Roving thoughts and provocations

The Books We’ve Lost

Charles Simic

Bettmann/Corbis

Years ago, in a store in New York that specialized in Alchemy, Eastern Religions, Theosophy, Mysticism, Magic, and Witchcraft, I remember coming across a book called How to Become Invisible that I realized would make a perfect birthday present for a friend who was on the run from a collection agency trying to repossess his car. It cost fifteen cents, which struck me as a pretty steep price considering the quality of the contents. What made these stores, stocked with unwanted libraries of dead people, attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure.

Hezbollah’s Refugee Problem

Hugh Eakin

Rami Bleibel/Reuters/Corbis

On a hot afternoon in late July, Lebanese aid workers were handing out boxes of food to Syrian exiles in a town just a few kilometers from the Syrian border: on the face of it, an unremarkable event in a war that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Lebanon. But the town was Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold in the northernmost part of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that has sent numerous young men to fight for the Syrian regime. And the food boxes were donated by the Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates, a Sunni country in the Arabian Gulf that, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has backed the Syrian opposition.

Tyrant of the Commune

Mark Lilla

Erich Gromek/ASAblanca/Getty Images

Paul-Julien Robert is an angry young man. And he has every right to be. Robert was born in 1979 to a young Swiss woman living in Friedrichshof, a famous, and later infamous, Austrian commune that was once the largest in Europe. Like so many utopian communities founded over the past two centuries on the principle of participatory democracy, this one was the brainchild of an individual visionary. He was Otto Mühl, a former Wehrmacht soldier who in the Sixties helped found the Actionist art movement in Vienna. Over the years Mühl became increasingly dictatorial and in the Eighties it came to light that he was sexually abusing some of the children. The commune was dissolved, and in 1991 he was convicted of pedophilia and spent seven years in prison. He died this past May at the age of eighty-seven.

Whistleblower, Leaker, Traitor, Spy

Eyal Press

Tatyana Lokshina/Human Rights Watch/AP Photo

Traitor, hacker, high-school dropout, narcissist: Edward Snowden has been called many things since coming forward as the source who gave documents to The Guardian showing that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone and Internet data on hundreds of millions of Americans, revelations that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed the NSA to explain at a contentious hearing in Washington last week. The one thing that Snowden’s detractors have insisted he does not merit being called is a whistleblower.

Damascus: What’s Left

Sarah Birke

Zhang Naijie/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The most noticeable change in Damascus since I lived here before the war is in the urban population itself. Before the conflict began, the Syrian capital had aspiring filmmakers and graying dissidents, worldly youth and wrinkled shop owners, and many highly-educated lawyers, doctors, and scholars. Now many professionals, the young, and even workers with sufficient savings to do so have left for Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf. In their place, the city has received a huge influx of poor and destitute people from the suburbs, who have moved to the Old City, often to live with family or friends, or to districts like Midan, a neighborhood just south of the center which is itself an area of unrest. They now live alongside the city’s rich and apathetic who have stayed and who generally support the regime.

How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books

Natalie Zemon Davis

The year was 1952. I had spent six months in France doing the first research for my PhD thesis on “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon.” Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

What’s Behind the New Chinese Crackdown?

Li Xiaorong

Maggie Cen/Reuters

Since late March, when China’s new president Xi Jinping took power, nearly one hundred Chinese human rights activists have been detained. What all the detained activists seem to have in common is that they are accused of organizing actions that would take place not just in cyberspace but in the physical space of city streets. Chinese leaders always see such public campaigns as an open challenge to their control. They fear that activists are seeking to take China’s rising number of local protests about social and economic problems to another level—turning it into a political movement that could challenge the authoritarian regime.

A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell

Jorge Luis Borges

We have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.

Burma: The Despots and the Laughter

Jonathan Mirsky

Courtesy of Wendy Law-Yone

It’s hard to get a handle on Burma. During a recent visit to London, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I love the army”—the same army that had enforced her house arrest in Rangoon on and off for years. She now sits in Burma’s parliament with the generals who led that army. Golden Parasol, Wendy Law-Yone’s memoir of Burma during the years in which the country went from a British colony to a military dictatorship, suggests why the country’s ruling class may be so difficult to understand.

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can’t Do

Steven H. Wright

Tim Boyles/Getty Images

On the evening of July 13, the day a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, my mother phoned me, distraught. She, like many mothers of black sons, couldn’t understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. She’d heard that the NAACP and other civil-rights groups were pleading for the United States Department of Justice to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime; she’d also heard that the family could pursue a wrongful death suit. Then she asked me, based upon my experience as a former Justice Department civil-rights attorney, whether I thought either would stand a chance of holding Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death. My answer didn’t give her much comfort.