The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

“The best thing about being a statistician,” John Tukey, the mathematician who won the National Medal of Science in 1973, once remarked, “is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.” Few people have played in as many backyards as Tukey: Elections, telecommunications, the environment, mathematics, sex research, the U2 spy plane, computer programming, and census reform among them. He also invented an important new word. As the New York Times says in its obituary: “Three decades before the founding of Microsoft, Mr. Tukey saw that ‘software,’ as he called it, was gaining prominence. ‘Today,’ he wrote at the time, it is ‘at least as important’ as the ’ “hardware” of tubes, transistors, wires, tapes and the like.’ ” Tukey died on July 26.

July 28 is the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. The Washington Post asks: “It would be nice to report that … scholars have fleshed out the man. … But Bach, the private genius, known to us from the driest of documentary evidence, remains as he ever was: unquestionably great and maddeningly opaque.”

WHEN DO AIRPLANES CRASH? Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Matt Ridley explains some new theories about risk and airplane travel. As a consequence of Tuesday’s crash, the Concorde, he says, “jumps from no fatal accidents in 30 years to one in fewer than 100,000 flights, which takes it statistically from the safest aircraft in the world to one of the most dangerous. Yet that figure is absurd. The objective risk of air travel … has not been changed by yesterday’s accident.” A more detailed discussion of the risk involved in airplane travel can be found in Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation in a Changing World (click here to buy it). Some useful aviation Web sites include Aviation Safety Network, Aviation Now (the Internet version of Aviation Week), and For accident reports and statistics on air travel in America, click here; for France, click here; and for Great Britain, click here.

In a letter to the New York Times, Woody Allen expresses his concern for New York University’s plans to demolish the Greenwich Village house where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. “No one is questioning the need for the university’s law school to expand,” Allen says, “but surely it can be worked out in a way that does not destroy yet another piece of this fast-vanishing area. It is hard for me to believe that a great institution like N.Y.U., which had the foresight and good taste to expel me many years ago, would be insensitive to this situation.” Slate’s Chatterbox once lived in the Poe house. Click here and here to read his reports on NYU’s plans to tear it down.

Robin Blackburn
argues that Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, came to power because of a “debacle of the ruling order in Venezuela. … The key to [his] victory lay in a promise to reject the failed prescriptions of the IMF, and to ensure that national wealth was used to better the condition of the majority.” In this respect, Blackburn suggests, Chavez is following the example of Latin America’s great liberator, Simón Bolívar. Not everyone is impressed with Chavez’s prognosis for a Venezuelan economic revival, however. Earlier this year, James Surowiecki wrote in Slate’s “Moneybox” that one of the reasons for rising oil prices was that Venezuela—OPEC’s second-largest producer—was “the key player in the output cutbacks.” Surowiecki goes on to explain how Chavez’s shortsighted oil policy might dash hopes of economic improvement. Washington Post recently reported that in the forthcoming Venezuelan elections (July 30), “voters will select national legislators, governors and mayors. Approved in a December [1999] referendum … [these elections have] been held up by Chavez as a Magna Carta for his grandiose plans to remedy social inequities.”

AN AUTHOR’S COMPLAINT It’s not often that an author writes a letter to complain about a good review of his or her book. Nevertheless, this was the course taken by Stuart Hampshire, whose Justice Is Conflict was described by Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books as both important and stimulating. Click here to read Lilla’s article; click here to buy the book. “I am grateful to Mr. Lilla,” Hampshire writes, “for the friendly tone of his review of Justice is Conflict. Unfortunately he seems wholly uninterested in philosophy and Justice is Conflict is a philosophical argument, not a political thesis, and this argument he largely ignores in his review.” Hampshire then responds to a Lilla’s charge of “exasperating gentility”: “I learned from Spinoza that rant and rhetoric, and even talk about the Enlightenment, are not needed in philosophy. But not to exasperate Mr. Lilla, perhaps I shall try to be rather more raucous in the future.” Hardly a poor ambition for a distinguished philosopher well into in his 90s.


Stoked by the popular D-day books of Stephen Ambrose and moved by Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan, Washington, D.C., seems on the verge of losing its sense of proportion about the Second World War. Few dispute that WWII was the good fight, but does it require a new monument on the Mall?  Already there’s the FDR monument, which is as much a tribute to a single man as it is a memorial to a entire generation. Also, as Slate’s Scott Shuger points out (scroll down), there’s the Iwo Jima monument, a symbol of collective military endeavor. Moreover, there’s the monument to the unsung dead: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.


A touring exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s paintings and illustrations, currently moored at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery (click here for showtimes and tickets), furnishes critics with an occasion to rekindle the question of his immense popular appeal. In the Weekly Standard, Catesby Leigh assesses the Rockwell phenomenon. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner say: “Rockwell was the most famous illustrator in America, immensely popular with readers of The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Companion. Yet no artist of any importance showed the slightest interest in his work. … Most of them, indeed, found it repellent, a taste for it beyond the pale of the absurd.” The writers go on to say that the current vogue for Rockwell is a stage-managed affair, wrought by “museum directors, curators and writers on art” determined to bring greater recognition to an artist who is more important than the typical museum visitor might assume. To buy the catalog for “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People,” click here. To visit the Norman Rockwell Museum’s Web site, click here.

AND THIS IS WHERE MONICA ONCE WORKED … Bob Young, writing in Metropolis magazine, explains why the billion-dollar renovation of the Pentagon is essential. “There are 15 million pounds of asbestos to remove; … 16,000 miles of tangled old phone lines to yank out. … Horror stories abound: Raw sewage drips from ceilings; roaches scurry around desks; guillotine-like elevator doors have caused 40 head injuries in the last three years; and the building averages 30 power outages a day.” Is at any wonder that former White House intern Monica Lewinsky wanted to move to New York and that Linda Tripp likened the vast office building to Siberia?

