Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chicago's Tiepolos

Chicago art note: I like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo for pretty much the same reason that I like Gainsborough or John Singer Sargent: they may not be the greatest of painters, but each defines a particular period and class—so well, indeed, that we may forget that although not the greatest of painters, they are actually pretty good. Tiepolo, for example: nobody can make things fly like Tiepolo; everyone else’s flying creatures look like refrigerator magnets, or balloons in the Macy’s parade. And Tiepolo treats women with sensitivity and respect: they have identities and personalities, often more distinct than men. And he has a subtle sense of humor, almost wry, anticipating the superb satires of his son, Giandomenico.

The Tiepolos in the Art Institute of Chicago are not the greatest Tiepolos, but they too are pretty good. They’re a series: “Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida,” illustrating passages from La Gerusalemme liberate, Torquato Tasso’s great epic of the First Crusade. Rinaldo is on course for Jerusalem when he is distracted by the sorceress Armida; as the blurb-writers say, hilarity ensues.

It’s hard to imagine a better match of text and picture than Tasso and Tiepolo: Tasso has great dignity and pomp, but also superb narrative drive, superbly captured in a remarkable English translation by Edward Fairfax:

But when she lookèd on his face awhile,
And saw how sweet he breath’d, how still he lay,
At first she stayed, astound with great dismay,
Then sat she down (so love can art beguile).

—Torquato Tasso, La Gerusalemme liberate XIV 66

Here is an Art Institute representation of the relevant painting (link). Just down the hall there is a lovely little Gainsborough: his portrait of his sister, but I can’t seem to find it on line.

Michelangelo Antonioni

The NYT remembers Michelangelo Antonioni, dead at 94 (the same day as Ingmar Bergman) (link):

Tall, cerebral and resolutely serious, Mr. Antonioni harkens back to a time in the middle of the last century when cinema-going was an intellectual pursuit, when purposely opaque passages in famously difficult films spurred long nights of smoky argument at sidewalk cafes, and when fashionable directors like Mr. Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were chased down the Cannes waterfront by camera-wielding cineastes demanding to know what on earth they meant by their latest outrage.


Calvinball with nukes.

Travel Note: The O'Hare Subway Link

I'm a big fan of public transport, especially subways, especially airport-downtown links. I’ve never spent much time in Chicago (except O’Hare) so yesterday was my first chance to try the O’Hare downtown Chicago link.

Big disappointment. The cars are old and grey and rumbly and it takes forever. Yes, I know it’s quite a distance, but that doesn’t account for all the unexplained or semi-explained delays. “Attention passengers, we are stopping here for an undetermined amount of time for no reason in particular. Thank you for your patience.” New York’s Kennedy Link puts this one to shame.

And the ticket machine—it doesn’t take credit cards, and it doesn’t make change. But apparently they pay a security guard to stand there and tell you it doesn’t make change.

The fare is $2 and I say cheap at half the price. But the fare may be part of the problem: at a price like that, I assume nobody in the system loves it, and wants to promote it. Better to raise the fare to $8 or $10 and get an up to date fare machine.

Another economy note: the two day pass at $9 seems like a “bargain,” if you like this sort of thing. And that machine does take credit cards, can’t remember whether it takes change.

Surprise Chicago note: perfect weather. Temperatures in then 70s day and evening, almost no wind. How often does that happen?

Update: Oh, so it's track repairs. They listened to me, and they are trying to improve, especially between 9 pm and 5 am. Well, I guess it's all right, then. But I still wish they would do something about getting a changer.

Monday, July 30, 2007

From the Bin: Pariah Liberalism

Here's one I seem to have culled out back in 2004, uniting a whole passel of my favorite subjects:

Not only was the fate of the Jews tied to the fate of liberalism, the fate of liberalism became intertwined with the fate of the Jews. ‘The deep irony’ of the late Hapsburg empire into which Hayek was born, writes Ernste Gellner, one of its most penetrating analysts, was that ‘an authoritarian Empire, based on a medieval dynasty and tired to the heavily dogmatic ideology of the Counter-Reformation, in the end, under the stimulus of ethnic, chauvinistic centrifugal agitation, found the most eager defenders amongst individualist liberals, recruited in the faith with which the state was once so deeply identified. … But now the logic of the situation led [the house of Hapsburg] to be the pattern of a pluralistic and tolerant society.’ In the final decades of the Hapsburg empire, one nationality after another turned its back on the empire, including, finally, the Austro-Germans, who adopted a national, indeed völkisch, identification as Germans. The last and most faithful supporters of the Hapsburg regime turned out to be ‘the new men: the commercial, industrial, academic, professional meritocrats, interested in maintaining an open market in goods, men, ideas, and a universalistic open society.’ It was these newly arrived meritocrats, many of them of Jewish origin, who became the cadres of Austrian liberalism.’

The result was what Gellner has dubbed ‘pariah liberalism,’ a liberalism formulated by cultural outsiders and antipathetic to the very notion of cultural insiderdom and outsiderdom. These liberals favored cultural openness and individualism over closed communities, ethnic or economic. In a culture where their roots were stigmatized, they stood for an abstract and universalistic individualisms against the romantic communalism represented by both socialism and nationalism.

Jerry Mueller, Mind and the Market 350-52 (19--)

FWIW, I believe von Hayek was not Jewish, but his mentor, Ludwig von Mises, was. My notes don't give a source for the Gellner reference, but I suppose it is Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma (1998).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Marketing Opportunity

The leaflet under my windshield wiper tells me that the reason it is prudent to take a payday advance is tht it is so much cheaper than paying NSF check penalties.

The odd thing is, this is probably true.

Guess I Hadn't Noticed...

David Orr in the NYT Times reports (link):

It’s easy to say which nation has … the largest number of prime ministers who’ve probably been eaten by sharks (Australia … .

Guess I hadn’t noticed. Apparently the number is “one.” Convictcreations.com reports (link):

Lost Prime Minister - In 1967, Harold Holt, the Prime Minister of Australia went for a swim at the beach and was never seen again. Theories about his disappearance include kidnapping by a Russian submarine, eaten by a shark or being carried away by the tide.

Additional Fun Fact: I can't seem to track it down at the moment, but I believe it was Douglas Adams who, when asked if he liked Austrialia, said:

Australia has nine of the top ten most poisonous snakes in the world. No, strike that, Australia has nine of the top nine most poisonous snakes in the world.

And it seemed like such a nice place.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

BBC: Bill Gates' Bitch?

I’m not competent to say much of anything about technical computer stuff, but it seems to me this story must be huge (link):

With today's launch of the iPlayer, the BBC Trust has failed in its most basic of duties and handed over to Microsoft sole control of the on-line distribution of BBC programming. From today, you will need to own a Microsoft operating system to view BBC programming on the web. This is akin to saying you must own a Sony TV set to watch BBC TV. And you must accept the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) that the iPlayer imposes. You simply cannot be allowed to be in control of your computer according to the BBC.

… No chance then for the millions of the worlds poorest children who are about to receive the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) computer to be able to view BBC educational programming. The OLPC runs only Free Software and Free Software is, of course, the main competitive threat to Microsoft. I don't expect we will see an iPlayer built to the principles of free software whilst this incompetent BBC governance is maintained. …

Turns out (per DefectivebyDesign.org) that Bill Gates has locked up the British Labour Party brass:

You may not know this, but Gordon is tight with Bill, and the Labour Party is tight with Microsoft. And after 10 years of one party rule, the UK is a politically tied up Microsoft shop. Everything else that follows in relation to the iPlayer can be connected to this corrupting political association. No one in the ruling Labour party is really going to question the corruption of the BBC. I predict the outcome of the petition to Gordon Brown http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/iplayer/ that has over 12,000 signatures and calls for the iPLayer to be available to all operating systems, will be the wooly, "The BBC is committed blah blah". Meantime Microsoft has been given a monopoly for distribution of BBC programming. …

HT: Boingboing (link).

Mr. Bowser's Wonderful Machine

Thanks to Michael Quinion’s admirable newsletter on word history (link), we learn that there really was a Mr. Bowser:

Floods have caused enormous damage in parts of southern Britain in the past week or so; ironically, one result is that in the worst- hit areas local residents have lost their water supplies because treatment plants have flooded. On Monday, BBC News reported that drinking water was to be brought into the stricken areas usingbowsers. This word had presumably been taken from information supplied by Severn Trent Water, the water company that is most affected. BBC reporters - together with other radio and TV news broadcasters and some newspapers - felt it necessary to explain this odd term in case it would not be understood. "Bowser" is rather specialist, not being the sort of word that you naturally drop into daily conversation unless you run a service station or an airport. But it's neither archaic nor especially rare, though it doesn't mean the same thing in every country in which it's used....

We owe its existence to the late Mr Sylvanus Bowser, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Early in the twentieth century he invented what he called the self-measuring gasoline storage pump but which we have long since abbreviated to petrol pump or gasoline pump. ... At some point, the usage extended beyond providing fuels to supplying water, especially in military situations and on construction and building sites. They may not have recognised the word, but many flood-affected people have been very grateful for bowsers.

Welcome to Valhalla, Mr. Bowser. Mr. Dempster and Mr. Jacuzzi are here waiting. Any minute we’re expecting Mr. Two-row Cotton Picking Machine.

Fn.: Cleaned up to ungarble a garbled paragraph, January 20, 2008.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hillary and the Explosives Lobby

I saw a comment a few moments ago complaining about the prospect of Hillary “making nice” to the Iranians. I can’t seem to find it again, but no matter—the sentiment is certainly widespread enough to deserve comment, i.e., that we can’t trust manly stuff like atomic weapons to a grrrl.

Setting aside the particular issue, I’m impelled to remark on the general point—where did we get the idea that there is anything nice about grrrls as leaders, Hillary or otherwise?

Thumb through your collection of “female world leader” cards: Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Benizar Bhutto, Goldia Meir. Chalk Ms. Bhutto up to just general corruption, but the other three surely make the first rank in any table of saber-rattling, bellicose warrior types. And it’s not as if they seemed to do it because they had to prove something—in all three cases, it seems they liked being combatative and inflexible.

Like almost every Republican except John McCain, Hillary doesn’t have much of a record on military matters. But everything about her suggests that her character defects run to stuff like controlling, mean-spirited and vindictive. Sounds like just the sort of person who would enjoy lobbing high explosives into somebody else’s back yard.

Additional Fun Fact: Oops, and I thought I was making a sour joke. But lookey here folks--(link).

Dining Notes from All Over

Kewpee Lunch in Racine Wisconsin, said to be the birthplace of the malted milk. Four people, $10.50 plus tip. The malted was actually pretty good.==

Bonus: The Kewpee website, which probably wins top honors for the most annoying little thingy ever (link).

Thursday, July 26, 2007


We're traveling again. We're off to Wisconsin for a family wedding, and I suppose some cheese. I'm packing (or "packin'") a laptop, but I have no idea whether I will deploy it. Back in a few days.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Roosevelt: Not Enough Like Mussolini

There seems to be a bit of blog buzz over the BBC documentary which rehashes the story of the coup plot against Franklin Roosevelt and in particular, the part that Prescott (“grandpa”) Bush may have played in it. I haven’t a lot to add except to marvel over how a story like this—which has, after all, been around for quite a while—takes on legs as if new.

But I will offer one addendum that maybe nobody else has picked up on yet. That is: the standard criticism of Roosevelt today is that he was given to all kinds of batty and ill-considered forms of market intervention like, in particular, the National Recovery Administration (which, so far as I know, nobody alive defends today). IOW, he should have been more like Ron Paul.

But even a cursory skim of the coup story will show that the coup plotters had a diametrically different agenda. Indeed, their complaint about Roosevelt was that he should have been more like Mussolini.

Now, if you are looking for batty and ill-considered interventionist schemes, I should think that Mussolini’s Italy is exactly the first place you would want to look (Hitler is a poor second: in execution, some of his schemes were actually efficient). So; the wingnut line of the 30s is just about 180 degrees out from the wingnut line of today.

Fn.: Whether Ron Paul is, in fact, in any way remotely like Ron Paul, is a question I leave for another day. I mention him only because any mention of "Ron Paul" gooses my blog hits.

Reference: A Google Blog Search for “BBC Roosevelt Prescott Bush Mussolini” at 9:05 pm pst tonight yielded 170 hits.

MIni-Partial-Review: Stoner

Morris Dickstein (link) says that John Williams’ Stoner is “something rarer than a great novel”:

[I]t is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

I know. You are thinking: who is Morris Dickstein to me and why should I care a rat’s patooty what he thinks about anything? It’s a fair question, actually, but I put it aside long enough to give Stoner a try. I’m only part way through and I’m still on the fence. Stoner has palpable virtues: it is insightful and evocative, and about many things it is kinder than a lot of novels, particularly a lot of academic novels.

As one might anticipate of an academic novel, it paints what must be one of the worst all-time novelistic marriages. I know that’s a tough race, but for nightmarish domestic discord, I’d put Stoner just behind Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and perhaps a bit ahead of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But there’s a problem here: we surely learn William Stoner’s side of the story, and Edith must be a nasty piece of business by any measure. But I admit to feeling a bit more compassion for her than the author perhaps intends. My take is that she’s not very bright and not very imaginative and nobody ever gave her a clue how to behave any more decently than she does. She raises holy hell with other people’s lives, but she doesn’t do any great favors to herself, either. Be interesting (if perhaps a bit surreal) to hear things from her point of view.

There are some wonderful set-pieces. Over as beer, David Masters offers an anatomy of a university, and the different kind of climbers and time-servers who try to turn it to their advantage. Might be a good move to put it in the welcome packet of any neophyte professor. There’s the introductory dinner where Stoner meets the beloved’s parents—it comes very close to parody, but it’s pretty good parody in any event. There’s also this marvelous throw-away on comparative cultural attitudes to death:

His dissertation topic had been “The Influence of the Classical Tradition upon the Medieval Lyric.” He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when the looked to the death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.

John Williams, Stoner 41 (NYRB Classics 2003)

So I’ll stay with it: Dickstein may be a bit over the top, but my guess is that he is close enough to right to deserve a bye here.

Followup: There’s a “correction” to the NYT review which reads (link):

An essay, "The Inner Lives of Men," on June 17, about the writer John Williams and the reissue of his novel "Stoner," misidentified the founder of the creative writing program at the University of Denver. It was Alan Swallow — not Williams, who was an early faculty member in the program and taught there for many years.

Fine, except it wasn’t the Times’ error. The blurb on the inside front cover of Stoner says “Williams founded the creative writing program at the University of Denver.” Evidently not true.

Mini-Partial-Review: Scars of War, etc.

I think I’m going to have to give up on Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (2006). Pity: I had been looking for a good, manageable history of modern Israeli history and I started this one with high enthusiasm. Indeed, Ben-Ami’s account is a model of clarity and persuasive judgment. Things hold up pretty well through the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but from there on out, the story gets harder and harder to follow.

You might say I have no right to complain here: anything is complicated once I get close to it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be blown off with easy generalities. Surely Ben-Ami, who was deeply involved in the late stages of the story, his both the right and the responsibility not to make things any more simple than they really are.

But the purpose of writing a book like this is to reflect and reassess, and I am not sure Ben-Ami has done that job for himself yet—not beyond the frustration and dismay that he (quite understandably) feels at the collapse of the last (pre-W) chapter. When he gets to the numberless “roadmaps” and “processes” of recent years, I find myself encountering not so much as a roadmap as a trackless thicket, not so much the desert landscape of the Middle East as efflorescence of the Mississippi delta, with unknown somebodies (Louisiana national guard?) taking potshots at me from seemingly random directions.

But no question that I’ve taken a lot of profit from it anyway. Ben-Ami is pretty good at identifying critical strategic judgments—right and wrong, together with the tectonic shifts in world politics that shape them. He’s surely to correct to hold the Mufti at fault for a colossal blunder back in World War II when he threw his hand in with the Nazis—and to credit Ben Gurion with a masterstroke in recognizing that it was the Americans, not the British, who would be the center of gravity after the War.

Ben-Ami is not alone in seeing Israel’s very success in the 1967 war as a kind of misfortune because it distorted their conception of a real settlement for years—perhaps permanently—thereafter. He sketches a plausible picture of Anwar Sadat as understanding that he could work independently, outside the Geneva framework, rather than within it. He’s probably right that Rabin, whatever his limitations, did anticipate, long before almost anyone else, the threat from emerging Muslim fundamentalism.

I suppose every line of a book like this is bound to be controversial, but I must say he did raise my eyebrows in seeming to credit King Hussein of Jordan with vision and insight in choosing to abandon the Palestinians to their own devices. Granted the decision did change the political landscape but I’m not sure every Palestinian would thank him for it.

I can see as a I look back over these notes that I must have gotten something out of the book, whatever my perplexity. It may be just that the Arab-Israeli (or, perhaps better, the Israel-Palestine) problem is the 21st Century version of the Schleswig-Holstein issue—of which, recall Lord Palmerston:

"Only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The first was Albert, the Prince consort and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum: and the third was myself - and I have forgotten it.

The Tragedy of Math Ignorance
Among Literary People

“Believe me, income has dropped by twenty percent and prices have gone up by twenty percent, that’s a total of forty percent!”

—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities II 729
(Vintage Paperback ed. 1995)

Hm, one plus twenty percent = 1.2. One minus 20 percent = 0.8. (1.2/0.8)-1=0.5 = fifty percent.

[Or maybe that was the joke, and I didn't get it?]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Pinker's Dangerous Ideas

Steve Pinker offers up a list of questions based on what he calls “dangerous ideas:”

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas -- ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

Well I guess I know where he is coming from but actually, no. I think each one of his candidates is at least an interesting question. If they are ‘dangerous” in any sense, it is because they are hard to answer, and because slick or simplistic answers can prove a nuisance. For my own entertainment, I offer his questions infra together with (in CAPS) my own slick and simplistic answers:

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men? YES

Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires? MOSTLY YES

Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years? MIXED; SOME YES, SOME NO

Do most victims of sexual suffer no lifelong damage? SOMETIMES YES, SOMETIMES NO, DK THE PERCENTAGES

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape? YES

Do men have an innate tendency to rape? PROBABLY YES

Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence? POSSIBLE, NOT PROVEN

Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven? THAT’S THREE QUESTIONS

Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized? PROBABLY NOT

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men? DK

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality? WHAT DO YOU MEAN “JUST”?

Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized? PROBABLY, BUT I’D TAKE IT INCREMENTALLY FOR MORE INFO

Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease? NO

Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability? NO

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children? THIS IS DANGEROUS? OF COURE THEY DO

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism? SORRY, TOO SIMPLISTIC

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances? NO

Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste? YES

Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people? YES

Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder? MAYBE; AGAIN, I’D PROCEED INCREMENTALLY HERE FOR MORE INFO

Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation? DITTO

Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children? DITTO

HT: Marginal Revolution, but the link seems to be broken at the moment.

Something I Didn't Know
About the Book Biz

Here’s something I didn’t know about publishing:

We’ve been reading a “personal-narrative” account of life in Czechoslovakia during the Communist years. It’s a profitable exercise, but the book is incompetently written—garrulous and meandering with lots of rookie mistakes; it cries out for an “as told to” ghost writer. In my frustration, I got to thinking: could this be self-published. But it’s a main line publisher, not a vanity press. I put the question to Underbelly’s lower Manhattan correspondent who should know the truth. He replies:

[I] it's non-fiction, virtually any publisher will sign off on what's essentially vanity publication. The author guarantees the sale of a certain number of copies, or places a block order, and underwrites the ad campaign, etc. A lot of business exec biogs are published this way.

Ha, I never knew that. Business exec biogs: so that explains all the clutter.

Some Suggestions for NYRB

New York Review of Books invites readers to suggest titles for inclusion in its Classics series (link). Here's a personal selection. I haven't made exhaustive inquiry but I think some are available elsewhere, and some are entirely out of print. Most are stuff I already own and, in the cull, am choosing not to throw away--although I would like to lay my hands on an acceptably-priced set of the Sperber trilogy. A couple I have discussed earlier here.

Cash, W. J., The Mind of the South (1941)

Inimitable “appreciation” of the South at the end of the long antebellum.

Davis, Norman, ed. The Paston Letters (1963)

Family letters from the late Middle Ages.

Levy, Newman, Opera Guyed (1923)

Opera in comic verse.

Lippman, Walter, Public Opinion (1922)

Wonderful insight into the mind of the most influential journalist of his day.

