Monday, November 30, 2009
Even Reagan Doesn't Measure Up
Ironies abound in the worshipful embrace of Ronald Reagan by the Republicans who have taken over the party, but none is as ginormous as their demand that GOP candidates take tests to determine whether they are pure enough, which is to say right wing enough.
The irony, of course, is that the pragmatic Reagan could never have passed such a test and would have been exiled. By one count, The Gipper would have scored satisfactorily on only six of the 10 points on one right-wing checklist.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Abe's Gone Fishin' . . .
. . . and this poor working stiff is in the last day of a mini-vacation. Our weekly Lincoln-a-rama resumes next Sunday, but if you're having withdrawal pains, here's an index of previous posts on the great man.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
On The Road Again. Again.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Pass (Or Throw) The Cranberry Sauce
Without going off the deep end, I gotta tell you that this famous Norman Rockwell painting -- like Thanksgiving itself -- leaves me feeling conflicted.
On the one hand, it brings back fond memories of when my family -- grandmothers, aunts, uncles and sundry nieces and nephews -- lived closed by and we would have big feasts like this one. In fact, the woman putting the turkey on the table looks a lot like Nana, my father's mother. (That's Rockwell himself in the lower left-hand corner.)
On the other hand, there is a bitter irony in the painting. Its title is "Freedom From Want" and is from Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms series, which also includes "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom of Every Person to Worship in His Own Way" and "Freedom From Fear."
Hallowed concepts all, but a little tattered, no?
When I was looking for an image to post, I found several with Pilgrim-Indian themes, but realized how hypocritical it would be to use any of them. The Pilgrims came to the New World to escape religious prosecution, made nice for about five minutes and then began the slaughter of Native Americans that continues today in more subtle ways.
Far be it from me to tell American visitors to Kiko's House how they should celebrate the holiday. Feel no guilt when you join millions of other people to shop at the mall this weekend or watch football. As it is, the DF&C and I try to keep it simple and view the holiday as a version of the harvest rituals practiced for millennia.
Just do me a favor: If someone tells you how proud they are to be an American this Thanksgiving, ask them if they support health-care reform. If they don't, have the cranberry sauce passed to you and throw it at them.* * * * *Am I the only one of thinks that Helen Philpot is getting a little help with her wonderful posts over at Martha and Helen? I cannot imagine being able to write so seamlessly if I make it to age 84. No matter. Here's her 2009 Thanksgiving Letter to the Family. Like last year's, it's a hoot. Or a gobble-gobble.
Beautiful Photograph du Jour
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Facebook Claims Yet Another Victim
As is the case with every other social networking trend since Sadie Hawkins Day at Camp Arrowhead when I was in my early teens, Facebook just isn't my style. I find the concept tedious, an open invitation to piss off a spouse or employer, and in the wrong hands a nifty way to violate someone's privacy and perhaps even put them or their bank account at risk.
But you have to go pretty far to beat the experience of Nathalie Blanchard, a 29-year-old Canadian woman who is in big trouble because of Facebook.
It seems that Blanchard went on leave from her job at IBM a year and a half ago after being diagnosed with "major depression." Manulife, her insurance company, had been paying out monthly sick leave checks as part of her benefits package until she posted photos to her private Facebook profile of her having fun at her own birthday party.
Manulife apparently decided that people diagnosed with depression shouldn't be having fun because it pulled Blanchard's benefits without notice.
When Blanchard protested the action, Manulife -- not her doctor -- said she appeared to be "available to work" because of the Facebook posting. In fact, Blanchard noted, her doctor had recommended that she go out and socialize, while her attorney said that he didn't think that Facebook was a very good tool for judging someone's mental state.
Then there is the issue of Manulife using social networking sites to investigate its clients, let alone snooping around in was was supposed to be a locked-down profile that only individually approved friends can access. Perhaps one of Blanchard's friends is a snitch.
The moral of this story, kiddies, is that if you want to keep your affairs from prying eyes, stay the fuck off of Facebook. And if you think Facebook is a life then you need to get one.Image courtesy of Ars Technica
Beautiful Photograph du Jour
Monday, November 23, 2009
Beautiful Photograph du Jour
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Yes, Obama Admires Lincoln, But . . .
Barack Obama has made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, invoking the great man's name and accomplishments in many a speech. Yet it is somewhat of a surprise that the Republican conservative punditocracy is using some less lofty accomplishments of the patron saint of their party to tar a president whom they believe can do not good.
