Roving thoughts and provocations

The Preemptive War on Hagel

Elizabeth Drew

Israel Policy Forum

Far more is at stake in Barack Obama’s decision on whether to nominate Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense than whether Chuck Hagel is nominated. What the president decides will bear on: his effectiveness in his second term; any president’s ability to form a government; whether an independent voice can be raised on a highly sensitive issue in opposition to the views of a powerful lobby and still be named to a significant government position; whether there is actually a proper nominating system; whether McCarthyite tactics can still be effective more than half a century after they were rejected by a fed-up nation. And, by the way, what will be the direction of American policy in the Middle East? In particular, how adventurous will we be toward Iran? Have we learned anything from the calamitous foreign policy blunders of the past decade?

Why We Should Criticize Mo Yan

Perry Link

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

There is a problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?

The Wrong Way to Fight Polio

Helen Epstein

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

The killings in Pakistan this week of nine members of a Polio vaccination team were heinous. But they also point to some serious problems with a UN-led campaign to eradicate Polio. For one thing, in conflict areas where the US is trying to route out insurgents with drone strikes, the UN is often not seen as neutral. But more fundamentally, the lavishly funded, multiple immunizations that the program requires don’t always make sense to ordinary poor people who are struggling just to keep their children alive. In order to avoid further tragedies, donors should work more closely with local people to improve the health of children in general, rather than strive for some romantic victory over a single virus alone.

Beijing’s Doomsday Problem

Ian Johnson

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Either Way We’re Going Over the Cliff

Jeff Madrick

Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

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.

Tolkien vs. Technology

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Entertainment

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.

Tunisia: ‘Did We Make the Revolution For This?’

Christopher de Bellaigue

Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix/Corbis

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.

Our Moloch

Garry Wills

Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

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?

Learning to Speak American

Tim Parks

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos.

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?

Why Are Poor Kids Paying for School Security?

Francine Prose

Tina Fineberg/AP Images

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?