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In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:
I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…
Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?
Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”
Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.
Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.
This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.
Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.
Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”
Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”
On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.
Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.
T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
|Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham||
Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”
Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:
Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.
Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.
Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”
This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.
Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:
The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.
Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:
Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.
Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.
Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.
Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.
In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:
Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.
As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.
In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”
Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:
But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.
Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:
Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.
Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrison, the corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.
Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:
One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.
Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:
In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.
In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.
Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:
…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.
In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”
As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.
For many people, Halloween means it’s time to throw on a classic teen slasher like Halloween or Friday the 13th. Today, we often look back on those movies as festivals of gore and cleavage designed to appeal to teen boys. But, as film historian Richard Nowell writes, the most coveted audience for these movies at the time was teenage girls.
Nowell writes that teen slashers emerged in the wake of 1970s horror films aimed at adults. Starting with the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, many moviemakers had centered scary supernatural plots on strong female characters. In contrast to the horror movies of earlier eras, these films generally avoided the trope of cowering, half-dressed women. For example, in 1973, the theatrical trailer for The Exorcist, and the film itself, focused on the working single mother of the possessed girl.
By the late ‘70s, adult horror audiences were on the decline. Overall, market research found, half of U.S. theatergoers were between 12 and 20, with a fairly even gender balance. Many went to the movies with dates, and industry professionals generally believed that teen girls usually chose which movie to see on a date with a boy.
To sell movies to a teen audience, writers and directors took special care with their depictions of teen girls. Debra Hill, cowriter of 1978’s Halloween, later said she wanted young women to be able to “see themselves” in the female leads, who spend significant time talking about schoolwork, dating, and babysitting.
While later commentary has often assumed that the sex in teen slashers was gratuitous and promiscuous, Nowell writes that films like Friday the 13th (1980) actually spent a lot of screen time showing couples’ sexual relationships as emotionally intense and romantic. Following on the heels of non-horror teen films like Grease, studio executives had discovered that young love and platonic teen relationships were strong assets for marketing a movie. Lobby cards for Friday the 13th featured few moments of horror or titillating shots of female leads. Instead, they showed romantic moments, platonic friendships, and even a female character showing a young man how to change a light bulb.
“Taken as a whole, Paramount’s lobby cards marketed Friday the 13th as female-youth-friendly entertainment,” Nowell writes.
The marketing apparently worked. Forty-five percent of the theater audience for Halloween and Friday the 13th was under 17, and, of those young viewers, 55 percent were girls.
Following in the footsteps of those hits, a flood of teen slasher movies showed up in theaters in 1981, including My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and Friday the 13th Part II. These movies followed the newfound convention of mixing romance with horror, leading New York Times critic Vincent Canby to refer to the genre as “teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films.” The heroines of these movies were traditionally feminine, tough, and sexually confident.
So, if you’re inclined to throw on something scary this Halloween while also celebrating empowered young women, it turns out there are a lot of options.
The double-edged sword: but aren’t all swords double-edged? It is possible I don’t know a lot about swords. It seems reasonable that you would want a sword to cut both ways, swish swish slice slice slice, otherwise there is a lot of wasted motion because I have to “reset” in order to continue chopping at you. No?
Anyway, the double-edged sword of over-the-counter cold medicine. It certainly has drained the fluid from my nose, but it also seems to have drained the fluid from my whole head, and I needed some of that to lubricate thoughts, have saliva, and keep my joints moving without creaky noises. Instead I am a dusty paper-mache heap, a sentient piñata, and every time I turn my head there’s a nearly audible click as my eyeballs roll and slide to catch up. Breathe from both nostrils? Or lose your humanity? The Tylenol Severe Cold + Sinus devil’s bargain.
OKAY I GUESS
I am subscribed to so many of your newsletters. The free versions, that is. I suppose I understand where you are coming from, you produce amazing content that I love and if anyone out there wants to pay for it, they should certainly be welcome to do so. Pro: It is nice to get mail, and to have a nice blog post to read right there in the old in-box. Con: There are an awful lot of these nice blog posts, and while lots of them might be worth $50/year for special subscriber-only content, one can not reasonably subscribe to a whole bunch of $50/year newsletters. Why do you want to make me choose? Hey I have an idea: you put this amazing content in an INTERNET LOCATION, where I can go read it. I just invented blogs! What a great idea, damn.
