What do D.W. Griffith, William J. Burns, and Clarence Darrow have in common? They were all involved in the aftermath of the L.A. Times bombing in 1911...moreWhat do D.W. Griffith, William J. Burns, and Clarence Darrow have in common? They were all involved in the aftermath of the L.A. Times bombing in 1911. Kind of. In American Lightning, Blum weaves the tale of the union-versus-capital struggle through these three men, using Burns and Darrow to explore the people directly involved in the struggle and Griffith to bring into play the complex evolution of cinema alongside it. Some thoughts:
* Am I a slacker because I haven’t heard of the crime of the century before I read this book, or doth Blum exaggerate? * Boy, Clarence Darrow was kind of a jerk. Sure, he championed the underdog, but he also bribed juries and cheated on his wife. * D.W. Griffith was no prince either. And then he made Birth of a Nation. This book highlighted what is, for me, the eternal irony of Griffith’s opus. The film achieves a mastery not seen previously in cinema arts. It’s also a piece of vicious, racist revisionist history. There’s a parallel in the birth of the U.S., which embarked on an experiment in democracy unparalleled but did so on the backs of the slaves kidnapped from Africa, and the birth of cinema in Griffith’s film, which embarked on an experiment in cinema storytelling but did so in service of a monstrous story. * William J. Burns was called the Sherlock Holmes of his day. The number and brilliance of his investigations are matched only by fictional detectives. Cool. * I knew the union/capital battles were fierce, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of the bombings and other activities. Yikes. (less)
Vowell does a nice job of contextualizing the sometimes strange, sometimes familiar events of the early Calvinist settlers who arrived and settled Bos...moreVowell does a nice job of contextualizing the sometimes strange, sometimes familiar events of the early Calvinist settlers who arrived and settled Boston in the 1630s. As usual, she peppers the casual and entertaining discussion of history with witty, biting remarks. As usual, it's comedy gold.
She also does a lovely job of connecting the worldview and attitude about their country to the contemporary American perspective. I particularly like the connection she draws between the "city on the hill" metaphor often used by contemporary politicians and the way it was used by John Winthrop in his speech to the Puritans before they sailed for the New World in 1630. She writes:
The thing that appeals to me about Winthrop's "Christian Charity" and Cotton's "God's Promise to His Plantation" from this end of history is that at least the arrogant ballyhoo that New England is special and chosen by God is tempered by the self-loathing Puritans' sense of reckoning. The same wakefulness the individual Calvinist was to use to keep watch over his own sins Winthrop and Cotton called for also in the group at large. This humility, this fear, was what kept their delusions of grandeur in check. That's what subsequent generations lost. From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution. (71-72)
Vowell draws stinging criticism of our own imperial moves that are grounded in this "we are the chosen ones" attitude. The section on Anne Hutchinson also sings with sadness and dark humor.
Another piece of the Puritan story that I particularly liked was the story of John Williams, the upstart soon-to-be-outcast who believed that the magistrates should not be enforcing the edicts of religion. He was the first separator of church and state. Williams argued that having the state sponsor a religion poisoned it, and made it more likely that the enforcers of that religion would abuse that power. Vane, a governor of Massachusetts, commented "...Christianity is inherently divisive, and when it is the statereligion, the Christians in power tend to persecute other kinds of Christians with whom they disagree. (218)"
In all, the book is darker and a bit sadder than her previous books have been (even the inevitably grim Assassination Vacation). In part, this is because Vowell has more direct connection with the tragedies she's writing about. Her empathy for the Native American victims of the pilgrim aggression and the abusive treatment of Anne Hutchinson gives the last half of the book more heart than her previous writing has usually had, but it means the humor doesn't work as well either. (less)
Standiford tells of the enormous engineering project that was the Florida Keys rail line. Henry Flagler, part of the Standard Oil empire, built a rail...moreStandiford tells of the enormous engineering project that was the Florida Keys rail line. Henry Flagler, part of the Standard Oil empire, built a rail line from Miami across the ocean/gulf of Mexico down to Key West. Then along came a hurricane. Why are there so many history books about trains? Flagler's relentless optimism about the dubious project is spiriting and a little depressing at the same time. What if he'd gotten behind some philanthropic act with the same vigor? Interesting stories, of course, about the hurricane.
**spoiler alert** After having seen The Staircase, the gripping documentary television series about the Michael Peterson murder, I had a few questions...more**spoiler alert** After having seen The Staircase, the gripping documentary television series about the Michael Peterson murder, I had a few questions–mostly along the lines of “how could they have possibly found this man guilty?” Then, I did some research online and learned that The Staircase is generally understood as a very biased perspective of the trial, possibly because the filmmakers were only given access to the defense, but also because they slanted the coverage that way.
