Chernow Channels McCloskey’s Index Card Advice

In her wonderful paper on how to research well and write clearly, Deirdre McCloskey suggests that we always carry with us a pack of 4 by 6 cards, so that we have them handy when we are hit by an epiphany or hear a relevant quote. (The suggestion probably also appears in the later book versions of her wonderful paper, but I do not have a copy handy to check.)

(p. C11) Mr. Chernow usually spends about twice as much time researching a book as writing it. He types up his research on a computer, so that he has it backed up, and then prints out the individual entries on paper with perforated edges that he can tear into 4-by-6-inch cards. (He was inspired to use index cards by Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his novels on them.) He then files the cards chronologically and indexes them. His research on Grant fills some 25,000 cards packed into 22 boxes, all stacked up in the office of his Brooklyn brownstone under a big abstract painting.

For the full interview, see:

Alexandra Wolfe. “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Ron Chernow.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 [sic]): C11.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Sept. 15, 2017 [sic], and has the title “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Ron Chernow’s New Chapter: Ulysses S. Grant.”)

The main Chernow book discussed in the interview is:

Chernow, Ron. Grant. New York: The Penguin Press, 2017.

McCloskey’s wonderful paper, mentioned above, is:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

Common Ritualistic Human Sacrifice Detract from the Myth of the Past as Golden Age

(p. D2) One thing that’s definitely gotten better over time: not as much ritualistic human sacrifice.

. . .

The authors list some run-of-the-mill techniques for human sacrifice, but others they mention are more, let’s say, specific: being crushed under a newly built canoe, or being rolled off the roof of a house and then decapitated.

For the full story see:

Tatiana Schlossberg. “Hierarchies: A Grisly Social Order.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 5, 2016 [sic]): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 4, 2016 [sic], and has the title “Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice.” Where the versions differ, in the passages quoted above I follow the more detailed account in the online version.)

The article quoted above references the following academic article:

Watts, Joseph, Oliver Sheehan, Quentin D. Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, and Russell D. Gray. “Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies.” Nature 532, no. 7598 (April 4, 2016): 228-31.

Mao’s Red Guard “Just Wanted to Beat Us to Death”

(p. C7) The Cultural Revolution is the monster that lurks behind the Communist Party’s claims of harmonious, orderly leadership in China. Under Mao’s direction, fanatical youth turned on their teachers, their parents, all figures of authority. This was an era of torture and violence, committed in many cases by mere children. Nobody was safe—perpetrators became victims, and victims took revenge. As many as two million died, and tens of millions had their lives destroyed.

. . .

In “Red Memory” the author explores how people in 21st-century China continue to process a collective trauma that the government would prefer to erase, even as the Party itself cannot put Mao behind it. The book unfolds as a series of portraits of people and settings tied to the events from half a century ago.

. . .

A music composer who was savagely tortured tells Ms. Branigan that he used to think there was some catharsis at work behind the violence, a correction of some kind to help bind people together. But there was not. “I wasn’t helping them at all,” he said of his tormentors. “They just wanted to beat us to death.”

. . .

The reporting in this book was gathered between 2008 and 2015, when Ms. Branigan was a Guardian correspondent in China. Poignantly, she observes that she could not have conducted such interviews today. In the past several years, even greater pressure has come down on those who wish to remember a past the Party wants to forget. People who spoke freely with her 10 years ago might not risk doing so today. The internet sites of commemoration have been shut down.

For the full review, see:

Stephen R. Platt. “The Chairman’s Children.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 13, 2023): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 12, 2023, and has the title “‘Red Memory’ Review: China’s Cultural Revolution Still Echoes.”)

The book under review is:

Branigan, Tania. Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

Before Europeans Arrived, “Conflict Was Endemic” Among Native American Indians

The left’s narrative of peaceful Native American Indians brutalized by colonizing Europeans, is rhetorically used to undermine the legitimacy of property rights that are a foundation of a system of innovative dynamism. The history is messy, but before and after the arrival of Europeans, Indians were frequent violent aggressors.

