May 29, 2007, 11:22 am
Personal Best from the Fray. The online magazine Slate has a reader comments section
called "The Fray".
I've been a sometime participant in the Fray, and though most of the
things I have written there have long disappeared, a few remain today on
Slate's web site, and six of those carry the coveted check mark that means
"Fray Editor's Pick".
The comments function is about to be completely rebuilt, and I'm
guessing that the old comments will disappear. I'm copying a few of
them here, so I can find them later.
1. Nixon and McGovern. I wrote this in response to a Slate
piece about Nixon the
Subject: Nixon and McGovern
Date: Oct 2 2003 7:47AM
Greenberg is persuasive as to the history, but he writes about the
American electorate as if it were essentially unchanged from 50 years
Back in 1972, conservative pundits pointed to what they saw as the key
difference between Nixonites and McGovernites: the Nixon voters were
productive, that is, they made tangible, real-world stuff. Farmers,
factory workers, tradesmen, and so forth were portrayed as morally
superior to effete McGovern supporters whose occupations were caricatured
as sitting around thinking and dreaming, or writing and talking.
Leaving the moral dimension out of it, they were on to something: today
we recognize it as the schism between the Old Economy and the New Economy.
In retrospect, McGovern's campaign was part of an epochal shift of highly
educated professionals from being the most Republican occupational
category to the most Democratic.
At the same time, the professional category has quadrupled its share of
the vote, from 5% to 21%. As Judis and Teixera documented in The
Emerging Democratic Majority, most of the economic and population
growth in the U.S. is concentrated in New Economy metropolitan areas
(which tend to prefer more liberal candidates), while the old farming and
manufacturing regions are in relative decline.As usual, the political conventional wisdom is late catching up to
changed conditions. It stands to reason that a growing population segment
will grow in political influence.
2. Two Columbus Circle. During the controversy over whether to
preserve 2 Columbus Circle, Timothy Noah (Chatterbox) challenged its chief defender to
call it beautiful. I wrote as follows:
Subject: 2 Columbus Circle
Date: Oct 17 2003 8:51AM
I'm not a fan of Tom Wolfe, but he is absolutely right about
architecture. And surely 2 Columbus Circle is historically
Chatterbox asks if it is beautiful. But architectural beauty has to be
judged in context. Among 1964-vintage architect-designed major buildings,
2CC may be the most beautiful on earth, though admittedly that isn't
saying much. (Okay, Saarinen's fascinating TWA terminal, also hated by the
Modernists, might be close enough to 1964 to outrank 2CC.)
In the 1960s, the International Style was the ideology of destruction
and forgetfulness. Just as Gropius discarded Harvard's architectural
library, declaring history to be irrelevant to architecture, International
Style architects and theoreticians sought to level historic landmarks and
neighborhoods and replace them with arid concrete plazas and glass boxes.
International Style buildings are unbeautiful because beauty was never the
goal. Only ideological purity mattered.
What is revealing about the treatment of Stone's building is that the
rigid, Stalinist, International style orthodoxy STILL has a stranglehold
on the architectural profession. Architects (to this day) apologize to
each other for designing those "vulgar" postmodern buildings. Postmodern
ornament is permitted if-and-only-if it is "ironic", which is to say, that
it's thin and fake-looking and not integral to the building. It's as if
architects look forward to a messianic era when all the postmodern
buildings will be stripped back to their International style "purity".
Establishment architects hate 2 Columbus Circle not because it is ugly
(their own buildings are MUCH uglier), but because it was a heresy. All
these years later, it is STILL a heresy, and sneering critics like Herbert
Muschamp have never stopped demanding that it be demolished.
2 Columbus Circle should remain as a rebuke to the Herbert Muschamps of
the world and their brutal ideological certainties.
3. The Pulitzer Prize. Jack Shafer ridiculed the Pulitzer Prize in
journalism. I was one of many who responded:
Subject: Pulitzer Prize
Date: Apr 7 2004 8:07AM
As other Fraysters have commented, the Pulitzer Prize in journalism
actually does correlate to a large extent with talent and
It's silly to assign too much significance to the numbers of prizes
handed out in a given year (five to one newspaper, two to another) as
indicating any kind of mathematical truth about the two papers. A single
year's prizes are a tiny sample size.
However, the Pulitzers have been handed out for nearly nine decades
now, to newspapers in hundreds of cities large and small, all across the
U.S. Some cities, like New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San
Francisco, have received dozens of Pulitzers.
