Friday, June 26, 2015

Televised List-Reading

The National Basketball Association has just capped off its five hour list-reading extravaganza in Brooklyn.  The NBA draft has everything a person wants on television: garish suits, extended shots of people talking on cell phones, xenophobic booing of gangly European dunk magnets, and basketball players forced to deceive the American public with disingenuous hats. 
LaMarcus Aldridge and the NBA draw helpless basketball fans into a web 
of lies

In a vacuum, it is hard to understand the appeal of a clumsy, ponderous spectacle where the most exciting thing that happens is some giant dressed like an anthropomorphic blueberry awkwardly shaking hands with a hairless future-man while an off-stage panel publicly describes his shortcomings.  I can't imagine sitting through it live until second-round picks are distributed based on one-on-one pickup games between Darryl Morey and Sam Hinckie.  But the NBA draft and even its overwrought three-day NFL cousin are great because they celebrate hope, intrigue, and developing intractable opinions without any firm basis of knowledge.  Teams and, to a lesser extent, creepy self-proclaimed draft experts, spend hundreds of hours evaluating players, but their picks are in the hands of fate; the only certainties in the history of the NBA draft are the inevitable deaths of everyone involved and the fact that Jan Vesely was not an NBA player.

The Bulls selected Arkansas power forward Bobby Portis with the 22nd pick in last night's draft, even though they have a crowded frontcourt.  I have not seen one minute of Bobby Portis playing basketball.  I am not a basketball scout.  But I am thrilled with the pick because Portis seems to excel at two important skills the Bulls require: making crazy faces and yelling.
Opponents cower in fear from the dreaded "Portis Head" 

Portis will be mentored by experienced bigs Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol in bellowing and scowling.  Nikola Mirotic, in his rookie year offers something no one else on the Bulls has: a great, big, bushy beard.  Many pundits expected the Bulls to get a backup for Derrick Rose, but they thought Portis was the best player left on the board and Nate Robinson is still available.


"Whatever subject he started he always got back to his favourite theme, and he represented Prince Bismarck, however he might be for the moment disguised, as a veritable and authentic Satan of modern Europe."

That is how you start a goddamn book review.  W.T. Stead, the notable British journalist and editor known for, among other things, using his newspapers to suggest sending Charles Gordon into Sudan and then excoriating the government for its failure to rescue him and dying on the Titanic, took a flamethrower to recently-deceased Otto Von Bismarck in an 1898 article in his Review of Reviews.  The quote above is attributed to a conversation he had with Robert Morier, the British Ambassador to Russia (Stead traveled to Russia during the height of British Russophobia and published The Truth About Russia in 1888).  It is fair to say that Stead shared this opinion.  In a review of  German press agent Julius Moritz Busch's memoir Bismarck: Some Secret Pages of His History, Stead opened both barrels on Bismarck and his Boswell, Busch.
Moritz Busch, Otto von Bismarck, and a pyschic portrait for the floating ghost head of W.T. 
Stead, oh yeah I should probably mention that Stead was an ardent spiritualist who wrote 
extensively about his communication with ghosts and telepathy and automatic writing

There are certainly countless responsible histories you can read of Bismarck that analyze Busch's memoir as a historical source and give you proper context with which to read Stead.  But this is not a place for responsible, contextual history, this is a place for taking a look at nineteenth-century invective and luxuriate in the bile and sort of weird insults and curses laid upon one of Europe's most reviled Victorian statesmen.  Here are some headings and subheadings from the article describing Bismarck or Busch:


Stead attacks Bismarck and Busch for manipulating the press. He quotes his own description of the use of a "Reptile Fund" (money set aside for espionage, manipulation, and other underhanded secret deeds) to influence the foreign press from his own The Truth About Russia because extensively quoting yourself in a scathing review is a power move:
In the journalism of Europe it is the lot of some correspondents abroad to fulfil with automatic and unfailing regularity the useful and, from Bismarck's point of view, the necessary functions of the earthworm.  There are, for example, some supreme types of this species on the Times, whose despatches, telegraphed daily to the leading newspaper in the world, are little more than ill-digested reproductions of the inventions and calumnies of the Reptile press-- their "news" is merely the secretion of the reptile passed through the alimentary canal of the worm.  But it helps to form the compost upon which public opinion is based, and thus from the great central bureau of Berlin are fed all the newspapers of the world.
Stead describes Busch as little more than a tool of Bismarck, rendering him as a sort of attack-butler.  
It would be difficult to outdo in caddish insolence the way in which Dr. Busch suffered himself to write of journalists whom he regarded as outside the official circle.  Jeames de la Pluche(1) himself was less of a flunkey than Dr. Mortiz Busch.  One of his articles in the volume is simply superb as a revelation of the way in which a great man's valet can give himself airs.  Even Lord Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street(2) might take a lesson from Dr. Mortiz Busch.  The good German Boswell is really the most unmitigated snob on record.  It is very amusing, and yet in its way not a little pathetic.  For even Dr. Moritz Busch is a human being.
(1) Jeames de la Pluche is a former footman/railroad speculator character whose rise and fall is chronicled in The Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche, a series of letters in Punch by Thackeray writing as M.A. Titmarsh, Esq.
(2) I don't know anything about Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street, but I am going to assume he  the apex of High Victorian butler snobbery who wore a suite made from tails collected from lesser footmen.

As way of proof, Stead offers up an example of how Busch addressed Bismarck:
Pray excuse me for comparing you to an animal, but you remind me of the picture of a noble stag, which, time after time, shakes off the snarling pack, and then, proud and unhurt, regains the shelter of his forest, crowned by his branching antlers. 
 "It is much to be wished  that Prince Bismarck did belong to an entirely different species, if only for the credit of our common humanity," Stead wrote.

The whole of the article is peppered with attacks on Bismarckian subterfuge and Bismarck's impressions of Queen Victoria and other notable British figures.  Stead's review is not a bad way to spend some time reveling in pointed Victorian insults, a model for all book reviews as the following passage should convince you:

We'll end with a final mention of a bizarre spectacle from early American politics when statesmen settled their disputes by shooting each other in the face with pistols.  In 1831, Missouri Congressman Spencer Pettis and U.S. Army Major Thomas Biddle met in a deadly duel that ended both of their lives.  The dispute arose after Pettis, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, attacked Biddle's brother Nicholas, the president of Jackson's hated Second Bank of the United States. 
A contemporary pro-Jackson cartoon shows him attacking a monster-bank.  Nicholas 
Biddle is wearing the top hat

According to an article from an 1877 edition of the Hartford Weekly Times by a correspondent who claims to have been a close aid to Nicholas Biddle and signed his article "BOWIE-KNIFE," Biddle's character was "assaulted with bitter vituperation."  Thomas Biddle, who lived in St. Louis, and Pettis began to attack each other in the press with insults such as calling each other a "dish of skimmed milk."

The conflict became violent when Thomas Biddle attacked Pettis in a hotel room.  As BOWIE-KNIFE puts it, Biddle grabbed a cow-hide and "inflicted a very severe chastisement upon Pettis."  Pettis recovered before all involved decided it was sensible and manly to shoot each other.

The venue for the duel was settled as an island outcrop between Missouri and Illinois called "Bloody Island," which should be the title for some horrible pirate fantasy novel.  The island got its name from the numerous duels fought on its soil, as explained by the Missouri State Archive's helpful page on Missouri dueling.  According to that page, the Biddle-Pettis duel was the third major political duel fought on its sand.  The existence of a dueling island could not have been unique to Missouri, and I assume other states had their dueling arenas such as:

RHODE ISLAND: Lockjaw Caverns
GEORGIA: Skeleton Corner
TEXAS: Hellfire Gulch
KENTUCKY: Headbutt Quarry
FLORIDA: The State of Florida

Biddle and Pettis chose to duel at five feet, an absurdly short distance (Biddle was near-sighted and we were years away from the advent of prescription dueling goggles), and both fired and killed each other.  Bloody island continued to host duels well into the 1850s before people came to their senses, realized that politicians probably shouldn't murder each other, and decided to settle disputes with honor and skill in the Atlasphere.       

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