The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Nov. 22 2000 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


Should exceptionally intelligent children be sent to special schools? Teachers at Mirman, a Californian private school founded by Norman Mirman in 1962, say they should. According to the Los Angeles Times, "only the highly gifted—children with an IQ of 145 and above—may apply. … Mirman won't even hand out an application packet until a prospective student has aced an IQ test called the Stanford-Binet." Critics of Mirman, such as Susan Bonhoff, argue: "The whole world is not highly gifted. Being in that environment completely, without seeing a real person, in my mind is kind of stifling." Barry Ziff, the school's principal, defends the elitism of his establishment. "Average people don't change the world," he says. The L.A. Times continues: "The 'severely gifted,' as students like those at Mirman are sometimes called, constitute about 1 percent of the 2 percent to 3 percent of the population who have above-average intelligence. That is, the gifted represent about three out of 100 people, the highly gifted one out of 10,000."


The historian Nathalie Zemon Davis is best known for her book The Return of Martin Guerre. Her latest, The Gift in Sixteenth Century France, challenges some traditional assumptions about gift-giving and capitalism in the early modern era. As Susannah Herbert writes, "gifts came into everything: the small rituals of open-ended exchange reaffirmed the social order, leaving room for the grace-notes of gratitude and generosity in all transactions. This world of open-handed tenants and benevolent feudal lords sounds perfectly Arcadian—so where did we go wrong? Davis disagrees with those, like Claude Levi-Strauss, who reckon the gift-economy simply fell victim to the market-place, where transactions are built on laws and contracts instead of trust and tradition: instead, she shows that the two kinds of exchange have always been intimately intertwined."


A.C. Grayling's new biography about William Hazlitt, The Quarrel of the Age, asks why the great essayist was both revered and detested by his contemporaries. To read an extract published by the Guardian, click here. Thomas De Quincey was one of Hazlitt's enemies, and his depiction of the writer is particularly vehement. "His inveterate misanthropy was constitutional. Exasperated it certainly had been by accidents of life, by disappointments, by mortifications, by insults, and still more by having willfully placed himself in collision from the first with all the interests that were in the sunshine of the world, and of all the persons that were then powerful in England. ... A friend of his it was who told me that involuntarily, when Hazlitt put his hand within his waistcoat (as a mere unconscious trick of habit), he himself felt a sudden recoil of fear, as from one who was searching for a hidden dagger."


James Ryerson's portrait of Richard Rorty appears in latest issue of Lingua Franca. In the course of the article, Rorty defends himself from his critics, while some critics continue their attacks. As Ryerson writes: "Daniel Dennett, who feels that Rorty's philosophy of mind is 'just about perfect,' nonetheless has qualms about Rorty's unwillingness to consider science a privileged form of inquiry and about his willingness to take seriously the philosophical views of thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault: 'Dick Rorty has failed to discourage a lot of nonsense that I wish he had discouraged. It's an obligation of us in the field to grit our teeth and discourage the people who do the things that give philosophy a bad name. I don't think he does that enough.' "

News that cook and gourmand Julia Child has received France's Legion d'Honneur will be welcomed by all foodies and francophiles. News that French beef is tainted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy—that's mad cow disease—is likely to induce stomach rumbling of another kind. Though European scientists are not entirely certain how BSE provokes Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease in humans (CJD essentially destroys the brain), eating the tainted beef is the cause of the infection. Three French people have recently died of CJD. For the Centers for Disease Control's update on CJD, click here. For an overview of the BSE-CJD crisis in Europe, click here, and for a New Scientist report on a new theory of how contaminated meat infects humans, click here. In the New York Times, novelist Diane Johnson explains why the French have been slow to admit the extent of their BSE-CJD problem. "The French also believe firmly that they are protected by a vigilant government. Certainly the government tends to protect the French state of mind. … In the current crisis, the French are shocked to find that French incompetence as much as English perfidy is to blame, and this has compounded the understandable fury with chagrin."


The American Anthropological Association devoted four sessions of its annual meeting to Patrick Tierney's book about the Yanomamö, Darkness in El Dorado. According to an Associated Press report, the association is "proposing that its committees investigate the claims, consider new ethical guidelines for anthropologists and propose ways to preserve native cultures in South America. Tierney held firm to his claims throughout what became a four-hour marathon debate [last] Thursday. He did admit his concern that the controversy his book has generated among foreign governments may hamper efforts to help the very indigenous cultures he sought to preserve."


BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER"There is nothing about being an English professor that exempts you from the normal obligations of citizenship," Professor Elaine Scarry tells Emily Eakin. "In fact, you have an increased obligation, because you know how to do research." Since 1998, the Harvard English professor has devoted much of her research to the role electromagnetic interference might have played in recent airplane crashes—the fruits of such labors have appeared in the New York Review of Books. Click here, here, and here to read her articles, which prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate whether EMI played a role in three recent plane crashes. Robert Silvers, co-editor of the NYRB, told Eakin: "The idea of a government agency [the NTSB] acknowledging they had carried out an important study, partly in response to Elaine Scarry's article, is remarkable." An aviation expert, David Evans of Air Safety Week, is more cautious about Scarry's conclusions about the crashes of TWA Flight 800 and Swissair 111. "Coincidences, however compelling, do not add up to causality. The fact that the planes took off at the same minute the same night of the week and took the same flight path doesn't mean anything." Evans was "very disappointed" by Scarry's views on the crash of Egyptair 990. "She's extending a hypothetical bridge way far out over what the evidence would support."

The rate of suicide among the Guarani tribe of Brazil is 40 times higher than it is for the country as a whole, according to a report published by Survival International. "Anthropologists blame the breakdown of cultural patterns as the result of contact with outside people, in addition to the loss of ancestral lands," the Telegraph explains. At a Survival news conference held in London today, two Guarani Indians unveiled the findings. Survival International also says that there "are at least 50 groups of uncontacted Indians in Brazil today. Brazil is the only country in South America which continues to violate international law by not recognizing tribal peoples' right to own their land. Brazil's Indians are still considered to be minors in law. The genocide of Brazil's Indians still continues today."

Those of you who don't know about BattleBots obviously haven't been watching Comedy Central in recent months. The show has developed a sizable following thanks in part to its "ethos of violence without blood or sweat," as Julie Salamon puts it in the New York Times. "In 'BattleBots,' " Salamon writes, "the robots attack each other with a ferocity and assortment of weaponry—including buzz saws and spikes—that would be terrifying if flesh, rather than metal, were on the line. … Comedy Central stages 'BattleBots' as a campy version of a traditional sports match, with two announcers sputtering the play-by-play and field reporters interviewing the winners and losers."


Florida State University's football team defeated rival Florida on Saturday, and as a number of journalists pointed out, the game was full of political symbolism. As Dexter Filkins says in his "Tallahassee Journal": "Most of Florida's top political and business leaders went to one of the two schools; Senator Bob Graham, a former governor, was a Gator; former Gov. Reubin Askew went to FSU. The stadium at the University of Florida is named for the citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin, the grandfather of Katherine Harris, the secretary of state at the center of the ballot-counting storm." Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris where among the crowd who watched FSU win 30-7. They, like everyone else, will have to wait and see if the team from Tallahassee will go to the Orange Bowl this year—though these two Floridians are hardly unfamiliar with such tests of their patience. Click here for the latest college-football news.

Praxis Post interviews Michael Apstein, a wine connoisseur who is also a liver specialist. "He begins with a disclaimer: he has no financial stake in the wines they're about to sample. 'My conflict of interest is at the other end of the food chain, so to speak,' he announces. 'Because I'm a liver doctor.' "… "It's no coincidence that Apstein chose to specialize in gastroenterology and hepatology. … [O]n a fundamental level, Apstein says, he always felt more sympathy for patients with stomachaches than with, say, chest pain or rash. After all, he really likes to eat and drink."


Afghanistan's National Museum was plundered by thieves in the early 1990s, as Luke Harding discovered on a journey to Kabul. "A series of vans had rolled up at night outside the museum's side door. The two-tonne Buddhist reliefs, for example, were lifted off their iron hooks, piled in the back, and hidden under a series of mattresses. They were then driven across the Pakistan border, via the Khyber Pass, to the frontier town of Peshawar, which is the center of the illegal trade in Afghan antiquities." Inevitably, some of Afghanistan's treasures are now making their appearance on the international art scene.

Are dams good? Perhaps not, if Kader Asmal, chairman of the World Commission on Dams, is to be believed. As the New Scientist reports, the commission says that "one reason many dams have failed to deliver is that their reservoirs have clogged up with silt far faster than expected. Every year an extra one per cent of the world's reservoir capacity is taken up with silt. In the worst cases, reservoirs lost more than 80 per cent of their storage capacity to silt in less than 30 years. Even the claim that hydroelectric dams provide 'green' electricity has been undermined by the commission. It concludes that between one and 28 per cent of all artificial greenhouse-gas emissions could be from rotting vegetation in dams."