Markham, Felix, Napoleon (1963)

The busiest life in short compass; a marvel of concision.

Matthews, George T. The Fugger Newsletters (1959)

Another retrieved letter cache.

Nicolson, Harold, Good Behavior (1955)

Instructive insight into a certain kind of British mind.

Sitwell, Edith, Planet and Glow-worm (1944)

Bedside anthology.

Sperber, Manes, All Our Yesterdays trilogy

God's Water Carriers (1991)

The Unheeded Warning (1991)

Until My Eyes Are Closed With Shards (1994)

Autobiographical account of life in hard times.

Waugh, Evelyn, Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr (1946)

Waugh as Catholic.

Westcott, Edward Noyes, David Harum (1900)

American local color.

Monday, July 23, 2007

For Your Dining Pleasure

From Yglesias:

Hugo Lindgren glosses Tyler Cowen's view on what makes for good cuisine: "The magic ingredient, he elaborates, is extreme income inequality, which ensures a large reservoir of cheap labor to grow and prepare the food, as well as a sufficient number of rich people who, being rich, must eat well."

I'd go a step further: I suspect a lot of NY restaurants could jack up prices an extra 15 percent if they had a supply of starving children pressing their noses against the window.

We're In a Service Business...

I can’t find the link right now, but I picked this up on a news site over the weekend:

A young Israeli man who went missing in India on Wednesday was found alive by a rescue team near the city of Manali on Friday.

Sa'ar Revivo was found in a state of extreme dehydration by a team working for his insurance company near the northern Indian city, and was rushed to hospital to receive medical treatment.

Hello, insurance company? I asked my buds what they thought of that; the general consensus is that it’s a bit of a novelty, but there is some precedent. Insurance companies often provide something other than just money-for-loss: the auto liability policy buys you a courtroom defense, and professional liability buys you a lot of good mitigation-of-damage work. And anybody who remembers this one of my all-time favorite movies will recall how the bail bondsman earns his money.

Besides, I suppose somebody in Israel has to provide employment for all those retired Mossad types.

Kudos to Noel for showcasing the victim’s last name. Noel adds: two days? Most insurance companies, it takes two days just to verify the spelling.

Pete Seeger: Worse than a Crime

Brad DeLong confesses to a guilty pleasure: Pete Seeger (link). But Brad seems discomfited: He learns that Dave Boaz recalls Seeger’s Stalinist past (link).

Boaz is right, but it’s worse than he realizes. I will play the old guy card here: I don’t remember the Hitler-Stalin pact, but I remember the Seeger with the Weavers from the 40s and Seeger solo from the 50s. I attended Seeger performances in little tiny halls where his long-necked banjo seemed to extend half way over the audience. I was enchanted by his banjo playing, thrilled by his energy and drive.. His “Wimaway” (back before Disney kidnapped it) was enough to knock me flat..

And as much as I loved the music, I always felt a creepy uneasiness at the Seeger schtick: it was sheer manipulation—no, worse, it was tacky down-market manipulation, vulgar Stalinism, proletarian art.

I grant there’s a complicated relationship between an artist and his art. At the same time that I was enchanted by Seeger’s “Tzena, Tzena,” I was dazzled by what Walter Gieseking could do with a Beethoven Sonata. It bothered me that Gieseking seemed to be a bit of a Nazi; but at least he didn’t get in my face about it. I could listen to the music and pretend that the politics wasn’t there. No such option with Seeger. He played his banjo with dazzling panache, but he played his audience with a lot of simplistic sermonizing about “the people” and “together” that was enough to make you gag. It was, among other things, a show of contempt—contempt for an audience that should have known better, but, sadly, perhaps deserved his contempt because they let him get away with it.

I grant in general that the 50s were a treacherous time in American politics, a time when it was almost impossible to get everything right. Who would have guessed that I would live long enough to think that accused wife-killer Dr. Sam Sheppard was probably innocent and Alger Hiss, almost certainly guilty? Seeger is no more than a bit player in that story and the sensible path might be just to remember the good stuff, and forget about the vulgar Stalinism. But I really wish he had stuck to what he was good at; Id’ rather not have to remember him as part of a mean, dishonest, thuggish lot. Paraphrasing a great man, it was worse than a crime, it was kitsch.

Fn.: Yglesias doesn’t even like the music (link).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Solace For Those
Who Weren't First in their Class

I blogged the other day on Maurice who?—who is one of three triple-star firsts in the history of Cambridge University (link). Here’s a followup: Charles Seaforth Stewart.

Charles who? The answer is that he was first in the West Point class of 1846, the subject of John C. Waugh’s The Class of 1846 From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and their Brothers (1994) the fascinating history of the officers who formed so much of the top tier of the officer corps in the Civil War. McClellan was #2; Jackson, #17. Most of the others are less famous, though we do have—oops—George Edward Pickett (#59--last) he of Pickett’s charge, the Confederate “great almost” at Gettysburg in 1862.

Waugh recounts that Stewart came to West Point well prepared for distinction: he was the son of a Navy chaplain, and he had a top-notch prep school background. For all his distinction as a student, Stewart seems to have accomplished substantially nothing in his combat career. He served as a major of engineers under McClellan in the Peninsular campaign, and didn’t even make colonel until after the war.

For whatever it may be worth, it might be useful to remember that McClellan, the much more notorious #2, is in the end more notorious than famous. His main distinction is that he is the man who couldn’t bring himself to fight at the beginning of the war, and then tired to unseat Lincoln as Democratic candidate for president at the end. His skills, such as they are, seem much more academic than practical.

Books Do Furnish a Room

I knew a lawyer who represented a Ferrari dealer. When the customer didn't pay, they had to send out the repossessor. But it turns out that a Ferrari is easy to find, because the customer never takes it anywhere: it spends almost all its life locked up in an air-conditioned garage.

I thought of the Ferrari this morning when I read Matt Yglesias, who plucks a line that I missed out of today's NYT (link):
[I]t is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars.

Yglesias good-naturedly suggests that well, actually, maybe you can put together a serious library for less than several hundred thousand dollars, which is surely true, but he might have pursued the context. The Times appears to be quoting this guy, whose website marquees "Modern Literary First Editions/Fine Books & Manuscripts Bought & Sold." So when he says "books," he is talking "decorations," or maybe even more likely "status symbols" in the sense of goodies you use to awe or humiliate lesser mortals. That's the Ferrari tie: You wouldn't actually read one of these books any more than you would drive the Ferrari--you'd just haul them out on selected occasions to make the rest of the world feel like spit.

Even as recontextualized, I suspect that Lopez may be guilty of just a wee bit of marketing--he is, after all, a dealer. Reading his own on-line catalog (which, I assume, should be filed as "fiction"), I find he has on offer a Raymond Carver for $175 and signed E.L. Doctorow for $25 (eeuw, that hurts).

