Archive for July 28, 2009


July 28, 2009 1 comment


Yesterday I mentioned Fred Kaplan’s new book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which I started on my flight to New York last Thursday and finished yesterday. I had read a review of the book in mid-June in the Wall Street Journal and was a little curious, but what got my attention was George Packer’s post at the New Yorker two weeks ago. I decided the book would be perfect reading for my upcoming New York trip and promptly ordered it.

The idea that any single year be the year that “everything changed” seems gimmicky at best, and perhaps puerile. But on the other hand, using a given year as the means to integrate developments in art, music, politics, science, and technology can work well, and it does here. I was going to summarize some of the items that Kaplan treats in the book, but Edward Kosner has already done the work for me in his WSJ review:

It was the year, as Mr. Kaplan’s handy timeline reminds us, that Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Berry Gordy started Motown records in Detroit, Allen Ginsberg recited “Howl” at Columbia, the Pioneer spacecraft blasted off, the dirtiest version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was published, Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) made their American debuts and Ford mercy-killed the Edsel, the microchip was introduced, the first U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum opened, Martin Luther King went to India to study nonviolence, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, and Searle sought approval to sell the first birth-control pill, Enovid. In sum, a year “when the world as we now know it began to take form.”

All these events had back-stories, and part of the fun of “1959” is sparked by the cultural artifacts Mr. Kaplan unearths.

Missing is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ victory over the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, the first World Series I followed. I don’t know how it changed the world, but it was the first time a west coast team played in the World Series. Also that year the American Football League was formed, though it would begin play only in 1960. I’m sure a chapter could be written about how the US professional sports industry of the future had its roots in 1959. Evidently, despite the extraordinary range of Kaplan’s knowledge and interests, sports doesn’t make it.

Nonetheless, Kaplan tells a great story. Jazz is one of his professional interests, and his chapters on Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman are especially good. I also enjoyed learning, in the early chapter that focuses on Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, how the word ‘beatnik’ came to be. I had no idea it is one more gift Sputnik gave to US culture.

Perhaps you know the story. It starts in 1952, when Jack Kerouac told friend and writer John Clellon Holmes that whereas the generation after World War I was the Lost Generation, theirs was the beat generation. Holmes wrote an article in 1952 for the NYT Magazine with the title, “This is the Beat Generation.” Five years later, shortly after the launch of Sputnik, the SF Chronicle columnist Herbert Caen wrote about the bohemians in North Beach, saying they were as “far out” as Sputnik and calling them beatniks.

Good book.

Categories: Books, History

Linguistic Fact Checking

July 28, 2009 Leave a comment


I suppose it happens in any field, but when it comes to language, people seem happy to repeat the nuttiest myths as fact. This behavior is a recurring theme over at Language Log, where just yesterday Benjamin Zimmer posted a note on the reporting in some of “Walter Cronkite’s obituaries that ‘Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; In Holland, they are Cronkiters.’ Or by some accounts it’s the Swedes who use ‘Cronkiters.'”

As Zimmer explains — briefly at Language Log and in more detail at Word Routes — the claims about Kronkiters and Cronkiters are simply false. Zimmer does some research on the early appearances of this myth, and finds that Cronkite himself deserves some of the blame. Zimmer’s conclusion:

So how did all these smart people — journalists, academics, and Cronkite himself — get caught up in a language legend that has no clear basis in reality? Well, it’s possible that Cronkiter/Kronkiter was used by someone in Sweden or elsewhere, perhaps as a playful ad-hoc neologism, and that mistakenly got picked up by a CBS News correspondent (and then by Gary Paul Gates et al.) as if it were a universal, generic term for “anchorman.” If it really did enter circulation, the life of Cronkiter/Kronkiter must have been quite brief, since it gets nary a mention in current and historical sources from Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other nearby country.

None of this should undercut the significance of Cronkite’s career and his place in journalistic history. But shouldn’t we honor his great legacy of accurate and trustworthy reporting by checking this stuff out?

By the way, if you are under the mis-apprehension that Eskimos have twenty-three words for snow (or fifty, or a hundred), see Geoffrey Pullum’s 1991 essay on the matter, or the wikipedia entry. (Pullum’s article is based on the 1986 report of Laura Martin, to which I don’t have a direct link.) Pullum is a co-founder of Language Log. He concludes his article with a warning that applies as well to the Cronkiter myth:

For my part, I want to make one last effort to clarify that the chapter above isn’t about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I’m sure it will be taken to be. What it’s actually about is intellectual sloth. Among all the hundreds of people making published contributions to the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, no one had acquired any evidence about how long the purported list of snow terms really was, or what words were on it, or what criteria were used in deciding what to put on the list. The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.

Categories: Language

Taibbi on Health Care

July 28, 2009 Leave a comment
Max Baucus

Max Baucus

Perhaps Matt Taibbi is best taken in limited doses. He does go on too long, and at times he places style over substance. (Then again, if I wrote as well as he did, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same.) Plus, he uses words in writing that I tend to reserve for oral use. But he does have a way of getting to the heart of the matter.

In his latest blog post , Taibbi discusses why we are about to get such a crappy health care bill. (Or maybe he would use a different word in place of ‘crappy’.) I already take that for granted, so no surprises there. But what’s up with Obama and the Democrats in the Senate anyway? Why are they unwilling to do anything substantive?

Yes, I’ve read about how Obama has the long view in mind. He’s savvy. He knows what he’s doing, working his way through the political thickets or minefields that other Democratic presidents have been trapped in for decades. Well, to hell with the long view. Let’s do something now (before Joel uses up his eligibility under my health care plan — the idea that he will have to stay in school or land the right sort of job in order to get continued coverage is absurd).

So anyway, here are excerpts from Taibbi:

It’s been clear from the start that the Democrats would make a great show of doing something real, then they would fold prematurely, ram through some piece-of-shit bill with some incremental/worthless change in it, and then in the end blame everything on Max Baucus and Bill Nelson, saying, “By golly, we tried our best!”

Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with Max Baucus, Bill Nelson, or anyone else. If the Obama administration wanted to pass a real health care bill, they would do what George Bush and Tom DeLay did in the first six-odd years of this decade whenever they wanted to pass some nightmare piece of legislation (ie the Prescription Drug Bill or CAFTA): they would take the recalcitrant legislators blocking their path into a back room at the Capitol, and beat them with rubber hoses until they changed their minds.

The reason a real health-care bill is not going to get passed is simple: because nobody in Washington really wants it. There is insufficient political will to get it done. It doesn’t matter that it’s an urgent national calamity, that it is plainly obvious to anyone with an IQ over 8 that our system could not possibly be worse and needs to be fixed very soon, and that, moreover, the only people opposing a real reform bill are a pitifully small number of executives in the insurance industry who stand to lose the chance for a fifth summer house if this thing passes.

It won’t get done, because that’s not the way our government works. Our government doesn’t exist to protect voters from interests, it exists to protect interests from voters. The situation we have here is an angry and desperate population that at long last has voted in a majority that it believes should be able to pass a health care bill. It expects something to be done. The task of the lawmakers on the Hill, at least as they see things, is to create the appearance of having done something. And that’s what they’re doing. Personally, I think they’re doing a lousy job even of that. …

This whole business, it was a litmus test for whether or not we even have a functioning government. Here we had a political majority in congress and a popular president armed with oodles of political capital and backed by the overwhelming sentiment of perhaps 150 million Americans, and this government could not bring itself to offend ten thousand insurance men in order to pass a bill that addresses an urgent emergency. What’s left? Third-party politics?

Categories: Government, Politics