Roving thoughts and provocations

Afghanistan: The War After the War

Anatol Lieven

Corbis/Xinhua/Azorda

Seen from Kabul, there are good reasons to fear that the US will negotiate some sort of face saving deal with the Taliban and quit Afghanistan entirely. According to unofficial statements from the White House reported in The New York Times, the option of complete withdrawal is one that President Obama is now actively considering. This is what the insurgents always aim at, and what in Algeria and Vietnam they eventually achieved, after immense bloodshed: splitting the foreign power from its local allies or proxies. And this is precisely what Karzai and his supporters fear most, accounting for the sometimes hysterical nature of their protests against negotiations with the Taliban.

Summertime

Charles Simic

Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Are rocking chairs in this country, I’m asking myself, being rocked on summer evenings as much as they once were? Or do they stand abandoned and motionless on dark porches across the land, now that their elderly owners tend to relieve their boredom by sitting in front of their computers?

Censoring the News Before It Happens

Perry Link

Aly Song/Reuters

For China’s Internet police, message control has grown to include many layers of meaning. Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives. For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more.” For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping,” “publish but only under small headlines,” “put only on back pages,” “close the comment boxes,” and “downplay as time passes.”

Popes Making Popes Saints

Garry Wills

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Pope John XXIII was beatified to take the sting out of Pius IX’s promotion. He is now being canonized to make a joint heavenly pair with John Paul II. To rush John XXIII forward, Pope Francis is even waiving the normal requirement of a second miracle for canonization. John XXIII is the feel-good pope in a time of turmoil, even though he is being used to sanction the turmoil caused by John Paul II.

When the Ruins Were New

Colin Thubron

Royal Collection Trust

In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. Among the party was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. The torpor of the declining Ottoman empire is palpable in his rare group photographs—unreliable Ottoman mercenaries or ragged Albanian water-carriers—as it is in the empty-looking villages of Hebron or Bethany. Even the streets of Cairo appear deserted. And there are no Jews.

Prague’s Savage Spring

J. Hoberman

Criterion Collection

František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová is easy to watch but difficult to follow. Thirty years after its release, it was named overwhelmingly by a poll of Czech critics and filmmakers as the best movie ever produced in Czechoslovakia, yet it remains little known outside its native land. The movie opens on a note of mordant self-deprecation (“This tale was cobbled together and hardly merits praise”) and goes on to represent thirteenth-century Bohemia as a backwater of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyperborean Age—the province of halfwits, rapists, and brutes.

Rethinking Surveillance

Kenneth Roth

Flying Colors Ltd/Getty Images

As a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, I used to think nothing of scooping up the phone numbers that a suspect called. I viewed that surveillance as no big deal because the Supreme Court had ruled in Smith v. Maryland (1979) that we have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the phone numbers we dial, as opposed to the content of the calls. And in any event, I had limited time or practical ability to follow up on those numbers. Today, by contrast, when I look at the government’s large-scale electronic surveillance of private communications, I see an urgent need to rethink the rationale—and legal limits—for such intrusion.

The Contradictions of Le Corbusier

Martin Filler

© 2013 Richard Pare

Not least of the paradoxes confronting visitors during the opening days of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes”—a sprawling, frustrating, intermittently thrilling tribute to the twentieth century’s most influential master builder—was that one could not easily determine where the exhibition begins. With its geographic and environmental premise, the show aims to map out Le Corbusier’s epic career from his early residential designs in Switzerland and France to later large-scale schemes for a wide variety of functions in the Soviet Union, North Africa, South America, India, Japan, and the United States, among other far-flung locales. But the effort the MoMA survey expends in shoehorning a very large and unruly body of work into predetermined categories often raises more questions than it answers.

Gay Marriage: A Careful Step Forward

David Cole

Together, the Supreme Court’s decisions in the two gay marriage cases are a consummate act of statesmanship. They extend federal benefits to all same-sex married couples in states that recognize gay marriage, expand the number of states recognizing gay marriage to thirteen, yet leave open the ultimate issue of state power to limit marriage to the union of a man and woman. By not imposing same-sex marriage on the three-quarters of the states whose laws still forbid it, the Court has allowed the issue to develop further through the political process—where its trajectory is all but inevitable.

A Pilot’s Refusal, Reimagined

Negar Azimi

Sfeir-Semler Gallery

A short time after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a rumor ran through the southern Lebanese town of Saida that went something like this: as Israeli forces advanced into the country, one Israeli air force pilot refused to strike his assigned target, a secondary school for boys not far from the Ain El Helweh refugee camp. Instead, he veered off course, dropping his bombs into the Mediterranean Sea below. It was said that the pilot’s family had originally been from Saida’s old Jewish community, and he had felt too much of an attachment for the place and its inhabitants. Though the school, like much of the city around it, was eventually bombed anyway, the story turned into a legend, embroidered and embellished with new details in each telling. Among those who grew obsessed by the pilot’s story was the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, who was born in Saida in 1967 and whose father founded and ran that very boys’ school for two decades.