The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

In a discussion of 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s movie, and 2001, the year, Anatole Kaletsky challenges the notion that we’re living in a time of social upheaval. “It is arguable,” he says, “that technical and social change is slower today than at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Anyone with a sense of history must surely acknowledge that, in terms of social change, we baby boomers who were born in the years after the Second World War, have lived our entire lives in a period of extraordinary stability. … To suggest that our generation has experienced a rate of social change remotely comparable to the revolution that separated our comfortable baby-boom adolescence from our parents’ impoverished (or gilded) youths in depression-era Britain (or, in my case, in the famine-ravaged Russia and dismembered Poland of the interwar years) is manifestly absurd.”

In a review of Michael A. Bellesiles’Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Jackson Lears argues that “the most influential mythic narrative composed by the contemporary right is the story of Americans and their guns. It is a Turnerian tale of frontier self-reliance. In British colonial North America, the story goes, boys learned to shoot almost as soon as they could wipe themselves. … Small wonder that the colonial militia became such a fearsome fighting force; it was composed of crack shots, citizen soldiers who would learn guerrilla warfare from the Indians and practice it to perfection on the hapless British redcoats in the Revolution. Following the revolutionaries’ victory, the Second Amendment to the Constitution affirmed every individual’s right to bear arms—a right that has remained crucial to the protection of personal liberty against intrusive government power.”

Earlier this week, Emily Wax reported on the National Council of Teachers of English’s ejection of J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye from school reading lists because the central figure, Holden Caulfield, was white and privileged. The head of the NCT’s Commission on Literature, Michael Moore has replied to Wax’s report. “I was dismayed to see the quote that was attributed to me in Tuesday’s Washington Post. I did not refer to Holden Caulfield at any time as a privileged, white male (whose time had passed). I did say that multicultural literature is here to stay. The context for that quote was that more and more teachers have been exposed to many different writers and are using literature for many different purposes. I said that the so-called canon represented a lot of thinking over a long period of time, but that teachers choose the literature they teach to fulfill a purpose. I suggested that if a teacher thought there were good reasons to teach Catcher or not to teach it, that was really what teaching is about.”

“The question is whether our humanity will control technology, or the other way around. That’s the crucial issue.” In the opinion of Dr. Leon Lederman, at one time head of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, this is the question that will dominate the new century. In its wisdom, the Food and Drug Administration has decided that technology will control humanity by declaring that genetically modified food does not need to be labeled as such. In addition, the FDA says farmers and food companies who wish to label their produce as “not genetically modified” cannot do so. As the New Scientist says, the biotech industry, as represented by the Biotechnology Industry Organization“applauded the new regulations, which will go into effect in 60 days.”

In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson says that with the Clinton years almost behind us, expect Democrats to return to their stomping grounds. In short, count on much fulmination against cuts in government expenditure as well as spleen and invective aimed at the rich. Ferguson forgets to add that we can also expect lots of plaintive whining from conservatives about the urgent need to “roll back” legislation signed by President Clinton—for example, laws banning assault guns. As an article in the National Review suggests, however, the whining has already begun. Gun enthusiasts will doubtlessly feel a shot in the arm after reading Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant, and Dr. Joanne Eisen’s article, which argues that gun regulation is “repressive.” “Gun-owners are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice more rights in a futile effort to appease prohibitionists,” the authors write. “At the same time, the gun-prohibition lobbies are trying to get people to view gun owners with the same kinds of mean-spirited, irrational fear and hatred that were once inflicted on black people who moved into white neighborhoods. ‘They’ must be dangerous, the hate groups warn.”

