Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The College Widow: Not a Woman Who Married a College that Died

Of course this fellow Canby — Yale class of 1899 — would end his description of the "college widow" with a cigarette:
For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old -- but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.

Tobacco Then and Now

Via Division of Labour, this from the New York Times in 1909:
BERLIN - The Committee on Appropriations unanimously voiced today to report to the Reichstag a resolution appropriating $500,000 for the relief of tobacco workers who have been thrown out of work as a consequence of the reduced consumption of cigars and cigarettes under the operation of the new tax measures.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Would you transport this woman across state lines for immoral purposes?

I do love the Mann Act. It's such a beautiful and ridiculous expression of moral panic -- like a Time cover-story, but, instead of an article, a federal law. It jumped the shark a little bit in 1986 when "immoral purposes" was redefined as "any sexual activity for which any person can [already] be charged with a criminal offense [which defeats the purpose a bit, doesn't it?]," but back when consensual sex could be considered white slavery, the Mann Act was really something else.

However, despite my love for the law that nailed him, I'm sad that Jack Johnson is not going to get a posthumous pardon recommendation from the Justice Department.

In Justice's defense, Johnson didn't just sleep with Belle Schreiber; he gave her several thousand dollars to start her own brothel in Chicago after she got fired by her Pittsburgh madam for robbing a customer. The feds may have been wrong to target Johnson, but they kinda had him cold.

Pass Huey!

Peter Richardson's history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, taught me something I didn't know:
Like Pat Brown before him, Huey Newton was taking classes at San Francisco Law School; one of his instructors was Edwin Meese III, who would later serve as President Reagan's attorney general.
An unrelated anecdote from the same book, in retrospect, seems prescient:
While serving as assistant managing editor, Sol Stern ejected staff writer Jann Wenner from the building for smoking pot.
My third and final note from A Bomb in Every Issue is the most important, because this Ramparts-coined term is witty, timeless, and forgotten: The love-geometry that inevitably develops in any left-wing club is properly referred to as "armed snuggle."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hoving Happened

Let's all pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Hoving, the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who died today. I knew of him mostly as John Lindsay's first Parks Commissioner (from 1965-66), a job he evidently thought was a little like being a grand-scale cruise director. His "Hoving Happenings" included a Gay Nineties-themed party, a "Central Park a Go-Go" dance, meteor-watching, and kite-flying -- all of which was quite a change from the reign of his predecessor Robert Moses, who "enforced rules against wearing bathing suits or even halter tops and shorts shorter than midthigh."

Yes, he was one of those upper-crust types who romanticized sixties counterculture, and yes, he worked for John Lindsay, which is if anything more lame. Still, I can't help but like a man who responded to a subordinate's critical memo by writing "Crap!" at the top. He shot from the hip, but he was always ready to admit when one of his off-the-cuff statements was, upon reflection, "monumentally stupid" — sin boldly, repent boldly! As Michael Gross puts it in his obituary, "Even his enemies can agree that Hoving was never, ever boring." God rest his soul.

UPDATE: The NYT obituary is up.

Thanatos tastes good like a cigarette should!

Hat-tip Dara:
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Cigarette pack warnings that remind smokers of the fatal consequences of their habit may actually make them smoke more as a way to cope with the inevitability of death, according to researchers.

Hoover wasn't Mr. Intervention, he was Mr. Best Practices. There's a difference.

Megan McArdle says we all need to chill out about administrative costs. She may well be right, but, since she raised the subject, I'll throw out my favorite statistics from Eugene Lyons' Herbert Hoover: A Biography:
The overhead for relief administration under Hoover rarely exceeded 3 percent. After his departure it came to consume 25 and in some places as high as 50 percent of the relief funds. Despite the launching of many new agencies, there were ten thousand fewer federal employees at the end of Hoover's term than at its start.
"Rarely exceeded 3 percent"—that's remarkable. (One trick he used was hiring independently wealthy do-gooders at $1-a-year salaries.) Please remember these statistics the next time a libertarian disavows Hoover, which tops my personal list of most annoying counterintuitive claims of the decade.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Battle for Williamsburg: Are the Hipsters Losing?

One of my hopes for this blog is that it will become a clearinghouse for all Hasid-on-hipster violence coming out of Williamsburg, eventually building to a coherent narrative about the undesirability of having hipster neighbors.

