Published on 10 Apr 2014
“It’s kind of a weird thing that’s happened with American society — this idea that you have to have a college degree to be a respectable member of the middle class,” says Glenn Reynolds, professor of law at the University of Tennessee and purveyor of the popular Instapundit blog. Reynolds’ latest work, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself, looks at the higher education bubble and how parents, students, and educators can remake the education system.
Reynolds sat down with Reason TV‘s Alexis Garcia to discuss why Americans are spending more for a college education and how students are responding to increasing tuition costs. “Given how expensive it is to go to college, there has to be a return sufficient to make it worth the time and especially the money,” Reynolds states. “You’re seeing declining enrollment in some schools and you’re seeing much more price resistance on the part of both parents and students.”
The discussion also includes Reynolds’ take on school choice, the upcoming elections, the current state of the blogosphere, and whether or not both political parties are necessary. Nearly a decade after Reynolds published An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, the blogfather still remains optimistic about technology’s ability to empower the individual and inspire grassroots movements.
April 13, 2014
April 10, 2014
Froma Harrop reviews the latest
hare-brained scheme geopolitical notion of Diane Francis:
What country do Americans overwhelmingly like the most? Canada.
What country do Canadians pretty much like the most? America.
What country has the natural resources America needs? Canada.
What country has the entrepreneurship, technology and defense capability Canada needs? America.
Has the time come to face the music and dance? Yes, says Diane Francis, editor-at-large at the National Post in Toronto. Her book Merger of the Century: Why Canada and America Should Become One Country is both provocative and persuasive.
“The genius of both societies is that they are very good at assimilating people from all over the world,” Francis told me. “So why can’t they do it themselves?”
Relatively small differences are why. Canadian intellectuals have long portrayed the United States as their violent, unruly twin. Many conservatives in this country, meanwhile, deride Canada as the socialistic land of single-payer medicine, gun control and other heavy regulation.
“I don’t buy the narrative of American exceptionalism or Canadian superiority,” says Francis, a dual citizen (born in Chicago). “Both have good points and bad points.”
Americans close to the border already think a lot like Canadians, she notes. Some northern states actually have more liberal laws and lower crime rates than Canada’s. “They are more Canadian than Canadians.”
We have a set of alliances that ensure continental security is underwritten by the world’s most powerful military. We have a free trade arrangement between the two countries that also includes Mexico. Our respective intelligence services co-operate (along with the UK, New Zealand, and Australia) at a very deep level — both for good (shared military surveillance, analysis, and security) and for ill (very significant individual privacy concerns).
Our economies are strongly inter-linked, but both are still subject to outside forces and inside stresses that affect each country differently.
In other words, aside from the minor convenience of not having to carry passports when moving from one country to the other (and the way the US is moving, that may no longer be true for Americans travelling domestically in a few years), we already have most of the benefits of a merger with none of the drawbacks: the American legal system is a terrifying beast to behold, US federal and state governments are far more intrusive and undemocratic in practice despite the legal framework of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the US political system is if possible even more terrifying than their legal system.
Canada’s legal system could benefit from a few key reforms (getting rid of the human rights tribunals would be a good one, for example), but seem to work in a manner that is both faster and more visibly fair than their American counterparts. Our form of government looks (to American eyes) to be dictatorial, yet yields to democratic pressure from the voters most of the time (most recent example: Quebec). Our head of government is just a politician … and that’s all we expect of a Prime Minister. Our head of state doesn’t even live here, and we’re totally okay with that, too. Of course, if such a merger did take place, the head of state still wouldn’t live here…
A merger? I don’t think so.
April 3, 2014
The publisher sent a copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society along with a note that Rifkin himself wanted ESR to receive a copy (because Rifkin thinks ESR is a good representative of some of the concepts in the book). ESR isn’t impressed:
In this book, Rifkin is fascinated by the phenomenon of goods for which the marginal cost of production is zero, or so close to zero that it can be ignored. All of the present-day examples of these he points at are information goods — software, music, visual art, novels. He joins this to the overarching obsession of all his books, which are variations on a theme of “Let us write an epitaph for capitalism”.
