!"

There’s a good-natured web appreciation of Levy here.

Ron Paul, Authoritarian

I'm glad Morbo got around to doing the work I was too lazy to do (link), demonstrating that "libertarian" Ron Paul has--well, has the same authoritarian tendencies most active, political libertarians turn out to have. Libertarianism is almost universally attractive at first look, even though it turns out to be incoherent on careful scrutiny. But the practical fact is, most people active in politics who call themselves "libertarians" turn out to want life pretty much as it is, only without National Public Radio. Still might be amusing to get him into the Democratic debates, though (link).

Fn. Yes, I know NPR doesn't get much public money; that's part of my point.

Roosevelt's Gimpy Legs

Matthew Yglesias is raggin’ on Jonah Goldberg about pictures of FDR and his bum legs. Jonah says (link):

There were more than 35,000 pictures of FDR taken. Two show him in a wheelchair. Why? Because the press almost unanimously agreed that — despite the huge news value — depicting FDR as a cripple would be bad for the war effort. The few dissenting photographers from that consensus were routinely blocked or deliberately jostled by the senior photographers so as to shield FDR from embarrassment and the public from its "right to know."

Matt says (link):

Okay, this is a subject I know virtually nothing about. I do, however, know that FDR became president in 1933 after winning the 1932 election. The war in Europe didn't begin until 1939, and the United States didn't enter the war until 1941. Under the circumstances, that "depicting FDR as a cripple would be bad for the war effort" can't be the primary reason nobody ever did it.

Since I am older than Matt and Jonah cumulatively, I feel entitled to play the age card here again. I’ll stipulate that 1939>1932, but I think Matt may miss the point. I’m pretty sure I learned about Roosevelt’s gimpy legs while I was at Camp Mi-Te-Na on Half Moon Lake in Alton, NH. That would have been about 1944—i.e., smack in the middle of the war. I was told that they would hide his wheelchair behind the podium and that two of his sons would lift him up so that he would appear to be standing, and that at the end of his talk he would collapse back into his chair again. I was told that this was important because we didn’t want folks to know that he was a cripple during a war (how much of a secret it could have been if it was gossip among eight-year-olds—that is a matter for another day).

Anyway, it seems perfectly consistent to say that people thought it would be “bad for the war effort” during the war, even if it might have been “bad for some other reason” before the war started.

A propos of not much, there is a great picture of Mussolini at the podium —I guess I saw it in the Dennis Mack Smith biography—taken from behind, so you can see that he is standing on a milk crate. Little squirt.

Fn.: Hey, it’s still there! And they have an alumni weekend (link)!

Friday, June 22, 2007

If They Asked Me...

The New York Review of Books invites readers to contribute suggestions of books they ought to include in their “classics” series—now over 200 strong, some genuine classics, some eccentric or just goofy (link—look down towards the bottom of the right-hand column).

Rearranging some old books last night, I kept running across things that I thought ought to be on the list. I haven’t any idea whether any of these is actually in print or not. But without careful cite-checking, here are the names (dates are the editions I have at hand).

W. J. Cash, Mind of the South (1941). Non-fiction Faulkner. Beautifully written account of the tragedy of the south after the civil war.

Newman Levy, Opera Guyed (1927). Famous operas deftly recast in doggerel verse, buy a guy who never really wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.

Prince de Ligne, Letters, Memoirs and Other Writings (1927). Last of the ancien régime aristos. Had the good sense to die, and thus to command a grand funeral, during the Congress of Vienna.

Harold Nicolson, Diaries. Or at least a selection. If that is impractical, any of half a dozen other books; a particular choice might be Diplomacy (1950).

Edith Sitwell, Planet and Glow-worm (1944). Sitwell’s personal bedside anthology. Introduced me to Sir Thomas Browne and Sir John Mandeville.

Edward Noyes Westcott, David Harum (1960). Local-color Americana.

Here’s one more I just thought of while writing this post:

Felix Markham, Napoleon (1963). Amazingly successful compact rendition of one of the busiest lives ever.

At Last! A Bush/Buce Convergence

Have I said this before? I figure that on my 70th birthday I garnered two new privileges:

  • I can call any woman “dear.”
  • I can wear socks with shorts and sandals.

It’s amazing how many women actually like being called “dear.” And as one who never met a non-beautiful woman, I am happy to oblige.

As to the other matter, apparently, George W. Bush and I have at last found something we on which we can agree (link).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What Did We Know? The Holocaust

What did he know and when did he know it? It’s a question everybody asks about everything. Example: the Holocaust. When did “ordinary Germans” know that the Nazis were systematically exterminating millions of humans just for being what they were? When did Roosevelt know? When did “we” know?

