If you’ve ever felt animosity, enmity, hostility, or antipathy; been filled with loathing, rancor, or repugnance; or been moved to abhor, despise, detest, abominate, deprecate, execrate or disparage a person, place, or thing, then read on for a roundup of the DAMNED, which is to say people disparaged, hated, and vilified.
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1. Étienne de Silhouette was named Controller-General of Finances for France in 1759. The title was important for the functioning of the country but not highly-regarded, and Silhouette walked into a political snakepit: it was the middle of the Seven Years War and France was in economic crisis, facing a bloated deficit and an ever-growing need for capital to feed into the maw of an insatiable war machine. Silhouette, the populist, started by forcing the royals to reduce their spending, then cut taxes. Then the bill came due, and with a huge deficit slated for 1760, he undertook a series of increasingly deranged austerity measures.
He started by levying a tax on, essentially, things associated with wealth: luxury goods, servants, large tracts of land…and, as he spun further down the rabbit hole, doors and windows. Then he ordered all gold and silverware melted and added to the nation’s coffers. Then he instituted still further taxes. The wealthy hated him, for curbing their conspicuous consumption; the poor hated him because they were starving to death. The term “Silhouette” came to be associated with miserliness, and he was called “the next Machiavelli.”
Before photography, a fast and cheap way to make a “portrait” of someone was to do a paper cutout of their profile, something Silhouette was particularly preoccupied with. This did not escape the notice of the starving masses, who began protesting him by dressing all in black and chanting “We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!” After eight months on the job, Silhouette was effectively exiled, and his name became an insulting term applied to cheap things or cheap people, including paper cutouts. Eventually, the negative connotation dissipated.
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2. Bayard Rustin was a seminal figure in the american civil rights movements, and also a pacifist, communist, socialist, anti-nuclear advocate, anti-anti-semitism advocate, contributor to the independence movements of several African states, and community organizer of the highest degree. But he’s also largely forgotten, because he was also a prominent figure in the gay rights movement.
Rustin began his political career by organizing protests against Japanese internment camps. He didn’t get far with that before he was imprisoned for avoiding the draft. While in prison—I love this so much—he organized protests against segregated dining halls. After his release, he turned to advocacy in the nascent civil rights movement, cofounding the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the SCLC, organizations that highlight the tenuous and troubling position he often found himself in.
Rustin’s organizing skills often outweighed concerns about his sexuality, but those concerns were a neverending point of conflict. And while Rustin would make nice by downplaying his sexuality, he would never ignore or lie about it, and most people couldn’t leave well enough alone. In 1953, he’d been arrested on a charge of “sex perversion,” and the arrest haunted him. He was essentially forced out of the FOR because of it, and Adam Clayton Powell—nominally an ally—blackmailed him into leaving the SCLC by threatening to enter Rustin’s arrest into the congressional record (that turned out not to matter anyway since that assface Strom Thurmond did it for him, calling Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual,” none of which I consider bad).
Rustin’s skill for organizing can hardly be overstated; he was good with logistics—he’d planned 200,000+ person March on Washington—and had an almost uncanny ability to elicit solidarity from disparate political factions (such as labor unions and the civil rights movements) was able to unite disparate political factions (e.g., labor unions and the civil rights movement). If MLK was and is remembered as the voice and face of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was the engine. He was a political force into the autumn of his years, and always thumbed his nose at the establishment: unable to marry his partner, Rustin adopted him instead. He died in 1987, but was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and there’s a documentary about him that you should watch.
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3. Caravaggio came of age about the time the Catholic church was feverishly working to fill every church, palace, and plaza with awe-inspiring works of religious art. They did this not because of civic duty or good taste: it was the Counter-Reformation, and they hoped to beat back the sacrilegious Protestant movement by awing people with profound and ubiquitious artwork. Caravaggio’s contribution was in taking the chiaroscuro style—highly contrasting light and dark elements—to the very extreme, producing visually striking works of realism:
Roman Polanski and any number of lesser transgressors present us with the challenge of separating one’s creative output from their personal lives and actions. Caravaggio was a pathbreaker in this arena as well: he was a repellent man, ill-tempered and prone to fisticuffs and brawling, as noted in many surviving court records, which likely understate his violent tendencies since they only reflect the times his wealthy patrons could not buy his freedom. Contemporaries said that “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument.”
