Thursday, December 29, 2011

100 years ago today: The tale of the typewriter

One hundred years ago typewriters were expensive and still comparatively rare. People who had mastered the skill of using these machines were often themselves referred to as "typewriters." In some cases (as mentioned in passing in E. F. Benson's An Autumn Sowing, published in 1917) the person who was being hired to type brought their machine with them. It was a tool of their trade and one which required an investment in order to yield returns.

One hundred years ago today one could buy a yearly subscription to The Tensas Gazette (St. Joseph's, LA) for $1.50. A "Standard Sewing Machine" (non electric) with all attachments included could be bought for $15.00. A very nice automobile could be bought, new, for $700.00 and a "young man's" suit for $15-30.00. One might pay between $2.50 to $4.00 for a pair of shoes.

A Royal Standard Typewriter cost $75.00. It is hard to realize now that the typewriter was in many ways as revolutionary a device as were word processors in their day. They were not cheap yet they were not so expensive that only a member of the upper middle class could afford one. Of course members of the upper middle class did not use typewriting machines, they employed human beings to do so for them. Almost from the first days of typewriters invention expert users were predominantly women. Indeed it has been convincingly argued that typewriters played an important role making the office a safe and acceptable place for women to work. (see The Woman and the Typewriter: A Case Study in Technological Innovation and Social Change, Donald Hoke, Milwaukee Public Museaum)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

100 years ago yesterday: Libertarian remedies in action

100 years ago yesterday a New York jury acquitted Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of criminal negligence in the fire that killed 146 women and men in the Asch Building (Triangle Shirtwaist) fire (TRIANGLE CO. HEADS ACQUITTED ON CHARGE OF MANSLAUGHTER, The New York Evening World, December 27 1911). The families of the victims were barred from the courtroom the day the jury return with its verdict and a cordon of police escorted Blanck and Harris out of the building and to the subway.

Neither man was ever convicted in criminal court for any of the deaths that day although in 1913 they were lost at case in civil court and were instructed to pay $75 in compensation to the family of each person who died. In that same year Blanck was arrested and fined $20 for once again locking workers in at his factory.

Many people today think that the men who owned the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were convicted and it was that which led to improvements in workplace conditions for American women and men but that is almost the opposite to what actually happened. It was the anger among the public after witnessing business owner after business owner get at most a slap on the risk for endangering the lives of their workers that led to state and federal regulatory bodies that worked to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place.

In other words, we have "real world" data that indicates that the Libertarian remedies for bad work places, bad managers and bad products did not work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

100 years ago today: Some are more equal than others

One hundred years ago today, December 13 1911, this is what the left hand side of the front page of The New York Evening World looked like:

Princess Louise was not an American. Her husband was not an American. Her children were not Americans. Neither the Princess, nor her husband, nor her daughters were (or had been) involved in negotiations with the American government. The steamship in question had not departed from, nor was it heading to, the United States of America. Had the Princess Royal, her husband or their daughters, been injured or even killed there would have been no direct or indirect impact on the government of the United States.

The miners whose desperate raps signaled to rescuers that there were still men alive in the "ruined colliery"--they were citizens of the same country as the editors, writers and readers of The Evening World. The collapsed mine and the dead and endangered miners were not even located on the other side of the country let alone across an ocean and off the coast of a different continent. Yet the news of that scores of men had yet to be rescued after the explosion at the Cross Mountain coal mine was not even one of the two most important stories of the day as one can see:

One could make the argument that the stories about Sheepshead Bay and Ethel Conrad were of parochial interest to New Yorkers. One might even make the argument that the trial of the "labor bombers" in Indianapolis was also relevant to New Yorkers because, "New York, Brooklyn and Hoboken Ask Evident to Use in Local Prosecutions" though that relevance does not seem so pressing that it merits sharing the top half of the front page with news of a mine disaster in Tennessee. But the news about Princess Louise? That unmasks the news values that underlie the choice and placement of stories. News about the lives of rich and socially "important" people from other countries was at least as important as the lives of working class Americans.

The last bodies of trapped miners were not located until December 19 1911. Those two men, Alonzo Wood and Eugene Ault, had survived long enough to build a barricade in an effort to protect themselves from the gasses in the mine and to write farewell messages to their families on the wall.

Monday, December 12, 2011

100 Years Ago Today: Paging Rick Perry re the Department of Energy

The Democratic Banner (Mt. Vernon, Ohio. December 12, 1911, page 1.) HUNDRED DEAD IN MINE BLAST / Briceville, Tenn., Is The Scene Of Latest Catastrophe. There had been an explosion in the Cross Mountain coal mine (near Briceville, TN) on December 9. When The Banner went to print it was still unclear exactly how many men had been in the mine when the explosion occurred and what the chances were of anyone being rescued. After several days 5 men were pulled out of the mine alive. The dead numbered 84. The Bureau of Mines, which had created May 16 1910 as a response to a number of severe mining accidents in the United States, led the rescue efforts.

