WSJ Historically Speaking: Gambling and Other American Hustles

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

More than 100 million Americans are expected to bet in some way on this year’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament–proving that the “madness” in March Madness is no mere expression. In 2013, according to Pregame.com, more than $12 billion was bet on the tournament—$2 billion more than on the Super Bowl. Between the slacking off, the drinking, the overeating and the surreptitious score-watching at work, one recent study predicts that March Madness will cost the U.S. $134 million in lost productivity and wages—all this despite the fact that in most U.S. jurisdictions, NCAA tournament pools remain totally illegal.

The U.S. has always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. Internet gambling remained illegal until this year—though that didn’t prevent Americans from spending more than $3 billion gambling online last year, according to the American Gaming Association. This great dichotomy in attitudes has been part of the national landscape since the early settlements in the 17th century. In Puritan New England, gambling wasn’t just a sin but a crime, whereas in the South, gambling was a gentlemen’s sport so long as it didn’t involve cockfighting. In the 1770s, the 13 colonies adopted a more robust attitude: Every one of them resorted to lottery schemes to raise revenue. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton all benefited from lottery money. Even the Revolutionary War was funded by lottery.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Beware of Astrologers on the March

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Winter storms have become so frequent in the U.S. that they now have names, like hurricanes. This week saw the arrival of Seneca, making for a touch-and-go race about which will run out first: the alphabet or the jet stream. The weather in the eastern U.S. has been brutal enough this year that millions of Americans have been confined to their homes. In a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in six of us does anything like the recommended amount of physical activity, “Snowmaggedon” is a danger to the country’s health as well as its roads.

The ancients knew well that people will use any excuse to avoid exercise—bad weather, of course, being among the most popular. To counteract the natural human tendency toward inertia, the Greeks had their Olympics, the Chinese their tai chi and the Indians their yoga. The Romans went so far as to make exercise a legal requirement for all male citizens age 17 to 60. With the exception of Thomas Aquinas, who was colossally fat, lack of exercise was rarely a problem in the Middle Ages. Few people had time for aerobics when survival was the order of the day.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Breaking Up Has Always Been Hard to Do

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As Valentine’s Day draws near, let’s not forget its Roman ancestor: the festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite (celebrated every Ides of February) that was about as romantic as a trip to the abattoir. The highlight of the day involved priests dipping their whips into goat’s blood and trolling the streets of Rome, playfully slapping any women who passed by. The ancients had no use for frilly hearts and chocolates.

Nevertheless, our classical forbears did know a few things about the flip side of Valentine’s Day: the art of the breakup. The Romans were masters of the poetic put-down. The 1st-century poet Ovid could offer some exquisitely worded insults; here is Elegy VI in his “Amores,” as translated by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century: “Either she was foul, or her attire was bad,/ Or she was not the wench I wished t’ have had./ Idly I lay with her, as if I loved not,/ And like a burden grieved the bed that moved not.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Backward Seating at the State of the Union

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

The end of January brings two certainties: another 49 days until spring and the president’s State of the Union address. In the past, the president often used to palm off this constitutionally mandated chore to a clerk; nowadays he (or she) is expected to deliver it in person. But in every other respect, the rituals associated with the event haven’t changed at all: The president speaks for about an hour, ecstatic applause erupts from one side of the chamber, and grim silence exudes from the other.

Many foreign observers find these partisan reactions reassuringly familiar. What they find puzzling is the placement of the Democratic Party to the right of the aisle and the Republican Party to the left. Equally confusing is the U.S. media’s long-standing allocation of the color red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. In the rest of the world, right-wing parties sit on the right and left-wing ones on the left; blue is the color of conservatism, and red is the color of revolution and communism—or pink, if one leans toward socialism—something apparently unknown to the networks and CNN.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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The Sunday Times: It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…

‘WSJ Historically Speaking: Tis the Season to Stop Fighting

PETER ARKLE

PETER ARKLE

For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: How to Fake It in America

Peter Arkle

Peter Arkle

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to make fun ofDescartes’ influential idea that the human mind (“the ghost”) is utterly separate from the body. But it was the English rock band The Police who popularized the expression, making it the title of their classic 1981 album. Today “ghost in the machine” shows up everywhere. It has become a metaphor for the assorted forms of fakery that are constantly revealed in the mashup of modern culture.

The anger directed at Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January reflected the country’s disgust with performers who fake it. The mere hint that a singer is no more than a dancing puppet can create a scandal—or even end a career. As the disgraced front men of the 1980s pop act Milli Vanilli will attest, you can’t pretend to perform and keep your Grammy. Continue reading…

Variety: Writers on Writers: Amanda Foreman on Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, and ‘Philomena’

Image from Variety.com

Image from Variety.com

Last year, I was one the judges for the Man Booker literary prize. It didn’t matter that I am not a novelist. The experience of great writing is a universal pleasure. All writers feel a thrill when they encounter a work that has been beautifully crafted. I felt it while watching “Philomena.”

On one level the story is a straightforward biopic: a working-class woman spends a lifetime looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Yet, behind the apparent simplicity of the film lies a rich layer of theatrical craft. The writers took two potential problems — the circuitous nature of the story and the missing voice of the son — and turned them into virtues. Continue reading…