Friday, September 30, 2011

Quote of the Week

At a time when American Christianity seems to be all about hating gays and patriotism seems to be all about hating Islam and never recognizing that we as a country make mistakes, this seems particularly timely, even though it was written in 1823:

The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others...Does anyone suppose that the love of country in an Englishman implies any friendly feeling or disposition to serve another, bearing the same name? No, it means only hatred to the French...

—William Hazlitt

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Slaves and the Civil War, Continued

I recently finished reading Andrew Ward's The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, which I found absolutely fascinating, although almost every account of a wartime incident left me with several questions. For example, when a slave girl stood up to her master and mistress and told them the approach of Union troops was "Judgment Day" for the way white Southerners had treated black people, what happened to her? When a black woman recounted how as a girl she put herself between her mistress and a Union soldier's cocked pistol, did she really love her mistress that much? Or was she telling a white interviewer what they wanted to hear?

Much of the information in this book comes from Works Progress Administration interviews done from 1936-38 in an effort to record the memories of the last living African-Americans who had experienced slavery. There's ample evidence that the former slaves were much more candid with black interviewers (such as those from Fisk University) than with whites. Maddeningly, Ward doesn't footnote anything. To trace his source material the reader has to note down slaves' names, look them up in the "Directory of Witnesses," note the abbreviated version of the source title, and look it up in the bibliography, which even then tells you little about the reliability of the source material. This book does have some very moving stories of slaves' loyalty to their masters, such as that of Andrew Bradley, who went off to war as the manservant of Confederate Private William Bradley. When the private was killed in battle, Andrew smuggled his master's body back to his [the private's] parents rather than let him be buried in a mass grave. I am sure many such stories in this book are true. Human relations are complicated. Some slaves were well-treated by their masters. And if people are at all decent to each other, it's very difficult for them to live in close proximity with each other and not care about each other at least a little. And then there's Stockholm Syndrome to take into account.

As for the issue of slaves fighting for the Confederacy, yes, some of them did. Apparently many a slave who followed his master to war picked up a weapon at some point and fought Union soldiers. That's pretty easy to explain: even if a slave knew that a Union victory would bring him freedom, bullets and artillery shells are colorblind. Whatever a slaves hopes in the long term, in the short term he just wanted to stay alive. And some slaves found the arrival of Union troops at their masters' farms to be a mixed blessing. One slave recounted how Sherman's men stripped his master's trees of fruit, took all the bread and wheat, and removed all the meat from the smokehouse. It was all part of Sherman's goal of depriving the Confederacy of anything that make it would possible for Southerners to continue to fight—and that included food. But as the former slave said, "That was our food too."

None of these anecdotes negate the reality that many slaves ran off to Union lines as soon as they could. Some of them worked for the Union Army as laborers, others enlisted (although General Sherman was appalled at how little training black recruits received; he considered black enlistment the equivalent of suicide). While I find stories of slaves' loyalty to their masters, moving in a strange, complicated way, I take actual satisfaction in stories like that of George Knox, a slave who found himself in Union lines and worked for the Army as a teamster. The colonel of an Indiana regiment invited Knox and some other blacks to accompany his men on their Indiana furlough. In spite of some initial difficulties crossing the Ohio River (many Union soldiers didn't want to share a boat with black men, and threatened to kill any who boarded) Knox made it across and rented a room from a doctor in the town of Boxley. He was astounded that the doctor allowed him to sit at the table and eat with the family. Knox settled in Indiana, and in spite of having to contend with virulent racism (he was threatened with death more than once) he prospered. He became a prominent businessman, published a newspaper for Indianapolis' black community, and was a public advocate of black migration to the North. He died in 1927.

As for the ridiculous question as to whether the complexity of master-slave relations or the fact of black service in the Confederate Army in any way sanitizes the Confederate cause, The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore says it better than I ever could:

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The New (Temporary) Look

I made the mistake of poking around in Blogger's templates library, hoping to find something a little less stark than the design you've all seen for years. Somehow one of their ghastly old templates (think a picture of the Paul Revere statue saturated with pink) got put on my blog and I couldn't figure how to get back to my original design. The best I could do was replace the totally sucky template with what you see now, which for all its faults, sucks less.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Crafting Superlatives

A man came up to the reference desk today to complain that a page had been cut out of Cat Fancy magazine. Trying to conceal my surprise that anyone actually reads Cat Fancy, I told him I was sorry for the inconvenience. He asked, "Well what are you going to do about it?" I in turn asked, "Well what was the page that was cut out?" He said, "I don't know, it's been cut out, so I have no way of knowing."

I started over: "What I meant was that if it was a page of an article you were reading, we could trying finding the full text of the article on-line." He said, "No, I think it was just pictures." He left the magazine with me and stomped off. I just kept thinking, There are people who actually read Cat Fancy magazine. And there are people who want parts of it so badly they are willing to cut out pages. And there are people who want me to miraculously recover missing pages of Cat Fancy even though they have no idea what was on them.

