Roving thoughts and provocations

Shutting Down the World?

Jonathan Freedland

Douglas Graham/Getty Images

Around the world, the US government shutdown has produced not just bemusement but a growing sense of angst. European and Asian leaders have not quite reached the stage of harboring nostalgia for George W. Bush, the solitary “decider” and global unilateralist, who felt no need to consult anyone. But they are suddenly finding that the collective decision-making they demanded a decade ago has very definite drawbacks when applied in Washington. It used to be enough to persuade the US president of the need for action; now, foreign governments calculate, they will need the backing of the US Congress too.

Let Us Treat Patients in Syria

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Elizaveta Glinka

Simon-Letellier/Demotix/Corbis

The conflict in Syria has led to what is arguably one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since the end of the Cold War. An estimated 115,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, and many more have been wounded, tortured, or abused. Millions have been driven from their homes, families have been divided, and entire communities torn apart; we must not let considerations of military intervention destroy our ability to focus on getting them help. As doctors and medical professionals from around the world, the scale of this emergency leaves us horrified. We are appalled by the lack of access to health care for affected civilians, and by the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and personnel. It is our professional, ethical, and moral duty to provide treatment and care to anyone in need. When we cannot do so personally, we are obliged to speak out in support of those risking their lives to provide life-saving assistance.

Losing Sight of Magritte

Francine Prose

Museum of Modern Art, New York

In high school, I took a weekly drawing class at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and every Friday afternoon I’d stand—reverent, transfixed—in front of Magritte’s The Empire of Light. Now, when I look at that painting in reproduction, and at the works displayed in the new MoMA show on Magritte, I can’t recapture the faintest hint of my former emotion. Magritte’s paintings exude the mysterious and the improbable, but when I visited the exhibition, what seemed most mystifying and unlikely to me was that there had been a time in my life when he was one of my favorite painters.

Iran Opens Its Fist

Gary Sick

Justin Lane/epa/Corbis

He came to New York. He saw almost everyone. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, may not have conquered, but at least he seems to have persuaded John Kerry and Barack Obama that his proposals for negotiating an end to the US-Iran conflict deserve to be taken seriously. When President Obama picked up his phone in the Oval Office on Friday to bid farewell to President Rouhani with the Persian phrase Khodahafez (“God be with you”), there was the sense that a tectonic shift between Washington and Tehran was taking place.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway

Edward Mendelson

Reading the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, with its story of a shrewd but otherwise unexceptional woman trying to untangle a vast unsolvable mystery, I remembered the excitement I felt when I first read his earlier novel on the same theme, The Crying of Lot 49. As I thought about The Crying of Lot 49, I belatedly realized that it tells a story very much like the one told by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In tone, setting, character, and incident, Mrs. Dalloway is a world away from The Crying of Lot 49, but both books have the same overall shape and both describe a lonely and reluctant quest for meanings that can never be obvious. There are greater books, but none that move me in the same way.

Libya: In Search of a Strongman

Nicolas Pelham

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, many feel that only a strongman can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

Verdi vs. the Fanatics

Garry Wills

Liz Lauren/Chicago Opera Theater

There is no denying that Verdi’s Joan of Arc tugs against some of a modern audience’s values. When, for instance, Giovanna is accused of witchcraft, she is unable to deny it because she has fallen in love with the Dauphin she is striving to make King. Why does she feel that a love for an unmarried Christian man, one not even sexually satisfied, must paralyze her with guilt? The Chicago Opera Theater director, David Schweizer, decided that the only way to be convincing about such an obsession with sexual purity is to make the opera show “the perpetual heart-rending consequences of religious fanaticism.”

How Different is de Blasio?

Michael Greenberg

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York, what can reasonably be expected to change? As a councilman his policy was much the same as Michael Bloomberg’s: to work with real estate developers to ease the way for large-scale projects. De Blasio was a staunch supporter of the enormous Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn. He also helped to push through the City Council two development-friendly rezoning laws in the Gowanus neighborhood that included no affordable housing. But only de Blasio, among the major Democratic candidates for mayor, strongly opposed the NYPD’s stop and frisk program from the outset of his campaign. And it seems certain that New York police chief Ray Kelly will be replaced if de Blasio wins.

Nicole Holofcener’s Beautiful Imperfections

Francine Prose

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Under Nicole Holofcener’s skillful direction, the actors in Enough Said never seem to be movie stars impersonating real people. She’s not afraid to let her characters be at once flawed and appealing, strong and weak, damaged and healthy, generous and self-centered; even the most clear-sighted must cope with disabling blind spots. They seem like human beings, and if they behave heroically, as they often do, theirs is the sort of heroism that enables an ordinary person to get through an ordinary day without needing to defuse a ticking bomb or save their families from a spectacular, special-effects apocalypse.

Clogging the War Machine

David Cole

Pool/Reuters/Corbis

Over the last few days, critics have called President Barack Obama weak, indecisive, rudderless, and even a threat to the presidency for not ordering an immediate military strike on Syria. Had Obama acted alone, however, he would have violated both the US Constitution, which requires prior congressional approval, and international law, which forbids the offensive use of force absent Security Council approval. Instead, he is now pursuing a path that accords with the rule of law, and may in fact be more effective at deterring further use of chemical weapons. Indeed, it may even prepare the way for a diplomatic strategy to end the underlying civil war.