After killing a man in a fight over either a gambling debt or—no lie—a bad tennis game, Caravaggio fled Rome under threat of prosecution. He landed in Naples, lasted less than a year before fighting again, then took off to Malta. Eventually he was attacked and brutalized, left with a severely disfigured face; the attack was assumed to be coordinate by some of his many, many enemies, including the Knights of St. John. Word of a potential pardon reached him, but while he prepared to return to Rome, he died of a fever. Or, possibly, the same group came back to finish the job with poison.
In addition to his violent disposition, Caravaggio also generated scandal by the realism in his paintings. He was considered vulgar for depicting the bare legs of the virgin Mary, for example. Though wildly famous in his day, he was mostly forgotten before being (re)discovered in the 20th century; he’s now right on schedule to star in the next Dan Brown novel. Interestingly, his bones were discovered in 2010.
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4. Barbara McClintock was a pioneering corn geneticist, which it turns out is a distinctly nontrivial thing for geneticists. In the 1940s she did pioneering work demonstrating the existence of “transposable elements” or “jumping genes,” in which certain parts of the genetic sequence can sometimes change position during reproduction, leading to mutations and altering the genetic sequence in sometimes-predictable ways. In other words, she laid out some novel ways in which gene transmission was more complicated than the simple dominant/recessive gene changes of Mendelian genetics.
Her ideas, though, were so far outside accepted paradigmatic thought that she was mostly ignored; one colleague remarked that she was either a crazy or a genius. So encompassing was this collective bias—enhanced, no doubt, by her gender—that after a 1953 paper she simply stopped publishing her results altogether, which for a scientist would normally be a career-ending nuclear option. She opted instead to tour the country giving seminars, hoping to convince people of her findings, an approach that met with only moderate success. Thus, the same results that earned her the Nobel Prize in 1983 were so transgressive in 1953 as to force her into a sort of traveling scientific sideshow. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when someone else (re)discovered transposable elements in bacteria, that her work was recognized. She’s also known for being the first scientist to speculate on epigenetics—the idea that the same gene sequence can be expressed in different ways depending on external factors.
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5. The 1948 Tucker Sedan (aka the Tucker Torpedo) was the brainchild of Preston Tucker, a Michigan native and peppermint farmer’s son. Tucker was a serial entrepreneur and racing fanatic whose first company developed race cars. Later, the Dutch government contracted him to develop an armored combat car, which never made it past the prototype stage but looks like an obsolete Batmobile.
Following the war, with the “Big Three” automakers making no effort to produce new car designs, Tucker saw an opportunity to develop something fresh and new. Inarguably, he did exactly that; the arguable part is whether it was the work of a crazed genius, insane madman, or the doomed concept of a man in over his head.
A true “car of the future,” the Tucker sedan had streamlined looks and a host of novel features: interchangeable seats (to make sure your upholstery wears evenly), padded dashboards and large bumpers (for safety), a third center-mounted headlight semi-affectionately called the “Cyclops Eye” that swiveled to illuminate during turns (oddly, having three headlights was actually illegal in many states at the time; I don’t know why), disc brakes, and optional backseat hibachi (not really). His first prototype included a 9.6 liter engine that produced only 88 horsepower and couldn’t go in reverse; it drove power directly to the wheels and had no transmission, like a fixed-gear bike (also for reference, that’s ~7x the size of 1950 VW Beetle engine and less than 3x the horsepower). The engines were so inefficient and unreliable that he bought a company that produced helicopter engines and retrofit them to work in his car.
But only 50 or so prototypes were ever produced—which now fetch up to $2 million at auction—and therein lies the real story of Tucker. In building the cash reserves and infrastructure for his company, Tucker sold cars and accessories in advance and made a multi-million dollar stock offering. When it became clear the car would never come to market, the SEC filed charges against him—suggesting that the company was merely a long con: a plan to collect venture capital, never produce anything, and abscond with the money. The case was thrown out of court, but the company couldn’t recover. Certain conspiratorial rumblings also suggest that the big three automakers may have secretly scotched Tucker’s steel contracts, ensuring the car could never be mass-produced. Genius? Crazy? At the time of his death a few years later, Tucker was working on an even more audacious prototype: