The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

March 17 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

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."

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OH, WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE L.A. TIMES BOOK REVIEW? According to Scott Timberg of New Times, Los Angeles' book scene has blossomed, yet the book review of the city's main paper fails to reflect the passion so many Angelenos have for their books. Is this merely professional griping or jealousy—in cities where people talk about books, almost everyone seems to have an idea of how they would run a book review—or a serious allegation? Since no book review attempts to be comprehensive (for example, the New York Times Book Review doesn't review all of the books on its best-seller list even if a certain title is wildly popular in Staten Island, while the New York Review of Books chooses to assess the merits of a book only when it informs a theme that the editors believe is of interest), Steve Wasserman, editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, can be forgiven for his partiality. The same cannot be said, however, for Timberg's employers at Los Angeles' New Times, who do not have a books section on their Web site.

VENDLER'S MERRILL

In last Sunday's L.A. Times Book Review, Caroline Fraser wrote about James Merrill, whose Collected Poems has even been talked about in New York. Fraser writes, "As early as 1972, in a review of Merrill's Braving the Elements, critic Helen Vendler defined the expectations his work had summoned up in what has become one of the most oft-quoted characterizations of it: 'The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry.' " It is no surprise at all that the indisputable queen of poetry criticism, the very same Helen Vendler, writes about Merrill's Collected Poems in this week's New Yorker. In 2001, Vendler says: "By the end of his life, a broad democracy of suffering replaces both the youthful isolation of the earliest work and the somewhat larger, but still restricted, social compass of the middle poems. … The poet can admit that his emotional life doesn't differ very much from that of other people." Daniel Mendelsohn wrote about Merrill for the New York Times Book Review.

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THE POLITICS OF GESTURE

The sociologist Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Interactive Ritual, made a career of cataloging and interpreting gestures. If he were alive today, or if his books were better remembered, one can safely say that his name and his work would be a familiar refrain on chat shows of a political or social nature. What happens, however, when governments rely more on gesture than policy and when journalists ask more questions about presentation than content? "What can and should governments do?" asks the historian Eric Hobsbawm in the current issue of the New Statesman. "More than in the past, they are under unceasing pressure from a continuously monitored mass opinion. This constrains their choices. Nevertheless, governments cannot stop governing. Indeed, they are urged by their PR experts that they must constantly be seen to be governing, and this multiplies gestures, announcements and sometimes unnecessary legislation. And public authorities today are constantly faced with decisions about common interests which are technical as well as political. Here, democratic votes (or consumers' choices in the market) are no guide at all. … Moreover, these ways may prove to be unpopular, and in a democracy, it is unwise to tell the electorate what it does not want to hear. How can state finances be rationally organized, if governments have convinced themselves that any proposals to raise taxes amount to electoral suicide, when election campaigns are therefore contests in fiscal perjury, and government budgets exercises in fiscal obfuscation? In short, the 'will of the people,' however expressed, cannot determine the specific tasks of government."

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PLASTIC FUTURE

In Germany, the demand for newsprint, despite vast supplies of fresh paper from Canada and Russia as well as the locally recycled variety, outstrips supply. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explains: "The liberalization of the power and telecommunications markets indirectly boosted consumption as utilities booked more and more ad space in the hope of gaining new customers or of convincing people to switch from other companies." Germany is not unique in this respect; nor are newspapers. Printers the world over have witnessed paper shortages and higher costs. Perhaps, as Technology Review reports, plastic "paper" will become the publishers' savior. "The book of the future, e-paper researchers like to say, will look just like a regular book. It will have a hard cover and a spine and several hundred thin, white, flexible pages. But the spine will be filled with electronic circuitry and a wireless data port and maybe a stylus; the pages will be electronic displays. Readers will open the cover and—here the vision gets a little fanciful—be confronted with a list of the works contained in the book, arranged by title, author or subject matter. Because this is 10 or more years from now, data-storage devices will have shrunk even further, and thus embedded in the spine of this single volume may be a hundred novels, even a thousand, all downloaded through the data port." Perhaps, in 10 years' time, when technology has truly taken over the world, there'll be nothing else to do but read and read and read.

IDOL PROTEST

As Luke Harding  reported a few months ago, art treasures from Afghanistan have turned up at New York galleries and auction houses, though the profiteering in religious objects did not lead to outraged protests. Now, with the Taliban destroying (and perhaps profiting from) Buddhist statuary, the protests are deafening. Suck.com and the Guardian columnist Isabel Hilton say the outrage at the Taliban's actions is misplaced. As Hilton writes: "Afghanistan's cultural heritage, belatedly, has our attention. For the sake of the statues of Bamiyan, as well as the people of Afghanistan, perhaps we could find a more constructive response than another round of sanctions. Unless we do, the giant Buddhas will be remembered as the latest victims of a crisis the west contributed to then tried to forget." (To read "International Papers" on the Taliban's actions, click here.)

A READING OF THE RIOT ACT

Conrad Black, proprietor of the Jerusalem Post, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator, and the Chicago Sun-Times, has accused one of his columnists of being an anti-Semite. "Writers," Black says in the pages of the Spectator, "like everyone else, have the right to dislike individuals and whole nationalities and ethnic groups. They have the right to express their dislike if they do so rationally, are not legally defamatory, and if they are within the bounds of civilized taste. Unfortunately, last week in this magazine, Taki's reflections were indefensible. He expressed a hatred for Israel and a contempt for the United States and its political institutions that were irrational and an offence to civilized taste. In the process, I am afraid he uttered a blood libel on the Jewish people wherever they may be." In the New York Press, Taki comes to his own defense, mainly by repeating his assertion that the financier Marc Rich is, in his view, a bad Jew. "Marc Rich is a crook who knows the value of nothing and the price of everyone. Clinton is a political Marc Rich, and unscrupulous Jews … took full advantage. … Conrad Black has been snookered by his love for an embattled country. The trouble is that I haven't. I have chosen to remain a Spectator columnist because if you dish it out the way I do, you should be able to take it."

MEDIEVAL PRACTICES

Hysterical technophobia
is said be the scourge of Europe. Yet as another food crisis   bears down on the continent, who can blame Europeans for rejecting the prevailing wisdom about the food supply when neither governments nor the European Commission seem able to inform the public about the nature of, for example, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, and the long-term implications of genetically modified animals and crops? In an assessment of British reactions to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, Felicity Spector, a British news producer, posits that a new "Medievalism" has swept through Britain (though why distrust of a secretive government and suspicions about a fickle press should be considered "medieval" is a mystery). In the absence of a convincing explanation for why hundreds of thousands of animals should be slaughtered to counter a disease that kills barely five percent of those it infects, let's be clear about who is medieval. Burning carcasses, which European governments insists upon, may get rid of the disease for now, but it does nothing to prevent a further outbreak. Nor does it eradicate it in parts of the world, such as South Africa or Hong Kong, where it's endemic. What's surprising about the outbreak of foot-and-mouth is not that it happened, but why it hasn't happened more often, which leads one ask whether farming methods (and government strictures) contribute to the disease's impact by diminishing an animal's ability to resist the disease and whether commercial concerns receive priority over the long-term health of the food supply. As a Sunday Times editorial explained: "Foot and mouth is not the Black Death: the current virus has been around for the past decade. An American report last week explained the reality of what is happening in Britain. Foot and mouth, it said, is 'a relatively mild livestock ailment and it is no danger to humans—but once a farm animal has been exposed to infection, it is killed to safeguard international trade.' Precisely. It's all about trade, as the French showed by banning Irish meat exports even though the Irish republic was free of the illness."

RISK ASSESSMENT

In an interview in John Brockman's Edge, Anthony Giddens, one of the draftsmen of the so-called "Third Way," says that a re-evaluation of the slippery concept of risk is the most pressing concern of the new century. Risk, Giddens says, "is very crucial to scientific innovation. … You obviously need risk; no one lives a life without actively embracing risk. Science is about boldness, is about innovation. And the question for all of us is how you find an appropriate balance between these two, especially when you don't know in advance what the consequences of scientific innovation will be."