So I decided to seek out a more balanced account of the trial. I got Written in Blood by Dianne Fanning. Fanning’s book was associated with Capote’s In Cold Blood, a gripping novelization of the trial, because they were nominated for the same award. Alas, while Capote sought a sense of the entire event, including trying to understand the actions and motives of the killers, Fanning wrote a less even-handed work. If The Staircase slanted toward the defense and suffered from a dearth of input from the prosecution and its sympathizers, Written in Blood slanted the other direction, offering only the prosecution’s perspective. A few thoughts:
* My first thought about the book was to feel pretty duped by The Staircase. Fanning describes a number of incontrovertible facts that should have been included in The Staircase. Bloody footprints that had been cleaned up were discovered with luminol after the fact. Kathleen’s blood was so dry the medical personnel didn’t get any on their uniforms. Todd Peterson kept violating police instructions to remain silent and off the phone. Somebody went online that first night and deleted a bunch of stuff from Peterson’s computer. The Staircase told us that the police found stuff on the computer, but they left out the fact that it had been deleted after Kathleen’s death. These deceptions by omission make the whole documentary suspect. * At the same time, Fanning’s writing seethes with hatred for Peterson and his family. Instead of presenting the trial and facts on their own merits, she infuses her writing with caustic remarks about the defense team’s facial expressions and looks during the trial. I wonder if she got an extra dollar each time she used the word smirk. * She also slants events in a very biased way. In particular, there are moments of the trial, featured in The Staircase, that Fanning paints in the most positive light possible. For instance, at one point prosecuting attorney Hardin tries to make hay with an expert witness who had written “Keep up the good work” in the inscription he’d written when giving his book to a prosecution expert. The expert protested that courtesy dictated he say something nice in the inscription, and that it wasn’t an endorsement of the officer as a forensic expert. Fanning ignores this reasonable explanation to suggest that Hardin had won the exchange. The visual record in The Staircase makes it quite clear that he did not. * The most blatant example of Fanning’s slanted writing came when the D.A. called forth an expert witness who used false credentials. Rudolf produced a letter from the physics department chair of Temple University because this guy kept passing himself off as being affiliated with the university, when in fact he was not affiliated in any way. Fanning writes:
Then [Judge:] Hudson struck the testimony of Dr. Saami Shaibani, telling the jury that the witness had perjured himself in relating his credentials to the court. With that, the court day ended. Many jurors were frustrated, and uncomfortable as well. The public flaying of the witness by Rudolf was a distasteful sight to see. They found the testimony of Dr. Shaibani to be full of common sense and practical information that they could readily understand. They had wanted to consider it in their deliberations. Now they could not.
Investigator Art Holland bore the onerous chore of taking Dr. Shaibani to the airport. Holland was not convinced that Shaibani had perjured himself. None of it made sense. What he did see with clarity was a man destroyed, a career ruined. He wondered if this destruction was justified or Dr. Shaibani was just another victim of Michael Peterson. (353)
What? Rather than express some outrage or indignation or surprise that the prosecution had produced an expert witness–a person whose entire reason for being in court comes from their credentials–who had no credentials, she suggests that Rudolf was wrong to attack the man. She also does not follow up on the story or fact with the chair of the department. * I thought Fanning did raise a good point in mentioning the fact that Rudolf did not introduce any testimony about where the alternate blowpoke was found. As a juror, I would have had to wonder about where that came from. * To be fair, Fanning did include a huge amount of information — far more than The Staircase did. The volume of facts included in the early sections of the book are by far the most useful. As the book goes on and Fanning’s own opinion slants the presentation of events more and more, it becomes less satisfying.
So in the end, I’m still pretty unsatisfied. I tend to think that Peterson did kill Kathleen, but probably in a fit of rage after a fight. I also think the prosecution won by playing on the conservative attitudes of the jury, rather than the facts of the murder. Despite Fanning’s disdain for the attacks on the crime scene preservation, the lack of skull fractures on Kathleen, and the revelation of the blow poke, Rudolf did raise many points that cast serious doubts on the prosecution’s case. I wish the book had been more even handed, with less editorializing in descriptions of peoples’ actions.(less)
Shackleton’s plan was this: he and one shipful of dudes were traveling to one side of Antarctica, where they would disembark with dog sleds and cross...moreShackleton’s plan was this: he and one shipful of dudes were traveling to one side of Antarctica, where they would disembark with dog sleds and cross the continent over the pole. Meanwhile, the other team would land on the other side of Antarctica and sled inland, leaving supply depots for the overland team. After Shackleton and his group crossed the pole, they would run out of their own supplies and would pick up the supply drops along the way.