Deja vu, incoming: there will be a ton of anger about my very mild criticism of newsletters, just as there was when, long ago in the “blogosphere,” I dared to opine that sponsored posts dilute a writer’s voice and make me uninterested in and suspicious of the other things they have to say, and that sidebar ads on a personal blog are ugly and lame and do you really want to talk about your personal precious life right next to a Duncan Hines cake mix video. I still have emails saved in a folder called SELLOUTS GET SENSITIVE: people who got really mad at that and wrote me full of righteous indignation and I HAVE A RIGHT TO MAKE A LIVING. Of course you do! Never said otherwise!
As for the newsletter thing, I don’t necessarily hate it. It is just strange, that’s all—when I have always conceived of my online diary as a sort of letter to whoever reads it—that the “new” model of writing online is literally writing a letter to subscribers. With (presumably?) slightly better letters going to those who choose to pay.
Whatever. It has officially, as I pompously announced on Twitter, been 20 years since I started putting my diary (this one right here!) online, and it is not moving to newsletter format. There won’t be ads, there won’t be sponsored posts, you don’t have to pay to read it. That is not because I am so fucking punk rock by any means (remember, I was an early sellout to the blog-into-(terrible)-book gold rush!) It is just because I don’t know any other way, and I like to type about what I am doing, and I don’t need your money because I do other stuff for money. Keep your money! Use it to pay your bills and buy candy and drugs.
Seeing this year’s English homework is giving me bad flashbacks to a kind of writing that I never have to do again—that sort of “essay question” response writing that calls out its tricks in order to be successfully graded. Parallel sentence structure? Check. Introductions, conclusions, transitions? Check. Narrative strategies? Check. These things (which are woefully lacking here!) are definitely part of “good writing,” but it sort of grinds my gears to see it all deconstructed and naked like that. Some people like deep dives—they like to note-by-note analyze a Bach Mass or a Prince guitar solo and see “why” it is so perfect and great—but it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, no? Like if you know how it works you will automatically be able to do it. Maybe (hopefully) you can learn enough to get a good AP exam score, or to faithfully play the notes of the Prince guitar solo, but by no means have you mastered the craft. Oh listen to me, “the craft.” I’m such an asshole. A Tylenol Severe Cold + Sinus asshole.
Here is an article that I think did a decent job of detailing the tension between the obvious need for psychiatric drugs and the blunt-force-instrument nature of their effects. Everyone is trying to figure themselves out and figure out how to live. Medication can be necessary to let people get on with the business of that (instead of, you know, spending all day hyperventilating in bed), but it does nothing to show you HOW to do it.
Speaking of figuring out how to live, how about we watch the video for “Just” again? This video may be where I really fell in love with Thom Yorke (long-time David Byrne fangirl; you know I love me a twitchy dancing man).
Also, recently unearthed: my little first-grade dude climbing the bus stop sign. He still has forearms of steel.
—mimi smartypants, while symptoms last.
In 1778, the Continental Congress decreed that it was “the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or any proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”
This “founding” attitude has fared… rather ambiguously ever since. As law professor Shawn Marie Boyne shows in her review of the legal protections for whistleblowers in government and industry, “the country’s treatment of whistleblowers has been a conflicted one.” Regardless of the organizational model (public, private, non-profit), those in power who have had the whistle blown on them rarely applaud whistleblowers. Heroes to some, often the whistleblower is labeled a traitor by those in power, as in the cases of Boyne’s examples, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
“The question of whether a whistleblower will be protected or pilloried depends on the interests of those in power,” Boyne writes. Leaks to the media from officials for political advantage are standard operating procedure. But those outside this inner circle don’t fare as well: Snowden is in exile and Manning is in jail. Boyne notes that three NSA employees who did do what critics said Snowden and Manning should have done, that is, go through the system and use the proper channels to report government abuse, “found their lives destroyed and reputations tarnished.”
Retaliation against whistleblowers hit some of the pioneers, too, Boyne notes. Ernest Fitzgerald, who revealed billions in cost-overruns in a military transport program in 1968, was demoted after President Richard Nixon told his supervisors to “get rid of the son of a bitch.”
