The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Feb. 15 2001 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


Has the World Trade Organization become the new Vatican? Have large multinational corporations turned into the 21st-century equivalents of feudal lords to whom we offer fealty for our health and financial salvation? Perhaps not quite yet, though in George Monbiot's view this is where we're heading—or somewhere like it. In a new book, Monbiot argues that "the struggle between people and corporations … will be the defining battle of the 21st century." (To read Paul Foot's review of Captive State, click here. In a Feb. 8 article for the Guardian, Monbiot wrote, "In seeking to wrest it back, we have yet to develop a coherent political programme to which all of us can subscribe. While the greens support small business, trades unionists find workers within big corporations easier to mobilise. The anarchists want to smash the state, while the socialists want to rebuild it. But the unprecedented solidarity between these disparate groups is beginning, I feel, to develop into a program in its own right: a grassroots reorganisation of the political process, propelling democratic renewal from below."


Matthew Wald, aviation correspondent of the New York Times, explains the results of a statistical analysis of commercial airplane delays in the United States. Two words sum up the entire problem: La Guardia. Delays at the New York airport, which are getting worse by the year, foul up flights around the country. Two points are absent from Wald's conclusions. 1) To what extent have private or corporate jets contributed to the increase in air traffic—and to the delays—at La Guardia (and, indeed, elsewhere)? 2) There's a good high-speed train between Washington, D.C., and New York City—one that often beats the plane considering all the delays. Perhaps Delta and US Airways, airlines that run shuttle services between these two cities, might magnanimously cancel these flights in the interests of their other customers who cannot count on a high-speed train link. The latest issue of Technological Review devotes three articles to the question of airport congestion. In "The Digital Skies," David Talbot writes about how UPS has developed a novel solution to congestion at its chief hub in Kentucky.


The Kansas Board of Education has overturned a previous ruling that outlawed the teaching of evolution in the state's schools. (To read the board's report click here). But as Kate Beem of the Kansas City Star reports, there may be further battles ahead. "The next state board election is less than two years away, though, and three of the five open seats are held by moderate Republicans and Democrats. It's too early to say whether the science standards will return as an election issue, but members of the pro-evolution group Kansas Citizens for Science predicted that Kansans would remain vigilant." For other reports on the decision click here and here.


With all due respect to fellow Slate contributor, Robert Lane Greene, who wrote about cricket in yesterday's Slate, the chief difference between this game and baseball is that whereas the latter is dominated by pitching, cricket is a batter's game, even in a match overwhelmed by strong bowling. Moreover, a lot of cricket is played in America by Indians, Pakistanis, and West Indians, and for details of teams and grounds, visit Cricinfo. One disadvantage about playing cricket in America is the absence of turf pitches—or "wickets." The game is usually played on matting, where the subtleties of a grass wicket are mostly absent. The ground at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where cricket has been played since the 19th century, is an exception. The college is also home to the second-best cricket library in the world, thanks to the bequest of C.C. Morris.


Bob Marley died 20 years ago. To mark the anniversary, PBS's American Masters is broadcasting a documentary about the singer, though as I seem to recall, Marley was Jamaican. In a flamboyant essay posted on the American Masters Web site, Roger Steffens says: "Without doubt, Bob Marley can now be recognized as the most important figure in 20th century music. It's not just my opinion, but also, judging by all the mainstream accolades hurled Bob's way lately, the feeling of a great many others too. Prediction is the murky province of fools. But in the two decades since Bob Marley has gone, it is clear that he is without question one of the most transcendent figures of the past hundred years. The ripples of his unparalleled achievements radiate outward through the river of his music into an ocean of politics, ethics, fashion, philosophy and religion."