Yglesias and his commentators are having a good time speculating on how they might in fact assemble a good collection for less than several hundred thousand dollars, but they might want to turn the matter around: could you spend that much if you had to, without having large chunk of change left over? Maybe if you threw in a climate-controlled bomb shelter for storage. Or an autographed first-edition Old Testament. Or hey, just buy mine. Free shipping on all orders.

Meta note: observe that this is my second car repossession post of the day.

Headline of the Day

Underbelly's Deutschland bureau reads Der Spiegel so we don't have to (link):


Tiny Brain No Problem for French Tax Official

Turns out there is a real story here:

The commonly spouted wisdom that people only use 10 percent of their brain power may have been dismissed as a myth, but one French man seems to be managing fine with just a small fraction of his actual brain.

In fact the man, who works as a civil servant in southern France, has succeeded in living an entirely normal life despite a huge fluid-filled cavity taking up most of the space where his brain should be

Neurologists at the University of Marseille described the incredible case in the latest edition of the medical journal Lancet published Friday.

Meta-footnote:Eeuw, too easy. An hour after I blogged this, Technorati links to 26 others blogs, i.e., not to me but to the original post. Apologies for wasting everyone's time.

A Hypothetical Universe: Life Without the CIA

Quote of the day, from the Evan Thomas in the NYT Sunday Book Review (link):

The C.I.A. never did have much luck operating inside Communist China, and it failed to predict the Iranian revolution of 1979. “We were just plain asleep,” said the former C.I.A. director Adm. Stansfield Turner. The agency also did not foresee the explosion of an atom bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949, the invasion of South Korea in 1950, the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the explosion of an atom bomb by India in 1998 — the list goes on and on, culminating in the agency’s wrong call on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002-3.

The question inevitably arises: so, how would things have been different had there been no CIA at all? Here’s a partial answer: we would have had to find something to do with all those testosterone-surplus young bravos who got a chance (via the CIA) to play cops and robbers around the world. It’s one clear advantage of having an empire: gives you a chance to get rid of some otherwise unemployable energy, i.e., by exporting to others who have to suffer their ministrations without having any say in the matter. Lacking empire, you have to find some good use for all that surplus, like maybe this.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I’ve been meaning to do an appreciation of Marcella Hazan, the cuuco di tutti cuochi (I believe I use the masculine here, though she is a she?) but I can’t find my notes, so I will have to substitute this recipe for cooking ormers:

My mother knew how to cook ormers. When she had cut the parts you eat out of the shell, she would scrub the black edges with a scrubbing brush until they was perfectly clean; and that took some doing. Then she would put them between two towels and beat them with a flat iron for half an hour or more. They are hard as leather, but she’d roll up her sleeves; and she had muscles on her arms, my mother. That was when she was happy. She’d be singing hymns all the time and you could hear her all over the house. When they was properly broke up and soft, she’d fry them over the fire in the cast iron frying-pan; and then stew then in the oven to finish up with. Some people stew them with onions, but my mother didn’t believe in that. She said it takes the taste away and spoils the gravy. She liked them with just boiled potatoes.

When there was a lot to be had, she would pickle some. They was fourpence a dozen, if you bought them; but that wasn’t worth it. After they had been scrubbed and beaten, they was boiled for a long time; and then pickled in the best vinegar with bay leaves in an airtight jar. We didn’t have no bay leaves in our garden; so I had to go and steal some from Mr Dorey of Oatlands. He had a bay tree with leaves hanging over the road.. Mr Dorey would have given us as many bay leaves as we wanted, if we’d asked him: but my mother wouldn’t let me out. She was proud, my mother. She would rather steal than beg; and I’m the same. The jar was kept on the shelf with the pots of jam; and sometimes I’d be given a picked ormer for my tea with bread and butter, when I came home from school.

I can’t say what ormers taste like. They are not like fish, flesh or fowl. They are like no other food on earth. I have heard of the nectar of the gods. Or is it ambrosia they feed on? They must be ormers. Well, my poor old mother is in heaven now, if she is anywhere at all. If they got any sense up there, they will get her to cook them meal of ormers. I can just see her banging away at the old ormers with a flat iron and her sleeves rolled up and singing ‘Where is my wandering boy tonight?’

—G. B. Edwards, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page 16-17 (1981).

Fn.: An appendix on the Guernsey Island dialect defines “ormer” as “the sea-ear, abalone-like shellfish unique to the islands.”

Fn.: Did you notice the cool use of the semicolon (and colon)? They’ve pretty much gone out of the language—along with the dash—and it is a loss.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Borat and His Predecessor

Quoting from memory—an interview with Allan Ginsberg:

--Do you like America?

--Last year, you show them a copy of a picture by Van Gogh. This year, you show them the real picture. Next year, you show them the ear.


Mrs. Buce and I settled down last night for a showing of Borat. We know we’re not the prime demographic, but we like to know what the kiddies are up to. It was fun, actually, although perhaps more derivative than I would have guessed: a little John Stewart, quite a bit of Reno 911, a whole lot of Michael Moore (including a full dose of that faux-sympathy for the schleps, coupled with abiding contempt)—hey even a bit of Little Miss Sunshine (funky roadtrip in wildly unsuitable vehicle).

But after a while, it sank into me—the real reference point is Lolita. Or at least if you’re old enough: old enough to remember back when Lolita was edgy—when the idea of sex with a 12-year-old still excited horrified fascination, together with the uneasy sense that it could be, well, funny. And the road trip:

We traveled very leisurely, having more than a week to reach Wace, Continental Divide, where she passionately desired to see the Ceremonial Dances marking the seasonal opening of Magic Cave, and at least three weeks to reach Elphinstone, gem of a western State where she yearned to climb Red Rock from which a mature screen star had recently jumped to her death after a drunken row with her gigolo.

Again we were welcomed to wary motels by means of inscriptions that read:

“We wish you to feel at home while here. All equipment was carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here. Use hot water sparingly. We reserve the right to eject without notice any objectionable person. Do not throw waste material of any kind in the toilet bowl. Thank you. Call again. The Management. P.S. We consider our guests the Finest People of the World.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita 210 (1991 [1955])

Okay, Nabokov is a better writer, I grant you that. Wonder what they will be doing to shock us in another 50 years. Happily, I won’t be around to find out.

Too Easy But

It has a certain economy--Underbelly's Wichita Bureau on the colonoscopy:

Wonder if they found is head.

Oh tee hee.

Triple First: Maurice Zinkin

Writing about Abba Eban the other day, I mentioned his academic distinction—a Cambridge triple first. Can anyone match it? The answer is “yes.” Apparently there are two other Cambridge triple firsts. One is Neal Ascherson, the Scottish journalist. The other is Maurice Zinken.

Ah—Maurice who? Exactly. He doesn’t even rate a Wiki entry. But count on the obituary editor of the Telegraph to take his measure. Here’s the account from May 28, 2002:

Maurice Zinkin, who has died aged 87, excelled as an administrator in British India, where he endured malaria, a broken back and the shock of having his stand-in shot dead during the Partition riots; he later made his mark as an industrialist and author.