Yahoo! lost its battle with the French government to auction Nazi memorabilia on its Web site, as Lee Dembart writes in the International Herald Tribune. But it remains unclear what motivated the French government to pursue Yahoo! in the first place. A French citizen can presumably travel to a foreign country and purchase exactly the same memorabilia. Why penalize the Internet? As Dembart suggests, anti-Americanism as much as anti-Nazism seem to be the issue. The decision is odd not least because of France’s reluctance to discuss its collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation, a theme of Mosco Boucault’s documentary film, Terrorists in Retirement. As Alan Riding writes in the New York Times, “between the time Mr. Boucault began shooting the 90-minute documentary in 1982 and its single broadcast on French television in 1985, it also provoked a heated debate that mirrored France’s growing discomfiture over its wartime role. … Movies, books and two war-crimes trials of French collaborators, Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon, have told a less uplifting story of the deep involvement of the collaborationist Vichy regime and of the French police and militia in the deportation of 76,000 Jews from France to Nazi death camps. … With three of the film’s ‘terrorists’ still alive, perhaps it is time for the documentary to be shown again in France.” Perhaps Yahoo! could be persuaded to sell the movie on its Web site.

“Everyone knows someone who’s touched by the issue of drugs, so if you can make the dramatic thriller elements more satisfying then you can get away with talking about the other stuff. And people are certainly coming to see it.” So says Stephen Soderbergh, director of Traffic, in an interview with the Guardian. The impact of Soderbergh’s movie has been so great that the New York Times recently held a colloquy to discuss the film’s portrayal of the so-called “war on drugs.” The panel included “former addicts, a convicted dealer, a medical historian, a prosecutor, a retired drug agent, a sociologist, an advocate for needle exchanges for addicts and a psychiatrist.” In the Evening Standard, Christopher Hitchens says that Traffic“may do to the ‘drug war’ what certain Roaring Twenties films did for Prohibition—in other words, expose it as a corrupting and dangerous racket. … A rebellion against the stupidity of the ‘war on drugs’ is the next big thing in American politics and society. Every time the first step—the decriminalisation of marijuana—has been put to a vote it has been carried with large majorities, even in states as conservative as New Mexico. … One has the sense of a long-standing taboo beginning to lose its power.”

Peter Maass
 has joined the ranks of authors and journalists who have taken the Internet into their hands by launching their own sites. Unlike Andrew Sullivan’s burdensome home page (which invites readers to choose between “heavy” and “lite” versions, as if, as in the case of Budweiser, one wanted to be presented with such a choice), Maass’ page is simple and striking. The designer is Matt Haughey, a founder of the discussion page Metafilter.

The journalist Auberon Waugh died in the night. For many readers of the Telegraph, the Spectator, the New Statesman, and Private Eye, he was one of the most accomplished British columnists of the last 30 years. His views were often reactionary, sometimes radical, frequently angry, but never, ever plain. In the Guardian, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes: “His father [Evelyn] died at 62 and his mother at 57—and he suffered from ill-health all his life, partly resulting from severe wounds sustained during national service at the age of 18. That may, in part, have accounted for the acidic personality which made him the most verbally brutal journalist of his age. Everyone who met him remarked on the contrast between his ferocity in print and his personal geniality, but this was hard to explain to those who didn’t know him, especially if they had been on the rough end of his pen.” Waugh’s friend A.N. Wilson writes about this contradiction in the Evening Standard. “Anthony Powell, one of the figures whom Bron [as Waugh was known by friends] mocked and vilified in season and out, used to say that there was a strong vein of sadism in both the Waughs, père et fils, and this was probably true. But whereas Evelyn Waugh enjoyed tormenting people socially, Bron could do it only at one remove. He refused to be resentful, though he caused such resentment in others. The gallant refusal to whinge about his ghastly father was matched by his perverse attitude to drink-driving. Two of his sisters were run down in motor accidents, one fatally. He was bitterly grief-stricken by Meg’s death, but, to the point of tedium, he lambasted the police for trying to make the roads a safer place. He appeared to regard the freedom to drive when drunk as one of the inalienable human rights.”

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, novelist and one-time Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa questions the idea of cultural identity, which he describes as “dangerous.” “From a social point of view, it represents merely a doubtful, artificial concept, but from a political perspective it threatens humanity’s most precious achievement: freedom. I do not deny that people who speak the same language, were born and live in the same territory, face the same problems, and practice the same religions and customs have common characteristics. But that collective denominator can never fully define each one of them, and it only abolishes or relegates to a disdainful secondary plane the sum of unique attributes and traits that differentiates one member of the group from the others.”