R.W. Johnson
, formerly of Magdalen College Oxford, is now South African correspondent of London's Sunday Times. In a review of a new and, in Johnson's view, bad book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he writes: "[The] TRC to play[ed] fast and loose with real truth … ignore[d] proper procedures and … disregard[ed] court decisions and commissions of inquiry that had inconveniently come up with quite different facts and conclusions. Worse, it reheard a murder hearing and, with no fresh evidence, exculpated the murderer; it mistook basic facts, alleging, for example, that an inquiry had found a certain police informer guilty of 18 deaths when, in fact, it had made no such finding; it quoted the exhaustive investigations which had found that the police had not been involved in the Boipatong massacre in 1992—and then just reiterated ANC propaganda that the police had been to blame. Of the 20,500 people killed in political violence between 1984 and 1994, the TRC simply made no attempt to explain the deaths of more than 12,000 of thems—and it virtually ignored the period of the early 1990s when nearly 15,000 of these deaths occurred."


If he were alive, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss would doubtlessly have a field day with the furor about gift-giving to presidents and presidential "gifts" to the people. In his famous book, The Gift, Mauss argued that in certain societies giving, not receiving is far more important—something that President Bush seems to understand, but President Clinton did not. Yet as Robert Gordon, a letter writer to the New York Times, explains, it depends on what is being given and to whom. "Has it escaped your notice that all of President Bush's major proposals (tax cuts, Arctic drilling, the missile defense shield) work to the direct financial advantage of his friends, business associates and chief campaign contributors (defense contractors, drillers and ranchers on public lands, the very rich who pay the top income and estate taxes)? These are financial-political payoffs on a large scale. Yes, the pardon of Marc Rich is unseemly, but he is just one unworthy beneficiary of government favoritism. Let's try to keep that in perspective as we prepare to repeat the Gilded Age's giveaway of public lands, subsidies and benefits to corporate interests, since known as 'the Great Barbecue.' "


One of the dubious allegations Patrick Tierney makes in his book Darkness in El Dorado is that Western scientists infected Amazonian Indians with measles. (Click here for Judith Shulevitz's Slate"Culturebox" about the controversy; click here for the article she wrote for last Sunday's New York Times Book Review.) You do not, however, have to head to the jungle to find examples of scientists and drug companies using humans as guinea pigs. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, lately a number of American and European pharmaceutical companies have tested new drugs on Australians without anyone other than doctors knowing about such trials. "A Herald investigation has identified hundreds of pharmaceutical company-sponsored clinical trials across Sydney public hospitals, some of which are paying up to $10,000 per patient. Anyone from babies to the elderly to people in intensive care are enrolled in the drug studies that are designed to improve understanding and prevent sickness, but whose potential side effects are still being researched. Patients who volunteer for the trials are not being told about the financial arrangements and are not always given copies of the consent forms they sign. The fees paid by the drug firms are calculated to compensate the hospital for staff time and effort and to pay for medical procedures associated with the trials, such as CAT scans and blood tests." For more about the scandal, click here

Writing in MIT's Technological Review, John Seely Brown   imagines himself in the year 2020, when the computer will have become redundant. "During the personal computing stage, computers became increasingly powerful, but they also became harder to use. Moore's Law, stating that computing power would double every 18 months, seemed to hold for hardware. But robust software never could keep up. The result was that personal computers remained hard to use. … [E]ven that degree of usability faded in the second era of computing, when designers tried to extend this interface motif to navigating the vast information and document spaces of the Web. Those who surfed the Net all day long just ended up feeling disoriented or lost. … Eventually the Web became a jungle of information pathways with no cues to help folks to their destinations, much like the center of a megacity without reliable signs or guides. Urban architects and social theorists were called on to help technologists see the resources that lay latent in the social and physical context."


Despite the important news about the human genome—that we are made up of many fewer genes than was previously believed (click here, here, here, here, and here for various reports from around the world)—the rivalry between the two genome research teams, the Human Genome Project and Celera, has the potential to hinder further analysis, as the New Scientist points out. The Washington Post characterizes the battle as "a highly technical dispute over the best method to unravel big, complicated genomes so they can serve as a foundation for future medical research and a source of information about the evolutionary past." Meantime, the conservative-minded editors at the Daily Telegraph argue that the latest discoveries should be treated with caution. "The book of life alters much and little at once. It could greatly extend the human lifespan; this would mean huge social change. But it cannot transform the human condition; what it means to be human. That, after all, is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. There is a story about this distinction in the book of Genesis. In the tale, Adam and Eve are prevented, after the fall, from eating the fruit of the tree of life—in other words, from becoming immortal. Science could yet show us where the fruit is, because it is in its nature to find new things. But wisdom would advise us not to eat the fruit, because death itself seems to be part of the life cycle: we are, as it were, 'wired' to die." Nature and Science will post the latest genome research on their Web sites.


