The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Inigo Thomas is on vacation this week. He will return next week.

Some good news about life: According to Francis S. Collins, Lowell Weiss, and Kathy Hudson, evidence drawn from the Human Genome Project suggests that “fears of genetic determinism are unwarranted. It has shown us definitively that we human beings are far more than the sum of our genetic parts. To put it starkly, we have seen nothing in recent studies to suggest that nature’s role in development is larger, or nurture’s role smaller, than we previously thought.” Some bad news about society: According to Michael Young—the man who coined the term “meritocracy” and whose influence on social policy on either side of Atlantic deserves to be better appreciated—the social revolution wrought by education is about to turn sour, if it hasn’t done so already. “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.”

“It is hard to think of a sadder scholarly defection to the universe of entertainment.” The defection in question is that of Simon Schama and his recent history of Britain—a book favorably reviewed in the NewRepublic last year. The accusation is made by Sean Wilentz (also in the New Republic), who believes that historical writing should never become pageantry: that Schama’s “jolly and empty traversals … turn all historical subjects into historical romps.” Wilentz’s remarks are made in the course of a lengthy assessment of David McCullough’s new biography of John Adams—a volume that also, in Wilentz’s view, emphasizes spectacle and romp at the expense of analysis. (Or as a generous reviewer in the Los Angles Times Book Review puts it: “McCullough is clearly determined not to get bogged down in textbook history. … It may be his very skills as a storyteller that have made McCullough shy away from the enduring complexities of the American Revolution.”) Why have such histories become so popular? As Wilentz continues: “For many reasons, the age of interpretation faded away over the past decade or so. …With a few notable exceptions academic historians lost contact with the large American reading public. … And into the breach, to the academics’ chagrin, stepped a new breed of popular historians, led by David McCullough and an assortment of journalists, novelists, and PBS film-makers, plus the odd crossover professor.”

TALE OF TWO DOCTORS In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, CBS’s Mike Wallace presents readers with a copy of a letter Dr. Jack Kevorkian wrote to the justices of the United States Supreme Court. In his letter, Kevorkian, who currently resides at Michigan’s Egeler Correctional Facility, offers a brief history of euthanasia and lists a number of people who turned to doctors to help end their lives—Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Sigmund Freud among them. Over 3,000 miles away, another doctor sits in jail. Like Kevorkian, he took people’s lives, though unlike Kevorkian, he did so against their will. That man is Harold Shipman, the world’s worst serial killer. A public inquiry into Shipman’s murders began last week, and on Friday it was established that the doctor killed his victims with massive shots of diamorphine. In a postscript to Kevorkian’s letter, Wallace touches on what he believes is an “apparent irony”: both Timothy McVeigh and Thomas Wouk, whose life was brought to a close with the assistance of Kevorkian, wanted to die, and both died after receiving lethal injections. There’s also an apparent irony with Shipman and Kevorkian: Both gave patients lethal injections, though the latter did so out of charity and with the patients’ consent. Moreover, why is mass murder considered worthy of an exhaustive public inquiry while assisted suicide (when all medical efforts to remedy a condition or to alleviate suffering have failed) is not? And why does the Michigan corrections officer refuse to allow reporters to visit Kevorkian while he serves his prison sentence?

As Sarah Lyall reported in Friday’s New York Times, two British teen-agers have been paroled from juvenile prison after serving eight years for the 1993 murder of a 3-year-old child named James Bulger. The two young men have been issued new names and social security numbers, though because of the Bulger family’s wish to see the two back in jail and what with the rapacious appetite of British newspapers and television to capture faces on film, their new lives are unlikely to remain new, secret, or bearable for long. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the lives of the two will be in some danger if their whereabouts are discovered. Few media outlets can refrain from fueling the fire—not even the Guardian, which plastered the 1993 mug shots of the two men on the front page of Saturday’s print edition and then in editorials and reports went on about the right to privacy. It’s not as if new identities included plastic surgery. The wishes of these two young people, it seems, are antithetical to the desires of editors and producers who cherish the naked ambitions of reality TV—which assumes that everyone is an exhibitionist or on the make, and that even the pursuit of a private life must be exposed. (Click here to read “International Papers” on the release.)

Whether you are in Sydney, Paris, Madrid, London, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or Chicago, whether you watch CNN or listen to the BBC, you would have found it hard to miss the news that the blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker died on June 21. (Expect further obituaries and reminiscences over the weekend; Rolling Stone magazine has photographs and recordings.) Many of these stories linked above make use of the same quotations—for example, Hooker’s famous observation of himself: “ People say I’m a genius but I don’t know about that.” The New York Times’ obituary, written by Jon Pareles, is currently the fullest appreciation of Hooker’s life. ” ‘I don’t play a lot of fancy guitar,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean, mean licks.’ … Through five decades of recording and countless collaborators, Mr. Hooker maintained the Delta style. ‘I just got smarter and added things on to mine,’ he once said, ‘but I got the same bottom, the same beat that I’ve always had. I’d never change that, ‘cause if I change that, I wouldn’t be John Lee Hooker any more.’ “

Evolutionary biologists recently made some interesting claims. A study conducted by John McCullough of Cambridge University and researchers at Indiana State University says that English kings of the late medieval period acted according to a rule laid out by the late Bill Hamilton. That’s to say, although English monarchs were prepared to destroy some of their relatives to preserve their power, they also protected their genetic interests by ensuring that other relatives lived even if they posed a threat to their political interests. Think of Queen Mary who could have had the future Elizabeth I executed but did not. Elsewhere, two scientists claim that women who are raped are more likely to conceive a child than women who have consensual sex. As the New Scientist reports, the study “focused on 405 women who had suffered a single incidence of … rape at some point between the ages of 12 and 45. Of these, 6.4 per cent became pregnant. But that figure jumped to nearly eight per cent when the researchers allowed for the women who’d been using birth control. … To complete the comparison, the scientists needed to know how many women in that age group get pregnant from one-night stands and other one-off acts of consensual sex. The answer … was a mere 3.1 per cent.” The evolutionary significance of the report is not entirely clear, but the findings should support the view that it is a woman’s right to decide whether to bear a child or not, and that if she conceives a child against her will then she is entitled to an abortion.

David Garrow’s students at Emory University’s law school are lucky. They can listen to Professor Garrow’s accounts of his conversations with so many well-known people: Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Justice Harry Blackmun, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and Earl Warren, and many others—as we now know after reading his contribution to the Joseph Ellis affair. Garrow writes: “No academic whom Mount Holyoke or any other college or university is  ‘proud’ to have on its faculty ought to disagree [that Ellis should be fired], and any college president who fails to understand the importance of the intellectual integrity of the classroom ought to find a different job as quickly as Joe Ellis is barred from ever again teaching history.” No one disputes that Joseph Ellis made a catastrophic error of judgment— not even Joseph Ellis—but it’s both intemperate and unbecoming of a historian of Professor Garrow’s stature to lynch a man without first allowing him to explain the facts of the matter. Moreover, history is not merely a question of who you know—or where you really were in the 1960s. Marjorie Williams’ perceptive article about pathological lying and about Ellis appeared in the Washington Post. “It’s not that hard to understand,” she writes, “the shock of finding that the bare mystery of human character has tenure in your midst.”

Of the art critic and curator David Sylvester, who died on Monday, John Russell writes: “In later years he was a regular visitor to New York, where he was prized as a critic, a friend, and a memorable conversationalist. A master of the purposeful pause, during which he sometimes seemed to have left the room, he was also able to proclaim his opinions in a long series of perfectly formed sentences.” What was true of Sylvester’s table talk was also true of his writing. In an essay about Tate Britain, Sylvester said: “And what is it that occupies the curators’ minds? Their territorial rights, it seems. They fashion a mini-essay in indifferent prose and have it printed—with a by-line—on a piece of white card as big as the painting next to which they place it on the wall. It’s their text that dominates the eye; the picture—say, a masterpiece by Stubbs—recedes.” And of Jackson Pollack: “The aspect of life to which Pollock’s art at its best most often returns us is human gesture. Where the paintings seem to allude to life, they can remind us somewhat of landscape, but what they evoke with real acuity and poignancy are gestures of the human body—not at all bodies gesturing, but disembodied gestures, the grin without the cat.” Of Picasso: “Picasso is the issue, Picasso is the one to beat, Picasso is the fastest gun in the west, the one every budding gunfighter has to beat to the draw in order to prove himself. … The young critic cuts his teeth on Picasso. He proves his manhood by putting down Picasso, which is quite easy, because he is so flawed an artist, is such a colossal figure that he has several parts that are clay, probably including his feet, but not his balls.”