In doing so, Rifkin effectively ignores what capitalists do and what capitalism actually is. “Capital” is wealth paying for setup costs. Even for pure information goods those costs can be quite high. Music is a good example; it has zero marginal cost to reproduce, but the first copy is expensive. Musicians must own expensive instruments, be paid to perform, and require other capital goods such as recording studios. If those setup costs are not reliably priced into the final good, production of music will not remain economically viable.
Rifkin cites me in his book, but it is evident that he almost completely misunderstood my arguments in two different way, both of which bear on the premises of his book.
First, software has a marginal cost of production that is effectively zero, but that’s true of all software rather than just open source. What makes open source economically viable is the strength of secondary markets in support and related services. Most other kinds of information goods don’t have these. Thus, the economics favoring open source in software are not universal even in pure information goods.
Second, even in software — with those strong secondary markets — open-source development relies on the capital goods of software production being cheap. When computers were expensive, the economics of mass industrialization and its centralized management structures ruled them. Rifkin acknowledges that this is true of a wide variety of goods, but never actually grapples with the question of how to pull capital costs of those other goods down to the point where they no longer dominate marginal costs.
There are two other, much larger, holes below the waterline of Rifkin’s thesis. One is that atoms are heavy. The other is that human attention doesn’t get cheaper as you buy more of it. In fact, the opposite tends to be true — which is exactly why capitalists can make a lot of money by substituting capital goods for labor.
These are very stubborn cost drivers. They’re the reason Rifkin’s breathless hopes for 3-D printing will not be fulfilled. Because 3-D printers require feedstock, the marginal cost of producing goods with them has a floor well above zero. That ABS plastic, or whatever, has to be produced. Then it has to be moved to where the printer is. Then somebody has to operate the printer. Then the finished good has to be moved to the point of use. None of these operations has a cost that is driven to zero, or near zero at scale. 3-D printing can increase efficiency by outcompeting some kinds of mass production, but it can’t make production costs go away.
David Harsanyi talks to Dave Barry about various topics:
In his new book, You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topic He Knows Very Little About, America’s leading humorist takes on parenting, world affairs, pets, Justin Bieber and a slew of others topics that shouldn’t be this funny. We asked him about politics, libertarianism and God:
A lot of people are worried that we’re overprotective of children these days; making sure they never scrape a knee or have their feelings hurt. Would you consider yourself more of a helicopter parent or a free-range parent?
I’m free-range most of the time. I realize I’m being stereotypical, but I usually leave it up to my wife to keep track of most the details of my daughter’s life, such as is she eating, does she receive medical care, how old is she, etc. The exception is when boys come around, at which point I become more of a helicopter parent. Actually, I become a Predator Drone.
If you had to pick one politician that reflects everything that’s awful about politics today who would it be? And is there any politician that you’d feel good voting for?
I’d go with Anthony Weiner for part one of that question, and Rob Ford for part two.
April 1, 2014
Published on 28 Mar 2014
Kim Jong Il, who was the supreme leader of North Korea until his death in 2011, was a leading authority on gymnastics, cinema, literature, war, cooking, and the arts. He wrote 1,400 works when he was in college, including a senior thesis that was an achievement comparable to Columbus’ discovery of America. He revolutionized the opera, personally discovered that Paleolithic man originated on the Korean Peninsula, and came up with a theory of art that was as impactful on modern culture as the Copernican Revolution. Why did the supreme leader always wear sunglasses? That’s because his eyes were constantly bloodshot from staying up all night figuring out ways to help his country.
These are details from celebrity ghostwriter (and former editor of Overheard in New York) Michael Malice’s new book Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, a strange, tragic, and humorous first-person account of the supreme leader’s life. On March 18, 2014, at an event held at New York City’s Museum of Sex and sponsored by the Reason Foundation, The New York Times columnist John Tierney sat down with Malice to discuss the book.
Highlights from the event included a discussion of how Malice came to write Dear Reader (1:28); why Kim Jong Il is despised by North Koreans (7:00); how North Koreans are forced to engage in regular self-criticism sessions in which they’re denounced by their peers (9:00); why it was a surprise that Kim Jong Il succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung (12:00); why there’s no hope that political change will come to North Korea anytime soon (20:20); Ayn Rand’s influence on Malice (23:20); why Kim Jong Il hated the Mona Lisa (27:15); an example of a North Korean joke (29:15); why Malice thinks the media’s coverage of Dennis Rodman’s relationship with Kim Jong Un is deplorable (31:35); the story behind the 1987 bombing of Flight 858 by North Korean agents (33:20); the origins of the Korean famine (41:00); Kim Jong Il’s “spot on critiques of U.S. foreign policy” (42:00); why North Korea allows its citizens to reunite with family members from South Korea (43:30); the relationship between China and North Korea (50:00); and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities (51:15).
