The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

March 23 2001 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

THE PERFECT FIASCO
While Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, resolves an argument over her prize-winning Afghan (the dog was banned from entering this year's Cuban dog show, then reinstated), various members of the Kennedy administration, old CIA hands, and five members of the guerrilla brigade that sought to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961 have met their Cuban adversaries to discuss the Bay of Pigs. Tomorrow, the group heads to the ill-chosen landing site of the CIA-backed invasion—a scrappy and narrow beach, Playa Hiron, that borders an alligator- and snake-infested swamp, the Zapata. In the course of the talks, and contrary to the post mortem conducted by the Inspector General of the CIA, the Cubans merely say that the best side won. As the Washington Post reports, "U.S. historians have long concluded that the invading force failed for two key reasons: the CIA's bungled planning and Kennedy's refusal to provide air support. Today, Cuban officials insisted there was another reason: The Cuban military was well-trained, effective and loyal. The invaders didn't lose, they said, the Cubans won." The meeting is a first for the members of Brigade 2506, whose last journey to Cuba proved so disastrous. As Tim Weiner writes in the New York Times: "In 1961, 'we disembarked as Cubans, as men who loved our country,' said Alfredo Durán, a former president of the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association, who was expelled by the group for his decision to return to Cuba. He came back, he said, to learn, to share his thoughts, to make sure that 'never again will Cubans take arms against Cubans.' "

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THE FLAT-FACE REVELATIONS
In this week's New Yorker, John Seabrooke searches for his cousins and the remains of his ancestors and assesses the impact of both the laboratory and the Internet on genealogy. In the latest issue of Nature, Dr. Maeve Leakey of Kenya's National Musuems introduces Flat Faced Man—Kenyanthropus platyops. The significance of Leaky's discovery is immense. As the Telegraph explains: "Until a few years ago only three genuses of hominin—species more closely related to humans than chimps—were known to anthropologists. One, Australopithecus, was living between four and three million years ago. Humans are thought to have evolved from an early member of Australopithecus afarensis, the species made famous by the fossil Lucy, who, it now seems, may have been sharing the woods and grass plains of prehistoric Africa with a rival." Or, as the New York Times, puts it: "[T]he family tree, once drawn with a trunk straight and true, is beginning to look more like a bush, with a tangle of branches of uncertain relationship leading in many directions." According to the Los Angeles Times, "the find is further evidence that humanity emerged from an evolutionary maze of false starts, dead-ends and competing adaptations to its African homeland. … 'This is both a very welcome and at the same time extraordinarily intriguing fossil find,' said Donald Johanson of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, who discovered the Lucy fossils in 1974." Leakey, as the Washington Post reminds its readers, "is the wife of Richard E. Leakey and daughter-in-law of Louis and Mary Leakey, a family renowned for its anthropological work in East Africa." Whether John Seabrooke is related to Lucy or to Flat Face will be ascertained shortly.

EAST VERSUS WEST?
In the summer of 1995, Michael Lind told readers of the New Republic about the supremacy of the South in American politics (though some time later Lars-Erik Nelson dismissed such a notion in the New York Review of Books, arguing there was rather more of the North in the South than Lind had imagined). Close watchers of the magazine wondered whether Lind's article reflected the bifurcated political scene at the publication itself. The New Republic is famously a magazine of two halves—a political front and a literary-political rear. Was Lind's article, which appeared firmly in the front section, meant in some way to address the question of who ruled supreme at the magazine—south or north, front or rear, editor Andrew Sullivan or literary editor Leon Weiseltier? Now appearing on the TNR's Web site is an article by editor Peter Beinart (charged with marshalling the front half), who argues that American political debate can be defined as Good West versus Bad East. In the latest issue of the magazine, however, and at the beginning of a long article about citizenship by Alan Wolfe, the back half expresses its own views about the Good West. "From an economic standpoint," Wolfe writes, "as well as a moral standpoint, there can be few more unattractive sights than apathetic Californians born on one side of the border turning their backs on hard-working Mexicans born on the other side." Let's hope war hasn't broken out on 19th Street all over again.

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FOREIGN EXCHANGE
On March 9, the Guardian published an article by Luke Harding on how the Indian city of Bangalore has become the phone bank center of the world. "With the industry doubling in size every couple of months, India is well on the way to becoming the call center capital of the world—with a turnover, analysts predict, of $3.7bn by 2008." In today's New York Times, Mark Landler has written about much the same subject, though he uses American, not British examples. " 'India is on its way to being the back office for the world,' said Shriram Ramdas, one of the founders of Bangalore Labs, which manages Web sites and other information networks for companies from a futuristic office in the International Tech Park on the outskirts of Bangalore. "But call centers are only the low end of a much larger industry of Indian software developers, transcribers, accountants, Web site designers and animation artists. … By 2008, such assignments will generate 800,000 new jobs and $17 billion in revenue for India, according to the consultants McKinsey & Company."

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FAREWELL TO NEW YORK
The population of New York City, widely discussed in editorials and magazines, has lost Luc Sante to the charms of Upstate. In the current issue of Metropolis the former Slate contributor and the author of Lowlife explains why he has left the city for the hill. "The city is riding a high roller at the moment. It's a seller's market and filled to capacity. For all of that, it's no boomtown—not anymore. Prices are excessive, but not too much else is. The appetite for novelty has given way to a craving for security. Hedonism and licentiousness have been banished by official order. … It costs so much to live in New York that few people have the time or energy to do much besides work, absorb various media, and possibly mate. The city's population—always self-consciously exclusive even in its times of penury—is these days being vetted by the moral equivalent of nightclub bouncers who turn away anyone not either born lucky or seriously committed to collecting dollars. … But sooner or later the city will half-rise from its crouch, stick out a back leg, and get to scratching its current itch. And at that point all bets, as ever, will be off." Read Luc Sante's contributions to Slate on art and photography.

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FROM LEBANON TO VIENNA
Edward Said, who was attacked by his political and intellectual enemies for throwing a stone at an abandoned Israeli guard house last September and whose lecture at Vienna's Freud Institute and Museum has been canceled, replies to his critics in Al-Ahram Weekly. In his article, Said explains what happened in southern Lebanon last summer. "During our 10-minute stop I was photographed there without my knowledge pitching a tiny pebble in competition with some of the younger men present, none of whom of course had any particular target in sight. The area was empty for miles and miles. Two days later my picture appeared in newspapers in Israel and all over the West. I was described as a rock-throwing terrorist, a man of violence, and so on and on, in the familiar chorus of defamation and falsehood known to anyone who has incurred the hostility of Zionist propaganda."

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POLISH CRIMES
A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published an extract from Jan Gross' forthcoming book about the massacre of Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne, Neighbors. (The magazine posted an interview with Gross on its Web site.) The book has provoked a public outcry in Poland (and elsewhere) because the perpetrators of the 1941 massacre were Poles, not Germans. Adam Michnik writes about Gross' book in the New York Times: "I don't believe in collective guilt or collective responsibility or any other responsibility except the moral one. And therefore I ponder what exactly is my individual responsibility and my own guilt. Certainly I cannot be responsible for that crowd of murderers who set the barn in Jedwabne on fire. Similarly, today's citizens of Jedwabne cannot be blamed for that crime. When I hear a call to admit my Polish guilt, I feel hurt the same way the citizens of today's Jedwabne feel when they are interrogated by reporters from around the world. But when I hear that Mr. Gross's book, which revealed the truth about the crime, is a lie that was concocted by the international Jewish conspiracy against Poland, that is when I feel guilty."

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CROP CIRCLE
Aventis CropScience
is the manufacturer of the genetically modified corn called StarLink. As the Washington Post reports, although StarLink is not intended for human consumption, the corn has found its way into the food supply and led to allergic reactions in certain people. As the Post says, "allergic reactions have been viewed for years as the primary threat to human health posed by genetically engineered foods, which typically have proteins from other organisms spliced into them for various reasons. But the health complaints about StarLink are the first lodged by consumers against an engineered food." President Bush wants to appoint Professor John Graham of Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—the executive office that will, among other things, assess the risks of genetically modified food. As the Boston Globe points out, however, the appointment will be opposed. Consumer advocate groups claim Graham's credentials are tainted because his Harvard center has accepted large sums of money from companies, such as Monsanto, that would like to see their genetically modified food stuffs approved by the federal government.

