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August 22, 2007 [feather]
Can you tuna fish?

My review of Sasha Issenberg's The Sushi Economy is up at Knowledge@Wharton.

Erin O'Connor, 7:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




Where there's smoke...

I'm not a smoker and never have been. I don't like being in places where I can't get away from others' smoke. I don't like it when my clothes get saturated with cigarette smells, or when I find myself breathing the smoky exhalations of the person walking ahead of me in the street. I am glad airplanes are smokeless.

Still, I think it's wrong to ban smoking in private establishments such as pubs. We ought to let the market take care of whether smoking happens in such settings; business owners should be able to decide whether their bars are smoking or non, as the spirit moves them. Anything else is intrusive and infantilizing. Freedom--and perhaps art--depend on it.

Here's a fun meditation on the problem from the Telegraph:


What do the following have in common: Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis?

The answer is, of course, that if they were to come back to life in Gordon Brown's Britain and wanted to go out to their club, or a restaurant or café, they would not be allowed to indulge in a habit which sustained them during the most creative phases of their lives.

The moment they popped their favoured cigar, cigarette or pipe between their lips and lit up, they would have been fined on the spot.

There were, we must concede, books before there was tobacco in Britain

But is it mere chance that the lifetime of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618), who introduced tobacco-smoking to England, was also the time when the great story of English literature really began? Milton - a smoker -and Ben Jonson - a smoker - ensured that the Elizabethan glory-age was not to be a flash in the pan.

I have been racking my brains to find a single non-smoker among the great English poets or novelists of the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. Possibly, Keats had to lay off the pipe tobacco a bit after he developed tuberculosis.

Otherwise, from Swift and Pope to Cowper and Wordsworth, from Byron to Charles Lamb, they were all smokers.

Tennyson, who only stopped smoking in order to eat and sleep, describes in one of his letters sitting in a pub with a friend and doing very little except "staring smokey babies" at one another.

Nowadays, this harmless experience would cost the publican L1,200, and Tennyson himself L600, while appallingly self-righteous non-smokers at neighbouring tables, rather than being pleased that they had enjoyed a glimpse of the greatest Victorian poet, would be complaining about the fumes which they chose to believe were causing them some kind of damage.


There are workarounds, of course. There is the English pub that has managed to circumvent the ban by becoming an embassy for an extremely minor foreign nation (you can smoke in embassies). And when Ireland banned smoking in pubs, one man dealt with the problem by removing the roof of his pub and designating it a garden (you can smoke in gardens). Such innovation, it's fun to reflect, supports the thesis in the blockquote above -- that smoking and creativity are intimately intertwined.

Erin O'Connor, 10:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




August 16, 2007 [feather]
Slappdown

Go Yale.

Erin O'Connor, 12:18 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




August 15, 2007 [feather]
Harvard's legacy

From Jeff Jacoby's recent Boston Globe column about the ideological nastiness built into the global warming debate:


At the Live Earth concert in New Jersey last month, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. denounced climate-change skeptics as "corporate toadies" for "villainous" enemies of America and the human race. "This is treason," he shouted, "and we need to start treating them now as traitors."

Some environmentalists and commentators have suggested that global-warming "denial" be made a crime, much as Holocaust denial is in some countries. Others have proposed that climate-change dissidents be prosecuted in Nuremberg-style trials. The Weather Channel's Heidi Cullen has suggested that television meteorologists be stripped of their American Meteorological Society certification if they dare to question predictions of catastrophic global warming.
A few weeks ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Marlo Lewis published an article opposing mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, arguing that Congress should not impose caps until the technology exists to produce energy that doesn't depend on carbon dioxide. In response to Lewis's reasonable piece, the president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, Michael Eckhart, issued a threat:

"Take this warning from me, Marlo. It is my intention to destroy your career as a liar. If you produce one more editorial against climate change, I will launch a campaign against your professional integrity. I will call you a liar and charlatan to the Harvard community of which you and I are members. I will call you out as a man who has been bought by Corporate America."

