Roving thoughts and provocations

A Nazi at Harvard

Anthony Grafton

In 1934, the Harvard class of 1909 held its 25th reunion—then as now an occasion for members of the American elite to parade in public and celebrate their achievements. But this year the star attraction was a German: Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the son of a Munich art dealer and publisher who had joined the Nazi movement and enjoyed personal access to Hitler (Hitler liked hearing him play the piano, as had his Harvard classmates, for whom he composed football fight songs). In the early 1930s he served as foreign press chief for the Nazi party.

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell

Some of his arresting images show plumes of pitch black and garishly colored yellow and red smoke belching out of factory and power plant chimneys - almost all caused by the burning of soft coal. They are reminiscent of the eerie, unnatural images and colors that blink out of a television set when the tint controls are turned all the way to one side.

Iraq: A Bigger Threat Than Bombs

Joost Hiltermann

The horrific twin bombings in Baghdad on October 25 that killed over 150 people, including children in two daycare centers, and injured many more, could easily be seen as supporting the increasingly common contention that Iraq remains profoundly unstable. That such an attack could take place in the center of the capital might demonstrate that security forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are incapable of providing security; and that the United States will leave chaos in its wake when combat troops depart ten months from now. But the attacks must be seen in the perspective of deeper problems, even if the claim about Iraq’s instability is valid.

The Serbian Charade

Charles Simic

In late September, I went to hear the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, speak to students and professors at Columbia University. He was in New York leading his country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly meeting. Tadic is a nice-looking, charming, and articulate man without a trace of Milosevic’s arrogance. He said many reassuring things about democracy in Serbia, maintaining peace in the region, and preserving the territorial integrity of Bosnia. But, when it came to Kosovo, he asserted that Serbia will “never, under any circumstances, implicitly or explicitly, recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.”

Beauty and the Brain: The Puzzle

Tim Parks

What happens in the brain when we look at a painting, listen to music, read a book? This was the subject of Neuroesthetics: When Art and the Brain Collide, a workshop conference at IULM University Milan bringing together a mix of neurobiologists and art historians. The atmosphere was tense and expectant, the art folk anxious that they wouldn’t understand a word, the biologists concerned that their work would seem underwhelming and wrongheaded.

Hopkins: The Odd Man Out

Colm Tóibín

One of the strangest and most beautiful shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which ran during the first week of October, was entitled “No Worst There Is None” and concerned the life of the English poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was performed for an audience of twenty-five who followed the actors around the rooms of Newman House on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. This eighteenth century building, which is owned by University College Dublin, has a plaque outside commemorating three disparate figures who spent time in its lofty halls—Cardinal Newman, the first head of the National University of Ireland; James Joyce, who was a student here; and poor, depressed Hopkins, who, sent to Dublin by his order, spent the last five years of his life in the building and wrote what are called his “terrible sonnets.”

How Václav Klaus Blocks European Union

Timothy Snyder

The Czech Republic is a country where everything seems to work, except for the political system. I once lived here, but hadn’t returned for eleven years. Almost everything looks better than it did in 1998, and almost everything looked better in 1998 than it did in 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, culminating a remarkable transformation from one-party Communist rule to liberal democracy. Yet despite all of this, the Czech Republic has been suspended these past few days in a bizarre political crisis.

How They Convinced Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

Everything that could possibly go wrong in Afghanistan has gone wrong over the past two months. The industrial-level rigging and manipulation of the August 20 election—largely by the government of President Hamid Karzai—could have dealt a death blow to international involvement in Afghanistan, as it entered its ninth year. Worse, it occurred just as the Taliban were ramping up their insurgency and Afghans were becoming even more disillusioned with their government than usual. So how did the US and its allies manage to convince Karzai this week to agree to a run-off election?

Iran’s Harshest Sentence for an Innocent Scholar

Haleh Esfandiari

For me Iran’s sentencing this week of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh to at least twelve years in prison—the harshest sentence so far passed down by the revolutionary court—is particularly fraught. In 2007, he and I were fellow prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was held in the men’s section and I in the women’s section of Ward 209, reserved for political prisoners held by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. We had been arrested within a day of each other, and we shared, in separate interrogation rooms, the same interrogators. He began to send me books; thanks to him I was able to escape the confines of my prison cell by reading the novels of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene.