Sumo and Argumentation

A while back, I learned something new: The main way sumo bouts end is not by one opponent pinning the other, as in Greco-Roman wrestling, but by pushing them out of the ring.

It was with a moment’s thought that I realized here was a metaphor for much in the way arguments are presented these days — particularly political arguments.

What I mean by that is, in many instances political arguments aren’t really trying to persuade the listeners to the rightness of what’s being said. Rather, they’re trying to portray opponents as being so bad, or evil, or ignorant, they shouldn’t be listened to in the first place.

They’re trying to throw each other out of the ring.

One example of this — though it pains me to say it — is the current use of Godwin’s Law. Originally intended as a restorative of netiquette to the problem of glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, it has come to be used by many not aware of its origins to shut down discussions even when the comparisons are appropriate.

A different example would be the McCain campaign of 2008. In the waning days of the campaign, with defeat looming, Mr. McCain started calling Mr. Obama a socialist. While the analysis at that link shows how if Mr. McCain was being consistent, he himself is a socialist as well, that wasn’t the point. The point was, since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920’s, crying “socialism!” had been a fairly good sumo move, tossing one’s opponent out of the ring. The Congressional election between Richard Nixon and Jerry Voorhis also comes to mind. Still, in Mr. McCain’s case it didn’t work, and Republican stalwarts, bewildered by the incantation’s loss of magical power, have been reciting it ever since.

But that’s the real tip-off a sumo argument is being attempted: A complete disregard for substantiation, and the fervent hope that a single word or short phrase will so discredit one’s opponent, no “serious person” will listen.

And, yes, the irony of my putting this down so I can link to it when I refer to something as “a sumo move” does not escape me. But as Molly Crabapple was recently quoted, “Essays are just l’esprit d’escalier.”

This doesn’t happen every day.

I was looking through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and came across this footnote by the editor, H.H. Milman, in re Procopius:

“…the extreme and disgusting profligacy of Theodora’s early life rests entirely on this viratent libel.”

“Viratent”? Really? Did a Google search, which was… Hm. Inconclusive. Went to the OED… No hits.

Wow. That’s what I call a rare word.

“Talks up a storm with those wooden teeth…”

Or so Stan Freberg says of George Washington when he Presents the United States, Vol. 1.

One problem, though. Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood.

I don’t know if it was this review of WASHINGTON: A Life by Ron Chernow in the New York Times. Still, I recently heard, in connection with Chernow’s book, something similar to Times reviewer Janet Maslin’s comment: “[Washington had a] harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures).”

Yeah… that caused a big gulp on my part. Perhaps I have too much empathy but… George Washington? Of all people? Using the teeth of his slaves for his dentures? Can you be more literal yet symbolic when it comes to an image of white privilege and rapaciousness?

I hunted down what I think may be the source for this. It’s reprinted online by the PBS series Frontline, but I believe it’s this article by Mary V. Thompson, who is described as, “A research specialist at Mt. Vernon, [who] studies the domestic life, foodways, and religious practices of the residents of George Washington’s plantation, with a special interest in the slave community.” The article originally appeared in Virginia Cavalcade, Volume 48, Autumn 1999, No. 4, pp.178-190.

Here’s the core of it:

“Slaves of the eighteenth century sometimes turned to the perfectly acceptable means of making money by selling their teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, poor people had often sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth-transplant operations for those wealthy enough to afford the procedures. Sometimes the teeth were perfectly healthy; others were diseased and needed to be pulled anyway. In 1780 a French dentist named Jean Pierre Le Moyer (also called Le Mayeaur, Le Mayeur, and Joseph Lemaire) came to America, possibly as a naval surgeon with the French forces commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, and over the next decade treated patients in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond. He seems to have had an extensive practice in tooth transplants, but the results of the procedure were short-lived, usually less than one or two years. Transplantable teeth were hard to come by, and in 1783 Le Moyer even went so far as to advertise in the New York papers for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them,” netting the donor two guineas (forty-two shillings) per tooth. In Richmond, he offered anyone but slaves a similar amount for their front teeth. Technical problems made it impossible to transplant molars, so the operation was probably useful primarily for cosmetic reasons. Le Moyer first treated George Washington’s teeth at his military headquarters in 1783.

The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–”I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.”

Wow. Just… wow.


EDITED TO ADD: Mount Vernon has an exhibit that includes the only known surviving denture of Washington’s. “Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws.” Since I first posted this link (which keeps changing), Mount Vernon has decided to mention the provenance of the “real human teeth” in question. Originally, they didn’t.

ETA2: It wasn’t the Times. It was this piece in the New Yorker, by Jill Lepore. Lepore herself is a history professor at Harvard, which, combined with the New Yorker‘s fact checkers, makes this all too credible.

Lepore’s off-hand comment was striking:

“The mar to [Washington’s] beauty was his terrible teeth, which were replaced by unsuccessful transplant surgery and by dentures made from ivory and from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”

It was “pulled” that made my heart drop. Thompson’s account makes it seem much more voluntary — or as voluntary as a commercial transaction with a person who owns you as chattel can be.

The Strange Coincidences of Miss Hanff

Dug out of my LiveJournal archives.

I originally did this as a comment on someone else’s LJ. But I’d like to get it over here, so it’s more easily searchable — and to get a wider audience.


So. I’ve been owing you this for a while. I mostly do my LJ stuff at my job, where I work the graveyard shift. It’s been such that I haven’t really felt up to it. But, as I say, I owe you, and who knows? This might be the first draft of a letter to Le Carré, where I’d like to see what he says before he dies.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, 1998, and is on her royal progress as North American TAFF delegate to the UK, and I’m the consort along for the ride.

