Carol Dyhouse, Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire: Well, white Western women, from the nineteenth century on, but ok. Anyone who’s been through more than one round of ‘why cis women write and read slash’ and ‘rape fantasies are fantasies about desirability’ will find only additional anecdotes here, indicating that these issues have been bobbing about in Western culture since at least the rise of print. My favorites: “ ‘You start by sinking into his arms and it ends with your arms in his sink’” was a second-wave feminist slogan. “Late nineteenth-century observers spoke of a new disease affecting young women, which they dubbed ‘idolitis.’” Men have long scoffed at women’s representations of desirable men, and found something dangerous/effeminate about such men, expressing doubts about why Mr. Darcy and other iconic heroes created by women could possibly be so attractive. They derided Liberace for dressing flashily and loving his mother, both of which his female fans found appealing. By contrast, Queen Victoria dressed her consort Albert as her own fantasy prince, in medieval garb. (Also, women have long used fantasy to substitute for disappointing reality—that well precedes the internet, as Dyhouse’s investigation of various diaries and other documents shows.)

As with female authors, other female creators were often responsible for the public images of romantic movie stars—screenwriter June Mathis was the one who insisted that the mostly unknown Rudolph Valentino should be a star. “Her fellow studio executives were uneasy about Valentino’s Latin looks, but she stood firm, enlarging the role of Julio to showcase his dancing skills in the famous tango scene.” I recall a similar anecdote by Doris Egan about her and another woman’s insistence on casting Jensen Ackles against male exec resistance (and also I think about the cartoon where the male comics fan is made uncomfortable by the woman’s preference for a lean, big-eyed, soft-mouthed Batman). Mathis wrote the screenplay for another of his hits, and Dorothy Arzner edited the film, “mixing footage of bullfights with close-ups of Valentino strutting and smouldering.” Other women “famously schooled Valentino in how to make love to Gloria Swanson … [suggesting] that kissing the open palm, rather than the back of a woman’s hand, made the more sensuous statement.” Actress/producer Alla Nazimova tweaked his appearance, and his second wife, Natacha Rambova, a costume designer and photographer, also influenced his image—and contemporary critics mocked him as a “woman-made man.” Likewise, “[t]he enduring potency of Lord Byron as a kind of archetype has a great deal to do with the ways in which his particular style of masculinity seemed to bring together opposing qualities: he was courageous and bold but fussed about his diet and appearance; disconcertingly handsome but disarmingly insecure about being podgy and lame. Women were won over by this amalgam of strength and vulnerabilty, together with the subtle suggestion of androgyny.” The original floppy-haired boy, in other words.

I liked Dyhouse’s point that Orientalism worked differently for white women and white men: “Through [white] women’s eyes, it was often the Western male, measured against an image of the sensuality or masterful virility of the desert lover, who could be found wanting.” At the same time, female creators often tame dominant males by maiming, crippling, or blinding them—Dyhouse suggests that this is about establishing a kind of equality with the heroine, but I think the appeal of hurt/comfort also has to be factored in.

Dyhouse also discusses other writing on female desire/representations of desirable men, including Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance. Also Jane Miller, who discussed “why so many male critics have been dismissive of women writers’ attempts to depict male heroes”—Miller suggested that, for men, the hero’s life is “an exceptional life, garlanded with achievements,” while for female romance writer, a hero is more ordinary: a man who, “once committed to the heroine, gives shape to her life.” I’m not convinced, but ok. More persuasive to me was Barbara Cartland’s reference to women who married into wealthy, landed families as “marrying park gates”: a rich fantasy man offers entrée into a world that is still much harder for a woman to reach on her own merits.

Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic: A rich and engaging book. Freeman argues that early American politics can only be understood by taking into account cultures of honor and the emotional experiences of the men in charge, or who wanted to be in charge. Obtaining and retaining honor required certain behaviors and barred other ones. In the absence of political parties as we know them, personal alliances were everything, which is why everyone hated Burr, who was plainly willing to switch whenever it might do him good. Men had to be willing to duel if sufficiently insulted, but they had to refrain from betraying private confidences, but did anyway on occasion. This resulted in a hierarchy of ways of communicating—including anonymous pamphlets (intended to be read by a limited number of important people; Adams never saw a key Hamilton pamphlet and had to have its contents relayed by a friend who’d seen a copy that a friend owned), newspapers (intended to be read by the general public and circulated via other newspapers to other places), private letters (intended to circulate among an even more limited number of important people, and gaining credibility because the speaker’s name was attached), broadsides (intended to be read by everyone literate in a jurisdiction, and thus only used to call someone out for cowardice/to deliver the clearest insults), and conversation (which Jefferson often limited his communications to for more wiggle room, though he took detailed notes that caused a scandal when ultimately printed after his death—what Freeman calls “a ticking time bomb” whose very delay was supposed to bolster Jefferson’s neutrality and control future understanding of the Founders).

Using the right mechanism could be devishly effective—when Hamilton’s anonymous newspaper campaign against Jefferson was widely known to be Hamilton’s, it had the authority of his name without explicit attribution and thus gained extra power without exposing Hamilton to potential dishonor—no wonder Jefferson was so mad, and he wasn’t alone in expressing what Freeman calls “blood-lust” in response to attacks in print. They especially feared lingering dishonor. I loved Adams’ statement in a letter that Jefferson “cannot be a lover of history. There are prominent traits in his character, & important actions in his life, that he would not wish should be delineated, & transmitted to posterity.” Which is why, Freeman posits, he tried to write it himself, as did many others in the founding generation. Hamilton and Burr suffered most from this process, especially Burr, who almost never wrote anything down and thus lacked a record of his thoughts and actions through the relevant period (though he did try to justify himself in later writing).

