Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

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Is that Mr. Bin Laden to you? A question for the NYT’s public editor

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by Wotty

To the Public Editor:

On Monday’s front page, Osama Bin Laden is variously referred to as “Mr. Bin Laden” or simply, and more frequently, “Bin Laden” (not to mention “bin Laden”). The Times’ policy of preceding everyone’s name with an honorific is certainly quaint and perhaps obsolete—to echo a recent, infamous judgement of the Geneva Conventions—but, like the Conventions, if the policy is in place, it must be applied equally to all, especially in the hardest cases; otherwise it becomes worse than meaningless. On what criteria was the Bin Laden decision made? Does it establish a precedent? If so, can we anticipate similar decisions in the future for America’s enemies?

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May 2, 2011 at 11:52

‘Voices from Chernobyl’

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by (wotty)

To my discredit, I haven’t contributed anything to this burgeoning, impressive, and award-winning blog in many moons. I only surface now to briefly draw this page’s well-intellectually-heeled readership’s attention to one of the saddest and more remarkable documents I have read in recent memory. The piece is called ‘Voices From Chernobyl’ and it’s just that: stark, merciless, and deeply affecting first-person accounts of the nuclear disaster in Belarus present-day Ukraine in 1986, published by the Paris Review in 2004 (I came across it via Long Reads). I can’t recommend it highly enough, though I suppose a caveat lector is in order that it’s not for the faint of heart (especially, not that this needs saying, given present-day events).

The testimonies also offer, in pieces, the makings of a superb “everyday” history (as this is a grad history blog I feel it behooves me to drop the original German for this term: Alltagsgeschichte) of Soviet bureaucratic communism in its period of terminal senescence. The testimony from Chernobyl is an extraordinary supplement to the work of historians looking at the “interior” (half) life of Soviet communism (what did people believe, and why, and when and how did that begin to change) such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Thomas Lahusen, and Jochen Hellbeck.

‘Voices from Chernobyl’

UPDATE: From the Times‘s Sunday Week in Review portrait of Chernobyl today, ‘Entering The Dead Zone‘: ‘The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning… But it doesn’t have an end… It is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame… “Nobody knows what to do with what is inside,” he said.’

Written by (wotty)

March 17, 2011 at 13:19

Elie Wiesel: sentimental populist?

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by wotty

I recently got done TAing a course on Nationalism. (I think of being a teaching assistant as kind of like running – in the way Peter the Great ran Russia – a book club on steroids, only Oprah doesn’t pick the books, and you get to grade everyone’s scribblings.) Broadly, the idea of the course was two-fold: first, to expose students to the surprising revelation that the concepts of nations and nation-states did not fall from the sky back in the mists of time immemorial, but are rather human artefacts (I tend to tarry over the importance of this, for many, unfamiliar word) and, indeed, are artefacts of very recent vintage, emerging as the pre-eminent, and now only imaginable, form of political organization in the wake of the French Revolution; and second, to give them some sense of how nationalism affects the telling of history. That is, how nationalists – or what Orwell called, in an inevitably trenchant essay, nationalist “habits of mind” – selectively shape, or simply fabricate, historical narratives the better to support their claims of national legitimacy. One of the “case studies” we looked at was the Middle East, an area where the historical narratives could hardly be more stark in their opposition (what is celebrated on one side as a glorious day of national independence and renewal is mournfully marked by the other as simply “The Catastrophe”).

In any event, this is all prologue to the following remarkable exchange of open letters on the topic of Jerusalem that I wanted to highlight (and would have brought to the attention of my super-charged book club were it still in session). Recently, in a letter to Obama published as full page ads in the Washington Post, the Times, and the International Herald Tribune, Elie Wiesel (former Oprah book club choice, by the by) used his considerable moral authority to plead with the US not to pressure Israel to curtail settlement activity in Jerusalem. Maintaining that, “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics,” Wiesel goes on to say:

It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.

With all due respect to Mr. Wiesel, I have always found the claim that anything is “above politics” – let alone Jerusalem in 2010! – to be risible, and harmfully so.¹ In any event, I’m not writing to presume to respond to Wiesel, but rather to draw your attention to an open letter that does, point by point. It’s written by a group of Jewish Israeli activists in Jerusalem (for the most part “prominent intellectuals and academics”) opposed to the expansion of settlements and who have been protesting in particular the eviction of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. It’s published in the current New York Review of Books, and also at the group’s own website. I strongly encourage you to read it in full as I think it’s a superb, sharp-elbowed deconstruction of the obfuscating effects of nationalist “habits of mind.” To offer just one quote, the letter takes especial issue with Wiesel’s “above politics” claim, turning it on its head to retort that,

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some otherworldly city that purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one.

Whatever the way forward is in the Middle East, it surely involves more unromantic attention to the messy, political, and earthly realities – Jerusalem as artefact, as it were – and rather less to the heavenly cities preventing dialogue on both sides.