They left on 5 December 1914 and got stuck in the ice in mid-January. They turned the ship into a winter station and lived there until October of 1915, when the ship was crushed by the ice. The crew offloaded their stuff and lived on the ice proper, hoping to drift close enough to one of the northern islands to hop into their small boats and make a run for it. They lived on the ice until April 9th, 1916, when they sailed and landed on Elephant Island, a remote hellhole. Then, Shackleton and a few of the remaining folks sailed for South Georgia island, through the treacherous Drake passage (sometimes called the most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world), in an open 22-foot boat. They made it and brought back help to the other crewmen on Elephant island by August 30th, after the men had survived another winter.
It’s an incredible story of survival in the harshest conditions. Some additional moments that just captivated me:
* The dog teams were eventually killed to save food and, in some cases, eaten as well. Yikes. * No one died. Unbelievable. * One guy lost a foot to frostbite and gangrene. The story of how they removed the foot is chilling and informative. * The book does an excellent job conveying just how miserable it was being cold and wet for 19 months. I mean REALLY cold. * I don’t know what “salt water blisters” are, but they sound really awful. * In what sounds like both brilliant leadership and sad self-sacrifice, Shackleton housed the three men most likely to sow discord or annoy the others in his own tent. * One guy snored so loudly that they rigged a rope to his wrist and ran it around the hut they built on Elephant island. Thus, whenever a man was annoyed by the snoring, he pulled the rope like someone stopping a trolley car. * At one point, Shackleton and two other guys were stuck at the top of a mountain as the sun was setting. Realizing they couldn’t get down fast enough and would freeze to death, they sat down in a line with legs and arms wrapped around one another and slid down the mountain like tobogganers with no toboggan. They survived without injury. (less)
Truth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. L...moreTruth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. Lipstadt’s powerhouse account of her 2000 trial defending herself from a libel suit by David Irving. I can’t endorse this book enough. Pardon the long post, but this work deserves it.
I’ve discovered of late that my secular humanist perspective makes me particularly cranky about anti-science, anti-intellectual, or dishonest ideologues. David Irving fits all three descriptions. An “eminent” historian with several books to his credit, Irving morphed into a vocal Holocaust denier in the last thirty years or so. It was thus with great relish that I read and enjoyed the thunderous smackdown this dissembler received at the hands of Lipstadt and her attorneys.
The story (in brief): Lipstadt, an historian of the Holocaust from Emory University, wrote a book in the early 1990s called Denying the Holocaust, in which she documents the rise of revisionist history and its role in fomenting antisemitic and neo-Nazi sentiments. In a fairly short (apparently) passage of a few pages, she explains that the military historian, David Irving, is a Holocaust denier. While he disputes the facts of the Holocaust in a number of places, the most blatant example of his views comes from a denialist trial in Canada, where he testified, essentially, that the Holocaust was a legend. Lipstadt’s book was published in the U.K, and Irving sued her for libel.
British Libel Law. This is where it gets interesting. (Aside: I was alerted to this book by Orac, who mentioned it in reference to Simon Singh’s current troubles with the British Chiropractic Association) You see, unlike America, with our meaty Freedom of Speech to protect us, Britain has “notoriously plaintiff-friendly” libel laws. Lipstadt explains:
"British libel law… presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. The burden of proof is, therefore, on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, as would be the case in the United States. Consequently, had Penguin and I not defended ourselves, Irving would have won by default. I would have been found guilty of libel and Irving could then claim that his definition of the Holocaust had been determined to be legitimate."(31)
Lipstadt further explains that Irving’s status as a public figure would have made it nearly impossible for him to sue her in the U.S. In Britain, on the other hand, she had a long and costly court battle that she could legitimately lose — as relying on reasonable source texts is no defense if the court finds one guilty.
(This is the one place where I feel the book doesn’t spend enough time, though to be fair, my hobby horse isn’t the focus of her book. the British libel law stifles critical speech. Because the expensive onus rests with the defendant, it’s often far cheaper to settle and retract one’s statements than to defend them. As such, the libel law can be used like a club to stifle dissident voices. The DMCA’s ubiquitous C&D notices in the U.S. have often been used in a similar way, though sometimes to hilarious effect.)