Case at point is Lee Segal's 's attempted evisceration of Obama at The Daily Beast for the president's "dangerous obsession" with Lincoln's allegedly darker side as commander in chief during a war that killed 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians.
"Obama has not made up his mind on what to do in Afghanistan, so the way he talks about war and about death in war is significant. Lately, it's almost panic-inducing. After last Tuesday, it seems that Obama's well-known worship of Abraham Lincoln is starting to tip over into a fantasy of actually being Abraham Lincoln.
"At Fort Hood, not only did Obama explicitly mention Lincoln, but he repeated a line from the Gettysburg Address almost verbatim -- 'We are a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal' -- and borrowed cadences and language from that legendary brief speech. Echoing Lincoln's 'testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,' Obama referred to a 'nation' that 'endures' three times. He also repeated the Gettysburg Address's themes of sacrifice and necessary suffering.
"Why should the president drawing on a great American figure like Abraham Lincoln be a cause for concern? It should worry us because you can admire Lincoln's achievement in freeing the slaves and keeping the Union together, but also be horrified by his bloodlust in doing so, and his sense of himself as a biblical hero. You don't have to be a despicable Lincoln-hater to not want to associate yourself with the smarmy and sanctimonious Lincoln-idolators. Any contemporary president who consciously models himself on Lincoln is quite possibly going to lead us all into hell."
Now Segal is a pretty decent writer, or perhaps I should say a pretty clever writer, but even at first glance his conflation of Lincoln and the Civil War and Obama and the war in Afghanistan in a speech widely regarded as Obama's best (even by a fair number of conservative pundits) because it was so appropriate to the moment collapses under the weight of absurdity.
In fact, Segal doesn't even get a toe hold, while his characterization of Lincoln's wartime leadership is serially inaccurate.
The war was never just about freeing the slaves. It first and foremost was about keeping the Union together and it wasn't until nearly two years after Fort Sumter that Lincoln reluctantly if inevitably came to the conclusion that slavery should be abolished. Abolished not as a way to leverage an end the war, but because it was the right thing to do.
Segal is correct that Lincoln demanded that his generals be ruthless just as he could be ruthless with them, hence his famous injunction to General Ulysses S. Grant in the late summer of 1864 to "hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible."
Still it is difficult -- no, make that impossible -- to see how being any less ruthless than Roosevelt and Churchill were in their own ways would have ended the Civil War after four years let alone World War II after six. While the demand for unconditional surrender delayed the conclusion of the Civil War and the War in the Pacific, that demand was nothing less than mandatory considering the enormous toll of these conflicts and in the latter case the barbarity of the Japanese to soldiers and civilians alike.Segal supposes based on mere speechifying that Obama is similarly ruthless, although nothing in his scant nine-month record as commander in chief suggests that is the case.
While his record is skimpy it also is promising, and perhaps nowhere more so than his unwillingness to buy into the kind of strategic fallacies to which his predecessor succumbed in Iraq as he sorts out whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, Segal is convinced that Obama already has decided to send no additional troops whatsoever:
"Obama's nocturnal visit to Dover to pay his respects to fallen American soldiers, his solicitousness at Fort Hood, his visit to Arlington National Cemetery make for a replenishing contrast to his predecessor's puerile callousness toward the American military's heartwringing sacrifices. Such dramatic acts are very moving. At the same time, they could also be shrewdly staged sops to the generals before Obama disappoints them by announcing that he will send no more troops to Afghanistan."
Yes he could, but while Obama's record is mixed in several respects, solicitude is not one of them.
It is tempting to characterize Segal's twin attacks on arguably the greatest of American presidents and one who aspires to be great as mean spirited, but in the end they're just plain dumb.
Sustaining The Army & Boosting Morale
As Grant and Sherman grappled with the enemy [in June 1864], Lincoln did what he could to sustain the army and to boost civilian morale. On every possible occasion -- even on such an unlikely one as the resumption of White House concerts by the Marine Band -- he asked his listeners to give three cheers for "Grant and all the armies under his command." Again and again, he expressed gratitude to the soldiers, to the officers, and especially to "that brave and loyal man," the "modest General at the head of our armies."