WEAK GENES A new analysis of genetically modified crops suggests that corn, potatoes, and other foodstuffs adapted in laboratories are weaker than their wilder cousins. As the Economist puts it: "That crop plants do badly in competition with wild species is to be expected. The protection they receive from farmers is, in evolutionary terms, a quid pro quo for the fact that their physiologies are modified to serve human ends, rather than being sharpened for the cut and thrust of life in the wild. But it is odd, at first sight, that genetic modification in a laboratory should weaken a plant any more than traditional breeding methods do. Natural selection, however, is very demanding. It will embarrass genes that are even slightly malign. And traditionally bred varieties have undergone a process more akin to natural selection than those which have merely had genes from other species inserted into them."


Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elaine Showalter explains the appeal of novels written by professors. "Academic insiders often read these novels very differently from civilians. We know the in-jokes, the real-life figures being caricatured, the places and headlines being skewered; and we can identify and enjoy the literary references, the critical allusions, and the generic twists. Thus, while outsiders may read the novels for story, entertainment, and message, academics and others familiar with literary canons and scholarly trends will also decipher them as forms of literary criticism or literary celebration."

Californian purchasers of Dr. Stephen Meloy's new female orgasm device will doubtlessly want to know whether his invention will require batteries or whether will it draw power from the already overwhelmed electrical grid. To not be able to rely on a man (or a woman) is one thing; to know that you can't count on electrical power might be quite another. Jeanette Winterson and other feminists have expressed their dismay at Meloy's machine, comparing it to the fantastical Orgasmatron in Roger Vadim's movie Barbarella. Writing in the Guardian, Winterson says: "I am all for pleasure. I love sex. Sex is about being aroused by someone else and being happy in your own body. If neither applies to you, it's time for a change. All the gadgetry in the world won't make you pleased with yourself or attracted to another person. Electronic sex is another way of faking it. So much for the moral high ground. What about the practical problems? Electrical pulses are sensitive to their environment. At the moment of ecstasy, will you set the car alarm off? Will the car alarm set you off?" Professor Elaine Scarry of Harvard University, who believes that electromagnetic interference from military installations has brought down several commercial airlines, could well have a view on such matters, Jeanette. She might suggest that anyone wearing the device should stay well clear of Long Island on Wednesdays, especially between 8.20 p.m. and 8.40 p.m., when Meloy's invention, like airplanes, may be vulnerable to EMI emanating from Aegis class destroyers, black hawk helicopters, nuclear submarines, and other toys belonging to the military industrial complex.


Erin Brokovich's reaction to the Californian power crisis has not, as far as I know, become public knowledge, though one can only assume that the plight of Pacific and Gas Electric, the dreadful, greedy company you will know about from seeing the movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, has brought some sort of twinkle to her eye. PGE, along with another power generating firm, Edison, is now nearly $13 billion in debt. According to the Economist, the power crisis is symbolic of much wider state malaise—failing dot-coms, a looming writers' strike in Hollywood, even the collapse of the Cruise-Kidman marriage. "Power cuts, with the threat of worse to come when the summer heat brings on the air conditioning, have embarrassed the state at a time when Silicon Valley and Hollywood are going through troubled patches, and when familiar doubts about California's creaking infrastructure are re-emerging. … The toll on morale has been [high]. Half the population of the state, according to a recent Field poll, is pessimistic about the way it is heading. The popularity of Gray Davis, the governor, has taken a hammering." The Amish, according to the Boston Globe, have been a beneficiary of the power crisis. Their gas lamps are in much demand.


