The Hazards Of Loyalty

Hypocrisy, hubris and Rielle Hunter.

For a man whose first—and only—winning election campaign was waged against an inarticulate septuagenarian hog farmer, John Edwards made quite a splash when he arrived in Washington in 1999 as the new junior senator from North Carolina. Lauch Faircloth (the hog farmer in question) had been anything but a formidable opponent, and Mr. Edwards did seem like a fast-talking opportunist, the quintessential trial-lawyer-turned-politician. But the members of the liberal establishment swooned—pundits and politicians alike. They found themselves charmed by his enthusiasm, his good looks, his populist appeal. Here, they said, was a younger Bill Clinton without the baggage, a potential standard bearer who could help the Democratic Party reclaim the middle ground that Newt Gingrich had seized for the GOP with his mid-1990s “revolution.”

No one swooned more than Andrew Young, whose memoir is aptly called “The Politician,” referring to the man he served rather than himself. A failed restaurateur who had gone back to school for a law degree and then taken a job with the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, Mr. Young was just over 30 when he first saw Mr. Edwards in action. He was so impressed by an Edwards campaign speech that he turned to his wife, Cheri, and said: “This guy is going to be president one day. . . . I’m going to find a way to work for him.” Cheri, who emerges as one of the few sensible, decent people in this sadly tangled tale, had a different reaction. “She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach.’ ”

But her husband was smitten. He would spend the next decade as a trusted—and all too trusting—aide to a man he idolized as “one of the most promising leaders of a generation.” Mr. Young became a specimen of a familiar political type: the dedicated, servile staffer who subsists on the reflected power and glory of his boss, half-martyr, half-parasite. Mr. Young’s duties included slaving away as domestic servant, errand boy and babysitter for the Edwards family in addition to working in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill. Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, assured Mr. Young that he was “like family.” Certainly Mr. Young subordinated his own family to the whims of his employers, sustained by a dream of accompanying them to the White House. “I was just a young, ambitious guy who saw a real opportunity in Edwards,” he writes.

If Mr. Young had been a better judge of character, it might not have taken him 10 years to wake up. Signs of Mr. Edwards’s hypocrisy and opportunism were abundant: “On many nights, my phone would ring and I would hear the senator on the other end. Sometimes he sounded petty and irritated by ordinary events. He especially hated making appearances at county fairs, where ‘fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?’ ”

Staffer-adulation would not have mattered much if Mr. Edwards hadn’t been taken so seriously by the power brokers of the Democratic Party, who kept hoping, as did Mr. Edwards himself, that he would break-out into national stardom: He ran for the 2004 presidential nomination, eventually becoming John’s Kerry’s running mate on the Democrats’ losing ticket. He was considered a front-runner for 2008 and was holding his own in the early polls until Nemesis arrived on the scene—ready to punish hubris—in the form of a shopworn, blond New Age enthusiast named Rielle Hunter.

By early 2008, rumors of Ms. Hunter’s affair with Mr. Edwards were making their way into a subculture of gossip-purveyors and political observers. It is clear from Mr. Young’s memoir that the Edwards staff knew what was going on and chose to deny it to any reporter who pushed for answers. Not that the mainstream media did much pushing—sexual misconduct was too “low” for respectable publications, even though they had served as a conveyor belt for Mr. Edwards’s heroic (and false) campaign narrative: that of a loyal husband attentive to his cancer-stricken wife.

It took the National Enquirer and a few bloggers to break the Hunter story. Mr. Edwards called the allegations “tabloid trash.” When Ms. Hunter’s pregnancy made the news, he persuaded Mr. Young to “take the bullet” by claiming to be the father—something Mr. Young now regrets. One could say that Mr. Young’s memoir is one long expression of sincere regret and shame for the role he played in Mr. Edwards’s public career.

Still, one man’s tragedy is another man’s farce. In its account of scandal-frenzy, “The Politician” begins to read like a collaboration between Tennessee Williams and P.G. Wodehouse—with Mr. and Mrs. Young and their three children and a very pregnant, very out-of-it Ms. Hunter secluded under the same roof, receiving abusive voice mails from an increasingly hysterical Elizabeth Edwards and being alternately schmoozed and abused by Mr. Edwards himself, with howling packs of reporters in hot pursuit.

In the end, the truth came out—as it was bound to. (Someday a staffer will serve his boss by reminding him of this inevitable fact.) Mr. Edwards admitted that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s daughter—after a succession of lying scenarios collapsed and his candidacy, his career and his marriage were reduced to rubble. Perhaps it all goes back to Mr. Edwards’s trial-lawyer days. After dazzling juries for so long, he thought he could talk his way out of anything.

We are reminded by Mr. Young that one of Mr. Edwards’s early boosters was the late Ted Kennedy, who “saw almost unlimited potential in this young, energetic, well-spoken, good-looking Southerner.” In a conversation with Mr. Young, Mr. Kennedy waxed sentimental about Washington in the early 1960s: “It used to be civilized. The media was on our side. We’d get our work done by one o’clock and by two we were at the White House chasing women. We got the job done, and the reporters focused on the issues. . . . It was civilized.” We now know that Mr. Edwards’s idea of civilization was much the same as Kennedy’s.

Mr. Bakshian worked as a White House aide to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.


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The Obama Spell Is Broken

Unlike this president, John Kennedy was an ironist who never fell for his own mystique.

The curtain has come down on what can best be described as a brief un-American moment in our history. That moment began in the fall of 2008, with the great financial panic, and gave rise to the Barack Obama phenomenon.

The nation’s faith in institutions and time-honored ways had cracked. In a little-known senator from Illinois millions of Americans came to see a savior who would deliver the nation out of its troubles. Gone was the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics. A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies.

There is nothing surprising about where Mr. Obama finds himself today. He had been made by charisma, and political magic, and has been felled by it. If his rise had been spectacular, so, too, has been his fall. The speed with which some of his devotees have turned on him—and their unwillingness to own up to what their infatuation had wrought—is nothing short of astounding. But this is the bargain Mr. Obama had made with political fortune.

He was a blank slate, and devotees projected onto him what they wanted or wished. In the manner of political redeemers who have marked—and wrecked—the politics of the Arab world and Latin America, Mr. Obama left the crowd to its most precious and volatile asset—its imagination. There was no internal coherence to the coalition that swept him to power. There was cultural “cool” and racial absolution for the white professional classes who were the first to embrace him. There was understandable racial pride on the part of the African-American community that came around to his banners after it ditched the Clinton dynasty.

The white working class had been slow to be convinced. The technocracy and elitism of Mr. Obama’s campaign—indeed of his whole persona—troubled that big constituency, much more, I believe, than did his race and name. The promise of economic help, of an interventionist state that would salvage ailing industries and provide a safety net for the working poor, reconciled these voters to a candidate they viewed with a healthy measure of suspicion. He had been caught denigrating them as people “clinging to their guns and religion,” but they had forgiven him.

Mr. Obama himself authored the tale of his own political crisis. He had won an election, but he took it as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic.

Mr. Obama’s self-regard, and his reading of his mandate, overwhelmed all restraint. The age-old American balance between a relatively small government and a larger role for the agencies of civil society was suddenly turned on its head. Speed was of the essence to the Obama team and its allies, the powerful barons in Congress. Better ram down sweeping social programs—a big liberal agenda before the people stirred to life again.

Progressives pressed for a draconian attack on the workings of our health care, and on the broader balance between the state and the marketplace. The economic stimulus, ObamaCare, the large deficits, the bailout package for the automobile industry—these, and so much more, were nothing short of a fundamental assault on the givens of the American social compact.

And then there was the hubris of the man at the helm: He was everywhere, and pronounced on matters large and small. This was political death by the teleprompter.

Americans don’t deify their leaders or hang on their utterances, but Mr. Obama succumbed to what the devotees said of him: He was the Awaited One. A measure of reticence could have served him. But the flight had been heady, and in the manner of Icarus, Mr. Obama flew too close to the sun.

We have had stylish presidents, none more so than JFK. But Kennedy was an ironist and never fell for his own mystique. Mr. Obama’s self-regard comes without irony—he himself now owns up to the “remoteness and detachment” of his governing style. We don’t have in this republic the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will. Mr. Obama was smitten with his own specialness.

In this extraordinary tale of hubris undone, the Europeans—more even than the people in Islamic lands—can be assigned no small share of blame. They overdid the enthusiasm for the star who had risen in America.

It was the way in Paris and Berlin (not to forget Oslo of course) of rebuking all that played out in America since 9/11—the vigilance, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sense that America’s interests and ways were threatened by a vengeful Islamism. But while the Europeans and Muslim crowds hailed him, they damned his country all the same. For his part, Mr. Obama played along, and in Ankara, Cairo, Paris and Berlin he offered penance aplenty for American ways.

But no sooner had the country recovered its poise, it drew a line for Mr. Obama. The “bluest” of states, Massachusetts, sent to Washington a senator who had behind him three decades of service in the National Guard, who proclaimed his pride in his “army values” and was unapologetic in his assertion that it was more urgent to hunt down terrorists than to provide for their legal defense.

Then the close call on Christmas Day at the hands of the Nigerian jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab demonstrated that the terrorist threat had not receded. The president did his best to recover: We are at war, he suddenly proclaimed. Nor were we in need of penance abroad. Rumors of our decline had been exaggerated. The generosity of the American response to Haiti, when compared to what India and China had provided, was a stark reminder that this remains an exceptional nation that needs no apologies in distant lands.


A historical hallmark of “isms” and charismatic movements is to dig deeper when they falter—to insist that the “thing” itself, whether it be Peronism, or socialism, etc., had not been tried but that the leader had been undone by forces that hemmed him in.

It is true to this history that countless voices on the left now want Obama to be Obama. The economic stimulus, the true believers say, had not gone astray, it only needed to be larger; the popular revolt against ObamaCare would subside if and when a new system was put in place.

There had been that magical moment—the campaign of 2008—and the true believers want to return to it. But reality is merciless. The spell is broken.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).


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Carlos the Brand

The Jackal has a brand to protect.

Life for terrorists is improving in the U.S., with the Detroit bomber enjoying his right to remain silent and negotiate a plea bargain, while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his Guantanamo mates head for a civilian trial. At least we can say America hasn’t gone as far as France to accommodate enemy combatants.

On Thursday, a court outside Paris will rule on a claim lodged by one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. Better known as Carlos the Jackal, the 60-year-old Venezuelan was the Osama bin Laden of the 1970s and 1980s. On behalf of Palestinian and various Marxist-Leninist causes, Ramírez organized and carried out a series of notable terrorist attacks. The French finally nabbed him from a Sudanese hospital in 1994 and jailed him for life for the murder of two French policemen and a Lebanese informant. Carlos the Jackal now spends his time invoking his rights under the French constitution.

In the case before the court in Nanterre, he and long-time lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who also married him, are suing a French production company for the right to review and “correct and edit” a forthcoming made-for-TV film about him entitled “Carlos.” Ms. Coutant-Peyre alleges the filmmakers are out to “demolish Carlos.” Her client wants to protect the intellectual property rights to his name and “biographical image.” The court has taken this case seriously enough to hear it.

A lawyer for the film company, Film en Stock, asked the Libération daily in Paris, “How could we possibly tarnish the image of Carlos when he himself claims to have killed some 2,000 people?” There’s also the small matter of a right to free press and speech that should, one would assume, shield the filmmakers from a litigious terrorist.

Still, the compatriot who Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez last year hailed as “a revolutionary soldier” may be on to something. Carlos has an experienced nose for the zeitgeist. How long can it be before some American lawyer tries to safeguard KSM’s “biographical image”?

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Baby in court

At the centre of a recent custody battle in Sarasota County Circuit Court, Florida sat the exceptionally cute Eli. He is only 11-months old, still in nappies and does not understand the legal fight over him between James Casey and Virginia Valbuena. Of course, it’s always difficult for someone so young to understand litigation but for Eli it is especially challenging because he is a chimpanzee.

Eli has lived with Valbuena in Florida for most of his life. According to her, Eli is from a wildlife park in California. She says she collected him from his owners when they brought him over to a chimpanzee habitat in Missouri – a mutually convenient meeting place. Valbuena is training Eli for a Hollywood company.

However, Casey, who brought this legal action, claims that Eli was born on a chimpanzee habitat he used to run with his wife in Missouri – the same habitat from which Valbuena picked up her chimp.

In divorce proceedings, Casey’s wife had been ordered not to sell any of their animals but, Casey says, she violated that court order by selling Eli, who is worth $65,000, to Valbuena.

Chimpanzees do not have birth certificates and proving their parentage is difficult so Casey brought this action to obtain an order for Eli to be given a DNA test. Casey’s lawyer argued that “If it’s good for the state of Florida to execute people based on DNA evidence, I think its good enough to determine the lineage of this animal”.

An initial dispute arose about whether it would be okay for a chimpanzee to attend court. Valbuena promised that Eli would be well-behaved – apart from sleeping all he likes to do is kiss and cuddle. Valbuena said that lawyers would not be able to tell the difference between Eli and a baby “unless they looked closely”. In the event, Eli had to wait outside the court while people inside went ape.

The court heard that here were several reasons why Casey held a bona fide belief that Eli was his: the age and appearance of the chimp, and a previous business relationship between his ex-wife and Valbuena. Casey’s lawyer said that “the only way to be 100 per cent certain of the provenance of the animal is for the court to order a DNA test” and for the results to be compared with those of other chimpanzees in Missouri. That proposal was opposed by Valbuena’s lawyer on the basis that, unlike similar tests run by the Department of Revenue in child paternity cases, the potential for fraud in a chimp case would be “off the charts”.

Judge Roberts dismissed the case but said he was open to another application from Casey in future if more evidence was provided that Eli was his property. This case is not the first to involve a chimpanzee. One has even been a client. In a California case in 1999 a court agreed that a San Francisco lawyer could represent a chimpanzee called Moe – he is still much-loved in San Francisco for his fun, energy and cheeky manoeuvres, and so is the chimp.

Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University.


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Chávez Drops the Democracy Mask

Venezuela’s president promises ‘radical measures.’

Hugo Chávez likes to say that Venezuela is a democracy and that a majority of the electorate supports him and his “21st Century Socialism.” Or at least he used to make that claim. Last week the strongman gave up trying to maintain a democratic image.

Referring to nationwide civil protests—led by university students—he warned the country Thursday that if they “intensify” he is ready to take “radical measures.”

Given that the Chávez government already expropriates property at will, jails political opponents, polices prices, controls foreign currency exchange, seizes media outlets and fires rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators, his threat to turn “radical” is chilling. Venezuelans have reason to fear martial law.

Students demonstrate against Hugo Chávez in Caracas.

The Venezuelan economy is in a free fall and Mr. Chávez is in damage-control mode. One thing he can’t afford is to let Venezuelans complain without consequences. Successful dictators, like Fidel Castro, make dissent a dangerous proposition, and if Mr. Chávez is to survive he knows he must do the same. His plan starts with carrots and ends with sticks.

To use carrots Mr. Chávez needs money, and that’s why he announced a mega-devaluation of the bolivar on Jan. 8, taking it to an official rate of 4.3 bolivars to the dollar, from the previous 2.15. Importers of basic necessities (some foods and medicines) will still be able to buy dollars at 2.60, but for all other imported goods a dollar will now cost twice the prior rate. The net effect is that prices of “nonessential” imports doubled overnight.

This sounds like a raw deal, but not for the aspiring dictator. He has dollars because the state oil monopoly, PdVSA, is an exporter. Now when he sells those dollars he will get twice as many bolivars as he used to. Imagine what can be done with that gusher of funny money ahead of the Sept. 26 legislative elections. No need to worry about inflation either, according to Mr. Chávez. Businesses caught raising prices will be confiscated and turned over to the workers.

Students of chavismo will recognize that there’s nothing new here. The revolution is built on transfers to the struggling underclass, thus creating the illusion among the poor that their Bolivarian messiah is going to make them better off.

But this perpetual motion machine is losing steam. “It is possible,” one Venezuelan analyst told me, “to crunch the numbers and conclude that the ‘E’ class [the largest and poorest segment of society] has increased its bolivar income. But the quality of life for them has deteriorated greatly.”

Exhibit A is the violent crime rate, which is the highest in the hemisphere. The poor are suffering this epidemic disproportionately more than the rich because they aren’t able to purchase personal security. Public transportation is also failing the working class.

Because of its oil, natural gas, hydro and thermal resources, Venezuela ought not have a day of worry about its power supply. But after 11 years of Mr. Chávez’s “revolution” there is now rationing. Only Caracas has escaped rolling blackouts instituted last month, and that may not be for long.

Experts say that the main causes of the problem are poor planning for low water levels and poor maintenance at the Guri Dam, which generates the lion’s share of the country’s electricity. On the health-care front, the president himself declared last year that hospitals are in a state of emergency and that many of the small health clinics that he built and staffed with Cuban doctors have been abandoned.

Mr. Chávez’s base is disillusioned, and now he is going to try to make it up to them with more devalued bolivars. But with the black-market rate stubbornly stuck above six to the dollar, it’s clear that the government is not able to supply the market at 4.3.

In other words, the currency is even weaker than the new official rate reflects. This means that last year’s official inflation rate of 25% is not about to be tamed.

Only two things can save Hugo. One would be a new dollar windfall of oil revenue. This is why he conducted auctions for oil concessions with foreign companies last week, even though in the past he has condemned them. Just in case that doesn’t pan out, he’s putting the finishing touches on his police state. Last week he closed the independent cable network, Radio Caracas Television, and five other channels.

His move provoked the student marches, which have been met by heavily armed National Guard troops with shields, rubber bullets and tear gas. Now Mr. Chávez says the marches are part of an effort to overthrow him and that he is ready to get radical.

With Castro as his role model, it’s not hard to guess where he’s headed, oil or no oil. It is also increasingly clear that the September elections, run by the Chávez-controlled electoral council, will not offer Venezuelans a chance to vote in change.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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Uncommon Knowledge

Sometimes high is sexy, sometimes low

When describing positions of relative status, people often use adjectives related to height, as in “top choice,” “up the food chain,” or “high end.” A recent study finds that this association even extends to judgments about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. Women rated pictures of men as more attractive when they were presented in the top half of a screen. Men, however, rated pictures of women as more attractive when they were presented in the bottom half of a screen. The authors see this as consistent with the evolutionary view that men prefer submissive mates, while women prefer dominant ones.

