Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

Faking It in China

Ian Johnson

Liu Jiaqi/Xinhua Press/Corbis

One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. Above all are the physical spaces. There are now not just individual buildings but entire streetscapes, with cobblestone alleys, faux churches (often used as concert halls), towers, and landscaping designed to reproduce the feel of European and North American cities. The city of Huizhou features a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt; while Hangzhou, a city famous for its own waterfront culture, now includes a “Venice Water Town” that has Italian-style buildings, canals, and gondolas. What drives this obsession with foreign styles?

Sylvia Plath: Rage and Laughter

April Bernard

Landshoff/Mademoiselle/Condé Nast

One of my favorite items in the Sylvia Plath archive is a collage she made in 1960: the central image is President Eisenhower sitting at a desk; included in the collage is a cut-out of a woman in a bathing suit with a bomber plane aimed at her, and the caption “It’s His and Her Time All Over America.” Readers may look in vain for explicit political content in most of Plath’s poems. Her own training as a poet and literature student in the 1950s inclined her to avoid direct speech about such “low” topical matters as the Rosenbergs or, for that matter, fabric choices for the spring collections. Only in a few of the poems from the last years of her life do we see her break free from the constraints of her training to speak more directly about the political, material, and sexual culture around her.