(p. C8) . . . Wayne E. Lee’s “The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800,” [is] an ambitious and thoughtful reassessment of Native American war-making before and after permanent European settlement in the early 17th century.

. . .

Rather than simply harassing enemies, Native American fighters sought to isolate and destroy them. It was a technique that could be scaled up as opportunity allowed, ranging from the elimination of an unwary scouting party to the surprise of an unsuspecting town.

. . .

The notorious fate of the Mystic Pequots provides an example of Mr. Lee’s approach. Witnessing the conflagration, the New Englanders’ Narragansett allies were appalled by the indiscriminate slaughter, and reproached them for waging, as they put it, a war that was “too furious.” But as Mr. Lee points out, this reaction was not primarily an expression of “culture shock” at the use of “fire and mass killing.” Rather, the Narragansetts were aggrieved because such ruthlessness denied them their anticipated harvest of prisoners.

“Paradoxically,” Mr. Lee notes, Native American attitudes toward captives demonstrated “both the most and least restraint in the overall violence of their warfare.” Prisoners were living proof of victory. Taking scalps—a pre-Columbian practice encouraged by colonial bounties and often cited by Europeans to epitomize Native American “barbarity”—was a poor substitute. Adult males, especially, became the objects of communal vengeance, tortured to death in prolonged rituals that channeled a community’s frenzied grief. Luckier captives were adopted to replace the casualties. Others, as recent research indicates, were effectively enslaved.

. . .

. . ., precontact conflict was endemic, driven by blood feud in a grim cycle of retribution that was hard to break “in a society ill-suited to top-down coercion,” and further motivated by the pursuit of respect, resources and dominion.

For the full review, see:

Stephen Brumwell. “The Native American Way of War.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023): C8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated October 4, 2023, and has the title “‘The Cutting-Off Way’ Review: Native Americans at War.”)

The book under review is:

Lee, Wayne E. The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500–1800. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2023.

9,000 Years Ago 10,000 Humans Lived in the City of Catalhoyuk

The Catalhoyuk section of Four Cities appears germane to the question: how long have humans more or less like us existed on earth? Apparently at least 9,000 years. But only in the last few hundred years have some humans flourished. The bigger question is: what novel economic system has allowed the the flourishers to leapfrog previous humans?

(p. 16) Nine thousand years ago, the people of Catalhoyuk, maybe 10,000 of them, lived in cuboid clay houses packed against one another above the Konya Plain of south-central Turkey. Their dwellings were uniform, suggesting a highly regulated society: one or two rooms, painted in white or with red ocher designs. You exited not via a front door but by climbing a ladder to the roof. Much of life was lived up there: cooking, socializing, ambling along sidewalks that ran across the top of the city.

Let me say that again in case you missed it: This was 9,000 years ago. In terms of human society, that is just an imponderable span of time. The oldest of the books of the Hebrew Bible date to roughly 3,000 years ago; the pyramids of Egypt go back about 5,000 years. These were not prehumans or near relatives. They were like us: complex, organized, alive to meaning and living at a time beyond reckoning.

. . .

At Catalhoyuk, Newitz hangs out with Ruth Tringham of the University of California, Berkeley, who has devoted years to humanizing the remnants of this city of the dim past by focusing on one skeleton, of a woman she has dubbed Dido. Dido replastered her walls regularly, kept her home swept clean, covered the floor in reed mats and decorated the place with art: clay figures of animals and stylized human females. In other words: much like us.

Catalhoyuk was founded by pioneers of urban living. “When the earliest construction began,” Newitz writes, “many people coming to live at Catalhoyuk were only a generation or two removed from nomadism.” It was brand-new, this fixed settlement thing, but it proved remarkably successful. By the time Dido was born, the city was about 600 years old. I’m tempted to repeat a number yet again. Think of the settled, structured history Dido could look back on. As evidence of her awareness of the past, Dido, like everyone else in town, buried her ancestors in her home, beneath her bed. Some were given a special honor: Their skulls sat in niches in the walls. Dido could enjoy the comfort of her forebears’ empty eye sockets following her as she went about her daily chores. In other words: not so much like us.

