Roving thoughts and provocations

When Heaven Was More Interesting Than Hell

Ingrid D. Rowland

As a political analyst, the Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti is hard to rival, even if he painted rather than wrote, and did so towards the middle of the fourteenth century. The frescoes he executed for the city council of Siena in 1338–1339, showing The Effects of Good and Bad Government on the City and Countryside, mark what may be a unique achievement in the history of art: making Heaven, (or at least Heaven on earth), look infinitely more interesting than Hell.

Afghanistan: The Missing Strategy

Ahmed Rashid

After all the talk about how many different audiences President Barack Obama had to satisfy when he finally outlined his strategy for Afghanistan on Tuesday night, he probably satisfied no more than one—the American audience who will support a continued US war effort only if there is a fixed deadline for starting to pull out US troops. Those who feel the war is futile were bound to be disappointed. But the reaction in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been equally skeptical.

Afghanistan: The Betrayal

Garry Wills

I did not think he would lose me so soon—sooner than Bill Clinton did. Like many people, I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president. I had written op-ed pieces and articles to support him in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. My wife and I had maxed out in donations for him. Our children had been ardent for his cause.

Iran’s Hidden Path to the Bomb

Jeremy Bernstein

To western officials who have spent months trying to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement of plans to build ten new uranium enrichment plants is deeply unsettling. But the real worry may be the nuclear facilities already in existence. In mid-November, the Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced that, for “technical reasons,” the Russians will not finish this year the reactor they are constructing for the Iranians at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. Since the reasons were not given, one may speculate that, despite Russian denials, this is a message of displeasure sent to the Iranians.


Tony Judt

Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it. My own gastronomic youth was firmly bounded by everything that was least inspiring in traditional English cuisine, alleviated with hints of Continental cosmopolitanism occasionally introduced by my father’s fading memories of a Belgian youth, and interspersed with weekly reminders of another heritage altogether: Sabbath evening dinners at the home of my East European Jewish grandparents. This curious melange did little to sharpen my taste buds—it was not until I lived in France as a graduate student that I encountered good food on a regular basis—but it added further to the confusions of my youthful identity.

Love and Truth: Václav Havel in Bratislava, Twenty Years After 1989

Timothy Snyder

It can’t happen often that citizens of one country gather to honor someone who was the president of two other countries, all the while claiming him as their own. But so it was on November 18, 2009, twenty years after student protests in Prague that began the Velvet Revolution led by the playwright Václav Havel. Now the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic had come to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, to talk with Slovak students about the events of 1989. Although these young people remember neither those events nor the dissolution of Czechoslovakia that followed three years later, they greeted him with standing ovations and sincere expressions of respect.

Homeless on the Home Front

Charles Simic

Sometime in the fall of 1958, an old fellow came up to me late one night on MacDougal Street and said, “Mister, I’m writing the book of my life and I need a dime to complete it.” I gave him my last dollar and went off happy. This kind of inspired, seemingly spontaneous panhandling differs from what professional beggars do. They employ props: crutches, head-bandages, wooden legs, or have a skinny, sad-eyed dog accompanying them. They stage a theatrical performance for your benefit and hope for the best.

Georgia’s Shrunken Hopes

Michael Greenberg

More than fifteen months have passed since war broke out between Georgia and Russia. The war lasted five days, the amount of time it took for the Russian army to rout Georgia’s tiny, American-trained defense forces. It was the most serious military conflict in Europe since the Balkans. And yet, although tens of thousands of people are still displaced, and Russia is posing an increasing threat to Georgia’s oil pipelines, both the EU and the US may be powerless to prevent further threats to the country.

Glorious Ghosts

Colm Tóibín

Wexford is a small town on the sea in the south-east of Ireland and an unlikely place to host an opera festival. Yet since 1951 in late October the town has organized what has become for many opera-lovers an essential date in the calendar. The reason why it has remained important is not merely the intimacy of the setting, the general air of welcome and the strange sea-washed beauty of the old town, but the policy since the early 1970s to program three operas that have fallen beneath the radar, that are seldom or never performed.

China: The Fragile Superpower

Christian Caryl

Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s highly-scripted trip this week provided little to support that claim. As The Washington Post noted, in contrast to 1998, when Bill Clinton, standing in the Great Hall of the People, criticized the Tiananmen Square crackdown and “traded spirited jibes with President Jiang Zemin,” Obama and Hu Jintao held a “Chinese-style news conference of read statements, stares, and no questions.” Nor did the Chinese government make any concessions on the major issues—the valuation of China’s currency, pressure on Iran, action on climate change—that the White House was hoping to see addressed.