Roving thoughts and provocations

The Unfinished Race

Hugh Eakin

Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Runners who have completed the historic race from the village of Hopkinton, in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, to downtown Boston, 26.2 miles east, invariably have their own favorite parts of the course and those they dread. But it seemed beyond any runner’s imagination that the Boston Marathon finish line itself—the final moment of triumph—could turn into a nightmare, a zone of horror and devastation that stood the entire logic of the race on its head.

MoMA’s Act of Vandalism

Martin Filler

filler_1-052313.jpg
Giles Ashford

The only surprising thing about the Museum of Modern Art’s announcement in April that it intends to demolish Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum of 1997–2001—an architectural gem that abuts the Modern’s campus on Manhattan’s West 53rd Street—to make way for yet another MoMA addition is that this deplorable decision took so long to occur. When in 2011 the Folk Art Museum was compelled to sell its decade-old building because of the worldwide economic crash that had caused its default on $32 million in bonds that financed the $18.4 million scheme, seasoned observers fully expected that the superb structure’s days were numbered.

The Japan Beneath the Snow

Ian Buruma

Keisuke Katano/The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Swept away in the 1940s by a Japanese version of chauvinistic ethnography, the photographer Hiroshi Hamaya embarked on his extraordinary documentation of rural life in the so-called Snow Country of northeastern Japan. The results, however dubious in origin, were astonishing. A world that is now lost forever still lives in his photographs. And it has a stark beauty that is utterly distinctive. In the ice and snow of Niigata prefecture, Hamaya found the style that would make him famous. One of the main themes, apart from rice farming and Shinto rituals, is the snow itself.

Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War

Jonathan Mirsky

Lhamo Tsering Collection

For nearly two decades after the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet, the CIA ran a covert operation designed to train Tibetan insurgents and gather intelligence about the Chinese, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of communism around the world. Though little known today, the program produced at least one spectacular intelligence coup and provided a source of support for the Dalai Lama. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 meeting with Mao, however, the program was abruptly cancelled, thus returning the US to its traditional arms-length policy toward Tibet.

The Great American Bender

Charles McGrath

George/Getty Images

Before John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, sex in American novels—polite novels, anyway—was mostly adulterous, not something that proper married women engaged in, or if they did, they weren’t known to enjoy it. Appointment is a genuine love story, charged with eros but stripped of sentimentality, and the relationship between the Englishes is more convincing and more satisfying than that of, say, Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Though unfaithful to her, Julian can’t stop loving Caroline, and after O’Hara devotes a whole chapter to her intimate thoughts and sexual explorations before marriage, the reader can’t help falling a little in love with her, too. Caroline, for her part, reflects at the end of the book: “He was drunk, but he was Julian, drunk or not, and that was more than anyone else was.”

Hi! I’m Fang!’ The Man Who Changed China

Perry Link

Forrest Anderson/Getty Images

In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, a grassroots movement called weiquan (“supporting rights”) has spread widely, and it seems clear that China’s rulers are helpless to reverse it. Even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago this week. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.

Egypt in the Raw

Yasmine El Rashidi

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

In 1966, a little-known young Egyptian named Sonallah Ibrahim self-published his experimental first novel, That Smell, at a small printing press in downtown Cairo. It was a time of crisis and change in Egypt, as the country negotiated a transition from British occupation to Nasserism, much as today it struggles to deal with a shift from the Mubarak era to an emergent Islamist authoritarianism. Ibrahim, a former student activist and journalist who had spent five years in prison on charges related to his activity in the Communist party, was sensitive to the omnipresence of the state in everyday life, but also to the inability of Arabic literature to express and capture that reality. That Smell—now published in English in a brilliant new translation by Robyn Creswell—was Ibrahim’s breathtakingly subversive answer to this problem and met with immediate censorship.

Health Care: The New American Sadism

Charles Simic

Today, when the acquisition of wealth, quickly and in large amounts, is admired above any other human endeavor, every medical emergency or catastrophic illness is seen as an opportunity for some to enrich themselves beyond their wildest dreams. It’s no wonder that our healthcare is so much more expensive than that of every other developed country in the world, where the costs are not only much lower, but people also live longer than we do. Unlike us, other countries have the peculiar notion that profit has no place in any situation in which the basic decencies that human beings owe to one another ought to be the first consideration, and for that reason regulate the cost of lifesaving drugs and operations. In other words, they are less greedy than we are and far more humane.

The Methane Beneath Our Feet

Bill McKibben

Matt Mawson/Corbis

Insouciant New Yorkers—here is another pending disaster to shrug off with characteristic brio! There is a huge, ongoing gas leak beneath your very feet. A team of natural gas experts recently commissioned to survey the New York system has found vastly elevated levels of methane in locations all over Manhattan, a clear indication that Con Ed’s 4,320-mile network of pipes, dating back to the 1800s, is corroded, full of holes, and spewing methane into the atmosphere. The main danger here is to planetary, not personal, safety: though it has received relatively little attention, methane, the primary component of natural gas, is second only to carbon dioxide on the list of greenhouse gases that are inducing climate change.

Marriage Equality: Not Now, But Soon?

David Cole

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/Corbis

Perhaps the most prescient question in two days of oral arguments in the Supreme Court this week about laws forbidding same-sex marriage came, unwittingly, from Justice Antonin Scalia, who asked, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” To Scalia, if it wasn’t unconstitutional when the Constitution was drafted, it cannot be unconstitutional today. But at some point in the not too distant future, it seems likely that the correct answer to Justice Scalia’s question will be: “When the Supreme Court announced that it was.” The year of that decision, however, may not be 2013.