Zinkin entered the Indian Civil Service in 1938 with one of the highest marks ever recorded in the ICS exam; before that, he had graduated from Cambridge with a Triple Starred First.

He began as a Supernumerary Assistant Collector, touring the remote tribal lands of the Bhils on horseback, collecting revenue and enforcing law and order over an area a third of the size of Wales.

Life in the ICS was formal: even when on the move and sleeping in tents, Zinkin would bathe each evening in a tin tub filled with water heated by kerosene, then put on a dinner jacket. "Helps to keep up morale," he explained in a letter to his future wife. "It is so easy to let oneself go if one does not keep up appearances."

Each morning, after a cup of tea in bed, he was dressed by his bearer - until his wife Taya (nee Ettinger, later India correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, Le Monde and the Economist) put a stop to it after the war.

During the war, while in charge of his own subdivision, Zinkin suffered 19 bouts of malaria in two years, an ordeal he carefully omitted from his letters home. The quinine caused shaking and depression, and while riding along he took to dreaming in Marathi, the local language, waking up every time he did not know a word.

Later, in Bombay, he fell from a horse and broke two vertebrae, entailing six months in a plaster cast which began below the shoulders and ended above the knees. As head of air raid precautions for the city, he nonetheless insisted on doing his work in hospital, flat on his back, holding his files above his head. In the humidity, the itching was almost unbearable; maggots under the cast contributed to the torture.

Around this time, he was responsible for the admission of the first woman into the Secretariat, when he recruited as one of his assistants Miss Salukhere, an orphaned Brahmin graduate who later married an ambassador.

Maurice Zinkin was born on May 4 1915 in Leeds and grew up in London. His father, who owned a furniture factory in Hackney, died when he was nine. His grandfather on his mother's side was Rabbi Daiches, Chief Rabbi in Leeds. From Haberdashers' Aske, he won a scholarship to Jesus, Cambridge, to read History and Law. After graduating, he stayed on for three years as a tutor before sitting the ICS entrance exam.

Eban got his own Telegraph obit six months later on November 18 when he, too, died at the age of 87.

Three Reasons Not to Dance

This almost didn't happen but that's no reason not to repeat it.

Tis said of George Brown, late deputy leader of the British Labour Party, and a notorious lush, that he spotted a remarkable creature in a floor-length red frock, and that he lumbered over and asked her to dance.

"I won't dance with you for three reasons," came the response.

"First, you're drunk."

"Second, that is not a waltz, it's the Peruvian National Anthem."

"And third, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Montevideo."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Abba Eban on Just About Everybody

One of the many delights of reading Abba Eban's Autobiography (see previous post) is to imbibe his aphoristic judgments on just about everything and, more notably, just about everybody. Here's a selection:

Israel Sieff [a Zionist worker in London] was more relaxed, and seemed to have been invented by lexicographers in order to justify the existence of the word “urbane.” (66)

Herbert Evatt of the UN Special Political Committee: His self-confidence was absolute. Behind his abrasive exterior lurked an abrasive interior. He never allowed his resolution to be blunted by any confession of fallibility. . . . He did not suffer fools—or, for that matter wise men—gladly. He expected deference and was seldom inclined to regard any praise of himself as excessive. (91)

Harry Truman: I had not expected his air of self-reliance. I had imagined more diffidence and reserve. It seemed that the experience of winning the election in his own right had transformed his demeanor. I have always been willing to accept the New Testament prediction that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but I have often wondered whether, having inherited it, they would continue to be meek. (156)

John Foster Dulles: He was a complex personality, physically shy and clumsy, but full of intellectual self-confidence. He was able to pass from moral elevation to an extraordinary deviousness and back again with little visible transition. He was marked by a thin and achromatic spirituality; but whatever was thought of him, I knew that nobody would count as much as he in determining our international position for the next decade, and I was resolved to find a way into his mind and heart. (175)

Dulles again: He was already famous for his nomadic impulse. He founded the tradition according to which diplomatic eminence is measured by air mileage. (194)

British Foreign Minister George Brown: He had no excess of false modesty. He sincerely believed that there was no middle ground between George Brown’s views and plain stupidity. (437)

Henry Kissinger: I felt that if he wanted to sell us a car with a wheel missing, he would achieve his purpose by an eloquent and cogent eulogy of the three wheels that remained. (562)

On Israeli public figures, making speeches in the runup to the 1967 war: If there had been a little more silence, the sum of human wisdom would probably have remained intact. (319)

And finally, on Jewish history: Many things in Jewish history are too terrible to be believed, but nothing in that history is too terrible to have happened. (333)

Mini-Review: Abba Eban

To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, I’ve been holed up most of the last couple of days reading the Autobiography of Abba Eban. And I come away a believer: he’s got to count as one of the first-tier political figures of the modern age, fit company for Churchill and deGaulle.

This is a strong claim for a guy who never served as head of government, or even head of state, and who does not rate much attention in standard histories of Israel in his time. But I think I can justify it. What Eban did was to define a nation, both to the world and (perhaps to a lesser extent) to itself. He had a clear notion of what it meant to be Israel, a notion which he stuck to with persistence and defended with skill and guile. But at least as important, he articulated that vision with almost unparalleled rhetorical skill. Israel’s founding narrative has plenty of heroes, but I doubt that there is any single person—no not even David Ben Gurion—who did more to establish the identity of the new state.

Happily (for it is a long book) his fluency and magnetism come across as well on paper as they seem to have registered in the General Assembly of the United Nations—so much so that after a while you forget you are not listening to a real person; you want to say: “Abba, this is wonderful, but shouldn’t you go back to take your place on the world stage? Oh—you’ve been dead for five years, sorry, my bad.”

Eban had a set of qualifications that peculiarly equipped him for his job although in other ways it may have served also as a limit. Among the first generation of Israeli leaders, he was virtually the only one who was not either Israel-born, or directly from Eastern Europe: he had grown up in London, where he learned Greek and Latin at day school, Hebrew from his grandfather. He went on to Cambridge where he achieved what may be the best academic record in the history of the school—a triple-starred first—plus a dazzling record as a student debater. His particular skill was languages: it is said he was fluent in ten of them in all, including Arabic (he translated an Arabic novel into English). Indeed it was the breadth of his cultural background that prompted London Zionist leaders to pluck him out early for diplomatic work.

After service in colonial Palestine in World War II, he threw himself into Zionist work full time and found himself, almost by accident, in New York at the UN as the man charged to introduce the new state of Israel on the world stage. Indeed skeptics will say that his entire career sums up in a handful of speeches. This isn’t true, but if it is true, it is true in the same sense as it is true for Churchill or Lincoln: a few speeches at the right moment can change the course of history.