DER LITERATURPAPST Daniel Johnson’s profile of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the most influential literary critic in Germany, appears in Prospect. “He is also an educator and an impresario of literature … the man who has made housewives read serious novels and poetry. … When he first met Günter Grass in 1958, Grass asked him: ‘What are you really: a Pole, a German, or what?’ Reich-Ranicki replied with a bon mot of which he is evidently still proud: ‘I am half a Pole, half a German and wholly a Jew.’ ” On another occasion, Reich-Ranicki said: “I am not a German. I never have been, and I never will be. But nobody can take my Germanness (Deutschtum) away from me.” James M. Markham of the New York Times wrote about Reich-Ranicki in 1984.”On the post-Hitler literary landscape, [he] is a singular feature, a talisman and a sturdy signpost, a reminder that German poets, novelists and critics once had constituencies running from Warsaw through Budapest and Prague to Berlin, Vienna and Zurich.” Reich-Ranicki’s autobiography, Mein Leben (My Life), has sold almost a million copies in Germany—an English translation will apparently be published shortly.

SHOULD PROFESSORS THROW STONES? Edward Said is a professor of English at Columbia University, an outspoken Palestinian critic of the Oslo agreement, and the author of many books. Last year, he published a memoir, Out of Place (click here to buy it, click here to read a chapter, and click here to learn about the attack on the professor and his book). Earlier this month, Said was photographed throwing stones at a fence on the Israeli-Lebanon border. Hurling stones at the fence has apparently become something a celebratory act for Lebanese men, eager to show their approval of Israel’s withdrawal from their country. Said told the Associated Press that the incident was “basically trivial.” The New Republic, which carries the photograph on its Web site, disagrees. The picture “shows a visitor from America gleefully throwing a rock at the Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border.” But since there are no soldiers in the photo, it’s hard to prove that Said was aiming at anything other than the fence. TNR quotes Said: “I had no idea that media people were there or that I was the object of attention.” The magazine goes on to say: “It is reassuring to learn that if he had noticed the camera, Said would have stifled his spontaneous expression of solidarity with Hezbollah.”

THE STENCH OF SUCCESS Joe Eszterhas’American Rhapsody (click here to buy it) should perhaps have been titled “Self-indulgence,” as much for the way it blurs fact and fiction as for its nauseating portrayal of Hollywood and the gilded age of sex and rock ’n’ roll. Reading Eszterhas is similar to walking into a room overpowered by extremely expensive bad taste and the lingering scent of the sewer. Writing in the New York Observer, Francine Prose says the “book’s most appalling chapter [is] a meditation on why African-Americans supported the President, how Mr. Eszterhas (who refers to Vernon Jordan as the ‘Ace of Spades’) and Mr. Clinton share a similar desire to be black, and how much the President has done for racial harmony. … Were the book’s editors asleep at their desks?” Prose asks. “Was no one paying attention?” Peter Kurth, writing in Salon, thinks Eszterhas doesn’t go far enough: “Let’s face it, America: A straight man ‘telling all’ isn’t telling much. Eszterhas is so straight he thinks blow jobs were invented in the 1960s.”


Marcus Oliphant, an Australian nuclear scientist who was part of the Manhattan Project, died a few days ago. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oliphant said that his role in the creation of the nuclear bomb made him a “war criminal.” Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson laments the lack of American interest in the International Criminal Court. “The need for global criminal justice is greater than ever. Pinochet would have been a perfect candidate for arraignment at the ICC.” Meantime, the National Post reports that the families of 323 Argentine sailors who died when their warship, the General Belgrano, was sunk by a British submarine during the 1982 Falklands War, want to put Margaret Thatcher on trial at the European Court of Human Rights as a war criminal. The case will hinge not on whether the sinking of the battleship destroyed any hope of a Peruvian sponsored-peace plan but on whether such a plan existed. The lawyer representing the families says that his clients “want compensation, and a condemnation of Margaret Thatcher as well as the extradition of Mrs. Thatcher to Argentine courts so she can be judged, penalized and jailed in Argentina.”


The New York Times Book Review explains that the rankings in its weekly best-seller list “reflect sales … at almost 4,000 bookstores plus wholesalers serving 50,000 other retailers (gift shops, department stores, newsstands, supermarkets), statistically weighted to represent all such outlets nationwide.” Appearing on the list invariably turns a best seller into an even bigger best seller. On the other hand, a review in the Times is not a requirement for best-sellerdom. Of the 35 hardback nonfiction bestsellers listed on the Book Review’s Web site, 19 have been reviewed. On the paperback list, 22 titles have received a Times review. Fiction fares less well. On both the hardcover and the paperback lists, only 11 books have been reviewed. On the new and much-debated children’s best-seller list  (click here to read on the controversy), five titles have been reviewed by the Times, and three of those are by J.K. Rowling. Needless to say, the four Potter books occupy the first four berths.


Uncommon Knowledge” posts an exchange between Ronald Radosh and Christopher Hitchens on Spain’s civil war. Radosh: “It was either a case by mid-’36 and definitely by ‘37 … of Franco’s victory or Stalin’s victory. … Under those two horrible choices … I think it is better that Franco won.” Hitchens: “There is no one in Spain now, hardly even anyone in the Spanish Communist Party, who has any illusions on what was done on the left and to the left and by some of the left under Stalinism. But there is no one, or no one I’ve yet met of that cohort, who … is glad that [Franco won] … or would accept this kind of reasoning.” 

Photograph of the Concorde by Paul Bates/Reuters; Pentagon building by Don S., USN (Ret.) Montgomery, © Corbis.Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.