By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
December is when we make resolutions for the new year, but this was a month of resolutions of the old year. The capture of Saddam Hussein, found cowering in a hole in Iraq, brought some resolution to the conflict there. While we wrapped Christmas presents, we learned of other stories that were similarly being wrapped up, some in unexpected ways. A 78-year-old African American woman from Los Angeles came forward with proof that the recently deceased Senator Strom Thurmond, once an adamant segregationist, was her father. "At last I feel completely free," she said. Reports emerged of a British man who was told by Ojibway Indians in Canada that he was the descendant of their tribal chiefs. After 59 years, a Polish son of Holocaust victims was reunited with the sister he thought was dead. "When I heard her voice, I knew it was her," he said. The former owners of an Iowa Falls restaurant closed in 1981 received an envelope in the mail, signed "Former Employee," containing five $100 bills. The anonymous correspondent confessed to stealing money while working for the McCauleys, and wished to pay it back, including estimated interest. In New York City, the final design was unveiled for Freedom Tower, beginning to resolve—if not remove—the emptiness at Ground Zero. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King opened in theaters, completing one of the greatest film trilogies ever.
Carl Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today, author of the seminal The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and many other books, and believer that "reason is not an enemy but an ally of genuine faith," was one of the twentieth century's greatest Christian ethicists. He died in December at age 90 at his home in Watertown, Wisconsin. Senator and former presidential candidate Paul Simon—he of the unforgettable eyeglasses, bow tie, and integrity—died at 75. Otto Graham led the Cleveland Browns to ten straight NFL championship games. Michael Small composed numerous film and television soundtracks, including The Stepford Wives and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Jeanne Crain was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a black woman passing for white in the 1949 film Pinky. At 545 tons, Keiko starred in the three Free Willy movies before dying of pneumonia this month in Norway. He was 27.
From the New York Times:
MOSCOW — The morning starts with 100 push-ups for Constant Olivier Diboi Kath as he prepares for the most dangerous moment of his day — his subway ride to chemistry class on the other side of town. Mr. Diboi Kath, 23, is an exchange student from Cameroon, and like many other African college students in Russia he says he feels threatened by racist thugs every time he leaves his dormitory. He has been abused, beaten and even shot during his five years at People's Friendship University, where about one-third of the students come from developing countries. … Racist attacks on foreigners here—Asians, Arabs and especially blacks—have been a continuing problem whose victims have included diplomats and American Embassy Marine guards. Full story*
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles River is a river denied, dismissed, diverted. It stretches 51 miles from its official beginning behind the bleachers of Canoga Park High School in the San Fernando Valley to its mouth at the Long Beach Harbor. It is often hidden from view by barbed wire, cinder blocks, hurricane fencing and poisonous oleander bush. By unofficial count, the river is crossed by more than 100 bridges and 12 freeways. So subdued is the river that some maps do not acknowledge it. Rand McNally describes it as dry. This is untrue. About 80 million gallons a day flow along its channeled, concrete-lined banks in the dry season, fed by the sewage treatment plant near the Sepulveda Dam, a few miles from the high school, and street runoff. In the dry season, it is 18 inches at its deepest point. In places where the water is a steady trickle on bare concrete, it looks like a broken urinal. The Los Angeles River has appeared in movies as a setting for car chases. Some have suggested turning the riverbed into a freeway. Someone wanted to paint the concrete blue, to make it look more like a river. Little ever comes of such proposals. It is a glorified trench. Full story*
Note: In light of B&C's year-end book roundup, the book blog will not appear this month. Here are some of the most intriguing articles that have been linked from this blog over the past year.
