URLs du Jour

2020-06-24

  • Matthew Fraser writes at Quillete about Marie Antoinette: Figure of Myth, Magnet for Lies. The way things are going, it might be utterly relevant to America's future.

    “Let them eat cake.”

    It’s one of the most famous remarks in history—an instantly recognizable catchphrase to convey haughty indifference to the misfortune of others. And we all know who said it and why: It was Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), the queen whose life was claimed by the French Revolution, dismissing news that the peasants were starving due to the high price of bread.

    In the original French, the Queen allegedly said, Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!, which doesn’t quite translate to “let them eat cake.” Brioche is sweet, eggy bread that tastes only vaguely like cake. The translated English word “cake” made Marie Antoinette seem even haughtier than in French. But it’s beside the point, since Marie Antoinette never uttered “let them eat cake” in any language. There is no historical evidence that she ever uttered that phrase. The story is pure invention. It’s a historical legend that rivals the myth of Nero “fiddling” while Rome burned. And yet this outlandish fabrication has shaped our image of Marie Antoinette for more than two centuries.

    [Amazon Link]

    Mr. Fraser does a good job, both of tracing this slander to its origins and outlining Marie's fate. It's an excerpt from his recent book, Amazon link at right, which I've put on my get-at-library list.

    Our Eye Candy du Jour is not Marie herself, but just something that pops up when you search for "Marie Antoinette" on Getty Images. It's "fashion pose of a woman in a marie antoniette look". Good enough for me.


  • Our own "let them eat cake" incidents are flying thick and fast, the most recent being the noose that NASCAR said was hanging in the stall being used by black driver Bubba Wallace. The upshot (we'll go with Power Line for the link): No Noose

    And let me add to that: "… is Good Noose."

    When a major crime is committed like a rope found lying around in a garage stall, the FBI is on it in a matter of hours. The FBI has now completed its investigation. It turns out that the “noose” was a garage door pull rope that had been in the stall since at least last year, long before it was occupied by the team to which Bubba Wallace belongs.

    Unfortunately, Bubba wants to retain his victimhood, don't confuse him with the facts.

    And it doesn't matter if Marie never said "Let them eat cake". It's something she might have said. Or she might have been thinking about saying it. Or she might have retweeted something from someone who said it a decade earlier. Perhaps in blackface.


  • And decades of racial progress have brought us to the point where news like this fails to shock: Oregon County Issues Coronavirus Mask Mandate, But Only For White People

    Lincoln County, Oregon health officials issued a mandatory mask directive last week that exempts non-white people from wearing face coverings in an effort to avoid racial profiling.

    Lincoln County (I looked it up) is (surprisingly) a Covid-19 hotspot with 584 cases per 100K population, the second-highest rate in Oregon. Given that people of non-pallor are supposed to be most at-risk, this seems puzzling.

    But trying to make sense of our panicky times is a fool's errand. I'll try to avoid doing that.


  • At Reason, Jacob Sullum looks at Breonna Taylor and the Moral Bankruptcy of Drug Prohibition

    Last Friday, three months after Louisville, Kentucky, police officers gunned down a 26-year-old EMT and aspiring nurse named Breonna Taylor during a fruitless drug raid, acting Police Chief Robert Schroeder initiated the termination of Detective Brett Hankison, who he said had "displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life" when he "wantonly and blindly fired 10 rounds" into Taylor's apartment. But Hankison's recklessness is just one element of the circumstances that led to Taylor's senseless death, which never would have happened if politicians did not insist on using violence to enforce their pharmacological prejudices.

    The March 13 shooting, which has figured prominently in recent protests against police brutality, followed a sadly familiar pattern. Hankison and two other plainclothes officers broke into Taylor's home around 12:40 a.m., awakening her and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who mistook the armed invaders for robbers.

    Breonna was black, the cops were white. That shouldn't matter.


  • And good news from WalletHub, which has provided us with 2020’s Most Patriotic States in America.

    In order to determine where Americans have the most red, white and blue pride, WalletHub compared the states across 13 key indicators of patriotism. Our data set ranges from the state’s military enlistees and veterans to the share of adults who voted in the 2016 presidential election to AmeriCorps volunteers per capita.

    You'll never guess which state wound up in first place!

    OK, so maybe you will.

    Yes, it's New Hampshire. You can't argue with science, friends. Followed by Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska?

    Which reminds me of a joke: "If Mrs. Sippi and Miss Ouri each wore a brand New Jersey, then what did Della wear? Idaho, Alaska." Haw!

    Least patriotic, from the bottom up: New Jersey, New York, California, and … Texas?! Texas, what the hell?

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

[Amazon Link]

I put this on my get-at-library list after hearing Russ Roberts interview the author, Joe Posnanski, on the Econtalk podcast last year. Russ's opening comments called the book "very strange and delightful", and I concur. And I'm not much of a magic fan.

(Although I did watch that Tony Curtis movie when I was a young 'un. Posnanski debunks that pretty thoroughly.)

Although Posnanski did tons of research, lots of interviews, it's not really a scholarly tome, or a biography. It's a very personal exploration of the Houdini phenomenon, and why, of all magicians past and present, Houdini still grips our imagination today. We do get most of the details of his life along the way, roughly in chronological order. But (for example), Posnanski finds Houdini's late-career interest in debunking spiritualism boring, and zips over it in a single chapter. A "real" biographer wouldn't do that, but that's OK.

An interesting and recurring theme is the tension between other magicians and Houdini, which continues today. Strictly as traditional magic goes, Houdini was not that great. Plenty of others, then and since, out-illusioned and out-tricked him. But his fame relied on his specialty: escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, sealed cans and boxes. That seemed to catch the public's imagination and catapulted him to his fame.