This is the zealotry and intolerance of the auto-da-fe. The last place it belongs is in public-policy debate. The interesting and complicated phenomenon of climate change is still being figured out, and as much as those determined to turn it into a crusade of good vs. evil may insist otherwise, the issue of global warming isn't a closed book. Smearing those who buck the "scientific consensus" as traitors, toadies, or enemies of humankind may be emotionally satisfying and even professionally lucrative. It is also indefensible, hyperbolic bullying. That the bullies are sure they are doing the right thing is not a point in their defense.


Quick poll: Who saw last week's Newsweek cover story that treats global warming not as an issue to be debated but as a fact corporate shills wish to deny? And who saw the story about a Canadian blogger who discovered that NASA got its math wrong when calculating climate change -- so that 1934, and not 1998, is actually the hottest year on record?

Erin O'Connor, 6:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)




August 14, 2007 [feather]
Head in sand

The U.S. can't keep up with other countries when it comes to students' math and science abilities. So the government is taking swift steps to address the problem-- by making sure that this pressing national problem can't be so readily documented.

Erin O'Connor, 11:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




Il n'y a pas du hors-texte

John Leo on journalism's growing tendency to privilege storytelling over reporting:


If anyone ever starts a museum of horrible explanations, the one-liner by Newsweek-s Evan Thomas about his magazine's dubious reporting on the Duke non-rape case -- "The narrative was right but the facts were wrong" -- is destined to become a popular exhibit, right up there with "we had to destroy the village to save it."

What Mr. Thomas seems to mean is that the newsroom view of the lacrosse players as privileged, sexist, and arrogant white male jocks was the correct angle on the story. It wasn't.

According to Duke's female lacrosse team and other women on campus, the male players are solid citizens who treat women well. Many players volunteer to tutor poor children in Durham. Some players are privileged, but most come from ordinary middle-class homes. There is no evidence of a racist team culture.

One objectionable racial comment was reported that night, in response to a racial taunt from one of the strippers. It occurred after the party and the player involved was not one of those indicted. The mainstream press, most conspicuously the New York Times, botched the story by imposing a race-gender-class narrative line. The facts were wrong, as Mr. Thomas said, but the narrative line was wrong too.

Bias complaints against the mainstream press usually involve the stubborn use of a preferred story line when facts are shaky or nonexistent. The New Republic's current trouble may be in this category.

[...]

At the mostly black North Carolina Central University, student Chan Hall spoke for many when he said the lacrosse players should be prosecuted for rape "whether it happened or not," to provide "justice for things that happened in the past."

The Brooklyn College professor, K.C. Johnson, who has blogged for months on the Duke case at his Durham-in-Wonderland site, pointed out that no prominent officials in Durham bothered to distance themselves from such comments. He wrote that among academics and reporters "because black people in the South have been wrongly convicted in the past, it is wrong to worry if whites, or Asians, or Hispanics are railroaded for political reasons today."

Several journalists have tried an "emotional truth" defense when caught concocting stories. Patricia Smith, for instance, fired from her job as a Boston Globe columnist after repeatedly writing about imaginary people and faking interviews, said in her heart she felt her stories were true. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, "You get the sense reading her apology that she has the mentality of an artist who's talking about truth with a capital T, but journalism is fundamentally about nonfiction."

We now live in a docudrama world in which techniques of fiction and nonfiction are starting to blur. Many reporters think objectivity is a myth. They see journalism as inherently a subjective exercise in which the feelings and the will of the journalist function to reveal the truth of what has occurred. Two results are the emotional commitment to powerful but untrue story lines, and a further loss of credibility for the press.


Where do reporters get the idea that everything is open to interpretation, that facts do not strictly exist, that there is no such thing as objectivity, and that power is rightly allocated to those who tell the most compelling stories? That would be the postmodern academy, where relativism ratifies endless politicking in the name of pedagogy and scholarship. If everything is really ultimately just a politically weighted story, the logic goes, then some stories, the stories that serve one's ideological ends, are more equal than others.

Erin O'Connor, 11:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




August 12, 2007 [feather]
Six Degrees of Separation

What do the IRA and the submarine have in common? That's not a riddle, really, or if it is a riddle it's not one with a joke for an answer. The answer is--as military historians know, but most of the rest of us do not thanks to the broad devaluation of military history these days--John Philip Holland.

