Gnostical Turpitude

Gnostical Turpitude

July 29, 2004

Carmine De Sapio, R.I.P.

Today's New York Times features a nice reminder that the distant past sometimes isn't as distant as you'd think: Carmine De Sapio, the last boss of Tammany Hall, died this week at the age of 95. I expect to read about Tammany Hall in history textbooks, not in newspapers, and I wonder if this is the last time The New York Times will publish a news article on the city's fabled political machine.

The Times obituary is worth reading if you're interested in New York politics. My favorite part was this discussion of how De Sapio tried (and failed) to change Tammany Hall's reputation:

Mr. De Sapio sought to end Tammany's image of smoke-filled back rooms where major political decisions were made hidden from public view. (In fact, a chronic eye disease forced him to avoid tobacco smoke and made him so sensitive to light that he always wore dark glasses - which created the very gangsterlike stereotype he was trying to dispel.)

In another amusing passage, the article quotes former mayor Ed Koch's assessment of De Sapio: "He is a crook, but I like him." This emphasized, in my mind, just how much Tammany Hall is a thing of the past; after all, Koch himself strikes me as a figure from another era, and the article describes how he helped end De Sapio's career by twice defeating him for the leadership of the Greenwich Village party organization. History, it seems, has moved on.

July 28, 2004

Condoleezza Rice: Blindsided or Blind?

The latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a lengthy profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The article isn't the most smoothly written, but it's loaded with fun facts--Rice's mother taught baseball great Willie Mays in high school, for example, a fact that Rice used to her advantage in establishing a sense of rapport with George W. Bush. The magazine's editors sum up the article nicely in the following sentence: "Highly qualified but strangely inattentive, Condoleezza Rice has missed the signs of the Soviet collapse, the importance of terrorism before 9/11, and more."

The Bulletin's profile isn't a bad introduction to Rice's background and life story, but I was a little disappointed by it. First, I found some of the article's omissions a bit odd: the piece describes in some detail the background of Josef Korbel, Rice's college mentor, but never mentions that he was the father of Madeleine Albright. (This would have given the author a great opportunity to contrast the two women's foreign policies.) Second, and more importantly, I'd love to read a more nuanced discussion of Rice's academic work and its relationship to the policies she's helped to devise.

The Weekly Standard on "The Anti-Obama"

Though I disagree with its politics, I've always kind of liked The Weekly Standard, a ten-year-old conservative political magazine edited by William Kristol. The Standard publishes its share of mediocre articles and silly political pieces, of course, but its commentary on certain issues has been really good; the magazine has printed cultural criticism that should appeal to readers of all political stripes, and has made a serious effort to formulate a new conservative vision of foreign policy and politics.

The Standard has impressed me less since the beginning of the Bush administration, however, and this week's issue includes a sloppy article that exemplifies its fallen standards. In an article called "The Anti-Obama," Matthew Continetti paints a sympathetic portrait of Justin Warfel, an aide to former GOP Senate candidate Jack Ryan. As The New Yorker recently noted, Warfel resigned from the Ryan campaign when he became the center of a local political controversy:

Another Ryan campaign worker started making news last week. Justin Warfel, a young man with a shaved head, suddenly attached himself to Obama, and, armed with a video camera and a tape recorder, began following him everywhere around Springfield. His mission, according to the Ryan campaign, was to “make sure Obama has a consistent message,” and a campaign spokesperson called it “standard practice in national politics.” Warfel’s methods, however, were unusually aggressive. He followed Obama’s every movement, even private conversations, holding his camera, according to the Associated Press, “less than two feet from Obama’s face, barking questions.” Tom Massey, who has been the pressroom manager in the Springfield statehouse for twenty-five years, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is a new low in Illinois politics.” The Republican leader of the state senate, Frank Watson, was also critical, telling the A.P., “I don’t care if you’re in public life or who you are, you deserve your space.”

July 26, 2004

Word Wars

This weekend, Susan and I went to see Word Wars, a documentary on the competitive Scrabble circuit that just opened here in Chicago. The movie focuses on four players who hoped to win the 2002 National Scrabble Championship; like such recent documentaries as Spellbound (the story of the 1999 National Spelling Bee) and Scrabylon (another Scrabble movie), it seeks both to introduce viewers to an unfamiliar subculture and to tell the story of how a small group of competitors sought to win a high-profile competition.

I wish I could say that I was a big fan of Word Wars: the movie's subject matter is fascinating, and it's a nice companion to the 2001 Stefan Fatsis book Word Freak. At its best, Word Wars captures the thrill of high-level competition and the excitement of all sorts of high-stakes tournaments; moreover, the four players at the center of the story are all colorful, eccentric, and complicated people. Nevertheless, Word Wars was rarely more than a pleasant diversion. The movie's directors tried far too hard to be cute and clever, spent too much time emphasizing their characters' eccentricities, and ended up with a movie that was shallow and predictable as often as it was entertaining. The movie wasn't bad, but it could have been much better.

July 25, 2004

Isaiah Berlin: The Opera

First came Jerry Springer: The Opera. Now, as the Boston Globe ideas section reports, the Nine Circles Chamber Theater at Bard College is presenting an equally bizarre production: an opera, known as "Guest from the Future," that describes the famous 1945 meeting between the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the poet Anna Akhmatova. (According to the Globe, an early draft included a song on Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty.") What's next?

July 23, 2004

A link: Hawking and Information Loss

Since the news media are making such a big deal out of Hawking's recent pronouncement that he's now convinced information is not lost in black holes, let me link to the blog entry I've liked most on the topic: this one by Jacques Distler. (In short, Hawking's calculation seems to be something that is well known in string theory, done in his own [somewhat eccentric, and controversial] framework.)

And now, expect me to not be heard from for ten days or so, unless I unexpectedly have Internet access in Colorado.