We go to London, and as a devoted reader of Le Carré and Hanff I want to see two things: “The Circus” and 84 Charing Cross Road. I know neither SOE nor MI6 ever had a HQ near Cambridge Circus, but there you go. I also know that Marks and Co., the bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Rd the book and movie, is now only marked by a brass plaque. Again, no problem, I’m just curious.

So we go to the physical location, 84 Charing Cross Rd and… Well, have you ever seen Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? There’s a sequence in it when everyone is walking through a stamp fair in Paris, and then suddenly each of them put two and two together, and their heads start whirling about.

This was very like that. Because, you see, 84 Charing Cross Road is just on the edge of Cambridge Circus.

Now, let’s fill in a bit. “Marks and Co.” stands for “Marks and Cohen,” and was the actual shop. Leo Marks — screenwriter of Peeping Tom, friend of Helene Hanff, and cryptographer extraordinaire — was the son of Mr. Marks. If you read Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo’s memoir, you’ll see that he frequently used antiquarian books as the plain text for various ciphers he would send with agents into the field during his days at SOE/MI6. In addition, Le Carré, who worked at MI6 at roughly the same time as Marks (a little later, but not much) does exactly the same thing. Note his use of the Simplicissimus in A Perfect Spy, acknowledged to be his most autobiographical book.

So… If one was a cryptographer who used antiquarian books as plain text, and if one was also the son of the owner of an antiquarian book shop, what would be the easiest way to distribute such books around the world?

One of the big questions that just slides by in 84 Charing Cross Rd is, what in the world was Marks and Co. doing having an ad in the Saturday Review for Miss Hanff to find in the first place? This hypothesis suggests an answer.

But it goes further.

Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins’ character in the movie) had some very interesting neighbors. Namely, Morris Cohen and Lona Cohen (known during their UK days as Peter and Helen Kroger). The Cohens were Soviet spies of long standing, having been among those assigned to Los Alamos to try to get nuclear information during WWII. Not only did they live quite nearby to Frank Doel, they also worked — wait for it — as antiquarian book sellers.

I don’t think that was an accident. I think the Sovs twigged on to what was happening at Marks and Co., and assigned the Cohens to try to keep tabs on Frank Doel. Hanff jokes this about in the book — or rather, she publishes a letter from Nora Doel (Mrs. Frank, played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench in the film) that treats the whole matter lightly.

But I think Le Carré also knew what was going on, and placed headquarters at “The Circus” because, even if there was no staff housed there, there were considerable communications going through the place.

Heck, dare we say it? Could Frank Doel be the role model for George Smiley? Was he sufficiently bookish and anonymous in person for that, no matter how much wit comes across in his letters to Helene?

I can’t point to any particular flame. But it seems to me there are quite a few wafts of smoke here. Certainly enough for a Waldropian story or novel. 🙂

Well, there you have it:

According to Mr. Bush’s speech last night, Iraq is anywhere from one to five years before being capable of launching a strike against us. Which is why it’s so desperately urgent we hit them… um, tomorrow. {cough}

But the most disturbing thing about this whole scenario is how it plays out if you look at it logically.

There’re two axes here: Either Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or it doesn’t. And Iraq will either use them, or they won’t.

That means there’re four outcomes, one of which is impossible:

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, and won’t use them. For me, this is the most likely outcome. You can see it all over the place in our own planning, with the devil-may-care attitude we’re showing both about how long this war will last (over quickly enough for Tony Blair to stay PM a day or two, we hope), and the possibilities about retaliation. Then again, that means we’re about to send 300,000 combined troops over to a country looking for weapons that don’t exist. According to some polling data released during today’s Talk of the Nation call-in show, 80% of Americans think Iraq has WMD, and that disarming Iraq is a major criterion for “victory”. (Dear 80% of the US: Iraq is likely already unarmed, and you’re likely to get a massive disappointment.) Either that, or I would look really carfeully at the serial numbers of whatever WMD we “find” — especially after the fiasco of the forgery of the documents purporting to show Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Also, this is the scenario most likely to generate the previously predicted 1-14 vote in the Security Council calling for sanctions against the US (and maybe the UK, if they’re still in the game).

Iraq has WMD, and uses them. But if that’s true… then we’re sending 300,000 soldiers good and true to basically be burnt to a crisp so the Administration can then justify massive retaliation. And the Administration is doing this knowingly, with malice aforethought. Oddly, this doesn’t comfort me. (Marshmallows at the Reichstag, anyone?)

Iraq has WMD, but won’t use them. This appears to be the Officially Approved Plan. I hope Mr. Hussein has been properly briefed, and he sticks to the script. But it’s the only way to explain the combination of no obvious contingencies for the use of WMD against our trops, intertwined with no apparent hesitation about the fact that months of concentrated effort through inspection, espionage, satellite flybys, and surreptitious signals listening has turned up… radio chatter with nothing else to back it up. {ooh! aah!} Ruel Marc Gerecht appears to have gotten it right in The Atlantic back in July 2001 — our intelligence agencies appear to have about zero assets in the Near East region. Almost every breakthrough we’ve had appears to have been done by either the Israelis or the Pakistanis, with Our Boys brought in at the last minute for the photo op.

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, but will somehow use them. This is the outcome that’s logically impossible. Unless Mr. Hussein just rang up a massive credit card bill tonight. Or unless he just cut a deal with the North Koreans — who almost certainly do have WMD at this point, which is why the Cowardly Lion treats them with such shyness — to bomb us on his behalf.