Holland was born in 1840 in County Clare, Ireland, just in time for the famine. He spoke Irish at home and learned English at the local national school. He was an inventor--and a revolutionary, an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which is the IRA's historical parent organization. Working with his fellow Fenians, Holland came up with a plan to attack British ships from underwater, via a submarine/torpedo arrangement. Funded by both the Irish revolutionary movement and the U.S. Navy, Holland spent decades working on his design, and finally came up with a workable one in 1897. The U.S. Navy bought the design, which was eventually also adopted by England and Japan. The submarine changed the course of war, and, by extension, twentieth-century global history. Holland didn't live to see that happen, though -- he died in 1914, just as World War I was beginning.

The close connection between Holland's republican imagination--which, like those of many of his countrymen, ran readily to violence--and his technological genius can be seen in the name he gave to his first prototype: Fenian Ram.


Erin O'Connor, 4:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




Great Awakenings

From P. J. O'Rourke's "The Unthinking Man's Guide to Conservatism":


...my life would have gone along perfectly well, politically speaking, if it hadn't been for girls. I found them interesting. They found me less so. On my first weekend at college I was walking down an alley that had a bar on either side. Each bar had a patio full of students. The girls on one patio were very attractive, their sweaters well-filled, their pleated skirts worn daringly above the knee, their blond hair styled in what was called a 'sorority flip.' They sipped demurely from beer mugs decorated with Greek letters.

But I wasn't athletic or handsome or a Sigma Chi legacy. And I had a feeling that, even if I were, getting such girls into bed would involve attendance at mixers and dances, romantic chat-up, fumbling under coats in the shrubbery while a house mother tsked out a window, bestowal of one's fraternity 'pin' or even an engagement ring, and lots of talk about 'our future.'

The girls on the other patio were fetching as well, in their black leotards and peasant blouses, denim skirts and sandals. Their long, dark hair was ironed straight. They strummed guitars, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and drank beer straight from the bottle. I thought, "I'll bet those girls do it."

They did. I went home at Christmas break with my hair grown long, wearing a blue-jean jacket with a big red fist emblazoned on the back. My grandmother said, 'Pat, I'm worried about you. Are you becoming a Demoncrat?'

'Grandma!' I said. 'Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are both fascist pigs! Of course I'm not a Democrat! I'm a Communist!'

'At least you're not a Democrat,' said Grandma.


O'Rourke's essay appears in Why I Turned Right, a collection of essays by baby boomers about their political journey from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

Erin O'Connor, 4:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




Ignorentsia

From theSunday Times:


The growing general agreement that the culture of the BBC (and not just the BBC) is the culture of the chattering classes provokes a question that has puzzled me for 40 years. The question itself is simple – much simpler than the answer: what is behind the opinions and attitudes of this social group?

They are that minority often characterised (or caricatured) by sandals and macrobiotic diets, but in a less extreme form are found in The Guardian, Channel 4, the Church of England, academia, showbusiness and BBC news and current affairs. They constitute our metropolitan liberal media consensus, although the word “liberal” would have Adam Smith rotating in his grave. Let’s call it “media liberalism”.

[...]

Ever since 1963 the institutions have been the villains of the media liberals. The police, the armed services, the courts, political parties, multi-national corporations – when things go wrong they are the usual suspects.

But our hostility to institutions was not – and is not – shared by the majority of our fellow citizens: most of our opinions were at odds with the majority of the audience and the electorate. Indeed the BBC’s own 2007 report on impartiality found that 57% of poll respondents said that “broadcasters often fail to reflect the views of people like me”.

There are four new factors which in my lifetime have brought about the changes that have shaped media liberalism, encouraged its spread and significantly increased its influence and importance.

The first of these is detribalisation. That our species has evolved a genetic predisposition to form tribal groups is generally accepted as an evolutionary fact. This grouping – of not more than about five or six hundred – supplies us with our identity, status system, territorial instinct, behavioural discipline and moral code.

We in the BBC were acutely detribalised; we were in a tribal institution, but we were not of it. Nor did we have any geographical tribe; we lived in commuter suburbs, we knew very few of our neighbours and took not the slightest interest in local government. In fact we looked down on it. Councillors were self-important nobodies and mayors were a pompous joke.