Gossip was the currency of politics, and letters are full of hints about what can only be said in person, e.g. “With regard to Burr’s election I have a secret to tell you which I cannot communicate till I see you…. This hint is most confidentially communicated.” Freeman also emphasizes how difficult it was to get news across such great distances; people were often left wondering what happened for weeks or months. Receiving a letter could be a big deal, and post offices were political entities because the postmaster could keep track of who was talking to whom—often enough, indeed, letters sent by congressmen and received back at home were read publicly. Republicans were better at disseminating gossip to the public at large, with the notable exception of the Citizen Genet affair, which strained relations with France when the Federalists leaked certain unflattering information.

At the same time, the nature of public honor was changing, and people weren’t sure where it was going, which led to a lot of agonizing and not a few misjudgments, such as those of Hamilton and Adams, the latter of whom published in newspapers what he should have kept to letters, thus harming his reputation. Misjudgments bad enough, or anger roused enough, could lead to real duels, even though they were becoming less socially acceptable. National politics was a new sport, and no one knew quite what the rules were, made worse by each state’s congressmen’s general unfamiliarity with those from other states; Northern and Southern manners collided, while loyalties shifted unpredictably. Washington’s rigidity came in part from his attempts to perform in a way that got nothing wrong—once successful compromise was his inaugural suit, “made of plain brown American broadcloth and adorned with gilt buttons and diamond shoe buckles, … but the homespun was ‘so handsomely finished’ that ‘it was universally mistaken for a foreign manufactured cloth.’”

They seem very like Americans today (the President notwithstanding)—for example, even thirty years after the election of 1800, many of the participants and even their heirs were still really upset about it and tried to control the narrative. It was a tense and painful time, full of accusations against the other side. “Something seemed to be awry in the American political system, and someone had to shoulder the blame.” The major difference that made every difference, Freeman argues, was the personalization of politics—without parties with fixed positions, all politics was personal, so Jefferson’s potential rapprochement with Adams as Adams’ VP seemed like a personal betrayal. (One former Jefferson ally fumed that his first act in the Senate was to say nice things about Adams, “which was saying to his friends—I am in; Kiss my ---- and go to H-ll.”) Federalists and Republicans had difficulty maintaining political alliances over such long distances, making sectional loyalties potentially disruptive, and the partisan conflicts of 1800 were, Freemand argues, not evidence of party strength but instead “attempts to bolster national alliances that were dangerously divided along regional lines.”

Rather than reading the Jefferson-Burr tie of 1800 as evidence of party discipline, Freeman contends that the unanimity stemmed from fear of betrayal: each Republican elector feared betrayal by the others, so each one thought that he couldn’t risk leaving either one off of his ballot in case that invited further betrayals—drop Burr and the Northerners would revolt, and the same for the Southerners and dropping Jefferson. Meanwhile, Burr intepreted what was happening as a challenge to his honor: he refused to say that he wouldn’t serve if chosen President because he thought that he was as capable as anyone else to do the job, and because he’d already given his word to support Jefferson so being asked to repeat was insulting (and some because he did want to be President). Burr was offended by hearing about Madison’s letter saying that electing him would degrade America, and thus took the steps that, contrary to what he wanted, destroyed his reputation. But because this was all done by gossip and some indirection, Jefferson could accuse Burr of betrayal and Burr could just as truthfully deny that he had done so, and vice versa. “A politics of friendship was a politics of deniability.” Thus, partisan politics offered a useful solution to the otherwise “endless battle of reputations.”

One last, kind of awful, tidbit: “one unknown joker tried to provoke James Hamilton into a duel with Aaron Burr” by faking a note from James challenging Burr to a duel “where you murdered my father.” When confronted with the note, Hamilton said it was a forgery “but added that if Burr had accepted the challenge, Hamilton would adopt it as his own.” The person who brought the note, however, disrupted the duel ritual by insisting that he wasn’t there as a second but rather simply to confirm the forgery, and there the matter ended.

Nathan Thrall, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine: Well, that was depressing. A collection of essays on the unending struggle; the title comes from early essays arguing that Israel and Palestinian organizations only make concessions when people, including the US, give up on “peace” and particularly only when they’re suffering setbacks. (Since a setback for Israel is a victory for Palestine and vice versa in most cases, one can see how this would make for difficulty.) The Oslo agreement got the PLO invested in keeping the West Bank in line, turning it “from a protector against an occupying army into an agglomeration of self-interested businessmen securing exclusive contracts for it,” and implicated Palestinians in daily collaboration. The US, of course, won’t even think about using most of the possible leverage on Israel it has because that’s not politically feasible: “Listening to them discuss how to devise an end to occupation is like listening to the operator of a bulldozer ask how he can demolish a building with his hammer.” The US also prevents other third parties from taking part in the process in a meaningful way.

There are also a number of other depressing descriptions of/points about the Palestinian situation, including how Israeli police have given up on areas in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority is forbidden to police, turning them into law-free zones whose residents must still pay taxes. And, in terms of some agreement that would involve Palestinian acceptance of land trades, or a partial area of control, Thrall argues that the problem is that the parties would be “trading fundamentally unlike assets.” Palestinians would give up their intangible moral claims, “acquiescing in the denial of their right to return and bestowing legitimacy on their dispossessors by recognizing the vast majority of their homeland as a Jewish state.” Israelis would commit to physically withdrawing from some land they control now. But the difference is, that once the parties accepted the trade, the Palestinians’ intangible legitimacy would disappear (he says, though I don’t necessarily follow that), and Israel would still have the land until a final settlement was reached.


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