My favorite trivia question: what's the largest city in America which
has NEVER had a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper? And what's the
You used to be able to answer these questions with the World Almanac
(which came from Pulitzer's New York World). Unfortunately, they have
stopped publishing the list of past Pulitzer Prizes.
Shame on the World Almanac for throwing that history away. And shame on
San Antonio and Columbus (answers to those trivia questions above) for
having such wretchedly bad newspapers.
4. Disappearing Gas Stations. In an article about the shortage of oil
refineries, Daniel Gross (Moneybox) went on to bemoan the loss of
gas stations in Manhattan:
In New York, the least obtrusive component of the petroleum
supply chain.the neighborhood gas station.is an endangered species. Nearly
20 percent of Manhattan's gas stations have disappeared since 1999,
according to Monday's New York Times. And it's getting worse. Gotham's
remaining gas stations are generally located on the far East or West
sides.formerly commercial and industrial areas with easy access for
delivery trucks and motorists. But these are precisely the areas that
savvy builders are now seeking to develop. The gas station I used to
frequent, on a run-down corner at 92nd Street and First Avenue, was
demolished last summer to make way for a 32-story hotel/apartment
That struck me as remarkably uninformed about the consolidation of oil
retailing, so I wrote the following:
Subject: Why there are fewer gas stations
Date:Jun 10 2004 11:02AM
Moneybox comments on the decline in the number of gas stations in
Manhattan. However, that trend is everywhere, not just in NYC, and it is
not primarily due to competing land uses.
In the old days, there were lots of independently owned gas stations
everywhere. Not any more — not even in places which have plenty of
commercial road frontage available.
The business of selling gasoline to motorists has a very narrow profit
margin. To sell sufficient volume and minimize staff costs, you need
massive investment in a battery of automated self-service pumps, and a
very specific type of high-traffic location.
Most 1960s and 1970s gas stations were in the wrong places for this,
and their costs were too high. The economic censuses document a steep
decline in the number of gas stations nationally and in almost every local
area. Everywhere on commercial strips, you can recognize the shapes of
those sturdy 1970s gas stations, now converted to restaurants or car
dealerships or other uses.
For consumers, there is more limited choice, and a longer drive to the
nearest fueling outlet, but lower prices and round-the-clock availability.
Driving father is an environmental negative, but with fewer and better-run
sites, there is less likelihood of gasoline leaking from tanks into ground
water, and fewer neighborhood externalities.
Indeed, in most communities, the heavy traffic which is an economic
prerequisite for siting a new gas station has probably already driven out
anyone who might have objected to it being built.
5. Jackson, the Whigs, Slavery, and the Civil War. Fred
Siegel's piece When History
Meets Politics contained so many dubious assertions that it was
vigorously disputed by the author of the book he praised. I was involved
in the Fray debate to rebut other dubious ideas about mid-19th century
America. Here are three postings:
Subject: RE: Jackson Vs. Industrial America
Date: Dec 12 2005 5:29PM
First of all, the influence of abolitionists is being gigantically
overstated here. Prior to the war, there were never more than 1% in the
North who favored immediate abolition of slavery. No matter how evil
slavery looks to us in retrospect, at the time, respect for property
rights was held very high, and no one wanted to be responsible for the
expropriation of a huge amount of Southern "property". Abolitionism was
not a mainstream idea.
In the political rhetoric of the 1850s, to be "anti-slavery" meant to
be opposed to the then-potent political influence of the slaveholders. It
was roughly the equivalent of someone today who might self-describe as
anti-oil-industry or anti-pharmaceutical industry, who (if mainstream)
certainly isn't advocating that all the refineries or drug labs be
It is absolutely misplaced to describe the Whigs as abolitionists;
after all, many of them owned slaves. The Whig Party was a coalition of
critics and complainers who were out of power most of the time and agreed
on little. Whig candidates for president got elected by taking no
positions on anything for fear of straining the creaky coalition. The Whig
Party became a political home to critics of the slaveholders, but they
also helped alienate the Southern wing and break up the party.
Subject: No, those were distinct
Date: Dec 13 2005 2:03AM
The idea of confining slavery to the South and hoping for its eventual
disappearance should not be confused with abolitionism.
Today, an environmentalist who says we should work to eventually reduce
greenhouse gas emissions could be considered mainstream. But one who says
greenhouse gas emissions should all stop NOW would be dismissed as a
There's a romantic fallacy that the North went to war to destroy
slavery, parallel to that other romantic fallacy that the U.S. went to war
with Nazi Germany to save the Jews of Europe. These are widely believed,
but no serious historian takes either one seriously.