We belonged instead to a dispersed “metropolitan media arts graduate” tribe. We met over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner to reinforce our views on the evils of apartheid, nuclear deterrence, capital punishment, the British Empire, big business, advertising, public relations, the royal family, the defence budget – it’s a wonder we ever got home.

The second factor that shaped our media liberal attitudes was a sense of exclusion. We saw ourselves as part of the intellectual elite, full of ideas about how the country should be run. Being naive in the way institutions actually work, we were convinced that Britain’s problems were the result of the stupidity of the people in charge of the country.

This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world.

We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. We also had an almost complete ignorance of market economics. That ignorance is still there. Say “Tesco” to a media liberal and the patellar reflex says, “Exploiting African farmers and driving out small shopkeepers.” The achievement of providing the range of goods, the competitive prices, the food quality, the speed of service and the ease of parking that attract millions of shoppers does not register on their radar.

The third factor arises from the nature of mass media. The Tonight programme had a nightly audience of about 8m. It was much easier to keep their attention by telling them they were being deceived or exploited by big institutions than by saying what a good job the government and the banks and the oil companies were doing.

The fourth factor is what has been called “isolation technology”. Fifty years ago people did things together much more. The older politicians we interviewed in the early Tonight days were happier in public meetings than in television studios.


The whole thing is worth reading -- not least for the way the analysis of the BBC's ideological insularity offers insight into a range of other politically insular intellectual institutions ... such as the academy.

Erin O'Connor, 12:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




August 9, 2007 [feather]
Bloomberg's school yard

We talk about accountability so much in education circles. Sometimes it seems that it is becoming one of those words so overused that it doesn't mean anything anymore--precisely because it means whatever the user wants it to mean. "Academic freedom" is one of those terms--many of its advocates inside academe have radically rewritten it in the name of upholding it. So is "assessment." And "accessibility." And, of course, "diversity."

Anyhow. Sol Stern has an interesting piece in City Journal about how the idea of accountability has been circulating within Mayor Bloomberg's bid to rescue New York City's schools. Bloomberg acquired control of the system in 2002, arguing that in exchange for authority, he would be accountable. Now, Stern shows, what looked like a straightforward arrangement is beginning to look like an instance of massive rhetorical sleight of hand:


Stirring public unease is the realization that what Bloomberg really meant by accountability was one election, one time. If you didn't like the way that mayoral control was working under Bloomberg, you could vote for Democrat Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral election (Bloomberg's last, because of term limits). But what could you do after that election? Bloomberg's suggestion: "Boo me at parades."

The arrogance of that response demonstrates how little Bloomberg really seems to care about accountability. In fact, his Department of Education routinely undermines accountability with a public-relations juggernaut that deflects legitimate criticism of his education policies, dominates the mainstream press, uses the schools as campaign props, and, most ominously, distorts student test-score data. Without transparency, real accountability doesn't exist.

Admittedly, any mayor taking over the city's dysfunctional school system would need an effective information campaign to win public support for the wrenching changes necessary. But Bloomberg also wants to conquer new political frontiers. If he does run for president, it will be partly on his education record.

That ambition has driven the administration's media operations on education. It's why the Department of Education's communications office is 29-strong, four times as many employees as worked in the press office under the old Board of Ed. And that doesn't include the city hall press operation, which often joins in promoting new education initiatives, or the substantial public-relations and marketing services that the administration has received from companies, either pro bono or paid for by third-party private contributions.


Stern goes on to list numerous examples of how Bloomberg has chosen to sugarcoat and even manipulate the facts in order to make his regime look more successful than it is. And thus New York learns one of those lessons that humanity seems to need to learn over and over and over again, always at its own expense--that when you create personal fiefdoms for people, power-grabbing and self-promotion follow. New Yorkers fell for Bloomberg's game because they were seduced by the aura he created with the promise of accountability. But now they have been reminded that accountability is truly in the eye of the beholder--and that when the person who is to be held accountable gets to decide how and when and whether that works, he or she is not accountable at all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:59 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




August 8, 2007 [feather]
I love James Wood

... and I am excited to see what his move from TNR to the New Yorker will mean for his writing. Wood has been a fantastic critic for TNR -- but there are limitations within that role, and the New Yorker is and always has been an incubator for great writers who do genre crossover work. An argument can even be made that without the New Yorker, we wouldn't have narrative nonfiction, one of our most important and exciting modes of contemporary writing.