For more on Malice’s time in North Korea researching the book, read his account from the August/September 2013 issue of Reason.
March 26, 2014
March 25, 2014
In History Today, Richard Cavendish tells the story behind the best-known of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories:
Much ink and accusations of plagiarism have been spilled over the story’s origins. Conan Doyle’s initial inspiration came from a young journalist friend named Bertram Fletcher Robinson, nicknamed ‘Bobbles’, with whom he spent four days on a seaside golfing holiday at Cromer in Norfolk in the spring of 1901. While they were there, Robinson told Doyle the legend of a ghostly hound on Dartmoor and the two men decided to write what the latter called ‘a real creeper’ together. Robinson lived at Ipplepen, near Newton Abbot in South Devon, and the two friends went there to investigate Dartmoor. Robinson wrote later that Doyle ‘listened eagerly to my stories of the ghost hounds, of the headless riders and of the devils that lurk in the hollows – legends upon which I had been reared, for my home lay on the borders of the moor.’ They stayed at Robinson’s home and at Rowe’s Duchy Hotel at Princetown near the prison, whose governor, deputy governor, chaplain and doctor solemnly came, as Robinson noted, ‘to pay a call on Mr Sherlock Holmes’, to Doyle’s irritation. He and Robinson explored the moor together and appropriated the surname of Robinson’s coachman, Harry Baskerville.
Doyle decided early on to make the tale a Sherlock Holmes mystery, presumed to be an episode in Holmes’ earlier career, before his fatal grapple with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Writing to the editor of the Strand Magazine, Herbert Greenhough Smith, to tell him about the new story, he stipulated that Fletcher Robinson’s name must appear as joint author. ‘I can answer for the yarn being all my own in my own style without dilution, since your readers like that. But he gave me the central idea and the local colour, and so I feel his name must appear.’ This was finally watered down to a note added to the first part, recording Doyle’s indebtedness to Fletcher Robinson, to whom ‘this story owes its inception’ and ‘who has helped me both in the general plot and in the local details.’ The British and American editions in book form also acknowledged Robinson’s help.
March 24, 2014
If you have never been sexually attracted to women, you will never quite understand the monumental power of female sexuality, except by proxy or in theory, nor will you quite know the immense advantage it gives us over men. Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me, of all things, into a momentary misogynist, which I suppose was the best indicator that my experiment had worked. I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip, an execution so lazy, so effortless, it made the defeats and even the successes unbearably humiliating. Typical male power feels by comparison like a blunt instrument, its salvos and field strategies laughably remedial next to the damage a woman can do with a single cutting word: no.
Sex is most powerful in the mind, and to men, in the mind, women have a lot of power, not only to arouse, but to give worth, self-worth, meaning, initiation, sustenance, everything. Seeing this more clearly through my experience, I began to wonder whether the most extreme men resort to violence with women because they think that’s all they have, their one pathetic advantage over all she seems to hold above them. I make no excuses for this. There are none. But as a man I felt vaguely attuned to this mind-set or its possibility. I did not inhabit it, but I thought I saw how rejection might get twisted beyond recognition in the mind of a discarded male where misogyny and ultimately rape may be a vicious attempt to take what cannot be taken because it has not been bestowed.
There were other surprising discoveries. With all the anger I felt flowing in my direction — anger directed at the abstraction called men — I was not expecting to find, nestled within the confines of female heterosexuality, a deep love and genuine attraction for real men. Not for women in men’s bodies, as the prejudicial me had thought. Not even just for the metrosexual, though he has his audience, but for brawny, hairy, smelly, stalwart, manly men; bald men, men with bellies, men who can fix things and, yes, men who like sports and pound away in the bedroom. Men whom women loved for being men with all the qualities that testosterone and the patriarchy had given them, and whom I have come to appreciate for those very same qualities, however infuriating I still find them at times.
Dating women was the hardest thing I had to do as Ned, even when the women liked me and I liked them. I have never felt more vulnerable to total strangers, never more socially defenceless than in my clanking suit of borrowed armour. But then, I guess maybe that’s one of the secrets of manhood that no man tells if he can help it. Every man’s armour is borrowed and 10 sizes too big, and beneath it he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.
That, maybe, was the last twist of my adventure. I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball. Eventually I realised that my disguise was the one thing I had in common with every guy in the room. It was hard being a guy.
Rather than choosing to become a woman again, it is probably truer to say that I reverted to form. I stopped faking it. I came back to myself, proud, free and glad in every way to be a woman.
Norah Vincent, “Double agent” (an edited extract from Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised As A Man), Guardian, 2006-03-18.
March 19, 2014
Duncan Kelly reviews Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel.
According to this hefty new study of the French Revolution by Jonathan Israel, a professor of history at Princeton, what such events really show is the motivating power of ideas in guiding and transforming events. In his terms, the French Revolution was a “revolution of ideas” before it became “a revolution of fact”; indeed, it was three revolutions all at once.
Ideas about political equality, anticlericalism and modern republicanism grounded in “reason” motivated Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet and Thomas Paine, while they clashed with the “moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism” embodied by more pro-royalist factions (the Feuillants) and aristocratic supporters such as Lafayette. Both struggled against Robespierre’s “authoritarian populism”, which for Israel prefigures modern fascism.
The radical compound in this instance might have been uniquely French but its impact spread widely. The resounding Declaration of the Rights of Man, writes Israel, was a “manifesto entirely incompatible with all ancien régime notions of social, racial, and religious hierarchy”. Revolution lent support to Caribbean struggles for black emancipation such as that of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, memorably described in CLR James’s 1938 classic The Black Jacobins. James’s book, however, is an odd omission in Israel’s otherwise compendious bibliography.
Historians have often criticised Israel for flattening out all the differences between these radical ideas except those he wants to retain and, when applied to the French Revolution, his arguments can feel like the inverse of some 19th-century Marxist schema. Instead of subterranean economic determinations, it is Radical Enlightenment that provides the means by which everything from press freedom to de-Christianisation can be slotted into a matrix requiring little in the way of extra interpretation.
What you get from such a focus on subversive editors, disenchanted priests and materialist philosophers has much in common with a more conventional account: food shortages, public debt crises and social grievances from Paris to the Vendée, combined with a plethora of radical ideas about press freedom, absolute equality, political liberty and radical democracy. Yet the vaulting ambition to ascribe such a momentous transformation to one cause still feels hubristic. The obvious parallel in this year of all years would be the thought that there might be a single idea or singular complex of ideas behind the outbreak of the first world war. Can you imagine such a claim commanding general assent?
March 18, 2014
This month’s update to the Oxford Dictionary includes the words ‘c**ted’, ‘c**ting’, ‘c**tish’ and ‘c**ty’. The expletives now join the list of 750,000 English words defined by the dictionary. ‘Twerk’ and ‘Selfie’ were added at the last update.
Along with the ‘c**ty’, the words ‘Old Etonian’, ‘Rt. Hon.’ and ‘Right Honourable’ have also been included for the first time, although the choices are believed to be unrelated.
Andre Walker, “Official: Oxford Dictionary Says You Can Get ‘C**ted’ and ‘Twerk’”, Breitbart.com, 2014-03-17
March 13, 2014
In a post at the History Today site, Paul Lay describes a rebroadcast of the BBC production based on Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War:
It featured Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, reviving the arguments of his 1998 book of the same name: that Britain and its Empire should have stayed out of the war to leave Europe to be dominated by the economic giant that was the Kaiser’s imperium, much as the EU is now led by the wealthy, democratic Germany of Angela Merkel. After having spent almost an hour outlining his argument, Ferguson’s thesis was then quickly shot down by a phalanx of historians of the First World War, including Gary Sheffield, Heather Jones and Hew Strachan.
The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian. At one point it ran a brief clip of A.J.P. Taylor, doyen of television historians, in his 1977 series How Wars Begin. The BBC don’t tend to produce programmes like that anymore — a single academic historian, addressing the audience with complex arguments in real time to camera — except that they do. The best, the most instructive and original television offering so far on the outbreak of the war is that of the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: his lecture entitled Diplomacy: Sir Edward Grey and the Crisis of 1914, originally broadcast last year on the BBC Parliament channel and therefore, sadly, seen by few.
February 16, 2014
In the New York Post, Larry Getlen retells the tale of Kitty Genovese’s murder and the myths that grew up around it:
The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.
The Times piece was followed by a story in Life magazine, and the narrative spread throughout the world, running in newspapers from Russia and Japan to the Middle East.
New York became internationally infamous as a city filled with thoughtless people who didn’t care about one another; where people could watch their neighbors get stabbed on the street without lifting a finger to help, leaving them to die instead in a pool of their own blood.
The people of Kew Gardens — before that, a relatively crime-free neighborhood where few bothered locking their doors — were referred to in the press as monsters.
But as journalist Kevin Cook details in his new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (W.W. Norton), some of the real thoughtlessness came from a police commissioner who lazily passed a falsehood to a journalist, and a media that fell so deeply in love with a story that it couldn’t be bothered to determine whether it was true.
February 12, 2014
A recent report from Reporters Without Borders has India at the 140th rank (of 180 countries surveyed) for freedom of the press:
The world’s largest democracy remains one of the most restrictive places for the press.
In a report published Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit, ranked India 140th out of 180 countries surveyed for the free speech it affords the media. This was a one-point jump from the country’s 2013 ranking, when it recorded its steepest fall on the annual-list since 2002.
On Monday, acting on an agreement chalked out by a Delhi court, one of India’s largest publishing houses withdrew a 2009 book that reinterprets Hinduism, the latest instance of a book being removed from circulation in the country.
The authors of Wednesday’s report singled out the insurgency in the disputed territory of Kashmir, where channels of communications, including telephone lines, satellite televisions and the Internet, are routinely suspended in response to unrest, as well as the killings of eight journalists in 2013, for India’s lowly press freedom ranking. The killings included those of Jitendra Singh, a freelancer in the eastern state of Jharkhand, who documented Maoist activists in the state, and that of Rakesh Sharma, a Hindi newspaper reporter who was shot dead in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, in August.
February 4, 2014
Why, oh why was Twain’s unpublished work turned over to these jackanapes to paw through like illiterate raccoons looking for rancid bits to eat? Yes, yes, I know they style themselves “The Mark Twain Project,” and have devoted their mortgages, if not lives, to Twain, or at least to raiding his intellectual larder to stock their shabby ivy-stricken midden over at Berkeley. So what. The mental contortions needed to adduce that their name and their sinecures makes them capable of understanding such a writer is like saying that a dog has ticks so the ticks should inherit the dog’s estate. Haven’t you drawn enough blood from the man already, you stooges? You’ve been carving out a living carving your initials, likely misspelled, into the outside of Twain’s bier for a century. Who allowed you to climb in there with him and start carving away on the inside?
There’s Twain inside this book, don’t get me wrong. It’s exactly, precisely what you always get from Twain. His laundry list is a Dead Sea Scroll. His lunch order is a Rosetta Stone. He has more intellectual horsepower under his fingernail after a trip to his ear than Berkeley has in a building, and that’s if the building is full of janitors. At least janitors know how the world works. The buildings full of these scholars need fumigating. Lock the doors, first, from the outside.
It was easy enough, if annoying, to tread across the minefields of intellectual delirium tremens these invertebrates have made of Twain’s writing, leaving their little piles of brain droppings here and there like badly behaved dogs, explaining Twain. I put on heavy shoes and plowed ahead. Then I got to page 468, the glimmer of a tear still in my eye over SLC’s description of his older brother, Orion, filled with pathos and love and respect and affection and a wistful, unspoken wish that his brother wasn’t doomed by his nature to miss the life Twain got by the thickness of one of Sam’s famous whiskers — and then I turned the page, and there on page 469 was text as terrible and incomprehensible as the writing on your own tombstone, delivered early: The rest of the book, almost 300 more pages, was entirely comprised of the stark, raving drivel of these toads, with only bits of Twain embedded in it like reverse carbuncles. Good God. I’ll hold my nose and run through Twain’s Elysian fields, keeping an eye peeled for your intellectual Beserkley cowpies the whole time, but I’m not treating myself to a one-man Easter-egg hunt in a sewage treatment plant.
