Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism—Monday, July 21st, 2014
Chicago press, 1924

“Press group waits in Criminal Courts Building Memorial Day night, 1924, for expected confession of Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Author John J. McPhaul is person number 3.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines is a glimpse into an ancient world of titans: a world where, rather than one newspaper, or two cooperating newspapers, a city might have four or even five newspapers all competing for as much readership as they could steal from their rivals—or make without their rivals picking up on it until after press time.

John J. McPhaul came up in the tail end of that era, and his anecdotes are about Chicago, but I expect that the same kinds of stories could be found in any frontier-born city. At the time McPhaul wrote Deadlines & Monkeyshines, there were only two newspaper publishers, and only four papers, with each publisher putting out a morning and afternoon edition. But the world he tells about is a world where newspapers could start overnight on the shoestring of a whim and end just as quickly.

Many of the problems we complain about today existed then—they were just only told about in the backrooms and over card tables on the dog watch. McPhaul describes such a late-night card game on page one, consisting of two to three reporters, a sergeant or lieutenant, and possibly a bookmaker or bondsman.

They, as today, thrived on violence. During the 1894 Pullman Company strike, newsmen wrote the following irreverent ditty:

    • War correspondents bold are we
    • And our trade is grim and grey.
    • Peace and quiet suit us not—
    • We want war and we want it hot!

McPhaul also reproduces the Wilbur Storey quote above, but in the context of being a Democrat who

…was no admirer of President Lincoln or the Republican party. He seemed principally interested in the war as a means of selling papers. His standing order to his reporters with the troops was “Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumors.” News and rumors alike were published under exclamatory headlines.

Even modern gremlins such as the sock puppet were exercised by early reporters, in the form of journalists writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms.

Even back then government officials knew how to trade access for good publicity.

Sarah—Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Sarah is an amazing book simply because it was published in April 2008, a scant four months before Governor Palin became the Vice Presidential nominee who threatened Senator Obama’s presidential bid. Back then, the media and fellow Democrats supported Palin as a maverick, fighting corruption in a nonpartisan matter, including in the Republican establishment. There is no hint in these pages of the media savaging in store for Governor Palin.

In her first year as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has plunged ahead with the fearlessness of a polar explorer.—Associated Press

She had a tough-girl Alaskan résumé that most politicians could only dream of—the protein her family eats comes from fish she has pulled out of the ocean with her own hands.—Vogue

In Alaska, Palin is challenging the dominant, sometimes corrupting, role of oil companies in the state’s political culture.—Newsweek

[Governor Palin] stands out in a state that has seen few fresh faces in politics. She is untainted by government scandal and unburdened by political debt.—New York Times

This book is very short. It’s just a simple outline of then-Governor Palin’s life story, the basics from her young life in Alaska, through college, a few words about her and Todd Palin’s courtship, and, mostly, but still abbreviated, her political career first in Wasilla and ending in the governorship of Alaska.

Throughout the book we see Palin without the partisan lens that came after 2008. We see the kind of centrist conservative the country needs: a principled politician who can work with the other side of the aisle and still not discard her principles. A Republican politician who can work with, and be admired by, Democrats.

For example, after Palin resigned from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to protest the corruption there[as a member, she was forbidden to talk about anything that went on at the AOGCC], she worked with Democrat Representative Eric Croft to investigate corruption by the Republican governor’s crony, Gregg Renkes. The party line was that, because Renkes owned only .02% of stock in a company, there was no conflict of interest during negotiations with the company. It turned out, that .02% was worth $120,000.

And when Palin challenged incumbent Governor Frank Murkowski, she received support from Democrats as well as Republicans, including Fairbanks Democrat John Reeves.

“I knew from the moment I met her that she was going to win,” said Reeves, who switched parties in order to support Sarah.

“So many people from all walks of life came together and said, it doesn’t matter what party, Sarah is what we want,” Reeves said.

This is a fascinating look at Sarah Palin before the storm, and worth picking up if you see it just for that. I probably wouldn’t go looking for it, though, just because it predates the most interesting parts of her career.

A Matter of Opinion—Monday, May 5th, 2014

Reading Victor Navasky’s memoir is like entering another world, a world where Democrat Ed Koch isn’t just less liberal than his fellow Democrats, but is a neo-conservative.1 A world of Binkys and Hams and Pings summering in Martha’s Vineyard. A world where well-off socialists fight for the right to eat caviar, and “socialist experiments” good for every business but those of socialists.

A world where intentions matter more than actions and results.

Over the years, I have learned from George Orwell, from Khruschev’s revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress, from Gorbachev’s and other memoirs, from the Venona decrypts and selected Soviet archives, some of the many things wrong with this particular naïve internationalist version of “the new world a-comin’.” But as the democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote in 1977 in The Vast Majority, although the popular-front vision was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than to promote kindness, “for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it: of an internationalism that is still the only hope of mankind. My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade.” Mine too.