According to The United States Mine Rescue Association, During the three years leading up to the establishment of the U. S. Bureau of Mines, 1907 to 1909, there were 50 coal mine disasters in which 5 or more miners were killed. Total killed - 1,773 (Historical Data on Mine Disasters in the United States.) "Bureaucrats" from that department pioneered or popularized technologies to rescue miners (including the use of canaries as a early warning of dangerous gasses and equipment for miners so that they could "self-rescue.")

In 1995 Congress closed the U. S. Bureau of Mines transferring oversight of health and safety to the Department of Energy while cutting 66% from the budgets of the various programs that were farmed out to Energy and other departments.

Yes, one of the federal departments that Rick Perry is so eager to slash is responsible for the health, safety and rescue of American miners. Maybe Governor Perry would like to explain his eagerness to cut an agency responsible for the safety of miners to the families of the 29 miners who died April 5 2010 in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV. Maybe Governor Perry would like to explain his eagerness to the American miners who risk their lives every day.

Or maybe the names of the people who died and the mines that have become graves have slipped his mind along with the name of the Department that is responsible for their welfare.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Translating genius

One of the challenges of the reader who wishes to read a book written in a language they themselves cannot read is to select the best translation. Readers may fall back on the advice of reviewers or use the literary reputation of a proxy, for example an editor or series such as "Penguin Classics."Of course the choice challenge presupposes that the reader has access to more than one translation. It also suggests that there is a single "best" translation for all readers. In many cases neither is true.

Kit Whitfield's excellent series of deconstructions / analyses of the first sentences of famous and notable books has fostered in me the habit of thinking of "first sentences" as I reshelve my books. So, earlier today I noticed my copies of Eugénie Grandet as I filed some of my Austens away, and pulled them out to consider whether I should nominate the first sentence of that book for analysis. But which first sentence I wondered, the English or the French. The English first sentence didn't completely evoke the French book that I remembered. So I sat down and read the first several pages in French and then in the English of more than one translation. All of which made me think about the problem of translations. We talk about reading The Iliad or The Aeneid or The Bible or Beowulf but few of us are actually reading the words originally written. We are experiencing these works of genius through the eyes and minds of translators. So we do not really have, as readers, an opinion about any of those works--we have an opinion of those works as mediated by those who translated them.

Look, for example, at the first several hundred words of Eugénie Grandet:

Note #1: for those who don't read French--just skim down to the English translations. The point I am making in this piece does not require knowledge of that language.

Note #2: in French there are several more sentences before the first paragraph ends. The different font colours indicate the places in the text translators added paragraph breaks.

This is how Honoré de Balzac's Eugénie Grandet begins:
Il se trouve dans certaines provinces des maisons dont la vue inspire une mélancolie égale à celle que provoquent les cloîtres les plus sombres, les landes les plus ternes ou les ruines les plus tristes. Peut-être y a-t-il à la fois dans ces maisons et le silence du cloître et l'aridité des landes et les ossements des ruines. La vie et le mouvement y sont si tranquilles qu'un étranger les croirait inhabitées, s'il ne rencontrait tout à coup le regard pâle et froid d'une personne immobile dont la figure à demi monastique dépasse l'appui de la croisée, au bruit d'un pas inconnu. Ces principes de mélancolie existent dans la physionomie d'un logis situé à Saumur, au bout de la rue montueuse qui mène au château, par le haut de la ville. Cette rue, maintenant peu fréquentée, chaude en été, froide en hiver, obscure en quelques endroits, est remarquable par la sonorité de son petit pavé caillouteux, toujours propre et sec, par l'étroitesse de sa voie tortueuse, par la paix de ses maisons qui appartiennent à la vieille ville, et que dominent les remparts. Des habitations trois fois séculaires y sont encore solides quoique construites en bois, et leurs divers aspects contribuent à l'originalité qui recommande cette partie de Saumur à l'attention des antiquaires et des artistes. Il est difficile de passer devant ces maisons, sans admirer les énormes madriers dont les bouts sont taillés en figures bizarres et qui couronnent d'un bas-relief noir le rez-de-chaussée de la plupart d'entre elles. Ici, des pièces de bois transversales sont couvertes en ardoises et dessinent des lignes bleues sur les frêles murailles d'un logis terminé par un toit en colombage que les ans ont fait plier, dont les bardeaux pourris ont été tordus par l'action alternative de la pluie et du soleil. Là se présentent des appuis de fenêtre usés, noircis, dont les délicates sculptures se voient à peine, et qui semblent trop légers pour le pot d'argile brune d'où s'élancent les oeillets ou les rosiers d'une pauvre ouvrière. Plus loin, c'est des portes garnies de clous énormes où le génie de nos ancêtres a tracé des hiéroglyphes domestiques dont le sens ne se retrouvera jamais. Tantôt un protestant y a signé sa foi, tantôt un ligueur y a maudit Henri IV.[1]
Here are the first two paragraphs of Marion Ayton Crawford's Penguin Classic translation[2] of the same book:
In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weights as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land. These houses may combine the cloister's silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins. Life makes so little stir in them that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless gaze of some motionless human being, who face, austere as a monk's, peers from above the window-sill at the sound of a stranger's footfall.