After his renomination, when the Ohio delegation serenaded him with a brass band, he responded: "What we want, still more than Baltimore conventions or presidential elections, is success under Gen. Grant," and he urged his hearers to bend all their energies to support "the brave officers and soldiers in the field."
He continued to have faith in Grant, but he was conscious of the swelling chorus of criticism of the general. Many doubted Grant's strategic ability and pointed out that in shifting his base to the James River he was simply was repeating what McClellan had done -- with far fewer casualties. . . .
The outcry against Grant made the President want to see for himself what was happening with the Army of the Potomac, and on June 20, accompanied by Tad, he made an unheralded visit to Grant's headquarters at City Point. Looking, as Horace Porter, one of Grant's aides, wrote, "very much like a boss undertaker" in his black suit, the President announced as he landed,: "I just thought I would jump aboard a boat and come down and see you. I don't expect I can do any good, and in fact I'm afraid I may do harm, but I'll put myself under your orders and if you find me doing anything wrong just send me [off] right away."
For the next two days he visited with Grant, Meade, Butler, and the troops. Much of the time he rode Grant's large bay horse, Cincinnati. Though he managed the horse well, he was, as Porter remembered, "not a very dashing rider," and as his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, he gave "the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing Sunday clothes." As news of the president's arrival reached the troops, they gave cheers and enthusiastic shouts. . . .
Tired and sunburned, Lincoln returned to the White House on June 23, and Gideon Welles remarked that the trip had "done him good, physically, and strengthened him mentally." He took satisfaction in repeating what Grant had told him: "You will never hear of me farther from Richmond than now, till I have taken it . . . It may take a long summer day, but I will go in."
An Index To Abraham Lincoln Posts
THE COLLECTED WISDOM (11/15) The first entry is boyish doggerel, while the second is the last thing that Lincoln wrote. In between are 4,450 pages of virtually everything else that he wrote. LINK
THE SPYMASTER & THE REBEL RAMS (11/8) While the tide began to turn against the Confederacy after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, it was a forgotten foreign-policy coup engineered by the Lincoln administration that arguably sealed an eventual Union victory. LINK
'AND THE GREAT STAR EARLY DROPP'D' (11/1) The great poet Walt Whitman's admiration for Lincoln bordered on a fixation. LINK
THE COMPLEXITIES OF MRS. LINCOLN (10/25) History has not been particularly kind to Mary Todd Lincoln and it's not difficult to understand why. LINK
CAPITULATING ON BLACK ENLISTMENTS (10/18) Lincoln had vowed to never use African-Americans in the Union Army, but that finally changed in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation LINK
HE MADE THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME (10/11) Lincoln was a superb railroad lawyer before he became a superb president, so it should come as no surprise that the American rail network grew during his four years in office not despite the Civil War but because of it. LINK
BRILLIANT, HUMANE & RUTHLESS (10/4) More recent authors have disputed Lincoln's brilliance as commander in chief. Military affairs expert Eliot A. Cohen says that they're wrong. LINK
THE WAR WITHIN THE CIVIL WAR (9/27) Lincoln knew virtually nothing about Native American affairs, an ignorance driven by the commonly held view that the U.S. government should disenfranchise Indians of their land because they were barbarians. LINK
'HIS AMBITION WAS AN ENGINE THAT KNEW NO REST' (9/20) Historian Richard Shenkman debunks several Lincoln myths. LINK
HOLLYWOOD'S OBSESSION WITH LINCOLN'S LOVES (9/13) The great man -- and his loves -- have been played by an eclectic range of actors and actresses over the last century. LINK.
