I was jolted the other day when The New York Times science section splashed three big close-up head-shots of FDR across the top of its front page. (The story: his death of a cerebral hemorrhage may have been linked to a melanoma.) Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was the face of my president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, more or less a year after I was born, and by the time I became conscious of the great world out there, he had become the family hero: as resourceful as he was wise, as charming as he was brilliant. Everyone we knew loved his handsome, distinguished face, was moved by his beautiful voice—the famous fireside chats!—and, most important of all in those frightening times, took comfort from the confidence he radiated. We knew instinctively that with him leading us, all would be well.
It is entirely appropriate that two women have become the iconic symbols of Iran’s protest movement. Thanks to cell phones and the Internet, millions of people around the world saw footage of the blood-soaked face of the young Neda Agha Soltan, as she lay dying on a Tehran street, shot by security forces during a peaceful demonstration. But even before last June’s rigged presidential election, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, had gained international renown as the first woman in Iranian history to campaign alongside her husband—making speeches of her own and taking a strong stand on controversial social issues.
When I landed at boarding school in Boston in the fall of 1980—from a public school in Toronto, another world—I assumed the Iranian girls knew the ropes better than I did. Posh New England culture was utterly alien to me; but how much more so must it have been to my fellow boarders lately of Tehran? Aware of the recent revolution—even at fourteen, one couldn’t not be—I nevertheless was unable to relate the girl brushing her teeth beside me in the dorm bathroom to mass demonstrations or the then ongoing hostage crisis half a world away. I never asked the Iranians a single question about their histories: it was tacitly accepted that it was too delicate a subject and, by force of silence, too remote from our placid world of emerald lawns and peeling white columns. What, I now wonder, must the Iranian girls have thought?
The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him unfavorably with his close contemporary, the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse. Neither were truly major historians but Berlin was not really a historian at all, in the full sense of that word, nor was he exactly a philosopher. His field, largely untrodden and little understood, was the intersection of philosophy, aesthetics and history: in this, his achievement was very great, above all in his profound elucidation of the way that ideas like freedom, enlightenment and nationalism could appear, develop and be challenged in the politics and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Some time in the early 1950’s the late Paul Samuelson received a post card from L.J. “Jimmie” Savage, a noted mathematical statistician. It was one of several he had sent out at about the same time. Savage’s post card to Samuelson, and probably the others, said that it was essential that Samuelson read Théorie de la Spéculation, the Ph.D. thesis of the French mathematician Louis Jean Baptiste Alphonse Bachelier. Samuelson had never heard of Bachelier so he did not know that the thesis had first been published in 1900. Reading the thesis changed the course of Samuelson’s work. He improved Bachelier’s mathematics and used it to study the prices of warrants—options to buy, at a future date, stock issued by a company. These methods were passed on to his students. But for some of them, Bachelier’s ideas provided inspiration for a theory of financial engineering—the use of complex mathematical models to make risky investments that, taken to extremes (which Samuelson himself never did), nearly caused the collapse of our financial system in the fall of 2008.
It is a charming little dog, meticulously drawn, that faces us, all its curlicue hairs traced, its cantilevered thin legs ending in little paws (1971). Only on a second look do we see that the tiny face staring out at us from this fluff ball is that of Richard Nixon. Then, in a double-take (click!), we realize that this is Checkers, the dog Nixon used in his maudlin television address to stay on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. A less adventurous artist might have done the obvious—made Nixon cower behind the dog he was using as protection. Levine did the unexpected. He made Nixon the dog. And as usual, there was a deeper purpose. He was saying that Nixon would not only do anything to get what he wanted, he would become anything. Later, when abortion was the issue, Nixon would become a fetus (1971). How does one give a fetus identity? With the nose, of course, the Nixon nose that Levine celebrated so relentlessly.
The horrors of Soviet prisons and labor camps were described vividly in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, and later, by the Soviet dissident and former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, in his 1969 memoir, My Testimony. To judge from a disturbing new report about the tragic death of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in late November, Russia’s current penal system is almost as bad as it used to be.
When Troy Erik Isaac was first imprisoned in California, his cellmate made the introductions for both of them. “He said to me, ‘Your name is gonna be Baby Romeo, and I’m Big Romeo.’ He was saying he would be my man.” Troy was twelve at the time. A skinny, terrified little kid, he accepted the prisoner’s bargain being imposed on him: protection for sex. He wasn’t protected, though. Soon he was attacked and raped at night by another cellmate, a sixteen-year-old. He told staff he was suicidal, hoping to be placed in solitary confinement, but they ignored him; the rapes continued.
In the summer of 1989, I spent several weeks in Madrid. It was my first time out of the United States, and I was overwhelmed by the shock of difference: the life-giving daily approach to time; the ghost dregs of imperial supremacy; the post-Franco traces of bleak limbo that were thankfully almost done eroding; the particular charisma, not quite the same as what I had absorbed from so far away, in books and movies, as “European charm.” There was a pop soundtrack to that summer, an album that had come out months earlier but was still at its viral peak. One addictive song especially spilled out of windows onto plazas, with a stately beat and a girlish voice recalling (from the male point of view) an affair with a woman described as half-finished, with the body of a gypsy and “an eye here, a tooth there.”