JULY 12, 1999
MAIS MERCI DIEU, THE BEER IS OK. The Belgian government fell this month when dioxin contamination forced meat, poultry, and dairy products from grocers' shelves. It seems that Belgian officials had kept silent for a month after learning that waste motor oil containing dioxin had been mixed with animal feed. Soon, Belgian food had been banned throughout Europe, while Coca-Cola was dealing with its own mini-scandal over a tummy-ache outbreak caused by careless Belgian bottlers. Might this finally inject a note of humility into the Euro-crusade to bar the United States from exporting to Europe beef raised using growth hormones, or soybeans and corn grown from genetically engineered seed? Studies have found no human health problems associated with such products, yet most of Europe keeps them out. The real issue, of course, is not food safety but trade protection for European farmers. Maybe if European farmers had to compete with their American counterparts in true free trade, they'd be a little more careful about what they fed the chickens.
SPINNING THE BOTTLE: And, while we're on the subject of skewed risk assessment, a struggle is brewing right here in America over the issue of plastic baby bottles. One study has suggested that a substance called bisphenol-A (BPA) could cause damage to the reproductive systems of male mice born from pregnant mice who were fed minute amounts of BPA in the laboratory. Now Consumers Union is urging parents to throw out their clear plastic baby bottles containing BPA, because their tests found that minuscule amounts of the stuff can leach out from bottles containing heated formula, potentially leading to "developmental" disabilities in the children. ABC's "20/20" has produced a report adding to the scare, prompting the inevitable rebuttals from the plastics industry and industry-funded scientists. We're officially agnostic on the science, but, as a matter of common sense, the BPA mini-panic strikes us as absurd--a classic example of what happens when a theoretical health risk from a purported toxin is considered with no reference to the plausible alternatives. As ABC and Consumers Union barely paused to point out, if parents don't use clear plastic bottles with BPA, they'll have to use bottles made of glass, as past generations did. That would expose babies and parents and other children around the house not to some conceivable long-range danger of contamination but to the clear and present danger of having a finger sliced off or an eye gouged by shattered glass. Guess it's only a matter of time before the next wave of television exposes on the dangers of glass bottles.
HUMAN WRONGS: At a time when the international community, in part through the efforts of the U.N.-sanctioned international war crimes tribunal, is going to great lengths to demonstrate that claims of national sovereignty are no defense against barbarism, several U.N. members are quietly going to great lengths to drape their abuses in the mantle of self-determination. The culprits are, not surprisingly, Cuba, China, and Sudan--all members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The three countries are using their positions on this body to snuff out debate about their practices. Specifically, as The New York Times reports, these countries have arranged to deny credentials to such bona fide groups as Human Rights in China. Without the credentials, the groups will be barred from U.N. premises in New York and Geneva and thus will be unable to lobby the commission or even to present their views in writing. Not satisfied with the snuffing out of free expression within their own borders, these dictatorships are now extending it to the very councils of the world body responsible for codifying human rights in the first place.
SOLID STONE: Lawrence Stone, who died on June 16 in Princeton, New Jersey, was one of the most creative members of a great generation of English historians. In the 1940s and '50s, he and his colleagues made the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, as well as the wider European crisis of which it formed a part, into a test case for rival grand theories about society, religion, and revolution. They criticized one another sharply in books and in magazines, but they created a whole new way of studying the history of English society--in Stone's case, one that emphasized the experience of entire social groups, required extensive exploration of the archives, and posed new questions (in massive books) about the history of such apparently perdurable institutions as marriage and the university. In the early '60s, Stone left Oxford for America, to the horror of many of his British colleagues. An enthusiastic American, he rapidly came to love the openness and the creativity that he saw as characteristic of our society and our universities at their best. At Princeton, he founded and directed for more than 20 years the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, which fostered the fierce historical debate that he loved. Reared in an elitist system and so sharp-tongued that he could frighten those who didn't know him, Stone practiced democracy in ways large and small. (After he became chairman of the Princeton history department, he came in on a Saturday morning, armed with Scotch tape, and put the mailboxes of faculty members, which had been arranged by seniority since time immemorial, into alphabetical order.) In the '50s, when Stone and his friends created Past and Present, the most influential English historical journal of its time, they insisted that its articles be readable, and they sold copies to workers at factory gates. In later years, Stone continued to write for a wider public than the historical profession could provide. His witty, learned reviews often appeared in TNR. Like their author, they were cast on a grand scale that has become rare in the academic world, and, like him, they will be missed.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: An editor's error garbled the first sentence of last week's Cambridge Diarist. The sentence should have read: "Alan Greenspan was the speaker at Harvard Commencement exercises on June 10, exactly 30 years after the 1969 ceremonies that were so fraught with tensions of the Vietnam War and of other characteristic expressions of what was then widely seen--at least among many students and some faculty--as the depredations of capitalism."
This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.