We also get a picture of Houdini's milieu, the popular entertainment of his era. I made Mrs. Salad laugh by reading some of the acts Houdini performed with. Texas Ben, the phenomical cowboy pianist who never took a lesson but can play any classical piece after hearing it only once. Leah the Whittler. John Rauth, the man with the longest head. Thardo, defier of snakes.

It was an interesting time. And Houdini was an interesting guy. But Posnanski is also very good at exploring Houdini fandom. Probably the most famous one is David Copperfield, who is probably the closest to Houdini in terms of fame; Posnanski hangs out with him quite a bit, and that's interesting too. (Over the years, Copperfield has bought and squirreled away a lot of Houdini paraphernalia, and he takes Posnanski on a tour.)

And there's a lot of interesting stuff that has nothing to do with Houdini. The actor Patrick Culliton is an obsessive Houdini fan, but he told Posnanski a pretty funny story about Robert Preston's reaction on hearing about the death of Yul Brynner. No spoilers here!

Hangover Square

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

It's billed as a film noir, and it has a lot of the trappings: black and white, tricky lighting, a black-hearted dame bringing misery to our protagonist.

Although the protagonist is pretty miserable all by himself. He's George Harvey Bone, played by a slimmed-down Laird Cregar, a composer of music. He's supposed to be working on a concerto, serious stuff. But he makes the mistake of getting tied up with the devious Netta, a sleazy nightclub singer. George writes her a song, and she immediately figures out that if she can get him to write more songs, she'll be able to sing her way to fame and fortune.

But here's the funny thing: George also has this funny mental problem: when he hears loud discordant noises, he goes a little crazy. No, make that a lot crazy, as in homicidal maniac-crazy. Eventually he snaps out of it, but y'know, not until after he's done some pretty bad shit.

For some reason, as near as I can tell, this malady is not cataloged in DSM–5.

Anyway, things lumber along to a grandiose noirish finish. The acting is over the top, especially when George gets all bug-eyed as he slips into one of his murderous states.

Trivia: did I mention Laird Cregar's loss of weight? This was his last movie. He died in his early thirties, and most people seem to blame his untimely death on his absurdly unhealthy efforts to slim down. He apparently wanted to avoid being typecast as an obese villain. I.e., a heavy. Too bad.

All the Light We Cannot See

[Amazon Link]

This went on my get-at-library list quite a while ago, based on a recommendation of which I have only a dim recollection. Someone at National Review, maybe? I can't find it now.

It also won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Does that mean it's insufferably arty and politically correct? A book where nothing much happens, but there are a bunch of insufferable self-obsessed angsty characters?

No, it's pretty good, honest. A page-turner, actually.

Set around the horrors of World War II, there are two protagonists: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who's been evacuated from Paris to the "safety" of Saint-Malo. And German orphan Werner Pfennig, whose talent for fixing radios brings him to the attention of the Wehrmacht. These two crazy kids are set on a collision course: Marie-Laure's relatives become associated with the Resistance, and an old radio is used to broadcast information about Nazi activities to the Allies. And Werner finds himself on a small team of soldiers using sophisticated (for the time) triangulation methods to track down and (violently) silence such clandestine broadcasts. Uh oh.

And there's a lot of other stuff going on. Marie-Laure's father is a museum worker, skilled at woodworking, and he builds scale models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods to help her visualize her environment. But he's also entrusted to keep an incredibly valuable diamond out of Nazi hands. That makes him (and his family) also a target of von Rumpel, a German agent tasked with looting the riches of occupied Europe.

Anthony Doerr's writing is pretty good, going right up to, but never crossing over into that too-arty territory. I believe (but I may have gotten this wrong) the title refers to the minor miracle that our perception of the light-filled world is entirely within the brain, which is locked inside the total and eternal darkness of the skull. Funny that.

Trivia: page 83, Werner performs one of his genius acts, bringing a Philco owned by an upper-level Nazi back to life. The lady of the house exclaims: "He fixed it just by thinking!"

Wait a damn minute. That's a Richard Feynman story! From America, no Nazis involved.

I was about to accuse Anthony Doerr of ripping off this story, but as it turns out, Doerr gracefully acknowledges the Feynman source in the end matter. Good for him.

American Assassin

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

We were in the mood for a movie! And we had three Netflix DVDs sitting right there!

And I couldn't get the disc tray on my cheapo Panasonic player to open. Argh.

The next day I detached the player from the TV, brought it downstairs, took the cover off, and… I don't know why, but it worked fine once I took the cover off. And it continued to work after I put the cover back on.

I'm thinking of making a YouTube video with this helpful DIY advice. "Just take the cover off." There, saved you a trip to the Best Buy Geek Squad.

Anyway. I searched around for a streamable movie from Netflix. And this one popped up. It's not that good, although Michael Keaton's in it, and he's good in everything.

The main protagonist is Mitch Rapp, played by Dylan O'Brien. As the movie opens, he's proposing to his sweetie Charlotte, who has approximately two minutes and forty-three seconds left to live, Because, darn the luck, this proposal happens at an Ibiza beach resort targeted by terrorists for mass murder.

Mitch swears revenge, and devotes himself to tracking down the bad guys and wiping them out. And in the process he makes himself enough of a bother to the CIA for them to offer him a job: doing that sort of thing full-time, under the command of very tough boss Stan Hurley (there's Michael Keaton!). And then they're off on a desperate mission to thwart "Ghost", who has an obsession of his own: swipe some weapons-grade plutonium from Russia in league with some Iranian hardliners, assemble a bomb, and use it… for what exactly?

Special effects, baby.

Anyway, there's a lot of violence along the way. ("Rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, language and [all too] brief nudity.")