Sojourns: True Crime

150pxnatalee_holloway_yearbook_photoAn eighteen-year old girl drinks heavily at a bar. She leaves with three boys about her age. No one ever sees her again. Her body is never found. Such is the ordinary stuff of crime across the world: a victim and her suspects caught in a prosaic mixture of sex and violence.

Add to that a few elements I’ve left out of my description, however, and we have the stuff of media sensation and obsessive interest: A blond American girl goes to Aruba to celebrate her high school graduation. The night before she is to fly back, she drinks heavily at a local bar. She gets in a car with three locals. She is not at the airport the next morning. Her body is never found.

The facts of the crime remain the same. The temper of the response alters dramatically.

Almost a year later, Natalee Holloway still commands our attention. Small developments in the case are breaking news. The characters are all well known: the grieving and irate mother; the coddled major suspect; the various local authorities. Several have given long interviews on national television; all have lawyers, perhaps one or two have secured agents. As with the runaway bride and Hurricane Katrina, the story itself has become a story, an occasion for the media to examine the way in which it packages and serves up the news. Why do we care about one girl’s disappearance when so much of graver consequence happens all the time? Why Natalee Holloway? 

One answer to this question has been the much-discussed “missing white girl syndrome.” A blond and attractive teenager disappears and all sorts of conscious and unconscious associations are made. Natalee Holloway swiftly turns from a particular individual, with thoughts and desires and experiences of her own, to an iconic vision of American girlhood: blond, young, pretty, and almost certainly dead. Like many things, our icons are easier to see in their twilight. Natalee is somehow blonder in repose. And so the story isn’t really about one person’s disappearance. It is about everything that is conventionally American thrown into horrible distress, apple pie tossed to the wolves.

Lurking below the interest in iconic American girlhood is something darker and less easy to talk about, at least on prime time cable. Natalee may or may not have been raped. She may or may not have had consensual sex with one, two, or three boys. One of them licked Jello shots off her stomach earlier in the evening. This much is known. She left a tourist bar named “Carlos ‘n Charlie’s” at around 1:30 am on May 30th, 2005. Her last recorded act was to get into a car with the three suspects. After that, we are left to our bleakest imaginations. In other words, the Natalee story lingers in part because of its strong undercurrent of sex and mayhem.

Natalee’s blondness and our penchant for erotic mayhem are not so separate. They are two sides of the media frenzy that has become the Natalee Holloway story. We turn girls into icons and then like to think of them in the most degraded of circumstances. Even a casual observer of trends in recent pornography knows this all too well. Prurience and voyeurism are intrinsic to this case and central to its apparently unending allure. Our white girl has not simply gone missing. She is now at the dimmer reaches of what we can speak about and what we can imagine. The combination is toxic and intoxicating. 

To these associations, I would add one more element that is essential to the Natalee phenomenon. The crime remains without a body, some of the most basic facts available only through conjecture and inference. This way it is both a perfect and flawed crime story. The same public that watches Greta Van Susteren incessantly dissect the case on On the Record tunes in regularly to CSI, where virtuoso experts discover incriminating evidence on or about the corpses of victims. But Natalee’s body is still out of reach of criminology and forensic science. Nothing is resolved or certain. Natalie did or did not have sex, was or was not raped, died by accident or met foul play. According to the latest version of events, she may have expired from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Without a body, there is no way to know for sure.

Nataleeholloway_1Natalee still holds her secrets. Irresolution and uncertainty allow for the infinite variety of crime-narratives to play themselves out—among talking heads, in our imaginations. Yet irresolution and uncertainty also frustrate an audience that expects closure. We have grown used to bodies that talk to the police and doctors and scientists. The Natalee Holloway story places her body at the center of events—she was or was not inebriated, did or did not have sex, met or did not meet with violence—yet renders it disturbingly mute.

We may never hear Natalie speak. What we know is this. An eighteen-year old girl drank heavily at a bar. She left with three boys about her age. No one saw her again. Her body has yet to be found. 

Ocracoke Post: Vollmann Dreams of Joseph?

Scott Esposito, author of the excellent literary web log Conversational Reading, has spread the word that the next volume of William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series of novels might take on the subject of Chief Joseph:

Vollmann fans will be giddy to hear…that he’s shortly to begin work on the next dream in the Seven Dreams series. He said it will center around the life of Chief Joseph and that he’ll be playing with the chronology, perhaps telling the story backwards. He remarked that this may mean that the story will have a happy ending, something Vollmann stories typically don’t have.