¹I’m not sure what “above politics” would even look like. To quote the poet A.E. Housman (I think Orwell, in fact, used this as an epigraph somewhere):

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

Written by (wotty)

May 13, 2010 at 12:32

Elena & Barack

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by wotty

There’s no shortage of informed – far more than mine – commentary out there on Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The Times this morning, for example, has a surprisingly sceptical lead editorial on Kagan’s candidacy, and David Brooks proffers a surprisingly incisive column (“She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing”). Meanwhile, Greenwald – beloved GG! – has truly been doing yeoman’s work on this nomination business since Stevens’s resignation announcement. If you want to get a good survey of the reactions from progressive blogs – or “progblogs” (a neologism I once briefly had the audacity to imagine I’d coined) – I’d recommend simply cruising over to his site, or his Twit*er feed where you get his take, along with a very useful collection of links. The basic knock on Kagan is she’s a tabula rasa – likely for tactical, careerist reasons, and boy does that bet appear to have paid off in spades – and what little paper trail she has let fall from her grasp is mostly discouraging. One of the most telling points GG has been relentlessly hammering home – with his usual joie-de-bulldog style – is that even Kagan’s defenders (who, more often than not to this point, have also been her close friends) are unable to point to any substantive reasons to support her nomination, anything, that is, that would provide a concrete sense of how she might weigh issues over the next, oh, twenty or thirty years. Look, for example, how The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin awkwardly parses the merits of his good friend (who he says he will now refer to, at least in his court reporting, as “Kagan,” not “Elena”):

Judgment, values, and politics are what matters on the Court. And here I am somewhat at a loss. Clearly, she’s a Democrat. She was a highly regarded member of the White House staff during the Clinton years, but her own views were and are something of a mystery. She has written relatively little, and nothing of great consequence.

As it happens, this weekend I was finishing “The Bridge,” the new biography of Obama by David Remnick, our boss here at the magazine. Since Kagan’s nomination was imminent, I was struck by certain similarities between the President and his nominee. They are both intelligent, of course, but they also share an ability to navigate among factions without offending anyone. Remnick’s Obama is very… careful. He takes no outlandish stands or unnecessary risks. He is an exquisite curator of his own career. All of this is true of Kagan as well.

But on the Court, Kagan will have to do something she’s not done before. Show her hand. Develop a clear ideology. Make tough votes. I have little doubt she’s up to the job, but am less clear on how she’ll do it. [emphasis added]

Again, this is from one of Kagan’s friends (though one does wonder how he could be at such a loss as to the “judgement, values, and politics” of one of his close friends; are establishment people really that circumspect amongst themselves?). And it’s the implication that Obama has essentially nominated himself – as Ezra Klein also puts forward – that I find most suggestive, and disturbing. Frankly, an Obama – an inveterate trimmer¹ who adjusts his sails to placate the likes of Olympia Snowe or Joe Lieberman – is precisely the opposite of the kind of person you want on an ideologically super-charged Supreme Court bristling with the likes of Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts (whom I don’t imagine anyone would think to call “trimmers”). I dunno. Democrats either lack the courage of their convictions, or simply don’t have many to begin with.

¹OED check: c. transf. and fig. To turn, adjust, adapt. Freq. in phr. to trim one’s sails to the wind, to adapt oneself to circumstances. 1847 EMERSON Poems (1857) 187 As the bird trims her to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time.

Written by (wotty)

May 11, 2010 at 15:52

PowerPoint as Weltanschauung

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by wotty

In an editorial masterstroke, this is the arresting above-the-fold image gracing the front page of this morning’s Times:

Here it is, then. Here’s what? Why, the Afghanistan war, silly, as brought to you by PowerPoint! As the Times reports General McChrystal’s reaction: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” (Combined with the absurdist, spaghetti-bowl PowerPoint slide, I’d venture it was that quote that ensured the article its prominent front page real estate. Of course, the article also points out McChrystal himself receives two PPT briefings a day in Kabul.) The article is a must-read, if inevitably superficial, consideration of the effects of the military’s increasing infatuation with PPT presentations. (Did you know there is a whole class of junior officers referred to as “PowerPoint Rangers”?) It certainly suggests more than you perhaps wanted to know about how the US military, and hence much more than just the military, is tilting at PowerPoint windmills in its various conflicts. As another general cited in the article notes of the technology: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” Well said, no? Perhaps this general should consider grad school.

What’s alarming here is that these illusions thrive, and are institutionally reproduced and reinforced, precisely because they’re divorced from reality. The reality here is messy, amorphous, and dispiriting. PPT slides and bullet-points are efficient and, in their stark minimalism, comprehensive and objective, deceptively so. Increasingly there is a tendency to disregard anything that can’t be encapsulated neatly in a slide, or expressed in numbers. In this context, then, PowerPoint functions as a “distancing technology,” to borrow Theodore Porter’s characterization of social statistics and quantification. (His excellent Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life [1995] perhaps ought be updated to consider the epistemological effects of PPT briefings.)