Mind you, I like cats. I have known many cat owners throughout my life. But to my knowledge not a single one of them has read a word of Cat Fancy. My family never had fewer than two dogs growing up. We didn't subscribe to Dog Fancy, Mutt Monthly or This Old Dog.

But back to the mutilated copy of Cat Fancy. I glanced at the cover. In the upper-right corner was printed, "THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY READ CAT MAGAZINE." Then I just thought, How many cat magazines can there be? "Most widely read cat magazine" isn't that big a deal. That's like saying, "Highest-circulation hamster journal."

If you add enough qualifiers you can say anything and it will be true. For example. Ben & Jerry's claim to be the makers of "Vermont's Finest All-Natural Ice Cream" never impressed me as much as it did some people. I simply took it to mean that there was better ice cream in Vermont, it just had a chemical additive or two. I also concluded from the claim that there was all-natural ice cream that is better than Ben & Jerry's, you just couldn't get it in Vermont.

I can't remember where or when I read this, I think it may have been while I was working at one of my miserable mid-nineties editing jobs that I stumbled across the sentence "Feral swine are the most abundant free-ranging exotic ungulate in the United States." Of course, then I felt I had to find out what exotic ungulate there was in the U.S. that was more abundant than feral swine that was not free-ranging.

Sadly, I never did.

Now that I've shown you the trick to making truthful superlative assertions, I must warn you that it's not a good idea to try this outside of advertising or academic writing. In the late nineties a female friend of mine began a relationship (conducted mostly via email) with an Australian guy that she thought was going somewhere. They met for a vacation in France where she floated the idea of moving to Australia. He freaked. Realizing that he wasn't serious about the relationship, she freaked. Trying to let her down easy, he said, "Look, you're wonderful. You're the most beautiful, witty, charming American email correspondent I've ever had."

Way to let a girl down easy, guy.

I wish I were making this up.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Week in Food

Easy-to-eat lobster? Real Mainers are having none of it.

From the City of the Big Shoulders, the world's biggest bratwurst.

That's a lot of money for an old cookie.

Goat cheese is good for you.

Vegetables: they're what's for dessert.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Week in Food

..the One-Day Late Edition:

Apparently there's nothing else to report on in the digital world, because Wired is exploring the burning question: which Girl Scout cookies command the biggest market share?

Forget Kate and William: the British royal who really counts is the corned beef king.

Taco Bell execs breathe a sigh of relief: the "mystery meat" lawsuit has been dropped.

It can speed hangover recovery, keep food from sticking to the pan, and can be made them into snack holder cups: bacon is a most versatile fruit.

What's harder: making Kouign amaan or pronouncing it?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Quote of the Week

Ta-Nehisi Coates, on horrified responses to last night's applause when Brian Williams noted that Rick Perry has ordered more executions "than any other governor in modern times:"

The only thing that shocked me was that they didn't form a rumba line. It's a Republican debate. And it's America.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Latest Reading

Hugh Thomas has always been regarding as one of the preiminent historians of the Spanish-speaking world. I very much enjoyed his book Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. I also started his book Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, and while I enjoyed much of it I eventually gave up: it's a whopping 1500 pages. I pre-ordered his latest book, The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V and the Creation of America, and have been reading it off and on since it arrived last week. I am both fascinated and disappointed.

I am fascinated because the story of the Spanish conquest of the Americas is compelling. The conquistadores were remarkable men in their relentlessness, cunning and cruelty. Tony Soprano would not have lasted five minutes around these guys. I perversely admire their determination. The men of one Spanish expedition to Florida marched until their boots were worn out. When they decided their only hope of further progress was to travel by water, they found a navigable river, melted down everything metal they could spare to make saws, hammers, and nails, then cut down trees to build ships. The conquistadores were men who would endure starvation, illness, march through hot jungles and over ice-capped mountains, all in the hope of achieving their mad dreams of conquest and riches. There's a further out-sized quality to the actions of the leading men of the day back in Europe, such as when King Charles V of Spain (who was also Holy Roman Emperor) asked for a loan from some Flemish bankers. His collateral? Venezuela.

I am disappointed with The Golden Empire because of various instances of sloppiness I see in the text. Thomas uses exclamation points, which in a nonfiction work are a sign of an amateur writer, which he certainly isn't. There are occasional difficulties for the general reader that a decent editor would have addressed. For example, there's never any effort to explain sixteenth-century Spanish currency. To say that an official received an annual salary of 150,000 maravedis is meaningless if the reader doesn't have any idea of what a maravedi was worth in 21st-century dollars (to the extent that one can realistically make such a comparision), or what kind of standard of living a given number of maravedis could provide. At other times Thomas provides details that beg some kind of explanation. For example, he writes admiringly of Cortés' rebuilding of Mexico City/Tenochtitlan in the first couple of years after the Conquest, and notes that he built two hospitals, including one specifically for lepers. Was there an extensive outbreak of leprosy among the surviving Aztec population? Did some of the colonists arriving from Spain turn out to be lepers and infect other people? Or was Cortés anticipating a leprosy outbreak?

