Category Archives: history

Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl is an oral history of the atomic disaster and its aftermath, by Svetlana Alexievich,the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (Steinbeck maybe?  But he didn’t win on his journalism.)

Nina Konstantinovnva, a literature teacher:

I teach Russian literature to kids who are not like the kids I taught ten years ago.  They are constantly seeing someone or something get buried, get placed underground.  Houses and trees, everything gets buried.  If they stand in line for fifteen, twenty minutes, some of them start fainting, their noses bleed.  You can’t surprise them with anything and you can’t make them happy.  They’re always tired and sleepy.  Their faces are pale and gray.  They don’t play and they don’t fool around.  If they fight or accidentally break a window, the teachers are pleased.  We don’t yell at them, because they’re not like kids.  And they’re growing so slowly.  You ask them to repeat something during a lesson, and the child can’t, it gets to the point where you simply ask him to repeat a sentence, and he can’t.  You want to ask him, “Where are you?  Where?”

Major Oleg Pavlov, a helicopter pilot:

Every April 26 we get together, the guys who were there.  We remember how it was.  You were a soldier, at war, you were necessary.  We forget the bad parts and remember that.  We remember that they couldn’t have made it without us.  Our system, it’s a military system, essentially, and it works great in emergencies.  You’re finally free there, and necessary.  Freedom!  And in those times the Russian shows how great he is.  How unique.  We’ll never be Dutch or German.  And we’ll never have proper asphalt or manicured lawns.  But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.

Translated by Keith Gessen.

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Antonin Scalia thought jurisprudence was more like math than it really is

I didn’t mean for Antonin Scalia to be a major character in my book.  I was just going to write about an interesting math snafu that shows up in one of his capital punishment opinions.  But then that led quite naturally into talking about “formalism,” which many mathematicians use (or think of themselves as using) as their everyday philosophy of math, just as Scalia used it (or thought of himself as using it) as his everyday philosophy of jurisprudence.

Legal reasoning is not much like math.  But Scalia sometimes acts like he thinks it is.  That’s what makes him an interesting figure to me.  He writes down arguments which he presents as derivations axioms — as if the words of the Constitution determined the resolution of the legal question, so long as you were willing to apply them methodically and impartially in the correct sequence.

But surely that’s wrong!  The words of the Constitution underdetermine a lot of really interesting questions.  Richard Posner:

Most of the cases the Supreme Court agrees to decide are tossups, in the sense that they cannot be decided by conventional legal reasoning, with its heavy reliance on constitutional and statutory language and previous decisions. If they could be decided by those essentially semantic methods, they would be resolved uncontroversially at the level of a state supreme court or federal court of appeals and never get reviewed by the Supreme Court.

I have written before about the Court’s decision that statistical sampling in the Census is in conflict with the relevant Constitutional clause:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.

Scalia’s opinion concentrates on the word “enumeration,” which he argues does not mean “determining the number of,” but rather should be understood in the more restrictive sense of “counting one by one.”  And he has some good contemporary sources for this reading!  You get a nice satisfying no-nonsense feeling, reading this opinion.  Then you start to think about what it actually says. Is Scalia declaring that constitution requires that the census count people one by one?  Can’t be — for the last fifty years the census has been conducted mostly by mail.   Does he think the census has to enumerate something, but it doesn’t have to be people?  Could it be anything?  Could it be “all property owners?”  Could it be “all non-atheists?”

Note, too, that when you fill out the census form, you write down the number of people in your household, then you fill out information for each person.  When the numbers are compiled, the computer, surely, adds up the numbers from each form to get an answer.   In other words:  a mathematical process other than enumeration-in-the-narrow-sense whose output is an approximation to the total number of people in the United States.  Kind of like statistical sampling.  Except not as good an approximation.

I don’t think we should consider that process unconstitutional.  It seems reasonable to consider it an enumeration, despite the inconsistency with some dictionary definitions.  Because dictionary definitions aren’t mathematical definitions.  A mathematical object is exactly what it is, and nothing else.  But when we read a word, we make a choice.