Truman Capote invented the genre using the New Yorker as a platform (In Cold Blood was first published as a New Yorker serial) and numerous other New Yorker writers who have come after him, among them Susan Orlean, Lawrence Wright, and Calvin Trillin, have kept the genre lively and fresh.

On a related note, Wood is married to novelist Claire Messud, whose The Emperor's Children (first couple of awkward paragraphs notwithstanding) bowled me over when I read it last Christmas. Messud isn't messing around when she writes fiction; she understands, in the way nineteenth-century novelists understood it, the power of social realism to reveal to us the inner workings, both ugly and beautiful, of our minds and our moments. Her earlier work is reaching toward the insight and capability of The Emperor's Children, and can be astonishing and annoying by turns (I am thinking of The Last Life)--but Messud's most recent novel is in a league of its own.

I thought about what was mesmerizing me about The Emperor's Children as I was reading it. And I think a lot of it had to do with my sense that Messud writes with a spirit that is more reminiscent of George Eliot or Trollope or James than of many of our writers today. Somehow, she manages to write about how narcissistic and inward-looking our world has become without falling into the trap of making narrative choices that simply replicate that narcissism on a stylistic and structural level. She's found an idiom that allows her to sensitively limn some of our most foundational cultural blindspots--and in this she is functioning with the empathy and observational acuity that the great Victorian realists possessed, updated and adapted for our time.

Erin O'Connor, 1:13 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




Hallelujah

I refused to pay for TimesSelect--and I couldn't read David Brooks or Stanley Fish as a result. But soon that will change.

I was surprised that NYT would decide to put important topical content behind a subscription wall at precisely the moment that it was becoming clear that anyone who wants to be a player in our rapidfire online public sphere needs to be offering free access. And I'm delighted to find out that a bad decision looks like it's about to be reversed. In the fine print: the WSJ may be freeing up its content, too. It's about time!!

Erin O'Connor, 1:07 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




August 6, 2007 [feather]
Rethinking the '60s

Adapted from Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance:


On April 5, 1967, representatives of the San Francisco Oracle, the Diggers, the Family Dog, the Straight Theater, and other parts of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene held a press conference to announce the formation of the Council for a Summer of Love. The event scored friendly media notices: The next day's San Francisco Chronicle described the coalition as "a group of the good hippies," defined as the ones who "wear quaint and enchanting costumes, hold peaceful rock 'n' roll concerts, and draw pretty pictures (legally) on the sidewalk, their eyes aglow all the time with the poetry of love."

Three days earlier and 1,500 miles away, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a very different counterculture was holding its own coming-out party. About 18,000 people--far more than the 4,000 anticipated--gathered for the formal dedication ceremonies at Oral Roberts University. Oklahoma's governor, a U.S. senator, two members of Congress, and Tulsa's mayor were on hand. Delivering the dedication address, "Why I Believe in Christian Education," was Billy Graham, the dean of American evangelists.

The events in San Francisco and Tulsa that spring revealed an America in the throes of cultural and spiritual upheaval. The postwar liberal consensus had shattered. Vying to take its place were two sides of an enormous false dichotomy, both animated by outbursts of spiritual energy. Those two eruptions of millenarian enthusiasm, the hippies and the evangelical revival, would inspire a left/right division that persists to this day.

That split pits one set of half-truths against another. On the left gathered those who were most alive to the new possibilities created by the unprecedented mass affluence of the postwar years but at the same time were hostile to the social institutions--namely, the market and the middle-class work ethic--that created those possibilities. On the right rallied those who staunchly supported the institutions that created prosperity but who shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing. One side denounced capitalism but gobbled its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them. Both causes were quixotic, and consequently neither fully realized its ambitions. But out of their messy dialectic, the logic of abundance would eventually fashion, if not a reworked consensus, then at least a new modus vivendi.