. . .

Perhaps looking back 9,000 years can yield practical guidance on how to move forward from where we are. For me, the effect of reading “Four Lost Cities” was more meditative. This is a long, long, long ride we are on. Much is beyond our control. Humanity trundles on.

For the full review, see:

Russell Shorto. “In Ruins.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 14, 2021 [sic]): 14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 25, 2021 [sic], and has the title “Searching for Our Urban Future in the Ruins of the Past.”)

The book under review is:

Newitz, Annalee. Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

“We Rarely Get the Disaster We Expect”

I disagree with the reviewer quoted below on much that is in his review. I have chosen to quote passages that emphasize what I think is interesting and promising in the book.

If Ferguson is right that “we rarely get the disaster we expect,” then we might be better off growing our general capabilities, rather than invest huge taxpayer funds in preparing for the wrong specific disaster. The best way to grow our general capabilities is to defend an economic system of innovative dynamism.

(p. 16) Niall Ferguson is, in many ways, a historian of the old school. He was trained in the history of business and finance, but over the past two decades his interests have broadened.

. . .

Ferguson’s latest book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” . . . [seems] to wave away concerns about climate change . . . in favor of extended speculation about “Black Swan” and “Dragon King” events that defy efforts at prediction? His bewildering answer is that “we rarely get the disaster we expect, but some other threat most of us are currently ignoring.”

. . .

“Doom” is often insightful, productively provocative and downright brilliant.

For the full review, see:

Damon Linker. “Catastrophe Is Coming.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 16, 2021 [sic]): 16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 4, 2021 [sic], and has the title “Niall Ferguson Examines Disasters of the Past and Disasters Still to Come.”)

The book under review is:

Ferguson, Niall. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. New York: Penguin Press, 2021.

Palestinian Group Defaces Portrait of Balfour, Who Tried to Save Jewish Lives

Pro-Palestinian slashes portrait of Arthur James Balfour at University of Cambridge. Source: NYT article quoted and cited below.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 advocated the establishment of a Jewish homeland (Dershowitz 2003, p. 35). “In 1937, 1947, and 2000-2001,” Jewish leaders accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Palestinian leaders “each time . . . rejected the offer and responded with increased terrorism” (Dershowitz 2003, p. 159). If Israel had existed by the 1930s, “hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million or more” European Jews could have immigrated to it before the Holocaust, saving their lives (Dershowitz 2003, p. 52). Arthur James Balfour’s portrait should be honored, not “slashed and spray-painted” (article quoted below).

(p. A6) A pro-Palestinian group slashed and spray-painted a century-old portrait of Arthur James Balfour at the University of Cambridge on Friday [March 8, 2024], defacing a painting of the British official whose pledge of support in 1917 for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” helped pave the way to Israel’s founding three decades later.

For the full story, see:

Marc Tracy. “Balfour Portrait at University of Cambridge Is Defaced.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 9, 2024): A6.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2024, and has the title “Activists Deface Portrait of Balfour, Who Supported Jewish Homeland.”)

Dershowitz’s heavily referenced book, cited above, is:

Dershowitz, Alan. The Case for Israel. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

King George III and George Washington Both Admired Cato, Defender of the Roman Republic

(p. C7) George III (1738-1820) enjoyed one of the longest reigns in British history, but he is known mostly for his turbulent early years as king and the loss of Britain’s American colonies. Thomas Paine called him “a wicked tyrannical brute”; Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, said his character was “marked by every act which may define a tyrant.” As if such charges weren’t enough, George III suffered in his later years from bouts of mental illness that eventually curtailed his reign.

In “The Last King of America,” Andrew Roberts sets out to reclaim George III by drawing a portrait of the man in full and recalibrating modern judgments, not least the judgments of Americans who may share Jefferson’s view. Far from a tyrant, Mr. Roberts argues, George III dutifully supported Britain’s parliamentary constitution of limited monarchy.