Giddy, indeed. I hope nobody will object to a few notes giving some historical background, which I happen to be interested in at the moment because of a projected essay on a parallel subject I have been developing with a friend. To be clear: I know nothing about the upcoming novel whatsoever, other than that, if the report is accurate, I look forward to reading it. Since the larger meta-narrative of the Seven Dreams series involves the history of the clashes between Native Americans and their white colonizers since the settlement of the New World, it does seem logical that Joseph could become a central figure. His tragic heroism in attempting to save his Nez Perce people from ethnic cleansing in the 1870s is a story American schoolchildren may remember. Evicted from their homeland in the Wallowa valley of what is now Oregon, they attempted to flee to Canada to avoid being forced on to a reservation. Pursued by a much larger force of U.S. Army regulars under the command of the one-armed general Oliver O. Howard, Joseph managed to elude capture for around 1,000 miles through extremely shrewd tactics and maneuvers.

The definitive history of the subject is The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, written by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., back in 1965 (Mariner Books reissued the complete and unabridged book in 1997 as a paperback). One of the more remarkable episodes in Josephy’s book involves a photograph taken by William H. Jackson before the 1877 war of a “half-blood with blue eyes and light hair,” who the Nez Perce claimed was the son of William Clark (of Lewis & Clark, the idea being that Clark fathered a son on his travels through the area). Later, when Joseph and the other “non-treaty” remnants who had refused the destruction of their homeland were finally captured in Montana some forty miles away from the Canadian border, by troops under Nelson Miles, they found a old man who was probably the same light-haired person in Jackson’s picture. The story of the photograph, which now resides in my hometown at the Iconographic Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, neatly encapsulates the drift down into the abyss of unnecessary and largely unprovoked violence that took place when white settlers replaced more friendly explorers in the Nez Perce homeland. The great tragedy of the Nez Perce was that they, among all the tribes of the West, were the most consistently friendly and accommodating allies of the whites.

Another remarkable dimension of the story is the role of the villain of the piece, General Howard, the man tasked with hunting Joseph down. (Because the Nez Perce had women and children with them, Howard today would be called, properly, a war criminal.) Howard might prove to be an ideal vehicle for Vollmann’s continual exploration of the bad conscience of white mythology. An abolitionist Civil War general who had atrocious luck in battle – losing his arm at in the accidental battle of Fair Oaks, routed by Jackson’s surprise attack at Chancellorsville, and given the worst troops in the worst field position on the first day of Gettysburg – Howard was reliable enough to rise to be one of Sherman’s key subordinates during the March to the Sea. He was one of few Northern military men to write about the suffering inflicted on the civilians of Atlanta, particularly the women (this in an article in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War). After the war, he helped found Howard University for African-Americans, before being posted to the West. Howard, in fact, seemed to have a paradoxical streak in his character whereby he tried to negotiate for the Nez Perce to stay in their homeland at first, but had nothing but contempt for what he saw as the satanic dimensions of Native American religion. What is so terrible about him is that he seemed to have every appearance of being an upright man, even a sympathetic man in some ways during the war.

In his memoir Nez Perce Joseph, Howard tried to justify his actions in a way that followed the commonly-held and relentless logic of dispossession:

There are few Indians in America superior to the Nez Perces. Among them the contrast between heathen and Christian teaching is most marked. Even a little unselfish work, both by Catholic and Protestant teachers, has produced wonderful fruit, illustrated by those who remained on the reservation during the war, and kept the peace; while the unhappy effects of superstition and ignorance appear among the renegades and “non-treaties.” The results to these have been murder, loss of country, and almost extermination. (Brig. Gen. O. O. Howard, “Preface,” Nez Perce Joseph.)

The connection between this fascinating (and awfully frank) statement and the general drift of how Native Americans were loved to death by the Catholic missionaries in Vollmann’s novel Fathers and Crows (the Second of the Seven Dreams) should be pretty clear. How Vollmann handles the story will be doubtless unexpected, unpredictable, and brilliant, as usual. If I had to hazard a single speculative remark (never wise, so advance apologies), I would probably guess that the story won’t be that Howard found ways to fail to capture Joseph. It would diminish Joseph’s military accomplishments to put that idea forward, for one thing. In fact, Howard did fail – mainly because with heavy equipment and logistical problems he couldn’t really keep up in the terrain – and in the end Sherman dispatched Miles’ troops to catch Joseph before he slipped across the border into Canada. Joseph hoped, possibly mistakenly, that Canada would have offered him and his people asylum. After being captured, Joseph made the speech for which he is known to history: “I will fight no more forever…”

The generally-rentable and pretty solid PBS series The West (Episode Six), directed by Stephen Ives and produced by Ken Burns, and written by the perennial Burns collaborator and scholar Geoffrey C. Ward, contains a lot of interesting documentary material on the story.

Selected Minor Works: Kosovo Pole Revisited

Justin E. H. Smith

[For an extensive archive of Justin E. H. Smith’s writing, visit www.jehsmith.com]

In recent years, one of the sights that never fails to drive home to me the fact that I am back in Eastern Europe is that of hordes of travellers rushing to the grand machines in airport departure areas that, for a price, will wrap one’s luggage in multiple layers of clear, environmentally unfriendly plastic.  This is meant to serve as protection, though it must be hell to remove. 

With this image still vivid from a recent voyage, I was amused to read of Milosevic’s posthumous return to Belgrade that “[t]he coffin, wrapped in clear plastic and packing tape, was removed from the jet after the rest of the passengers’ baggage on a small yellow vehicle with a conveyor belt” (New York Times, “Milosevic’s Body Returned to Homeland for Burial,” March 15, 2006).  Finding this gem just before the funeral, I thought to myself: Replace the staid black suit and tie with a shiny track outfit for the ceremonial display, and pipe in some noxious turbofolk to pump up, with the help of a cheap techno beat, the narcissism of minor differences, and there will be no doubt but that in death the ex-Yugoslav dictator has been honored, if not with a state funeral, at least with all the decorations of the post-communist culture of tacky thuggery that Milosevic and his family so shiningly embody.

In 1998, I asked Warren Zimmerman, the recently discharged U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, whether the seemingly endless series of violent episodes involving Serbia and its neighbors could be attributed to “deep-seated, historical enmities.”  He rightly said no, and that indeed much of the Clinton administration’s fence-sitting was regrettably motivated by just such an idea.  Slobodan Milosevic often invoked the battle of Kosovo Pole against the Turks in 1389 to justify ongoing slaughter.  Clinton, in turn, emboldened by Robert D. Kaplan’s influential 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts, was happy to invoke similarly distant and semi-mythical events to justify the U.S. position that there’s no point in trying to stop those bloodthirsty Yugoslavs from having it out.

In the late 1990s, I got it into my head to go to Belgrade to interview Milosevic.  It never happened, and this past month I have definitively put my hope of following through to rest.  Back then, I was listening in preparation to instructional casettes of what used to be called “Serbo-Croatian.”  They highlighted the names of foods, and for some reason lay particular emphasis on the fruits.  I learned for example that in Serbia a mango is called a “mango.”  Great. 

I quickly realized that this would not help me to formulate probing questions about who stood to benefit from the privatization of previously state-controlled industries, about the chain of command between Belgrade and Bosnian Serb commandos, etc.  I doubled up my efforts and began to sit in on intensive language courses at Columbia. In the end, the Yugoslav embassy in D.C. held onto my passport far too long.  By the time I got it back, having in the end been declined a visa, I was fairly proficient in Serbo-Croatian –I could now buy a mango while haltingly discussing geopolitics– and the NATO bombing campaign had, at long last, begun. 

This campaign divided those of us who hate war, but also hate the suffering wrought by nasty, opportunistic men propelled into power, whose “sovereignty” is then for some reason thought worthy of respect. To the present day the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia seems to occupy a position halfway between the case of Rwanda, where staying out was a clear abrogation of international responsibility to protect the helpless; and that of Iraq, where humanitarian intervention between a tyrant and his subjects was neither a significant part of the justification for invasion nor, evidently, among the concerns of the invasion’s planners.

The Serbian media have for the most part been at least as reserved in their expression of affection for the deceased former leader as has the New York TimesVreme, Serbia’s own journal of record, assesses Milosevic’s reign as one of incalculable tragedy. Curiously, it seems that Milosevic has received a warmer send-off from the Russian establishment press, but even there his legacy is presented in that dialogical form that often passes for objectivity: “Some say he was the butcher of the Balkans, but some say he was a Serbian national hero.”  We may speculate that this “balance” has something to do with Putin’s increasingly tight control of the media, and his concern for his own legacy as an increasingly iron-fisted ruler.  Russia has given amnesty to Milosevic’s wife and their cretinous son Marko, the one-time patron of Belgrade’s Madona discotheque, whose principle concern in life seems to be collecting sports cars and firearms, and who once announced to Yugoslavia’s Vatican ambassador that he would like to have plastic surgery on his ears, since, as he explained, “I can’t drive an expensive car, dress well, and be floppy-eared like cattle at the same time” (for a hilarious transcript of bugged conversations among the Milosevic clan, see: http://harpers.org/AllInTheFamily.html).

Those who believe that Milosevic could do no wrong appear to include young Marko, wife Mira, a few scattered seniors in Serbia and Russia whose pensions have been cut off, and Ramsey Clark.  All considered, the average age is quite high.  Notwithstanding the depiction widely circulated in the Russian press, of the former ruler as St. Slobodan in the style of an Orthodox icon, and notwithstanding the 50,000 nostalgic gawkers who turned out for the public funeral, it is not likely that the affectionate memory of him will survive for more than the few years most of his supporters have left.