Explaining Twain. Think of that. Why not send a cigar store indian out on a speaking tour to explain smoking. He stood outside the shop for a hunnerd years. He must know something about the topic by now.
Sippican Cottage, “Sippican’s Greatest Hits: The Autocoprophagy Of Mark Twain”, Sippican Cottage, 2014-01-29
January 21, 2014
Boyd Tonkin discusses some of the real historical incidents that Alexandre Dumas drew upon for his fiction:
In September 1784, an unpleasant incident took place at M. Nicolet’s fashionable theatre in Paris. A young, aristocratic man-about-town, born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), had escorted to the play an elegant lady whose family also came from the West Indies. Dashing, handsome, the son of Count Davy de la Pailleterie might have seemed the ideal squire for the evening. Save, in many eyes, for one thing. He was black — notably dark-skinned, the mixed-race youth had a slave mother — and his companion white.
At Nicolet’s, a white West Indian officer, Jean-Pierre Titon de Saint-Lamain, decided that it would be good fun to insult the count’s black son. First, he pretended to mistake the young man of colour for the lady’s lackey. Then, after an affray, Titon’s henchmen forced the victim to kneel in front of his assailant and ask for pardon. Soon the police arrived and took both men into custody. Statements were taken, but no further action followed. In 1786, the humiliated colonial boy forsook his life of leisure to embark on a military career. He enrolled in the Queen’s Dragoons under a surname not his father’s. Instead, he chose the identity of his slave-born mother: Marie-Cessette Dumas.
By the early 1850s, this Alexandre Dumas had become not only the famous novelist but, arguably, the most famous Frenchman in the world. At this point, garlanded with international fame and quickly spent riches, he wrote his memoirs. Dumas the novelist adored and hero-worshipped his father, who had died in 1806 but left indelible memories. The first 200 pages of My Memoirs deal with General Alex; in fact, Dumas abandons the narrative of his own life at the age of 31. But in his version of the contretemps at Nicolet’s, the strapping young Alex picks up Titon and chucks him into the orchestra pit. This is a feat of derring-do worthy of… well, worthy of a musketeer.
Dumas relished his life, and the privileges and pleasures that his mythic tales earned. He made and lost fortunes as quickly as he wrote bulky novels. He meddled in revolutionary politics first in France and then in rebellious Italy (where he founded a paper called The Independent). He ran through perhaps 40 mistresses and sired (at least) seven children with them. His published works comprise 300 volumes and 100,000 pages. After packing around five lives into one, he died after a stroke in 1870 — the same year as Charles Dickens, whose A Tale of Two Cities pays its own tribute to the style of the comrade with whom he dined in Paris. If living well is the best revenge, then Alexandre made the bigoted society which had tried to humble General Alex kneel to him.
H/T to Jessica Brisbane for the link.
Update, 4 February: A.A. Nofi reviews The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss.
Reiss [...] fits Dumas into his times and his social environment. So we get a look at the brutalities of slavery and racism under the Ancien Régime and later during the supposedly enlightened French Republic. We see the dying days of the Bourbon monarchy, the Revolution that finished it off, and the rise of Bonaparte’s empire, which brought things part way back to their start again. Reiss also gives us little portraits of many individuals; the general’s family, of course, but also soldiers and rulers such as Carnot, Kleber, the Neapolitan and French royals, Lafayette, and others, including Bonaparte, who would become Dumas’ nemesis. Finally, Reiss looks at how the count’s life shaped that of his son and influenced the latter’s novels, noting traces of the senior Dumas in some of the younger’s characters, notably Edmund Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The book has some flaws. Reiss betrays a certain over-fondness for Revolutionary France, failing to see its dark side. He neglects the corruption of French officials, both at home and in occupied territories, the widespread plundering of supposedly “liberated” peoples, the slaughter of dissidents, and the widespread atrocities committed by French troops, which often sparked resistance from the very people the Revolution claimed to be liberating. There are, however, flaws common in treatments of the era, and Reiss is commendably more critical of Napoleon, who also tends to get a favorable press.
The Black Count, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is an excellent work, well-crafted, with a flowing narrative that makes for an easy read.