That same president ordered a break-in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in 1971, in hopes of finding dirt on Ellsberg. An analyst for the RAND Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. This classified historical study of the war in Vietnam revealed that the government realized early on that the war could not be won. Defending his actions in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg said, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”
Retaliation against whistleblowers is, as scholar Michael T. Rehg and his co-authors show, quite gendered. “Male whistleblowers were treated differently depending on their power in the organization, but female whistleblowers received the same treatment regardless of the amount of organizational power they held: Their status as women overrode their status as powerful or less powerful organization members.” These authors also found that “women who reported wrongdoing that was serious or which harmed them directly were more likely to suffer retaliation, whereas men were not.”
While laws have been strengthened to help whistleblowers, presidents and CEOs nevertheless continue to go after them.
Tide offensive lineman Jimmy Rosser recalled that before [Wilbur] Jackson enrolled and Mitchell was recruited, Bryant “told us that he was going to get the best athletes available to play for us and that included black players. He then proceeded to tell us that if any of you didn’t like that, then you could get the hell out of here, because that was the way it was going to be. None of the players left the meeting.”
Still, Mitchell knew what world he was entering because of the world he was raised in. He attended segregated schools in Mobile, and his Williamson High School team was barred from playing at Ladd Stadium, even though it was across the street. He only saw black players there when he sold sodas in the stands at the Senior Bowl, he recalled.
Having lived that life, what greeted him on campus was an adjustment: He had never had white teachers before, nor white classmates, and he was the only black student in each of his classes in Tuscaloosa. The black enrollment at the time — about 3% of 15,000 students — meant this for him: “You wouldn’t see an African American student for three or four days.”
I remember very well what I felt when John Mitchell — the first black football player at the University of Alabama, the first black captain of the team (elected by his teammates), the first black assistant coach (immediately after his graduation at age 20) — and other black players arrived on the scene. I was about twelve. I felt that a Dark Age had ended. I was sure that we in Alabama would soon put racism behind us. Finally, all that would be over.
We’re killing all the birds (New York Times)
by John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra
Since 1970, populations of wild birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by a third as humans have wrecked their habitats. Even scarier, we only know this because scientists have been counting birds for a long time. The study probably reflects an even bigger crisis that also includes many species that we don’t monitor as closely.
Data mining your medical records (Wired)
by Megan Molteni
The Mayo Clinic is working with Google on a plan that would mine enormous troves of patient records using AI. The effort could new yield ways to predict and prevent serious disease. It could also be a huge threat to patient privacy.
Studying physics and learning about bias (Public Books)
by Lawrence Ware
Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist who does pen-and-paper calculations to advance humanity’s understanding of dark matter. As a black woman, she’s also—perhaps inescapably—become an expert in the impact of racism and sexism in physics.
Why we all need to know statistics (Aeon)
by David Spiegelhalter
What’s the cost of being part of the EU? Just how bad for your health is bacon? Statistics isn’t always taught in ways that help us connect math to real-world problems, but when it is, it can help us understand the world, be better citizens—and even catch a serial killer.
Do strikes work? (The Washington Post)
by Laura C. Bucci
It’s not just the UAW—strikes are on the rise in the U.S. today. And there’s reason to believe they are becoming increasingly effective.
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In October of 1953, the farmers of the Western hemisphere were busy toiling over harvested grain, either milling it into flour or prepping it for brewing. Meanwhile, a group of historians and anthropologists gathered to debate which of these two common grain uses humans mastered first—bread or beer?
The original question posed by Professor J. D. Sauer, of the University of Wisconsin’s Botany Department, was even more provocative. He wanted to know whether “thirst, rather than hunger, may have been the stimulus [for] grain agriculture.” In more scientific terms, the participants were asking: “Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making?”
Interestingly, the available archaeological evidence didn’t produce a definitive answer. The cereals and the tools used for planting and reaping, as well as the milling stones and various receptacles, could be involved for making either the bread or the beer. Nonetheless, the symposium, which ran under the title of Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?, featured plenty of discussion.
The proponents of the beer-before-bread idea noted that the earliest grains might have actually been more suitable for brewing than for baking. For example, some wild wheat and barley varieties had husks or chaff stuck to the grains. Without additional processing, such husk-enclosed grains were useless for making bread—but fit for brewing. Brewing fermented drinks may also have been easier than baking. Making bread is a fairly complex operation that necessitates milling grains and making dough, which in the case of leavened bread requires yeast. It also requires fire and ovens, or heated stones at the least.
On the other hand, as some attendees pointed out, brewing needs only a simple receptacle in which grain can ferment, a chemical reaction that can be easily started in three different ways. Sprouting grain produces its own fermentation enzyme—diastase. There are also various types of yeast naturally present in the environment. Lastly, human saliva also contains fermentation enzymes, which could have started a brewing process in a partially chewed up grain. South American tribes make corn beer called chicha, as well as other fermented beverages, by chewing the seeds, roots, or flour to initiate the brewing process.
But those who believed in the “bread first, beer later” concept posed some important questions. If the ancient cereals weren’t used for food, what did their gatherers or growers actually eat? “Man cannot live on beer alone, and not too satisfactorily on beer and meat,” noted botanist and agronomist Paul Christoph Mangelsdorf. “And the addition of a few legumes, the wild peas and lentils of the Near East, would not have improved the situation appreciably. Additional carbohydrates were needed to balance the diet… Did these Neolithic farmers forego the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favor of alcohol, for which they had no physiological need?” He finished his statement with an even more provoking inquiry. “Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?” Another attendee said that proposing the idea of grain domestication for brewing was not unlike suggesting that cattle was “domesticated for making intoxicating beverages from the milk.”
In the end, the two camps met halfway. They agreed that our ancestors probably used cereal for food, but that food might have been in liquid rather than baked form. It’s likely that the earliest cereal dishes were prepared as gruel—a thinner, more liquidy version of porridge that had been a Western peasants’ dietary staple. But gruel could easily ferment. Anthropologist Ralph Linton, who chose to take “an intermediate position” in the beer vs. bread controversy, noted that beer “may have resulted from accidental souring of a thin gruel … which had been left standing in an open vessel.” So perhaps humankind indeed owes its effervescent bubbly beverage to some leftover mush gone bad thousands of years ago.
The post Did Humans Once Live by Beer Alone? An Oktoberfest Tale appeared first on JSTOR Daily.
There may be no crime that horrifies the public more than child abduction. Historian Elizabeth Foyster writes that this was also true in London 200 years ago, though the crime then typically took a much different form than we expect today.
Historians generally agree that the late eighteenth century brought a major change in what English childhood meant. This included more positive attitudes toward kids, and a new wealth of books, toys, and clothes for middle-class urban children. Children were increasingly prized “for giving women a role as mothers,” and as “miniature models of all that a more affluent consumer society could afford,” Foyster writes.
If children were becoming more valuable, it stands to reason that, like all valuable things, they were in danger of being stolen. And, indeed, Foyster found 108 cases of child abduction tried in London and reported in the newspapers between 1790 and 1849.
Child abduction was nothing new, but it was understood differently than in previous times. In fourteenth-century England, “ravishment” covered both forced and consensual “abduction” of children or adult women. It typically had a sexual element, and the child victims were generally teenagers. Later, in the seventeenth century, abduction was understood as a fate befalling unfortunate boys forced into indentured servitude.
In contrast, in the period Foyster studied, the majority of stolen children were under six, and the abductor was usually a woman in her 20s or 30s. In some cases, kids were stolen for their clothes. Abductors might bring fancy children’s clothes to a pawnbroker, leaving a half-naked child outside. Other times, women reportedly stole children to gain sympathy when begging for money or seeking a job.
There were also well-off married women who stole—or paid someone else to steal—children they could present as their own. One 22-year-old wrote to her husband, serving in the Navy, about an invented pregnancy and childbirth. When she learned he was returning home, she travelled to London, snatched a four-year-old boy, and cared for him for two months before she was caught.
Foyster writes that news accounts paid little attention to possible harm done to the children. Unlike today, child abduction wasn’t generally assumed to be motivated by deviant sexual desire. Instead, newspapers focused on the terror and despair of mothers whose children were stolen, and suggested a parallel lack of feeling in the abductors.
A judge told one convicted child thief that, as a childless woman, she was “Ignorant of those heavenly feelings which subsist in the relation between parent and child; for had you been a mother, you must have respected and regarded, instead of agonizing a mother’s heart.” Still, Foyster writes, news reports also acknowledged that child-stealers might be motivated by a twisted “fondness” for children—reflecting their own stunted development.
Child-thieves clearly had no place in the growing public conception of natural motherly love. Yet the new understanding of children as valuable objects who gave meaning to women’s lives may have spurred the increase of child abduction.