Private Eye, the biweekly satirical magazine, invites readers to send in the most pretentious or absurd articles they've seen. The best examples then appear in a column titled " Pseuds Corner," and currently on display is Neville Hoad's correction to an article he wrote for the July 2000 issue Postcolonial Studies (scroll down). "Arrested development or the queerness of savages: Resisting evolutionary narratives of difference." "The following text was printed incorrectly: The narrative hierarchizes difference, doing violence by a priori constituted by progress through its various others, which are then posited as vestigial, arrested, anachronistic or degenerate. It should have read: The narrative hierarchizes difference, doing violence, by a priori incorporation, to the others in the constitution of the subject. The subject is constituted by progress through its various others, which are then posited as vestigial, arrested, anachronistic or degenerate."


In the New Criterion, John Gross writes: "Someone once wrote a book—about the mid-nineteenth century, I think—called The Age of Paradox. It is not a very revealing title. Every age since the Old Stone Age has been an Age of Paradox, just as every age has been an Age of Transition. But at least we can fairly claim that no age has bristled with more paradoxes than our own." The Internet can claim to be the home of several paradoxes, and as Kurt Andersen says, one of them is that many non-paying-every-man-and-woman-for-themselves Web sites, such as, are dependent on sites such as Inside that hope to make a profit. "In order to be economically sustainable, Web content may resemble talk radio and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire more than The New Yorker or Playhouse 90, at least for a while. But consider what the user-generated content sites and sub-sites all have in common: their bottomless reservoirs of free content would not exist without professionally produced music, movies, television and prose for the hordes of interested amateurs to praise and slag and emulate. These packets of user-generated content are remoras, the helpful parasites that attach by means of a clever sucking disk to the backs of whales and sharks for a free ride. It is one way to survive."

While students of Columbia's journalism school absorb the lessons of their first off-the-record audience with Al Gore, over at the university's English department professors and students alike await the arrival of Jonathan Arac from Pittsburgh, who, as Elisabeth Franck reports in the New York Observer, has been charged with task of bringing some relief to a department that "has been suffering from a host of maladies, not the least of which are understaffing and high turnover. The result has been a department so unnerved, it has a difficult time holding faculty meetings, let alone making such crucial decisions as who to name as its department chair. Paralyzed by internal strife, and shaken by the cultural winds of gender and ethnic studies, as well as contemporary theories like deconstructionism, the department has been locked in inertia. … 'What has happened at Columbia represents an acute form of what has happened in the field as whole,' said George Stade, a veteran of the department who retired last year. 'There are those people who see literature in traditional ways, which includes historical circumstances, and there is a school that wants to see literature as a symptom of all the evils of society.' "


The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has released a report on the amount of sex broadcast on American TV over the last two years—there's more of it and it's more vivid than ever, though the authors are curiously reluctant to offer an explanation for the rise. As the Washington Post  reports: "The study did not suggest reasons for the increase in sexual content, but participants at a conference titled 'Sex on TV' in Beverly Hills today speculated that in response to the harsh criticism leveled at violence in the media in the past couple of years, TV writers have focused more on human relationships and sexual activity." Really? Can we therefore conclude that the congressional publication of Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky had absolutely no impact at all on the content of TV shows? For the New York Post's report on the Kaiser findings, click here.

If a pornographer with an interest in children generates images of boys and girls on a computer, can he or she be prosecuted under the terms of the Child Pornography Prevention Act? As Ron Scherer of the Christian Science Monitor writes: "When the Department of Justice tries cases today in the Western part of the US—where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled part of the Child Pornography Prevention Act unconstitutional—it must prove the pornographic images are of real victims. That adds what prosecutors say is a monumentally difficult task to an already heart-breaking job. 'A greater burden shifts to law enforcement to prove these are actual victims,' says a US Customs spokesman. 'It may force us to change the way we investigate our cases,' adds Angela Bell, a spokeswoman for the FBI. … Next month, the US Supreme Court will begin weighing whether the … act can constitutionally bar such images."