Scalia makes one choice: we could also opt for a more expansive but equally common-sensical definition of “enumerate” as “determine, to the extent possible, the number of,” which permits statistical sampling aimed at counting the “whole number” of Americans.  That “whole” is a word in the Constitution too, with as much binding force as “enumeration.”  It doesn’t appear in Scalia’s opinion.

Am I saying Scalia’s opinion in Dept. of Commerce vs. U.S. House of Representatives was wrong?  No; I’m saying merely that it’s not the kind of opinion it presents itself as being.  It is not determined by the text before it.  It relies, elsewhere, on an argument from pragmatism:  if statistical sampling is constitutionally permissible, then legislatures might authorize it, and the resulting partisan wrangling over methodology would create hard cases for future courts.  These are fair arguments, but they’re not textual arguments.  The argument admits that we make choices when deciding what words mean, and we should let our choices be guided by their likely consequences.

But no, I don’t think those arguments are obviously wrong.  It is pretty rare to find Scalia being obviously wrong.  Except in the following higher-level sense.  Scalia seldom concedes that the questions he faces are authentically difficult.  He — or at least the character of “Scalia” he plays in the opinions — lacks the humbleness appropriate to the task.  His habit is to present his conclusion as if it’s obviously right, the way a mathematical proof, once you understand it, is obviously right.  That is obviously wrong.

Update:  Commeter aaaatos makes a really important point, one I meant to address directly in the post.  He writes:  “what makes the legal system so useful to mankind is the fact that therein law is treated in a formalistic way as much as possible, i.e. as if it were mathematics.”  This points to another plausible account of Scalia:  that he didn’t actually believe law was very much like math, but felt it was best practice for judges to pretend to believe that.  That’s what I was getting at with the distinction between Scalia the person and “Scalia,” the persona he adopts as a writer of opinions.

Why pretend?  Partly because it enhances the authority of the process; partly because pretending to believe it helps us be “as formalist as possible,” mildly constraining the inevitably biased choices we make when we read words and try to obey them.

 

 

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The furniture sentiment

Today’s Memorial Library find:  the magazine Advertising and Selling.  The September 1912 edition features “How Furniture Could Be Better Advertised,” by Arnold Joerns, of E.J. Thiele and Co.

Joerns complains that in 1911, the average American spend $81.22 on food, $26.02 on clothes, $19.23 on intoxicants, $9.08 on tobacco, and only $6.19 on furniture.  “Do you think furniture should be on the bottom of this list?” he asks, implicitly shaking his head.  “Wouldn’t you — dealer or manufacturer — rather see it nearer the top, — say at least ahead of tobacco and intoxicants?”

Good news for furniture lovers:  by 2012, US spending on “household furnishings and equipment” was  at $1,506 per household, almost a quarter as much as we spent on food.  (To be fair, it looks like this includes computers, lawnmowers, and many other non-furniture items.)  Meanwhile, spending on alcohol is only $438.  That’s pretty interesting:  in 1911, liquor expenditures were a quarter of food expenditures; now it’s less than a tenth.  Looks like a 1911 dollar is roughly 2012$25, so the real dollars spent on alcohol aren’t that different, but we spend a lot more now on food and on furniture.

Anyway, this piece takes a spendidly nuts turn at the end, as Joerns works up a head of steam about the moral peril of discount furniture:

I do not doubt but that fewer domestic troubles would exist if people were educated to a greater understanding of the furniture sentiment.  Our young people would find more pleasure in an evening at home — if we made that home more worth while and a source of personal pride; then, perhaps, they would cease joy-riding, card-playing, or drinking and smoking in environments unhealthful to their minds and bodies.

It would even seem reasonable to assume, that if the public mind were educated to appreciate more the sentiment in furniture and its relation to the Ideal Home, we would have fewer divorces.  Home would mean more to the boys and girls of today and the men and women of tomorrow.  Obviously, if the public is permitted to lose more and more its appreciation of home sentiment, the divorce evil will grow, year by year.

Joerns proposes that the higher sort of furniture manufacturers boost their brand by advertising it, not as furniture, but as “meuble.” This seems never to have caught on.