Meier, B. & Dionne, S., “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” Social Cognition (December 2009).

Dishonesty lurks in the shadows

It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this insight may apply to more than just the disclosure of information. In several experiments, researchers found that light levels influence selfish behavior. People who were placed in a dimly lit room were significantly more likely to cheat than people placed in a well-lit room. Likewise, people who were asked to wear sunglasses were less generous in a sharing game than people who were asked to wear clear glasses. This pattern appears to be the result of an increased sense of anonymity in lower light levels, even though light levels did not confer any actual increase in anonymity.

Zhong, C. et al., “A Good Lamp is the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Exercising self-control

Self-control IS a key trait associated with success in life, so the obvious question to ask is whether (and how easily) self-control can be improved. New research suggests that it might be easier than we think. People were randomly assigned to try doing one of four possible tasks – avoid eating sweets; squeeze a handgrip, twice a day, for as long as possible; solve simple math problems a few minutes a day; or keep a diary recording any acts of self-control – over a two-week period. The researchers also administered a standard test of self-control both before and after the two-week period. The results indicated that the first two tasks, which take self-control to perform, yielded a significant increase in self-control. There was no effect for the other two tasks. Self-control, then, is a muscle that can be strengthened.

Muraven, M., “Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When calorie counts help business

In some jurisdictions, chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on their menus. There’s an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of these regulations – especially in reducing the burden of obesity – outweigh the costs to business. Researchers at Stanford University were able to persuade Starbucks to hand over data on every transaction at their stores in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia around the time that New York City implemented its calorie-posting law. The researchers also obtained transaction data for a large sample of Starbucks cardholders during the same period and conducted in-store surveys in Seattle and elsewhere, around the time that Seattle implemented its own calorie-posting law. In New York City – as compared to Boston and Philadelphia where no such law went into effect – food purchases, but not beverage purchases, contained significantly fewer calories after the law went into effect, and even fewer calories for people who had previously consumed the most calories. The survey data found that customers had been overestimating calories in beverages and underestimating calories in food. Although one might expect the law to hurt business by reducing demand, the data showed no effect on Starbucks, and, in fact, Starbucks stores close to Dunkin’ Donuts actually gained some sales, perhaps because some customers of the latter were put off by the calorie content of doughnuts. Moreover, there was an increase in the average price per item purchased, suggesting that profitability increased, too.

Bollinger, B. et al., “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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Heated debate

Why shouldn’t a temperature be ‘warm’?

When the weatherperson predicts “warmer temperatures,” do your usage antennae quiver? Mine either – but some people do have a problem with such expressions. It’s a rare peeve, but a couple of weeks ago it popped up again, like a dormant virus newly revived and ready to spread.

The complaint appeared in a Montreal Gazette language column by Mark Abley, who had opened the floor to readers that week. One of them objected to the practice of TV forecasters who “speak of ‘warm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘cold’ temperatures, rather than high, medium, and low ones.” Temperature is an index of heat or cold, he said, not something that can itself be “warm” or “cold.”

That’s not the only argument against “cooler temperatures” and the like. Bill Walsh addressed the point in his 2000 usage book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” under the entry slow-speed chase. “The O.J. Simpson freeway parade was a low-speed chase, not a slow-speed chase. The concept of speed is inherent in the words slow and fast, so something is either slow or low-speed, either fast or high-speed. Other examples of this kind of redundancy include delicious taste, hot temperatures, and beautiful-looking.”

All very logical – but neither line of reasoning has made a dent in our actual usage. The first argument falters because temperature is not a technical word being misapplied by weather folks; it’s a general word adopted to a specific purpose. In the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, temperature could mean the act of tempering something, or “a middle course, a compromise,” or a person’s disposition or “temperament” – among other things. Even as a weather word, its first sense was not “degree of heat” but the relative mildness – temperateness – of a climate.

So when science adopted “temperature” as a measure of heat, in the 17th century, English speakers were already used to hearing the word in other senses as well. There was apparently no taboo against describing a temperature as hot, warm, or cold: A 1743 treatise on thermometers, quoted in the OED, writes of a system that “conceive[s] the middle temperature of the air as neither hot nor cold.”

Other scientists followed suit: A 1796 chemistry book says therapeutic water needs only to be “an hotter temperature than common water.” An 1841 medical journal speaks of the “cooler temperature of the human body.” And Charles Lyell, in “Principles of Geology” (1850 edition), writes of “a warmer temperature having prevailed in the eras of the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.”

The second charge, that “warmer temperatures” is redundant, is no easier to prosecute. Yes, “temperatures will be hot” is redundant in the sense Walsh points out: The word hot already implies “temperature.” But English has never banned such redundancy, especially in the spoken language. Taste and fashion may outlaw some such expressions, but many others are our daily companions.

We’ve all been alerted, for instance, to the redundancy of “ATM machine” and “PIN number” (though we still may find them useful). But who wants to ban “12 noon” and “12 midnight”? (You don’t really need the 12.) “Faster speeds” has the same problem, but surely it’s standard English. Should we ban hairstyles of longer lengths, children of younger ages, servings in medium sizes?

In the case of weather terms, in fact, limiting ourselves to the “precise” language of high, medium, and low temperatures would leave us knowing less. We have a wealth of temperature adjectives – frigid, chilly, cool, mild, balmy, sizzling – all attuned to our local climate and our expectations with a subtlety that a forecast of “medium-high temperatures” can’t match. Call such phrases unscientific, call them redundant, avoid them if you like – but don’t imagine that English has ever considered them sins against the spirit of the language.

. . .

WHICH FORK? David Devore e-mailed recently to ask about a quote in a New York Times story on early bird specials: “It’s a great way to try a new restaurant without forking over a lot of money.”

To Devore, forking over is what a robber demands: Fork over the cash! – and paying a bill should be forking out. But my dictionaries treat fork over, fork out, and fork up as synonyms, all meaning “to hand over”; there may be local or individual preferences, but officially it’s OK to fork over, out, or up.

Some commentators give fork over a rakish past, deriving it from the old thieves’ slang to fork (someone), meaning to pick a pocket using two stiff fingers. But the OED treats the fork over family as simple extensions of the usual verb: you fork up a garden, fork over a mutton chop, fork out the rent. The word implies reluctance on the part of the forker, for whatever reason, but not necessarily coercion or threat by the forkee.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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O camel! my camel!

Why the Arab world is re-embracing the poetry of the desert

She is the dream that scatters with the sun, Absorbed into flame and flame absorbing, Eternal motion one with endless peace, The camel has no was or will be, only being.

The above lines are the final stanza of a poem I recently completed, a rousing work titled “Spirit of the Sand.” The poem contains 24 lines in all, each expressing a mystical appreciation for the Arabian camel. To be honest, I’m not sure I really believe that the dromedary’s heart beats in every chest, nor that it carries on its back the thirst of generations. In fact, I don’t really like the animal that much. I do, however, like the idea of winning a brand new Range Rover.

As I write this, there’s a festival underway in a remote corner of the United Arab Emirates, where I live, to celebrate traditional local culture. The centerpiece of the event – along with (no kidding) a camel beauty contest – is a camel-themed poetry competition, the winner of which will drive away in a luxury SUV. “Hey, you write poetry,” said my wife when she saw the announcement for the competition. “Write one.” For the past few months, we’ve been driving around in a Toyota Yaris. I started writing.

The winners of the competition are due to be announced the first week of February, but I don’t hold out much hope. The problem isn’t so much that I’m not a camel person – I can wing that – but that you are required to write your poem in the Nabati style. Nabati is an ancient form of Arabic folk poetry passed down through generations of Bedouin tribesmen. In order to write a Nabati camel poem properly, you need to have not only seen one of the animals, but to have milked one, scrubbed one, maybe had one spit in your face. This dusty traditionalism is the whole point of the contest.

It’s an odd thing, but you could say that camel spit has been making a comeback in the United Arab Emirates recently. The proud home of the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest man-made island, and the world’s highest Swarovski-crystal-per-capita ratio is currently in the throes of a full-fledged Nabati craze. People in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi zoom home in their BMWs to watch “Million’s Poet,” a televised Nabati talent show whose ultimate winner gets a $1,362,000 cash prize, along with the kind of rock-star celebrity that poets elsewhere in the world can only dream about. Since it launched a few years back, “Million’s Poet” has become the Arab world’s answer to “American Idol.” Across the region, tens of millions of people tune in each week to vote for their favorite versifier via text message. Even the kids are hooked: Internet message boards ring with heated debate over who’s the best (or cutest) poet in the land. Nabati action figures cannot be far behind.

“Millions Poet,” as frivolous as it may seem, is taken very seriously by the United Arab Emirates’ rulers. The government funds and promotes the show as part of a broader effort to reestablish Nabati as the cultural cornerstone of the country. This effort, in turn, is born of a much larger concern. As satellite dishes and skyscrapers proliferate, there is a growing sense here that local traditions are being swept away. In some Arabic nations – the ones you tend to read about in the papers – this concern has led to a pervasive and restrictive form of Islam: The rise of ultra-conservative Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia represents an emphatic example. The United Arab Emirates, characteristically, has opted for a more moderate approach. Putting Nabati poetry under lights is seen here as a perfect way to stave off a collective identity crisis, to remind nationals who they are – or at least who they once were.

Nabati poetry is so old, nobody really knows how old it is. We do know that the form dates back at least 1,000 years, and was first practiced by the Bedouins who roamed the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. For centuries, it was the only way for these people to record their victories in battle, their humiliations in love, the weaseliness of their enemies, and the munificence of their leaders. It’s a form of social history for people who didn’t have pens, but who loved a singsong around the campfire.

The Arab world has a classical, bookish poetry tradition that is renowned for its litany of migraine-inducing formalities. Nabati is to this tradition what break dancing is to the minuet. It’s meant to be loose-limbed and spontaneous, recited in everyday language, expressing common concerns. Its rules are negotiable; if it sounds good over a plate of al harees, you’re in. And while Nabati themes do occasionally tend toward the lyrical – “My Heart Is Set Ablaze By Anxieties” by Si’dun Al Waji comes to mind – you’re just as likely to hear a poem about whose goats have been encroaching on whose territory. “Nabati,” says Ghassan Al Hassan, a Nabati scholar and a “Million’s Poet” judge, “speaks the language of the common people.”

The language of the people has changed over the last millennium, as have their concerns. Ancient Bedouin tribesmen were a notoriously bellicose bunch; titles like “By God, How Often Have I Raided” and “So What, Ibn Slem, If You Attack?” were commonplace. Today, while Nabati’s macho tendencies endure, poets tend to focus less on the power of their horses than the horsepower of their pickups. Tribalism has given way to nationalism. And where a traditional Nabati poet might have sung about his ability to use his fists, today’s will more likely talk up the goal-scoring abilities of his favorite soccer team.

The United Arab Emirates’ ruling classes, again, are spearheading the drive to shoehorn Nabati into contemporary contexts. The pop-culture glam of the “Million’s Poet” show is no accident: It represents a concerted effort to present the Nabati tradition in a format that the iPhone-owning masses will appreciate and understand. On the academic front, the government last year set up the Abu Dhabi-based Poetry Academy to help foster new Nabati poets and to establish a formal critical apparatus, something that old-school Nabati poets would likely have found mind-boggling.

There has also been a concurrent effort to preserve the tradition in written form, and even to translate it into English – a task akin to translating Italian into fish. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and a prolific Nabati poet, last year published a book of English translations of his work, which includes the poem “Oh Victorious Arrow” (“Congratulations Hamdan, heartfelt congratulations/ Your horse for you is happy, strutting proudly”). The fact that the guy who’s currently in charge of running this modern megalopolis should spend his time penning odes to horses is an indication of how important Nabati has become to the emirates’ sense of self.

“Globalization is wreaking havoc on many aspects of local life,” says Sultan Al Amimi, another “Million’s Poet” judge. Nabati, he says, “is a way of preserving this way of life from cultural erosion.”

Cultural erosion is a hot topic in the Middle East right now. The fear of regional identities and values being overrun – by hedonism, materialism, moral relativism, and all the other isms generally associated with the West – lies at the heart of much of the hard-core religious revivalism you see here. In America, there’s talk of the Clash of Civilizations; here, people see themselves as taking a Last Stand, with Mecca as a kind of Alamo.

Few countries in the Middle East have more of a stake in this issue than the United Arab Emirates. In recent decades, the country has seen wave after wave of immigration; Dubai’s expat population is now said to be about 80 percent of its total. And these immigrants have brought with them everything from Tagalog karaoke to Bollywood blockbusters to happy hour cocktails. There are times when it’s easy to forget you’re even in an Arabic country, an extremely worrying fact for people who were born and bred here.

Partly because the United Arab Emirates values its tradition of welcoming outsiders, and partly because people here understand that their economy relies on an inflow of foreign labor, the country has not resorted to the kind of knee-jerk religiosity that some of its neighbors have. Instead, it has embarked on a kinder, gentler form of revival. You can hardly turn around these days without bumping into a heritage village. Faux-traditional architecture is cropping up in every corner of the country. And youngsters who a decade ago might have worn jeans and T-shirts now don the dishdashas and abayas of their forebears. Sure, they’ll wear these garments at shopping malls and go home afterwards to watch the latest episode of “Dexter” – the point is that the country is attempting to incorporate its traditions into the modern world, rather than trying to keep the modern world at bay.

This will not be an easy trick to pull off. Efforts to drag the past into the present will always involve an element of nostalgia, and nostalgia will always involve its own cultural conflicts – as you can already see in the Nabati revival. One contemporary female poet, for instance, writes about “My longing for a tent/ After an adobe house.” We don’t really believe that this woman longs to live in a tent, simply that she likes the idea of it. Her poem is a kind of fib. It also lacks the immediacy of traditional Nabati poetry. Then again, Nabati’s themes have always revolved around traditional desert life. Is a Nabati poem about breaking the heel of your Jimmy Choo still a Nabati poem? And if it is, why shouldn’t a guy who grew up in London write a moving eulogy to the Arabian camel?

It might just be that my own longing – For a brand new Range Rover/ After a Toyota Yaris – isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Chris Wright is an editor and writer living in Dubai.


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Justice, medieval style

The case that ‘trial by ordeal’ actually worked

For the better part of a millennium, Europe’s legal systems decided difficult criminal cases in a most peculiar way. When judges were uncertain about an accused criminal’s guilt, they ordered a cauldron of water to be boiled, a ring to be thrown in, and the defendant to plunge in his naked hand and pluck the object out. The defendant’s hand was wrapped in bandages and revisited three days later. If it survived the bubbling cauldron unharmed, the defendant was declared innocent. If it didn’t, he was convicted.

These trials were called “ordeals.” They reached their height between the 9th and 13th centuries, and the methods varied. In one variant, a piece of iron was heated until it was red hot. The defendant picked it up and carried it with her bare hand. In another, the defendant was stripped naked, his hands and feet bound, and he was pushed into a pool of holy water. If the defendant sank, he was acquitted. If he floated, he was condemned.

Modern observers have roundly condemned ordeals for being cruel and arbitrary. Ordeals seem to reflect everything that was wrong with the Dark Ages. They’re an icon of medieval barbarism and backwardness.

But a closer look suggests something very different: The ordeal system worked surprisingly well. It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused. Stranger still, the ordeal system suggests that pervasive superstition can be good for society. Medieval legal systems leveraged citizens’ superstitious beliefs through ordeals, making it possible to secure criminal justice where it would have otherwise been impossible to do so. Some superstitions, at least, may evolve and persist for a good reason: They help us accomplish goals we couldn’t otherwise accomplish, or accomplish them more cheaply.

Ordeals were based on a medieval superstition called “iudicium Dei” – the judgment of God. According to this belief, God helped man resolve judicial matters through trials of fire and water. The superstitious “logic” that underlay ordeals was based on divine intervention. God, the thinking went, saved innocent defendants from being burned in hot ordeals and allowed guiltless men to sink in water “over which He hath thundered” in cold ones. The ordeal, then, offered a way for God to render judgment.

How might these trials have worked, without divine intervention? The key insight is that ordeals weren’t just widely practiced. They were widely believed in. It’s this belief – literally, the fear of God – that could have allowed the ordeals to function effectively.

First, consider the reasoning of the defendants. Guilty believers expected God to reveal their guilt by harming them in the ordeal. They anticipated being boiled and convicted. Innocent believers, meanwhile, expected God to protect them in the ordeal. They anticipated escaping unscathed, and being exonerated.

The only defendants who would have been willing to go through with the ordeal were therefore the innocent ones. Guilty defendants would have preferred to avoid the ordeal – by confessing their crimes, settling with their accusers, or fleeing the realm.

The next thing to understand is that clerics administrated ordeals and adjudged their outcomes – and did so under elaborate sets of rules that gave them wide latitude to manipulate the process. Priests knew that only innocent defendants would be willing to plunge their hands in boiling water. So priests could simply rig trials to exonerate defendants who were willing to go through with the ordeal. The rituals around the ordeals gave them plenty of cover to ensure the water wasn’t boiling, or the iron wasn’t burning, and so on. If rigging failed, a priest could interpret the ordeal’s outcome to exculpate the defendant nonetheless (“His arm is healing well!”).

The ordeal system was only as strong as the superstitious belief underlying it. So, over time, as people’s belief that God was behind ordeals weakened, so did ordeals’ power to satisfactorily deal with criminal defendants. One crucially important contributor to this decline was the Catholic Church. In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III spearheaded a damning denunciation of ordeals on the grounds that ordeals were antithetical to Christian doctrine. His edict banned priests from further involvement with them. The Church’s condemnation of ordeals seriously undermined the superstition on which ordeals relied. If ordeals were antithetical to Christianity, how could God reveal defendants’ guilt or innocence through trials of fire and water?

Ordeals disappeared from Europe after Pope Innocent III’s decree. But, while they lasted, they improved criminal justice. Ordeals are inferior to modern trial methods because modern defendants don’t believe in iudicium Dei, not because trial by jury is inherently superior. If modern citizens did have the superstitious belief required for ordeals to work, it might make sense to bring back the cauldrons of boiling water.

Jury trials are expensive. Ordeals cost something, too. But they don’t require days or weeks of a half dozen or more jurors’ time. Nor do they require lawyers. If the strength of superstitious belief required for ordeals to work as well as trial by jury existed, society could use ordeals to secure the same degree of criminal justice for a fraction of the current system’s cost. Consider the savings society would enjoy if citizens firmly believed that an invisible, omniscient, and omnipotent being would severely punish them and their families, not just in an afterlife, but in this one as well, for cheating, stealing, and dishonesty. In the superstitious society, “irrational” beliefs do part of the work that government institutions of law and order do in the nonsuperstitious one.

This insight may help explain the prominence of superstition in some societies. Many societies weren’t, and in some cases still aren’t, wealthy enough to create strong, effective, and more expensive state-made institutions of order. Superstition’s prominence in such societies may reflect the need to rely on cheaper substitutes for such institutions, substitutes such as beliefs in curses, afterlives, and iudicium Dei.

If this is right, it’s not only that scientific advance crowds out superstition. As societies become wealthier, superstitions become less necessary. So people abandon them. This creates the space required for scientific understandings to emerge.

Still, even the wealthiest societies have room for, and can leverage, superstition. To see this, look no further than the practice of oath swearing in courts in the United States. Oath swearing has an even longer history than ordeals. In ordeals’ heyday, elaborate forms of oath taking, sometimes taken with others called “compurgators,” were often the first resort for judicial questions.

Oath swearing survives today. No doubt part of the reason for this is that the superstition underlying its ability to promote justice has survived, too. Historically, oaths were sworn on the Bible, or other holy books, to God. For people who believe God frowns on lying, oath swearing can be a powerful force encouraging truthful testimony. In 1961 the US Supreme Court upheld individuals’ right to testify in court without swearing an oath. But it remains common to ask people providing testimony to do so, or at least to promise to tell the truth. While the explicit invocation of God is all but gone from modern oaths, the solemnity of the oath itself remains strong.

Previous researchers have found evidence that certain superstitious beliefs may be socially productive in modern societies. Important work by Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary of Harvard University, for example, finds that stronger beliefs in an afterlife are associated with higher economic growth. Similarly, in a recent experimental study, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia find that when “God concepts” are activated in the minds of experiment participants, they’re more cooperative with one another. One of the potential reasons for this result, Shariff and Norenzayan point out, is that individuals may be more likely to behave in socially positive ways when they feel that God is watching them.

Of course, not all superstitious beliefs are socially productive. Besides encouraging criminals to reveal themselves and witnesses to tell the truth, superstition can create conflict and inhibit economic activities that create wealth. Especially if it’s hard to hold productive superstitions separately from unproductive ones, superstition might retard rather than promote social progress.

Still, it’s useful to bear in mind that many bizarre and seemingly irrational beliefs emerged for a reason and, at one time, served a socially useful purpose. Even modern superstitions aren’t all bad. Some may actually make us better off.

Now, where did that cauldron go?

Peter T. Leeson is visiting professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, author of the paper ”Ordeals,” and author of the recent book ”The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” (Princeton University Press, 2009).  


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Easy = True

How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel

Imagine that your stockbroker – or the friend who’s always giving you stock tips – called and told you he had come up with a new investment strategy. Price-to-earnings ratios, debt levels, management, competition, what the company makes, and how well it makes it, all those considerations go out the window. The new strategy is this: Invest in companies with names that are very easy to pronounce.

This would probably not strike you as a great idea. But, if recent research is to be believed, it might just be brilliant.

One of the hottest topics in psychology today is something called “cognitive fluency.” Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. Similar manipulations can get subjects to be more forgiving, more adventurous, and more open about their personal shortcomings.

Because it shapes our thinking in so many ways, fluency is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information. It’s a key part of the puzzle of how feelings like attraction and belief and suspicion work, and what researchers are learning about fluency has ramifications for anyone interested in eliciting those emotions.

“Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent,” says Adam Alter, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School who co-wrote the paper on fluency and stock prices. “If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment.”

A handful of scholars have already started to explore the ways that advertisers, educators, political campaigners, or anyone else in the business of persuasion can use these findings. And some of the implications are surprising. For example, to get people to think through a question, it may be best to present it less clearly. And to boost your self-confidence, you may want to set out to write a dauntingly long list of all the reasons why you’re a failure.

Our sensitivity to – and affinity for – fluency is an adaptive shortcut. According to psychologists, it helps us apportion limited mental resources in a world where lots of things clamor for our attention and we have to quickly figure out which are worth thinking about.

Most of the time, the shortcut works pretty well. If something feels notably easy to decipher, whether it’s a piece of text or the shape of an object or the particulars of a person’s face, there’s a good chance it’s because we’ve previously done the work of processing it, and that it’s something we’ve encountered before. Cognitive fluency signals familiarity – some psychologists argue that the eerie experience of déjà vu is simply when we’re fooled by the unexpected ease of taking in a piece of sensory information, and interpret that as a memory of having been there or seen it before.

An instinctive preference for the familiar made sense in the prehistoric environment in which our brains developed, psychologists hypothesize. Unfamiliar things – whether they were large woolly animals, plants we were thinking of eating, or fellow human beings – needed to be carefully evaluated to determine whether they were friend or foe. Familiar objects were those we’d already passed judgment on, so it made sense not to waste time and energy scrutinizing them.

According to Norbert Schwarz, a leading fluency researcher, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc used to explain the evolutionary logic behind this tendency succinctly. “He’d say, ‘If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.’ ”

“That gut feeling of familiarity determined by ease of processing is a very effective shorthand,” says Schwarz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Having to sit down and analyze every time whether something is familiar would not be a good idea.”

Our bias for the familiar, however, can be triggered in settings where there’s little purpose to it. In the 1960s, Zajonc did a series of experiments that uncovered what he dubbed the “mere exposure” effect: He found that, with stimuli ranging from nonsense words to abstract geometric patterns to images of faces to Chinese ideographs (the test subjects, being non-Chinese speakers, didn’t know what the ideographs meant), all it took to get people to say they liked certain ones more than others was to present them multiple times.

More recent work suggests that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar. Like beauty. Psychologists have identified what they call the “beauty-in-averageness” effect – when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose the most prototypical option. For example, when asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people choose the one that is a composite of all the others. And it’s not just faces: Studies have found a similar tendency when people are asked to identify what makes for an attractive dog or car or watch. Some psychologists suggest that much of what we perceive as beauty is just the fact that the most prototypical faces and dogs and watches are the easiest to process, because they share the most with all the other faces and dogs and watches that we’ve seen and stored in our perceptual inventory.

“These faces fit right in there. In effect, you’ve already learned the facial features, so people like them,” says Piotr Winkielman, a psychologist at the University of California San Diego who has done research on fluency and attractiveness.

Winkielman doesn’t claim that beauty is entirely explained by fluency, but he argues that the effect is powerful, all the more so because we’re unaware of it. Indeed, the power of the effect, combined with the ease with which psychologists can fool people into mistaking the sensation of fluency for actual familiarity, helps explain the current popularity of research into the phenomenon.

“People are very sensitive to the experience of ease or difficulty, but very insensitive to where that feeling comes from,” says Schwarz.

One thing that fools us, for example, is font. When people read something in a difficult-to-read font, they unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about. Schwarz and his former student Hyunjin Song have found that when people read about an exercise regimen or a recipe in a less legible font, they tend to rate the exercise regimen more difficult and the recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font.

Playing with legibility can also change perceptions in subtler, less predictable ways. Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton University who also co-wrote the stocks and fluency paper, have found that when a personal questionnaire is presented in a less legible font, people tend to answer it less honestly than if it is written in a more legible one. Alter and two other psychologists, Simon Laham and Geoffrey Goodwin, also found that, when presenting people with written descriptions of moral transgressions, increasing the contrast between text and background to make it easier to read the description made people more forgiving.

To Alter, it’s a demonstration not so much of the power of fluency but of its opposite, what psychologists call “disfluency.” Even at the level of a trickier font, the experience of disfluency makes people wary and uncomfortable. That sensation, Alter argues, is enough to make them less forthcoming and also less forgiving in their moral judgments.

“Disfluency functions as a cognitive alarm,” Alter says. “It sets up a cognitive roadblock and makes people think, and it triggers a sense of risk and concern.”

It isn’t just visual cues that have this sort of effect. Matthew McGlone, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has found that auditory cues can shape people’s perception of truth. McGlone did a study in which he presented subjects with a series of unfamiliar aphorisms either in rhyming or nonrhyming form: “Woes unite foes,” for example, versus “Woes unite enemies.” He found that people tended to see the rhyming ones as more accurate than the nonrhyming ones, despite the fact that, substantively, the two were identical. Phrases that are easier on the ear aren’t just catchy and easy to remember, McGlone argues, they also feel inherently truer. He calls it “the rhyme-as-reason effect.”

The persuasive power of repetition, clarity, and simplicity is something that people who set out to win others’ trust – marketers, political candidates, speechwriters, suitors, and teachers – already have an intuitive sense of if they’re good at what they do. What the fluency research is showing is just how profound the effect can be, and just how it works.

And some of the more interesting ramifications of the new work come from the suggestion that disfluency, rather than fluency, can sometimes be what’s called for. Work on product marketing by Schwarz and Hyejeung Cho has found, for example, that while creating a sense of disfluency in potential consumers is likely to make them see a product as less familiar, it also makes them see it as more innovative.

And a few studies suggest that disfluency works well as a prompt to get people to think carefully and catch mistakes. Alter and Oppenheimer found that using a more difficult font can get students to do better on the Cognitive Reaction Test, a three-question test that usually trips up people answering intuitively. In another study, they found that disfluency also led people to think more abstractly. Schwarz and Song found that a difficult font can dramatically increase the number of people who correctly respond to the question, “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?” (The answer is “none” – Moses wasn’t on the Ark.)

In other words, to get people to think carefully and to prevent them from making silly mistakes, make them work to process the question: make the font hard to read, the cadence awkward, and the wording unfamiliar.

Some researchers are also starting to look at the question of how to change people’s responses to cognitive fluency. Winkielman is part of a team of researchers who, in a forthcoming study, looked at the relationship between mood and the desire for fluency. They found that happy people are less interested in familiar, fluent stimuli – in this case abstract visual patterns – than sad people. According to Winkielman, this makes sense: When we’re unhappy, we seek out stability and a sense of safety; when we’re happy, we’re more open to the unfamiliar.

“Fluent things are familiar, but also boring and comfortable,” he says. “Disfluency is intriguing and novel. Sometimes you like comfort food, like when you’re sick. And usually you want to try something new when you’re more comfortable.”

It may be possible to tactically use disfluency to improve our own everyday lives, as well. Schwarz has found that the ease or difficulty of thinking something can sometimes neutralize the actual content of the thoughts themselves. Along with Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina, Schwarz has looked at fluency and self-confidence. The two found that, if the goal was to boost college students’ confidence before an exam, getting them to list a few reasons why they were going to succeed was more effective than getting them to list many reasons. Because it was harder, the students who were asked to think of more ways to succeed were actually less confident, even though they ended up with longer lists.

And Schwarz and Sanna found a converse effect when they asked students to think of reasons they would not do well: Students asked to come up with a longer list of reasons they would fail reported feeling more confident than those asked for a shorter list. Indeed, they reported feeling as confident as the students who had been asked to come up with the short list of ways to succeed – by the authors’ calculation, thinking of 12 ways to fail had the same effect as thinking of three ways to succeed.

In unpublished research, Schwarz has found a similar effect with marital happiness: Couples asked to come up with a short list of good qualities about each other reported higher levels of marital happiness than the other couples in the study – but so did those couples asked to come up with a long list of each other’s bad qualities.

“Having to come up with many good things about your spouse is terrible, because it becomes difficult and then you think she’s obviously not that wonderful,” Schwarz says. “Coming up with a few bad things about your spouse, that’s bad because it’s not that hard. Having to come up with a lot of bad things, since it’s hard, it means she’s not that bad at all. The difficulty that you have tells you that there are not many such things.”

Results like these suggest that feeling good about yourself may in part be a matter of having a hard time feeling bad, and that confidence and even success might be triggered by interventions that do nothing but make failure seem the more intimidating possibility. The human brain, for all its power, is suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.


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The book of Jobs

It has revolutionised one industry after another. Now Apple hopes to transform three at once

APPLE is regularly voted the most innovative company in the world, but its inventiveness takes a particular form. Rather than developing entirely new product categories, it excels at taking existing, half-baked ideas and showing the rest of the world how to do them properly. Under its mercurial and visionary boss, Steve Jobs, it has already done this three times. In 1984 Apple launched the Macintosh. It was not the first graphical, mouse-driven computer, but it employed these concepts in a useful product. Then, in 2001, came the iPod. It was not the first digital-music player, but it was simple and elegant, and carried digital music into the mainstream. In 2007 Apple went on to launch the iPhone. It was not the first smart-phone, but Apple succeeded where other handset-makers had failed, making mobile internet access and software downloads a mass-market phenomenon.

As rivals rushed to copy Apple’s approach, the computer, music and telecoms industries were transformed. Now Mr Jobs hopes to pull off the same trick for a fourth time. On January 27th he unveiled his company’s latest product, the iPad—a thin, tablet-shaped device with a ten-inch touch-screen which will go on sale in late March for $499-829. Years in the making, it has been the subject of hysterical online speculation in recent months, verging at times on religious hysteria: sceptics in the blogosphere jokingly call it the Jesus Tablet.

The enthusiasm of the Apple faithful may be overdone, but Mr Jobs’s record suggests that when he blesses a market, it takes off. And tablet computing promises to transform not just one industry, but three—computing, telecoms and media.

Companies in the first two businesses view the iPad’s arrival with trepidation, for Apple’s history makes it a fearsome competitor. The media industry, by contrast, welcomes it wholeheartedly. Piracy, free content and the dispersal of advertising around the web have made the internet a difficult environment for media companies. They are not much keener on the Kindle, an e-reader made by Amazon, which has driven down book prices and cannot carry advertising. They hope this new device will give them a new lease of life, by encouraging people to read digital versions of books, newspapers and magazines while on the move. True, there are worries that Apple could end up wielding a lot of power in these new markets, as it already does in digital music. But a new market opened up and dominated by Apple is better than a shrinking market, or no market at all.

Keep taking the tablets

Tablet computers aimed at business people have not worked. Microsoft has been pushing them for years, with little success. Apple itself launched a pen-based tablet computer, the Newton, in 1993, but it was a flop. The Kindle has done reasonably well, and has spawned a host of similar devices with equally silly names, including the Nook, the Skiff and the Que. Meanwhile, Apple’s pocket-sized touch-screen devices, the iPhone and iPod Touch, have taken off as music and video players and hand-held games consoles.

The iPad is, in essence, a giant iPhone on steroids. Its large screen will make it an attractive e-reader and video player, but it will also inherit a vast array of games and other software from the iPhone. Apple hopes that many people will also use it instead of a laptop. If the company is right, it could open up a new market for devices that are larger than phones, smaller than laptops, and also double as e-readers, music and video players and games consoles. Different industries are already converging on this market: mobile-phone makers are launching small laptops, known as netbooks, and computer-makers are moving into smart-phones. Newcomers such as Google, which is moving into mobile phones and laptops, and Amazon, with the Kindle, are also entering the fray: Amazon has just announced plans for an iPhone-style “app store” for the Kindle, which will enable it to be more than just an e-reader.

If the past is any guide, Apple’s entry into the field will not just unleash fierce competition among device-makers, but also prompt consumers and publishers who had previously been wary of e-books to take the plunge, accelerating the adoption of this nascent technology. Sales of e-readers are expected to reach 12m this year, up from 5m in 2009 and 1m in 2008, according to iSuppli, a market-research firm.

Hold the front pixels

Will the spread of tablets save struggling media companies? Sadly not. Some outfits—metropolitan newspapers, for instance—are probably doomed by their reliance on classified advertising, which is migrating to dedicated websites. Others are too far gone already. Tablets are expensive, and it will be some years before they are widespread enough to fulfil their promise. In theory a newspaper could ask its readers to sign up for a two-year electronic subscription, say, and subsidise the cost of a tablet. But such a subsidy would be hugely pricey, and expensive printing presses will have to be kept running for readers who want to stick with paper.

Still, even though tablets will not save weak media companies, they are likely to give strong ones a boost. Charging for content, which has proved difficult on the web, may get easier. Already, people are prepared to pay to receive newspapers and magazines (including The Economist) on the Kindle. The iPad, with its colour screen and integration with Apple’s online stores, could make downloading books, newspapers and magazines as easy and popular as downloading music. Most important, it will allow for advertising, on which American magazines, in particular, depend. Tablets could eventually lead to a wholesale switch to digital delivery, which would allow newspapers and book publishers to cut costs by closing down printing presses.

If Mr Jobs manages to pull off another amazing trick with another brilliant device, then the benefits of the digital revolution to media companies with genuinely popular products may soon start to outweigh the costs. But some media companies are dying, and a new gadget will not resurrect them. Even the Jesus Tablet cannot perform miracles.


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The week ahead

Talk of a European bail-out for Greece

• JUDGMENT will be passed on the Greek government’s budget-cutting plans by the European Commission on Wednesday February 3rd. The country’s public finances are in a parlous state and fears that the markets may lose faith in Greece altogether were only partly allayed when it recently raised €8 billion ($11 billion) in the bond market. Amid fears that Greece may not present a credible plan for fiscal austerity, talk is circulating of a bail-out, perhaps through a big fund underwritten by the commission or France and Germany, that could offer loans, albeit at punitive rates, to see Greece past this tight spot. And Greece is not the only member of the euro-zone with wobbly public finances.

