Books

Life, Monetized

In Deadly Monopolies, Harriet A. Washington asserts that corporations now own life itself.

I n 2010, Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , a New York Times bestseller about a poor black woman in the late stages of cancer in 1950s Baltimore whose doctor removed cervical tissue from her without her knowledge. By remaining viable outside of Lacks’s body, the cells became “immortal” and thus quite valuable; scientists using them have been able to pursue research that would have been unimaginable beforehand, leading to achievements such as the polio vaccine and advances against cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Skloot’s book captivated readers by revealing the story of exploitation behind the development of what have become known as “HeLa cells.” Similar episodes of scientific advancement on the backs of vulnerable subjects have been exposed before, from J. Marion Sims’s gruesome mid-19th-century experiments on black slaves that laid the groundwork for the modern field of gynecology to recently uncovered evidence that in the 1940s, U.S. researchers...

Why Are They So Angry?

An Israeli dove in Jewish America

"He's lying! He's lying!" the man at the back of the hall shouted, in a tone as desperate as it was angry. "He hasn't read the Geneva Conventions. You haven't read them, so you don't know he's lying." The primary object of his rage was me. The secondary object, it seemed, was his fellow congregants, who'd allowed me to lecture at his New York-area synagogue. I'd spoken about threats to Israel's democracy, including those posed by ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements. This was the first time, I'd been told, that the congregation had hosted a speaker on Israel from outside a spectrum running from right-wing to very right-wing. During the question-and-answer period, I was asked about my statement that the legal counsel of Israel's Foreign Ministry had warned before the first West Bank settlement was established that it would violate the agreement of the Fourth Geneva Convention. That's when the man in the back came unstuck. The congregation's rabbi, who was moderating the Q&A...

More Thoughts on Football

I should have posted this poem in October. But since I'm on a football jag now, here's a famous poem about what young men are channeling when they play football. Written in 1964, it includes some offensive language from its era. But I love this poem and have known it by heart for decades. Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio -- James Wright In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, Dying for love. Therefore, Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Decoding Michele Bachmann's New Book

Michele Bachmann—or at least her publicity manager—did her research. The Prospect received an early copy of Bachmann’s new book, "Core of Conviction: My Story," last week. In honor of the book’s release today, we’ve compiled the five “Best of Bachmann” moments from the book. 1. Bachmann’s great-great-grandfather won a farm from Jesse James in a game of poker. Bachmann claims that Halvor Munson won a farm in Iola, Kansas, playing poker with Jesse James on a river raft. According to a short biography on Munson, written by a family genealogist, it is likely that Munson did meet Jesse James (before his name became synonymous with outlaws of the American West), but the claim that he won a farm from James is nothing more than family lore. 2. Bachmann is not a fan of Gore Vidal. She even goes so far as to insinuate that Vidal’s book, Burr , prompted her to change her party affiliation to Republican. She refers to Vidal as “snotty” and “disgusting.” She spends two pages slamming the novel for...

Cold Warrior

The four-decades-long confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union—a Cold War that periodically threatened to turn hot—spawned many warriors, but few more interesting or complex than George Frost Kennan. As a midlevel American diplomat based in Moscow during the late 1940s, he articulated the “containment” doctrine that defined American policy toward the Soviet Union. Warning that the leaders in the Kremlin were driven by a quest for global power that could be restrained only by vigilant application of “counter-force,” this hitherto obscure diplomat, far removed from the centers of decision-making, provided a strategy for America’s confrontation with communism. For policy-makers, eager to spread American influence, containment—political, military, and economic—offered the means to turn a threat into an opportunity. Yet as the deadly contest between the two giants spread across the globe and periodically threatened to erupt into a cataclysmic nuclear war, Kennan became...

Who Has the Castle Now?

A new biography gives Kurt Vonnegut his due.

