Roving thoughts and provocations

An Unfettered Mind: Justice Stevens

Anthony Lewis

In the celebration of Justice John Paul Stevens as he brings his long career on the Supreme Court to an end, it is worth remembering what might seem to be an untypical moment in that career: the flag-burning case of 1989.

Gregory Lee Johnson was convicted in Texas of “desecrating a venerated object,” the flag. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the radical lawyer William Kunstler argued that Johnson’s act was protected by the First Amendment as a form of free expression. Justice Stevens asked Kunstler whether the Government had “any power at all to regulate how this flag is displayed in public places.” Kunstler said he didn’t believe so. “There is no state interest whatsoever?” Justice Stevens asked. Kunstler answered that he saw none. “I feel quite differently,” Justice Stevens said.

Delhi’s Poor: Revolution by Latrine?

Malise Ruthven

Ianthe Ruthven

Walking above the village of Mehrauli on Delhi’s southern perimeter, we pass a woman with a half-empty bottle of water—one of several we have already noticed since daybreak. Dressed immaculately in a brightly-colored sari, she emerges from behind a prickly bush on a tract of waste ground. If she were a man we might not have merited such discretion. India is about the only country in the world where you actually see human adults defecating. When traveling by road or rail you can be struck by the image of men squatting openly, impervious to the public gaze. The UN estimates that 600 million people—or 55 per cent of the Indian population—still defecate out of doors. The practice is clearly born of necessity in a crowded country where the development of public amenities has conspicuously failed to keep pace with economic and demographic growth.

Industrial Lyricism in the Met’s Hamlet

Geoffrey O’Brien

Simon Keenlyside in the title role of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House, March 12, 2010 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
The new production of Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 Hamlet—the first time the Met has staged the work since 1897—brings to New York a revival first performed fourteen years ago in Geneva. It is an opera that has met with a fair amount of derision over the years, chiefly for its laughable original ending in which Hamlet finishes off Claudius and mounts triumphantly to the throne of Denmark. (The Met production substitutes a cobbled-together and not especially satisfying alternative in which, following an unexpected intrusion of the Ghost into the graveyard scene, the prince more appropriately dies. Perhaps, since no one would mistake Thomas’s Hamlet for Shakespeare’s anyway, it would make more sense to restore the original happy ending.)

Playing Chess With Kubrick

Jeremy Bernstein

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke working on 2001: A Space Odyssey in Kubrick’s apartment in New York (from Moonwatcher’s Memoir by Dan Richter)
In the early 1960s, I wrote an appreciative essay for The New Yorker about the science fiction of Arthur Clarke. Not long after I got a letter from Clarke written from Sri Lanka where he lived. He told me that he was coming to New York in a few weeks and wanted to meet me. When we met, I asked him the purpose of his visit. His answer totally astonished me. “I am working on the son of Dr. Strangelove,” is what he said. The film had just come out and the first time I saw it I was so impressed that I sat through it a second time. “Stanley,” he said referring to Kubrick, “is a remarkable man. You should meet him.”

Did the Gravediggers Arrive Too Soon?

Jonathan Raban

Gordon Brown; drawing by John Springs
Trying to follow the impending British general election from afar, I’ve been reading The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for the Observer. Eight hundred pages long, and crammed with “inside” political gossip (or credible intelligence, if you prefer), it’s a book as hard to admire as it is to put down. Though the text is bespattered with authenticating footnotes (many say no more than “Conversation, Cabinet minister”), it reads like airport fiction. Its flawed (and credible) hero is Tony Blair, its cardboard villain Gordon Brown.

Why Celibacy Should Be Abolished

Hans Küng

Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, March 6, 2010 (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
The rule that Catholic priests must be celibate is responsible for the crisis in the church. Now is the time to challenge that requirement. From the United States to Ireland to Germany, the widespread abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests has done enormous damage to the image of the church. It also reveals the depth of the crisis. In Germany Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, speaking as chairman of the Conference of German Bishops, has made a public statement on behalf of the Church. His declaration that the cases of abuse were “heinous crimes”—together with the bishops’ statement of February 25, 2010, asking forgiveness from all the victims—are first steps toward dealing with the crisis. But much more must be done. Zollitsch’s statement, moreover, contains serious misrepresentations that need to be challenged.

Innocuous Items Gone Creepily Wrong: Taking the Pulse of Art in New York

Sanford Schwartz

New Yorkers currently have two large exhibitions with which to take the pulse of contemporary art, and neither shows the patient feeling altogether well. At the Whitney Biennial, this time around presenting many videos along with paintings, installations, and artists’ collaboratives performing music, the spirit is retiring, docile, and a little like spending an afternoon at some lackluster shows in Chelsea.

Atwood in the Twittersphere

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, tweeting aboard the Queen Mary 2, August 2009
A long time ago—less than a year ago in fact, but time goes all stretchy in the Twittersphere, just as it does in those folksongs in which the hero spends a night with the Queen of Faerie and then returns to find that a hundred years have passed and all his friends are dead…. Where was I?