Reading the placards held up by the elderly demonstrators outside the US embassy in Moscow a few weeks ago, one detected an odd persecution complex, as though Western nations have arbitrarily picked out the South and Eastern Slavic peoples for harrassment.  This complex is particularly sharp among some Serbs, who sincerely believe that they are the last line of defense for Christian Europe against the invading Muslim hordes.  As I seem to recall one Serbian warlord saying in the mid-1990s, if it weren’t for the vigilant work of death squads like his, camels would be drinking from the banks of the Seine in no time.

The problem of course is that the Ottoman Empire no longer exists, and in  any case the Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims are not foreign invaders.  They are, to use the old, optimistic and all-inclusive language preferred by Marshall Tito, indigenous Yugoslavs, and from the point of view of, say, a Norwegian, they are at least as European as Arkan the warrior and Ceca his turbofolk-singing muse.  Though there is an enduring “Muslim question” in Europe, the landscape has changed somewhat since the original battle of Kosovo Pole, and Milosevic was indulging in nothing but an anachronistic medieval fantasy to make Yugoslav Muslims out as Turkish infidels.

But are the complaints of anti-Serbian bias justified?  To be sure, there is a prevailing sense in the Western media that Serbians are to be collectively punished for the crimes of the warlords and thugs Milosevic oversaw.  Thus in a blurb on the New York Times homepage we read that “The ex-Yugoslav leader’s supporters planned a Belgrade funeral that raised fears of Serbs using the ceremony to try to regain power.”  Serbians regaining  power in Serbia?  The very gall.  In the full article, “Serbs” is lengthened to “nationalist Serbs,” but the slip is telling.  Serbia continues to be vilified as a whole, and probably will be until more serious atonement is made by the Serbian political establishment, and until the deniers of the ethnic-cleansing campaigns are pushed even further to the fringe, where they may congregate harmlessly and irrelevantly, like the friends of David Irving.  It is a good thing that Milosevic was not honored with a state funeral, and if he and his family had been refused the right to return to Serbia now, the ceremonies would likely have only taken place in Russia and stoked the rancid rhetoric there about some pan-Slavic mystical  “brotherhood” which nonetheless excludes the Croats and Slovenes since they abandoned Orthodoxy, or the Cyrillic alphabet, or something.

The irony is that the appeals to ancient blood ties that provide nationalist movements with their fuel are but a flipside of the Clinton-style invocation of intractable ancient blood feuds in the aim of rationalizing staying the isolationist course.  Among national groups, there simply are no natural enemies or natural friends.  Serbs and Kosovo Albanians are not like cats and dogs.  The myth that they are, or that they became so in some  transformative event on a 14th-century battlefield, and are forever condemned to live out the fates that were there secured, has tremendous propaganda value in rallying the troops for current purposes, and this is something that Milosevic well understood.

And this brings us to Iraq, where, in the transition from “terrorist insurrection” to “civil war,” the Americans are increasingly feeling not besieged, but exclued from the action.  Whatever the arguments for withdrawal, and there are many excellent ones, let us not lapse into the Orientalist and vaguely racist fantasy that, whereas we in the enlightened world work out our differences through rational communication, in those parts there’s nothing to be done but to let the Shiites and Sunnis fight it out amongst themselves.  Such reasoning always mistakes the local and short-term for the eternal and fixed.  It’s not in their blood.  It’s in their predicament.

The Ulcer Giver: Helicobacter Pylori

By Dr. Shiban Ganju

Shiban is the chairman of a biotechnology company in India and a practicing gastroenterologist in the USA. He travels between these two spaces frequently but lives in them simultaneously. He has been a passionate theater worker, reluctant army officer, ambitious entrepreneur, successful CEO and an active NGO volunteer. Still, he is does not know what he wants to be when he grows up; but he wants his epitaph to be “He tried.”

PhotonicsA diminutive microbe, Helicobacter Pylori (HP) emerged from obscurity over twenty years ago and squirmed itself into fame and stardom! Since its stomach damaging felony was discovered, it has been accused of causing injury to other precious organs like heart and colon. The scientist sleuths are collecting evidence to indict it; the verdict is not yet in but it is likely that HP will be found guilty on some counts and exonerated of others.

This miniscule, (3 micrometers long), corkscrew like microbe eluded the scientists with diversionary tactics worthy of a hardened felon. HP created the trail of hyper acidity as the cause of ulcer disease and scientists spent decades to unravel the mystery of acid production.

The dogma in ulcer disease stated: stress increases Hydrochloric acid production which in turn erodes the duodenal or gastric (stomach) lining causing an ulcer crater.

Investigators found excessive acid and pepsin production in the stomach of patients with ulcer disease. Other associated culprits — cigarettes, anti inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen — shared the blame.