One particular house front in Saumur possesses all these gloomy characteristics. It stands at the end of the hilly street leading to the castle, in the upper part of the town. This street, which is little used nowadays, is hot in the summer, cold in winter, and in some places dark and overshadowed. One's footsteps ring curiously loudly on its flinty cobble-stones, which are always clean and dry; and its narrowness and crookedness and the silence of its houses, which form part of the old town and are looked down upon by the ramparts, make an unusual impression on the mind. There are houses there which were built three hundred years ago, and built of wood, yet are still sound. Each has a character of its own, and their diversity contributes to the essential strangess of the place, which attracts antiquaries and artists to this quarter of Saumur.
Here is how Katharine Prescott Wormeley's translation[3] begins:
There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.
In each case the translator was faced with the same task. They needed not to translate Balzac's original word for word but meaning for meaning and theme for theme. They needed to use words to paint the picture that Balzac wanted his readers to have of that town and that house. Balzac's style was inextricable from his themes. Yet the translator is also faced with the task of translating the original book so that it is accessible and understandable to readers who come from a different literary tradition. Such a reader might respond quite differently to the paragraph and sentence structure of the original that would have someone from the original audience. The (French) opening of the book is an extended word picture of a time and place. The sound of the language carries part of the load of "setting the scene." Reading the French out loud carries quite a different feeling than reading the English out loud.

Each translator chose to break up the original long, uninterrupted opening, into smaller paragraphs. I don't know to what degree the existence of earlier translations affected the two quoted above, however both chose to insert paragraph breaks at the same points in the text. I have read other translations that inserted them at different points.

To get a sense of just how difficult it is to pick the "best" translation consider the following. I originally read Eugénie Grandet in French. I was looking for an English "version" more for annotations and footnotes than for a translation of the words since I was sure that I was missing some elements of the book that readers of Balzac's time would have appreciated. I agree that for the modern reader, especially for the modern reader brought up within the styles dominant in the English reading world, stylistic changes may make the book more readable. However, in my opinion, none of the translators quite nails that opening sentence. None of them are able to translate Balzac's opening into one that would repay the type of attention Kit Whitfield brings to the opening sentences she has analyzed.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of translators in general or these translators in particular. Perhaps Balzac's opening sentence could only be translated into English by Balzac himself--if he was fluent in the language. Perhaps the particular quality of that sentence cannot be duplicated in the English language. I don't know. I do know that the more I grapple with that single sentence the greater my admiration and respect for translators.

Note #3: One of the wonderful bonuses of Kindle/Amazon ebooks is that one is usually offered the option to download a sample of the book, generally the first chapter. This allows readers the opportunity to browse books much as one would in a book store or library. One doesn't need to own a Kindle to do this. The "Kindle for your computers" software is available for free. The sample chapter is downloaded to your computer and you can peruse it at your leisure. I looked for an number of translations of Balzac's books before I wrote this piece and ended up buying my third copy of the book.

[1] Eugénie Grandet is in the public domain. The French text in this article is from the version on the website. insert footnote

[2] Balzac, H. Eugénie Grandet. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955.

[3] Also available on Project Gutenberg.

Friday, December 9, 2011

100 years ago today: Fighting demon nicotine

Perusing the December 9 1911 issue of the The Logan Republican (Cache County, Utah) an opinion piece on the front page caught my attention, BANEFUL INFLUENCES OF CIGARETTE SMOKING. The article itself was a peculiar mixture of warnings similar to those offered by many medical doctors one hundred years later and warnings that seem utterly nonsensical to us today. The author, Doctor Adamson, warned that smoking and a smoke filled atmosphere was bad for the lungs:
A simple case of pneumonia, but the cough persistent and irritating and will not be relieved by the usual remedies. The case goes from bad to worse, resulting in death. The real cause CIGARETTES!
should you ever visit a prize fight you will notice that just before it begins the referee steps into the ring and says "No Smoking." Now this order is not the result of false sentiment, modesty nor religion, he doesn't care how much you smoke, drink or debauch yourself, but he does know that smoke, even second hand, hurts the lungs and spoils the wind of the fighters and therefore will not permit it.
But Dr. Adamson also warns that cigarette smoking leads to a loss of "mental and moral control." He tells of a man who sat "rolling and smoking" cigarettes in his cell awaiting execution for the crime of shooting his wife to death. He tells of a "cigarette fiend" who actually "had a cigarette between his teeth when he killed his victim." He claims that "without exception" every troubled boy sent to the "Industrial school" was a cigarette smoker.

I wondered how common this perception of nicotine as yet another drug that led to "fiendish" (the common word at the time) behaviour was in 1911. Did this article reflect a common (or at least not uncommon) concern at the time or was it articular to communities such as the Mormons of Utah?

Poking around in the digital files of the Library of Congress one finds that the perception that cigarettes delivered a drug that rivaled morphine in its intensity and undermined the individual who smoked both physically and morally in newspapers across the United States and for years prior to, and after, 1911.

The Adair County News (Kentucky) ran an article THE CIGARETTE FIEND on the front page of the December 3, 1902 issue that captures the flavour of many:
"The cigarette." said a veteran inhaler of the poisonous weed the other day, "has caused the ruin of more young men than whiskey, morphine and 'dope' habits of all kinds. You don't believe it? Don't take my word, but go to the young man of twenty-five who has smoked cigaretts [sic] from his boyhood and ask him. He, like I, speaks from experience. It first robs him of manhood and will power. It incapacitates him for business. It creates a thirst for drink and to soothe his parched lips and tongue takes to strong drink--water doesn't have the desired effect. It robs him of honor and leads him to gamble.
It is fascinating to realize how hard the makers and sellers of cigarettes worked to counteract the fairly common perception that their product undermined the health and morals of its customers. One wonders if those who railed against the habit would have been more successful in preventing its widespread acceptance had they limited their attacks on it to the physical dangers it presented.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

100 years ago today: Defending traditional marriage

One hundred years ago the defenders of "traditional" marriage weren't worried about "same-sex" unions they were fighting against divorce and especially remarriage after divorce.

Take, for example this article DIVORCE REFORMERS SUSTAIN RUDE JAR on the front page of the December 8 1922 issue of the Arizonan Republican. Dateline Kansas City:
Reformers who hoped to check the indiscriminate granting of divorces in this city, received a shock today when W. W. Wright. divorce proctor, recently recently appointed to investigate the merits of divorce cases, was barred from participation in an uncontested suit. The plaintiff's attorneys objection to the proctor was that he was in no way connected with the case and had no right to interfere. Judge Guthrie sustained the point. The office of proctor was created as the result of a popular demand that the divorce evil be abated. All eight circuit judges concurred In the demand. Since the Procter assumed his duties last month, few divorces have been granted. Formerly all uncontested suits resulted favorably to the plaintiff.
Note the vaguely specified "popular demand" and the fact that in a non-editorial piece divorce was passingly referred to as an "evil." It was still extraordinarily difficult to get a divorce in England and difficulty (and expense) varied from state to state in America.

While some were most worried about the sheer fact of divorce others were more concerned about the issue of divorce and remarriage. For example, this article in the August 9 1911 issue of The San Francisco Call on the question as to whether any Episcopalian minister should be willing to marry John Jacob Astor (a divorced man) and his intended bride, Miss Madeleine Force.[1] EPISCOPALIAN CLERGY UNITED AGAINST ASTOR (p. 1) written by Rev. D. G. Kelley:
There is only one class of divorced people that can be reunited in our church—the innocent parties where the divorce was secured on statutory grounds. The rector who would marry this couple ought to be deposed from the ministry.
Girl Needs Protection
As for this marriage, I call abominable if the girl herself, is innocent and decent. She should be protected. One of the greatest menaces to our social system is the laxity of our divorce law.
In paper after paper one comes across article after article about threat that easy divorce, divorce on grounds such as incompatibility and the remarriage of the "guilty" partner after divorce were to health of the nation. Some pundits argued that the age of consent should be raised, that people should have to wait much longer between the granted of the licence and the marriage itself and that remarriage should be allowed, even for the innocent partner, only after an extended period of time. And, much like today, citizens of states with one view of marriage, divorce and remarriage complained that they should not have to recognize marriages and divorces from states with different laws.

One hopes that in 100 years Americans will look back on the resistance to "same-sex" marriages much as Americans of today look back on the resistance to "no fault" divorces and remarriage of the "guilty" partner of 100 years ago.

[1] Both John Jacob and Madeleine Astor were aboard the Titanic when it hit the iceberg. Mrs. Astor (noticeably pregnant), along with her maid and nurse, were given places in a lifeboat and survived the sinking the ship. John Jacob Astor, one of the many man not allowed a place on a lifeboat, died some time that night. Given the size of his estate (over 100 billion in 2011 dollars) it is fortunate that his body was one of those recovered from the ocean.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Letter of Intent

Letter of Intent by Ursula Curtiss (1971)

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

Letter of Intent is a difficult book to rate, an interesting book to read and one which describes a world as different from our own as many one finds in science fiction or fantasy. If you are interested in a book about a woman, a book told from the point of view of a woman, a book that celebrates a woman's ambition to achieve comfort and status, or a book that relates, without any censoriousness, a woman who values men only for their instrumental utility then you will find this a compelling read.

Unfortunately after the reader follows the protagonist across years, the continent and several classes the ending is abrupt and in the opinion of this reader, unsatisfying.

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

From the time Celia (whose full last name the reader never learns) arrives cold, wet and with a sketchy grasp of English, at the Stevenson's to begin work as their new maid she begins to reshape herself. Celia telescopes her last name to Brett and leaves behind one employer after another as she works herself up the social ladder. She seldom finds men as useful or interesting as women for it is the women who have the skills she wishes to master (how to organize a dinner party, how to have enough food and liquor without spending unnecessarily, how to dress properly.)

Curtiss makes Celia believable. She has strengths (and weaknesses) that are believable of someone who had come from that particular place in American life. She leaves behind her a trail of broken lives and even deaths and yet she never actively works to harm anyone. She merely acts only and always in her own best interests.

When I first read this book (not long after it was first published in 1971) it stood out because it was a book about a woman who had no interest in men and yet, on the surface, was everything people expected of a woman. She cooked, she cleaned, she sewed, she dusted, she learned how to entertain, she learned how to be an interesting companion to the men she found useful. But she had no more real interest in any man than she had in a good coat. They were enjoyable as long as they fulfilled they function and would be discarded when they no longer did so.

On my most recent rereading of the book I also realized that Celia's is a story that would have to be told very differently today. Celia is able to escape the home she grew up in, change her name and discard former acquaintances as she moves up through East Coast society and then West Coast society in a way that no one could do now without paying for new paperwork and employing experts to build a new identity. Letter of Intent is written in a world where no one asks for anyone else's Social Security Card, where most transactions were still in cash, where you could open a bank account with almost no documentation and where by moving to a new town one could establish a new life.

Letter of Intent is also a book that passes the Bechdel test on the first page and never looks back. It is not a book that exudes conscious feminism but it is, in may ways, the most feminist of books. It is a book set in a world of women, that proceeds from the assumption that woman are a likely as smart, silly, slow, weak, strong as men. It is a book that stands back and looks with cold clarity on the ways and means through which women can fulfill their ambitions and until the very last page, it never suggest that a rational person would respond in any other way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

22 years ago: A massacre in Montréal

Late in the afternoon of December 6 1989 the man, armed with a rifle and a knife, walked into one of the classrooms at the École Polytechnique engineering school (Université de Montréal.)[1] He ordered the (approximately forty to forty-five) men to one side of the room and the nine women to the other. When the students did not immediately respond to his demand he fired a shot into the ceiling. Then he ordered the men to leave the room. The man told the remaining women that they were "une gang de féministes" and said "J'haïs les féministes [I hate feminists]."

The man then shot all nine of the women, six fatally. Exiting the classroom the man went up and down the halls of the École Polytechnique demanding "I want women." He went in and out of rooms, he went into the cafeteria and he shot one woman through the closed and locked door of her office. When the man heard one of the women he had shot crying for help he returned to where she was lying took out his knife and stabbed her to death.

The man injured ten women, four men and killed fourteen women.

Finally, the man shot himself

The initial response of the Canadian public was horror and anger. Why did this happen, people asked. And others answered, Why are you so surprised that something like this finally happened? The Montréal massacre (as the event became known) seemed emblematic to many of the endemic levels of misogyny in much of Canadian life. Women came forward with stories of the verbal (and sometimes physical) brutality in Canadian universities in general and engineering schools in particular.

