Number Three

January 30, 2010

Old wives say death comes in threes. Those old wives who are also students of high-brow American letters will be well-vindicated by the trio which chose this week to shuffle off the mortal coil: Zinn, Salinger, Auchincloss.

Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, a leftist polemic repudiating the idea that our founding fathers were anything but wealthy, white Protestants who hated paying taxes. That is, Republicans. He went on to teach at universities across the country and involved himself vocally in the civil rights struggles of his day. Professor Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

J.D. Salinger was an accomplished author of short stories, once (fleetingly) compared favorably to John Cheever in that genre. His most notable work, though, is The Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age story about precarious innocence and discontent. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became a widely-identified with symbol of youthful rebellion while his creater, Mr. Salinger, became a reclusive eccentric, holed up in the foothills of Cornish, New Hampshire and suing to keep his words out of print. Mr. Salinger also died on Wednesday. He was 91.

More subtle horns announced the passing of Louis Auchincloss, the descendant of wealthy Scots who made a career of profiling, in fiction and memoir, New York’s Patrician class. Mr. Auchincloss wrote nearly 50 books, averaging one per year, each year of his career, a rate of production all the more impressive considering his simultaneous duties as a partner with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, a prominent Wall Street law firm. Mr. Auchincloss was also the president of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. As an older author, he allowed his books to be edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his cousin.

Louis Auchincloss, author and attorney.

“I’m rather inclined to be edgy when I’m not writing,” explained the author, of his reasons for turning out books in such droves. He was certainly as edgy as a man can be, while still starting sentences with the phrase “I’m rather inclined.”

Mr. Auchincloss wrote books about country clubs, boardrooms, summer homes, and dinner parties. Though ridiculed as “America’s foremost author of manners,” Gore Vidal defended Mr. Auchincloss: “Nobody else took those kinds of people, because nobody else understood them, except in the dumbest way.”

Mr. Auchincloss came to writing, and to the law, in the usual way of his generation: preparatory school at Groton, undergraduate work at Yale University, and legal studies at the University of Virginia. He served in the Navy during the second World War and then wrote The Indifferent Children under the name Andrew Lee. It was so well-recieved that he used his real name ever after.

In 1951 Mr. Auchincloss quit the practice of law to devote all his time to writing. Realizing that it wasn’t making any difference, he went back to work in 1954. He was later commissioned to write a short biography of President Theodore Roosevelt for Times Books. He delivered it personally, ahead of schedule, and handed over one he’d written of Calvin Coolidge also. Unfortunately, they told him, Coolidge had been assigned to somebody else.

Mr. Auchincloss died this past Tuesday, January 26. He was 92 years old.

The Decline and Fall of Nearly Everything

January 27, 2010

Decent prose is fast becoming technology’s latest victim. The ease and speed with which we fire off electronic mail ensures its casualty, and that casualty has become an excuse for (and cause of) garbled syntax, jumbled thoughts, and a pubescent reliance on those silly avatars of abbreviated mood called “emoticons.” This is all terrible news.

The murder of reasonable expectations of style aside, untamed technology leads also to sloth and distance. Millions of children scamper home to check their e-mail and participate in “chat room” discussions, where once they involved themselves in extra-curricular clubs and athletics. Young adults discard markets for online shopping, hasty e-mails stand in for carefully composed letters and actual conversations, and text messages substitute for casual interaction. The whole thing is a mess.

True, technology is a miracle of efficiency. Without it, you couldn’t read this. Whereas once telegrams took days to announce important decisions, now news moves at a lightning-fast clip around the world. Small towns, formerly dependant on the local Gazette, Citizen, or Mirror, now read the Wall Street Journal for (nearly) free every morning, online. Scientific advances spread quickly, old friends are re-connected with, and business is conducted on a global scale, at tremendous savings.

But there is, or should be, more involved in life than efficiency. There should too be style, verve, and adventure. E-mails are hardly the tactile or emotional equivalent of hand-written letters on good paper, folded and sealed in an envelope. “Firing off” a resume to a boss is a far cry from recommending a new hire over drinks in the club billiards room. Are these ways antiquated? Probably. Out-dated? Likely. Quaint? Almost certainly. And terribly worthwhile? Obviously. There is a pleasure in doing things the proper way, instead of the efficient way, whenever possible because that way most often involves a personal style that adds a richness and vibrancy to those tasks. The point of propriety isn’t ease and efficiency; that’s technology’s racket. The point of propriety is personal style.     