The best skirmish in this ongoing war came over the summer when a Greenpoint hipster alleged police brutality against Joel Witriol, New York's first Hasidic cop, who gave her a ticket for carrying her pet pug on the L train. Pets are only allowed on the subway if they are caged -- the rule isn't enforced with much zeal, but, in this case, the dog was making a special nuisance of itself by vomiting into the woman's totebag. A scuffle ensued when Witriol allegedly said "If you're going to act like a woman, I'm going to treat you like a woman" as he restrained and cuffed the girl for protesting the ticket, prompting a third-wave tirade from our pixie-coiffed protagonist. I remember reading at the time some linguist's speculation that Witriol was trying to say something more like, "If you act like a lady, I'll treat you like a lady," which ups the story's culture-clash quotient.

Alas, that incident did not provoke a highly choreographed street-rumble as I had hoped, but here's hoping this week's culture clash will. The city removed a fourteen-block bike lane in Williamsburg on Dec. 1, and three days later a band of hipsters repainted it at 3am with paint rollers and homemade stencils, only to be caught in the act by Hasidic vigilantes who turned them in to the police. Tell me that story doesn't have the makings!

Gothamist has the details, and, as is always the case with them, the jewels are in the comments:
"I'm pretty fed up with laws that support people's religious beliefs, whether it's abortion, gay marriage or bike lanes. Religion has got to get out of public policy."

"i'm confused about who we hate more in this story? hipsters, cops or religious fanatics? religious hipsters? religious cops? someone should track down a hipster cop, then i would know where to direct my hatred."
Maintaining a neighborhood's character is a serious thing, of course, and I hope the two sides can come to some understanding, but damn if I'm not glad to see a New York culture clash in which neither side is all that villainous.

I seen my misattributions and I corrected 'em.

Dan Lynch writes of the recent Bruno conviction: "The real problem isn't Joe Bruno, who — in the immortal words of Boss Tweed — merely 'seen my opportunities and took 'em.'"

For the record, it was George Washington Plunkitt, he of Tammany Hall, who said that.

While we're at it, let me record for the public internets that it was Martin Lomasney, "the Mahatma" of Boston's Ward 8, who said, "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bookblogging: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Molasses is fundamentally surreal. You've got the expression "It's like pushing molasses up a sandy hill." You've got the Molasses Hat Gang described in Luc Sante's Low Life, which had the signature gambit of "walking into grocery stores, asking the keeper to fill a derby hat with molasses 'on a bet,' clapping the hat over the proprietor's head, and emptying the till." It won't freeze, it will ferment, and you still can't remember what molasses tastes like even though you've had this whole paragraph to think about it.

And then there's the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, in which twenty-one people were drowned by a fifteen-foot-high, 35 mph wave of molasses unleashed when a two million gallon vat busted. Much of that molasses was destined for use in munitions for World War I, so there was some speculation that bomb-throwing Italian anarchists were behind the busted tank -- they'd done that sort of thing before -- but it turned out to be a problem of engineering, not terrorism. Still, it's a funny story that isn't actually very funny. Unless you think about it. If the phrase "Great Molasses Flood" rings your bell, go for Puleo's odd little book.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bookbag: Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor by Arch Puddington

The scene: a meeting between Murray Weidenbaum, budget advisor to Reagan, and several labor leaders, including Frank Fitzsimmons of the Teamsters:
Then Weidenbaum twitted the trade unionists by asking if there were items in the budget that they would propose for spending reductions. Kirkland and Fraser had nothing special to offer, but the usually inarticulate Fitzsimmons had an immediate animated response. As Fraser recalled it, Fitzsimmons, his voice rising with genuine anger, blurted out, "I'll tell you one reduction you can make. You can get rid of the witness protection program. You're wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to support these stool pigeons and their families." Fraser later asked Kirkland what he was doing during the Teamster's diatribe. "I was looking at the floor," Kirkland said. To which Fraser replied, "I was looking at the ceiling."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Origen and God-as-Samuel-L.-Jackson

Thomas J. Bridges of theology blog An und für sich has turned up some interesting bits of Origen in a post called "The Word of God Was Messing With Us":
“This was to conceal the doctrine relating to the before-mentioned subjects in words forming a narrative that contained a record dealing with the visible creation” (PA [Peri Archon] IV.2.8).

“Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language…or else by never moving away from the letter to fail to learn anything of the more divine element” (PA IV.2.9).