Natural consequence was a multi million dollar business of acid neutralizing and suppressing drugs. Shelf loads of antacids and histamine-2 receptor blockers like Cimetidine (Tagamet) became the standard therapy. Later, the proton pump inhibitors like Omeprazole (Prilosec) and its variants entered the fray to abolish gastric acid.

When medical therapy failed, surgeons wielded their knives, especially for those patients with complications of bleeding, obstructed stomach outlets and indolent ulcers. Surgery involved cutting part of the ulcerated stomach or duodenum and reconnecting the stomach to the jejunum. Prominent surgeon Billroth attained immortality by naming one such procedure after him, only to announce a newer and improved version later that he named Billroth II.

Other surgeons innovated the cutting of the vagus nerve to abolish the stimulus to acid production. But it led to decreased motility of the stomach and stagnation of food, so other surgeons offered a solution by enlarging the gastric outlet opening into the duodenum (pyloroplasty).

So the dogma went on. Books, papers, seminars were devoted to discuss the virtues of one procedure and vices of the other. Newer acid suppressants proliferated and a few generations of gastric surgeons thrived. Meanwhile, some patients improved while others suffered more.

WarrenThe beginning of the end of this mindset came with the discovery in 1983 by Barry Marshal and Robin Warren from Perth, Australia that the cause of gastritis and duodenal ulcer is this cork screw shaped bacterium Helicobacter Pylori. (Campylobacter pyloridis initially) Though this bacterium was found in the stomach lining by many investigators from 1875, it was Marshall and Warren who cultured these bacteria and found them in over 90 percent of duodenal ulcers. Marshall further nailed the etiology by satisfying Koch’s postulates. Koch, a renowned scientist, had suggested earlier that in order to validate an infectious etiology of a disease the following criteria had to be met:

  1. The organism is always associated with disease.
  2. The organism will cause disease in a healthy subject.
  3. Eradication of the organism will cure the disease.
  4. Re-challenge with the organism will cause the disease again.

Barry Marshall swallowed a Petri dish culture of H. Pylori and suffered severe gastritis; he recovered when the bacteria were eradicated and he did not re-challenge.

He satisfied three of the four postulates. After initial skepticism, as befits a dogma, other workers from all over the world replicated these findings. Suddenly ulcers of the stomach and duodenum were cured by simple antibiotic therapy for two weeks. Drs. Marshall and Warren won the Nobel Prize in 1995.

HP turns to be more interesting than a mere ulcer causing nuisance. It has four to six flagella at one end with which it penetrates the mucous layer and approach the gastric wall. The bacterium produces many enzymes including urease which breaks down urea into ammonia and bicarbonate which neutralize the surrounding acid creating a neutral pH cocoon around the bacterium. With glue like surface adhesins, HP clings to the gastric cells. Its secreted enzymes provoke the gastric G cells and D cells which enhance the Hydrochloric acid and pepsin production. An inflammatory response ensues and the lining succumbs to the onslaught of abrasive acid and inflammation. The surface breaks down and forms an ulcer. (Remember how research had shown increased acid production in ulcer patients: the cause was the bug and not stress!)

Investigators have shown that HP is present six times more often with gastric cancer and mucous associated lymphoid tumors (MALT) than in normal stomachs. Eradication of the infection with antibiotics clears the lymphoid tumors. (Here is a stunning example of antibiotics curing cancer!)

HP lives preferentially in the lower part of the stomach and passes in the faeces.The interpersonal transmission, therefore, is presumed to be fecal-oral. Over 50 percent of adults in the developed world carry this bug; the prevalence is higher in the developing countries. The prevalence increases with age.

The microbe is transmitted with in the family and travels with the family; this attribute has been used to study recent migration of human populations. The following example illustrates the point: the Ladakh region occupies northern tip of India and borders Tibet on the east and Kashmir on the west. The population of this region descends from Tibetan and Indo-Iranian stock. While genetically the two populations do not differ, the genomics of H pylori in their stomachs betray their migrations from their respective ancestral lands of Tibet and northwest India.

HP has reminded us again: 1. Microbes rule. 2. “Scientific” dogma can stupefy the mind 3.The dogma may even harm the very patients that are supposed to benefit from such knowledge.

What is the future of this bacterium? All bad things must come to an end! A mathematical model from Stanford suggests that H pylori will be extinct in one hundred years, at least in the USA. Its fifteen minutes of fame will be over.

Helicobacter Pylori, the diminutive flagellate, dispeller of dogma, generator of insight into cancer, tracer of human dislocations gives me “ulcers”, when, as a physician, I encounter patients with surgically mutilated stomachs from a bygone era. I shudder to think that the current “state of the art” in medical practice will be found similarly inadequate in future.