Of course, we’ve seen this play before, albeit sans the PPT slides, played out disastrously against the backdrop of Vietnam. David Halberstam, in his magisterial The Best and the Brightest, devotes a lot of space to McNamara’s Panglossian reliance on military statistics purporting to show the relentless upward progress of the war, statistics that went from being goosed to outright fabricated.  As LBJ’s then national security adviser (and father of Modernization Theory) Walt Rostow enthused in 1967 to Daniel Ellsberg, weary and pessimistic after two years in Vietnam, “No, you don’t understand. Victory is very near. I’ll show you the charts. The charts are very good.

Written by (wotty)

April 27, 2010 at 11:48

“Your fine flummery tales”: WordOfTheDay

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by wotty (and the OED)

I came across “flummery” in a recent, excellent Times magazine cover piece on David Simon and his new New Orleans series, “Treme” (say it with me now, truh-MAY). The article’s author records the following exchange he had with a couple of HBO execs:

“[Simon] wrote me an e-mail years ago,” Lombardo remembered, “in which he accused me of something, I didn’t know what it meant. I had to go to the dictionary. He accused me of flummery.”

“I don’t know that word!” Plepler said.

“I clearly did not. . . .”

“What is flummery?” Plepler asked him. Lombardo did an I-have-no-idea shake of the head. Plepler looked at me. “Do you know what ‘flummery’ is?”

Empty speech, I said.

“Huh,” Plepler said. “Very good.”

Indeed, the OED defines “flummery” as “fig. Mere flattery or empty compliment; nonsense, humbug, empty trifling.” But what I like about it is its primary meaning (and prior, non-figurative use) is: “1. a. ‘A kind of food made by coagulation of wheatflour or oatmeal’ (J.). Cf. SOWENS.” Following the link to “sowens” leads to the following unappetizing prospect: “1. An article of diet formerly in common use in Scotland (and some parts of Ireland), consisting of farinaceous matter extracted from the bran or husks of oats by steeping in water, allowed to ferment slightly, and prepared by boiling.” (And now I know what you’re thinking: What the hell is farinaceous? Ah, such, such are the joys of the OED: “1. Consisting or made of flour or meal,” as in “1866 LIVINGSTON Jrnl. (1873) I. xi. 278 Their farinaceous food creates a great craving for fish.” Indeed, indeed.)

Anyway, my muddled point is here it’s nice to scrape away at flummery and realise that when you’re accusing someone of empty speech you’re really accusing them of speech resembling fermented, boiled, farinaceous oat husks. But this is all so much flummery! An historic flummery “melon” pictured below. Who knew farinaceous could look so good?

1749 LADY LUXBOROUGH Let. to Shenstone 29 Nov. (1775) 143 This word flummery, you must know, Sir, means at London, flattery, and compliment. 1828 SCOTT Jrnl. 19 Feb., The proofs..are arrived..but I have had no time, saving to blot out some flummery. 1860 THACKERAY Round. Papers, Thorns in Cush. (1876) 50 These petitioners..begin with a fine flummery about the..eminent genius of the person whom they are addressing. 1891 T. HARDY Tess II. xxvi. 66 Her father..is quite..opposed to such flummery.

Written by (wotty)

April 1, 2010 at 12:04

Posted in OED, WOTD

To half-sell a duck: Canard (WordOfTheDay)

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by wotty

Now I would never have the unmitigated gall (ok, ok, let’s tone it down a bit and just call it chutzpah) to presume to speak for all of my fellow bloggers, but I’ll say for my own part that “canard” is really a gem of a word, with an enigmatic and darkly suggestive history behind it. There’s nothing grandly idealistic about it, no canard-mast to which one could proudly nail one’s colours in the form of a poignant déclaration de foi, but perhaps it’s for that very reason that I embrace its elusive obliquity. I really think we need to see more use of “canard” in the public sphere. Check the OED background on the definition – so much more than just the French word for duck! – and see if you agree. Or perhaps I’m just half-selling you a duck. It is, as ever, for you to judge.

{trli}canard, n

[Fr.; lit. ‘duck’; also used in sense 1: see note there.] 

1. An extravagant or absurd story circulated to impose on people’s credulity; a hoax, a false report.
Littré says Canard for a silly story comes from the old expression ‘vendre un canard à moitié’ (to half-sell a duck), in which à moitié was subsequently suppressed. It is clear that to half-sell a duck is not to sell it at all; hence the sense ‘to take in, make a fool of’. In proof of this he cites bailleur de canards, deliverer of ducks, utterer of canards, of date 1612: Cotgr., 1611, has the fuller vendeur de canards a moitié ‘a cousener, guller, cogger; foister, lyer’. Others have referred the word to an absurd fabricated story purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks, said to have gone the round of the newspapers, and to have been credited by many.


Written by (wotty)

March 31, 2010 at 12:58

Posted in OED, WOTD