Journalism, especially journals of opinion, are an elite that transcends not just movement (eschewing employee ownership, for example) but even technology. Journalists are more reliable than tape recorders. In support, he discusses Gabriel García Márquez’s idea that the tape recorder “is not a substitute for memory”:

Gabriel García Márquez, who when he is not writing his magical realist novels runs a journalism program in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia, has named the tape recorder as one of the guilty parties in much that is wrong with modern, speeded-up journalism.

Before it was invented, the job was done well with only three elements of work. The notebook, foolproof ethics and a pair of ears that we reporters used to listen to what the sources were telling us. The professional manual for the tape recorder has not yet been invented. Somebody needs to teach young reporters that the recorder is not a substitute for memory but an evolved version of the notebook, which served so well when the profession started.

His point is that the tape recorder listens and regurgitates, but it does not think, “it does not have a heart.” In the end, for García Márquez, the literal version of the spoken words it captures “would never be as trustworthy as those kept by the journalist who pays attention to the real words of the interlocutor.”

Parliament of Whores—Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

This P. J. O’Rourke book is subtitled “A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government” and it includes many things I’ve heard about and had no idea how to look up.

To begin with, there is the concept of parity—the deep thought behind all of the USDA’s price- and income-support measures. Parity is the idea that the price farm goods bring ought to be the same, now and forever, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as the price farm goods brought in the years 1910 through 1914.…

If we applied the logic of parity to automobiles instead of feed and grain, a typical economy car would cost forty grand. $43,987.,50 is what a 1910 Nash Rambler cost in 1990 dollars. And for that you got a car with thirty-four horsepower, no heat, no A/C, no tape deck or radio and no windows around the front seat. If farm parity were a guiding principle of human existence, we’d not only have lousy, high-priced economy cars, we’d have a total lack of civilization. Cheap, plentiful food is the precondition for human advancement. When there isn’t enough food, everybody has to spend all his time getting fed and nobody has a minute to invent law, architecture or big clubs to hit cave bears on the head with.

If you follow this blog, you might remember parity from the Li’l Abner musical number, The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands. Now I have a better idea of what “no one understands”. Despite the complexities of reform in DC, which, he writes, are very real, reforming the USDA and parity is the only “straightforward” issue he has seen: “a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax.”

And while the USDA is spending $10 billion a year to increase farm income [by destroying food, not growing food, and otherwise increasing the cost of food], the same government agency is spending $20 billion to make food available to poor people through the Food Stamp program. A moron, an imbecile, an American high-school student can see there’s something wrong with this equation. Just give the $10 billion to the poor people, and let them buy their own damn food from the farmers.

He starts the book by saying,

I thought I’d observe the 1988 presidential race and then go to Washington for the first six months of the new administration, learn everything there is to know about government and write a book. But the six months turned into two years. I’m not sure I learned anything except that giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

No One Left to Lie To—Sunday, April 6th, 2014

As an evil conservative, Clinton must also bear the conservative’s evil clothing. Clinton is not just a failed conservative, he is also provincial and racist.

Hitchens starts off—all of chapter two—skewering that most blatant of political triangulations, that Clinton was the “first black president”. In Hitchens’s telling, Clinton was the most racist president of recent times, overseeing the execution of black children, deserting political allies and close friends at the drop of a pin if those allies were black, and pandering to the worst of southern culture throughout his political career.

I’m not sure I’ve read an honest to god screed before. This is well-researched, but not well-thought. Hitchens is the kind of leftist intellectual smart enough to recognize that leftist policies implemented by other leftists always fail—but vain enough to think that if they just listened to him and implemented them his way leftism would suddenly succeed.

For example, in the section on the Clintons’ failed health insurance takeover, he writes:

The “triangulation” went like this. Harry and Louise sob-story ads were paid for by the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), a group made up of the smaller insurance providers. The five major insurance corporations spent even more money to support “managed competition”… The Clinton's demagogic ally campaigned against the “insurance industry,” while backing—and with the backing of—those large fish that were preparing to swallow the minnows.

It’s cronyism. Hitchens doesn’t seem to recognize that this is the inevitable result of government taking over or threatening a takeover, regardless of the form the takeover takes. Large companies can afford to buy influence; smaller companies have to band together to buy enough influence to survive.

He has a lot to say about Hillary Clinton as well. She’s totally devoid of substance, for example, he quotes her as saying this while running for the Senate in New York:

I think it’s appropriate to take a few minutes to reflect on some of the issues that people of faith have in common, and from my perspective, as I have traveled extensively through New York and been in the company of New Yorkers from so many different walks of life, I agree that the challenges before us, as individuals, as members and leaders of the community of faith, as those who already hold positions of public responsibility and those who seek them, that we do all share and should be committed to an understanding of how we make progress, but we define that progress, deeply and profoundly.

