When it turned out that Johann Hari had attributed quotes from his interviewee’s books to the actual conversations he was having with them, and then used those quotes out of context in his articles for the Independent newspaper, I was naturally befuddled. How could a young man of incredible talent, who had been awarded the Orwell Prize for his journalism in the Congo, be a fabricator?

I made peace with it and hoped that one day Hari would be able to share his gift with all of the Anglophone world again.

I hadn’t thought much of journalistic plagiarism after that point, at least until this last week when New Yorker writer and neuroscience wunderkind Jonah Lehrer quit his job with the aforementioned publication after it came to light that he had fabricated quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan. Yep, that’s right, Bobby Zimmerman.

What these two young men have in common is both have achieved an unprecedented level of professional accolades so early in their career, and have been pushed to keep publishing . Of course I don’t mean to in any way say that what they did was excusable—It wasn’t and isn’t.

I just mean to say that I understand, at least in the Lehrer case, of a lie that became bigger than it was supposed to be and that ultimately ended up hurting a lot of people. If that is in fact the case what happened with Lehrer, I think that a lot of people have done said and done things they regret (myself included), but that’s part of why being in the public sphere is such a big deal; we hold these persons to a higher level of accountability in part to show that our own society is marginally redeemable for the sins others commit.

That sounds like a lot of hyperbole probably, but its important to remember that when we hold people up, that we’re doing so for the right reasons, and that they also recognize their responsibility to the rest of us.


Barry Ritholtz, the analyst whose blog, The Big Picture, makes for great reading, contributed a column to today’s Washington Post about the collapse of MF Global (Corzine’s failed firm) and the failure of regulatory agencies.

Money quote:

Of course, this raises another question: If corrupt and compromised rating agencies had done their jobs — downgrade European junk to what it really was — would MF Global been able to empty client accounts?

I suspect not — their bets on Italian and Spanish sovereign debt should have been downgraded below “A” many moons ago. That it was not merely serves to remind us that these incompetent credit-rating agencies are still part of our regulatory firmament.

It was Tacitus, who a century after Carthage’s downfall  would famously quote British chieftain  Calgacus in his Histories when the British leader reflected upon what a “Roman peace” looks like. Calgacus, who had likely never been to that north African nation, declared that, “They [Romans] plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace ”

Indeed, “Pax Romana” was almost always at the razor sharp end of a gladius. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed, Miles uses new documentary evidence and scholarly research to reassess what brought down the western Mediterranean rival and earned it a place of fear and hatred in Rome’s history almost greater than the barbarians or eastern hordes that would occupy such a prolific place in the nightmares of the Roman elite.

Miles works  to dispel the age-old story since antiquity that the conflict was a to-the-death match between the bastion of civilization (Rome) and the miserable, terror inducing, villains of Africa (Carthage). Instead of relying on this tired and boring narrative, Miles seeks to understand what brought these two great nations to arms and why their fervor to destroy the other was as brutal as it was, even for the ancient world.

Miles studious review of the warring nations shows a keen historical perspective. The conflict was not simply just a fight for dominion of trade or command of precious mining facilities, (though of course those are benchmarks upon how conflicts are inherently judged). War between Rome and Carthage was also a cultural war. Many now living read the words “culture war” and imagines it to be two sides of a political spectrum arguing over a divergent path of political decision making. With Carthage and Rome, the culture war was a battle between two roads that had run on opposite and parallel sides for generations and had now met head-on. Both made grandiose claims of city-state lineage. For example,  Hannibal,  (the great general who would later terrorize the Italian countryside) listed as one of his greatest aims to restoring  the Herculean legend back to its ‘proper’ place—in Carthage. By contrast, the Roman model of manhood and citizenship demanded a defense of this ancient legacy. Therefore even on the interpersonal level the war reflected the depth of the conflict in the minds of soldiers and citizens.

Understanding local mythology and legend can often be an aid to understanding and explaining the baseline fears or goals of a civilization. However, placing too much importance on mythical narratives has the danger of subtracting from the economic element, which in many ways governs society and how we speak about it.

War between Rome and Carthage took many levels and inspired a burning hatred on both sides. It cannot be forgotten though that states often (with exception of course) take up arms against another state because it serves to benefit the economies of the aggressor. The theory goes that  by taking away resources from another you are making your own power greater. Assumptions can be dangerous, but it is likely safe to act that though the Romans and Carthaginians were living in antiquity, there were still rational state actors in play. Rome would go on to fight many enemies in all corners of the ancient Mediterranean, but none were as keenly rational about their economy as Carthage. Religious zealots were eventually put down, and barbarians could for a time be played off against one another before having to take up arms again and reduce their numbers. Carthage however, was different. They understood the political games and were almost as clever as Rome was.  Perhaps that it was that cunning  ability to match Rome’s counter that earned Carthage its place as Rome’s most celebrated enemy.

Miles’ narrative accurately constructs the ancient world in ways many writers try to and often fail at. His story gets bogged down near the middle with its overloaded  lineage of the Hercules myth, but recovers well when cultural themes are used as part of the explanation and not the thesis itself.

Recommended for those new to ancient history. 3/5

(Note: This is a review I wrote maybe six months ago, before I remembered I had a blog).

By Arturo Pérez-Reverte. New York: Harvest Books, 2006. 362 pages

Spanish author Reverte has had several of his novels turned into movies. Perhaps the most famous was the Roman Polanski film, “The Ninth Gate,” which was inspired by the basic plot of The Club Dumas.

Lucas Corso, the protagonist, is a finder of rare books for wealthy Europeans.  In this thriller, he is hunting down a buyer for a rare first chapter from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and a book that is supposed to summon Satan, “The Nine Doors.”

Publisher’s Weekly perhaps sums up the attitude of the book best: “It’s a beach book for intellectuals.” An enthralling read from start to finish, its perfect for those long summer days in a hammock or on the beach.

By Thomas Wolfe. Boston:Harper Perenniaern Classics, 1998.  720 pp.

It might be a little bit over reaching to say that Thomas Wolfe wrote the great American novel. Yet, in the same breath it might not.

I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.” -Thomas Wolfe

In You Can’t Go Home Again Wolfe explores ideas of a changing America, including the great 1929 stock market crash and the American conception of prosperity. A worthwhile summer read, Wolfe’s style is easily accessible and engrossing.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at  Book Journey and my good friend over at Early Nerd Special.  The purpose of the meme is to discuss books we are reading this week, as well as books we completed the previous week.

Books I Completed Last Week:

The American Civil War By John Keegan: I became a big fan of Keegan’s work when I was completing a paper in University about the causes and symptoms of the First World War. Keegan’s wit and insight into the minds and political attitudes of the leaders of both sides during the bloodiest war in American history is just as adept as his European studies. While I do not put as much stock in the motivational factors of the South as Keegan does (hint: its about Christianity not slaves), I do believe he understands how politics manifests itself in war. To use a tiresome analogy, Keegan writes best when he views war as, “a continuation of politics by other means.”

Books I’m Reading This Week:

The Red Flag: A History of Communism by David Priestland

I am excited to work my way through this. It came highly recommended by some of my friends in the European Left.

So, what are you reading this week?