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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Tall tales, Jared Diamond and The New Yorker

So you travel to a remote corner of the world, one of many trips you've made to the region, and stumble across a man with some bold and self-indicting stories about tribal feuds, vengeance and mass murder. What do you do?

Well, if you're Jared Diamond, you write the story up for The New Yorker. But now Diamond, the UCLA professor and author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, and The New Yorker are being sued by the source for the story -- who says none of it is true.

The New Yorker has taken the story down from its public access layer (we subscribers can still get at it): “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in the April 21, 2008 issue. And it's a good story about old ways persisting into modern times, with perhaps a bit too much gullibility born of a Western view of the world. Maybe Diamond bought the guy's story because it fit within his view of tribalism in Papua New Guinea, where he has made many trips researching birds. Or maybe it just fit his overarching point about vengeance.

There are many other interesting facets to how the story was handled, and the source's very modern and Western response -- filing a lawsuit. Diamond is a respected researcher, public intellectual and author -- I once profiled him for the Los Angeles Times -- and he can tell a good story. But the vetting of the article seems to have been very weak, both by Diamond and by The New Yorker. Columbia Journalism Review has a nice overview here, and over here you'll find the initial takedown of the piece by

My money would be on an eventual out-of-court settlement with no admission of fault. But that the story was written and published in the first place is troubling, to say the least. As the linked pieces point out, this was essentially a single-source story in which the source implicated himself in heinous criminal acts. I can't count the number of red flags that should have raised. And, if it turns out Diamond was wrong, or was lied to by the source, I wonder if the lure of an intriguing story about savage acts in a third-world jungle blinded him and The New Yorker to their core responsibility to verify the story. Read More 
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Prop. 8 stands. Civil rights, not so much.

Well, the California Supreme Court did the expected this morning and upheld Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage in California. With no legal background, I'm not going to try to parse the details of it -- I'll leave that to Maura Dolan, a former LA Times colleague.

But given how each state has a different take on this issue, it's clear this needs to get to the Supreme Court -- where, admittedly, the deck seems stacked against gay marriage. But I would hope the Loving v. Virginia case would be precedent here. In that case, from 1967, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state ban on interracial marriage.

That decision held that marriage is a basic civil right and thus eligible for federal protection. A civil right is a civil right, and it defies logic that the federal protections would be limited to opposite-sex marriages. At its heart a legal marriage license, which grants all the perks (tax, survivorship, etc.) is a contract, and such it should be available to all.

And if, instead, it is deemed to be a function of religion -- which is the undercurrent of the anti-gay marriage argument -- then you have to wonder what business any level of U.S. government has in sanctioning a religious rite.

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Jay Bennett dies

I was saddened to see that Jay Bennett died yesterday. I still listen to old Wilco albums, and this morning tossed on Bennett's "Bigger than Blue." Great songwriter with a voice that can haunt.

Here he is with Jeff Tweedy in better days (they had a rather acrimonious fall out).

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Smear campaign allegation leads to poet's resignation

UPDATE: Ruth Padel now says she tipped off journalists to the old harassment complaint. So much for the early denial ....

Ruth Padel, the first woman to ever be elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, has resigned the post over allegations she was involved in a smear campaign that earlier led fellow poet Derek Wolcott, a Nobel Prize winner, to withdraw from consideration.

The smear campaign involved anonymous letters detailing a sexual-harassment allegation against him from 1982, while he was teaching at Harvard. Padel denied involvement in the letter campaign, but stepped down anyway.

And I thought presidential politics was a full-contact sport.  Read More 
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Lisa See in The O.C.

Lord I hate that "The O.C." stuff, but that's the price you pay for a cheap rhyme ...

Lisa See, who has built up a solid body of fiction over the past decade or so, has a new book coming out this week, Shanghai Girls, exploring the lives of two sisters in 1937 Shanghai as the region is consumed by war. I have yet to read it (hint to the Random House publicity team), but loved her earlier works, including Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

See is breaching the Orange Curtain on June 6, taking part in Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's new Pen on Fire Speaker Series. This event will be at the Scape Gallery, 2859 East Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. Barbara, among other things, is co-host of "Writers on Writing," aired on KUCI and available by podcast. Earlier, Barbara hosted Carolyn See, Lisa's mother, and Merrill Markoe, as well as a session with Martin J. Smith, author and editor of Orange Coast magazine (I do freelance for him).

I have yet to attend one of these sessions -- due in no small part because they keep selling out too fast. But maybe I'll some of you at this one. Read More 
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Verbs. I need more verbs ...