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RAISING THE DEAD
The remains of famed atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who vanished in 1995, were found at a Texas ranch at the end of January. The formal identification of the body was made yesterday. David Waters, who once worked as an office manager for O'Hair's American Atheists organization, is the man believed to have planned the kidnappings and murders of O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray. As the New York Times explains, he "pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy charges and agreed to lead investigators to the bodies, officials said. As part of his plea bargain, Mr. Waters will reportedly get immunity for his role in the killings but receive a 20-year sentence for the conspiracy charges." The mystery of O'Hair's disappearence is therefore over, but as the Austin American-Statesman reports, the story is not at an end: "'There's a small war going on over who gets the body,' U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg said. 'That will be decided by the Texas courts.' O'Hair's only surviving relative, son William Murray, wants to bury his family in what he promises will be a private, nonreligious ceremony with no prayers. … But Murray, a Christian evangelist, was a harsh disappointment to his mother, and fellow atheists will make their own claims to the bodies. 'He doesn't deserve the remains,' said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, which O'Hair founded in Austin." In 1965, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor and argued that prayer was not an essential part of the American classroom, O'Hair was asked by Playboy to explain her atheism. "Because religion is a crutch, and only the crippled need crutches. … Atheism is a very positive affirmation of man's ability to think for himself, to do for himself, to find answers to his own problems. … It's about time the world got up off its knees and looked at itself in the mirror and said: 'Well, we are men. Let's start acting like it.' "

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AGAINST CRITICISM
In the introduction to his forthcoming book, The War Against Cliché—Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000, Martin Amis says that today's critics do not even pretend to be interested in literature. "Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetics; it will come from a challenging study of his politics—his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious 'valorisation' of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the Internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic—or at least a book-reviewer."

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THE PUSUIT OF IRVING
British publisher Heinemann
has dropped a book about David Irving and the failed libel case he pursued against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt (she had described Irving as a Holocaust denier). As the Guardian reports: "The decision apparently sprang from fears that publication might provoke further libel action from David Irving, despite his humiliating defeat last July in a libel action which cost the publisher contesting it, Penguin Books, more than £2m in legal costs, which are still unpaid." Irving gloats about the decision on his Web site. DD Guttenplan's book about the Irving trial, The Holocaust on Trial, will appear in May. (To read a Slate"Dialogue" on the trial, click here.)

THE KILLING FIELDS
The onward march of foot-and-mouth disease continues across Europe. So does the slaughter  of livestock.(Outbreaks of the virus have has also been detected in Argentina, Colombia, and Mongolia .) Writing in London's Evening Standard, Brian Sewell questions the procedures chosen to eradicate foot-and-mouth. "For a century the disease has been cut off by slaughter and we have no statistics by which to measure the potential economic loss; moreover, the current breeding of all farm animals for milk, meat or other specific purpose means that they are significantly different from those of even the recent past and we have no notion how they may respond to the virus or what level of immunity they may develop.  … This outbreak … may bring us to our senses, may compel us to reconsider every complacent aspect of our agriculture and our treatment of the rural landscape and environment, the horrors of this holocaust perhaps at last convincing us that we have a moral responsibility of sorts for the animals we eat."

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WHO WAS ON THE STREETS FIRST?
According to Slate Book Clubber Christopher Caldwell, Rick Perlstein's study of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, Before the Storm, "sees the Goldwater debacle as a lost battle in a won war. … Other historians have noted that democracy went into the streets in the 1960's, but Mr. Perlstein is the first to suggest that Republicans got there first. This was not simply a triumph of reactionaries. By the time of Goldwater's Presidential run, the conservative movement had been wrested from the control of the John Birch Society and delivered to the young activists around William F. Buckley Jr., who sought [Perlstein says] 'to articulate a position on world affairs which a conservative candidate can adhere to without fear of intellectual embarrassment or political surrealism.' "

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ANOTHER BELL CURVE
The people of Philadelphia
, if the mayor of the city is to be believed, have become as bulbous as the Liberty Bell. "We're too fat," John Street tells the New York Times. "I just believe that people in order to lead productive lives need to take charge of their health." To convert his fellow Philadelphians to the virtues of a little less weight, Street has appointed a "fat czar," Gwen Foster, who has, with great speed, launched a health and fitness campaign, "76 Tons of Fun." Penalties for recalcitrant members of the citizenry have yet to be announced, but one can soon expect the war on fat to be compared to the comic battle described by André Maurois in his children's novel Fattypuffs and Thinifers. Perhaps persistent offenders could be asked to assist the curators of the Barnes Collection, which R.C. Baker recommends should moved from its current home in suburban Merion, Pa. and rebuilt in downtown Philly.

