Over the past ten days, China has been riveted by accounts of what authorities say are its very own doomsday cult: the church of Almighty God, which has prophesized that the world will end today. Authorities claim the group has basically spun out of control, forcing them to arrest 1,000 members in the biggest crackdown on a spiritual movement since the Falun Gong sect was banned in 1999. It would be easy to see this as just a Chinese version of the global Mayan craze. But following decades of suppression, religious movements have become a potent force in China, making groups like Almighty God a growing challenge for the new government. Above all, Beijing is struggling with the question of social control—how much it can continue to wield over an increasingly wealthy, educated, and assertive population.
The frantic negotiations in Washington to avoid the fiscal cliff in January may appear to be mostly a battle over higher taxes on the rich. At the moment, negotiations seem to have hit a temporary impasse. But the strenuous debate between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner over how to stave off the $700 billion or so of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled for 2013 is obscuring a larger and far more disturbing issue: whichever way the negotiations go, the result will be slow economic growth next year at best, and possibly outright recession.
There is a good deal to be said about Peter Jackson’s long-awaited and exceedingly long adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, most of it bad. I speak as a former, if long-lapsed, member of the Tolkien cult—one who vividly recalls a 12-year-old’s impassioned assertion that he had the right to borrow books, namely The Lord of the Rings, from the library’s Adult Section, who searched in vain for anything even remotely comparable, who, a few years later, saved up and sent away to a London bookstore to purchase his own hardbound copies of the trilogy, and who was soon after shocked to see the books appear here as garish, unauthorized Ace paperbacks.
Less sensationally than in Egypt, a matter of seeming indifference to the international press, the revolution in Tunisia is starting to unravel. Exactly two years have passed since the self-immolation of a fruit-seller in a depressed provincial town spurred Tunisians to topple their authoritarian president, Zeyn al-Abedine Ben Ali-and Arabs in several other dictatorships to launch uprisings of their own. But the mood on the anniversary of that richly symbolic martyrdom is somber, even defeatist. To many Tunisians, the goals that animated the revolution no longer seem within reach.
The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?
Does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? And does making these relatively small changes really make the text 100 percent American anyway? One thinks of how thoroughly the Harry Potter novels were Americanized for their US editions: would they really have sold fewer copies had the Anglicisms been kept? Wasn’t half the charm of the series its rather fey Englishness (occasionally Scottish Englishness)? Would we Americanize the Irish Joyce? Or again, if we want to have language conform to local usage, what about considering chronology as well as geography? Shouldn’t we bring Dickens, Austen, Fielding, and Shakespeare up to date? Make it easier? Forget that language is constantly changing and different everywhere?
Cell phones are officially banned from public schools in New York City, and students at low income schools, many of whom are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program, pay a dollar a day to leave their phones in the privately owned trucks parked outside. Why, they ask, are the students in more prosperous neighborhoods unofficially allowed to ignore the ban, as long as they aren’t caught? And why are the poor kids in the eighty-eight New York schools that have been equipped with metal detectors forced to spend five dollars a week—an expense that, for some, means going without food?
I made my way to New York’s Rockaway peninsula in early November, a week after Hurricane Sandy, and it was immediately clear that the entire eleven-mile strip had sustained a mortal, earthen wound. In the neighborhoods of Edgemere and Arverne, residents wandered the streets, dazed and broken, in mismatched boots, donated woolen overcoats, and hats with dangling ear-flaps. Some pushed what appeared to be all their belongings in shopping baskets and carts, followed by children and derelict dogs.
Getting into the People’s Liberation Army was hard, but not as hard as getting into college. So, starting in 1973, I sent in my application and took a physical exam at the commune every year, and every year I was rejected. But then, in February 1976, with the help of some important people, my persistence paid off—I received my enlistment notice. Soon after that, on a cold, snowy day, I walked some fifteen miles to the county town. There I put on an army uniform and climbed into the back of a military truck for the trip to Huang County, where I moved into the famous “Ding Family Compound” barracks and began basic training.
The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to take on two challenges to anti-gay marriage laws has attracted widespread attention. But equally remarkable is the fact that neither the federal government nor the state of California are even willing to stand behind those laws. In both cases—United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry—surrogates are standing in to defend the laws in their stead. We have moved from “the crime not fit to be named” to the laws not fit to be defended. It once was considered shameful to be a homosexual; today it is shameful to be anti-gay. In an important sense, the gay rights advocates have already won.