It's an interesting argument (read the whole thing), and not just in and of itself. What Lindsey is doing with his book--which I am currently reading--is proposing a major rethinking of modern American history that is also a rethinking of the ways we tend to use Marx to think about our history. For Lindsey, American capitalism has been very far from the imprisoning, repressive force that so many of our thinkers, teachers, politicians, artists, TV shows, and films tell us it is. Lindsey argues that American prosperity--brought about by the relative freedom of our markets--has created a degree of freedom the world has never known. He doesn't romanticize that, and he is alive to our many failures to inhabit our freedom responsibly; he is especially eloquent about our chronic national difficulty understanding what freedom really is. All in all, worth a read and a think.

Erin O'Connor, 12:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




Executioners' songs

Ever since states decided it was essential to deliver the death penalty without undue cruelty, the search for a swift, efficient, reliable execution method has been on. It's never really been found--just this morning, the New York Times is running an editorial that uses the fact of botched executions to argue against capital punishment.

Such arguments are not new, and they have a history that spans legal, ethical, practical, and even technological dimensions. One of the more intriguing moments in that history centers on Thomas Edison's role in perfecting that most gruesome invention, the electric chair, which at one time was envisioned as--the metaphor is too apt--an executioner's magic bullet. Mark Essig's Edison and the Electric Chair tells the story of how Edison, quite against his better judgment, got into the executing business. It's not quite beach reading--what book about killing methods is?--but it's awfully good.

Erin O'Connor, 11:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




August 1, 2007 [feather]
Libel tourism visits academe

From the Chronicle of HIgher Education:


Cambridge University Press announced this week that it would pulp all unsold copies of the 2006 book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, in response to a libel claim filed in England by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi banker. The book suggests that businesses and charities associated with Mr. Mahfouz financed terrorism in Sudan and elsewhere during the 1990s.

"Cambridge University Press now accepts that the entire bin Mahfouz family categorically and unreservedly condemns terrorism in all its manifestations," a lawyer for Mr. Mahfouz declared on Monday in a London courtroom.

During the court hearing, the publisher also promised to contact university libraries worldwide and ask them to remove the book from their shelves. It also agreed to pay "substantial damages" to Mr. Mahfouz. Representatives of both parties declined to tell The Chronicle how much money was involved in the settlement.

The book's authors -- Robert O. Collins, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and J. Millard Burr, a retired employee of the U.S. State Department -- were not personally named in the libel action, and they have refused to endorse the settlement. They declined to speak to The Chronicle on Tuesday, saying they were still talking to the university press about their legal obligations.

This is at least the fourth book against which Mr. Mahfouz has successfully pursued a libel action. His Web site also lists settlements involving Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan (Pluto Press, 2001), by Michael Griffin, a freelance writer; Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002), by the French writers Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié; and Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed -- and How to Stop It (Bonus Books, 2003), by Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy, a nonprofit organization in New York.

In an interview on Monday, Ms. Ehrenfeld characterized as "despicable" Cambridge's decision to settle this week, a move the press has defended as necessary and just. Ms. Ehrenfeld, who is a friend of Mr. Burr's, said that, as she understands it, press officials "caved immediately."

"They didn't even consider the evidence that the authors had given them," she said. "They received a threatening letter, and they immediately caved in and said, Do whatever it takes. Pay them whatever they want. Ban the book, destroy the book, we don't want this lawsuit."

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University who has her own experience with libel lawsuits (The Chronicle, April 12, 2000), sounded a similar note on her blog last week. Decrying Cambridge's decision to settle the Alms for Jihad case, she warned of a "pattern of silencing by the Saudis of authors who are critical of them."

But a representative of Cambridge insisted that the press had acted properly. "These were very serious charges, and any responsible publisher would have stopped selling the book immediately, as we did," Kevin Taylor, the press's intellectual-property director, said in an interview on Tuesday.

"There had already been at least two High Court rulings upholding Mr. Mahfouz's position in these matters," Mr. Taylor said. "When we looked hard into it, and we studied the tangled history of these claims, we quickly realized that our position was completely indefensible."


One reason for that is English libel law, which is much more friendly to accusers than American law -- which means that American authors accused of libel in English courts have some recourse. Ehrenfeld declined to defend herself in England, and lost in a summary judgement. But she is now defending her First Amendment rights--and so seeking a negation of the English ruling--in the States.

For more on the dubious art of libel tourism and Ehrenfeld's case, see this recent Washington Times op-ed by Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer.

Erin O'Connor, 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)