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A FAIR CONVENTION
Franklin Foer's article about conventional wisdom appears in the New Republic—of all places. In Foer's view, not only has the wisdom about conventional wisdom become lazy and conventional, but it assumes that what passes for conventional wisdom is wrong. "By definition, conventional wisdom is conventional," he writes. "But it has the great virtue of being right." (So much for the famous assertion made by one of the founders of the magazine, Walter Lippman that when all think alike, no one is thinking very much.) Foer argues that the attacks mounted on "CW" in the 1950s and 1960s by, say J.K. Galbraith (who indeed coined the term in his book The Affluent Society), have had their day—that it's now "possible to exaggerate CW's tyranny. Galbraith … caricatured CW as not just conservative but reactionary—unyielding in its defense of inherited values. This criticism, however, misunderstands CW's careful regulation of the marketplace of ideas. Yes, CW is conservative. It makes it difficult for faddish ideas to win popular acceptance quickly. … But compared with other methods of regulating ideas … CW is remarkably open-minded."

THE JOY OF SELF

Peter Conrad
's assessment of the spat between Dave Eggers and David Kirkpatrick appeared in the Observer. "In fact, both Dave and David were case-hardened harlots. This was no feckless fling, but a shrewd commercial transaction. Celebrities only give interviews when they have something to sell. Dave was under pressure from his publisher to help them earn back the $1.4 million advance they'd paid him. And David, with cynical candor, conceded during the wooing process that he too had economic reasons for obtaining a commission from the New York Times: 'I have an occupational obligation to try to talk you into talking with me.' What was the value, then, of the fulsome compliments he paid Dave? This was the hooker's unfelt rhetoric of solicitation and encouragement." In the New York Times Book Review, Slate's Jack Shafer wrote about another McSweenyite, Neil Pollack, whose The Neal Pollock Anthology of American Literature has recently been published. "If I read the young Pollack right," Shafer says, "he means more than to cripple hacks with the mace of parody. Like Dave Eggers and the other literary monkey-wrenchers at McSweeney's Quarterly, where some of these pieces first appeared and which published this book, Pollack longs to make literary noise of his own. … Generous readers will give [him] credit for attempting to sustain the preening persona of his alter ego at book length. But stingy readers, having gotten the book's joke halfway through, will ask why Pollack squanders his comic gifts with writing that is every bit as self-indulgent as the bloviations he wants to take down."

A HANGING OFFENSE

"Henry Blodget, Wall Street's loudest cheerleader for Internet stocks, made it to the front page of the New York Times last week. And thereby hangs a tale about the media and the bubble." So begins Howard Kurtz's article about a Merrill Lynch analyst's enthusiasm for the Internet—an article that is listed in the " Style Section" of the Washington Post—beneath a story about the goings-on at various Parisian fashion houses, but above the so-called "Daily Dose" and articles about "The Marriage of Figaro," "Carmina Burana," and Isaac Stern. And thereby hangs another tale about the media and the bubble. Or just another tale about the media. Or just a tale about Howard Kurtz, the Post's media reporter and author of The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media, and Manipulation (a book James Surowiecki said "exaggerates the influence of both the financial media and Wall Street on stock prices"). Why has a business story ended up in the style section of a major newspaper? Because it's about "cheerleading"? Would a story about Isaac Stern's enthusiasm for New York's Carnegie Hall be better hung if it appeared in a real-estate section?

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FOREIGN BOOM

As Inside reports, talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood studios have not produced an agreement of any kind. A strike is therefore likely. In a New York Times op-ed, Salman Rushdie argues that a strike may have some beneficial consequences—fewer bad films on screens and an opportunity for Americans to see more films from abroad. "In the 1960's and early 1970's, a flood of great non-American filmmakers pried Hollywood's fingers off the cinema's throat for a few years. The result was a golden age, the time of the great films of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray; of the French New Wave; of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Now, once again, world cinema is blossoming—in China, in Iran, in Britain. And it may just be that the mass audience is ready, at long last, to enjoy rather more diversity in its cultural diet. After all, there are plenty of dreadful American films we could all cheerfully do without."

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AMONG THE PRETTY CLOTHES HORSES

David Brooks
of the Weekly Standard recently went to Italy to view the Milanese fashion runways. "For when you actually look at the fashion world, you see two things. First, and most obviously, you see what is indeed a decadent floating party cycle for Eurotrash. One of the perplexities of my week in Italy was that I repeatedly found myself deep in cocktail chatter with semi-beautiful women with no fixed address and no clear occupation, talking about, say, the wonders of homeopathic jet lag remedies. But second, and more ominously, you see the shape of things to come. For underneath the glitter, fashion is a highly competitive industry. In fact, this is the quintessential industry of the Information Age."