The man had left behind him notes and letters that indicated that he believed that the only reason he had not been accepted into engineering school was because open slots were being taken by women. Yet even with the statements he made and the writings he left behind there was a backlash against seeing the man's actions as anti-feminist. Some who resisted that interpretation looked for some clue in the man's childhood. Others framed any emphasis on societal misogyny as anti-male. Barbara Frum (famous in her own right as a television journalist in Canada and, yes, the mother of that David Frum) claimed that to say that the man's actions were a hate crime was to "diminish" their horror. Yes, Barbara Frum argued that it would diminish the death of fourteen women if we were to acknowledge that they had died because they were women.

The following summer I sat in a science class at a different university and listened to the (male) Professor apologize that both his Teaching Assistants were women "they make us give places to women these days" he explained. I can't remember the rest of the lecture that day. I stayed after class and approached the Professor, "don't you think it is a bad idea to complain about being forced to give assistantships to women after what happened in Montréal last year?" I asked. "Typical woman," he answered, "over reacting to everything."

As I left the classroom I noticed another student had also remained behind--a sad looking woman. We made eye contact as I passed her, "thank you," she said, "I don't think you were over reacting at all."

In memory of my fourteen sisters:
  • Annie St-Arneault
  • Annie Turcotte
  • Anne-Marie Edward
  • Anne-Marie Lemay
  • Barbara Daigneault
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz
  • Geneviève Bergeron
  • Hélène Colgan
  • Maryse Laganière
  • Maryse Leclair
  • Maud Haviernick
  • Michèle Richard
  • Nathalie Croteau
  • Sonia Pelletier

[1] For those who don't know the details of the Montréal Massacre Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Maureen Dowd almost "gets it" - but not quite

In her New York Times op-ed column of December 3 2011, Out of Africa and Into Iowa, Maureen Dowd gets off some great lines and comes close to a moment of political insight before backing away from such dangerous territory.

I am anything but a fan of Newt Gingrich but neither am I impressed with an argument against him that begins with ad hominem attacks.
Newt Gingrich's mind is in love with itself
proclaims Dowd as the first line of the piece. Well yes, I suppose that is an accurate statement to say that Gingrich thinks well of his intellectual capabilities. But Dowd should know, as someone who has spent so many years around politicians and politics, that the same statement can be made of a significant percentage of those who run for office (and perhaps an even larger percentage of those who succeed in that endeavor.) Unless people are engaged in politics for purely venal reasons they basically have to believe that their abilities / qualities are, in at least one crucial area, superior to those of their opponents. Even the venal candidates must believe they are better at something (even if is just the belief that they are better at stealing or lying and getting away with it) than than those they are running against.

So, Dowd's catchy opening line really reduces to the simple statement, "Gingrich thinks he is smart," or "Gingrich thinks he is clever" to which the response of this reader is "yes, so what? In what way does that make he different from hundreds of other people in Washington today?"

Dowd goes on to accuse Gingrich of being a "promiscuous" thinker without making it clear exactly what a "promiscuous" thinker might be. She states he is not a "serious" thinker, again without clarifying exactly how one recognizes the seriousness of another's thoughts. Perhaps she means he believes things that she doesn't take seriously. Perhaps she means that he doesn't spend his time talking about the things she thinks a serious person should talk about.

These same charges are made by pundits of the right about politicians on the left and pundits of left about politicians on the right. They have no essential substantive critical value.

Gingrich, Dowd goes on to tell us, "plays air guitar with ideas"--another charge that feels witty and cutting and yet reduces to vague meaningless when one examines it closely.

Dowd does attack Gingrich on more specific matters when she discusses his 1971 Ph.D. thesis “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.” It isn't clear from this op-ed whether Dowd herself has read the entire thesis or is responding to it based posts and comments on blogs. Gingrich wrote that thesis forty years ago and it would not be surprising to find that his opinions and conclusions may have evolved over the intervening time. The thesis was written by an academic who had never held a serious electoral or administrative position. It would be interesting to read the thesis in its entirety and then sit down with the former Speaker and ask him just that "have your opinions or conclusions changed now that you have held high political office?" I won't get a chance to do that and in the middle of campaigning season he would be foolish to offer anyone that opportunity.

What Dowd argues is that the thesis established Gingrich as an anti-anti-colonist and given his statements in the intervening years nothing has happened to suggest he has changed his opinions on colonialism in Africa. It is at this point that she makes the pithy charge
He’s Belgium. The poor are Congo.
And this is where Dowd demonstrates that she doesn't really get it.

Gingrich isn't Belgium, although he may be analogized as a senior colonial administrator. He is wealthy but he is not a plutocrat. He is a well paid and powerful functionary but he is not the locus of power. The 0.1% of are Belgium.

And while the poor are Congo so are the middle class and the working class and everyone but the 0.1% Congo. The richest of the rich are treating Americans and American resources as King Leopold treated the resources of the Congo.

