Roving thoughts and provocations

How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books

Natalie Zemon Davis

The year was 1952. I had spent six months in France doing the first research for my PhD thesis on “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon.” Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

What’s Behind the New Chinese Crackdown?

Li Xiaorong

Maggie Cen/Reuters

Since late March, when China’s new president Xi Jinping took power, nearly one hundred Chinese human rights activists have been detained. What all the detained activists seem to have in common is that they are accused of organizing actions that would take place not just in cyberspace but in the physical space of city streets. Chinese leaders always see such public campaigns as an open challenge to their control. They fear that activists are seeking to take China’s rising number of local protests about social and economic problems to another level—turning it into a political movement that could challenge the authoritarian regime.

A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell

Jorge Luis Borges

We have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.

Burma: The Despots and the Laughter

Jonathan Mirsky

Courtesy of Wendy Law-Yone

It’s hard to get a handle on Burma. During a recent visit to London, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I love the army”—the same army that had enforced her house arrest in Rangoon on and off for years. She now sits in Burma’s parliament with the generals who led that army. Golden Parasol, Wendy Law-Yone’s memoir of Burma during the years in which the country went from a British colony to a military dictatorship, suggests why the country’s ruling class may be so difficult to understand.

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can’t Do

Steven H. Wright

Tim Boyles/Getty Images

On the evening of July 13, the day a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, my mother phoned me, distraught. She, like many mothers of black sons, couldn’t understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. She’d heard that the NAACP and other civil-rights groups were pleading for the United States Department of Justice to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime; she’d also heard that the family could pursue a wrongful death suit. Then she asked me, based upon my experience as a former Justice Department civil-rights attorney, whether I thought either would stand a chance of holding Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death. My answer didn’t give her much comfort.

Chasing Beirut’s Ghosts

Robyn Creswell

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

Rabee Jaber’s novel, The Mehlis Report, published in Arabic in 2005 and now expertly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, takes place in the summer and fall following Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. This was an especially anxious time in Beirut. The murder set off a movement demanding an end to Syria’s fifteen-year occupation, as well as a violent countermovement spearheaded by Hezbollah. Jaber’s novel begins on June 2, the day Samir Kassir, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist and historian of Beirut, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Achrafiya, in the eastern part of the city. Further car bombs were to follow, targeting other anti-Syrian intellectuals and politicians. The Mehlis Report evokes this unsettled period with frightening precision. It reads like a historical novel that happens to be about the very recent past.

Indonesia’s Happy Killers

Francine Prose

Drafthouse Films

When Joshua Oppenheimer proposed making a film about them, the former death-squad commandos who had killed thousands of Indonesians during the country’s anti-Communist purge had seen too many action thrillers to agree to appear onscreen as talking heads. They wanted to produce a feature about their crimes that would combine stylistic elements of the cowboy shoot-‘em-up, the musical, the gangster noir, the mafia film, the 1950s Hollywood Nazi picture—and the Bollywood extravaganza! What they had in mind, in other words, was a pastiche of their favorite genres, except that it would be about them—how they interrogated and tortured, how they used the garrote, how they carried out mass executions, and raped women and girls—and they would have creative control.

Faith and Works at Apple

Edward Mendelson

John G.Mabanglo/epa/Corbis

As everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

Afghanistan: What Pakistan Wants

Anatol Lieven

Akhter Gulfam/epa/Corbis

Many Pakistanis view the Taliban (and Afghans in general) as greedy, treacherous, primitive, and fanatical savages. For the Taliban, the Pakistani state and military (and non-Pashtun Pakistanis in general) are decadent, corrupt, treacherous, brutal, and greedy oppressors. Each side regards the other as inherently unreliable. This of course also means that for all the help that they have given to the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistanis cannot simply force them to accept a peace settlement that they see as contrary to their values and interests.

Afghanistan: The War After the War

Anatol Lieven


Seen from Kabul, there are good reasons to fear that the US will negotiate some sort of face saving deal with the Taliban and quit Afghanistan entirely. According to unofficial statements from the White House reported in The New York Times, the option of complete withdrawal is one that President Obama is now actively considering. This is what the insurgents always aim at, and what in Algeria and Vietnam they eventually achieved, after immense bloodshed: splitting the foreign power from its local allies or proxies. And this is precisely what Karzai and his supporters fear most, accounting for the sometimes hysterical nature of their protests against negotiations with the Taliban.