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The Economist Apologizes


It turns out you might need to apologize when you write something like this about slavery:

Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

So, here’s the apology from the Economist:

In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We are therefore withdrawing the review but in the interests of transparency, anybody who wants to see the withdrawn review can click here.

It’s a good apology. It doesn’t offer excuses and try to suggest that people who were offended made some sort of mistake. It’s short and to the point.

And it’s also, I think, a good reminder for people who insist that objectivity somehow involves telling the story of the potential upside of world-historical crimes like slavery or genocide.

There is no upside. Don’t go looking for one. You won’t find it.

A good point simply made.   

I’ve just bought a month of Sketchbook Pro, dug out my old Bamboo tablet.  This is a scribble, nearly two hours.  I went for something ugly, obviously, and even though I’m picking a hundred holes in it as I upload, I’m posting it as a reminder to myself that ‘perfect’ isn’t the goal.  Scribble, evaluate, improve and move on.


Gosford anglican church telling it how it is in Australia. Our Prime Minister is a [insert offensive euphemism here] if you didn’t know. Sending Asylum seekers to Cambodia? One of the poorest and most corrupt nations on earth. 

I’m not of the Anglican church, but I certainly appreciate this challenging of morality.  It’s sad to hear Australians proclaim how egalitarian and welcoming we are, only to hear about the turning-away of yet another boatload of desperate people (the majority of whom will be recognised as refugees).


DSC_3109 edited 4x6 by JP Diroll (Durall069) on Flickr.

Memphis zoo

A scene from today:

Student:  ”Please, Sir!  May I go to the toilet?”

Me:  ”Two minutes ago you were running around outside.  You had a forty minute break.  I saw you playing basketball because I spent twenty soul-sucking minutes on duty during which NOBODY started a fight or did anything to break the monotony.  You had FORTY MINUTES in which to go for a quick wee against a tree and yet you choose NOW, while I’M doing the talking, in which to go and alleviate YOUR tedium?  Suck it up, Sunshine.  I’m about to make you take NOTES!!!”

Student:  ”So, can I go to the toilet?”

[Repeat on a daily basis]

Trigger Warning - mentions LEGO

My parents recently visited, bringing with them the rest of my books and all the LEGO they’d bought for me over the length of my childhood (and, ahem, the stuff I’d bought as a big person).

I like to collect things, but I also enjoy the sensation of cutting something adrift, choosing to excise it from my heart.  It was a pleasing sensation to open up the boxes and the bags and inspect all the little people, the sea creatures, the boats, the oddly-shaped curved bricks that you tried to use in twenty different ways but were confounded by (because you’re a perfectionist) and all those very many pirates.

Some of the pieces were unfamiliar to me.  They didn’t belong to my sister, so they must’ve been mine!  Yay!  

Most of all, it was like pulling a long-forgotten photo album off the shelf and remembering all those happy holidays spent with good friends.  My parents bought my sister and I most of the LEGO while Mum was doing her Social Work degree.  Our school holidays coincided with her study/exam times, so we’d get a big box of lego each and leave her in peace for two weeks straight!  She still feels guilty about that, which says more about her capacity for manufacturing guilt than anything else.  

With LEGO I built worlds of wonder, much like the dreams that my sister regularly has: they’re weird, have their own rules and are very boring when being explained to you.  But they were my worlds, where the heroes were in my hands and justice prevailed.  Viva LEGO!

I’ve followed this public discussion with much interest and THIS is the most concise summation of the argument so far.  As an ‘andrist’ (ie. a man), I’ve gotten the ‘wary’ vibe from women many a time and have never minded because I’ve also overheard many men’s discussion and have felt totally icked.  

(Source: punkypunk)

Something fundamental is broken with Tumblr

when #robertgray has more references to random movie-stars than to the Australian poet: Robert Gray.  So let’s work a little bit harder, shall we?  As my contribution to this world-improving effort, I provide a section from his ‘Dharma Vehicle’, an epic meditation on the history of Buddhism and everything else.  Robert Gray’s New Selected Poems is always in my bag when I travel, and ‘Dharma Vehicle’ is the poem I turn to when I need to feel that, in the concluding words, “it’s all right”.


begins, of a sudden, its bellowing and stamping,

the lowering of its shoulders,

a smoke-spray

blowing from them.

The surf comes in as though alive and tearing free

from under the net of foam -

making its break 

with the panicky, bounding gallop of some great animal up


onto the slippery shore.

Chapter 2: Tell Everyone What Happened Here!

I begin with the thickest, heaviest of the books on my desk.


Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper.  It’s heavy in more ways than one, and requires thoughtfulness and patience, but what good story doesn’t? I know that, as soon as I recommend this book to people, there will be those for whom it doesn’t ‘work’.  That’s okay.  It will continue to be on the top of my Recommendations list, as it’s an eminently ‘worthy’ book.  And not just ‘worthy’, but worthy.  Name-drop it all you like: reading the book will be good for you!