Dowd, like so many American political pundits is being distracted by the show of partisan campaigning from even looking to see whose hands are actually on the levers of power.

Friday, December 2, 2011

100 Years ago today: "I could not work any harder than I had been doing."

One hundred years ago Mrs. Anna Godfrey collapsed on a bench in a "fashionable" part of Chicago. Her hair was cut short and she was wearing men's clothes and so was charged with "masquerading in male attire." Mrs. Godfrey explained to the judge that she had dressed as a man and set out on a ten mile walk in order to get a job as a farm laborer. Her husband was bed ridden and she and her oldest boy each were able to bring home only a few dollars a week to support the family of six. Mrs. Godfrey dreamed of giving her four children a better place to live than than their home on a alley. As reported in The Tacoma Times (December 2, page 8)
Judge J. R. Caverly....discharged her. "You are a brave woman," he said, "and deserve praise rather than punishment for your act."
but the only relief he could offer was
to take her children away from her and place them in a home
an offer Mrs. Godfrey turned down.
"No," she replied, "I will go back to the factory, where I worked the last four years, or I will get work as a scrub-woman, but I want to keep my babies in our own home....I told my husband that something would have to be done. I decided to get a job on a truck farm, thinking that if I did well I could bring the family out and that would be better for the children than to stay on the alley. I didn't have a cent of money, so I started out to walk. For ten miles I went along, resting when my feet got sore and tired, and then starting out again.
   "My husband thought that farm work would be too hard for me but I told him that 1 could not work any harder than I had been doing."
I hope Mrs Godfey was able to keep her babies. I hope she was able to make life better for her children. I hope that life got easier for her and not harder as the years passed. Take a look at this picture of Mrs. Anna Godfey in The day book (Chicago, Illinois. December 2, page 9) and remember her face every time a politician tells you that anyone can get ahead in America if only they are willing to work hard because many Americans, like Mrs. Godfrey, couldn't work any harder than they have been doing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book Review: Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers (1931)

In short:

  • I don't care what happens to these people.[1]
  • This isn't a novel it's a cross between a railroad time schedule and a crossword puzzle.
  • That isn't Lord Peter Wimsey--he's a generic wealthy, privileged member of the upper class who is given unreasonable amounts of access and information by local legal authorities.
Rating: 1-1/2 stars

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

It is difficult to know where to start with "what bothered me" about this book. Instead of just not caring what happened to these people (which might result in me simply not finishing the book) I came to be actively annoyed and resentful of the characters and thus, of course, the author.

First, when last the reader encountered Lord Peter Wimsey (Strong Poison) he had just had what seemed, to readers of the time, a life altering experience. He had finely met a woman (Harriet Vane) he could truly love, proved to the world (and more importantly the English justice system) that she was not guilty of having poisoned her ex-lover, and had his marriage proposal to her turned down. The reader might deduce that a wise man would give Miss Vane some time to recover emotionally from her recent travails and an even wiser man might be endeavouring to solve the problem of removing the shadow of King Cophetua from his sudden attraction to Vane. A few sentences from Sayers would have sufficed to suggest to those who had read the most recently published to Wimsey's exploits that he has retreated to the artistic colony on Galloway in order to recover from recent events. In fact that ploy (man removing himself from his recent haunts to avoid the pain of love lost) was an extremely common one in British fiction at the time. Alternatively Sayers could have indicated in the text that the events of this book preceded those in Strong Poison.

Second, Wimsey was not a character created new for this book. The reader has had a chance to learn how he entertains himself, what things he finds interesting, what people he likes to be around and what he does with his time when he isn't solving mysteries. The Wimsey in this book is hardly recognizable as the same man. I prefer to believe that the person styling himself "Wimsey" is actually a young male relative who shares the same first name and enjoys being taken for his more famous kinsman.

Third, the Bunter of this book is not the Bunter of the previous Wimsey books. Nor is he well used. Much of the story surrounds issues of alibis and no one is better situated to confirm (or explode) an alibi than a domestic servant. Yet, with a few exceptions, Bunter's "way with" female servants is not employed. Further, Bunter's numerous skills with photography and chemical analyses are not well used either. I prefer to believe that "Lord Peter" has calls to his servant "Bunter" rather his real name as part of the masquerade.

Fourth, I very much dislike the use of the ploy in which the murderer when faced with what the police say is evidence just rolls over and tells the entire story. This is a way for the author to avoid the issue of whether the charges (or the evidence) would have stood up in a court of law. In one of the early Dalgliesh novels P. D. James' detective is left, near the end of the book, sure that a particular character had committed a crime although he never presses charges. That character later writes to him: They [referring to his superiors] wouldn't believe you but you were right [2]. Dalgliesh's thoughts when he read the letter?
She was wrong, he thought. They hadn't disbelieved him, they had just demanded, reasonably enough, that he find some proof. He had none, either at the time or later, although he had pursued the case as it it were a personal vendetta, hating himself and her. And she had admitted nothing; not for one moment had she been in any danger of panicking. (297-8)
Fifth, the class relationships/privilege that underlie and intertwine with the plot of the book make the "murderer told all" ploy both necessary and extremely unlikely.
  • It was necessary because throughout the novel the police treat members of the gentry with kid gloves. A murder was committed and a very limited number of people (given the theory of the crime) could have done the deed. The police have reason to believe that the murder accidentally took an object from the scene of the crime. Yet at no point are the only individuals that the police consider likely suspects asked to go to the police station, their homes are not searched and (more important to the theory of the crime) neither is their painting equipment searched. I think that Sayer's herself was aware of that problem and that was one of the reasons that she waited so long to share with the reader what object Wimsey realized was missing even though he shares that information with the police.
  • It was extremely unlikely because the accused man was a member of a class used to being treated with kid gloves by the police. His first response would probably have been to contact the family solicitor. And the family solicitor would have pointed out that there was a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation of the crime.
Sixth, a good lawyer could make a very reasonable case that Lord Peter Wimsey was, if not the actual murderer, an accessory to the crime.
  1. Wimsy had opportunity to remove the missing tube of paint himself from the scene of the crime. Neither the Sergeant nor the Constable were with him as he searched the deceased's effects. The solicitor might suggest to the police that Wimsey had in fact killed Campbell and now realized that he had a chance to muddy the waters by throwing suspicion on others. Since the police at the scene did not search Wimsey before he left there is no way to prove that he did not exit the premises with the tube of paint in his pocket. He would have no worry that Bunter (or faux-Bunter) would report any smears of white paint that were later left in his pocket.
  2. Wimsey had an opportunity, during his first visit to Ferguson's place to plant Campbell's tube of paint in Ferguson's kit.
  3. We have only Wimsey's word for it that he cannot paint well. For someone who "doesn't paint" he knows a lot about painting. And he did, after all, chose to spend his vacation among painters.
  4. How many "lucky breaks" are we to accept in order for Ferguson to have made it to Glasgow in the way Wimsey "proved." Given how extremely important the creation of his alibi was how likely was it that he wouldn't notice that his watch had stopped? How likely was it when Ferguson on his bicycle missed the train that a car would have driven by at just the right moment so that he could hold onto the back and make it, with his bike, to the next station in time to catch the train? How likely is it that the driver of the car would have not noticed that he was trailing a bike behind him? How likely was it that not a single person would have noticed the car trailing a bike behind it? How likely was it that a man who had never been involved in crime would have been so successful at forging his train ticket and how likely that the forgery was flawed "just enough" to be noticeable when Wimsey needed it to be noticed?
If Ferguson had just stayed silent I doubt the police would have pressed charges. As for all the details Ferguson supposedly supplied? Well, we only have Sayers' word for them don't we?

Me, I have an alternative theory of the crime. Campbell was about to expose the faux "Lord Peter," they struggled and "Lord Peter" accidentally killed him (much as Ferguson supposedly did.) "Wimsey" and the faux "Bunter" work together to stage Campbell's accident but when "Wimsey" realized that the police would probably work out that Campbell had died hours before the apparent accident he began to remove and plant evidence that will muddy the investigation. After "Wimsey" and "Bunter" have checked out all the alibis of the six suspects they work together to incriminate Ferguson. The careful reader with notice that "Bunter" is for the most part absent from the later portion of the story as he worked in the background to lay down all the clues for the police to follow.
Why didn't Ferguson fight harder? Chief Inspector Parker mentioned to his wife (the sister of the real Lord Peter) that her brother was involved in investigating a crime in Galloway. Lady Mary knowing where her brother actually is informs her rather stodgy elder brother. The faux Lord Peter is the black sheep in the family and they are used to paying people off to cover up for his various escapades. Ferguson is offered a very substantial "gift" in return to agreeing to claim guilt. A few words to the wise and the judge in Scotland was happy to lead the jury to return a sentence of manslaughter with a recommendation of mercy. And faux "Wimsey" and faux "Bunter" are on their way to the colonies on the next available ship.

[1] The eight deadly words in any book review. As per Wikipedia: "The phrase was coined by Dorothy J. Heydt in a June 11, 1991, Usenet posting to rec.arts.sf-lovers in reference to The Copper Crown, a novel by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison:

[2] James, P. Shroud for a nightingale. London: Sphere, 1977.