THE MONITOR-MERRIMACK SHOWDOWN (8/30) The battle between the ironclads settled nothing but did change navies forever. LINK
'STAND BY OUR DUTY' (8/23) Lincoln's Cooper Union speech was probably his finest. Yes, greater than the Gettysburg Address. LINK
WAS HE DISHONEST ABE? (8/9) Historian-economist Thomas DiLorenzo says that scholars criticize Lincoln at their own risk, but there is plenty of bad about the man along with the good. LINK
THE TRENT AFFAIR (8/2) In 1861, Lincoln had little to do with foreign affairs. This myopia was to exacerbate a crisis early in his presidency that could have transformed the war into an international conflict. LINK
COMPLEX & IMPERFECT (7/26) Historian Edna Medford argues that we do better for Lincoln and for the nation -- and for understanding of the Civil War -- if we view him in all of his complexity. LINK
THE BOOK THAT CHANGED LINCOLN & AMERICA (7/19) Uncle Tom's Cabin shook the U.S. like an earthquake when it was published in 1852. LINK
SLAVE COLONIES (7/12) Lincoln believed that he found a way to deal with the problems caused by slavery in sending blacks back to Africa to colonize Liberia, but hee was wrong. LINK
A TRUE GENIUS (6/28) Historian Shelby Foote says that there has never been a president who functioned like Lincoln did, and despite having no executive experience, he was a miracle at it. LINK
INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE (6/21) Historian Harold Holzer leads an intimate walk-through of the very different presidential mansion of Lincoln's time. LINK
EVEN LINCOLN NEEDED A GOOD EDITOR (6/14) Guest blogger Michael Reynolds imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have turned out had the president had a good editor. LINK
MOST HANDS-ON COMMANDER IN CHIEF (6/7) The outcome of the Civil War in all likelihood would have been different had Lincoln not cajoled, taken over for and in some cases dismissed the generals who lacked his vision and courage. LINK
A SKIMPIER RESUME WOULD BE HARD TO FIND (5/31) David Herbert Donald, the recently deceased Lincoln biographer, writes that an inexperienced chief executive can cause the country immense heartbreak, but that with time and good common sense can grow into greatness. LINK
NOW ALIEN TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY (5/11) Pete Abel writes in a two-part guest blog that while there are a few common traits between Lincoln and today's GOP, the differences are far more substantial. PART 1, PART 2
THE ASSASSINATION (4/22, 4/29, 5/4) It is rather amazing that so little is known about basic aspects of the assassination of John F. Kennedy while there is virtually no aspect of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a century earlier that remains a mystery. PART 1, PART 2, PART 3
THE STRANGE BUT TRUE STORY OF THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS (4/5) It took fewer than three minutes to deliver the famous speech, but it was an afterthought on the day it was given and remained so into the next century. LINK
HOW VALID THE COMPARISONS? (3/29) With the nomination and election of Barack Obama, the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln have come fast, thick and furious. But do they hold up? LINK
A PATENTLY CLEVER PRESIDENT (3/22) That Lincoln was the only president to get a U.S. patent is not surprising when you consider that he was an inveterate tinkerer and had a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. LINK
A PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR ON LINCOLN (3/15) A wide-ranging interview with James Hilty on Lincoln's greatness, frailties and innate conservatism. LINK
A BUMPY RIDE TO HIS REWARD (3/8) There was a controversy over a photograph taken of Lincoln's open coffin, an attempt to steal his corpse and his body was exhumed an extraordinary 17 times. LINK
WAS THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR GAY? (3/1) No revisionist history of a famous person would be complete without a book on whether they were gay, or if they were gay whether they were bisexual, or if they . . . LINK
PRESIDENTIAL POWER GRABS (2/22) The infringements by Lincoln on civil liberties arguably were greater than during any period in American history, including the last eight years. LINK
EARLY ASSASSINATION PLOT (2/15) A March 1861 assassination plot was never carried out, but Lincoln's response to it sullied a carefully cultivated image of dignified courage. LINK
OH HE OF LITTLE FAITH (2/8) Beyond Lincoln's opposition to slavery there was no aspect of him more controversial than his spiritual bona fides. LINK
THE BOHEMIAN BRIGADE COMES THROUGH (2/1) Modern journalism can trace its roots to the Civil War, which because of the telegraph and steam locomotive was the first instant-news war, something of which Lincoln was very much aware. LINK
LINCOLN ON BLACKS & SLAVERY (1/25) His metamorphosis from a frontiersman who always opposed slavery but like most white Americans felt that blacks were unequal into the Great Emancipator was as complex as the man himself. LINK
LINCOLN'S CAUTION (1/18) Guest blogger Robert Stein writes that Barack Obama can learn much from the 16th president, who perhaps even more than wisdom and moral strength needed a highly developed political sense of the possible. LINK
THE FIRST TECHNOLOGY PRESIDENT (1/11) Arriving in Washington at the dawn of the age of the telegraph, Lincoln embraced this new technology of instantaneous communication with a passion and used it not just to communicate with his generals in the field during the Civil War, but to bend them to his will. LINK
LINCOLN LINCOLN BO BINCOLN (1/4) A substantial Lincoln mythology had taken hold in the American imagination even before his assassination in 1865. This canon of broad brush strokes and tall tales gave Lincoln his historic due but overlooked or willfully ignored the myriad complexities of our greatest president. LINK
Saturday, November 21, 2009
The Sarahcudda: What They're Saying
This week has seen a tsunami of coverage because of Going Rogue, her new autobio, and the crush that right wingnuts have with her despite the fact that she has huge negative polling numbers (among women in particular) and would unite Democrats like no one else in the (unlikely) event that she grabs the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Herewith some of the chatter:
Michelle Cottle in The New Republic:
This is clearly a woman who has neither forgotten nor forgiven the many injuries she feels were unfairly visited on her last year by the media, the Democrats, the McCain campaign, and other "haters." It's possible she realizes that she made some significant mistakes, but that realization is clearly buried under a massive glacier of resentment and irritation at others.Allahpundit at Hot Air:
[A]s things stand, [Palin is] a threat to win the GOP nomination but an almost certain loser in the general election unless economic conditions have deteriorated to the point where any Republican would be a threat to knock off Obama. . . . . The more beatable Obama looks, the greater the temptation will be to nominate an inoffensive "electable" candidate like Romney and make the election a referendum on The One's record; the less beatable Obama looks, the greater the temptation to roll the dice and nominate a lightning rod like Palin who can draw media attention away from Obama.Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight:
Although I doubt that Palin can clear the conservative half of the GOP field, someone like a Huckabee could very well decide to go ahead and let Palin run her course, re-entering the field in a 2016 climate that is liable to be more favorable to Republicans.Damon Linker in The New Republic:
Criticism has its place, of course. And yet, on Palin I've come to favor a different approach—one that refuses to collude with the media-driven farce. To respond to an opponent, even harshly, even rudely, is to accord her a certain respect—to treat her as worthy of a response. But Palin is worthy of no such thing. She stands for nothing beyond her own self-promotion. She craves attention, and negative attention is a form of attention. Even ridicule can be a form of flattery. Better to bow out, to decline the provocation, since responding to her perpetuates and legitimates the illusion that she’s a serious player in our nation’s politics.Richard Cohen in The Washington Post:
The Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin might conclude that she represents the exact moment important Republicans gave up on democracy. She was clearly seen as an empty vessel who could be controlled by her intellectual betters. These include the editorial boards of the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, neither of which would hire Palin to make an editorial judgment but both of which would be thrilled to see her as president of the United States. It does not bother these people in the least that the woman is a demagogue -- remember "death panels"? -- and not, on the face of it, very responsible. If she quit as governor of Alaska in the noble pursuit of money, might she quit as, say, vice president or president for the same reason? From what I hear, one can never be too rich.Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune:
Who needs policy? In her world -- and the world of legions of conservatives who revere her -- the persona is the policy. Palin is beloved because she's (supposedly) just like ordinary people, which (supposedly) gives her a profound understanding of their needs.Daniel Larison at The American Conservative:
That attitude used to be associated with the left, which claimed to speak for the ordinary folks who get shafted by the system.
An American right led by or identified with Palin is one that [Democrats] can very easily ridicule and discredit, and at the same time they can be confident that a Palinized GOP poses no threat to anything they value. Palin is not going to bring the party out of the minority, and were she to lead the party it would more or less guarantee continued Democratic ascendancy for many years to come. Her content-free pseudo-populism ensures that the legitimate political concerns of her constituency remain irrelevant to real policy debates. Media outlets also thrive on controversy and conflict, both real and manufactured, and Palin continues to give them plenty of opportunities for both.Greg Sargent at Who Runs Gov:
Palin and her ghostwriters have successfully resorted to the most harsh and lurid attacks on Obama to break through into the national conversation (the death panels being only the most prominent example). But those same tactics are severely complicating her ability to broaden her appeal, to the degree that she even wants to do this in the first place.Jessica Valenti at Comment Is Free America:
When the magazine ran an extreme close-up picture of the former governor last year, conservatives criticised the publication for not airbrushing out Palin's flaws. Newsweek pointed out that Photoshopping pictures are for fashion spreads, not political cover stories, and that the picture represented the candidate as she was. And this presents the general problem with Palin today -- she's upset that people won't airbrush away who she really is, and that no one believes her when she tries to do the same.Marc Ambinder on CBS News:
The key to making a political comeback is to have somewhere to come back from -- and somewhere to return to. Sarah Palin can't make a comeback because she didn't go anywhere. Not up, not down. Not sideways. Aside from a brief and totally artificial post selection bounce last year, Palin remains a fixed political commodity.Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic:
There are times, in this business, when I am incredibly aware that I'm the black dude in the room. One of those moments is whenever I hear conservative writers announcing that Sarah Palin has been persecuted, or that one of her virtues is that she annoys liberals. You see that sort of thing and it occurs to you that Palin attachment, has little to do with Palin, and a lot to do with intellectual insecurity.And finally, Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish:
[T]he book is emblematic of late degenerate Republicanism, which is based not on actual policies, but on slogans now so exhausted by over-use they retain no real meaning: free enterprise is great, God loves us all, America is fabulous, foreigners are suspect, we need to be tough, we can't dither, we must always cut taxes, government is bad, liberals are socialists, the media hates you, etc etc. . . .
