John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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Chatty, Aren't I?

Today's roundup of pretentious yakkety-yak interesting and insightful articles which I found worth noting! I've lost track of which of my various sources these things came from today, but generally speaking they're probably Arts & Letters Daily, The Smart Set, or The Elegant Variation. There's a lot here 'cause it was a long weekend, I guess! [1]

Wall Street Journal: A Misunderstood Monument
As the years recede from its dedication in 1922, the memorial has come to stand for something its designers probably didn't foresee. It's a model of a certain way of understanding American history, a way that to some of us seems as starry-eyed and innocent as a preteen crush. You can't imagine it being built today, a half-century into our wised-up era.

When it opened there were already glimmers of this, the habitual pooh-poohing of the modern debunker. The architecture critic Lewis Mumford visited the memorial, gazed upon its classical serenity, noted its perfection of form and scale, and refused to be fooled. In truth, Mumford said, the Lincoln Memorial was a particularly clever piece of imperialist propaganda.

"One feels not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archaeology," he wrote. "Who lives in that shrine, I wonder -- Lincoln . . . or the generation that took pleasure in the mean triumph of the Spanish American [War], and placed the imperial standard in the Philippines and the Caribbean?"

The Chronicle Review: The Betrayal of Judas
When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world — with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11.

But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn't see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. Those early voices of dissent have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic's handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice. It's a perfect example, critics argue, of what can happen when commercial considerations are allowed to ride roughshod over careful research. What's more, the controversy has strained friendships in this small community of religion scholars — causing some on both sides of the argument to feel, in a word, betrayed.

The Nation: Beyond Belief
Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives' majoritarian bullying and secularists' insistence on separation of church and state as "extremes" that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal. Doing so, however, would require fundamentalists to give up the most important claim of their faith--its exclusivity--and secularists to ignore history. Significantly, Waldman pays only brief lip service to an essential development in American law, the principle of incorporation--the Fourteenth Amendment's extension of the Bill of Rights to the states. Incorporation is the tidiest rebuttal to Justice Thomas's antebellum legal dreams and Waldman's contention that the protection of minority views as an essential function of separation is a "liberal fallacy."

Incorporation, notes Nussbaum, is "settled law." What's still in dispute is the meaning of freedom, the value of equality, the ends that can be justified in attempting to achieve both and just what separation is good for, anyway. In other words, it's all up for grabs. Waldman's centrism may appear to support a mildly liberal resolution; his book is, in the end, a defense of separation of church and state, very narrowly defined. But by slighting the enduring strength of religious conservatism, suggesting that the right's partisans and the left's separationists are evenly matched and assuming that his relatively liberal views are the happy mean, Waldman undermines the case for real religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Founding Faith is one of those books that find friends and enemies on both the left and the right and thus declare themselves balanced, as if freedom and equality were sandwich meats to be weighed on a scale.

American Scientist: A 20th-Century Faust
"Von Braun has often been depicted as a saint or a devil, as a hero of spaceflight or as a Nazi war criminal," observes Neufeld. "It is comforting to pigeonhole him as either white or black," he goes on to explain, "because then one does not have to deal with his ambiguity and complexity, or the ambiguity and complexity of the moral and political choices offered to scientists and engineers in the modern era." Neufeld's thorough, nuanced, insightful account does this challenging subject justice.

Von Braun, who grew up during the vibrant and unstable Weimar Republic, was a brilliant if inconsistent student from a noble and politically influential family. He was one of the youngest members of a group of amateur rocket enthusiasts who dreamed of someday reaching space. Toward the end of the Weimar Republic, the German military also became interested in rockets and therefore in von Braun, eventually giving him the opportunity to build large rockets. Their interest, and later that of the National Socialist state, was of course in rockets as weapons, not as vehicles for space exploration. In 1937, the German army and air force opened Peenemünde, a large center for research and development on the north coast of Germany, and von Braun moved his rocket group there. The Peenemünde project, one of the first examples of "Big Science," was a well-funded, high-tech, interdisciplinary effort to develop rockets and other advanced weapons.

These rockets took on greater significance when the war began to turn sour for Germany in the winter of 1941-1942. By 1943, Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels and others were calling for qualitatively superior "wonder weapons" that would overcome Germany's quantitative inferiority. This set the stage for von Braun's first real triumph: the successful launch on October 3, 1942, of the A-4 rocket, which reached altitudes of about 100 kilometers. (The A-4 was later referred to as the V-2, or Vengeance Weapon 2, when it was used to bomb London.) A Thriller in Ten Chapters
Heaven or hell? It's too soon to say. This is a story whose outcome remains mysterious. There's no doubt that this transitional decade from the 20th to the 21st century has been decisive, but no one knows when or how it will end. One thing is certain: the appetite for print is growing. In 1996, there were between 60,000 and 100,000 new titles in the UK each year. By 2007, it was pushing 200,000. That's the biggest annual output of any country in the Western world, turning over some £4bn a year.

All this has been fuelled by an explosive mixture of global commerce and technology. In simple terms, you could say that Amazon plus Microsoft equals a new literary stratosphere. Two things complicate this equation. First, despite the steady evolution from typesetting to digitisation, the printed book has held out against electronic options. It is as if, after lift-off, the Apollo mission turned out to be not a space capsule but a Spitfire.

Second, it remains the paradox of the world wide web and the global economy that, while this has been the decade in which millions have found a voice through the internet, only a minority has discovered an audience. Self-expression has been democratised, but books and writers still face that age-old struggle to achieve a readership. How they do that remains a mystery, but in the alchemy of literary success, 'word of mouth' remains essential.

-The Gneech

[1] I'm just teasing myself about the whole yakkety-yak thing. I'm such a kidder!
Tags: deep thoughts, reading, writing
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