Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

Stumbling Into Syria

David Bromwich

Muzaffar Salman/Reuters/Corbis

A train of commitments by two administrations has led to the US intervention in Syria, an involvement that started well before the revised intelligence estimate about chemical weapons climbed to “high certainty.” Throughout the peculiar history of preparing the ground in Syria, there are distinct reminders of Iraq. As with Iraq, the US is looking to enter a scene of sectarian hostilities that it hopes to control by the right tactics once regime change has been accomplished. As with Iraq, refusal of inspections by the existing government has been taken to indicate the possession and use of forbidden weapons. As with Iraq, we are being encouraged by Sunni regional partners who are willing to sponsor jihadists from an overwhelming desire to weaken and overthrow the government of Iran.

Iran’s Man in the Middle

Haleh Esfandiari

Mohammad Berno/Document Iran/Corbis

The decisive election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has been greeted around the world as a sign that Iranians are tired of hardline policies at home and abroad and are ready to embrace change. But the obstacles Rouhani faces are formidable. The internal security situation has grown worse. Journalists and intellectuals are routinely jailed for the mildest challenge to the ruling ideology. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 314 individuals last year—one of the highest rates of execution in the world. Rouhani will win a lot of credit with the young and the urban middle class if he manages to remove the morals police from the streets, yet any attempt to ease controls over the press, civic associations, and political activity will be opposed by Iran’s ubiquitous security agencies and by the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

Writing to Death

Tim Parks

Tullio Pericoli/Studio Pericoli

How far is the trajectory of an author’s writing career and the themes that guide it related to the moment and nature of his or her death? What I am suggesting is that a novelist’s work is often a strategy (I don’t mean the author need be aware of this) for dealing with some personal dilemma. Not just that the dilemma is “worked out” in the narrative, as critics often tell us, but that the acts of writing and publishing and positioning oneself in the world of literature are all part of an attempt to find a solution, however provisional, to some deep personal unease.

Spying on Americans: A Very Old Story

Aryeh Neier

Much of the political surveillance of the 1960s and the 1970s consisted in efforts to identify organizations that were critical of government policies and gather information on their adherents. The surveillance practices of the NSA revealed in recent weeks are fundamentally different. They attempt to identify patterns of electronic behavior that arouse the government’s suspicion rather than individuals associated with certain organizations or causes. Yet these new forms of surveillance, over time, may lead in the same direction. Those who are targeted may be excluded from certain benefits or opportunities on the basis of having been identified for engaging in activities that are legitimate. If that were to happen, they are unlikely ever to find out that they have been blocked on such grounds.

Jews Aren’t Allowed to Use Phones’: Berlin’s Most Unsettling Memorial

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Twenty years ago this month, Berlin-based artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock inaugurated their hugely controversial memorial for a former Jewish district of West Berlin known as the Bavarian Quarter. Today, Germany is filled with memorials and institutions dealing with aspects of the Holocaust, including Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Berlin’s central Holocaust memorial. But Stih and Schnock’s in-your-face signs about Nazi policies, integrated into the present-day life of a residential Berlin neighborhood, remain one of the most visceral and unsettling. I recently walked through the Bavarian Quarter—which is part of Berlin’s Schöneberg district—with the artists to discuss their work and its legacy.

What ‘Maisie’ Doesn’t Know

Francine Prose

Millennium Entertainment

From the opening pages of his 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, Henry James merges the voice and the perspective of the author with that of his young protagonist, thus boldly circumventing any doubts about whether a child would use the word objurgation. Mixing dramatic scenes with long passages of narration, James is able to compress a great deal of information into a short space and to delve ever more deeply into Maisie’s psyche. Unable to convey the psychological depth and preternatural maturity that James gives his fictional heroine, McGehee and Siegel’s new film adaptation has turned Maisie into a wide-eyed, passive observer, watching the grown-ups misbehave.

Syria: Inventing a Religious War

Toby Matthiesen

Shawn Baldwin/Corbis

Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think his sect, the Alawites, are heretics. Why then is Hezbollah fighting for the regime, and is this conflict really rooted in religion? The answer to both these questions may lie in a suburb of Damascus called Sayyida Zainab, the site of an important Shia shrine and since the 1970s a haven for foreign Shia activists and migrants in Syria. Though the story of Sayyida Zainab is little known in the West, it may help explain why what began as a peaceful uprising against secular authoritarian rule in 2011 has increasingly become a war between Shia and Sunni that has engulfed much of the surrounding region.