Move on and forget about her? If only. Not just because she is a vital figure in this country's politics right now and one of the most dangerous demagogues this country has seen in a long time, but because I just want to know. I want to know what really lies under that facade.
When Pigs Fly, Bill. When Pigs Fly
Bill Kristol, who gets substantially more wrong than he gets right but shamelessly plunges ahead, is predicting that Sarah Palin will campaign for John McCain next year in the already hotly contested Arizona Republican senatorial primary even though his challenger's views are more closely aligned with the Quitter From Wasilla.
Beautiful Photograph du Jour
Friday, November 20, 2009
A Dead Friend & My Five Stages of Grief
I awoke the other day to the news that a dear if distant friend had been struck and killed by a car backing up a one-way street. From the outset, I was very aware of how my grief caromed from feeling to feeling, and while the fit was not perfect, I pretty much went through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's classic Five Stages of Grief.
I am an intermittent but extremely vivid dreamer, so it took a while to work through DENIAL and realize that Dick was indeed dead, I had not dreamed that he was dead and I had in fact spoken to my sister on the phone about him being dead.
Dick had lost his beloved mate of many years to a horrible death from cancer. He had rebounded and married a wonderful widow about his age, so I was quite ANGRY that the love of his life had been taken from him and then he from his second love.
BARGAINING typically applies to someone who has been diagnosed with a fatal malady and tries to forestall the inevitable, but I did wonder whether he wouldn't have been standing standing in that street if he had been somewhere with me.
I next lapsed into DEPRESSION , was snippy with loved ones who tried to console me and had sick headache. All I wanted to do was be alone.
And then I segued into ACCEPTANCE. I still wanted to be alone, but understood that fate had dealt Dick a cruel hand and that it was better to cherish his specialness than dwell on the senselessness of his passing.
Beautiful Photograph du Jour
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Book Review: The Man Who Unlocked The Mysteries of China's Middle Kingdom
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 2008)Chinese claims that they were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar inventions -- including explosives, the catapult, printing, the compass, hydraulics, ceramics, suspension bridges, irrigation and even toilet paper -- were long viewed with skepticism by Westerners who were smugly certain that these ancient people were incapable of such advanced innovations.
That was until Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham came along.
The story of how Needham confirmed the provenance of many of these inventions is told to great effect in The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by bestselling author Simon Winchester. The story of Needham himself is almost as good.
Needham was no cloistered Cambridge don, and in fact was precisely the sort of person who could have pulled off such a stunning feat: A freethinking intellectual, folkdancer, practicing nudist, lower case "c" communist and married womanizer who fell in love with Lu Gwei-djen, a visiting Chinese student and then with China itself.
Although a biochemist by training, Needham is best known for his extraordinary Science and Civilization in China, a 24-volume encyclopedia cataloging the breathtaking range of China's achievements in science and technology.
Needham left behind the comfy confines of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1943 when he was tapped, probably on the orders of Winston Churchill himself, to establish a Sino-British cultural and scientific exchange behind the lines in Japanese-occupied China.
Balancing the interests of the Nationalist government and emerging Communist Army, he provided struggling scientists with laboratory equipment and textbooks while taking a series of lengthy trips, some of them under daunting and dangerous circumstances.
These included a months-long trek to the Dunhuang caves in Western China where he was first inspired to undertake the encyclopedia project. This is where the Diamond Sutra, a woodblock book printed six centuries before come latelies Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton cranked out their first books, was discovered in 1907 by Marc Aurel Stein, a trailblazing archaeologist deservedly vilified in China for his extraordinary plundering of the sutra and other great treasures.