On Sunday December 7, 1941, as reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor poured in, the night editor of The Cornell Daily Sun rushed to lay out the pages for a special edition. A chemistry student who was flunking his classes, he spent more time penning columns and pulling campus pranks than studying. His name was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. By Charles J. Shields Henry Holt: 544 pp., $30 The Pearl Harbor issue and the night editor who helped put it together are legends at the Sun . Many since, myself included, have flipped through those old issues and read the now-world-renowned author’s columns. One recurring item in the paper, The Berry Patch, featured a witticism framed by a design of berry-heavy vines. As an editor of the Sun , I wrote a number of my own Berry Patches, sometimes quoting lines from Walt Whitman or publishing a newsroom quip. Other days, I reprinted one of Vonnegut’s. The Sun was a link to the past, a record of what had transpired years before we ever took charge. It was also an...

Good Night, Sweet Prince

The tooth fairy visited our house recently, which made me remember the time—many years ago, when tooth redemption brought only a quarter—that the tooth fairy kept forgetting to claim the tooth under my pillow. After a week, I put a sign on my bedroom door: TOOTH STOP! The next morning, I had my quarter, and a signed note. The tooth fairy explained that he had an extraordinarily large territory that included the Indian Ocean, and apologized for having been delayed by recent monsoons. The note was signed “Prince Oberon.” Of course I recognized the handwriting; I was eight, and by then I knew who the tooth fairy really was. But the note’s full delight didn’t really hit me until, in college, I read Midsummer Night’s Dream and laughed out loud. I loved that about my father: Playfulness that I would only fully appreciate years later. He was ordinary and extraordinary, like everyone: a Korean war vet who went to grad school on the GI bill, a mathematician who helped the Air Force's prime...

Are You Pink- or Blue-Brained?

(Flickr/TZA)
Think that single-sex education is a sensible idea, since boys and girls learn so differently? Think again. In Slate recently, neuroscientist Lise Eliot , who researches child brain development, and social psychology professor Rebecca Bigler explained their recently published peer-reviewed article in Science , which examines an “overwhelming body of research on the topic.” They had three main findings: “Decades of research on academic outcomes from around the world has failed to demonstrate an advantage to single-sex schooling, in spite of popular belief to the contrary.” “Thousands of studies comparing brain and behavioral function between adult men and women have found small to insignificant differences, and even smaller differences between boys and girls.” “Single-sex schooling facilitates social stereotypes and prejudice in children.” If facts, not ideology, have any hope of carrying the day, this article should be essential reading in the Mars/Venus-at-school debates. Part of the...

The Family Album

A journal of grief and aging, Blue Nights is missing Joan Didion's razor-sharp prose.

W hat matters are the details. The 60 baby dresses on miniature wooden hangers, the loose pearls in a satin-lined jeweler's box, the bright red soles of the wedding shoes, the white stephanotis in the bride's braided hair. These specifics do not add up to a story; they are a compilation of the past, a messy collage of what used to be. Some are memories to be avoided, "reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted. " Author Joan Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights , is more journal than narrative, a meditation on grief and aging that jumps in time and place and sucks its readers into its fears and anxieties. Blue Nights comes as the companion to the 2005 National Book Award winner A Year of Magical Thinking , another autobiography, in which Didion grapples with the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and with the long illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. In August 2005, Quintana, who was adopted at birth, died at the age of 39,...

Girls, girls, girls!

Over at New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum has written the perfect introduction to the new, fiery, sardonic, savvy generation of feminists who are making change online and in the streets. Nussbaum checks in with both the feminist blogosphere and the controversial “SlutWalks,” a series of anti-rape marches that have caught imaginative fire. The title has been hotly debated—but as young feminist leader Jessica Valenti has noted, it sure has gotten the attention that organizers wanted. Nussbaum writes: SlutWalk launched in April, sparked by the outrage of Canadian activists after a cop told female students to “avoid dressing like sluts” in order not to be victimized. The idea was to take the sting out of the insult with a Spartacus-like display of solidarity, to put blame back on the attackers. Since April, there have been marches all over the world, including in Mexico, Germany, and South Africa, but this Manhattan march feels fired up with local frustration, the climax of a year of...

Batman the Gentrifier

In real-life, the superhero's do-gooding would push all the poor people out of Gotham.

Rex Features via AP Images
For Batman fans, this past week was a big one. In addition to the release of Arkham City – the sequel to Arkham Asylum , the world’s greatest Batman simulator – DC released its animated adaptation of Batman: Year One , the Frank Miller-penned story that would define Batman for the next two decades, and form the basis for Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character. Here’s a trailer: I watched Year One with friends a few nights ago, and one thing that stood out was the sheer whiteness of Gotham City. From mobsters to orphaned children, most Gothamites were white. People of color were present, but they were a distinct minority in most parts of Frank Miller’s Gotham. Of course, this makes Gotham extremely unusual as a major industrial city in the early 1980s, which is when Year One takes place. By this point in American history, most cities had been hollowed out by successive waves of white flight, as middle and working-class whites left the cities for surrounding suburbs. In...

A Jew of No Religion

Yoram Kaniuk has won: The prominent Israeli novelist is now very officially a Jew of no religion. Hundreds of other Israelis, inspired by his legal victory, want to follow his example and change their religious status to "none" in the country's Population Registry, while remaining Jews by nationality in the same government database. A new verb has entered Hebrew, lehitkaniuk , to Kaniuk oneself, to legally register an internal divorce of Jewish ethnicity from Jewish religion. Kaniuk is 81 years old, one of the surviving writers of Israel's founding generation. His latest and most lauded book is a memoir about fighting in the country's 1948 war of independence. He's also a veteran and sharp-penned critic of Jewish religion, which he has at times represented as an amalgam of the national religious extremism of the settlements, ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, and the state's clerical bureaucracy. During the escalation of the secular-religious kulturkampf that followed the...

The Theory of Power

O ver the past three decades, laissez-faire economics has had an im-mense impact on our society, mostly for the worse. The elements have included privatization of public services, an assault on social benefits, and most important, deregulation of finance. Though free-market ideas are hotly debated in classrooms, op-ed pages, and journals, their influence on events has come not in a Platonic fashion, through the power of argument, but through power itself. Free-market theory has conveniently provided ideological coherence. Elites find laissez-faire an immensely useful fable, because it serves as an expert brief against government interference. In the academy, dissenting economics has had trouble gaining a foothold. The reigning paradigm is simple and elegant: Free markets maximize individual choices and collective well-being, end of story. By contrast, dissenting economics is messy, historical, less like physics, more like sociology or journalism. Because the paradigm assumes...

Cleaning Up the Capital

As a fan of Lawrence Lessig’s pioneering work on copyright and digital culture, I was saddened when, a few years back, he shifted his focus to congressional corruption and campaign finance. Efforts to take the money out of politics—as opposed to playing the underdog’s hand as well as possible—had long struck me as a sucker’s game. Either way, you have to beat the moneyed interests. My skepticism deepened at a dinner where Lessig presented his ideas and, in response to hostile questions, seemed unfamiliar with an extensive academic literature casting doubt on the commonsense theory that campaign contributions buy policy results. Smart people, it turns out, learn a lot from hostile audiences. Not only does the dinner in question earn a mention in Republic, Lost , the latest fruit of Lessig’s work on money in politics; Lessig has also developed a reply that packs a lot of theoretical punch and should be must-reading for anyone who’s tuned out the campaign-finance debate. Lessig moves...

Imagining Malcolm X

Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X is a significant and poignant cultural event because of its subject, its purpose, and the recent tragic death of its author, the founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. Marable worked on this biography for more than two decades, struggling in recent years with a severe illness that in 2010 required a double lung transplant. Only days before the book's publication, Professor Marable passed away. His commitment to scholarship even in the face of sickness and death is inspiring. Although Marable has bequeathed to us a deeply valuable work, it is also deeply flawed. Marable sought to create a realistic portrait of Malcolm X, but his depiction remains mired in the sentimental, reverential perspective that he attempted to transcend. He presents reams of evidence that should demote Malcolm X from the exalted standing he enjoys among many progressives of various stripes. Yet Marable was simply unwilling...

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