The year 1979—when Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, brazenly laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca—marked the debut of a new political phenomenon known as “Islamism.” Perhaps it’s helpful to recall those events as we contemplate the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and the storming of American diplomatic buildings in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Once again, a growing political force from within the Islamic world—one of which Westerners were only dimly aware—has dramatically and violently demonstrated its capacity to shape global politics.
According to most news reports, the teachers in Chicago are striking because they are lazy and greedy. Or they are striking because of a personality clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and union president Karen Lewis. Or because this is the last gasp of a dying union movement. Or because Emanuel wants a longer school day, and the teachers oppose it.
None of this is true. All reports agree that the two sides are close to agreement on compensation issues—it is not money that drove them apart. Last spring the union and the school board agreed to a longer school day, so that is not the issue either. The strike is a clash of two very different visions about what is needed to transform the schools of Chicago—and the nation.
“If a book is really good, it will reach out to everyone, the world over,” one of the directors of the Edinburgh Book Festival tells me. We’re attending a reception at the National Gallery of Scotland to celebrate a loan of nineteen Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century, housed for many years in glorious isolation in a stately home on the Isle of Bute, along with the publication of Dutch writer Herman Koch’s new novel, The Dinner.
“What are all these people crying about?” I imagine someone unfamiliar with our extraordinary national talent for hypocrisy asking while watching the conventions. It might even cross the mind of such a person that nowhere on this poor old earth of ours have there ever been people so caring of each other’s feelings as today’s Americans. Either the television networks had some kind of device on their cameras able to instantly locate tearful faces in a vast crowd of delegates, or they had nothing else to show, since there seemed not a dry eye in the house. The speakers choked up when mentioning their immigrant grandparents, their own supposed humble beginnings, their wonderful families sitting right there in the audience, whose adoring faces were then shown with eyes growing moist.
Like the empty niches and half-effaced cave frescoes that we now refer to as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the wreckage of the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul records not a single act of destruction, but rather a series of collapses, most initiated from within the Afghan government. Sandbag-reinforced lookouts, second-floor offices converted into improvised mosques, the debris left behind by refugees who sheltered in the east wing—these traces exist alongside, and helplessly modify, the bones of Dar ul-Aman’s grand ballroom, still lovely in its fading green and pink, and the fluted columns that support the long, long corridors, leading the eye to some vanishing point that perhaps once existed in the architecture itself, but now must be imagined, around a corner or through a window or, more simply, in the piece that is missing.
Art can do many things: dazzle us with its energy, its originality, its technical virtuosity; amuse, unsettle, or outrage us; comment on the culture in which we live; give us pleasure and provide us with intimations of mysterious beauty. It can touch us in ways that transcend the limitations of language. But less and less frequently does contemporary art do what Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” appears to have done—to inspire its viewers with anything approaching an extreme emotion.
Surpassed only by The Expendables 2, with Sylvester Stallone, the Dinesh D’Souza political documentary 2016: Obama’s America was the second-highest grossing movie in America the week that it opened—timed to coincide with the Republican National Convention—and is now among the top ten highest earning documentaries in history. Like the RNC, 2016 is designed to show the president as a false prophet and a failed leader; unlike the RNC, the D’Souza film is less interested in the nature of Obama’s politics than in the enigma of his personality. With the Democrats gathering in Charlotte to recapture the Obama story, I sought out 2016 at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan to learn more.
Ian Johnson: The Chinese government seems to recognize that there is a crisis of faith. How do you see its efforts to promote public morality?
Yuan Zhiming: Everyone sees the crisis clearly. Everyone knows it. What China lacks the most is faith or a spiritual support. Look at Bo Xilai. He tried to use Mao’s idea to create a spiritual support for people in Chongqing by having them sing old communist songs. He recognized that people lacked a sense of community and wanted to create a model in Chongqing for all of China. But he made a mistake in that Mao isn’t a God.
I am known in England mainly for light, though hopefully thoughtful non-fiction; in Italy for polemical newspaper articles and a controversial book about soccer; in Germany, Holland, and France, for what I consider my “serious” novels Europa, Destiny, Cleaver; in the USA for literary criticism; and in a smattering of other countries, but also in various academic communities, for my translations and writing on translation. Occasionally I receive emails that ask, “But are you also the Tim Parks who…?,” Frequently readers get my nationality wrong. They don’t seem to know where I’m coming from or headed to.
What if your natural self is not that appealing to the voters, what indeed if your natural self is not all that natural? This is the conundrum confronting the team advising Mitt Romney. From the hordes of journalists, pundits, and armchair experts gathered here in Tampa, the campaign has received the same unsolicited advice: it needs to “humanize” the Republican presidential nominee, formally anointed as such on Tuesday, to present what the National Journal calls his “warm, fuzzy side.” But this might just be the time when a stiff personality could work.