• AN EXTENDED period of belt-tightening is likely to be the theme when Barack Obama presents his fiscal budget for 2011 on Monday February 1st. To cope with a growing deficit the president is set to propose a three-year freeze on some domestic spending programmes, as he trues to save some $20 billion in 2011. Spending on national security, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be excluded from any freeze. Mr Obama is also poised to stop tax cuts for oil companies, investment-fund managers and anyone earning over $250,000 a year, although families earning less than that will have tax cuts extended. Mr Obama has threatened to veto spending that would increase the deficit.

• AS THE sci-fi spectacular, “Avatar”, sweeps all previous box-office records aside an indication of its artistic merit will come on Tuesday February 2nd when the Oscar nominations are announced. “Avatar” has already earned more than “Titanic”, also directed by James Cameron, after six weeks on the big screen. But adjusted for inflation it lags some way behind. And Hollywood seems less inclined to lavish it with nominations and Oscars. “Titanic” garnered 14 nods and 11 statuettes. “Avatar” may pick up less-prestigious awards for technical achievement but not the big acting or directing prizes.

• THE two front-runners for the presidency of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, compete in a run-off election on Sunday February 7th. Ukraine is divided between the industrialised, Russian-speaking east and south which backs Mr Yanukovich and the centre and west supporting Ms Tymoshenko. Mr Yanukovich won the most votes in the first round yet the wily and more appealing Ms Tymoshenko could yet snatch victory. Some fear that she seeks to maximise her power and may, if elected, not push through reforms that Ukraine desperately needs. The parlous state of the economy means that the winner will need to raise heavily subsidised gas prices and cut public spending with a vengeance.


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Tony Blair’s 2010 vision

Britain’s Iraq war inquiry

The prime minister who took Britain into Iraq defends his record

TONY BLAIR arrived early to give his much-anticipated evidence to Britain’s Iraq inquiry on Friday January 29th, avoiding the small band of protesters who braved the drizzle outside, waving placards proclaiming “Jail Tony” and the now-traditional “Bliar”. The relatives of British servicemen killed in Iraq who had been allocated seats at the hearing were mostly respectful. And Mr Blair was rarely discomforted during six hours of questioning from the panel, chaired by Sir John Chilcot—even if he was not always entirely convincing.

In recent weeks, questioning other ministers who were involved in Iraq policy in 2002-03 (it has become clear that not very many of them really were), Sir John and his colleagues have become increasingly aggressive. But over what, in Britain, is the most controversial aspect of the build-up to the invasion of March 2003—the case Mr Blair’s government mounted over Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—Mr Blair got a soft ride.

Asked why, in his foreword to the government’s dossier on WMD of September 2002, Mr Blair wrote that the case had been made “beyond doubt”, despite the limitations of the available intelligence, he explained that he himself had felt no doubt. Asked about the claim that some of Saddam’s WMD could be used within 45 minutes of an order to do so—an assertion that was widely misinterpreted to refer to long-range weapons rather than battlefield munitions—Mr Blair, like Alastair Campbell, his former spin doctor, implied that the issue had only become controversial because of a subsequent row with the media over its provenance.

But the questionable involvement of Mr Blair’s own aides in the preparation of the dossier went largely unexplored. He maintained that he would have wanted to confront Saddam even if he had known the Iraqi dictator had only an intent to acquire WMD, rather than the things themselves: “The decision I took—and frankly would take again—was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction we should stop him.” That, of course, was not the case he made, and it would have been a tough one to sell.

Mr Blair’s explanation of his world view hinged on the terror attacks of September 11th 2001. This, he said (as he has done previously), created a “different calculus of risk”, in which the possible collusion of rogue states such as Iraq and terrorists could not be tolerated.

The trouble with that argument, as Mr Blair’s questioners gently pointed out, is that there was and is no proven link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and indeed many reasons to doubt that such a link, between religious fundamentalists and a Baathist tyrant, was even feasible. Unlike the Americans, the British acknowledged as much before the war, and Mr Blair did so again at the inquiry. He filled the gap in his argument by waffling about the risk posed today by Iran, also roping in Yemen and Somalia. It sounded like a distraction.

His greatest distraction, or deflection, however, was what he termed the “2010 question”: “What’s important is not to ask the March 2003 question [ie, whether it was right to wage war], but to ask the 2010 question.” Mr Blair speculated that, had Saddam not been deposed, with the oil price at $100 a barrel, “he would have had the intent and he would have had the means [to produce WMD], and we would have lost our nerve.” In other words, it would have been worse if America and its allies hadn’t acted. That, of course, will never be known.

Otherwise, Mr Blair’s answers—to questions he has faced many times before—were mostly predictable. He denied that there had been insufficient planning for the post-war occupation, saying only that different “eventualities” had arisen than those the government anticipated; in particular, he stressed the meddling influence of Iran. He defended Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney-general, who dramatically changed his view on the legality of the war soon before it started (and who appeared at the inquiry earlier this week). If Lord Goldsmith had said the war could not be justified legally, Mr Blair said, Britain would not have participated.

As for the controversial meeting with George Bush at Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, Mr Blair said he had been determined “to stand shoulder to shoulder” with America, but had made no covert deal that committed his country to the war. Britain’s former ambassador to Washington told the inquiry that such a deal had been “signed in blood” at Crawford.

Mr Blair looked tense at the beginning. And he struggled to explain a recent interview in which he seemed to suggest that he would have favoured invading Iraq even in the absence of a WMD threat—a compromising remark that he repudiated, attempting to laugh it off as naivety in the face of an interviewer. The old charm fell flat at that point. He conceded that Britain’s military planning could have been more open at an earlier stage, and said that intelligence assessments (on WMD) could have been published raw, rather than assembled in a government dossier.

But Mr Blair evinced no real contrition. He blamed the subsequent deaths in Iraq squarely on the terrorists and insurgents: “Nobody,” he said, “would want to go back to the days when they had no freedom, no opportunity and no hope.” The lesson, he said, was “to stick it through until the end”. Finally he said he felt “responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein…I genuinely believe that the world is safer as a result.”


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It Happened in Our Backyard

We sympathized with the concerns about security and inconvenience raised by the Justice Department’s plan to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described 9/11 mastermind, at a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, a short walk from ground zero.

But caving in to political pressure and agreeing to move the trial, as The Times reported the Obama administration has decided to do, was the wrong move. New York was the right place for this trial. This is where the attack occurred, and New Yorkers should have been proud to see justice done here. The United States District Court in Manhattan has a long, successful record of trying terrorists, including the ones responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

President Obama was right to move Mr. Mohammed and four other high-profile terrorism suspects out of the jurisdiction of military tribunals. President George W. Bush’s decision to hold prisoners outside the law and then attempt to try them in rigged military courts was legally wrong, and hugely damaging to American values and this country’s global image.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg first supported the president’s decision to hold the trial in New York, but reversed field after looking at the costs of what could be a very long process. Local business leaders protested, as did politicians with a variety of motives — none really sound and some profoundly cynical.

Mr. Obama should have worked with the mayor to develop a security plan, one that limited local disruption. The federal government should have paid any additional cost. It will have to do that wherever the trial is held.

The trial must remain within the federal court system. Mr. Obama should not put it in a makeshift court on a military base and definitely should not give in to demands from the right to return Mr. Mohammed (and the four other prisoners) to the tribunals.

Trying mass murderers in a criminal court is not “soft on terrorism.” The federal courts have tried, convicted and imprisoned many terrorists. The tribunals have not held a single trial, and may never have one that Americans can be proud of.

For some Republicans, this is really about keeping Guantánamo open. Others just want to block whatever Mr. Obama wants. Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, has a particularly insidious bill that would obstruct justice by stopping the government from spending money on federal court trials for terrorists.

Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that holding the trial in New York “would only heighten media and public attention.” That one baffled us. This trial would draw attention if it were held atop Pikes Peak. And isn’t the idea of a public trial a bedrock principle of American justice?

Holding the trial in New York would be inconvenient. Democracy makes demands on its citizens. It is inconvenient to serve on a jury, too. This was just not-in-my-backyard-ism. Nearly 10 years after 9/11, it is sad if this country cannot freely conduct its business in Lower Manhattan.

Editorial, New York Times


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Remembrance of Candy Bars Past

How a wave of consolidation lay waste to regional treats like the Fig Pie and the Seven Up Bar

In Merriam, Kan., the Russell Sifers Candy Company produces what must be the messiest candy bar in the United States. The Valomilk, first introduced in 1931, is a thin cup of chocolate filled with vanilla syrup. It is virtually impossible to eat without getting syrup on your face. For years, the bar came with its own cautionary slogan: “When it runs down your chin, you know it’s a Valomilk.”

The Twin Bing, with a cherry-flavored nougat center, is still being made in Iowa.

Farther north, in a low-slung factory in St. Joseph, Mo., the bright pink gobs rolling down the assembly line are the sweet centers of the Cherry Mash. They have been the flagship of the Chase Candy Company since they were introduced in 1918.

A couple of miles east of downtown Nashville, the Standard Candy Company makes the GooGoo Cluster, a disc of caramel and marshmallow covered in milk chocolate, dappled with peanuts, then drenched in more chocolate. The GooGoo, which lays claim to being one of the oldest bars in America, is considered by most Southerners to be the official candy bar of Dixie.

These companies are the face of what the candy industry in America used to be. Each city or region had its own factories, and people could actually see and smell the place where their favorite sweets were made. Coming from a particular town meant that you ate a particular kind of candy bar. Because there was no refrigeration to speak of, and transportation was expensive, confectioners often used local ingredients. If you lived in a region that produced cherries or walnuts, chances are those were in your candy bars.

Regional candies are a dying breed. Today, there are perhaps a dozen such concerns left in America. The rest have been swallowed up, or put out of business, by the massive consolidation that has shaped the modern confectionery industry. Earlier this month, the British chocolate giant Cadbury agreed to a $19 billion buyout from Kraft, creating a mega-firm that projects $50 billion in annual sales.

Thousands of candy bars have disappeared along the road to consolidation, including such recent delicacies as the peanut butter-and-chocolate pods known as Oompahs, the treacherously chewy Bit-o-Choc, the glorious, nougat-and-caramel-filled Milkshake, and the Bar None, an ingenious marriage of peanuts and wafers dipped in chocolate. Also gone (but not forgotten) is the curiously alluring Marathon Bar, a braided rope of chocolate and caramel whose wrapper featured a ruler on the back.


Sweet Survivors

A sampling of candies still in production:

Mary Jane, a peanut-butter-flavored chewy candy
Valomilk, chocolate cups filled with liquid marshmallow
Abba-Zaba, taffy candy with peanut butter centers
Cherry Mash, peanuts and chocolate over a cherry fondant center
Idaho Spud, marshmallow center covered with dark chocolate and coconut sprinkles


Local products ranged from legendary to outright strange. There was the famous Seven Up, a St. Paul native that included seven different flavors; the nougat-puffed Minneapolis bar known as the Fat Emma and a creation known as the Vegetable Sandwich, which, regrettably, consisted of dehydrated cabbage, celery and peppers covered in chocolate. (The Vegetable Sandwich, whose label contained the bizarre boast “Will Not Constipate,” was introduced during the health craze of the ’20s and died, of natural causes, soon after.) Other bars included the Dipsy Doodle, the Coffee Dan, the Baby Lobster, the Prairie Schooner, the Fig Pie—the list goes on and on.

Still, a handful of candy makers have resisted the corporate scythe and persevered. At Palmer Candy in Sioux City, Iowa, fleets of workers with ice cream scoops plop a lump of chocolate-and-peanut hash around a cherry fondant to produce the unexpectedly addictive Twin Bing.

Marty Palmer, the fifth generation of Palmers to run the company, has a framed calfskin pennant behind his desk, branded with the legend “Delicious Chocolates Sold Here.” It dates back to the turn of the century. “Back then, we delivered our candies as far as a horse-drawn wagon could go in a day,” Mr. Palmer said. “That was our distribution system. Our jobbers would go in to a dry goods store and peg one of these to the wall.”

The Idaho Candy Company in Boise looks more like a museum than a production facility, littered with equipment dating back to the 1900s. It’s home to the Idaho Spud, a spongy, cocoa-flavored marshmallow covered in dark chocolate and dusted with dried coconut. It is, shall we say, an acquired taste.

All of these companies are acutely aware of how tenuous their businesses are. The consolidation of retail outlets has destroyed the network of mom-and-pop grocery stores that sold their products. And the giant chains that dominated the retail landscape, such as Wal-Mart, charge so-called “slotting fees”—a fee paid by the supplier for desirable shelf space—that are often prohibitive.

There’s no danger of the small manufacturers being bought out by one of the Big Three—Hershey, Mars and Nestle—because the profits generated by their bars simply aren’t big enough. Their most loyal customers—the folks who had grown up eating their bars—are getting older. And they fret that their companies will eventually have to be shuttered, unless one of their children takes over.

The diminishing presence of certain brands has created a whole new niche business for Web sites like, a retailer of hard-to-find candies. The site’s message board is a testament to the fanaticism of candy lovers, all desperately seeking some candy from their youth, which they describe in detail. Here, you’ll find elegies to dear departed goodies such as Wacky Wafers, the Summit bar, the PB Max, Choco-Lite and the Reggie Bar.

The era of the local candy factory dates back to an ambitious Pennsylvanian named Milton Hershey, a failed vendor of caramels, who recognized in the 1890s that chocolate bars were going to make someone a lot of money. Up until this point, most confectioners were local, storefront operations. The candy was cooked up in back, and sold in front. Hershey mass-produced his bars and chocolate “kisses” and sold them in grocery stores and pushcarts.

Others followed suit. Before long, America’s major cities had their own candy factories, to go along with the local breweries and bakeries. Boston—for a time the nation’s capital of candy production—boasted an entire street dubbed “Confectioner’s Row,” along with half a dozen chocolate factories. On days when the breeze was blowing right, you could smell chocolate for miles.

The Great Depression ushered in a golden age of candy bars. Back then, they were referred to as “nickel bars” and marketed as a cheap source of quick calories. This gave rise to bars such as the Club Sandwich and the infamous Chicken Dinner which featured a roasted chicken on its label (though, alas, no actual chicken in the bar).

The late Ray Broekel, author of the “Great American Candy Bar Book” and as close as America comes to an official candy historian, estimated that, in the years between the World Wars, 30,000 different brands were introduced in the United States alone.

It was this very glut that compelled the shrewdest minds in the industry to focus on building brand names and expanding market share. Hershey and his chief competitor Forrest Mars set about automating factories, establishing a national distribution system, stockpiling ingredients, buying up competitors and advertising.

Over the past 70 years, the so-called Big Three have bought out virtually every competitor of any significance. They have also set their sights on emerging markets in the developing world. The Kraft purchase of Cadbury makes it, in essence, a Big Fourth.

The consolidation has left behind some beloved confections. Consider the Caravelle, made by Peter Paul. The Caravelle was a sublime marriage of soft caramel and crisped rice, enrobed in a thick shell of milk chocolate. Imagine a 100 Grand bar—only 100 times better.

Then the Caravelle disappeared. It was discontinued after Peter Paul merged with Cadbury Schweppes in 1978. A decade later, Hershey purchased Peter Paul. The only Peter Paul bars that survive today are the two most profitable, Mounds and Almond Joy.

While it’s true that most regional companies have gone the way of the dinosaurs, the tradition lives on in places like Hayward, Calif. That’s where Susan Karl, president of Annabelle Candy, oversees the production of the Rocky Road, a gooey chocolate-and-marshmallow confection first made by her grandfather, Sam Altshuler, a Russian immigrant who founded the company 60 years ago.

One of the nation’s oldest confectioners, the New England Confectionery Company, is still around, too. Necco is under different ownership these days, and the operation has moved to a new factory outside Boston, but it still produces its eponymous wafers, along with other beloved old brands such as Mary Janes, Clark Bars and the Sky Bar.

Steve Almond is the author of “Candyfreak” and the forthcoming “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.”


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Crash Blossoms

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once gave the poetry of her husband, Robert, a harsh assessment, criticizing his habit of excessively paring down his syntax with opaque results. “You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust,” she wrote him, “by sweeping away your little words.”

In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert Browning, inveterate sweepers away of little words, and the dust they kick up can lead to some amusing ambiguities. Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the mythical) include “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,” “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” and “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.” The Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim” and “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”

For years, there was no good name for these double-take headlines. Last August, however, one emerged in the Testy Copy Editors online discussion forum. Mike O’Connell, an American editor based in Sapporo, Japan, spotted the headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms” and wondered, “What’s a crash blossom?” (The article, from the newspaper Japan Today, described the successful musical career of Diana Yukawa, whose father died in a 1985 Japan Airlines plane crash.) Another participant in the forum, Dan Bloom, suggested that “crash blossoms” could be used as a label for such infelicitous headlines that encourage alternate readings, and news of the neologism quickly spread.

After I mentioned the coinage of “crash blossoms” on the linguistics blog Language Log, having been alerted to it by the veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, new examples came flooding in. Linguists love this sort of thing, because the perils of ambiguity can reveal the limits of our ability to parse sentences correctly. Syntacticians often refer to the garden-path phenomenon, wherein a reader is led down one interpretive route before having to double back to the beginning of the sentence to get on the right track.

One of my favorite crash blossoms is this gem from the Associated Press, first noted by the Yale linguistics professor Stephen R. Anderson last September: “McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.” If you take “fries” as a verb instead of a noun, you’re left wondering why a fast-food chain is cooking up sacred vessels. Or consider this headline, spotted earlier this month by Rick Rubenstein on the Total Telecom Web site: “Google Fans Phone Expectations by Scheduling Android Event.” Here, if you read “fans” as a plural noun, then you might think “phone” is a verb, and you’ve been led down a path where Google devotees are calling in their hopes.

Nouns that can be misconstrued as verbs and vice versa are, in fact, the hallmarks of the crash blossom. Take this headline, often attributed to The Guardian: “British Left Waffles on Falklands.” In the correct reading, “left” is a noun and “waffles” is a verb, but it’s much more entertaining to reverse the two, conjuring the image of breakfast food hastily abandoned in the South Atlantic. Similarly, crossword enthusiasts laughed nervously at a May 2006 headline on AOL News, “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts.”

After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context. If that A.P. headline had read “McDonald’s Fries Are the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers,” there would have been no crash blossom for our enjoyment.

Headline writers have long been counseled to beware of ambiguity. “Ambiguous words often lead to ludicrous and puzzling headline statements,” Grant Milnor Hyde wrote in his 1915 manual, “Newspaper Editing.” “They can be avoided only by great care in the use of words with two meanings and especially words that may be used either as nouns or verbs.” More recently, in the 2003 book “Strategic Copy Editing,” the University of Oregon journalism professor John Russial offered this rule of thumb: “As the word count drops, the likelihood of ambiguity increases.” He advises copy editors to think twice about trimming the little words.

The potential for unintended humor in “compressed” English isn’t restricted to headline writing; it goes back to the days of the telegraph. One clever (though possibly apocryphal) example once appeared in the pages of Time magazine: Cary Grant received a telegram from an editor inquiring, “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?” — to which he responded: “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?” The omitted verb may have saved the sender a nickel, but the snappy comeback was worth far more.

The space limitations of telegrams are echoed now in the terse messages of texting and Twitter. News headlines, however, are not so constrained these days, since many of them appear in online outlets rather than in print. (And many print headlines are supplanted online by more elastic “e-heads.”) But even when they are unfettered by narrow newspaper columns, headline writers still sweep away those little words as a matter of journalistic style. As long as there is such a thing as headlinese, we can count on crash blossoms continuing to blossom.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of


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How Exercising Keeps Your Cells Young

Recently, scientists in Germany gathered several groups of men and women to look at their cells’ life spans. Some of them were young and sedentary, others middle-aged and sedentary. Two other groups were, to put it mildly, active. The first of these consisted of professional runners in their 20s, most of them on the national track-and-field team, training about 45 miles per week. The last were serious, middle-aged longtime runners, with an average age of 51 and a typical training regimen of 50 miles per week, putting those young 45-mile-per-week sluggards to shame.

From the first, the scientists noted one aspect of their older runners. It ‘‘was striking,’’ recalls Dr. Christian Werner, an internal-medicine resident at Saarland University Clinic in Homburg, ‘‘to see in our study that many of the middle-aged athletes looked much younger than sedentary control subjects of the same age.’’

Even more striking was what was going on beneath those deceptively youthful surfaces. When the scientists examined white blood cells from each of their subjects, they found that the cells in both the active and slothful young adults had similar-size telomeres. Telomeres are tiny caps on the end of DNA strands — the discovery of their function won several scientists the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine. When cells divide and replicate these long strands of DNA, the telomere cap is snipped, a process that is believed to protect the rest of the DNA but leaves an increasingly abbreviated telomere. Eventually, if a cell’s telomeres become too short, the cell ‘‘either dies or enters a kind of suspended state,’’ says Stephen Roth, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland who is studying exercise and telomeres. Most researchers now accept telomere length as a reliable marker of cell age. In general, the shorter the telomere, the functionally older and more tired the cell.

It’s not surprising, then, that the young subjects’ telomeres were about the same length, whether they ran exhaustively or sat around all day. None of them had been on earth long enough for multiple cell divisions to have snipped away at their telomeres. The young never appreciate robust telomere length until they’ve lost it.

When the researchers measured telomeres in the middle-aged subjects, however, the situation was quite different. The sedentary older subjects had telomeres that were on average 40 percent shorter than in the sedentary young subjects, suggesting that the older subjects’ cells were, like them, aging. The runners, on the other hand, had remarkably youthful telomeres, a bit shorter than those in the young runners, but only by about 10 percent. In general, telomere loss was reduced by approximately 75 percent in the aging runners. Or, to put it more succinctly, exercise, Dr. Werner says, ‘‘at the molecular level has an anti-aging effect.’’

There are plenty of reasons to exercise — in this column, I’ve pointed out more than a few — but the effect that regular activity may have on cellular aging could turn out to be the most profound. ‘‘It’s pretty exciting stuff,’’ says Thomas LaRocca, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who has just completed a new study echoing Werner’s findings. In Mr. LaRocca’s work, people were tested both for their V02max — or maximum aerobic capacity, a widely accepted measure of physical fitness — and their white blood cells’ telomere length. In subjects 55 to 72, a higher V02max correlated closely with longer telomeres. The fitter a person was in middle age or onward, the younger their cells.

There are countless unanswered questions about how and why activity affects the DNA. For instance, Dr. Werner found that his older runners had more activity in their telomerase, a cellular enzyme thought to aid in lengthening and protecting telomeres. Exercise may be affecting telomerase activity and not telomeres directly. In addition, Stephen Roth has been measuring telomeres and telomerase activity in a wide variety of tissues in mice and has found, he says, the protective effects from exercise only in some tissues.

Another question is whether we must run 50 miles a week to benefit. The answer ‘‘can only be speculative at the moment,’’ Dr. Werner says, although since he jogs much less than that, he probably joins the rest of us in hoping not. Given his and his colleagues’ data, ‘‘one could speculate,’’ he concludes, ‘‘that any form of intense exercise that is regularly performed over a long period of time’’ will improve ‘‘telomere biology,’’ meaning that with enough activity, each of us could outpace the passing years.

Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times


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Another Inconvenient Truth

Back last November. … Wow, that seems like a long time ago. Health care was passing. Jay Leno was popular. Dinosaurs roamed the earth.

As I was saying, last November, the Justice Department announced that the terror trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would be held in Manhattan. Almost everyone in New York rallied around. This was seen as standing up to terrorism.

“It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center, where so many New Yorkers were murdered,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Now everything’s flipped. The politicians are running for the hills, and the issue has been repackaged as standing up to traffic jams.

“There are places that would be less expensive for the taxpayers and less disruptive,” said Bloomberg.

And the Justice Department is backing down. The trial will happen somewhere else. People in Lower Manhattan will breathe a sigh of relief.

But this feels very wrong.

The Bloomberg rebellion fits right into the sour, us-first mood that’s settled over the country. It’s part of the same impulse that caused Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska to decree that a historic overhaul of the country’s messed-up health care system was not going to happen unless his home state got a special exemption from sharing the costs.

Or the Not-in-My-Backyard uprising that followed President Obama’s attempt to move the Guantánamo prisoners into American maximum-security lockups. No matter how remote the prison, local politicians said that the danger was too great to bear. Both of Montana’s Democratic senators immediately decreed that their entire state was a no-go zone.

Or the Republican race to the other side of the room any time the Obama administration proposes anything. Rudy Giuliani, who watched “in awe of our system” when terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted in a civilian court in Virginia, instantly attacked the plans for the Manhattan trial. Giuliani kept finding everything Obama did worse and worse until he finally flipped completely over the edge and claimed that there had been no terrorist attacks in the United States during the Bush administration.

It’s all part of a cult of selfishness that decrees it’s fine to throw your body in front of any initiative, no matter how important, if resistance looks more profitable.

The economy has a lot to do with this. So does Washington’s increasing confidence that Barack Obama can be rolled. We’re currently stuck in a place where people no longer feel as though they need to be part of the solution.

Democrats are starting to join the Republicans’ call to toss out the Constitution and try suspected terrorists in military courts. Some of the same senators who gave you the endless health care bill obstructions have already signed on, saying federal trials are too expensive and too dangerous.

Safety is always a concern, but Al Qaeda doesn’t operate like a season of “24.” Terrorists don’t generally strike when it’s most symbolic or best serves a story line. They do the things that happen to work out. So Barack Obama is inaugurated and the 9/11 anniversary passes in peace and quiet. Then a guy tries to explode his underwear while heading for the Detroit airport.

New York’s sudden resistance certainly wasn’t about safety, even though Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a whiny letter to the White House saying a trial in Manhattan could “add to the threat.”

The problem was inconvenience. People were fine with having the trial here until the police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, started describing his plans for permanently cordoning off a goodly chunk of Lower Manhattan. Businesses and residents hadn’t appreciated what a huge, life-disrupting inconvenience standing up to terror could be.

And no one was applauding them for their potential sacrifice. If anything, they were regarded as saps for agreeing to go along with something that Montana found to be unacceptable risk.

This is a change. The city experienced the worst of terrorism on 9/11, but we also saw the best of the country in the weeks that followed. People rushed in from everywhere — often at great inconvenience — to help. And for months afterward, you could not travel anywhere outside the state without having other Americans come up to you and ask if there was anything they could do.

They wanted a task. A whole nation was hungering to be inconvenienced for the common good. And President Bush’s response was to give them a tax cut.

Whatever muscles we used in cooperating have atrophied. Barack Obama ran for president promising to change that, and he hasn’t. Part of the fault is his. Sometimes at crucial moments, there seems to be no hands on the tiller. The Republicans are impossible. Many Democrats are both frightened and greedy.

But figuring out how we got here is irrelevant. We need to get out.

Gail Collins, New York Times


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Lost in Translation

President Obama’s State of the Union address soared — right over a familiar cliff.

The president simply couldn’t seem to escape his professorial past, to convey his passion and convictions in the plain words of plain folks, and to breach the chasm between the People’s House and people’s houses.

He’s still stuck on studious.

He seems to believe that if he does a better job of explaining his aggressive agenda, then he’ll win hearts and minds. It’s an honorable ambition, but it’s foolhardy. People want clear goals, clearly defined and clearly (and concisely) conveyed. They’re suspicious of complexity.

H.L. Mencken once famously opined, “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” I take exception to that. But if you change “intelligence” to “attention span,” I agree wholeheartedly.

Republicans know this well. Obama knows it not.

Take the enormous health care bill for instance. The president overreached, pushing a convoluted bill with a convoluted message. The Republican response: “Just say no.” They countered with a series of crisp attacks that shrouded the bill in a fog of confusion. Now it’s in danger, and the public may well blame the Democrats. People don’t care as much about process as they do about results.

According to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 1 person in 4 knew that 60 votes are needed in the Senate to break a filibuster and only 1 in 3 knew that no Senate Republicans voted for the health care bill.

And, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released this week, while slightly more Americans blamed Republicans than Democrats for the political impasse in Washington, the percentage of people with negative feelings about the Republicans was the same as it was for the Democrats.

The message that voters take away is not nuanced: Democrats in control. Bill complicated. Republicans oppose. Politicians bicker. Progress stalls. Democrats failing.

Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true.

We subsist on Twitter twaddle — a never-ending stream of ideas and idiocy, where emotions are rendered in anagrams and thoughts are amputated at 140 characters.

The most trusted “newsman” may well be a comedian (Jon Stewart), and stars of the “most trusted news network” (Fox) may well be a comedian’s dream.

The president must communicate within the environment he inhabits, not the one he envisions. The next time he gives a speech, someone should tap him on the ankle and say, “Mr. President, we’re down here.”

Charles M. Blow, New York Times


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The Pre-Postmodernist

THE life of J. D. Salinger, which has just ended, is one of the strangest and saddest stories in recent literary history. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to let the disappointment of the second half of Mr. Salinger’s career — consisting of a long short story called “Hapworth 16, 1924” that reads as though he allowed the pain of hostile criticism to blunt the edge of self-criticism that every good writer must possess, followed by 45 years of living like a hermit in the New Hampshire woods — to overshadow the achievements of the first half.

The corpus of his good work is very small, but it is classic. His was arguably the first truly original voice in American prose fiction after the generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Of course nothing is absolutely original in literature, and Mr. Salinger had his precursors, of whom Hemingway was one, and Mark Twain — from whose Huck Finn Hemingway said that all modern American literature came — another. From them he learned what you could do with simple, colloquial language and a naïve youthful narrator. But in “The Catcher in the Rye” Mr. Salinger applied their lessons in a new way to create a new kind of hero, Holden Caulfield, whose narrative voice struck a chord with millions of readers.

The narrative is in a style the Russians call skaz, a nice word with echoes of jazz and scat in it, which uses the repetitions and redundancies of ordinary speech to produce an effect of sincerity and authenticity — and humor: “The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl … she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame’ll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them. I mean most girls are so dumb and all. After you neck them for a while you can really watch them losing their brains. You take a girl when she really gets passionate, she just hasn’t any brains. I don’t know. They tell me to stop, so I stop.”

It looks easy, but it isn’t.

Nearly everybody loves “The Catcher in the Rye,” and most readers enjoy Mr. Salinger’s first collection of short stories, “Nine Stories.” But the work that followed, the four long short stories paired together in two successive books as “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction,” were less reader-friendly and provoked more critical comment, leading eventually to the retreat of the wounded author into solitude.

This was as much the consequence of critical failure as of authorial arrogance. These books challenged conventional notions of fiction and conventional ways of reading as radically as the kind of novels that would later be called post-modernist, and a lot of critics didn’t “get it.” The saga of the Glass family is stylistically the antithesis of “Catcher” — highly literary, full of rhetorical tropes, narrative devices and asides to the reader — but there is also continuity between them. The literariness of the Glass stories is always domesticated by a colloquial informality. Most are narrated by Buddy, the writer in the family, who says at the outset of “Zooey” that “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.”

The nearest equivalent to this saga in earlier literature is perhaps the 18th-century antinovel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” by Laurence Sterne. There is the same minutely close observation of the social dynamics of family life, the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative structure, the same teasing hints that the fictional narrator is a persona for the real author, the same delicate balance of sentiment and irony, and the same humorous running commentary on the activities of writing and reading.

How Shandean, for instance, is Buddy’s presentation to the reader in “Seymour” of “this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))). I suppose, most unflorally, I truly mean them to be taken, first off, as bow-legged — buckle-legged — omens of my state of mind and body at this writing.”

Seymour Glass first appeared in one of the “Nine Stories,” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” as a disturbed veteran of World War II (as Mr. Salinger himself was), who on vacation with his rather shallow wife, after a charmingly droll conversation with a little girl on the beach, shockingly shoots himself in the last paragraph. The late stories are all in some way about the attempts of Seymour’s surviving siblings to come to terms with this action. This often takes a religious direction, and presents the Glass family as a kind of spiritual elite, struggling against a tide of materialism and philistinism with the aid of Christian existentialism, Eastern mysticism and a select pantheon of great writers.

This cultural and spiritual elitism got up the noses of many critics, but I think they overlooked the fact that Mr. Salinger was playing a kind of Shandean game with his readers. The more truth-telling and pseudo-historical the stories became in form (tending toward an apparently random, anecdotal structure, making elaborate play with letters and other documents as “evidence”), the less credible became the content (miraculous feats of learning, stigmata, prophetic glimpses, memories of previous incarnations, and so forth). But what were we asked to believe in: the reality of these things, or the possibility of them? Since it is fiction, surely the latter; to suppose it is the former is to lose half the pleasure of reading the books.

David Lodge is the author, most recently, of the novel “Deaf Sentence.”


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Battling the Information Barbarians

China often views the ideas of foreigners, from missionaries in the 17th century to 21st-century Internet entrepreneurs, as subversive imports. The tumultuous history behind the clash with Google.


A message of support for Google left outside the company’s Beijing office on Jan. 14.

In 1661, Adam Schall, a Jesuit missionary from Germany and astronomer at the Chinese imperial court, fell victim to jealous mandarins, and was sentenced to death for teaching false astronomy and a superstitious faith. He was only just saved from being strangled, when a sudden thunderstorm convinced his judges that nature had spoken against their verdict. Father Schall died soon after. But the defensiveness of the mandarins, who saw his foreign ideas as a threat to their status, would be a recurring theme in Chinese relations with the outside world.

So, is it true after all, what they say about clashing civilizations? It is tempting to see the official Chinese response to Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom in that light. Spurred by Google’s announcement that it might pull out of the Chinese market in protest over censorship, Mrs. Clinton talked about Internet freedom in terms of universal human rights. Her speech was promptly denounced in a Communist Party newspaper as “information imperialism.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu claimed that China’s regulation of the Internet (banning references to Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwanese independence and so on) was in keeping with “national conditions and cultural traditions.”

The claim of universality is indeed an important facet of American culture, rooted in the American Revolution and Protestant ethics. It is considered proper for a U.S. secretary of state to give voice to the ideal of universal human rights. Just so, a Chinese official sees it as his duty to assert the uniqueness, or even superiority, of Chinese culture. This was true of Confucian scholar-officials in the imperial past. It is still true today.

A thriving Internet cafe in China’s Anhui Province on Jan. 15.

Thought control, in terms of imposing an official orthodoxy, is a very old tradition. The official glue that has long been applied to hold Chinese society together is a kind of state dogma, loosely known as Confucianism, which is moral as well as political, stressing obedience to authority. This is what officials like to call Chinese culture.

One can take a more cynical view, of course, and see culture as a mere fig leaf meant to hide the machinations of political power. The latest Chinese salvo against the U.S., blaming the Americans for instigating rebellion in Iran through the Internet, reveals that the current spat has a hard (and opportunistic) political core. And the assumption that Google, as a Chinese editorial put it, is a “political pawn” of the U.S. government, is a clear case of projection.

In any case, instilling the belief that obedience to authority is not just a way to keep order, but an essential part of being Chinese, is highly convenient for those who wield authority, whether they be fathers of a family or rulers of the state. That is why in their efforts to promote democracy after World War I, Chinese intellectuals denounced Confucianism, with its rigid social hierarchy, as an outmoded orthodoxy which had to be eradicated.

It was, as we know, not so much eradicated as replaced by a Communist orthodoxy after 1949. And when this orthodoxy began to lose its grip on the Chinese public after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Chinese officials struggled to find a new set of beliefs to justify their monopoly on power. The ideological hybrid that followed Maoism was “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” a mixture of state capitalism with political authoritarianism. Later, Confucianism actually made a comeback of sorts. But the most common ideology since the early 1990s is a defensive nationalism, disseminated through museums, entertainment and school textbooks. All Chinese schoolchildren are indoctrinated with the idea that China was humiliated for centuries by foreign powers, and that support of the Communist state is the only way for China to regain its greatness and never be humiliated again.

This is why foreign criticism of Chinese politics, or Chinese infringements of human rights, is denounced by government officials as an attack on Chinese culture, as an attempt to “denigrate China.” And Chinese who agree with these foreign criticisms are treated not just as dissidents but as traitors. The term “information imperialism” is clearly designed to evoke memories of the Opium Wars and other historical humiliations. Chinese are meant to feel that foreigners who talk about human rights are doing so only to bash China.

