Roving thoughts and provocations

Michelle Obama Breaks the Rules

Garry Wills

Brynn Anderson/AP Photo

In her May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University, the historically black institution, Michelle Obama actually said (what I bet the students already suspected) that she is black. How dare she? In her own quiet way Ms. Obama was breaking all of the four rules of racial discourse the right wing now wants to enforce.

Who’s Afraid of African Democracy?

Helen Epstein

Ndabashinze Renovat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As the events in Burundi suggest, US support of ugly regimes may ultimately undermine the very stability we are supposedly seeking. In many cases, austerity programs, intended to lead to more efficient government, instead encourage unprecedented corruption.

1776: The Revolt Against Austerity

Steve Pincus

Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, Connecticut

Was the Declaration of Independence a powerful indictment of British austerity policies? Does America’s founding document need to be seen as part of an economic debate about the British Empire? These questions may seem jarring, almost anachronistic. But eighteenth-century political argument, like that of our own day, often revolved around responses to fiscal crisis.

Thailand’s Banned ‘King’

Ian Buruma

Paul Kolnik/Lincoln Center Theater

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is more than a brilliant piece of froth. It dramatizes something historically profound about nineteenth-century Siam, which escaped from being colonized by a Western nation through what has been called “protection by mimicry.” The only way to keep Western powers at bay was to modernize as quickly as possible along Western lines.

Mao’s China: The Language Game

Perry Link

Buyenlarge/Getty Images

It can be embarrassing for a China scholar like me to read Eileen Chang’s pellucid prose, written more than sixty years ago, on the early years of the People’s Republic of China. How many cudgels to the head did I need to catch up to where Chang was in 1954 in understanding how things worked, beneath the jargon? In Naked Earth, Chang shows how a Communist land-reform campaign descends on a village like a giant cookie cutter. Eventually the farmers, like everyone else, figure out that their personal interests depend on correct verbal performance.

Russia: Twenty Feet from War

Ahmed Rashid

Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

At the Tallinn conference, Baltic presidents and NATO officials were unusually blunt in describing how Russia poses the gravest threat to peace since World War II, and how the conflict in Ukraine and the loss of the Crimea has left the Baltic states on the front line of an increasingly hostile standoff. Amid these tensions, the thought of a plane crash leading to war seems scarily plausible.

Don’t Run, Elizabeth!

Garry Wills

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Believers in the good and true have for some time been urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president. They don’t, most of them, expect her to win—just to hold Hillary Clinton’s feet to the fire. But Warren is already doing that, by her stellar work on the concrete issues that have long animated her—jobs, wages, bank excesses, mortgages, student loans.

Iran: The Deal on the Deal

Elizabeth Drew

Jim Lo Scalzo/epa/Corbis

Inevitably, there was much self-congratulating last week when the Senate adopted by an overwhelming bipartisan majority a proposal that would allow Congress to vote on whether to approve a final nuclear deal with Iran. But the Corker-Cardin amendment was actually quite circumscribed in its reach and import.

Bellow After Death

Gary Shteyngart

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

The first time I tackled Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, back in 2000, this American mind was as open to long-form fiction as any other and I wolfed the novel down in one Saturday between helpings of oxygen and water and little else. Today I find that Bellow’s comment, “It is never an easy task to take the mental measure of your readers,” is more apt than ever. As I try to read the first pages of Ravelstein, my iPhone pings and squawks with increasing distress.

The Cost of Child Poverty

Jeff Madrick

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

Among the many forces contributing to the recent epidemic of tension between police and mostly black urban communities, from Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore, one in particular has been all too little acknowledged: America’s child poverty crisis.