I pray we do no harm in the meantime.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

once more with Bernard-Henri Lévy

I belong to a generation who felt, very early on, that anti-Americanism in Europe always had a connection to fascism. Now that does not prevent me from seeing, or at least trying to see, the America of today as it is. Nor from talking to my American friends about everything in America that is unworthy of this idea that I will never weary of contrasting with antagonistic ideas that the anti-Americans hold. I speak to them of their atrocious prisons. I speak to them of their absurd and deadly malls. Of their dubious gun fairs. I talk to them about the death penalty, unacceptable in a large democracy. I speak to them about Guantanamo, where I had a chance to work for a few days and which I left convinced was, though certainly not the gulag, nevertheless a disgrace. I speak to them, you’re right, of this ignoble debate on the conditions in which the use of torture could be justified. I speak to them about the massacre of the Indians and the fact that a gaping wound will remain in the flank of the nation until a real place of mourning and remembrance, a sort of Yad Vashem of the suffering of the first inhabitants of the country, is dedicated to them. I even talk to them about Mount Rushmore, this monument that is so emblematic of American democracy and about which I would nevertheless say: 1) it seems placed there as a colossal provocation, on a site that, for the Indian communities, was one of the most sacred in the country; 2) the sculptor of these icons is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who apparently never renounced the ideas of his youth; 3) that it is called “Rushmore” after a filthy lawyer, a thief, employed by the great gold seekers and entrusted with finding legal ways to expropriate Indian landowners of their land at the cheapest cost. But all right. The little detail that changes everything and that I am grateful you have seen is that all of this proceeds from this fundamental love of America and the American people. I think that one cannot criticize America unless one is animated by a sincere love of its people and its Idea.

more from Bomb here.

ellsworth kelly

Red_blue_green

Clarity, elegance, austerity, grace – you would hardly think these qualities went with brash and even eye-popping colour but so it is with the painting of Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly is a pioneer of American abstraction, a fabled figure, an early minimalist. He will be 83 this year. While contemporaries such as Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin are all long gone he is still avidly picking over the potential of a few shapes and a handful of hues in a small town just far enough from New York to discourage predatory visits from the art world. He could almost be an advertisement for the benefits of peace and hard work.

Peace is certainly the characteristic atmosphere of his shows. Visitors slow down, drop their voices. That this should be the case when the colours are so full-volume – yellow, red, acid green – is part of the communal pleasure of his art;

more from The Observer here.

atomik aztek

Blvr_book_award

“Prove you are alive. Prove it.” In Atomik Aztex, Sesshu Foster takes a deep breath and conjures a loopy, violent multiverse in which “78 rpm realities” spin one after the other, for a monstrously comic opera in which life and death, glory and degradation, possible pasts and feverish futures collide on cue. Call it Slaughterhouse Jive: narrator Zenzontli is a powerful Aztec warrior attacking the Nazis at Stalingrad in 1942—or a killing floor drudge at an East L.A. meat factory, hallucinating his way out of history to the aroma of naked lunch.

In this delirious first novel—part Mumbo Jumbo, part The Man in the High Castle—poet Foster has the “proper energy vibe” to make the whole thing fly. He Herrimaniacally eschews the hard c in favor of k (“Wake that man up there, I have something kool to say”), unleashes Beat-like stretches of indentless, incantatory prose, and chocks his text with W. B. Yeats and penis-enlargement ads.

more from The Believer here.

THE SELFISH GENE: THIRTY YEARS ON

From Edge:

Selfish The toughest ticket in London’s West End last week wasn’t for a new mega-hit musical from Cameron Mackintosh, or a new play by Tom Stoppard. The people who flocked to The Old Theatre were greeted by famed British radio and television presenter Melvyn Bragg (“Start the Week”) with the following opening words:

“They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

The words are from The Selfish Gene, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. And the evening was a celebration of the thirty year anniversary of the publication of his classic book. As I was unable to attend, I asked Helena Cronin, the founder and director of Darwin@LSE, (and the author of The Ant and the Peacock), to guest edit this special edition of Edge, and she has kindly provided us with the complete audio of the event as well supervising the editing of the transcribed text. Edge is extremely grateful to her for her efforts.

More here.

. . . And an Older Erica Jong Learns To Love Zippers

From The Washington Post:

Jong_1 Back when Erica Jong was a lush literary Lolita penning the It novel, she had a certain somethin’ somethin’ going on. She had a way with words: “Fear of Flying,” her feminist manifesto, sold 18 million copies worldwide. And she had a way with men: four husbands and dalliances with other women’s husbands. (Martha Stewart is allegedly still ticked.) Back then, Jong has boasted, she smelled of sex. Pheromones-a-go-go. But with time comes both change and regrets, and, well, the Italians, they don’t stalk her through the streets of Venice anymore, fingers grasping at ripe rump flesh. As Jong, who turns 64 today, sees it, this is a blessing:

“The zipless [romp] could not interest me less,” says Jong, who coined the catchphrase back in 1973. But mature sex, committed sex, with all its zippered encumbrances, interests her plenty. She’s been married to husband No. 4, divorce lawyer Ken Burrows, for 17 years, and the days spent shagging married men, unmarried men, way older men, way younger men — not to mention the occasional tryst with a girlfriend — have given way to years of contented monogamy.