He also suggests that she tried to woo the Puerto Rican vote by convincing her husband to pardon some Puerto Rican nationalists who were in prison for placing “bombs in lower Manhattan.” When the ploy turned out to be less favorable among the rest of New Yorkers, she pivoted to oppose her husband’s pardons, saying she knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. Hitchens doesn’t believe it for a second.

An Old French expletive and The Three Musketeers—Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

My current writing project references The Three Musketeers a lot, so I’ve been rereading my own archive here on Negative Space. In the process I’ve been fixing errors. Most of them are obvious. This weekend I ran across the following exchange between d’Artagnan and his lackey Planchet in A Family Affair:

“Well!” cried D’Artagnan, “tell us all about it.”

“Dame, that’s a long job, monsieur.”

In context it seemed like an odd typo for “damn”, but before fixing it I thought I ought to look for confirmation. A quick Google search on the text absent the “dame” found a page full of entries all with the strange word.

Well, perhaps they all come from the same original source. Mine came from an early online source, probably the On-line Book Initiative.

I looked it up in my paperback version—I already knew my paperback and the online version are from different translations—and their translation used “Lord”, which sounds more appropriate:

“Lord, monsieur, that’s a long job.”

I also have a paperback in the original French. In that book, the word appears verbatim:

— Dame! c’est bien long, Monsieur

Is my paperback’s translator right? While it makes sense in context, I have never heard “Dame” used to mean anything other than “Lady” in French. A Google translate query of the original French came back with:

Lady! It is very long, sir.

Which, besides being oddly suggestive is completely out of character for Planchet. It is, however, the translation I expected. Was Lady some strange expletive in French in the time of Dumas, as it sometimes seems to be in old movies in English? I did a Hail-Mary Google search on “dame French exclamation” and got:

Dame! which must not be confounded with the feminine substantive dame (=lady), is the abbreviation of Dame-Dieu, an Old French exclamation equivalent to Seigneur Dieu (=Lord God). We constantly find in medieval texts: que Dame-Dieu nous aide! (=the Lord God help us!). Dame-Dieu, and simply Dame (that is to say, Lord God), was used as an interjection; and the exclamation Ah! dame (=ah! well), which, nowadays, has lost all meaning, signifies really Ah! Seigneur! (=ah! Lord!). The word dame is still found in the geographical names Dammartin, Dampierre, etc., which signify the Lord Martin, the Lord Peter, etc.

The Secret Knowledge—Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

If there is one quote that typifies David Mamet’s thesis in The Secret Knowledge, it is when he writes, on page 24, that “Kindness to the wicked is cruelty to the righteous.”

Nothing is free. Everything is a trade—everything is a compromise. The error of the left is a deliberate ignorance that short term actions have long term consequences. And, more generally, a deliberate refusal to accept the concept of cause and effect. Leftists go out of their way to show the corruptibility of politicians—and then argue in favor of giving government more power.

You can ask, after all, that politicians render competing claims for state benevolence with “fairness” but,

The politicians and bureaucrats discriminating between claims will necessarily favor those redounding to their individual or party benefit—so the eternal problem of “Fairness,” supposedly solved by Government distribution of funds, becomes, yet again and inevitably, a question of graft.

More specifically, fairness to the left is not fairness of law, but fairness of outcome regardless of law; the former can be set and applied equally, but the second requires a “politician or bureaucrat” to discriminate between claims based on the sentiment of the case at hand. He analogizes to sports, where,

The job of the referee, like that of the courts, is to ensure that the rules have been obeyed. If he rules, in a close case, sentimentally, he defrauds not only one of the two teams, but, more importantly, the spectators. The spectators are funding the match. As much as they enthuse over their favorite team, their enthusiasm is limited to that team’s victory as per the mutually understood rules. (Who in Chicago exulted over the triumph of the 1919 Black Sox?)

The product for which the spectators are paying is a fair contest, played out according to mutually understood and agreed-to rules. For though it seems they are paying to see success, they are actually paying for the ability to exercise permitted desire, and so are cheated, even should their team win, if the game is fixed. To fix the game for money is called corruption, to fix the game from sentiment is called Liberalism.

What greater act of colonialism than to bind a segment of our own population to shame and poverty through government subsidy and by insistence that they be judged by lower standards than the populace-at-large?

Trevor Fry’s Natchez Trace photo—Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

This comes from Trevor Fry.

My son, Adam, is doing research with the hopes of installing a historical marker regarding the Nightriders and the old wagon road they haunted, the El Camino Real/Harrisonburg Road.

Last summer we traveled with Dr. Frank Mobley from the ferry crossing at Little River all the way to the ferry crossing at Red River, and soaked up all of the Nightrider sights we could along the way. Last week we took a photo of the old wagon road after a snow fall which really shows the contours of the sunken trace.

Part of the above is from his email, and part from his comment in the original Nightriders book review.

I think a historical marker along the trace is a great idea.

Older posts.