hated trivia roundup

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. Or more accurately, people and things hated for reasons big, small, personal, political, historically validated, or long forgotten.

silhouette :: rustin :: caravaggio :: mcclintock :: tucker

• • •

1. Étienne de Silhouette, at the age of 50, was named the Controller-General of Finances for France in 1759. It was an important but not highly-regarded title, and Silhouette stepped into an unenviable position: with the Seven Years War ongoing, France was in economic crisis, facing a bloated deficit and a need for capital to satiate the war machine. Silhouette’s initial forays into economic policy were well-received: he reduced spending by the royals and cut taxes. But with a massive deficit for 1760 predicted, he undertook a series of increasingly deranged austerity measures that earned him the nickname “the next Machiavelli” and linked his name with miserliness.

He started, perhaps inauspiciously enough, by “taxing the rich”: levying a tax on assorted outward signs of wealth. Initially, this meant luxury goods, servants, and large tracts of land…and then later, things like doors and windows. After catching flak for this approach, he worked his way even further down the rabbit hole by ordering all gold and silverware melted down and added to the nation’s coffers. Then he instituted still further taxes. The wealthy hated him for curbing their conspicuous consumption, the lower classes hated him because they were starving to death.

etienne_silhouette
meta-silhouette

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 and we’re left with silhouettes.

 

2. Bayard Rustin was a seminal figure in the american civil rights movements, and also a pacifist, communist, socialist, anti-nuclear advocate, advocate against anti-semitism, critical figure in 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 (though while in prison, he—and I love this so much—organized protests against segregated dining halls). He moved to advocacy in the then nascent civil rights movements, even cofounding the nonviolent Fellowship of Reconciliation and the SCLC. It was those two organizations that perhaps best highlight the difficult position in which Rustin found himself.

bayard_rustin
Rustin, probably suffering a fool

Rustin was gay, and while his organizing skills often outweighed concerns about his sexuality, those concerns were a ceaseless point of conflict; though Rustin might make nice by downplaying his sexuality, he never ignored it or lied about it. In 1953, he’d been arrested on a charge of “sex perversion”, and that arrest haunted him. The leader of the FOR, for example, essentially forced him out because of it, and Adam Clayton Powell—his 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 the assfaced Strom Thurmond did it for him, calling Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” all of which are at worst neutral in my book).

Rustin had a seemingly preternatural ability for organizing. He was good with logistics—he’d planned 200,000+ person March on Washington—and was able to unite disparate political factions (e.g., labor unions and the civil rights movement). If MLK was largely the voice and face of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was the engine. He continued as a political force well into the autumn of his years, constantly thumbing his nose at the establishment (my favorite point: unable to get married, Rustin adopted his partner. In a move that either demonstrates crass politicization or a total lack of research, his partner was called only an “adopted son” in Rustin’s 1987 NYT obituary). He was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and there’s a documentary about him that you should watch.

 

3. Caravaggio came of age (physically and creatively) at a time when the Catholic church was working to fill every church, palace, and plaza with works of inspiring religious art. Not because they were art lovers: it was the Counter-Reformation and they sought any means—up to and including simply awing people with profound and ubiquitous artwork—to beating back the sacrilegious Protestant movement (here’s something interesting about John Calvin). Caravaggio’s contribution to art was in taking the chiaroscuro style—highly contrasting light and dark elements—to the very extreme, producing visually striking works of realism:

caravaggio_painting
chiaroscuro

Much like Roman Polanski or any number of lesser transgressors, Caravaggio posed a dilemma for people who respected his creative works while viewing him as a repellent person. He was an ill-tempered man prone to fisticuffs and brawling, and it’s theorized that surviving court records understate this tendency as they only reflect the times his wealthy patrons couldn’t buy his freedom. Indeed, he was contemporaneously described thusly: “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 was forced to flee Rome under threat of prosecution. He lammed it to Naples, where he only lasted a year of so before fighting again and taking off to Malta, where he stayed briefly before going back to Naples. There he was attacked and left with a severely disfigured face (it’s believed this attack was coordinated by enemies, possibly the Knights of St. John). But with a pardon on the horizon, he geared up for a triumphal return to Rome, only to die of a fever at 38 even before leaving. Or, possibly, he was finally killed by the same group that had tried previously. Besides 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 actually largely forgotten before being (re)discovered in the 20th century; he’s now presumably right on schedule to be the focal point of the next Dan Brown novel. Interestingly, his bones were discovered in 2010.

 

4. Barbara McClintock was a pioneering corn geneticist, which it turns out is a distinctly nontrivial field if you’re studying genetics. 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.

b_mcclintock
McClintock, corn

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, 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 out of standard modus operandi of science and 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.

 

5. The 1948 Tucker Sedan (aka the Tucker Torpedo) was the brainchild of entrepreneur Preston Tucker, Michigan native and the son of a peppermint farmer. Tucker was a racing fanatic whose first company developed race cars. Later he was contracted by the Dutch government to build an armored combat car which never made it past the prototype stage (Germany invaded before he could deliver) but looks like a circa-1940s version of the Batmobile:

tucker_tank
Tucker’s armored combat car

It was topped with the modestly-named Tucker Turret. The turret itself was a success, and showed up in PT boats and B-29 bombers. 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 with 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). He later purchased a helicopter engine company and retrofit their engines to work in the car, much more efficiently.

tucker_sedan
Tucker sedan

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 had sold cars and accessories in advance, in addition to making a multi-million dollar stock offering. When it became increasingly clear the car wouldn’t make it to market, the SEC filed charges against him—suggesting that the company was really the longest of long cons: 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 (it’s also claimed that the “big three” automakers stepped in to prevent Tucker for securing the steel contracts he needed for mass production). At the time of his death a few years later, Tucker was working on an even more audacious prototype:

tucker_carioca
the second Tucker

 

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2 thoughts on “hated trivia roundup

  1. If only Bayard Rustin were still with us now! Given his

    “seemingly preternatural ability for organizing…he was responsible for planning the successful 200,000+ person March on Washington, and coalescing disparate political factions (drawing together labor unions and civil rights movements)”

    maybe he could even guide Democrats, GOP and the nonplussed rest of us to a harmonious middle ground.

    Thank you for sharing the biography of Barbara McClintock. I will share that with other women in the sciences and analytical fields, that they might be inspired, just as I was now.

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