More here.

Dear Readers, last chance to vote for 3QD!!!

Rose

UPDATE 03/26/06: Polls for the Koufax Awards close today. Please vote now!

Of the more than 300 semi-finalists each in the Best Group Blog and the Blog Most Deserving of Wider Recognition categories, 3 Quarks Daily has made it into the top 10 finalists in each, thanks to your earlier votes! If all our readers vote for us one more time, we can actually win this, we think, and that would get us some needed attention. The competition is very tough this time, and we need every vote!

So, I must ask you to vote for us AGAIN, one last time, by sending an email to wampum@nic-naa.net with the word “Koufax” in the subject line, and in the body of the email, put the following line:

I vote for 3 Quarks Daily for Best Group Blog AND Blog Most Deserving of Wider Attention.

Please just do it NOW, as the voting is not open for long. Thanks a million!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Baghdad: The Besieged Press

Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books:

20060406journalists“Ladies and Gents,” the South African pilot matter-of-factly announces over the intercom, “we’ll be starting our spiral descent into Baghdad, where the temperature is 19 degrees Celsius.” The vast and mesmerizing expanse of sandpapery desert that has been stretching out beneath the plane has ended at the Tigris River. To avoid a dangerous glide path over hostile territory and missiles and automatic weapons fire, the plane banks steeply and then, as if caught in a powerful whirlpool, it plunges, circling downward in a corkscrew pattern.

Upon arriving in Amman, the main civilian gateway to Baghdad, one already has had the feeling of drawing ever nearer to an atomic reactor in meltdown. Even in Jordan, there is a palpable sense of being in the last concentric circle away from a radioactive ground zero emitting uncontrollable waves of contamination.

Almost nowhere in our homogenized world does crossing an international frontier deliver a traveler to a truly unique land. There is, however, no place in the world like Iraq.

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Revolutionary jet engine tested

From the BBC:

_41476306_hyshot_test_inf416A new jet engine designed to fly at seven times the speed of sound appears to have been successfully tested.

The scramjet engine, the Hyshot III, was launched at Woomera, 500km north of Adelaide in Australia, on the back of a two stage Terrier-Orion rocket.

Once 314km up, the Hyshot III fell back to Earth, reaching speeds analysts hope will have topped Mach 7.6 (9,000km/h).

It is hoped the British-designed Hyshot III will pave the way for ultra fast, intercontinental air travel.

An international team of researchers is presently analysing data from the experiment, to see if it met its objectives.

The scientists had just six seconds to monitor its performance before the £1m engine crashed into the ground.

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Translation: Is the Whole World Watching?

Lorne Manly in the New York Times:

Manly4How you see something,” said Nigel Parsons, the managing director of Al Jazeera International, “depends very much on where you’re sitting.”

Those words could well serve as the manifesto for the channel, the English-language offspring of the polarizing pan-Arab network, which will make its debut in more than 40 million households in late May.

Addressing hundreds of journalists and academics who had come to Doha, Qatar, for the second Al Jazeera Forum, Mr. Parsons promised that the new channel — with its headquarters there and broadcast centers in Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur — will cover the stories and people that the Western-owned news media overlook. “We’re not going to be another CNN, BBC or Sky,” he told the attendees on the last day of January. “If we were, there’d be no point.” But, he added, “It’s not our position to tell viewers what to think.”

During a freewheeling question-and-answer session, the audience pressed him for details. With costs already surpassing a billion dollars, Al Jazeera is the most ambitious television network start-up in recent years. Will it be the first network to crack the Western monopoly on delivering news and opinion to a global audience? Will it provide an Arab and Muslim point of view to the rest of the world?

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William Safire And Art That’s Good for You

Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post:

SafireIt used to be fairly easy to draw the political battle lines over art in America.

On one side, let’s call it the left, was a view of human creativity that emphasized confrontation and paradigm busting, that reveled in political provocation and performance art, experimental theater and German opera directors, and could be found, reliably every two years, in the Whitney Biennial. On the other, let’s call it the right, was a view of art as affirmative and pretty, that favored arts that were popular enough to be commercial, and most of the traditional performing arts, and could be found on a nightly basis at places like the Kennedy Center. This basic cultural fissure was only deepened by the right-wing assault on the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s and the failed left-wing efforts to push back with yet more provocation and confrontation.

If this is an accurate picture of art in America, then conservative pundit William Safire’s delivery on Monday of the 19th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy is something of an anomaly.

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Bosses in love with claptrap and blinded by ideologies

Simon Caulkin in The Observer:

Heroic leaders are a disaster. Seventy per cent of mergers fail. In most organisations, financial incentives cause more problems than they solve. There is no connection between high executive pay and company performance (well, there is – the wider the pay differentials, the lower the commitment of the less well paid). The main result of many consultancy assignments is another consultancy assignment. All ‘silver bullet’ or ‘big ideas’ on their own are wrong.

These are not theories, but facts. Yet companies trip over themselves to buy others, launch change initiatives, introduce pay for performance, flit from one big idea to the next – and pay their CEOs stratospherically. It’s hardly surprising so many go belly up. If doctors were as cavalier with the evidence, a lot of their patients would be dead and many medics would be behind bars.

The last is a line from what bids fair to be one of the management books of the year. Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense (Harvard Business School Press), by Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, is a compelling tour of management conventional wisdom and why it so often turns out to be unwise, untrue and a stranger to fact – bollocks, in fact. Every potential manager should be made to read it before they are allowed to be in charge of anything, even a whelk stall.

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French Youth Revolt for the Status Quo

Henri Astier examines the large and ongoing demonstrations by French youth over the proposed change in the labor code, in openDemocracy.

France is undergoing another social convulsion, as hundreds of thousands of students and young people – now joined by the children of immigrants from the deprived banlieues – protest against a new law designed to increase the flexibility of the labour market. Some, like Naima Bouteldja, see the demonstrators as resisting the “flexploitation” characteristic of “the authoritarian market society France has become”; others, like the veteran of the 1968 protests (and current Green member of the European parliament) Danny Cohn-Bendit, portray their actions as “defensive, based on fear of insecurity and change”.

These contrasting perspectives reflect the fractures at the heart of current French social experience. Every country has its “haves” and “have-nots”, but in France the have-nots are a particularly desperate lot…

[U]nemployment is only part of the story. Millions more are caught on a treadmill of short-term schemes – mostly subsidised by the government – that lead either nowhere or to another dead-end job. Add those living off various welfare benefits, and the number of people relegated to the margins of French society has been variously estimated at a staggering 7-12 million.

The real fracture sociale Jacques Chirac referred to when he was elected president in 1995 – and has gone on to do nothing about – is between “insiders” with well-paid, secure positions, and “outsiders” who find it extremely difficult to get on the career path many take for granted in other countries.

International Cosmetic Assistance, a Review of The Beauty Academy of Kabul

In Variety, Ronnie Scheib reviews Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul.

In an act of “selfless service,” a group of American women, backed by industry giants like Clairol and Vogue, open a beauty school in war-ravaged Afghanistan in “Beauty Academy of Kabul.” The anomalies are manifold: Gun-toting soldiers patrolling the streets are visible through the windows as rookie beauticians busily snip, perm and tweeze. Although helmer Liz Mermin’s straight-faced adherence to her subject tends to diffuse the cultural dissonance the pic reveals, docu’s feminist optimism should still serve Wellspring well domestically, while pic retains enough absurdist contradictions to satisfy cynical European auds.

Mermin achieves an easy intimacy with students and instructors alike. Pic alternates between scenes in the elegant academy, where the mindsets of the teachers dominate, and visits to the home salons of their various Afghan students, most of whom have husbands and children, where quite another set of values holds sway.

Critical thinking

From The Guardian:

Fukuyamasmall After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads by Francis Fukuyama. This book is a brutal critique of neoconservatism as practised by the Bush administration: and it is all the more damaging for the fact that Francis Fukuyama has himself been strongly identified with the neo-conservative cause. His tone is measured but the comprehensive nature of his demolition of Bush’s foreign policy leaves it – and neo-conservatism – in tatters. What, of course, has really done for Bush is “events”, above all those in Iraq. Rarely has a policy been exposed so rapidly and comprehensively on such a grand scale, but then wars have a habit of doing precisely that: the rhetoric and platitudes are suddenly and mercilessly subject to the cold test of reality.

The invasion of Iraq has failed so comprehensively that it seems bound to stimulate much soul-searching in Washington over the coming years. The defeat in Vietnam had a long-lasting effect on American foreign policy: the Mesopotamian disaster may come to be seen in not dissimilar terms.

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Testicle cells may aid research

From BBC News:Stem_cells

Stem cells hold great promise for new treatments for many conditions as they have the ability to become many different types of adult tissue. But at present the most flexible type is found in human embryos – and their use is mired in controversy. A German team describe in the journal Nature how they isolated cells from mice testes that seem equally useful. The researchers, from the Georg August University in Gottingen, isolated sperm-producing cells from the testes of adult mice. They were able to show that, under certain culture conditions, some of them grew into colonies much like embryonic stem cells.

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