News from academe

News from academe.

A Modest Proposal

Has a leading animal rights advocate espoused infanticide? And if so, should Princeton University revoke its job offer to him? These are questions being asked in the American media about Australian philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975), a work of ethics that many credit with igniting the animal liberation movement. Singer is expected to start work at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values next July. The battle is mainly over his more recent book Practical Ethics (1993). In it, he uses a modified classical Utilitarianism–the idea that the best policy is the one that, on balance, most furthers the interests of those affected–to attack our belief that killing animals that are “rational and self-conscious” (such as gorillas or orangutans) is all right, but killing “a week-old baby [who] is not a rational and self-conscious being” isn’t. His conclusion: “No infant–disabled or not–has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” Singer’s views have provoked outrage in Germany, where he has been compared to the Nazis, and in several American newspapers. The Washington Times published an irate editorial by U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo taking exception to Princeton’s invitation to Singer, and the New York Observer’s Terry Golway soon followed suit. Princeton defends Singer’s appointment but says it doesn’t mean the university agrees with his views.

Genetic Determinism

British and American evolutionary biologists and literary critics have teamed up for an experiment in bringing advanced computer modeling to bear on literary texts and may have identified a more authentic version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The literary critics belong to the school of genetic criticism, a new method of textual analysis originating in France in which different manuscripts of the same work of literature are compared in order to trace the development of the author’s sense of style and rhetoric. For the CanterburyTales project, the team used an evolutionary-biology computer program to examine 58 extant manuscript versions of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (written after 1387). To help distinguish early manuscripts from later copies, the program produced the literary equivalent of a phylogenetic tree. To the researchers’ surprise, they discovered that the versions most likely to have descended from Chaucer’s original–which is now lost–were also the ones most neglected by scholars. “In time,” the researchers concluded, “this may lead editors to produce a radically different text of The Canterbury Tales.”

Holocaust Revisionism

Is an acclaimed account of life in Nazi concentration camps by an Ecuadorian Holocaust survivor truth or fiction? Since writing the book Man of Ashes, the survivor, Salomon Isacovici, has died, and his co-writer, a former Jesuit priest named Juan Manuel Rodriquez, is claiming that it is not a memoir but a novel, and was written entirely by him. “I invented passages and details and afterward [Isacovici] believed he had lived through them,” Rodriguez told the Jewish newspaper the Forward. “For him the book is an autobiography; for me it is a charming novel.” Rodriguez is now threatening to sue Man of Ashes’ American publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, but the press has decided to go ahead and publish anyway. Man of Ashes came out in Mexico in 1990 under the names of both Isacovici and Rodriguez and was advertised as “the cruel and truthful testimony of the Nazi concentration camps.” It was warmly received and won an award from Mexico’s Jewish community. Once Rodriguez made his claim to full authorship, however, the book’s Mexican publisher pulled it out of circulation. The University of Nebraska, on the other hand, deems Rodriguez’s claim to be without merit and plans bring out the book in the spring of 1999 with Isacovici named as author and Rodriguez as co-writer.

No Sanctuary

Magnesium mogul Ira Rennert, a passionate supporter of Orthodox Jewish causes recently denounced by his neighbors in the Hamptons for his plan to build a 100,000 square foot mansion seemingly designed for large group meetings rather than for his own summer vacations, is under attack again. This time, the criticism comes from other Jews, for his estimated $1 million donation to a new institute in Manhattan called the Center for Jewish History. The center, slated to open next spring, will house several prominent Jewish organizations, among them the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Leo Baeck Institute, and the Yeshiva University Museum. Several of the organizations emerge out of sharply different religious (or nonreligious) traditions, but the center had opted to remain secular. Rennert, however, earmarked his donation for a synagogue to be built inside the center. Some critics see this as a ruse to sneak religion into what was supposed to be a neutral haven for scholarly inquiry. Center Chairman Bruce Slovin has tried to reassure them that the planned “room of contemplation” will welcome Jews “of any persuasion,” but Rennert’s critics remain unconvinced.

Academic Fashion

Fashion remains fashionable, at least in academic circles. A coalition of students at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, is organizing a performance piece that is to debut in October. “Fashion Slaves: An Incident at the Corner of Sweat and Profit” will include a choreographed musical overture to the theme of “Sweating and Shopping,” and dramatic scenes about sweatshop labor, human-rights abuses, and the effects of GATT and NAFTA, among other topics. The performance will culminate in a “mock fashion show, in which articles of clothing taken from corporations using sweatshop labor will be modeled” interspliced with “skits exposing the reality of life on ‘Sweat Street,’ ” according to student organizer Christopher Powers. Half the proceeds will go to the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, which used to agitate against wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador but now lobbies on behalf of El Salvadorans instead.