. . .

. . . in 1751, . . . the shy, introverted teenager next in line to the throne aimed to be a patriot king.

What did that mean? One gauge, Mr. Roberts observes, is a prologue (written by his father) that George declaimed as a 10-year-old at a performance of “Cato,” a play by Joseph Addison dramatizing the life of the Roman republican. The prologue expressed a pride in England and a love of liberty. (Ironically, “Cato,” performed at Valley Forge, was George Washington’s favorite play.) And indeed, George III later upheld the parliamentary supremacy established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. No monarch, he believed, could rule justly without the consent of his realm.

Had British statesmen possessed the diplomatic acumen of Franklin and Washington, Mr. Roberts argues, a way through the impasse in North America might have been found. Many colonists had hoped that George III would take their side against Parliament. The king himself spoke of “fighting the battle of the legislature.” Instead, the British establishment—the king included—determined to crush what they viewed as a conspiracy of the colonial elite.

For the full review, see:

William Anthony Hay. “The Method & the Madness.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 [sic]): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Oct. 29, 2021 [sic], and has the title “‘The Last King of America’ Review: The Method and the Madness.”)

The book under review above is:

Roberts, Andrew. The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. London: Viking, 2021.

A Miraculous Machine in the Middle-Ages That Did Nothing to Improve the Lives of the Masses

Before the industrial revolution clever inventors sometimes devised elaborate and amazing machines. The Antikythera mechanism is a famous example. Though these machines amaze us, they usually did little to improve the lives of those who lived at the time of invention. Why? Maybe the answer is that just before the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs were encouraged and enabled (through property rights and patents) to apply amazing inventions to the betterment of the people.

(p. C9) What kind of a book do we have in “Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend”?

. . .

The authors call the book a “clockwork”; its many disparate parts are joined in scrupulous devotion to a 16th-century automaton—an object, they write, which is at once “a sculpture, a machine, an icon, and a messenger.”

The figure is of a Franciscan friar, about 16 inches tall, carved out of wood, cloaked in a modern replica of the garb he once wore. His 5-pound weight is due to an intricate iron mechanism that fits inside his wooden body; it is wound with a key.

. . .

Imagine, Ms. King and Mr. Todd suggest, what it would have been like to see this automaton at the time of its creation. He is placed upon a candlelit table. His feet take steps under his tunic—but he actually glides on three wheels, making his movement seem ethereal. He is deliberately slow. This is not a mechanism meant to thrill us with speed and virtuosity. His movements are graceful, solemn.

As he moves, the friar raises and lowers a cross in his left hand and strikes his chest with his right, as if declaring “mea culpa.” He also lifts the cross to his lips and fixes his gaze steadily, perhaps at an observer at the opposite end of the table. He looks down at the cross, up at the observer, and begins to turn: “You let out half a breath,” the authors tell us, “but as his full body pivots on the table, feet in motion, head forward, his eyes slide left in their sockets to stay fixed on you!” Then he changes direction, staring at what might be another observer. There is no doubt about his seriousness; the impact on believers, in the half-light, would have been considerable.

. . .

In seeking to learn more about the friar’s provenance, Ms. King contacted Servus Gieben, a Dutch-born Franciscan who served as the director of the Franciscan Museum in Rome. In his correspondence with Ms. King, Gieben, who died in 2014, reaffirmed his theory that it may have been commissioned by Philip for his son Carlos. In 1562, at the age of 17, Carlos fell down a flight of stairs and so gravely injured his skull that he was not expected to survive (either the injury or the era’s “treatments”).

. . . The corpse of a Franciscan friar, Diego de Alcalá (ca. 1400-63), had remained free of decay after his death that it was thought to have healing powers. And behold: Once it was laid upon the dying prince, Carlos soon began to recover. Philip II spent 26 years petitioning four consecutive popes to recognize the miracle and declare Diego a saint. (He ultimately was, as the city of San Diego now affirms.)