Subject: RE: No, those were distinct
Date: Dec 13 2005 1:09PM
For decades prior to 1860, presidents had been figures who were allied
with or deferential to the power and interests of the slaveholders in the
South. Southern leaders were accustomed to this deference.
The ascension of Lincoln was a departure from this. Lincoln was also
elected on a protectionist platform which was economically threatening to
the South, dependent as it was on the cotton trade with Europe.
Lincoln was no friend of slavery, but he was not an abolitionist. He
never would have been nominated or elected if he were. Operationally, his
"anti-slavery" (like that of other mainstream politicos up through 1860)
consisted of confronting the political power of the slaveholders on issues
peripheral to slavery itself: expansion into the territories, handling of
fugitive slaves, etc.
Absolutely, protecting and justifying slavery were central to
secessionist rhetoric. Yes, it would be fair to argue that the South began
the war in part to protect slavery. But the North's military response was
intended to protect the Union, not to get rid of slavery.
Lincoln is revered as the Great Emancipator, and it is a common
misconception to retroactively think of him as an abolitionist in the 1860
campaign or even earlier. You're misreading those debates and speeches if
you believe this. What might seem 140 years later like mincing little
distinctions carried huge weight at the time.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum —
May 28, 2007, 8:09 pm
On this day three decades ago, a northern Kentucky nightclub was
destroyed in one of the worst fires in American history.
When my wife was growing up in Northern Kentucky, one of her high
school graduation events was held at the Beverly Hills Supper Club,
in Southgate (just a few miles south of Cincinnati). It was a nightclub
and a familiar venue for high school proms, wedding receptions, and so on.
Many famous performers appeared there over the years.
The original building was built in 1937, but it had been greatly
expanded over the years with little or no safety inspection or
enforcement. It postdated Prohibition, but locals thought of it as an old
speakeasy, and it was said to be a headquarters for illegal gambling.
On May 28, 1977, a fire
broke out in the building, apparently caused by faulty aluminum
wiring. The cheap building materials burned rapidly and generated toxic
fumes. In the vast, crowded Cabaret Room, the exits were unmarked and
access to them was constricted.
About two thousand people escaped from the building that night, but
died — most of them in the Cabaret Room.
Until last year, I had not known about Walter Bailey, a teenage busboy
who saved hundreds of lives. More than a thousand people were packed into
the Cabaret Room, watching a comedy act, unaware of the fire raging at the
other end of the building. Bailey ran down the long hallway, jumped on
stage, grabbed a microphone, warned the audience to evacuate, and pointed
out the exits. Most of the crowd did escape safely. Two minutes after
Bailey's warning, fire and thick smoke exploded into the room.
Wikipedia has an
article about the fire. There's an edit war still going on over
whether the fire that burst into the Cabaret Room was a backdraft or a flashover.
The location of the Supper Club (at the end of a long driveway some
distance back from the road) has never been built on. Some rubble still
remains there. There has been some agitation for a memorial at the site.
Survivors and families are gathering there today to observe the
Three years ago, when I first posted about the fire in my blog, I
started a QuickTopic comment
page. That board now contains comments from quite a few people
who experienced the disaster either directly or indirectly.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum —
May 22, 2007, 12:56 pm
Mulberry was a small black-and-white tuxedo cat who came to us in 1991,
Geddes found her as a tiny, motherless kitten on her farm near
Grass Lake, Michigan.
Back in 1990-91, on M-Net
(local Unix-based conferencing system), "mulberry" was an anonymous
writer, also known as "Thisbe Alcestis". Mulberry fascinated us all with
postings of original poetry, often done as commentary on M-Net happenings
and people. The real identity of Mulberry was a much-speculated-upon
mystery. Some of us had figured it out by the time this kitten came along,
and so it was natural to endow her with the name of the secret alter ego
of the woman who had given her to us.
Even some time after that, I remember when John Perry, one of the M-Net
board members, disclaiming knowledge of who was writing the mulberry
postings, declared that as far as he was concerned, "Mulberry is Larry
Being motherless, Mulberry grew up a bit undersocialized. The arrival
of another, older cat in our household seemed to help her mellow out a
bit, but she was always feisty about being crossed, and very shy or
skittish with strangers; she never fully trusted anyone besides me and
We still have around our house a number of those plastic rings (about
an inch-plus in diameter) from the tops of plastic milk jugs. Mulberry
liked to play a game with these. She bring one of these rings to me or
Janice and mew, in a particular warbling way, for us to throw them across
the room. She would chase after the ring, sometimes knocking it around in
a frenzy, and finally capture it. Then she did a very clever cat thing:
she would put her paw down on one side of the little hoop, so that the
other side rotated upward, and grasp the rising edge in her mouth. She
would triumphantly bring the ring back, drop it within our reach, and mew
for it to be thrown again.