Consider wearing a blazer when a t-shirt will do, and a tie when it’s not required. Learn more than one tie knot. Try writing thank-you letters, and all letters, by hand. Mail them… with stamps. Match your socks, and think about what kind of belt matches your shoes. Provide for the time necessary to disconnect, to savor anything, and then do it with style. And if nothing else, avoid the damn emoticons.

A Way To Win

January 22, 2010

Since assuming control of the nation’s armed forces, President Obama has authorized the use of more Predator attack drones than any military chief before him, and for good reason: the drones are efficient and deadly, and they keep American soldiers out of harm’s way. 

Each Predator is controlled by two “pilots” who use joysticks and video screens to steer it from a remote base. A trigger attached to the joysticks fires its missiles. The images pilots use to guide the robot planes are gathered by the Predators, beamed to a satellite, and then re-directed through 12 time zones to the control bases in states like California. This takes about a second. 

The U.S. Predator drone.

Each Predator carries one 500-pound bomb, or an attachment of equally deadly Hellfire missiles. 

Though not without obvious merit, President Obama’s liberal deployment of the machines presents two dangers, and one tertiary benefit. 

The first danger remote-controlled war robots present is what game theorists call “signaling.” By refusing to commit our own blood to a conflict, we signal to an enemy that we lack resolve. This is heartening to them; the under-dog martyr mentality often inspires soldiers and spurs armies to fight on. Imagine the Jews in the mountain caves of Masada, so enraged by Rome that they took their own lives rather than be captured; or, the few Spartans who stood against thousands of Persians at Thermopyle, fortified in the throes of patriotic resolve. When soldiers sense they are more dedicated to a cause than their enemies, their fervor can prolong and worsen conflicts, even in the face of overwhelming odds. 

The second, and more pressing, danger is that lasting peace isn’t won by soldiers, but by the statesmen who come after. If that’s not done properly, peace deteriorates quickly. This is old news, but consider: for every Al Qaeda operative killed by Predator drones, two more appear. This is because the people they recruit believe in Al Qaeda and hate America. The equation makes it ironically impossible to win a war of attrition with these terrorists: they’re an Arabic Hydra, growing two heads for every one chopped off. By killing them, we make them stronger. The only way to beat something like that is to prevent new heads from growing. 

In Afghanistan, the answer is to reverse potential recruits’ mindset. They need to be taught to believe in America and hate Al Qaeda. This is a hard lesson to teach people who see robot planes flying overhead, firing missiles which often either miss their mark completely, and destroy an innocent building next-door, or kill civilians who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone’s target. Predator drones are wonderful for eliminating high-level enemies, but not for winning the hearts and minds of locals, and real victory requires both. This means boots on the ground… but construction boots, not combat boots: friendly faces who, after the fighting has cooled down, help build dams, schools, hospitals, roads, water treatment plants, and governments. Without this shift, any peace bought in any country becomes worthless quickly. 

Afghanistan is a place we should be in. We need a friend in an unstable (and often violently anti-Western) region to be our eyes and ears (and military staging area, if necessary). We need to have friends near all that oil, which is a national interest. We need to help it form a stable, just government, which is a humanitarian interest. 

We can’t do that with robots. We can only do it with people. Each is a necessary component, and the overwhelming success of one shouldn’t detract from the necessity, at the appropriate time, of the other. Lasting military victory without a sustainable humanitarian interest is impossible, just as sustainable humanitarian interests are impossible without a lasting military victory.  

The third danger, and possibly too the drones’ most notable merit, is that they allow American forces to become engaged in conflicts which would have otherwise quickly become unacceptable quicksand death-traps. Some countries historically counted on drawing foreign soldiers inland and then making them pay so heavily for the intrusion that their chiefs cut their losses; think of English redcoats during the American Revolution, United States troops in Vietnam, the British, Russians, and (it’s starting to seem) Americans in Afghanistan, the Nazis in Stalinist Russia, and the Persians at Thermopyle. Each was a superior force attacking a smaller enemy. And each force was drawn so far into that enemy’s home field, and suffered such great losses as a result, they withdrew. 

To countries like these, Predator drones announce the end of the tactic: Americans, if drawn into such a fight, will not be forced to cut and run from a mountain of casualties. Rather, they will stay and fight, and fight, and fight for as long as there are missiles available to load onto drones… and none of them will die doing it.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Originally

January 13, 2010

Abercrombie & Fitch, as it stands today, is a semi-collegiate lifestyle brand targeted to young men and women between the ages of 18 and about 27 who are, or, more likely, aspire to be, “preppy” college students.