- Every time I hear a politician or pundit rattle off the cliché "weapons of mass destruction," I think back to an important article last year by Gregg Easterbrook in The New Republic. Despite the rhetoric, he says, chemical and biological weapons have never caused mass destruction. Historically, terrorist use of chemical and biological agents has been an ineffective and weak alternative to bombs. It succeeds in spreading a unique brand of terror, but not in causing massive casualties. Which is not to say we should naively no longer fear such agents, or assume that they will never be massively destructive. But we should clarify this point a currently confusing debate: we are worried about the annihilative potential of nuclear weapons; chemical and biological weapons, scary as they are, are not "weapons of mass destruction." Full story (3/17)
- Why were we doomed to February's NBC two-hour investigation into Michael Jackson's plastic surgery, and other such low points of Western civilization that are clustered together each TV sweeps period? The answer lies in the 2.5 million viewing logs Nielsen distributes to sample viewers four times a year to measure ratings. The archaic system that has billion-dollar implications is not only ridiculously imprecise, as everyone agrees—it is biased toward splurges of sensationalism. It could easily be reformed, but network affiliates are in no hurry to get a system that would be more truthful about people's viewing habits. "There are three important things to know about sweeps," says James Surowiecki in the New Yorker. "The first is that they are deeply flawed, and of little use, in the end, to the networks, the advertisers, and the viewers. The second is that everyone in television knows this. The third is that no one has done anything about it." Full story (2/17)
- "Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance." So begins Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which "is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right." The completion of a six-volume collection of Huxley's essays (published by the Chicago-based Ivan R. Dee) prompts John Derbyshire to reflect on Huxley and metaphysics in The New Criterion. "Yes, certainly there is an outer reality, 'the universe,' made up of material objects whose behavior, thanks to four hundred years of diligent scientific inquiry, we can understand, or at any rate predict, in fine detail. And yes, there is an inner reality, 'the self,' comprised of mental objects about which science has much less to say, and some irreducible core of which, we are inclined to think, exists independently of the material world." Full story (2/17)
- You can't implant Western ideals of tolerance and openness in a part of the world where such ideals are alien. Or so goes one line of thinking about the current U.S. occupation of Iraq. But in an indispensable essay on the global roots of democracy, a cover story in The New Republic, former Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen exposes the fiction that democracy was hatched in Greece and raised in Western Europe. That narrative is too limited, Sen says. "Government by discussion" and "public reasoning" may have had precedence in non-Greek cultures before the heyday of Athens, and did not immediately build momentum in Europe after that. And what about 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar, who arranged dialogues in India among people of different faiths while the inquisitions were ongoing in Europe? Sen quotes Tocqueville, who arrived in America and said that the democratic ideal is "the most continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history." Full story (11/17)
- The jetliner had been parked for over a year in Luanda, the capital of Angola. Then one afternoon in late May, it suddenly started rolling down the runway and took off. The control tower was stunned and radioed the cockpit to see what was going on. They received no response. The 153-foot, 200 ton Boeing 727 has simply vanished from the face of the earth, says the Washington Post. Worst-case scenario: it's in the hands of terrorists for a suicide mission. In any event, it sure is strange. "I haven't come across this before in 22 years in the business," said one aviation security analyst. Full story (7/7)
- We watched the war in Iraq from our living rooms, while embedded reporters saw it from the front lines, but few saw it the way Richard Dillon did. As supervisor of Mortuary Affairs—which recovers and attends to the remains of dead soldiers—he may have had the "hardest job in the army," says Matt Labash in the Weekly Standard. At his station in a backstretch of the Kuwaiti International Airport, death arrives with a relentless and awful ordinariness, without the flashes and noises of TV news reports, but with a more sustained sense of dread. "It is a place. … where all the editorial-page flapjaw about 'sacrifice' becomes haltingly, disturbingly real," says Labash in one of the best-written first-person accounts of the Iraq conflict. "'I've seen the face of nearly every person that's died in this war,' Dillon says. 'It's more than just another war to me.'" Full story (5/19)
- The Yangtze River is the backbone of ancient settlements along its banks, but what happens when the backbone bends? Last month, the Chinese government commenced phase one of its monumental project to dam the Yangtze in the Three Gorges. You can see the effects in the region already, writes Peter Hessler, former English teacher in the region, in an engrossing profile in the New Yorker. By the time the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009, it will be sixty stories high and five times as wide as the Hoover Dam, cost more than twenty billion dollars, displace over one million people, and drown certain pockets of ancient architecture. Hessler captures the relationship between water, the government, and people. Full story (7/7)
- In between scratches during mosquito season, you may wonder, why do we itch? Scientists are wondering too, says the New York Times. "The itch-scratch cycle sits right at the fascinating intersection of pleasure and pain, reflex and compulsion, but it has received relatively little scientific attention." Scientists used to think that the itch was a cousin of pain and traveled the same route to the brain. Recent research now suggests the itch has its own separate pathway. But no one is sure why scratching works. Full story (7/14)
- The butler did it. That's the common joke about murder mysteries. But when has the butler actually done it? And how did this suspicion become a mystery cliché ? The Chicago Reader is on the case. You can go back to best-selling thriller writer Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Door in 1930, in which the butler is indeed the culprit, or even to a Sherlock Holmes episode by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893, in which the butler is a peripheral wrongdoer. But the Reader's Cecil Adams, as always, has done his homework: he digs up the 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" which forbids incriminating the butler; it's "too easy." In fact, other than the above examples, butler-killers are notably scarce. In part, this is snobbery: a crucial figure in a story must be someone of repute, the thinking goes. But Adams notes that Rinehart's success with The Door was a juicy target for satirists lambasting the convenience of the plot device, and they must have scared other authors off. Full story (10/13)
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.