Eban’s fall in that class. But like Churchill and Lincoln, he in fact did a great deal more than speak. Indeed Eban proved indefatigable in his off-stage diplomacy, establishing himself with virtually every important world leader and saving Israel’s bacon (okay, poor choice of words) more than once in his tumultuous career.

Eban worked at the UN through the founding of Israel in 1948, and on through the ill-fated Suez adventure in 1956. He moved back to Israel in 1959, hoping to find a place in domestic politics. In fact, his important work continued to be his role as Israel’s public face, which he assumed again in and around the Six-Day War in 1967, and again in the disastrous Yom Kippur War in 1973. Aside from that, he never quite made it to the top rung of national politics. Indeed he remarks in an aside, that there are any number of important diplomats who have proven more effective abroad than at him: he no doubt understood that the class might include itself.

Eban recounts all this in detail that is exhaustive to a fault, sustained by the drive and vigor of his prose. Yet one can’t help be haunted by the stark fact underlying every discussion of Israel: contrary to what we all seem to have thought at the time, the place was not empty when the Israelis got there, almost everything the Israelis have accomplished has had to be scratched unwillingly from somebody else.

This fact is inescapable. But the devil is in a thousand details, and we can imagine one, a hundred, a multitude of Israels, each different from the one we have and many uglier and less inviting. It is no small part of Eban’s achievement that he helped to define Israel at its (at least) potential best.

Eban’s book (and, in large measure, his political career) ends just about when “modern Israel” begins—with the advent of Likud, and the quarrel over continued occupancy of Gaza and the West Bank. It’s vain to speculate on how things would have been different if he had been present at Madrid, at Oslo, at Camp David, whatever. One can’t help but believe that it would have been different somehow: indeed by his own account, from the day the 1967 War ended, Eban understood that the real job was to win the peace—to use the military victory as the basis for a sustained and lasting resolution of conflict in the Middle East. And we’re not there yet.

Source: Abba Eban, An Autobiography (1977)

Background and framework: Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (2007)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

French Jews and Assimilation

It’s become conventional wisdom to tut-tut about how foolish the French have been, to let all those Muslims into the country and then leave them parked, as it were, until they decide to make trouble. Writing in the 1927, Joseph Roth offers another take on the issue. As a “wandering Jew,” after Vienna and Berlin, he found Paris a paradise:

Eastern Jews are allowed to live as they please in Paris. They may send their children to Jewish schools or French. The Paris-born children of Eastern Jews may acquire French citizenship. France needs inhabitants. It seems to be positively its duty to be underpopulated and forever to stand in need of new inhabitants, and to make foreigners into Frenchmen. In that lies both its strength and its weakness.

Admittedly there is anti-Semitism in France, even outside royalist circles. But it is not one hundred proof. Eastern Jews, accustomed to a far stronger, cruder, more brutal anti-Semitism, are perfectly happy with the French version.

And why not? They enjoy religious, cultural, and national rights. They are allowed to speak Yiddish as loudly and as much as they like. They are even allowed to speak bad French without incurring hostility.

—Joseph Roth, Report from a Parisian Paradise 147 (2005)

But there is a complication:

The consequence of such leniency is that they learn French, and that their children no longer speak Yiddish.


Oh really? Now, that is one part of the program that didn’t seem to carry

Second Straight Bankruptcy Post (Russian Front)

I can't read Russian, but I can dope out Cyrillic letters, and it is fun to look for cognates. Kicking around the library this afternoon, my eye fell on a lugubrious black double-decker whose title I decoded as follows:


I assume that means: the bankruptcy of the German Fascist strategy. Ha! We're everywhere.

Bankruptcy Lawyer Wisdom

From a guy in my other life, i.e., where he represents debtors in bankruptcy:

I continue to be amazed that most clients can't tell you who they owe, how much they owe, what interest rate they're paying on their car loan, whether or not they received a tax refund last year, etc.

But they can all tell you every detail of their timeshare, including what a great investment it was!

My friend Joel comments: that other stuff is so boring.

Borlaug Unbranded

Well, hey--I didn't realize he was even still alive. But Gregg Easterbrook reports that the greatest living American got the Congressional Gold Medal yesterday--he can hang it next to his Nobel Peace Prize.

Kudos to Gregg for noticing, and for scolding the mainstream press for its inattention, but I think his analysis is a little confused:

Borlaug's story is ignored because his is a story of righteousness -- shunning wealth and comfort, this magnificent man lived nearly all his life in impoverished nations. If he'd blown something up, lied under oath or been caught offering money for fun, ABC, CBS and NBC would have crowded the Capitol Rotunda today with cameras, hoping to record an embarrassing gaffe. Because instead Borlaug devoted his life to serving the poor, he is considered Not News. All I can say after watching him today is that I hope Borlaug isn't serious about retiring, as there is much work to be done -- and I hope when I'm 93 years old I can speak without notes, as he did.

I believe Borlaug is a "magnificent man" all right, but I'd say the main reason we haven't noticed is that he never turned himself into a publicity machine. I don't think there'd be the slightest problem for the right kind of agent (with the right kind of percentage) to have Norman Borlaug in our faces 24-7. We could have Borlaug TV specials: "Hi, I'm Norm Borlaug and I'm here to tell you about world hunger." There could have been any number of books, including cookbooks (a dollar from each purchase goes to fight world hunger!). How much would Kellogg have paid to put his face on a box of breakfast cereal (the man who solved world hunger can solve your hunger today!). The mind reels at the thought of the joint world tour of Norm Borlaug and Princess Di.

Understand that I'm not knocking Borlaug here (except in the restricted sense that I can imagine a world where he uses his brand to support his good works). My point is that--well, forget about the Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal, there ought to be a special prize for people who do acts of heroism and do not hijack Larry King.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Cultural Function of Opera

Yep, I confess I’m an opera fan, but I have to admit, it’s a pretty weird art form—the only one that I know of with a specific date of birth and a narrative history, all grounded on a historical mistake (link). And it has come to be rooted—okay, stuck—in the 19th Century (don’t let them kid you, nobody goes to a “new” opera more than once, except as a condition of probation).

Arno J. Mayer throws some instructive light on the matter:

[B]etween 1848 and 1914 the opera became the queen of Dionysian art forms and cults. Of Baroque origin, like the museum it moved out of its courtly environment into the public sphere, bringing along most of its architectural and reportorial endowment. In fact, the opera never ceased to be courtly, and after 1840, by moving into new houses and acquiring a new repertoire, it became increasingly stately. Behind grandiose historical façades, the grand staircases, tiered loges, and mannered foyers were ideally suited for the rites of imitation that promoted and reflected the aristocratization of the bourgeoisie. Steeped in historical lore and received musical constructs, the operatic librettos, scores, and productions were no less conducive to this lasting remobilization of Europe’s ruling classes. Quite fittingly, the crowned heads of Germany, Austria and Russia took a special interest in the opera houses of their capitals, and all governments, including those of the Third Republic, allocated a disproportionately large share of their meager budgets for the arts to this exclusive and sacramental cultural activity.

—Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime 210-11 (1981)

Aside from the crowned heads, it is amazing how much of this persists today. Mayer goes on to lay responsibility for this framework at the feet of Richard Wagner:

Less and less interested in entertaining or achieving some ideal of stylistic purity, he turned to celebrating and reconstructing the social order of the German empire. Like his close friend Gottfried Semper, the preeminent architect of Baroque monumentalism in Central Europe, Wagner constructed music dramas of colossal pomp and self-possession calculated to mystify and spiritualize life inside and beyond the operatic temple.

Id. 211

Be interesting to know (but I don’t suppose I will know) how some future cultural historian will understand the place of opera in our own time. I’d be interested in particular to know what he makes of video simulcasts (but that is way ahead of the story).

On Destroying Presidents, and That Guy in Pittsburgh

Lots of Blogchatter today about Richard Mellon Scaife, the Darth Vader of the Clinton impeachment caper, who now says that staying in Iraq is “suicide” and that Bush is “delusional” (link).

Lots of good fun here and maybe some political content, but I wouldn’t go too hubba hubba. Recall that Scaife is a prime bearer of the principal affliction of newspaper publishers—an all-consuming Need to be Noticed. Take the lot of them—William Randolph Hearst, Lord Beaverbrook, Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, whoever—and you see a bunch of guys jumping up and down and yelling “Hey, lookie me, lookie me!” with an avidity that would put Newt Gingrich to shame. Scaife hasn’t had much action since the Clinton years. Time to rev up the lookie-me engine.

By corollary, if there is anything at all of interest in the current uproar, it may be the fact that Scaife seems to think that a(nother) president is bring-down-able. Of course he was wrong the last time, so no particular need to be impressed by him now.

Bonus: For students of dynastic influence, the real Pittsburgh newspaper just recently offered a convenient summary of Mellon connections (link).


Lots to do today, so I pony on other people.

The headline of the day is here.

For a thought-provoking defense of the former surgeon general, go here.

If you like second, or third, or fourteenth, chances, read this.

For the ultimate second chance, check here. For a more impassioned view, go here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

And You Thought it was Frogs and Locusts

Top foreign news story tonight at the website of La Repubblica, the Italian daily (link):

Misterioso fenomeno in Louisiana
una pioggia di vermi gelatinosi

I.e., mysterious phenomenon in Louisiana a rain of gelatinous worms.

FWIW, a Google News search just now for “louisiana rain worms” brought up just five hits—four TV movies and a fishing site.

From the Bin: Legal Ethics

Ah, this takes me back. I wrote (or do you say “coined” or maybe “tossed off”) this in the fall of ’93 when I was teaching at Penn Law School. One of my `colleagues talked the alumni bulletin into printing it, but then the dean got a look at it; his bowels turned to water and into the file it went, only to emerge today, blinking and bewildered.

I admit, I am probably not the first limerick-writer (limericist?) to rhyme “-adelphia” and “telfia.” Anyway:

A lawyer from old Philadlephia
Told his client, “the lies that I tellfia

Are venal, not vicious—
Whatever your wishes,

I surely will not hazard hellfia."

Thanks. Folks, I’ve got a million of ‘em.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Elizabeth and Katharina

If, as I asserted, Karl Tschuppik’s Francis Joseph I is a novel in disguise, then it ought to be good for at least one good anecdote. Okay, fine.

The Emperor had an Empress, Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, Princess of Bavaria, of the House of Wittelsbach. She had never quite adjusted to the royal harness. She popped three royal babies in quick succession (and later, a fourth) but after having fulfilled her dynastic obligations, she pretty much decamped from the court in favor of a life of her own.

The Emperor, meanwhile, acquired a “companion,” one Katharina Schratt, the daughter of a postman, later an actress, and for more than 30s the “confidante,” oh tee hee, of the Emperor.

No, strike the tee hee. The relationship between the Emperor and Katherina was palpable and enduring, but it appears to have been in no way hydraulic. Rather:

Curious eyes might have seen the correct old gentleman, early in the morning when the big park of Schönbrunn was just beginning to wake up, leave his castle by a small, inconspicuous door which led to a small alley, cross the road, end enter the garden in a house of the Gloriettegasse which bore the number of nine. There he was awaited by a lady who was always good-tempered and smiling, and in the small room, furnished in the old-fashioned Vienna way, a white-clothed table, gay with flowers, was laid for breakfast.

--Karl Tschuppik, Francis Joseph 1 365 (1930)

Indeed, if either of royal couple did anything to excite the paparazzi, it was more than likely the Empress, willful and free-spirited and said in her time to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

But all this is background. Turn now to the evening of Tuesday, January 29, 1889, the fateful that changed the course of Empire and may have triggered World War I. That was the occasion when Crown Prince Rudolph, heir presumptive and the only son of the royal couple, put a bullet through his brain.

Heaven only knows why the Archduke shot himself: certainly no one on earth ever came up with a good story. His passing surely changed the dynamic of European politics but for the moment, the task was to deliver the news to the Emperor. The task fell to Elizabeth:

This was the bitterest hour of Elizabeth’s life. All unsuspecting, the Emperor sat in his study, the little dark-red room looking on to the courtyard. Who was to be the bearer of the news? An hour passed by before Elizabeth arrived at a decision. She sent for Katharina Schratt, the Court actress, the only woman who was intimate with Francis Joseph. One woman’s strength was not sufficient to break the news to the Emperor. The two women entered the Emperor’s study together to reveal the terrible truth.

Id. 281

Afterthought: The “bitterest hour” stuff may be hyperbole. On September 10, 1898, Elizabeth was promenading beside Lake Geneva when she was stabbed with a needle file by a young anarchist. She died. He said he had been looking for someone else, but it didn’t matter: “I wanted to kill a royal. It did not matter which one” (link). Katharina lived on until 1940.

Education as Doorbreaker

Tyler Cowen goes ballistic over Jonathan Kozol. Kozol says (in the August Harper's):

[W]e may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of McDonald's, Burger King, and Wal-Mart.

Tyler responds (link):

Note that while there are some good (though in my view not decisive) arguments against vouchers, Kozol instead focuses on reminding us that corporations are greedy profit-maximizers. Nor does he mention that in America's inner cities, "democratic access" to good french fries far exceeds democratic access to good schools. And might not Louis Vuitton join Wal-Mart in educating some of our children?

I don’t think I’m up to the task of translating this response into English (is Tyler denying that corporations are greedy profit maximizers? Or is he admitting it and saying he likes it that way?). My particular purpose is to note a marketing point that has hitherto eluded me (but not, I suspect, the folks at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart).

That is: why would any self-regarding entrepreneur want to run a school, anyway? The process of education itself has never looked like a source of easy profits—a lot of investment for deferred on dodgy returns. But the related business—textbooks and computers, maybe, but also mass market fashion and, yes, hamburgers. Education as a doorbreaker: a loss leader to bring the customer to the real goodies. Now, that is a marketing opportunity.