Well, the desk is clean, a freelance assignment is just about done, and it's back to the book. At least in theory. You writers out there will understand this -- I'm looking at a stretch of time that has to be written about, but that at its core is as dull as a sidewalk. I have to find some way to bring it to life against the much more scintillating context of the story itself, the trial of the Communist Party leaders.

But, well, this part is just plain boring.

Part of the defense strategy in the trial was to delay and drag things out. At the opening of the trial they launched into a weeks-long attack on the jury-selection system, in which they paraded dozens of witnesses through the court room. The judge was indulgent. The witnesses were redundant. The challenge failed. The days dragged on ...

I'll make this work and by the time I'm done it will all sing and make sense. But for now, I come out to the desk and, instead of rubbing my hands together in excitement to get launched on the day's work, sit down with a groan. And straighten the papers on my desk. And check Facebook. And check the weather. And check a friend's blog. And check Facebook. And make the coffee. And check Facebook. And pour a cup of the freshly made coffee. And check Facebook.

And update my blog.

Knock it off, Scott, and get back to work... Read More 
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The cliche photograph of the work space

UPDATE: There, it took a while but I can confirm the desk is indeed made of wood.

Running out of things to procrastinate over...

I've been looking at this mess on my desk for the better part of a week now (okay, several weeks). It's on the daily list of things to get to but, obviously, hasn't quite been accomplished. Today, for sure, after the farmer's market this morning.


The row of books is part of the research material for the current book project, The Fear Within, which has had me buried in the immediate postwar years. It's a fascinating era in which national fear of foreign enemies -- communists, in this case -- had a major impact on government policy and led to an erosion of basic civil rights.

Sound familiar?
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Any Nero Wolfe fans in the house?

I have to admit to a certain fascination with the trial underway in Manhattan over the alleged plundering of the late Brooke Astor's estate. The drama falls somewhere between Tom Wolfe and Rex Stout, the creator of the one-seventh of a ton genius detective Nero Wolfe.

At its heart it's a throwback story, drawing in the top layers of Manhattan's high society, beginning with Astor, at one point the hostess in New York City. Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's legendary editor, and Henry Kissinger (a war criminal in some quarters; the hero of American diplomacy in others).

But it's also a deeper tale of crumbling families, greed, probably a little jealousy and, deepest of all, betrayal. And that the victim was elderly and infirm takes the story out of all those zones and places it in the heart of nearly every American family that has dealt with a matriarch or patriarch reaching such advanced, and debilitated years.

Damn, it should be a novel.
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Garry Wills on Henry Louis Gates, Lincoln and racism

The upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books (to my mind the best journal in the country) has an essay/review by the incomparable Garry Wills of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, edited and with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and coedited by Donald Yacovone. The book is touted as a collection of all of Abraham Lincoln's writings on race.

There has been recurrent work done on Lincoln and race and his stance on slavery, and like most historical perspectives that have become part of the national fabric, the reality of Lincoln on race is much more nuanced and volatile than the myth. Wills zeroes in on Lincoln's economic, rather than moral, argument for ending slavery. Part of it sounds pre-Marxist, arguing that the slaves had a right to the fruit of their own labor. But Lincoln also believed that slavery hurt white laborers by driving down wages and giving slave-owners an unfair economic advantage:

"So deep was Lincoln's belief in a free market of labor that he condemned slavery for impinging on the free whites' right to the fruits of their work. The slave owners' profits from the unrequited toil of their slaves gave them an advantage over those who paid their workers, making the latter less competitive than they would otherwise be. One of the reasons Lincoln wanted to keep slavery from the territories was to protect the opportunities of free white workers (another was to decrease opportunities for miscegenation). Speaking at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1856, he said that the territories "should be kept open for the homes of free white people." Even his cherished plan of sending freed blacks to Liberia was looked at from the economic vantage of free white labor. In his 1862 annual address to Congress, he said: "With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain."

There's much more to the essay, obviously, and I encourage you to click through to it (and for that matter, to subscribe). It's a thought-provoking essay, and gets at a point I make repeatedly to my journalism students: Always question how you know what you think you know. And then start peeling back the layers.
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Unbashed shilling for a friend

My friend and soccer mate Scott Laumann is on a three-month sabbatical in Minnesota with his wife and their young daughter (we're hoping the mosquitoes and black flies are merciful).

But that's not why I'm posting. He's a wonderful artist and remarkable illustrator, with works getting play in the LA Times, Rolling Stone and slew of other places. Below are a couple of samples, but check out his web site for the full array. We have a couple of his pieces (prints) in the living room, part of his giants-of-jazz series.

Great stuff.

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