“…whenever the Word found that things which had happened in history could be harmonised with these mystical events he used them, concealing from the multitude their deeper meaning…[T]he scripture wove into the story something which did not happen, occasionally something which could not happen, and occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not” (PA IV.2.9).
These immediately reminded me of a post by Adam Kotsko from earlier this year that I saved it to my hard-drive, so much did I admire it. An excerpt, all bolding mine:
He didn’t submit to the cross because that would really fuck with our preconceptions. Right? God isn’t just willfully trying to screw with us because he would be mad if our expectations were too accurate, right? Seriously. It’s perverse, the way so many Christians fetishize Christ’s suffering as though it’s the key to everything. [...]

Look at things from the perspective of the oppressed. To them, is “the power of Emperors, legistlators, or Priests” a self-evidently desirable and good thing? Sure, it’s better to be powerless than not if you’re in the current system, but once you see an alternative to that entire structure in Christ, those power positions don’t seem very appealling. No one is going to follow Christ if he’s saying, “Just suffer for its own sake, because I’m God and I’m here to mess with your shit!” No — they follow Christ because of the joyfulness of his life, because of the unexpected abundance he brings along with him.
If the question is why God sometimes misleads us and lies to us, the answer very well might be "Because I'm God and I'm here to mess with your shit!" That's why Bridges's Origen excerpts are interesting—they make the case that sometimes God is being provocative for provocation's sake.

But, then again, I might be twisting the text to fit my favorite idea, that "Is this statement true or false?" is one of the least helpful questions a person can ask, certainly less helpful than whether the statement is interesting, or whether it's motivated by love.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Apostasy Done Right: The case of David Bazan

I was pretty rough on apostates earlier, but I wouldn't want to give the impression that I think everyone who switches ideological sides needs to grow a beard, get false papers, and move to another country under an assumed identity. I put a lot of stock in team loyalty, but I also think it's possible to desert your former team with everyone's honor intact. And I think David Bazan has done it.

Bazan made it pretty big in the Christian rock world performing as the one-man band Pedro the Lion — he was the only Christian act I ever came across in my secular adolescence. The Pitchfork crowd liked him okay; the evangelical kids adored him. And he recently announced that he probably doesn't believe in God anymore. Moreover, he has serious concerns about where the evangelical movement has ended up: "The last 30 years of it have been hijacked; the boomer evangelicals, they were seduced in the most embarrassing and scandalous way into a social, political, and economical posture that is the antithesis of Jesus's teaching."

He admits that his latest album, Curse Your Branches, is about his loss of faith — a break-up album to God. The opening images from "Lost My Shape" aren't as obvious as some on the other tracks, but I think they're his most interesting lyrics on the subject:
You used to feel like a smoker
Shivering in the cold
Waiting outside the bar
Till the opener's over,

But now you feel like a drinker
Twenty days off the sauce
Down at the liquor store
Trying to call your sponsor.
And yet, as this magazine piece lovingly describes, nobody has disavowed anybody. He still performs at the Cornerstone festival, he still admits to caring about what happens to American evangelicalism, and his fans keep praying for him. The piece describes one touching scene from a recent show:
After Bazan plays a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," reinstating the sacrilegious verses left out of the best-known versions, someone shouts, "How's your soul?" Bazan looks up from tuning his guitar and says, "My soul? Oh, it's fine." This elicits an "Amen, brother!" from the back of the tent.
The author of the magazine article asked Bazan outright how he threads the needle of being a doubter among the faithful without offending his former flock-mates:
[When talking to fans] Bazan doesn't usually get into the subtle barometric fluctuations in his relationship with Jesus, but that still leaves room for plenty of postshow theological talk. "This process feels necessary and natural for these people," he says. "They're in a precarious situation—maybe I am too. To maintain their particular posture, they have to figure out: Do they need to get distance from me, or is it just safe enough to listen to? I empathize as people are trying to gauge, 'Is this guy an atheist? Because I heard he was.'"
It's a "precarious situation," like he says, but it matters that both sides are trying. It also matters that Bazan couldn't run away from evangelicalism even if he tried, something I wish more apostates realized. If you were ever really part of something, it shaped you. If you were ever drawn to something, then at some level you always will be.

A Kass-bashing amuse-bouche

I'll weigh in on the newly reincarnated President's Council on Bioethics sometime soon, but, basically, I'm for it. The old PCBE fell into a pattern of just spinning its wheels after the big stem-cell victory, and the White House's new mission statement points in the right direction.

Since a lot of the blame for what bothered me about the old Council rests with Leon Kass, here's a paragraph of him sounding insufferable in a Wunderkammer interview:
I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life but I haven’t done any of them because they were forbidden. I’ve made a mistake about what I thought was good, but I never did anything save for thinking that it was good. I don’t know where this comes from. I’ve never really had contempt for the uneducated or for people who make a living by the sweat of their brow. It always seemed to me that a kind of goodness could be found there. I’ve always been suspicious of people who would cynically deny that they too would like to be good. The real question, I suppose, is what’s the standing of the cultivation of the intellect in relation to that kind of native goodness, and can you in fact indulge in study and grow intellectually without losing your moral bearings. I have to say I’ve tried.
I hope that has prepared you for the Kass-bashing post to come.

Labor is like a tweed jacket, and environmentalism is like a feather boa

This article by Ann Friedman has been getting some play, but I can't quite figure its key paragraph:
After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us. There is already some recognition of this. At the AFL-CIO convention this fall, several speakers referenced the rights of LGBT workers. NAACP Chair Julian Bond gave a keynote address at the National Equality March for gay rights. This doesn't mean everyone must be an advocate for every single progressive issue. Each of us has a different metric for separating the political negotiables from the nonnegotiables. But I do expect the liberal coalition to understand that these issues are interconnected.
Not to be a snark, but isn't that exactly wrong? How about this instead: "Labor rights conflict with immigrants' rights conflict with gay rights conflict with women's rights, but the point of a political party is that it's okay for that to happen." You're supposed to be able to put together a team without pausing to check everyone's ideology for bugs.

I'm not saying there's no coherence to the left, just that it's less like a single premise variegatedly unpacked and more like a well-assembled outfit — when you say that a certain shirt-and-tie combo "goes together," you don't necessarily mean that they have colors in common.

Ann Friedman has said something that's obviously false if you take a moment to think about it; nevertheless, I assume she wanted to accomplish something by saying it. But what?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Shapur never killed a shrew

Normblog's Writer's Choice book this week is Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, a topic about which I know nothing. However, I know a very little something about sexual politics in pre-modern Iran, a casual familiarity I picked up during my Zoroastrian phase.

Purity rituals aside, the ladies did all right under the Sasanians. (And even the purity rituals were all right, as constricting as they were, since there ain't no party like a menstrual hut party, etc.) Consider this bit from the Herbedestan:
5.1) Which of the two shall go forth to pursue religious studies, the woman or the householder?

5.2) If both take care of the possessions
[i.e. if they can take care of the property single-handed], either one may go forth.

5.3) If the lord of the house (takes care of) the possessions, let the woman go forth.
No link; this passage (including the brackets, which are not mine) comes from an old college course packet. Also, apologies for the hyper-obscure pun in the title.

Apostasy Pieces: Don't be that guy

So Little Green Footballs has disavowed the right. The best take is Matt Frost's—"I'm saddened and concerned by the debased state of concern trolling"—but I have a submission for second-best take. (No shame in losing to Mr. Frost.)

Ten words: If you write an apostasy piece, you have no honor. Exhibit A, Marty Beckerman:
Every day I wake up with the same thought: "I used to be such a goddamned idiot."

I am a former Republican. And I wasn't merely the libertarian, live-and-let-live, fun-at-parties kind of conservative whose primary concern is balancing the budget; I was a spiteful, narrow-minded, fire-breathing paranoid lunatic who questioned the patriotism and morality of my liberal fellow citizens. Recognizing the error of my ways has done wonders for my mental health but left me with constant, unremitting remorse; I really want to go back in time and kick my own ass.
Apostasy pieces are never about delivering your former comrades from the grip of dreadful error. They're about showing off how much more enlightened you are, using your misspent youth as a prop for credibility. I've read apostate tell-alls that I thought were true, but I've never read one that made me think I'd like, or trust, the author if I met him.

Sometimes it's hard to tell what loyalty demands of you. Whether to turn your klepto brother into the police, whether to make a play for your best friend's girl after they break up—these are tough questions. But if your old ideological compatriots ever did you a favor, ever took you into their circles or into their confidence, ever gave you a damn cake on your birthday, then you owe it to them not to write the hit piece. You owe them. That's a no-brainer.

UPDATE: If you're visiting from the American Scene and want background on this loyalty fight, check out these two posts, All Politics is Tribal and Loyalty Reconsidered. Nerds can check out I Love Justice, But I Love My Mother More.

"I should avoid transporters and replicators even if by doing so I inconvenience myself."

Or so says Will over at PomoCon.