In addition to her role as the state's chief elections official, the secretary of state oversees Florida's arts, libraries, and historic preservation programs and is therefore an influential figure on educational and environmental matters. (For various Harris controversies, including an explanation of why she voted in favor of a bill that would have outlawed absentee voting in certain elections, click here.) Naples News surveyed the genesis of Harris' political career two years ago. "[Gov. Lawton] Chiles put her on a path that would lead to politics by appointing her to the board of trustees of the state's Ringling Museum of Art, which has an extensive collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens and his followers. When a senator cut the Sarasota museum's budget because he had a dispute with its director—just the sort of politics Harris detested—she and other board members went to Tallahassee and persuaded lawmakers to restore the money. Later, Harris became frustrated with Sarasota's freshman senator, Democrat Jim Boczar, because he had shown little interest in the museum. 'Boczar said as far as he was concerned a Rubens was a sandwich,' Harris said." Of her efforts to improve the arts in Florida, Harris told voters in 1998: "I sponsored a bill that created a dedicated funding source which moved Florida from 42nd nationally in per capita funding to 1st in historic preservation and 2nd in cultural funding."


In an interview with Feed's Steven Johnson, Frank Rich comments on how the Florida ballot became a "mediathon." "First of all, a great test of whether a mediathon has legs is the reappearance of people who participated in previous mediathons. Now we have Alan Dershowitz from O.J., we have the lawyers from Elian Gonzalez, although it is rather unfortunate that the fisherman and other characters from that story haven't appeared themselves, since they are in Miami. And, of course, there's the whole cast and crew of 'Impeachment: Monicagate.' "


The judges of National Book Award have cast their votes, and last night the results were announced at a Manhattan hotel. For results and analysis, click here, here, and here. In an article about the role of literary prizes, Laura Miller asked editors to say which prize they most appreciated. Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, said: "The Booker is my favorite in some ways because it's the wackiest, the most contentious. The judges will publicly get up and deride each other, and the other great thing is that the British can bet on it. If we could once a year legalize gambling, that would be great, then people would actually have to read these books."


Is Brice Marden's "Cold Mountain" the most beautiful American painting of recent times? (Click here to view one of the canvases in the series.) According to Richard Dorment, it is. "You can sense Marden's own presence in the canvas in the way that pigment is applied with loose arm and wrist movements," Dorment argues, "the brush travelling lightly and rhythmically over a gray ground filled with erasures and pentimenti (evidence of an artist's change of mind in a painting). Nothing feels fixed, nothing static. Shapes constantly dissolve and merge into new forms, even as our eye tries to pin them down, creating a palimpsest." The Serpentine Gallery is hosting an exhibition of Marden's work. For additional Marden links, click here.

"There are three very good reasons to rush to see the new production of Harold Pinter's 1978 Betrayal," says John Heilpern. "Juliette Binoche, Juliette Binoche and Juliette Binoche!" The New York Observer's theater critic is particularly impressed by the manner of Binoche's delivery. "She isn't tempted into the traditional traps of playing Pinter–the weighty pauses, the mysterious silences and blind alleys, the dramatic nervous tics of loudly stating the unsaid." Ben Brantley, the New York Times' man on Broadway, is less enthusiastic about Binoche, who he believes is miscast and doesn't strike the right balance between "baffling and baffled."

Steven Johnson, the editor of Feed, explains: "Since voters who make incomplete punches are likely to be spread randomly over the political spectrum, rescuing their votes and adding them to the totals in any particular county is likely to deliver more votes to the candidate who is more popular there than to his rival. A machine that undercounts votes has a Republican bias in a predominantly Democratic county and a Democratic bias in a predominantly Republican county."

According to James Meek, the evolutionary biologist Tim Birkhead and his followers are the "paparazzi of the science world. They travel to remote islands and put up with extreme discomfort in the hope of catching animals having sex with each other, and when they do, splash their names and their pictures over the pages of the science journals." But as Meek argues, Birkhead's research has destroyed the conventional wisdom about sexual selection. "The truth is that females of most species actively seek multiple partners to have sex with. If the aim of males is to put their sperm into as many females as possible, females are trying, with equal determination, to get the very best sperm to fertilize their eggs—even if that means having sex with many males in turn."