Having been a kid during World War II and coming to maturity only thereafter, I really cannot remember exactly when I learned the truth. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have an inkling when I was a kid during the war, but I knew everything that mattered by the time I made it to college in 1953. In any event, I’ve always assumed that a lot of people knew a lot, and early.

But there’s a fascinating bit of counter-evidence from an impeccable source. Heda Margolius Kovály was a Prague Jew carted off to the camps in 1941, to stay there until she escaped near the end of the War. “In the last of the concentration camps that held me,” she recounts, she was working as slave labor at a brickyard. One day, pushed beyond endurance, she lashed she screamed at her boss. It was a piece of suicidal folly; she could only expect to be killed, or worse.

Yet against all expectations, her boss backed off. And the next day, he transferred her to “easier” duty, lugging coal. Then:

One afternoon, toward evening, the boss appeared with two Frenchmen and ordered them to help me bring in as supply of coal. He returned about an hour later, sent them out, asked me to sit down beside him on a stone ledge in the wall of the kiln and said only: Tell me.

As long as I live I shall not forget that dark cave-like place, the black walls streaked with the reflections of flames, the old man dressed in black who listened and listened and seemed to wither, to shrink before my eyes as if, with each of my sentences, part of him faded.

I told the old man in the Russian shirt about the ghetto in Lodz where the cesspool cleaners had whistled Beethoven as they worked and where close to one hundred thousand people had been murdered or had died of starvation. I told him how the trains would arrive from Polish villages bringing men with bloody heads and women wrapped in shawls and how, once the trains were gone, the women undid their wraps and pulled out their babies, some of them dead by suffocation but a few still alive, saved from German bayonets. I told him how, a few months later, the SS would arrive and throw these same babies into trucks and cart them off to the gas chambers. …

Kovály continues in this vein for another page or so, and then concludes:

I do not remember what else I told him. I only know that he did not say a word for as long as I spoke and, when I heard the shouting of orders outside that meant we were returning to camp and got up to leave, he remained sitting, hunched into himself, his head in his palms.

The man lived in Nazi Germany and had daily contact with a concentration camp and its inmates, yet he knew nothing. I am quite sure he did not. He had simply thought we were convicts, sentenced by a regular court of law for proven crimes.

--Heda Margolius Kovály ,
Under a Cruel Star 14-15 (Holmes & Myer ed., 1996)

Kovály's life in the camps is horrific enough, but it is only the first, short part of the book. She arrives back in her beloved Prague just in time for a second nightmare: the Stalinist takeover of 1948.


Seems that all the disruption at Chez Buce lately has stimulated the coackroaches, so we had to call for the pest guy. I put in a phone order about 4 pm; the pest guy showed up for a look-see by 430 pm. Personable guy, easy to talk to. Lucky for us, it turns out we have only the little sissy cockroaches, not the big guys with the leather jackets and beards and 17-inch necks. So, an easy job.

The pest guy came back this morning to spray around the house. He cautioned us to close all the windows but I saw him working out there without a mask.

We paid him (credit card) and he's gone. But I'm wondering. That's $150 for the job. Two trips, with a promise of a repeat if they come back. Somedbody has to maintain that special purpose vehicle, and pay the scheduler who answers the phone. And the guys with the national trademark--I am sure they get a large chunk of the gross. My guess is that it is a lot like the taxi business, where you rent the car by the day, and work x hours for the suits before you start paying yourself. Wonder how much trickles down to him? Not a lot, I suspect.

Oh, and did I mention that he smoked?

Fn.: Right, "special purpose vehicle." And here I thought that was a kind of accounting fraud.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Your Mother Loved You But She Died: A Note on Profit

Tyler Cowen offers up an odd response to Nassim Taleb in Tyler's review of The Black Swan, Taleb’s new book about prediction and unlikely events (link). Here’s Tyler:

Taleb does insist on the originality of his work—regarding it as a black swan, of course—and refers to opposing views as the "GIF: Great Intellectual Fraud." Nonetheless, the idea of a Power Law as a deeply skewed and asymmetric distribution is well-known, and the statistical notion of "ergodicity" (roughly, the idea that the initial state of a system does not predict its end state very well) has been around for a long time. In 1921, economist Frank Knight drew a distinction between unquantifiable and radical uncertainty and the risk of flipping a coin or playing a roulette wheel. If these ideas have not always been part of the mainstream, it is because they can quickly prove intractable, not because they have been suppressed by an arrogant scientific community.

I won’t defend “GIF”—and FWIW, I am not an economist and Tyler is. But I do think he is eliding over an important point here. I am the proud owner of a cherished first edition of Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (1921), surely one of the classics of modern economics. Knight’s point, only slightly restated, is that an “expected profit” is a contradiction in terms—it may be a “factor return,” but in a competitive market, it will be no higher than the opportunity cost of capital, and the net present value of a project will be zero. So, consider the case I buy a share of BigCo, with a certain return at t=1 of $100. I pay $80 at t=0: that is a 25 percent return ((100/80)-1=0.25=25 percent). But suppose the market rate of return for comparable investments is 10 percent. Then I can’t really expect to get it for $80; I can expect the price to be bid up to $90.91, where the implied rate of return is the market rate ((100/90.91)-1=0.1=10 percent).

By Knight’s analysis, there is a “profit” in this deal--$10.91, being spread between the $90.91 “implied return,” or “opportunity cost return,” and the $80 you pay. But blink your eyes and it won’t be there any longer. That's the definition of a competitive market. That’s why economists say that if there is a five dollar bill on the street in your neighborhood, it isn’t there any longer. The guy who gets the profit is the guy who, by superior acumen or dumb luck, grabs the opportunity before anybody else knows what it is worth. Or more brutally, your mother loved you but she died.

Economists and others like to use models from, e.g., casino gambling, to suss out the analysis of risk. The point here is that these casino gambling returns are, over the long run, highly predictable. Indeed, I have had students argue that casino gambling isn’t even risk—that they can set aside money for it as part of their entertainment budget, just as they might put aside money for food, or rent, or tuition. My only response is—what are students doing with that kind of money anyway?

The trouble with mainstream theory is not that it denies this kind of profit, but that it doesn’t know how to model it. And if something doesn’t get modeled, it might as well be denied. This is, by the way, one point on which the “Austrians” score points against (and differ from) the mainstream—one thing that they are driving at when they rattle on about the importance of “entrepreneurship” in economic behavior (see, e.g., link). The corollary is that the Austrians disdain this kind of modeling, and without a model, you don’t get no respect.

This is, by the way, just one of many ways in which Frank Knight’s startling originality and prescience gets smoothed over in mainstream theory. Economists are human: when they squat around the campfire to drink the blood of the vanquished, they like to retell their story in linear narrative, with Knight as a precursor. So he is, but it is a shame to sacrifice his originality to the demons of linearity.

My very best wishes to Tyler’s mother, with high hopes for her good health and long life.

Not Easy Being Emperor--The Answer

So anyway, the question was, can you name the 12 separate ethnic components of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire ? Answer in a moment, but first a word of appreciation for the source—Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973). It’s more “Wittgenstein” than “Vienna”—for a more general overview, you would want Carl A. Schorske, Fin-de-Siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1981). But J&T do an elegant job of situating Wittgenstein as part of an ongoing conversation at the heart of the Empire, as distinct from being a cranky Englishman who just dropped in from outer space.

By way of background, however, they describe the empire as an

Ungovernable mélange of Germans, Ruthenes, Italians, Slovaks, Rumanians, Czechs, Poles, Magyars, Slovenes, Croats, Transylvanian Saxons and Serbs.

--Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna 41 (1973).

Wiki offers a somewhat similar list of AH “languages” (link), but Wiki says “Rusyn” (for Ruthenian?). It Serbian, Croation, and Serbo-Croatian (could this be an editing error?). It adds Ukranian and Lithuanian. Ukranian I understand, but Lithuanian? Aren’t those guys a long way away?

J&T introduce their society as “Kakania,” which they define in a lead footnote:

The name was invented by Robert Musil, and combines two senses on different levels. On the surface, it is a coinage from the intialos K.K. or K. u. K., standing for “Imperial-Royal” or “Imperial and Royal,” which distinguished all the major instituions of the Hapsburg Empire. … But to anyone familiar with German nursery language, it carries also the secondary sense of “Excrementia” or “Shitland.”

--Id., at 13

Fn.: Underbelly's Teutonic specialist, who for some reason does not like to post comments, points out that it could just as well be Kukanias= cookooland.

Not Easy Being Emperor

Janik and Toulmin recognize 12 separate ethnic components to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. For valuable prizes, and without peeking, can you name them? Answer later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Found: One Admirable Iraqi

Back when people still believed the Niger/yellowcake story, one of the prime exhibits was a chap named Wissam Al-Zahawie, supposed to be the evil Svengali of the Iraq-Niger connection. See, e.g., who else but (link).