Gieben suggested that the facial resemblance between the automaton and Diego was evident. And what better way, he thought, for Philip to honor Diego than by providing his often wayward son with an admonitory reminder in the form of the penitential friar himself, created by the most brilliant clockmaker in the empire. As Don Carlos was brought back to life, so an inanimate automaton would turn animate.

Even today, the authors suggest, the friar remains “a small miracle. Or the image of a small miracle. Or the metaphor of a large miracle. Or an artificial miracle.”

For the full review see:

Edward Rothstein. “A Wonder of Another Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 23, 2023): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 22, 2023, and has the title “‘Miracles and Machines’ Review: Mystery of the Clockwork Man.”)

The book under review is:

King, Elizabeth, and W. David Todd. Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2023.

Indigenous North-American Indians Were Not Peaceful

Critics of America, suggest that the founding occurred by stealing land from peaceful Indians. But as suggested in the book reviewed below, pre-European Indians fought wars against each other. To the extent that Indians chose, or were allowed to choose, to live under non-violent European rule-of-law, they could flourish.

(p. 17) In THE CUTTING-OFF WAY: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800 (University of North Carolina Press, 287 pp., paperback, $29.95), Wayne E. Lee argues that the fluid, Native American style of war was quite alien to the European soldiers who encountered it. Tribes like the Tuscarora and the Cherokee avoided battles and conventional sieges, instead carrying out what Lee calls “conquest by harassment” — dispersed campaigns of ambushes and raids, which could be sustained for years.

. . .

The aims of their wars were also different, argues Lee, a professor of early modern military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We tend to think of wars as being fought to conquer people, control them and occupy their land. But Native Americans often waged war not to settle territory but to clear it. Specifically, they aimed to push other tribes out of choice hunting grounds and hold exclusive access to them.

For the full review see:

Thomas E. Ricks. “War Stories / Military History.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024): 17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. [sic] 4, 2023, and has the title “How Different Peoples Around the World Fought and Built Empires.”)

The book under review is:

Lee, Wayne E. The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500–1800. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2023.

Nazis Allowed Charitable Feeding of Enslaved Camp Inmates, to Increase Their Productivity

(p. A13) The remarkable story of Janina Mehlberg almost didn’t see the light of day. A Holocaust survivor and a mathematics professor in Chicago, Mehlberg stood out for making her way in an academic field dominated by men. But while teaching her students and giving conference papers, she was privately writing an account of her life’s most remarkable episode: her daring impersonation of a Polish aristocrat in World War II, a deception that allowed her to aid Poles who had been imprisoned by the Nazis.

. . .

The Majdanek camp held Polish prisoners forced into slave labor, Russian prisoners of war, and Jews who would be murdered either by being shot at close range or poisoned by gas.  . . .  As “the Countess,” Mehlberg served as the head of the Polish Main Welfare Council, visiting the camp regularly. The haughty, demanding countess negotiated ways to bring soup, bread, medicine—and hope—to a great many Polish prisoners. Betraying little emotion, this hidden Jew became a sort of patron saint by appearing again and again to witness their suffering and alleviate it as best she could. “Janina’s story is unique,” the authors assert. “She was a Jew who rescued non-Jews in the midst of the largest murder operation of the Holocaust.”

“The Counterfeit Countess,” too, is unsentimental. The writing is matter of fact; the authors include data about the numbers of meals served, the details of negotiations with Nazi officers, the changes in camp conditions as the war unfolded. Mehlberg recognized that the Germans were making trade-offs within their sick paradigm of racial superiority. Would it be more efficient to murder Poles or starve them while they worked? She persuaded Nazi higher-ups to let her organization provide thousands of tons of food to prisoners so that they could do the work that would feed the Nazi war machine. German commanders decided it served their interests to allow “the Countess” to continue providing food and medicine to enslaved workers.

For the full review see:

Michael S. Roth. “BOOKSHELF; Fake Title, Real Courage.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Jan. 25, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date January 24, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Counterfeit Countess’ Review: Fake Title, Real Courage.”)

The book under review is:

White, Elizabeth B., and Joanna Sliwa. The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2024.