Roving thoughts and provocations

New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters

Diane Ravitch

Bryan Smith/ZUMA Press/Corbis

New York City’s charter schools enroll only 6 percent of the student population. Contrary to popular myth, they are more racially segregated than public schools and performed no better on state tests. How, then, did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York families manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?

Sex: The Terror and the Boredom

J. Hoberman

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

Although too capricious (or should we say promiscuous?) to be a taxonomy, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is designed to illustrate and exhaust every popular theory of nymphomania, including, of course, the idea that the condition exists only as a male fantasy.

Escaping Beirut

Robyn Creswell

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator is a septuagenarian literary translator in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.” But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering past lovers and favorite books.

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

Ian Johnson

How Hwee Young/epa/Corbis

According to a new opinion survey by the Pew Research Center, only 14 percent of Chinese think that belief in God is necessary for morality—the lowest percentage in any country. But if there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing number who are taking part in organized religion. Could it be that the Pew study asks the wrong question?


Charles Simic

Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos

Every time I see a large crowd on TV demonstrating against some autocratic government, I have mixed feelings: admiration for their willingness and bravery to take a stand, and a foreboding that nothing will come of it. I’ve watched too many worthy causes fizzle out over the years. But even by that grim reality the defeat of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is staggering.

Quiet, Sensuous Piero

Sanford Schwartz

Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters,” is the first ever exhibition about Piero’s devotional works. They are small-size paintings created for bedrooms or set-apart areas in the home. In spirit they take us to much the same austere and bare-bones realm as his more public pictures. Yet they present more directly and pleasurably the qualities that make Piero such a special figure, even by the heady standards of the fifteenth century, when so many Italian and Flemish artists, were finding one personal way after another to portray the actual, corporeal world they lived in.

Where I’m Reading From

Tim Parks

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Books began, in my case, when my parents read to me, so I knew from the start that reading must be a “good” thing. Later I exploited this faith of theirs in the essential goodness of literature to plot my escape from the suffocating world in which they lived. It was perfectly clear to me in adolescence that each member of the family would choose quite different books, and that what you were reading inevitably declared where you stood on the things that mattered in our house. You had to be careful when you chose to share a book.

Egypt: Face to Face

Yasmine El Rashidi

Shirin Neshat/Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

For those of us who were part of Egypt’s revolution, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s new series of works, “Our House Is On Fire,” captures a reality that surrounds us, yet has been all but overlooked in the continuing story of the Arab uprisings: the reality of a country struggling with despair.

Spring Is Far Behind

Christopher Benfey

Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

So much of reading is anticipation. So much of spring is the longing for spring.

Chaucer says, “Aprille with his shoures soote” is the time when “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” I myself long to goon on a pilgrimage.

The CIA’s Poisonous Tree

David Cole

David Levine

The legal doctrine that precludes reliance on evidence obtained from torture is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule. But as the revelations that the CIA interfered with a Senate investigation of CIA abuses reflects, torture does far more than merely “taint” evidence. It corrupts all who touch it.