But as set forth by Peter Eisner and Knut Royce in The Italian Letter, the charge is almost certainly baseless. For its human content, however, the story turns out to be far more interesting, and indeed, one of the few genuine laff riots in the entire episode. Zahawie, E&R explain,

a fluent English speaker with a refined British accent, was well known in diplomatic circles for his courtly manner and was not considered an insider in the Hussein government. He had joined the Iraqi Foreign Service in 1955, during the period of the monarchy that lasted until a military coup in 1958. Zahawie ascribed his long career to a combination of luck and staying mostly out of the public eye. He was proud to say that he was a member of no political party, and specifically not a memb er of the Baath Party, ruled and controlled by Hussein and his closest allies and family. Nor did he want to be.

He did everything he could in his diplomatic career to separate himself from politics and intrigue. He knew that he would never be given any central job that involved policymaking or brought [him?] close to Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. Zahawie had a reputation of being a persuasive Iraqi nationalist, but he was never considered so trustworthy, he said, as to be “accredited to any country where [Iraq] may have had clandestine political, military, or economic contracts or operations.” …

Zahawie did not aspire to a higher diplomatic stature. While he had appeared at the United Nations, he never sought to be the permanent Iraqi ambassador to that body. … Instead, Zahawie actively sought and won the job as Vatican ambassador precisely because of his reputation as a diplomat who avoided intrigue and espionage. … His embassy staff was one locally hired secretary. The light duty gave him a chance to pursue his interests: European art, music, and fine food.

--Peter Eisner and Knute Royce, The Italian Letter 86-8 (2007)

There surely are a thousand good reasons to want to avoid coming to the attention of Saddam Hussein. And I don’t know about you, but I have to admit to a certain grudging admiration for a bureaucratic time-server with such focus and clarity of purpose, knowing that he hangs on to his post not for any service he may perform but only for the private pleasures it may afford. A few more Zahawies and we might not balance the budget, but we might sleep more peacefully at night.

Why Romney Gives Me the Creeps (again)

I sometimes wonder why it is that Mitt Romney gives me the creeps, seeing as how (I have to concede), of all the major Republican candidates, he might make the least calamitous President. Still there's something about him that makes me feel like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters when he says (I quote from memory) "I think he just slimed me."

But maybe this is a reason:
[Romney] never granted a single pardon in his four years in office, a fact he is enormously proud of today and repeatedly raises in his speeches.
Read the whole story and tell me if I'm not right (link).

Afterthought: Be sure to punch through to the original Roger Simon story, to understand the kind of case in which Romney thinks a pardon might be okay (link).

Thatcher and Cincinnatus

I don’t know why I make it my business to try to bring TigerHawk to his senses. I guess deep down I believe, with Father Flanigan, that there is no such thing as a Really Bad Boy.

And I must say I liked those pictures he posted yesterday of the British memorial service for the fallen of the Falkland War (link) (although you have to wonder how much of this is a sincere commitment to their memory and how much a promotion of tourism).

But it seems to me that a little perspective is in order. The Falklands was perhaps a necessary war—a bunch of pissant hoodlums in the Argentine government had set out to tweak the beards (oops) of the British monarchy and someone decided to tweak them back. Fine, so far. Maybe that was a good reason to fight the war,

But—and this is my point—but that isn’t why it was fought. It was fought to save Maggie Thatcher’s bacon. Thatcher had been hugely unpopular during the first two years of her reign Prime Ministership, and when headed for defeat when the stupidity of the Argentines bailed her out. The war also, not incidentally, destroyed the efforts to create a non-loony centrist party in Britain (amazing how often responsible centrism gets derailed by a pointless war).

I’m not saying that Maggie was just as bad as the Argentines. Certainly not; after all, they started it. But nobody is indispensable. One way to for Maggie to preserve her integrity would have been to whack the tar out of the Argentines and then, like Cincinnatus, retire to return to the plow. “Fellow Britons,” she might have said

We can rejoice in a successful campaign, mindful of the sacrifice of the brave men who gave their lives to secure our position. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as your Prime Minister, and nothing makes me prouder than to have been ae to preside over such a memorable achievement. But there is a time for everything. If there is any other service I can perform for the British people now, it may be this: to step from this great office and thus to assure that no one need be corrupted or misled by the inducements of military glory to misunderstand the needs and responsibilities of government.

Okay, so she didn’t. But along with all the fooferaw over the anniversary, it might be useful to take a moment to remark on the tragedy that young people die in the service of old people’s intrigues.