Thursday morning—Christmas Eve, that is, just after 7 a.m.—the United States Senate did something it’s never done and passed a bill that aims for broad reforms of America’s private health-insurers (it also delivers them 30 million new customers over the next decade, a bone of contention on the left). Potential snags exist, to be sure, but in all likelihood Barack Obama will become the first president, out of eight who’ve tried, to pass large-scale health reform. His presidency is either one-quarter or one-eighth over. Let us say, for argument’s sake (because the economy is starting to turn around; and because of the advantages of incumbency), that it is the latter. What have we learned in this first year that might tell us something about the next seven?
President Obama’s announcement that the United States intends to purchase a maximum security prison in Thomson, Illinois, and plans to move as many as 100 remaining Guantanamo detainees there has prompted a variety of criticisms from right and left. Not-in-my-backyard populists oppose holding these prisoners anywhere in the United States (though in a classic prison-industrial complex move, the Obama administration realized that those concerns can be bought off with a promise of bringing 3,000 jobs to a depressed, rural Illinois region).
Imagine for a moment that there was a Catholic archbishop who protested to leading Nazis about the Holocaust, instructed his flock that to murder Jews was a great sin, and personally saved the lives of many dozens of Jews. Surely such a figure would be known to us, and would appear in every discussion of the role of Catholic institutions in the Holocaust? And surely such a figure would by now be recognized as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church?
One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more months, on the ominous charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Now, his case has been sent from the police to the state prosecutor’s office, and from there to a court, where his trial is expected to begin on Wednesday. The Chinese government has done what it can to keep the case out of sight, both at home and abroad. But thanks to the Internet, there are ways to be in touch with Liu’s friends and colleagues. In the past few days I have been talking with several of them.
For whatever reason—global warming seems to be one—Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier, whose runoff provided water for the contiguous cities of La Paz and El Alto for centuries, is now gone. Glaciers reconstitute themselves, if at all, outside the span of human time: we will not see so much ice shimmer again above the harsh brown altiplano, the highland plateau where two thirds of all Bolivians live. Other glaciers in the Bolivian Andes—like the Illimani, so beautiful to look at—are also melting, and in all likelihood will disappear before 2040.
Recent reports on my activities in Kurdistan call for a response. I have been both a writer on Iraq and an active participant in events there. After being an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s, I came to the view that the Iraqi Kurdish aspiration for independence was morally justified and the only sure means of protecting the Kurdish people. In late 2003 and early 2004, I helped Kurdistan’s leaders draft a proposal for a self-governing Kurdistan that was submitted to the Coalition Provisional Authority on February 11, 2004, for inclusion in Iraq’s interim constitution. Under the proposal, Kurdistan had its own government and military, Kurdistan law prevailed over Iraqi law, and Kurdistan controlled its own natural resources, including oil.
In reading the reports on President Obama’s Nobel speech in Oslo, one gets the impression that the President was offering a dose of realism to a gathering of fjord-loving well-meaning village idiots. He reminded them that an imperfect world should be governed not only by a pacifist vision of non-violence, but also by a theory of just war that tells us under what conditions a war is morally justified. This invocation of just wars was praised by both conservatives and liberals, who have applauded what they call Obama’s “Niebuhrian realism” and his drawing on a “venerable moral tradition” to give legitimacy to military engagement with “hostile regimes and networks in the world.” But having a realistic view of what a war can accomplish is part and parcel of just war doctrine, and it is precisely Obama’s realism about the war in Afghanistan that we should question.
What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea? An old book you feel you ought to have read? Or is it more casually serendipitous: An old book you have rediscovered and want to share with the world? And what does a “classicist” (in the Greek-and-Latin sense of the word) have to contribute to the debate?
In 1999, the German photographer Olaf Otto Becker took a picture of a glacier in Iceland for his first book, Under the Nordic Light. When he returned to photograph the same glacier three years later, it was gone.
As a rule, I read and write poetry in bed; philosophy and serious essays sitting down at my desk; newspapers and magazines while I eat breakfast or lunch, and novels while lying on the couch. It’s toughest to find a good place to read history, since what one is reading usually is a story of injustices and atrocities and wherever one does that, be it in the garden on a fine summer day or riding a bus in a city, one feels embarrassed to be so lucky. Perhaps the waiting room in a city morgue is the only suitable place to read about Stalin and Pol Pot?