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Marilyn Sachs, Amy and Laura, how to date a Communist

While I was in Seattle for the Joint Meeting, I stopped in to see my cousin Marilyn Sachs, the children’s author, who’s now 88.  She signed a copy of CJ’s favorite book of hers, Amy and Laura.  I re-read it on the plane and it made me cry just like it did when I was a kid.

We talked about writing and the past.  She and her husband, Morris, started dating in 1946, in Brooklyn.  Morris had recently returned from the war in the Pacific and was a Communist.  He thought movies were too expensive, so on their dates they went block to block ringing doorbells, trying to get signatures on a petition demanding that the Dodgers bring up Jackie Robinson from their minor-league affiliate in Montreal.  Now that is how you date, young people.

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Patience and maturity

Wimpie de Klerk — older brother of F.W. de Klerk, who would later become the last apartheid ZA prime minister — was by the standards of mainstream Afrikaner politics a racial liberal.  Here’s how that sounds in December 1981:

Experience throughout the world shows that black groups have a thin skin in their attitude to whites, and the reverse is apparently often the case.  We simply have to accept this element of mutual hatred…

We, the whites, will have to take a lead, and forget about demanding an eye for an eye on the score of hatred.  We must exercise patience and maturity.

“Apparently” is my favorite part.

By the late 1980s, by the way, de Klerk, against his brother’s wishes, was participating in secret meetings with the ANC.

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A free writing tip, or: the extraordinary m*****f*****s who founded this country

It gets under my shirt when writers use “individuals” as a synonym for “people.”  It sounds bureaucratic, like a police report:  “Several individuals were observed entering the vehicle in the vicinity of the establishment…”

But people do this all the time, especially when they’re trying to sound a little formal.  I have a writing tip:  every sentence in which “individual” is used in this way is improved by replacing the word “individual” with “motherfucker.”

For example, the New York Times business bestseller list describes the book Succeed On Your Own Terms as an account of “The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished individuals.”

Now try:

“The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished motherfuckers.”

Doesn’t that sound like a better book?

Or consider the remarks by Republican National Committee chief of staff Katy Walsh, about the Koch brothers:

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”

Strong words, but

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed motherfuckers who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how,”

would have been stronger.

A great source of “individuals” is the amazing database of Presidential speeches and proclamations at UCSB.  Here’s Ronald Reagan, on October 24, 1986:

And when it happens and we’re able, for the first time, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons threatening mankind, it will be a result of the realism and commitment of solid motherfuckers like Don Nickles, motherfuckers who understand that peace through strength is not just a slogan, it’s a fact of life.

That’s what Reagan should have said, at any rate.

Bill Clinton on Flag Day 1997:

Adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, the Stars and Stripes became the official flag of the young United States and a compelling symbol of our new independence. Woven into its folds were the hopes, dreams, and determination of the extraordinary motherfuckers who founded this country.

And Barack Obama, proclaiming National Maritime Day this May:

Our Nation is forever indebted to the brave privateers who helped secure our independence, fearlessly supplying our Revolutionary forces with muskets and ammunition. Throughout history, their legacy has been carried forward by courageous seafarers who have faithfully served our Nation as part of the United States Merchant Marine—bold motherfuckers who emerged triumphant in the face of attacks from the British fleet in the War of 1812, and who empowered the Allied forces as they navigated perilous waters during World War II.

But perhaps nobody did it better than John Quincy Adams, in his inaugural address of 1825, pleading for Americans to put aside their political differences and work together:

There still remains one effort of magnanimity, one sacrifice of prejudice and passion, to be made by the motherfuckers throughout the nation who have heretofore followed the standards of political party. It is that of discarding every remnant of rancor against each other, of embracing as countrymen and friends, and of yielding to talents and virtue alone that confidence which in times of contention for principle was bestowed only upon those who bore the badge of party communion.

John Quincy Adams was one bipartisan motherfucker.

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Why does Indianapolis like the Cubs?