Is Hugh Thomas so arrogant a writer that he refuses to accept edits, or has his publisher (Random House) laid off all their editors?

Another thing: on the book jacket Thomas' author portrait is an oil painting. It's credited to Hernan Cortés.* However accomplished the conqueror of Mexico was, I doubt his gifts included portraiture and access to a time machine so he could go 500 years into the future to paint pictures of British writers.

*I am not making this up.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Southern Dispatch

This year is the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War—or, as it's sometimes called down where I'm from, The Late Unpleasantness. The anniversary is being observed in a number of ways, most notably in a temporary boom in books on the subject, and also in the New York Times' remarkable Disunion project, which uses contemporary sources to discuss little-known aspects of the conflict and to show how the War appeared to contemporaries as it happened.

The war was the crucible of modern American identity: whatever Rick Perry would have you think, it settled forever the question of whether being a Virginian, a New Yorker, or a Texan trumped being an American. It ended slavery, accelerated American industrialization, and was in some ways a dress rehearsal for the even bloodier wars of the twentieth century.

In spite of the fact that the original declarations of secession were quite clear about the Southern states' reasons for leaving the Union (look here to see the declarations of disunion for South Carolina—the state that started it all— Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas), there are those who still dispute the causes of the war. Many white Southerners and ohter latter-day Confederate sympathizers refuse to acknowledge the war was about slavery. It is true that many Federal soldiers fought simply to save the Union. It is true that Lincoln didn't issue the Emancipation proclamation until two years after the war began. I have no doubt it is also true that many Southern soldiers enlisted and fought simply because their states were being invaded. But that doesn't change the fact that the election as President of a member of the Republican party, a party officially opposed to the expansion of slavery, a party whose members did not hesitate to publicly call slavery "barbaric," provoked the secession of the Southern states.

Last year a history textbook that stated thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War was distributed to Virginia school children. Confederate apologists love this idea: by implication, if black people fought for the Confederacy, then the Southern cause must have been about something other than slavery, right? At least one Harvard professor (John Stauffer) is on board with this nonsense. Professor Levine of the University of Illinois effectively demolishes the myth of black Confederate soldiers:

I have two things to say about this. Even if black soldiers did fight for the Confederacy, in whatever numbers (Harvard's Stauffer says even if they were few, they were symbolic), that says nothing about the nature of the Confederate cause. Some Jews collaborated with the Nazis. Does anyone seriously believe that means the Nazi regime wasn't intent on genocide?

Secondly, 96% of all Southern blacks were slaves, and the remaining 4% were in no position to seriously challenge white authority. Whatever assistance Southern blacks provided to the Confederate forces, there's no reason to believe it was done by choice.

It is true that in 1865 the Confederate government offered freedom to any slaves who would enlist in the Confederate Army. This proposal is cited by Confederate sympathizers as proof the war was about states' rights and not about slavery. Considering how out-manned and out-gunned the Confederacy was, the Richmond government took an awfully long time before trying to enlist black manpower. All the proposal proves is that war has a life of its own: the Confederate government was willing to deal a crucial blow to the institution it went to war to protect rather than lose the war itself. I also suspect that by spring 1865 Confederate leaders were more afraid of being put on trial for treason than they were of losing some slaves.

The desire to whitewash the Confederacy springs largely (but not always) from the sense many white Southerners have that the Confederacy is a part of their identity, and that an attack on the Lost Cause is an attack on them. In spite of my family having lived in the South since the seventeenth century, I've never felt that the men in gray had anything to do—or should have anything to do—with who I am.

My first day as a graduate student in English at the University of North Carolina, I was walking across campus with the first other graduate student I met, who was from Ohio. He looked up at the Confederate veterans' monument on Polk Place (the quad in the oldest part of campus). He asked me, "Why are there so many Civil War monuments in the South?"

I sighed: "Because some people don't know how to let things go."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Week in Food

One of the few success stories of recent years is Greek yogurt—which isn't actually Greek.

Cooking: it's older than you think.

Mmmmm....Pakistani mangoes....

Forget free-range, grass-fed beef. How about test-tube beef?

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Way We Live Now

As if we actually needed more media in our lives: a technology startup called Booktrack makes soundtracks for e-books:

To get a sense of what Booktrack does, imagine if the ashram scenes of Eat Pray Love were accompanied by yogic chanting, or if you could hear the wet percussion of harpoons piercing whale flesh as you read Moby Dick.

It would be a perverse accomplishment to make Eat, Pray, Love even more annoying than it already is, and I can't imagine what kind of sicko would want to hear "harpoons piercing whale flesh."

Given that ubiquity of electronically generated sound, it would have been much more original to create smells to enhance the e-reading experience. Imagine taking in the odor of verbena when reading Faulkner, or being steeped in the mingled smells of people who have never bathed in their lives when reading Shakespeare.

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