Steven Johnson, cofounder of Feed, announces that his magazine has joined an alliance named In a Feed editorial, Johnson explains why he and his new companions have felt the need to consolidate their endeavors. “After six years of pseudo-interactivity, the Web is finally starting to deliver on its original promise, which was to foster collective intelligence by connecting all the world’s information. We’ve learned over the years since Berners-Lee first proposed HTML as a common standard that you need more than raw connectivity to create a network that grows smarter with use; you need more than interlinked pages to create true self-organization.” It’s not entirely clear what Johnson is trying to propose—is true self organization really what the Web is all about?

STAR TURN The Writers Guild of America is planning a strike in support of those members who work in Hollywood. As the New York Times explains: “What the writers demand would create nothing less than a sea change in the culture of Hollywood, where studios go to great lengths to placate directors. The demands themselves are a testament to the lowly status of the writers, more than ever. They want to overhaul a way of life that elbows them out of the possessory credit—the credit that directors take that reads ‘A film by…’ ” In a letter to its members, two regional presidents of the guild, John Wells and Herb Sargent, say they are optimistic that a strike can be averted. “Many have come to refer to ‘the strike’ as if there is no doubt our negotiations will fail. We disagree. … A deal can be achieved if the companies are willing to seriously negotiate the issues we have articulated over the past eighteen months.” This stand-off is less unexpected than you might think. Ironically, a few days ago, Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today defined the new hero of the big screen: the writer. “The big-screen wordsmiths include Michael Douglas as a college prof-in-crisis in Wonder Boys, Patrick Fugit as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone in Almost Famous, Geoffrey Rush as the imprisoned Marquis de Sade in Quills, Javier Bardem as Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls and Sean Connery as a Pulitzer-winning hermit in Finding Forrester.”

NO ROOM FOR HOLDEN Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s famous novel, has been struck from high-school reading lists. “For years, the … book has withstood attacks from the right,” writes Emily Wax. “Today, Holden has new, perhaps more formidable, foes. This time his enemies have attacked from the left, with educators striking the J.D. Salinger classic from high school syllabuses because it fails to reflect multiculturalism. ‘In other words, Holden Caulfield is a white, privileged male,’ said Michael Moore, director of the literature commission for the National Council of Teachers of English. ‘In our very diverse schools, the drive to incorporate very multicultural reading is here to stay.’ ” Just why the NTCE has singled out Salinger and Caulfield seems a bit unfair. On their home page, the council’s “Weekly Lesson Highlight” is the upcoming anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth in 1809. Oh, yes, the raven is a bird, darkly feathered and, as a bird of prey, has the special privilege of eating members of its own species. Tell that to the kids.

In the latest issue of Lingua Franca, Corey Robin writes about Edward Luttwak and John Gray, two formerly rightward-leaning intellectuals who now bend to the left. In Robin’s view, they are “today’s most flamboyant expatriates” from conservatism. On the other hand, neither Luttwak nor Gray “have … formulated coherent alternatives, philosophical or political, to their former creeds. As Luttwak puts it: ‘Instead of proposing a whole counter-ideology, what I simply propose is society consciously saying that certain things should be protected from the market and kept out of the market.’ This, despite the fact that Luttwak remains temperamentally enamored, in his way, of the revolutionary impulse. ‘I prefer “The Marseillaise” to the Mass,’ he says.”

The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who died at the beginning of the month, was “outspoken, often rude, [and] sometimes dubbed ‘Dragon Lady,’ ” as the Guardian says in its obituary. “She pioneered contemporary action theory, and the pre-eminent philosopher Donald Davidson called her 1957 monograph ‘Intention’ the best work on practical reasoning since Aristotle.” Then there is the question of Anscombe’s fabled demeanor. “For a time she sported a monocle, and had a trick of raising her eyebrows and letting it fall on her ample bosom, which somehow made her yet more daunting. … Married to Peter Geach, a fellow-philosopher and Catholic, she was always called ‘Miss Anscombe,’ which caused some consternation at the Radcliffe Infirmary whenever she turned up to give birth (she had seven children).” For the New York Times and Telegraph obituaries, click here and here.

Writing in the New Republic, Christine Stansell says that feminism, like almost everything else, has become a generational question. “Radical sophistication, whether political or cultural, demands not just a critical attitude toward predecessors but also toward its own repudiation. The generational cycles have been so ratcheted up that to hold a place in the limelight for any time demands a vehement show of singularity within a minutely segmented moment of the ‘now.’ So it is interesting to find a book that tries to spring loose from the sequence by connecting an up-to-the-moment female sensibility to a tradition dating back 150 years.” The book that Stansell refers to is Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards.

News that an experiment conducted by scientists in Oregon has resulted in the first genetically modified monkey was front-page news around the world last week (see below for details). Less well reported, and rather more troubling, was the news that a team of Australian scientists accidentally developed a virus lethal to mice. They then passed on their findings to the Australia military, who, the scientists supposed, might find some belligerent purposes for the virus—such as a new chemical weapon. “To make matters worse,” the New Scientist reports, “the engineered virus also appears unnaturally resistant to attempts to vaccinate the mice. A vaccine that would normally protect mouse strains that are susceptible to the virus only worked in half the mice exposed to the killer version. ‘It’s surprising how very, very bad the virus is,’ says Ann Hill, a vaccine researcher from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. ‘If bioterrorists created a human version of the virus, vaccination programs would be of limited use.’ “

In Slate’s “Today’s Papers,” Scott Shuger writes about the successful genetic alteration of a monkey by a team of scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. For further reports, turn to the Times of India, Guardian, Telegraph, and Le Monde. Opponents of genetic modification of anything—crops or mammals—have seized on the announcement as further evidence that science is playing with fire. Scientists, too, have reacted cautiously to the news. In the New Scientist Dave Kerr of Birmingham University’s Institute of Cancer Studies, says: “You’d think that in evolutionary terms, because monkeys are so many steps closer to man than mice, they’d be ideal. But mice are surprisingly good for testing new drugs, for example. Also, you can do things such as transplant human tumors into mice, which I couldn’t really envisage doing in monkeys. Ethically nobody would like the idea of increasing primate research and the costs would be prohibitively expensive.”

Monkeys have lives well beyond the laboratory, of course, as today’s Australian reminds us. City officials in Delhi have hired a monkey named Raju (whose nickname is “Rambo”) to rid the city’s government building of his wild and marauding comrades. As Rahul Bedi writes, wild monkeys “were … terrorizing and even biting people, smashing windows, tearing up files and stealing lunch boxes. Shooting them was ruled out as Hindu religious sentiment associates monkeys with Hanuman, the mythical monkey god who helped Lord Rama defeat Ravana, the evil king. India is dotted with tens of thousands of Hanuman temples and every Tuesday is reserved for his worship. Anyone trying to catch monkeys is frequently beaten up or chased away.”

The Naga sadhus, an ascetically-minded Hindu sect, have denied Madonna, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, and various other famous people special privileges at the Hindu religious festival of repentance, Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad. As the Telegraph reports, the Nagu “began a protest against the ‘unholy’ presence of luxury tents reserved for Hollywood stars and other foreign celebrities on the banks of the Ganges, where millions of pilgrims are gathering for a sin-cleansing dip.” On Wednesday, Luke Harding wrote about what has become the largest worship service in human history. “To cope with the millions expected to arrive daily in Allahabad, the authorities have constructed a giant tent city. It is on a truly epic scale-stretching across 50 square miles of sandy floodplain. Some 8,000 ‘turd-pickers’ have been employed to maintain hygiene, 6,000 public lavatories have been erected, and 12 pontoon bridges built. There are 35 police stations, 12 hospitals, and half a million tents.”

Ken Auletta has written so many books and magazine articles about the media and telecommunications that you’d think he might give us all a break and abbreviate his name to Ken AT&T. This week’s New Yorker (not online) has an extract from AT&T’s new book about Bill Gates and Microsoft. So, too, does the online Guardian. To read all about just how Machiavellian and arrogant and frightfully grouchy the CEO of Microsoft can be, click here, and here.