Instead of caving, however, Lipstadt and Penguin, with help from Emory University and dozens (hundreds?) of individual donors around the world, stood up to Irving’s suit and rode it to court (four years later).
The Trial: Wades through the minutiae of Irving’s errors and misstatements, wallowing in the daily arguments. It might be boring except that it’s so satisfying to see an asshole hoisted on his own Petard. Each time he was caught up in a lie or a complicated web of them, I thrilled a little bit. There are few moments so delightful as the villain’s comeuppance, and in some ways this book is 200 pages of it. I won’t detail too much more except to say that the verbal gymnastics Irving uses to justify his nonsensical positions defy imagination.
There is one more moment I want to mention from the trial, from the closing statements. By this time, Irving has to defend himself against glaring evidence that he abused the process of historical research and skewed evidence to his own ends, he has been labeled a racist and connected to extremists of all stripes. He’s flustered and, in speaking about a rally he spoke at where the audience chanted “Sieg Heil,” he claims the defense only mentioned this as an attempt to smear him. Lipstadt writes:
"Irving was anxious to distance himself from these chants. That may explain what happened next. After repeating that he tried to stop the chants, he looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with “my Lord,” as he commonly did, he addressed him as “mein Führer.” There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom–Judge Gray included–seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter. Ken Stern turned to James and said, “This is out of Dr. Strangelove.” From behind me, I heard someone humming the Twilight Zone theme. Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on…”(263).
In some ways, this moment emblematizes many bits of Irving’s testimony: he often doesn’t grasp the significance of what he’s saying. Another example? In order to prove that he’s not racist, he told reporter Kate Kelland “that his ‘domestic staff’ had included a Barbadian, a Punjabi, a Sri Lankan, and a Pakistani. They were ‘all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.’ “(183). This cluelessness translates to the solipsistic justifications for antisemitic comments implying that Jews were responsible for the hatred heaped on them, etc.
As I said above, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s gripping and involving, tells the story of a triumph in the face of the worst kinds of dishonesty and ideology, and cracks along at a nice pace.(less)
I first encountered Mary Roach’s work in the audiobook section of our local library, when I checked out and read the hilarious and informative Bonk. F...moreI first encountered Mary Roach’s work in the audiobook section of our local library, when I checked out and read the hilarious and informative Bonk. Fortunately for me, I came across Spook on one of the rare occasions we went to the bookstore and decided to buy a book. It’s excellent.
Roach approaches the scientific study of the afterlife from a doubter’s perspective. Like Fox Moulder, she wants to believe, but she also clings Scully-like to science. The result is a pretty even-handed look at various science researchers investigating the supernatural, though it does tend a bit toward the skeptical. At the same time, Roach wields an hilarious voice that gives even the most failed investigations an amusing spin.
Here are a couple of the amusing passages I could find easily as I sat down to write this review:
Writing about the mysterious ringing alarm clock by Pope John Paul’s bedside, she describes the book Pontiff thusly: “The book presented the story of the pontiff’s noisy passing as proof that some vestige of His Holiness’s spirit influence the papal clockworks as it departed the body” (15).
Her footnotes are the best. Regarding Sanctorius, a Paduan physiologist:
"Medical treatises were eminently more readable in Sanctorius’ day. Medicina statica delves fearlessly into subjects of unprecedented medical eccentricity: “Cucumbers, how prejudicial,” “Phlebotomy, why best in Autumn,” and the tantalizing “Leaping, its consequences.” There’s even a full-page, near infomercial-quality plug for something called the Flesh-brush." (83)
And the end of Chapter 223, in which she discusses how electro magnetic frequencies alter people’s brains:
"But the question still remains: Are these people whose EMF-influenced brains alert them to “presences” picking up something real that the rest of us can’t pick up, or are they hallucinating? Here again, we must end with the Big Shrug, a statue of which is being erected on the lawn outside my office." (223)(less)
Satin's book was moderately interesting, but written in a pretty dry way. I liked Poisons From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar better f...moreSatin's book was moderately interesting, but written in a pretty dry way. I liked Poisons From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar better for its evocative storytelling style. That said, it was interesting to learn that the Roman lead poisoning epidemic was not due to lead water pipes, but possibly because of sapa, a sweetener used to make sour wine palatable. Vitners prepared sapa by boiling wine in lead-lined pots, causing the wine to create "lead acetate." In other words, the wine got a whole bunch of lead in it. He also suggests that Typhoid Mary may not have been as malicious as the popular press made her out to be. (less)