This is not always entirely irrational. If Chinese chauvinism is defensive, American chauvinism can be offensive. The notion that the U.S. has the God-given right to impose its views about liberty and rights on other countries, sometimes backed by armed force, has provoked precisely the same reaction in many places as Napoleon’s wars for Liberty, Fraternity and Equality once did. No matter how fine the ideals, people resent it when they are pushed down their throats. Besides, the Chinese are not alone in mixing politics with morality. The history of Christian missions in Asia, or indeed Africa, cannot be neatly separated from imperialism; they were indeed often part of the same enterprise. Even scientific ideas, such as astronomy or medicine, which might be considered to be neutral, came with values that were anything but. The earliest missionaries in China, such as the great Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), introduced science as part of their aim to spread the Christian faith.

In fact, there is an interesting parallel between those early Christian missions and our contemporary efforts to spread universal human rights, especially in regard to China. Ricci and his colleagues, as Jesuits, believed that the best way to influence the Chinese elite was to adapt to Chinese culture, to wear Chinese clothes, to speak in Confucian terminology, to “go native,” as it were. They were criticized by other Catholic orders, who saw this as a shameless betrayal of Christian principles. Only the true faith should be preached, with no compromises to heathen views.


A very similar debate is going on today between those who believe that applying Western notions of human rights and democracy to China is counterproductive. Many a politician, businessman or media tycoon has argued that adapting to special Chinese conditions is surely more effective if one wishes to have any influence in China. The fact that this argument is usually self-serving does not make it necessarily wrong, but so far it has certainly not been proven right. Chinese human rights have not been noticeably advanced because of foreign compromises with Chinese illiberalism.

The dilemma for the Chinese elites, ever since the early Christian missions, is the question of how to adopt useful Western ideas while keeping out the subversive ones. Intelligent Chinese knew perfectly well that much of Western knowledge (how to construct effective guns, say) was not only useful but essential as a way to make China strong enough to resist foreign aggression. But the tricky part for scholar-officials was how to use that knowledge without weakening their own position as guardians of Chinese culture.

To mention just one example, greater knowledge of geography and other civilizations made it harder to maintain that China was the center of the world which should naturally be paid tribute to by barbarian states. In ancient times, foreign barbarians were ranked with the beasts. By the time Matteo Ricci, in 1602, showed the Chinese a world map (now on view at the Library of Congress), some foreigners were treated with more respect, but the old Sino-centric defensiveness had far from vanished. If the Middle Kingdom was no longer the perfect model of civilization, its traditional political arrangements became vulnerable to domestic challenge.

One way of dealing with this problem was to separate “practical knowledge” from “essential” culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western technology was fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In practice, however, this was not feasible. Political ideas came to China, along with science, economics, and Western religion. And they did help to undermine the old established order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once Mao had unified China under his totalitarian regime, he managed for several decades to insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.

Once China opened up to the world for business again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information control emerged once again. Deng and his technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern economic and technological ideas, but, like the 19th century mandarins, they wished to ban thoughts which Deng called “spiritual pollution.” The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly cultural (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), but mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Deng’s attempt, which was only partly successful, was made far more difficult by the invention of the Internet, the problems and possibilities of which were left for his successors to deal with. The Internet, which has boomed over the last few years, cannot be totally policed; there are simply too many ways to dodge the censors. But China, with its army of cyberspace policemen, has been remarkably effective at Internet control, by mixing intimidation with propaganda. The intimidation encourages self-censorship, and nationalist propaganda creates suspicion of foreign criticism. It is not hard to find well-educated Chinese who buy the line about “information imperialism.”

Google’s China headquarters.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of Chinese who have applauded Google’s defiance of the authorities. When hackers, operating from China, targeted the Gmail addresses of Chinese human rights activists, Google decided that it would no longer help to police online information. As the Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it this week at Davos, where he repeated his criticism of Chinese censorship of the Internet: “We hope that will change and we can apply some pressure to make things better for the Chinese people.” Even as government spokesmen criticized the US for interfering in Chinese affairs, hundreds of Chinese Internet users laid flowers at Google offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. This is why it is too simplistic, and even noxious, to see the conflict over Internet freedom simply as a cultural clash. Those who would like to enjoy the same freedoms that people in democracies take for granted are Chinese too.

The question, then, for Western companies, as much as for Western governments, is to decide whose side they are on: the Chinese officials who like to define their culture in a paternalistic, authoritarian way, or the large number of Chinese who have their own ideas about freedom. Google has made its choice. It strikes me as the right choice, for not only will it encourage a healthy debate on freedom of information inside China, but it could serve as a model of behavior for companies operating in authoritarian countries. Even for enterprises aimed at maximizing profits, it might sometimes pay to burnish their image by being on the side of the angels.

Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book, ‘The Taming the Gods,” will be published in March.


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Five Best Books Set in the British-colonial East

Janice Y.K. Lee on novels set in the British-colonial East

1. The Hamilton Case

By Michelle de Kretser
Little, Brown, 2003

Conflicted, painfully snobbish Sam Obeysekere would rather be “under an imperialistic yoke than put [his] trust in a fellow who went about in sandals.” Sam, an Oxford-educated Ceylonese lawyer, lives in colonial duality: a privileged member of the local aristocracy in 1930s Sri Lanka who plays cricket and attended a school “founded in 1862 by an Anglican bishop on the pattern of Eton and Rugby” and yet can be called a “nigger” on the streets outside his club. He makes a name for himself with a local murder case involving a British (read: white) tea-plantation owner. All this against a complicated, almost gothic backdrop of family dysfunction: not one but two smothered babies, glamorous mothers and sisters slowly going mad in evening gowns, the deep jungle always just outside. “The Hamilton Case” is an extraordinary, dizzyingly evocative portrait of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, where “the British had entered the country’s bloodstream like a malady which proves so resistant that the host organism adapts itself to accommodate it.”

2. China to Me

By Emily Hahn
Doubleday, Doran, 1944

The people in Emily Hahn’s frank and unapologetic memoir, “China to Me,” seem like characters in a Noël Coward play, making an entrance, uttering their bon mots, then sweeping off stage. The palmy world of 1940s prewar Shanghai and British-governed Hong Kong is rendered in swish dinner parties and horse races attended by dashing expatriates knocking back champagne. Hahn, an American writer who cared not a whit for public opinion, kept gibbons for pets and had a baby out of wedlock with a married British intelligence officer. (“I don’t know why I have always had so little conscience about married men,” she writes languidly.) Cut to the war and the horror; she describes it all with appro priate solemnity but never loses the tone of a supremely acerbic society gadabout confiding in you at a cocktail party.

3. The Necklace of Kali

By Robert Towers
Harcourt Brace, 1960

For a refreshing, refracted perspective on colonial India—that of a U.S. State Department officer in the days “when the weird old body of the British Raj was at last thrashing like some foundering dinosaur towards extinction”— read Robert Towers’s “The Necklace of Kali.” Consulate Visa Officer John Wickham is part of what is called the “Jungly Wallah” set: “a shifting population of rich Indians, Persians, Armenians, poor but ingenious White Russians . . . and assorted American and Britons,” who take their name from the club they all frequent. Wickham is a complicated, principled man, whose dealings with people from all strata of society mirror the uneasiness of a country on the cusp of a bloody independence.

4. Sea of Poppies

By Amitay Ghosh
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008

Amitay Ghosh uses a vast and vibrant canvas for “Sea of Poppies,” the first in a trilogy that is still being written. Set in the years before the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, when Britain was making a fortune from poppy crops in India, the story opens in the port city of Calcutta and brings together characters that include a low-caste giant who runs away with a widow; a mulatto sailor with “skin the color of old ivory”; and Paulette, a French orphan. These people will meet as they gradually make their way to the Ibis, a triple-masted schooner that is being prepped to take indentured workers to Mauritius, off the African coast. Ghosh revels in the joy of language—”as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you’ll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim”—but he is also a splendid storyteller. In the last pages, the Ibis is being tossed by a mighty storm, the characters growing desperate. I was desperate, too, for the next book.

5. A Many-Splendored Thing

By Han Suyin
Little, Brown, 1952

“You can’t be both east and west at the same time,” says British foreign correspondent Mark Elliott to the beautiful Eurasian doctor Han Suyin. But of course she can, in roiling, postwar colonial Hong Kong, where people “circulate among the bridge and mahjong tables.” In Han’s semiautobiographical novel “A Many-Splendored Thing,” the widowed doctor embarks on a doomed, short-lived affair with the dashing—and married—journalist. The starry-eyed quality of their infatuation leads to occasional sentimentality: “Mark and I had many friends, and one of them was the moon.” But the book is an invaluable—and startlingly modern—record of a certain time and place, thanks to Han’s razor-sharp eye for the hypocrisies of the colonial order, as when a society matron remarks that “Hong Kong would be a wonderful place if there were not so many Chinese.”

Ms. Lee’s novel, “The Piano Teacher,” was recently published in paperback.


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A Collision of Church and State

War, revolution, Dreyfus and an era of religious and political turmoil

Two monuments in Paris are so prominent that they’re hard to miss. One is the Eiffel Tower, of course, the all-iron tour de force of engineering, standing by the Seine amid the city’s spacious and supremely elegant West End. Then to the north, atop Montmartre, there is the Sacré-Cœur: a tall, immaculately white Catholic basilica that looks like a digitized pre-Raphaelite set from “Lord of the Rings.” What most visitors—and in fact most Parisians— don’t realize is that both monuments were designed and their construction begun at about the same time, in the 1870s and 1880s. Even more surprising: The tower and the church were intended as antagonistic national symbols during times of cultural, religious and political conflict that roiled France for decades.

A depiction of members of the Paris Commune in 1871 battling government troops sent to quash their insurrection.

Frederick Brown tells the story of that tumultuous era in “For the Soul of France.” From 1830, the historical moment he starts with, to 1905, his final station, France passed through no less than four different constitutions; three dynasties (the Bourbons, the Orléans and the Bonapartes); two republics; three revolutions (1830, 1848 and 1870); one coup that worked (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s in 1851) and two that were either merely attempted (in 1877) or fantasized (in 1889); two civil wars (the June crisis in 1848 and the Commune in 1871); one disastrous defeat to a nascent Germany (1870) that led to the momentary occupation of more than one-third of the country; two major financial scandals, in 1873 and 1892, that swept away most upper- and middle-class savings; and, finally, a turn-of-the-century judicial scandal (the Dreyfus Affair) that prompted a far-reaching law in 1905 mandating the separation of church and state.

Mr. Brown does not omit a single episode in this narrative, nor does he stint on the vignettes and human angles that bring the story to life. He is the author of noted biographies of Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, and “For the Soul of France” clearly benefits from his long immersion in the lives and works of these two great novelists, who flourished during the era he describes. Mr. Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. (Historian Theodore Zeldin, by contrast, allotted himself five volumes to cover the period 1848-1945 and still ended up concentrating on broad themes and dispensing altogether with chronology.)

Then again, Mr. Brown simplifies his task by operating with a single organizing principle: Most of the turmoil in France during this period stemmed from battles over the restoration of the Catholic Church as France’s main societal institution. Under the ancien régime, the country was deemed the church’s “elder daughter,” and the French king’s legitimacy was derived from being anointed at Reims Cathedral in a ceremony with biblical overtones. The Revolution in the late 18th century negated both royalty and the church. In the early 1800s, Napoleon fused the ancien régime and the Revolution, in both political and religious terms: He founded a new monarchy compatible with civic equality and representative government, and he re-established Catholicism as the national religion even as he made provisions for religious freedom.

Napoleon’s arrangement more or less held firm for several decades, although tensions mounted between the clerical and secular camps. French Catholics generally were not averse to democracy and Enlightenment ideas, so long as the church’s special status was recognized. But with the election in 1848 of Pope Pius IX, a dogmatic theocrat (he decreed papal infallibility in 1869), traditionalists in the church began agitating for a restoration of the ancien régime’s power. In reaction, secular militancy increased.

The two camps failed to reconcile when France itself was threatened by war with (Protestant) Prussia in 1870, but dire events soon followed: defeat, the partial occupation of France by the newly minted German Empire and the short-lived rule of Paris in spring 1871 by the left-wing Commune, followed by the slaughter of the communards by government troops. “Thousands had been given summary justice and brought before execution squads,” Mr. Brown writes. “Blood ran down the gutters, coloring the Seine red.”

Catholics took the disastrous events of 1870 and 1871 as an omen that France had strayed too far from its religious roots. “An observant tourist would have found ample evidence to support the view that God seemed happier in France during the early 1870s than He had been for some time,” Mr. Brown says, noting that “many young people took holy orders after the war.” Secularists insisted that France would betray the best of herself if she did not remain loyal to the Enlightenment thinkers who had fathered the Republic, but the die-hard clericals believed that France could be restored only through the divine grace that would be granted if she atoned for her sins.

For a while, it looked as if the ultra-conservatives would win by democratic means: Though they were largely royalists, they won a majority in the National Assembly, which in 1873 authorized the construction of the Sacré-Cœur shrine as a national symbol of repentance. A reactionary regime known as L’Ordre Moral (“The Moral Order”) was introduced. Then things turned sour for the clerical crowd. There were too many pretenders to the French throne, and the most legitimate of them, Count de Chambord, a Bourbon, was out of touch with the country’s mood. He proposed, for instance, to replace the national tricolor flag with the ancien régime’s white one. Perhaps not surprisingly, secular republicans came to power in two successive national elections in 1877. They soon ordered up a riposte to the Sacré-Cœur on the Parisian skyline: a tower designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel that would be a symbol of modernity and progress for the centennial of the 1789 Revolution.


Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), the French army officer whose treason conviction in 1894 stirred a national soul-searching about anti-Semitism.

With the tide of history against them, the clerically minded resorted to outlandish bids for power and influence. A misbegotten coup in 1889 ended before it began when its putative leader, the reactionary French general Georges Boulanger, fled to Belgium. In the mid-1890s, the clericals, hoping to rally the public’s support for the church, launched an anti-Semitic campaign. Mr. Brown ably describes how a genteel theological and social contempt for Judaism was transformed into an unbridled hatred for Jews.

The crusade culminated in what came to be called the Dreyfus Affair. A French military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of treason for passing secrets to Germany, though his only crime was being Jewish in late 19th-century France. The affair dragged on for years, with a retrial, in 1899, thanks largely to Zola’s support for Dreyfus— who was eventually restored as a French officer in 1906. The sorry episode certainly didn’t result in the abandonment of French anti-Semitism, but its clerical proponents—and their broader hope for the restoration of a royalist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-republican France—were discredited.

At times, it is true, one wishes that Mr. Brown had provided a wider comparative context. He might have contrasted the eruptions of reactionary French Catholicism during the 19th century with, for instance, the more progressive politics of Catholics in Belgium, Germany and Italy. And what about the faction within the French church that denounced its antiliberalism and anti-Semitism? Dissidents did exist—and were gradually to dominate French Catholicism in the 20th century. Still, “The Soul of France” offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader). After reading it, visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again.

Mr. Garfinkel, the president of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, lives in Paris.


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See also:

‘For the Soul of France’

From Chapter 1

France’s internal divisions found a new theater in which to speak when, only days after the proclamation of papal infallibility, war broke out with Germany. Since 1866 Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister, whose grand design was to forge a German Empire in the heat of war, with Wilhelm of Prussia as its sovereign, had been carefully devising a casus belli against France. History abetted him when the Spanish throne fell vacant. Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm’s relative Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern to present his candidacy, knowing full well that France could not allow itself to be pinned between two of that family. Leopold subsequently withdrew his bid at Wilhelm’s urging, but his gesture did not mollify France’s foreign minister, the Duc de Gramont, who insisted that Leopold should never again be allowed to come forward. Wilhelm refused, and the matter might have rested there had Bismarck not made the refusal sound contemptuous by mischievously editing a telegram from Wilhelm to Louis- Napoléon. Inflamed by the press, which geneally denounced Prussia’s “slap in the face,” Frenchmen mobbed the streets of Paris. On July 14, 1870, an order to mobilize was issued. Two days later, deputies voted funds for war, with only 10 of 255 in parliament dissenting. The huge crowd outside the Palais Bourbon was jubilant. One witness thought that the scene might have been not much different at the Colosseum in Rome when frenzied spectators climbed the Vestals’ tribune to demand the execution of a gladiator, little realizing that France herself was the doomed combatant.


Gramont, a militant Catholic, may have been animated by hatred of Protestant Prussia. In any case, war had no sooner erupted than it spilled into the realm of religious politics. French pontifical troops garrisoned in Rome, the last enclave of papal power, were immediately pulled from the city to join battle with Germany. As a result nothing impeded the triumphal entry of Victor Emmanuel’s army. Although Gramont declared that France could not lose its honor on the Tiber (by leaving the pope undefended) and preserve it on the Rhine, his well- turned phrase rang hollow, for it quickly became evident that Louis- Napoléon’s army was outnumbered, outgeneraled, and outgunned. On September 1, some six weeks after hostilities began, the emperor, under relentless German shell fire, hoisted a white flag over the river town of Sedan. On September 20 the pope, also under shell fire, hoisted a white flag over the Castel Sant’ Angelo. While Louis- Napoléon was abdicating in the Ardennes, Pius IX was declaring himself a prisoner in the Vatican. To French no less distressed by the fall of Rome than by the prospect of enemy troops besieging Paris, it was the consummation of the pope’s martyrdom. “Let us pray that God hasten the moment when France, delivered from the Prussians, but above all from itself, shall deliver Rome from the Italian slough and restore to degraded humankind a Godgiven benefaction it cannot forsake without perishing,” wrote Louis Veuillot. The “Government of National Defense” formed by republicans on September 4 deepened his gloom.

God was in no rush to deliver France from the foreign enemy or from the enemy within, though it seemed for a moment that Veuillot’s prayers had been answered. There would be far more killing, of French by Germans, and of French by one another.

Having quickly fought through the Vosges mountains and occupied the belt of country between Alsace- Lorraine and the Île-de-France, General Helmuth von Moltke felt certain that his men could safely camp around Paris until the besieged city surrendered to hunger. Neither he nor Bismarck anticipated one of the more valiant second efforts in the history of warfare. On October 7, 1870, Léon Gambetta, a dynamic orator serving as minister of the interior in the Government of National Defense, escaped from Paris by balloon. He joined fellow ministers at Tours, and improvised a whole new army, the Army of the Loire, which proceeded to drive German troops out of Orléans. Alarm spread all along the enemy line. The Loire valley now became a war theater, forcing France’s extramural government to relocate farther south, in Bordeaux.

But victory along the Loire was a small candle in the gathering night. For many, it flickered out on October 27 when a French army trapped inside the fortress- city of Metz surrendered, freeing large German divisions to serve elsewhere. The ill- trained French often acquitted themselves well, but theirs were campaigns of heroic futility. The siege had reduced Parisians to starvation. Krupp cannons kept lofting shells into the capital from miles away, and German forces marched inexorably down the Seine valley. On January 17, 1871, the last army corps patched together under Gambetta’s provincial administration was defeated near Belfort, between the rivers Rhine and Rhône. Over 150,000 Frenchmen had given their lives since July, in what the historian Michael Howard has called the world’s first total war. On January 28, after several weeks of secret shuttling between Paris and Versailles, where Bismarck had established German headquarters, Jules Favre, minister of foreign affairs (one of those ministers who had not escaped from Paris), negotiated an armistice. Its central provision was that France, in free elections, should form a government with which Germany could treat. By then, implacable resistance to the Germans was the position of only isolated groups: notably, working- class Parisians. Most French wanted peace. Gambetta, honoring, à contre coeur, what he acknowledged to be the general will, resigned his ministry. Up north, wagons laden with food entered Paris, which surrendered the perimeter forts.

Early in February, Paris invaded Bordeaux, or so it seemed when journalists, power brokers, actresses, and boulevardiers flocked south, some to observe the newly elected Assembly, others to convalesce. Bordeaux’s population grew hourly, and almost all the deputies arrived before the inaugural session. One who didn’t was Victor Hugo. Hailed en route from Paris by crowds shouting, “Vive Victor Hugo! Vive la République!,” Hugo met even larger crowds in Bordeaux, where, he, Gambetta, and the future prime minister Georges Clemenceau, among others, joined against conservatives eager to buy peace at any price. They were a minority within parliament, but these republican stalwarts found support outside it among Bordelais whose demonstrations became so boisterous that light infantry and horse guards were summoned to patrol the streets. The horse guards closed ranks on February 28, when Adolphe Thiers— elected chief executive ten days earlier with a mandate to negotiate a peace treaty at Versailles— set forth Bismarck’s draconian terms. By evening it was common knowledge that Germany wanted most of Alsace and part of Lorraine. Furthermore, German troops would occupy French territory until France had paid reparations in the amount of five billion francs. On March 1, after hearing eloquent protests, the legislature yielded. “Today a tragic session,” Hugo wrote in his diary. “First the Empire was executed, then, alas, France herself!”

At its penultimate meeting in Bordeaux, the Assembly, led by a conservative majority who feared Paris—where three revolutions had taken place since 1789—voted to reconvene on March 20 at the palace of Versailles.

Governing from Versailles conveyed a political message distasteful to republicans. But of greater immediate consequence was the Assembly’s decision to end two moratoria that had eased the pain of Parisians trapped and unemployed since September 1870: one suspending payment due on promissory notes, the other deferring house rent. The measures restoring their obligations promised further hardship to several hundred thousand inhabitants of an economic wasteland and alienated the capital en masse. Debt- encumbered shopkeepers, idle workers, and artisans whose tools were in hock made common cause against an enemy all the more vengeful for being French. Indeed, the German soldiers camped outside Paris became mere spectators, as hatred of the foreigner turned inward.

The legislature might not have been so obdurate had Paris not previously challenged its authority. After the elections of February 8, republicans in Paris had presumed that the Assembly’s conservative majority— provincial deputies for the most part— were determined to restore throne and altar, and their anger voiced itself through the National Guard, a democratized version of the bourgeois militia founded in 1789. It became a quasi- political organism, and on February 24 delegates from two hundred battalions ratified a proposal to replace the centralized state of France with separate autonomous entities— confederated “collectivities.”

For Thiers, reports of troops breaking ranks all over town brought back memories of February 1848. At that time he had urged Louis-Philippe to leave Paris and recapture it from without, but the king had rejected his advice. This time, God alone stood above him. As soon as he had left the city, he issued general evacuation orders. Forty thousand army regulars were thus marched out of Paris, never to serve again. Up from the provinces came fresh conscripts “uncontaminated” by the capital, and before long one hundred thousand men occupied camps around Versailles. The day of reckoning was imminent, Thiers proclaimed on March 20. Forty- eight hours later, Versailles accepted the role Germany had played several months earlier. It declared Paris under siege once again.

In the city, forsaken ministries were staffed by tyros who somehow improvised essential services. The National Guard’s Central Committee served, perforce, as an alternative government, though its avowed program was to organize elections for a Communal Council, then dissolve itself. Elections took place on March 26 and produced a council with very few moderate members, most of whom resigned straightaway.

This left the high ground to extremists, whose abhorrence of a government that had in their judgment traded honor for peace intensified their visions of a new political and social order. On March 28, in front of City Hall, Paris proclaimed itself a Commune. Newly elected councilors all wore red sashes. They stood under a canopy surmounted by a bust of the Republic, draped in red. A red flag flew overhead. Forming up to music first heard during the 1789 Revolution, National Guard battalions played the “Marseillaise” as people sang and cannon fired salvos.

Frederick Brown


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Salinger’s Long Goodbye

How do you mourn a writer who departed years ago?

Ordinarily, when a great writer dies, it is easy to know what to feel. We are grateful for everything he has given us, and we grieve that he will not be giving us anything more; in time, we start asking the questions, about the nature and quality of his books, that constitute a writer’s real afterlife and the best tribute we can pay him. That is more or less what happened when John Updike died last year, and when Saul Bellow died in 2005.

But when the news came this week of the death of J.D. Salinger, possibly the most beloved and certainly the oddest writer of that postwar generation, it was hard to know how to react. How can you grieve for a writer who has been, for all practical purposes, dead for half a century—one defined by his refusal to publish or even to appear in public? As for gratitude, no writer has earned it more or wanted it less. Since “The Catcher in the Rye” was published, in 1951, millions of teenagers have felt about Salinger the way Holden Caulfield feels about his favorite authors: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author . . . was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

No wonder that, from time to time over the past 60 years, readers took Salinger up on the implied invitation, making the pilgrimage to Cornish, N.H., to meet their imaginary best friend. To the most persistent fans, the very ostentatiousness of Salinger’s privacy—has any writer ever been so well known for refusing to be well known?—must have seemed a kind of flirtation. Surely if you ignored the famous fence and went right up to the hermit’s door, you would prove by your very persistence that you were the reader Salinger was looking for, the one genuine soul in a million “phoneys.” How great the disappointment must have been when it turned out that Salinger really meant his refusals, that he would make no exceptions—not even for Ian Hamilton, the English man of letters whose attempt to write Salinger’s biography embroiled him in a lawsuit that led all the way to the Supreme Court.

Salinger’s death is unusual in another way, too. For most writers, dying means the end of their work; for Salinger, it may well mean a new beginning. He did not publish a book after “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” in 1963, but he made very clear that he had not stopped writing. In an exceedingly rare interview, in the mid-1970s, he said: “I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” It was enough to hold out the possibility that some day—if Salinger changed his mind, or when he died—a secret hoard of stories and novels would be revealed. If that turns out to be true—if we now, finally, get to see what Salinger was working on all these years—then his death will, paradoxically, convert his long absence into a new presence.

The great question, of course, is what those books might look like. And here the evidence is not encouraging. Before he stopped publishing, Salinger seemed to be growing more and more entranced with the Glass family, the intellectually and spiritually precocious clan that populates his later work. As critics like Updike noted long ago, there is something unwholesome about the way Salinger treats the Glasses: They seem to become not a way of exploring reality, but a substitute for it.

The obsessive inventory of the family’s apartment in “Franny and Zooey”—there are page-long lists, one of which includes “three radios (a 1927 Freshman, a 1932 Stromberg-Carlson, and a 1941 R.C.A.)”—is not the kind of detail novelists use to capture social or psychological truth. It is more like the gratuitous, self-delighting detail children use when inventing fantasy worlds. The Brontës spent their childhoods making up stories about the land of Angria—but that was before inventing “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Salinger, uniquely among major writers, seemed to go in the opposite direction, from public storytelling to private, until he reached the point where it was unnecessary to admit any readers into his fictional universe.

The purpose of “Franny and Zooey,” with all its Zen exhortations, was partly to predict and justify this development. When Salinger declared that he was writing for himself, not for the world, he was echoing the words of the Bhagavad Gita that Seymour and Buddy Glass posted on their wall: “Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender.” Yet this philosophy seems incompatible with the writing of fiction, which is nothing if not an engagement with the world and the self. It seems highly unlikely that the books Salinger wrote for his own pleasure—if they exist—could be as lovable as the books he wrote for the pleasure of his readers.

And while “The Catcher in the Rye” is not a book that grows with us, no book gives as much pleasure if you read it at the right age—say, at 16, Holden’s age when he can’t stop wondering what happens to the ducks in Central Park in the winter. He hasn’t yet learned that they, like us, have to keep moving if they don’t want to end up frozen in the past.

Mr. Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet Magazine.


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Tiffany Murray’s top 10 rock’n’roll novels

From High Fidelity to Heathcliff, the novelist presents the novels that epitomise teen spirit


Audience members at a 1963 Beatles concert.

Tiffany Murray’s first novel Happy Accidents was shortlisted for the Bollinger/Wodehouse prize for comic writing. Diamond Star Halo, her second, was published earlier this month. She studied at UEA, and has taught creative writing there and elsewhere. She lives in the Welsh Marches.

“What is a ‘rock’n’roll novel’? Rock’n’roll – from Robert Johnson to Jack White – is a coming-of-age sound that allows us to find ourselves, and maybe others. Writing about it is complex, with clichés lying in wait at every turn. I love these novels because they attempt to capture threshold, anarchic times where anything might happen; that, to me is rock’n’roll. Remember Marlon Brando in The Wild One? ‘What are you rebelling against, Johnny?’ ‘What have got?’ Well, there’s a lot of that in these narratives.

“As with some of these stories, my own novel Diamond Star Halo isn’t written from the point of view of the rock star, rather from that of an observer, Halo Llewelyn. After all, rock’n’roll is a spectacle – of beauty, truth, all of that – and it’s one you want to drink in.”

1. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

Robert Johnson arrives on The Spokane Indian Reservation, “with nothing more than the suit he wore and the guitar slung over his back”. Misfit and storyteller, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, wants to set Johnson’s guitar on fire and smoke some salmon over it (on the Spokane Rez, they’re salmon people). The guitar has different ideas. This guitar talks, sings the blues, and tells Thomas, “Y’all need to play songs for your people…Y’all need the music.” And so Thomas, Victor, Junior, and Chess and Checkers Warm Water become the band Coyote Springs. I love everything Alexie does. This is a blues plunge into the magical real, and the all-too-real, of modern Native American life.

2. The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

“The Labour Party doesn’t have soul. Fianna fuckin’ Fail doesn’t have soul. The Workers’ Party ain’t got soul … The people o’ Dublin, Our people, remember, need soul. We’ve got soul.” So says Jimmy Rabbitte, with the help of Joey The Lips Fagan. Jimmy knows his music. Jimmy knows his preaching, too, and when the Commitments are formed, for one sparkling drip of time, history is made. A brilliant debut from Doyle back in 1987, (and a brilliant film from Alan Parker, too).

3. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Self-confessed “arsehole” and record-shop owner, Rob, shares his life of lists – girlfriends, break-ups, dream jobs, variously documented favourite songs – and tells us, “In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn … but nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot … That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.”

4. Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

“In endland, far from the tropics of fame,” rock star Bucky Wunderlick, holes himself up in a bleak apartment on Great Jones St, NYC, after a final tour where he can tell his star is fading because “boys and girls … were less murderous in their love of me”. Bucky’s intense, crazed narrative voice conveys both the gloriousness and the plain weirdness of fame. With an insert from Bucky’s conglomerate management, Transparanoia, entitled “Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit, ‘The Bucky Wunderlick Story’, told in news items, lyrics and dysfunctional interviews”, the myth of the dead or disappeared rock star and the hovering subjects of money, drugs, terrorist groups, and possibly Bob Dylan, all hum through a 1973 novel that is not showing its age.

5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

OK, bear with me here, but to me – or perhaps the teen-me – the ultimate rock star was Heathcliff. He’s flinty, elemental, feral, beautiful, violent, mad, gothic, and so very, very rock n’ roll. I picture Jack White, although Jack is perhaps too nice. Brontë’s narrative structure – with the two outsiders, Lockwood and Nelly, telling the story – gives it the air of an exposé: the common man and woman, watching, reporting. You could call it a 19th century Almost Famous. This is why Wuthering Heights haunts Diamond Star Halo.

6. Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

It’s 1958 in London – specifically the shabby west London “Napoli” where our narrator lives – and “youth culture” is taking its first swaggering steps. There’s sparkling modernity in the new language MacInnes indulges, too. “So I went out of the Dubious to catch the summer evening breeze. The night was glorious … The air was sweet as a cool bath, the stars were peeping noisily beyond the their neons, and the citizens of the Queendom, in their jeans and separates, were floating down the Shaftesbury avenue canals, like gondolas.”

7. Popular Music by Mikael Niemi

Swedish author Niemi proves there was rock’n’roll life in his country long before Abba. The narrator, Matti, will charm you as he dreams of becoming a rock star in Pajala, his ice-bound village, in the 1960s. The first time he hears Elvis he’s “petrified”. The first time he listens to the Beatles with friend Niila, there’s “CRASH! A thunderclap. A powder keg exploded and blew up the room……we splattered down on the floor in tiny damp heaps…Rock’n’roll music…Beatles.”

8. Owen Noone and Marauder by Douglas Cowie

An open-mic evening in a bar in Peoria, Illinois, a young boy watches Owen Noone play an impromptu rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine”. That young man soon becomes the Marauder, Owen’s musical sidekick. This is an on-the-road novel, and as we follow their story we imagine what American folk-punk might sound like (“Yankee Doodle” and “The Wild Mizzourye” are some of the tracks, pilfered from Alan Lomax’s collection of American Folk Songs). So genuinely rock’n’roll that French band Deskaya have released an eponymous song.

9. The Ossians by Doug Johnstone

Connor Alexander is lead singer of the Ossians, a Scottish band made up of his twin sister Kate, girlfriend Hannah, and best mate Danny. Connor loves gin, and more, “I’m the troubled artists, amn’t I? The old Cobain syndrome, nobody understands my torment and all that pish.” Named after a third-century Scots Gaelic poet, with a record called The St Andrew’s Day EP, the Ossians embark on a tour of the Highlands and dive into the underbelly of modern Scotland. As Connor tells a journalist, “it’s not as simple as ‘It’s shite being Scottish’… it’s both shite and great being Scottish, often simultaneously.” 

10. Groupie by Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne

My father said this was the book at the end of 60s. I see his point. It’s not exactly fiction, but what is? The groupie, Katie, a thinly veiled Fabian, was encouraged by Byrne to “write it just as you want and I’ll help you with it”. There’s plenty of sex and drugs to go with the rock’n’roll, and there’s great slang (“plating” in particular sounds very odd for what it describes). Ultimately Katie is the most interesting thing in the book. The boys, the rock stars, are rather one-dimensional, bless them. I suppose that might be the point.


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Matt Rees’s top 10 novels set in the Arab world

The Jerusalem-based crime writer picks novels that offer ‘a much more profound contact’ with this region than the news

Cairo mosque

A Cairo mosque.

Matt Rees was born in Newport, Wales in 1967, and has lived in Jerusalem since 1996. As a journalist, Rees covered the Middle East for over a decade for the Scotsman, then Newsweek and from 2000 until 2006 as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief.  His first book was a non-fiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society, Cain’s Field. He published the first novel featuring Palestinian detective Omar Yussef, The Bethlehem Murders, in 2007, which won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award. The Saladin Murders and The Samaritan’s Secret followed in 2008 and 2009. The Bethlehem Murders won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2008. The Fourth Assassin, published next month, follows Omar to visit his son in New York’s “Little Palestine” in Brooklyn.

“The Arab literary world and Western publishing don’t cross over much. The literature of the Arab world is largely unknown in the west, and even westerners who write about Arabs are sometimes seen as fringe, cult writers. That comes at a cost to the west, because literature could be such an important bridge between two cultures so much at odds. What we see of the Arab world comes from news reports of war and other madness. Literature would be a much more profound contact.
“I live in Jerusalem and write fiction about the Palestinians because it’s a better way to understand the reality of life in Palestine than journalism and non-fiction. The books in this list, in their different ways, unveil elements of life across the Arab world that you won’t see in the newspaper or on TV.” 

1. Wolf Dreams by Yasmina Khadra

A young Algerian on the make becomes disillusioned with westernised morality and joins a violent Islamist group. In turn he sees through the corruption and bloodthirstiness of the group’s actions. A tormenting portrayal of the suffocating lack of options available to poor Arabs. Khadra (the pen-name of a former Algerian military officer) lives in exile in France. 

2. Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Writers look for resonance. You might say Bowles has us with his title alone, which resonates with doom even before he writes his first sentence. It’s drawn from Macbeth. When the murderers come upon Banquo, he says that it looks like there’ll be rain. The murderer lifts his knife and says: “Let it come down.” Then he kills him. Such doom impends throughout this book, yet the main character seems barely to want to avoid it. He’s become fatalistic, as have so many of the Arabs around him in the face of political and social injustice. Bowles wrote as he travelled through North Africa. Each day, he incorporated something into his writing that had actually happened during the previous day’s journey. I often use that technique, adding details from yesterday’s stroll through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem or a refugee camp in Bethlehem.

3. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Spain 1499. A novel set in a disappeared Arab world. In the final days of the Muslim kingdom of Andalus, Ali’s characters feel overwhelmed by encroaching Christian intolerance. He seems to mark it as the moment when the flowering of medieval Islamic culture shifted onto the stultifying road that leads to bin Laden, and when the west began the imperialistic, racist expansion that would converge so devastatingly with that path in the last decade.

4. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

The first of the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s Cairo Trilogy. Set amid the political unrest against British rule at the end of the first world war, it’s a marvellous evocation of the repressive, patriarchal nature of the traditional Arab family – and the secrets family members keep in order to have their fun or defy their father’s authority.

5. Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Saudi Arabia stripped Munif of his citizenship for this critique of the social and psychological devastation wrought on Bedouin villagers by the arrival of the oil fields. With a PhD in oil economics, Munif had deep experience of the injustice that came with the new oil wealth. Anyone who’s travelled a desert road with a poor Arab will love this image: “The new trucks flew down the road like lighting, fast and huge. Akoub strained visibly to keep control of his truck in the windy wake when they passed him.”

6. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany

A scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian history by a dissident journalist. The characters, rich and poor, seem to be competing to see who can be most abusive and harsh to those around them. Aswany hits at everything from the graft at the top of the political and business worlds to the rejection of homosexuals and the sexual oppression of women. The only way to be more shocked about things in Egypt is to actually spend some time in the dilapidated Cairo neighbourhood where the book is set.

7. The Secret Life of Saeed (The Pessoptimist) by Emile Habiby

The only writer to win the highest awards for literature from both the PLO and the Israeli government. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, Habiby sat in the Knesset as a representative of the Israeli Communist Party. His greatest novel tells the story of a simple man who attempts to avoid politics, only to be sucked into terrorism and collaboration with Israel. Shows Palestinians in all their human frailty, rather than as idealised political stereotypes.

8. Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell

The most political of the novels in The Alexandria Quartet. But because it’s Durrell, it also manages to be sexual and seedy. A British diplomat tells his career story, up to the Zionist gun-running going on while he conducts an affair with an Arab woman.

9. Prairies of Fever by Ibrahim Nasrallah

A schoolteacher in a desert town is woken by the police who demand payment for having buried him. They’re unimpressed by his claim to be alive and not in need of a funeral. Nasrallah, a Jordanian Palestinian, makes existentialism deeply political and very disturbing.

10. The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem by Kanaan Makiya

Former Iraqi exile and architect Makiya writes of Muslim-Jewish relations during the first century of Islamic rule in Jerusalem, culminating with the building of the Dome of the Rock. This was recommended to me by Sari Nusseibeh, head of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, a leader of the first intifada and the man many wish could be the leader of the Palestinians.


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James McCreet’s top 10 Victorian detective stories

The debut crime novelist offers some alternatives to the fanciful solutions and foggy London of Sherlock Holmes

Victorian policeman

Tom Smith, a well known ‘Peeler’ (so called after Robert Peel, who reorganised the Police Force in 1829).

James McCreet is the author of The Incendiary’s Trail, a Victorian detective thriller influenced by the early works of Edgar Allan Poe and drawing on detailed historical research. Our review described it as “splendid… full of vividly depicted squalor and grotesquery”.

McCreet was born in Sheffield in 1971. He is currently at work on the third book in the series alongside his job as a copywriter.

“Sherlock Holmes and his predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, were always fantasy detectives. Their powers of deduction often bordered on the paranormal, and what passed for deduction was more usually just imagination. In fact, the real Victorian detectives, though more prosaic, were much more interesting. Armed with little more than their wits and a sharp eye, they were required simply to outsmart the criminals. No DNA, no databases and until the very end of the century no fingerprints – the true detectives of that period were perhaps the purest of the form, either literary or factual. Their London was one that straddled industrial modernity and Elizabethan poverty: a breeding ground for crime, and for stories.”

1. On Murder by Thomas de Quincey

The old opium eater’s series of articles about the real-life Ratcliff Highway murders pre-dated Poe and arguably have a claim to be the true origin of detective fiction. The Postscript in particular is a thrilling literary reconstruction of how the murders were committed, tracing how “the silent hieroglyphics of the case betray to us the whole process and movements of the bloody drama”.

2. The Mystery of Marie Roget by Edgar Allan Poe

This overlooked short story was the follow-up to the seminal Murders in the Rue Morgue and was based on a genuine murder. Eschewing some of the more ludicrous mental gymnastics of Rue Morgue, this one instead has the detective solving the case merely by reading newspaper accounts of it. Fanciful it may be, but the logic is powerful, the parallels with literary criticism are clear, and the true victim lurks tragically behind it all.

3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Dickens was fascinated with the idea of detection and spent much time with real detectives to produce journalism including “The Modern Science of Thief-Taking” and “A Detective Police Party”. In Bleak House, he is one of the first authors to feature such an investigator in the form of the sober and practical Inspector Bucket, very likely influenced by the real Inspector Field.

4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This deservedly popular book examines a genuine case to get under the skin of real investigative techniques and provide a useful background to the origins of police detection. The “hero” Mr Whicher was indeed an archetype of the Victorian ‘tec who applied a certain objective “x-ray” vision to the people and society around him.

5. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A competitor with Rue Morgue for the sheer preposterousness of its solution, this was another Victorian celebration of the genuine detective. The character of Detective Sergeant Cuff was allegedly based on the real-life Mr Whicher and exhibited the true traits of the historical detective: method, rationality, pragmatism and a healthy sense of distrust about what one might be told.

6. Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner by Henry Goddard

This relative rarity is hailed as one of the few authentic accounts of a real detective and as such provides fascinating insight into how these men went about their investigations without the aid of science or technology. Goddard was a detective with the Runners until they were superseded by the Metropolitan Police in 1839, but he worked privately (and lucratively) for years afterwards.

7. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

Moriarty, like all master criminals, was pure imagination. Journalist and social historian Mayhew went out in the 1850s to interview the true downtrodden denizens of the underworld: the conmen, prostitutes and chancers who stayed alive on their wits alone. My favourite – the man who sold old newspapers in sealed brown-paper wrappers under the pretence they were obscene prints.

8. Fingerprints by Douglas G Browne

Novelist Browne also produced some important history of the art, including a notable book on Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Force. His volume Fingerprints documents the development of forensic science from its earliest origins and lends a fascinating parallel to the pseudo-scientific larking of Sherlock Holmes.

9. A Dictionary of Victorian London by Lee Jackson

For all the investigative audacity in Conan Doyle’s work, London itself remains little more than a backdrop to the narrative. Dickens knew that the city was the real star, and Lee Jackson’s delicious collection of contemporary sources paints a picture of a city that often seemed too weird to be real, but always too real to be entirely fictional.

10. Victorian London by Liza Picard

Among a multiplicity of books on the period, Liza Picard’s social history has a humour and personality that really brings London to life. Her chapter on the smells of the city does more than any cinematic cliché of fog to evoke just what it must have been like to live and work there. These were the very streets upon which Victorian crime played out.


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Tim Key’s top 10 bite-size books

On the shortest day of the year, with scant shopping hours left to Christmas, the comedian recommends books that won’t detain you long

Squirrel nibbles a seed

Little nuggets … A fox squirrel in the snow nibbles on a seed.

Tim Key is a 33-year-old who works in the broad arenas of poetry, comedy, general, film and bookwriting. His first book sold out almost immediately (small print-run) and led to him becoming the resident poet on BBC4’s Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe (ever so cool). He also became resident poet on Mark Watson’s radio show (Radio 4) and had his poetry published in Vice magazine (niche) and Reader’s Digest (different niche). He then went back to the café and wrote a second, altogether less coherent book. Instructions, Guidelines, Tutelage, Suggestions, Other Suggestions and Examples etc concerns descriptions of photographs and maps, and the possibilities that may be contained in a fiddler’s noggin.
This year Key has co-penned and starred in Cowards and We Need Answers (both BBC4) and a Christmas Special of his much-loved Radio 4 comedy drama All Bar Luke. Key is a mess.

“A list of books which should be easily accessible around the house, to pick up, poke your beak into for a couple of minutes, and put down again.”

1. Incidences by Daniil Kharms

Daniil Kharms was a Russian loon who scribbled in the 1930s. His material is dark and loopy in equal measure, full of repeated actions and plenty of death. It’s troubling – there’s a strong impression the guy had a number of screws extremely loose – but it is also compelling and hilarious. The Tale of the Plummeting Women is an obvious highlight.

2. Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

Rhodes writes short stories which are 101 words long. He writes 101 of them. Every single one is beautiful, funny and impressive in equal measure. The pieces in Anthropology are all about flawed relationships; all flawed in eccentric and delicious ways.

3. 100 Facts About Pandas by David O’Doherty, Claudia O’Doherty and Mike Ahern

Everyone loves a panda fact. This cheeky little hardback exploits this; plonking 100 of them next to each other – all spurious; all beautifully illustrated; all funny. Panda Fact 24 claims that panda milk is deadly to any animal other than the panda. So it’s a useful book, too.

4. Elephant by Raymond Carver

Just short stories. But the best short stories ever written. Carver’s a master of the genre. Carver writes with incredible economy. Nothing much happens. And yet we watch the character’s lives change irreparably before our eyes. American, too, so he uses phrases like “he fed it some gas”. Nice.

5. Schott’s Miscellany by Ben Schott

Bit of an obvious one. It’s Schott’s Miscellany, innit. Everyone got one for Christmas in 2005. But it is, still, essential to have round the house. Google’s only realistic competitor these days, it’s important not to allow our attitude to Schott to be destroyed by all these other books with similar covers but about the minutiae of, say, food or Harry Potter.

6. The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

Another spot of Russian. Russian short stories are mental and Gogol wrote some real humdingers. This is the saddest and my favourite. About a titular clerk (obviously) who saves up his money to get a new overcoat and turn his life around. It goes quite well for him for a bit. But then Gogol leaves us all devastated.

7. This Book Will Change Your Life by Benrik

Clever lunatic combo Benrik stick the best bits of This Diary Will Change Your Life together to create a big thick selection of things to do. Watching Someone Sleep is one of them, as is Freelance as a Traffic Warden. So there’s an argument for enjoying the bitesize entries rather than using it as a basis for sweeping lifestyle changes.

8. Facts and Fancies by Armando Iannucci

Iannucci’s brain is clearly as big as a fridge so he is capable of making eye-popping televisual satire and feature films. But you can’t put a feature film in your bog so this book plugs a gap. Iannucci lets his hair down and has a lot of fun with the English language as he gets his head round things like queues and noise.

9. The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper

Deranged, misguided Cooper writes speculative letters to people with far less time on their hands than himself. Often they are provoked into using some of this time to reply to Cooper. Cooper then writes back himself. And so it goes on. Cooper’s an astonishing, dreadful man and his targets are imaginatively picked. Sometimes you feel for the poor man who’s wasted an hour writing back but only between volleys of cruel laughter.

10. The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

This was always on my old man’s desk. A real dip-in-and-out-of classic. Adams and Lloyd have found some funny place names. Adams and Lloyd have assigned some funny definitions. Adams and Lloyd have evidently had a lot of fun. A warm, very English book.


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David Charters’s top 10 books about bankers

From Tom Wolfe to JK Galbraith, the banker-turned-novelist gives the inside deal on the best investments you can make in financial reading

Traders in Barclays Tower, Canary Wharf

Traders in Barclays Tower, Canary Wharf.

David Charters is a former diplomat and investment banker, who left the City after 12 years of working on many large international flotations and privatisations. He has published six novels and is best known for his best-selling Dave Hart series of satires, set in the fictional world of “Grossbank”. Where Egos Dare is the fourth instalment, published on 14 September.

“What’s different about the City is the numbers. They all have a lot more zeros on the end. This means that when things go well – and sometimes when they don’t – the people who work there can demand bonuses which also have a lot of zeros on the end. And the people who determine the bonuses (the bosses) are happy to go along with it because it means that they, in turn, will have to be paid more. Granted, the work is stressful, difficult and demanding, and the hours can be very long, and of course it’s highly competitive. But so are a lot of other jobs. The difference is in those zeros. There’s also almost no job security, however big the firm.

“So with huge rewards on the one hand and sudden death on the other, it’s hardly surprising when the City brutally exposes the fault lines in human nature. Greed, fear, ruthlessness and impatience are a lethal cocktail. And of course people behaving badly make for great fiction and wonderful villains. They may not be attractive, but they are rarely dull. And, as we have all learnt to our cost, the City matters. When things go wrong in the Square Mile we all get to pick up the tab. So here are my top 10 picks to educate and entertain you about what really goes on there.”

1. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

For my money, the “Big Daddy” of financial fiction, a truly gripping tale of the slow, systematic tearing apart of the opulent facade that a New York investment banker calls his life.

2. Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

A superbly written, City perennial that shows you the inside workings of a high octane investment bank at the peak of its power, complete with rampant egos.

3. Free to Trade by Michael Ridpath

Financial fiction definitely does not need to be dull, and Ridpath is a master storyteller. Coincidentally, along the way it is surprising how much you pick up about how the City works (and sometimes doesn’t).

4. Black Cabs by John McLaren

When investment bankers travel in cabs, they assume the driver hears nothing, sees nothing, spots nothing – to their cost, in this tale of the little guys getting one over on the men in suits.

5. Freud in the City by David Freud

Bankers are human, or at least some of them can be. David Freud’s account of his City career is delightfully self-deprecating but at the same time illuminating.

6. The Great Crash, 1929, by JK Galbraith

The naked emperors waltzing down Wall Street and along Threadneedle Street might have been given shorter shrift if more of our politicians and regulators had read this book. The similarities to recent events will surprise and probably horrify you. Will we ever learn?

7. The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

A very readable account of the evolutionary history of money and financial systems, made accessible and interesting without being patronising. And yes, it really is a jungle out there.

8. Simple But Not Easy: An Autobiographical and Biased Book About Investing by Richard Oldfield

Oldfield is something of an anomaly in the City: an investment guru with a great track record, who is also a thoroughly decent bloke with his feet firmly on the ground and a lot of common sense – or at least that is how he comes across in this excellent Plain Man’s Guide to investing.

9. The Long and the Short Of It: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry by John Kay

Does what it says on the cover, rather brilliantly, and wins my award for the book I’d most like to have written myself.

10. Free Lunch: Easily Digestible Economics by David Smith

If you only ever read one book about economics – for which I could easily forgive you – make it this one. Smith for Chancellor!


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Howard Jacobson’s top 10 novels of sexual jealousy

From Sacher-Masoch to Jane Austen, the novelist selects the novels which best anatomise the ‘dark, interior stickiness’ of a passion peculiarly well-suited to literature


Ray Fearon and Zoë Waites in the 1999 RSC production of Othello.

Howard Jacobson is the author of 10 novels, including The Very Model of a Man, The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights. He has also written studies of Jewishness, Australia and comedy and is a prolific journalist and broadcaster. His most recent novel, The Act of Love, was described by Nicholas Lezard as “an almost frighteningly brilliant achievement”.

“The first story I ever wrote described a bout of jealousy I had suffered. Writing about it, first comically, and then not, was the only way I could gain any mastery of it. It was as though the shame associated with jealousy needed to be expiated in prose.

“There is a strange affiliation between literature and jealousy. Jealousy is wordy; it gorges on language. It is hyperbolic, growing fatter on every expression of itself. This is delicious for any writer who is not an understater of emotion. I love the dark, interior stickiness of the subject, where torment knows it should not be left to itself, but wants it no other way, and the victim forever haunts the border between the thing he fears and the thing he longs for. This is the subject of The Act of Love.

“Tales of innocence and wonderment leave me cold. Black obsessiveness is what the novel does best. And jealousy is its natural domain.”

1. Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

A great crazed story of desire, rage, real or imagined adultery – but why make fancy distinctions? – and murder, set to Beethoven’s nerve-strung violin sonata. If you’re going to do jealousy, this is the way to do it. In Tolstoy, the madness of jealousy goes all the way back to the madness of the sexual impulse itself.

2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Angel Clare cannot live with the knowledge that Tess has known another man. But the novel’s real engine-house is Hardy’s not being able to bear it either. Tess is not in the end sacrificed to the malevolent Gods but to the writer’s palpitating desire to see her violated by a brute. Every sensitive man’s jealous dread.

3. Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Sexual jealousy in all its minute obsessiveness, watching 10 hours for a curtain to twitch. So accurate it’s boring. Not so much a book to read, as to know of.

4. Ulysses by James Joyce

The fact that Leopold Bloom has learnt to live with, and even love, his wife’s infidelities, does not exclude this great comic novel from the jealous category. Only a deeply jealous man can make so splendidly complaisant a cuckold.

5. Roberte Ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Pierre Klossowski

Companion short novels charting the philosophic subtleties of faithless-wife worship, though wrapped around, in the French way, with theory. These novels itch with the husband’s desire to see more evidence of infidelity and suffer more jealousy than he ever quite can.

6. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Sexual jealousy is not normally what we think of as Jane Austen’s terrain. But her novels are full of jealousy’s tragic potential. If it weren’t for her intervention, her heroines would be forever losing men to more moneyed or vivacious rivals. In Persuasion she colludes with her heroine to the extent of throwing the other woman off a sea wall. Almost as murderous in its vengefulness as Tolstoy.

7. Herzog by Saul Bellow

Bellow’s heroes appear to be in charge because they are so dazzlingly smart. But they suffer tortures of jealousy at the hands of women who are bored with their dazzling smartness. Herzog more than most. If you want to write a great comedy make your hero a reflective cuckold who reads a lot.

8. The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Spooky story of a man who cannot tear himself away from the company of his wife’s former lover. Pinteresque in that you never know who’s doing what to whom and which character is causing the other the greater sexual discomfort.

9. Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch

Gleefully deranged study of a man’s desire to be his mistress’s slave, from which derives the word ‘masochism’. The tension comes from waiting for the punishment to culminate in the ultimate jealous pleasure for the sexual masochist – the woman’s infidelity.

10. Othello by Shakespeare

Only not a novel because novels weren’t a going form yet. Simultaneously ludicrous and heart-breaking, this is the most convincing of all studies of jealousy’s terrifying hold on the imagination, where trifles light as air hound the mind, and dread and desire are so closely intertwined as to deprive you of your reason.


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