Winchester writes that by the time Needham left China at the end of the war:
"[H]e had visited 296 Chinese institutes, universities, and research establishments; he had arranged for the delivery of thousands of tons of equipment and chemical and scientific journals; he would read, endlessly and voraciously, the various thousands of documents which he had collected and which he felt certain would enhance his knowledge of China; and he spent much of his final months laying the foundations for a diplomatically privileged organization to support Chinese science -- an organization that would continue to function without him long after he had left."
After a two-year stopover in Paris to help start UNESCO, Needham returned to Cambridge and began work on the encyclopedia, which was originally intended to be a mere two volumes. It had reached 18 volumes by the time of his death in 1995 and has sprouted six more volumes since, and while Lu Gwei-djen and others collaborated with Needham, he surely was the greatest one-man encyclopedist ever.
As Needham himself wrote:
"What a cave of glittering treasures was opened up! My friends among the older generation of sinologists had thought that we should find nothing -- but how wrong they were. One after another, extraordinary inventions and discoveries clearly appeared in Chinese literature, archaeological evidence or pictorial witness, often, indeed generally, long preceding the parallel, or adopted inventions and discoveries of Europe. Whether it was the array of binominal coefficients, or the standard method of interconversion of rotary and longitudinal motion, or the first of all clockwork escapements, or the ploughshare of malleable cast iron, or the beginning of geo-botany and soil science, or cutaneous-visceral reflexes, or the finding of smallpox inoculation -- wherever one looked, there was 'first' after 'first.' "
But before the first volume of the encyclopedia was published, Needham's legendary scientific detachment failed him and he temporarily fell into disgrace when as head of an international investigative commission he was hoodwinked by the Communist regime into believing that the U.S. had dropped plague-infested rodents on northeast China during the Korean War.
Needham's usual detachment likewise left him in his unquestioning support of the Communist takeover, which was cemented by a close friendship with Zhou Enlai that had been fostered during his time in China and subsequent return visits.
It was not until Needham traveled to China in 1972 and saw the horrific violence and suffering visited upon his beloved Chinese as a result of the Cultural Revolution that he finally began to have second thoughts. He would later write -- although well after Mao Zedong's death -- that the great leader's policies toward science had been "disastrous."
Winchester also writes of an oddly chilling coda to a visit Needham made to Northwestern University in 1978 where he gave a lecture on the origins and uses of gunpowder.
Among those in the audience was a wild-haired loner by the name of Ted Kaczynski, who all likelihood was inspired to fashion an explosive device made of gunpowder and match heads six weeks later that injured a Northwestern campus security guard in the first blast in the so-called Unibomber's 27-year reign of terror.
* * * * *The Man Who Loved China is not one of Winchester's best works.
I would reserve that honor for his book about two other eccentric British intellectuals, the marvelous The Professor and the Madman. But The Man Who Loved China is a solid and easy read, in the Winchester tradition is not a particularly long one, and the sections on Needham's travels through China are riveting. No surprise here since Winchester is an old China hand himself.
While Needham's greatest achievement is Science and Civilization, it is the so-called Needham Question that makes his legacy even more important 13 years after his death.
Why, Needham asked, for all of its achievements in science and technology, did China fail to industrialize when Europe did? The short answer is that the Chinese took a diffusionist approach because of the impact that Confucianism and Taoism had on the pace of discovery as opposed to the independent inventiveness of the West.
Which begs a most contemporary question: As China becomes an industrial powerhouse after centuries of stagnation, will it draw on the traditions that Needham unearthed? Or as Winchester puts it in the closing pages of The Man Who Loved China:
"How quickly and competently will the new China now manage to capitalize on its early, historical promise? Needham expressed the greatest confidence that in time it would. And he always knew that the great strength of his books lay precisely in their ability to catalog what that early promise was, and so to indicate to a fascinated world just where and how the new China and the new Chinese will now seek their best advantage."
IMAGES (From top): Joseph Needham; Diamond Sutra; Marc Aurel Stein; Trebuchet catapult to launch explosive bombs; Two-person loom; Interior diagram of astronomical clock tower; Bracket arm clusters containing cantilevers; Foundry works; Needham with Zhou Enlai; First volume of Science and Civilization.