The fact that real preps eschew pricey fashion in favor of oft-mended family history in the form of Grandfather’s old blazer and club tie aside, would-be collegians have filled A&F’s registers for years in exchange for cargo pants and t-shirts advertising fictional restaurants which sell fish tacos.

But things weren’t always so. The line, as the oversized corporate biographies A&F calls “labels” proclaim, was founded in 1892 by David T. Abercrombie and an investor, lawyer Ezra Fitch. In its early days, the firm outfitted such noted adventurers as President Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and Ernest Hemingway. Their main business was Brit-esque safari gear similar to what Filson makes today: leather snake boots, rifle cases, upland game pants, gun slings, fly fishing rods, and that sort of thing.

A&F, pre-ruin.

Given the shabby state of A&F’s wilted repertoire today, it’s ironic that David Abercrombie knew the importance of quality clothing: he’s worn his togs hard in his previous profession as a railroad surveyor. He worked mainly in the coal and timber wilderness of West Virginia, scouting promising land for railroad track layers.

After years at the helm of his company, David Abercrombie died at his country estate in Ossining, a stone castle called Elda. Shortly after, Fitch commandeered corporate operations and, to the detriment of all, abolished quality in both the firm’s products and clientele.

Bones’ Bones

January 7, 2010

On January 22, Christie’s will auction 0ff a ballot box made from a human skull. The artifact, expected to fetch between $10,000 and $20,000, once belonged to the Skull and Bones society and is being sold by “a European art collector,” according to ambiguous auction-house publicity.

The skull, etc.

The skull is fitted with hinges and a panel on its top, which opens into the brain chamber, and is believed by Christie’s to have been used by the Yale University secret society during voting procedures. It may have also been displayed in the Bones tomb in New Haven during the nineteenth century; photographs from that time show it laid out amongst posing Bonesmen.

Bonesmen, with skull.

Former Bonesmen include public intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., both Presidents Bush, President William Howard Taft, and businessman Averell Harriman. Brown Brothers Harriman, the investment banking firm founded, in part, by Harriman, still manages the society’s money under the guise of the Russell Trust Association. In fact, of Brown Brothers Harriman’s 16 founding partners, 11 were graduates of Yale and eight of those were members of Skull and Bones.

The skull ballot box is believed by Christie’s to have been the property of Edward T. Owen, an 1872 graduate of Yale who then taught linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. The skull is to be sold with a black book bearing Owen’s name, the year 1872, and the mysterious number 322. The book includes the names and photographs of 50 Bonesmen, including President Taft.

Hearth & Home.

January 5, 2010

Historically, a hearth is a fireplace, lined with brick or stone, used to cook or heat. It’s the architectural expression of the fireplace, the visible part, as opposed to the section hidden behind a wall and connected to a chimney. The mantel, which is separate from the fireplace proper, is something else altogether. The hearth is the most traditionally central place in a home; in fact, it’s Latin name is focus.

A wood-burning fireplace.

The hearth’s significance can vary inversely to warmth; fireplaces aren’t used much in summer months, but crisp fall evenings and blustery winter days can demand their use. A fireplace means warmth and comfort, in terms of both heat provided and the people gathered around it. It’s a central attraction, what decorators call an anchor, in any room. A stone fireplace is best, if dormant, caked slightly in ash and soot, looking recently and vigorously used. In actual use, it’s best filled with crackling, popping logs and warm, lazy flames.

Gas fireplaces offer the latter but not the first; gas lines don’t crackle and pop (unless near exploding) and sculpted metal “logs” neither crack, change shape, glow, burn, or smell like wood and home. Retiring to Scotch and cigars around a gas fireplace is like reading books on a Kindle. The superficial, identifying qualities are there (flames and heat, or, words and plot) but the feeling is gone. The gas rig offers no more comfortable pine smoke or gentle, dry crackling than the Kindle does dog-eared pages or creased binding.

"Crackling, popping logs."

Hearth taxes existed in England as early as 1662, and cost about two shillings per hearth, per home. Almshouses and schools were exempt, as were businesses other than smiths’ forges or bakers’ ovens. Subjects of the Crown paid one shilling on Michaelmas, and the other on Lady Day, until William III abolished the tax in 1689. Scotland followed suit a year later.