I don't think she played the ring toss game in the last year or so of
her life, but she was still doing it from time to time even as a fairly
Some cats engage in habits which become almost ritualized, and no cat I
have known was more into this than Mulberry. When she was a young cat, she
got into habit of attacking me every night about 11 pm. I came to dread
this, but I also knew that once it happened, it was over for the
Much later, when we would confine her to our room for feeding (to keep
the other cats from eating the medicine in her food), she would take a few
bites of food, then urgently demand to be let out of the room. Let out,
she would wander into the living room and back for no apparent reason,
then return to our room to finish the meal. She did this day in and day
out for quite a while.
All her life, Mulberry never liked it when somebody made the bed, and
would remain on the bed, mewing insistently, while we tried to straighten
the sheets and pull up the covers.
Mulberry was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease some years ago,
and was treated with prednisone. Cats
tolerate steroids much better than humans do, and as long as she had her
medicine, she was fine. On occasion, she would lose her appetite and hence
not get the medicine, and her condition would further suppress her
appetite until she was dehydrated. So we would pack her off to the
veterinarian, who would inject some prednisone, and she'd be fine
But when Janice came home Friday evening, Mulberry was considerably
sicker than usual, and was extremely weak and passive. She barely even
bothered to object when put in the cat carrier and taken to the veterinary
It turned out that in addition to being dehydrated and unable to keep
food down, she was jaundiced and in liver failure. Possibly she had liver
cancer (quite common among cats), or possibly it was a side effect of the
prednisone. Either way, any treatment would be difficult, invasive,
expensive, and of dubious usefulness. We had to euthanize her.
It's ironic that the same medication which kept her alive these last
seven years may have destroyed her liver. Former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas had
a similar fate. Even "miracle" drugs can carry a downside.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum —
May 18, 2007, 3:48 pm
- My daughter Sarah (age 8) received her
black belt in karate (Tae Kwan Do) last Saturday.
- Also on Saturday, at the Ann Arbor
Democratic Party meeting, I finally met Juan Cole, University of Michigan
professor and internationally famed blogger on Middle East
- On Tuesday, I testified before the Michigan House Elections and Ethics
Committee, arguing (1) in favor of students voting in college towns, where
they spend most of their time and are counted by the Census for
representation purposes, (2) against a proposed bill that would break the
connection between driver's license addresses and voter registration
addresses, and (3) in favor of amending the law to allow all voters (but
particularly students) to have a separate mailing address in addition to
their physical residence address. This is done anyway for the homeless
and for people who insist on it, so why not open the option to everyone,
and regularize it as part of the management of voter and driver
- Also on Tuesday, blogger Hugh Stimson had some flattering things to
say about me and my blog.
- Last night, we attended the taping of the NPR radio news quiz Wait Wait Don't Tell
Me, at the Michigan
Theater in Ann Arbor.
- Today is the 80th anniversary of the Bath school
disaster, when an angry and paranoid school board member put
explosives under the school and killed 45 people. I grew up near where
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum —
May 3, 2007, 6:26 pm
The Lost Convention. Congress proposed the 21st Amendment
(repeal of Prohibition) in 1933, and specified that ratification would be
through state conventions rather than state legislatures.
Michigan was the first state to act. The ratification convention was
scheduled for April 10. Delegates, elected only a week earlier, voted
99-1 to ratify the repeal amendment.
Unlike other state elections and conventions, none of this was
documented in the 1933 Michigan Manual. In 1951, a fire at the
state archives destroyed most of the records.
The election and convention has sunk into such obscurity that people
knowledgeable in Michigan political history had never heard of it. I
myself didn't know about it until I came across it in a 1933 newspaper.
Of course, I wanted to collect the information for Political Graveyard.
Over the last few months, I gathered data from county and state
archives, and from newspapers published at the time. I'm delighted to
report that I now have all the delegate and candidate names. I didn't try
to collect and reconcile the vote totals.
Here's the report: Delegates to Michigan Convention
to Ratify 21st Amendment.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum —