Roving thoughts and provocations

Headline Headaches

Tim Parks

Félix Vallotton

Writer and reader continue to nurture the comforting illusion that they are at opposite ends of a direct line of communication, that the writer has spoken exactly and completely his mind on the matter in question, while the reader has followed and understood his reasoning from beginning to end. In reality, every message, whether in book, newspaper, or blog, is mediated in all kinds of ways, all of which tend to push the text toward two related editorial priorities: melodrama and the received idea. But nothing prejudices the way a reader comes to a piece more than its headline. Nothing is more likely to make him or her believe, even after reading the article through, that the author has said something he has not said and perhaps would never want people to imagine he has said.

Bleak House

Charles Simic

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

As one travels around the country, one is struck by how poorly dressed many Americans are and how run-down their cities and towns have become. Everyone knows what bankrupt Detroit looks like, but there are many other towns whose air of complete defeat is just as palpable. I once asked a taxi driver in one such place what people do there and he gave me a long list of all the big name manufacturers and businesses that have closed their doors over the past decade or two, confessing that he had no idea how his neighbors managed to make ends meet. I’ve no idea either.

Old Dreams for a New China

Ian Johnson

Ang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. A nationwide barrage of propaganda posters that went up starting in July gives a clearer explanation of what he is up to. Using the China Dream slogan, these posters extol various national virtues like filial piety and thrift. Drawing on traditional folk art rather than Communist symbols to illustrate their message, these posters redefine the state’s vision for China as a Confucian, family-centric nation, defined by a quiet life of respecting the elderly and saving for the future. Here are a selection of them.

Drowning in the Digital Abyss

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Pictures

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable emptiness of outer space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is something now quite rare—a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.

Back Door Secession

Garry Wills

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Cambodia’s Unseen Horrors

Richard Bernstein

Catherine Dussart Productions

How to depict the grisly reality of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, during which the only permitted images were those of a controlled propaganda machine? In The Missing Picture, his documentary about the KR years, Rithy Panh uses small clay figurines, hundreds of them, painted, clothed, with individual expressions on their faces, and placed in meticulously detailed dioramas that he seems to have reconstructed from the memories of his youth. These clay statuettes cannot, of course, fully depict the horror of the Khmer Rouge story. But as Panh’s narration proceeds, the statuettes take on a reality of their own, a voodoo-like power, their individual features an aid to avoiding what might otherwise be a kind of depersonalizing abstraction.

The Roberts Court: What Kind of Conservatives?

David Cole

Eight years into Chief Justice John Roberts’ tenure, it still remains unclear just what kind of conservatives the Court’s majority justices are. The cases the Court will review in the 2013–2014 term, which begins this week, are likely to go some way toward answering this question. The Court has been invited to overrule precedents governing regulation of campaign finance, government support of religion, equal protection, abortion counseling, and the treaty power. In all of these cases, lawyers have argued that the Court can rule for them without questioning any prior precedent—what we might call conservatism with a lower-case “c.” But perhaps sensing a receptive audience, the lawyers in each case have also invited the Court to go further and overturn past precedents altogether—a dramatic step that would confirm a far more radical Court, or conservatism with a capital “C.”


Christopher Benfey

Martine Franck/Magnum Photos

On a gray September morning, I awoke from uneasy dreams to find a strange sentence fully formed in my still drowsy mind: “No one in the history of the world has ever universalized both the game given and the god given.” I didn’t remember anything else from the dream that had produced these portentous words, nor did I have a clue what they might mean. I couldn’t even make out the syntax, since the last two words could mean either an inherited capacity, like a god-given talent for tennis, or, instead, a god who is “a given.” And what in the world might it mean to “universalize” such things?

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


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.