The Street Sweeper tells many stories.  A slowly-failing professor, a young man recently released from prison, an old man with memories to share…  The stories interweave so that the racial problems of Chicago become relevant to the Holocaust.  The recording of survivor accounts by a historian in the 1940s saves the career of a historian in the 2000s.  A young African-American man memorises the story of a dying survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau because these humans have connected, the past matters, the stories are worth recording.

There are three points in the book at which I had to put it down and breathe for a little while.  This is rare for me.  Walk around the lounge room explaining the story to an invisible audience, that’s common.  But just having to sit and take it in?  Rare.  I’d like to share these moments with you as they touch on the reasons why this book is exquisite.

The first is a big paragraph in the heart of Henryk Mandelbrot’s story, occurring in my copy of the book on page 349.  Mandelbrot’s thread in the larger narrative is stark in its difference - Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other Nazi camps are fairly unique - but it is the story which feels to me most vital, most essential.  It is the extreme experience around which the other tales are woven.

Henryk Mandelbrot and the other two Jews who had arrived with him followed the SS guard.  Joined outside by the second SS guard they were taken to what they would learn was Crematorium V.  It had its own gas chamber and outside the gas chamber there lay a mountain of bodies.  Mandelbrot shuddered momentarily.  So it was true, and here he was, face-to-face with the truth.  He had seen people die in the ghetto but he had never seen anything like this.  So many bodies, inert, stacked hurriedly one on top of the other, a vast hill of them, a small mountain, so recently people.  Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jews.  Every time someone harboured the belief, or just the sneaking suspicion, even when it shamed them, that the Jews, as a people, are dishonest and immoral, that they are avaricious, deceitful, cunning, that they are capitalists, that they are communists, that they are responsible for all the troubles in the world, that they are guilty of deicide, that belief or suspicion, sometimes barely conscious, adds momentum to a train on a journey of its own; this is where the line finally ends, at this mountain of corpses.  The prejudices, the unfounded states of mind, that grow from wariness to dislike to hatred of the ‘other’, they all lead to where Henryk Mandelbrot now stood.

The momentum of this paragraph is glorious and I’ve shared it with people many times.

The second section is a dozen pages of Henryk Mandelbrot’s story beginning on page 384.  It’s a description of the psychology of the gas chamber from the point of view of a Sonderkommando, one of those unfortunates who extended their lives by being a tiny cog in that vast death machine.  Do I blame them?  No.  They swapped one type of victimhood for another, more complex type.

An elderly man, lying in a hospital bed in New York, is telling a young man about his experiences as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was one of those men responsible for getting people - Jews, largely - undressed and into the ‘showers’ as efficiently as possible. And then clearing out the bodies after the Zyklon B gas had done its job. And then shovelling the bodies into the ovens. The old man is asked why he didn’t ever warn the people that they were about to be killed in a gas chamber. This is the response:

       The first five came down the stairs. No one wanted to look at them. Henryk Mandelbrot was one of approximately twenty Sonderkommando members standing in the undressing room of Crematorium II. He stood in the middle of the room. The floor was grey concrete and the walls were white. Around the entire circumference of the room were smooth pine benches and above these there were hooks with numbers next to them. It looked like a very large, very narrow, but otherwise unremarkable gymnasium locker room. When the number of Sonderkommando men outnumbered the victims, as it always did for the first minute or so, it was hard to find an excuse not to look the victims in the eye. What made it worse was that, unless for some reason it was an all-male group, the first to come down were usually women. In addition to whatever the women had just been through and in addition to whatever they suspected they were about to go through, they were exhausted, confused and very ashamed to have to undress to the point of complete nakedness in front of strangers. There were married women who had only ever been naked in front of their husbands. There were old women, little girls and teenage girls from small villages, shtetls, girls who had only ever been naked in front of their mothers years earlier. They found it hard to imagine even being married to a man who was permitted to touch their bodies and see them naked. Now here they were being told to undress in brusque sharp tones by SS men whom each one knew meant them no good; men of the type that had put them in ghettoes, men who were fully dressed, armed, uniformed soldiers of Hitler. And it wasn’t enough to simply undress. They had to undress very quickly. The SS men greeted the women’s naked bodies variously, at best with short-tempered indifference, usually with harsh words sometimes further humiliating them, and frequently with violence.
        The first five women were spoken to firmly in a no-nonsense manner by the SS men in the undressing room. Some of them wondered why armed SS men had to watch them get undressed for a shower. Something was not right. And who were these other men, seemingly prisoners, also interested in getting them undressed as quickly as possible to go to the shower room next door? These men, the prisoners, seemed to be Jews. They were speaking to them in Yiddish but they would not look at them.
       ‘Come on now. You have to hurry. Leave your things by a hook and remember the number on it,’ Henryk Mandelbrot said to a woman whose shame seemed to be paralysing her. He couldn’t look her in the eye as he spoke but he saw an SS man looking at him as he was speaking to the slowly undressing woman and then, with small relief, he saw the officer’s gaze shift from him to other Sonderkommando men, to Schubah, Ochrenberg, Touba and Raijsmann, as another five women came down the stairs, then another five and another five followed by another and still another. Very quickly there were more victims than Sonderkommando or SS men in the undressing room even though once undressed the women were ordered down the hall to the room with the shower faucets. Now some men started coming down the stairs in rows of five. They were being screamed at by the SS men upstairs or was it the five people immediately behind them or the five behind them? Already the beatings had started up the stairs to make things go faster and five pushed five to escape the beatings. The first five men saw women undressing and clothes left in piles around the room.
       ‘You can pick your things up after the shower,’ Mandelbrot said to an old man who seemed to have trouble believing what he was seeing. The man moved slowly, too slowly. Henryk Mandelbrot knew the man would be beaten any second if he didn’t start making progress undressing.
       ‘You have to hurry!’ A baby was crying, which set off another baby. A mother tried to comfort it but she had to undress both the baby and herself quickly. An SS man was watching her and she saw him. With the baby in her arms, she turned her back to him.
       ‘The showers…’ the old man asked Mandelbrot. ‘They’re the same ones for men and for women?’
       ‘Yes, they’re the same,’ Mandelbrot said to the old man without emotion, at the same time helping him with his coat. Five more came down, followed by another five, some of whom were freshly bleeding from their heads, all of whom were pushed by the five behind them. Then another five…
       ‘You’re a Jew?’ the old man asked Henryk Mandelbrot.
       ‘Yes. You have to hurry. They’ll beat both of us if you’re too -‘
       ‘It’s gas, isn’t it?’
       Mandelbrot turned away from this old man as five more people came down the stairs into the undressing room, followed by another five, then another five and another five after that. Henryk Mandelbrot had to look away from the stairway. But where could he look? Another five came down followed by another five and then another five. A girl of around twelve was carrying her brother who looked to be no more than three. Mandelbrot went to her and her brother.
       ‘Don’t touch him, you Jewish murderer! He’ll die with me… in my arms!’
       Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who had hoped to be a principal some day, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had had an affair with a patient, a slightly overweight boy of eleven with wavy hair who felt he had never been able to live up to his parents’ expectations, he was also there. The fattest man of his village was going to have to undress in a hurry too. A newly graduated doctor was there and, unbeknown to him, way off in the corner there was one of his professors from medical school. A man who had been unfaithful to his wife once in another town while on business was there, a pharmacist who had always gone out of his way to help people, a girl who kept calling out for her sister, a woman who had brought food to widows in the hope of pleasing God, a thief, a man who sold candles, a prostitute who had run away from home, a man who failed to get into art school but who had kept drawing all his life never showing his work to anyone, the wife of a man who hawked spices, an engineer, a fishmonger, a woman whose husband often embarrassed her was there, a man who worked with his brothers in a foundry, the daughter of a stonemason, a man whose blindness was not evident to others, a mathematician, a woman who loved fashion magazines was there with her daughter who dreamed of one day being in them. Then another five came down, including a rabbi and a chazan and a woman who had tried to see every movie that came to her town, and still the Jews kept coming. They heard the command to undress and began to do what everybody else was doing before being forced by SS men into the other room to wait for the shower. Then another five.

Another five, another five, and another five.  I was deeply impressed by the sense of onslaught in this passage, as well as the humanity.  Nobody here is just a number, although the SS men certainly come close.  The last paragraph is like a collection of photos, each capturing just one or two details of a life.  Not enough, certainly, from which to describe a whole person, but enough to respect that they are actually people and not, as the Nazis thought, merely different strains of the same virus.  

The passage is at once whimsical and remorseless.  People are there to be dealt with and the situation is good for nobody, except perhaps the SS men.  And the original question?  Why did you warn nobody?  It is dealt with in this section partly, but much more obviously a few pages further on when an example is made of a Sonderkommando who made the mistake of warning somebody.  

The third example is the whole final chapter, the entire denouement.  And it’s meant to be thus.  The laws of nature are in approval of the closing events of the book.  ”Despite the strong wind that was blowing, the entirety of one particular tree seemed impervious to the ferocity of the various gusts that played mercilessly with the composure of all the other surrounding trees.  Yet no part of this particular tree near Founders Hall on the campus of Rockefeller University on York Avenue opposite Memorial Sloan-Kettering moved in any way that was perceptible to the human eye, no part of it except the smallest branch at the very top.  The tiniest twig-like apogee of this old, much-revered tree shuddered as though in spasm while the rest of the tree remained as impassive as a monolith.”  Magic seems to happen in the last few pages of this book, and well it might.  Readers have followed the events of social upheaval, the workings of industrialised genocide and the heart-break of everyday life.  The author rewards us with a spoonful of sweet sugar.

The closing words of the book?  Perlman wraps it all up with the history-lover’s appeal, the author’s entreaty.  I’ll give you the last two sentences to serve as my conclusion.

The onlookers had no idea what it was that had led to the strange convergence of these three diverse individuals and the little girl.  But if they had known the people they were looking at, if they had known where they had come from, if they had known their histories, if they’d had even an inkling of the events the historian, the street sweeper with the menorah, and the oncologist had known of, if they had known the whole story of everything that had got these three people to that block at that time, they might well have felt compelled to tell everyone what happened here.  Tell everyone what happened here.

Excerpts in this post are from Eliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper, pp.384-387, Vintage Books, Sydney, 2011.

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