When two baseball teams share a city, one of them dominates the geographic region with the city as its center.  Greater New York, upper Jersey, lower CT like the Yankees, not the Mets.  Northern California likes the Giants, not the A’s.  In SoCal you won’t find many Angels fans outside Orange County itself.  And the whole mid-northern Midwest, from Iowa across to central Indiana, roots for the Cubs, not the White Sox, whose fanbase consists of southern Chicago and a few adjacent suburbs.

(Go here for an amazing, data-rich, zoomable interactive of this NYT UpShot map, but be prepared to be depressed about how many Yankee fans there are freaking everywhere.)

Why?  For NYC, LA, SF it’s pretty clear; one team is older and has a historic base that the other lacks.  But for Chicago it’s less clear.

One friend suggested that Iowa has a, um, relevant ethnic similarity with the part of Chicago containing Wrigley Field.  But Chicagoan tell me that the ethnic identification of White Sox fandom is historically Irish, not African-American.

My best guess is that it’s WGN, a mainstay of basic cable for decades which may have spread Cubs fandom across the nation the way TBS did for the Braves.  But then one asks:  in 1950, before TV, was there more parity between Cubs and White Sox fans?  Who did people in Des Moines and Indianapolis (and for that matter Milwaukee and Minneapolis) mostly cheer for back then?

And what about New York, back when there were three native teams of about the same age?  Did fans in Poughkeepsie and Rahway split evenly between Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants?  What about the Phillies and the original A’s?

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It will not be an easy or a simple task

From “Automation and Unemployment:  A Management Viewpoint,” by Malcolm L. Denise, vice president for labor relations, Ford Motor Company, 1962:

As a result of these developments, together with a vast growth in capital investment, we have managed to increase our productivity, as measured by output per man-hour, at an average rate of about 2.2 percent per year in the total private economy.  To permit a similar rate of productivity increase over the next fifty or sixty years, we must have new developments as dramatic, as far-reaching, as inconceivable as the developments of the past 60 years would have seemed in 1900.  Work will not soon be obsolete because we have learned how to build computers and employ electronic controls.  Indeed, it will not be an easy or a simple task even to maintain the past rate of productive increase from our present high base.

Indeed.

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The dime of America

I take it as a near-certainty that, assuming we’re still using physical currency throughout my life, some denomination of that currency will eventually feature Ronald Reagan.  But where will he go?  You can’t really evict Jefferson or Washington or Lincoln.  Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson seem more vulnerable, but somehow it’s the coins that really read as “inner-circle President” — would Reagan’s boosters really settle for grubby green pieces of linen, that get filthy and torn?

But here’s what would work.  Put Reagan on the dime.  Instead of Roosevelt?  No — in addition to Roosevelt.  Nobody cares about the shrubbery on the back of the dime.  Roosevelt on the obverse, Reagan on the reverse.  The two radical revisions of the American idea that shaped the 20th century, separated only by a thin disc of copper.  A government big enough to crush Hitler versus a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.  Now that’s a coin.  Flipping that coin has stakes.

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Erotische Flugblaetter

I was working in Memorial Library yesterday. Whenever I’m over there, I like to pull a book off the shelf and look at it.  (E.G.) I feel I have some kind of duty to the books — there are so many which will never be taken off the shelf again!

Anyway, there has never been an easier choice than Flugblatt-Propaganda Im 2.Weltkrieg:  Erotische Flugblätter.  How was I not supposed to look at that!  And I was richly rewarded.  The Nazi propagandists knew their business; the leaflets are written in perfect colloquial English, assuring American troops that the US government is purposely prolonging the war to keep unemployment low at home, that their kids and wives are pleading for them to come home alive by any means necessary (especially:  surrendering and riding out the rest of the war in a comfy German POW camp, with movies, sports, and the same food the German soldiers get) and, most of all, that their girlfriends back home, tired of waiting, are taking up with draft-dodgers and war-profiteers (especially the ruthless “Sam Levy.”)  UK troops got their own version:  their girlfriends weren’t making time with shifty Jews, but with US soldiers, who were “training” in England while the British men died at the front.

Some highlights:

photo 3 photo 2 photo 1

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