This spring was supposed to open a new chapter in Pakistan’s tenuous embrace of inclusive democracy. At midnight on March 17, following constitutional rules, the Pakistan government of Asi Ali Zardari stepped down and the national assembly was dissolved, in preparation for national elections in May, which will mark the first time the country passes from one elected leadership to another. And yet a terrifying escalation of extremist attacks against religious minorities and aid workers since the start of the year has shown the government and the security forces’ utter failure to deal with a festering culture of intolerance.
Of the four friends who met for dinner fifty years ago in Barbara’s and my apartment on West Sixty-Seventh Street during the New York newspaper strike, I am the sole survivor. Though we had no such plan in mind beforehand, it was at that dinner that Elizabeth Hardwick, her husband Robert Lowell, Barbara and I saw all at once the opportunity that would become The New York Review of Books.
The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s latest movie is about a young woman who is tortured to death with the highest intentions. That, at any rate, is one way to describe the story of Beyond the Hills, which is loosely based on an event that took place at an Orthodox monastery in Moldavia in 2005. The woman’s death was the result of a ritual exorcism, not uncommon in Romania, meant to save her soul from the devil. What makes the story tragic, instead of merely sad and sordid, is the way it shows two realities, the secular and the Orthodox, colliding.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government began moving thousands of people out of the rural villages where they had lived for centuries to other areas several hours’ walk away. The Ethiopian government calls this program the “Commune Center Development Plan and Livelihood Strategy” and claims it is designed to bring scattered rural populations closer to schools, health clinics, roads, and other public services. But the Commune Center program has been marked by a string of human rights abuses linked to government attempts to clear huge tracts of land for foreign investors. According to testimony collected by Human Rights Watch and other groups over the past two years, the relocations have involved beatings, imprisonment, torture, rape, and even murder.
Romans knew that the timetable for the papal conclave would be a quick one when the three sets of vestments prepared for the new pontiff—in small, medium, and large sizes—had already disappeared from the display window of Gammarelli, the ecclesiastical tailors, on Friday, March 8. The three white wool satin cassocks had appeared on March 4, along with one scarlet capelet, the mozzetta, trimmed in white ermine, versatile enough for one size to fit any aspiring pontiff, a single pair of red kangaroo-leather shoes in a medium size, and a white moiré silk zucchetto, the pontifical skullcap. Though they are loaded with Christian significance, many of these articles of clothing actually have a far more ancient pedigree.
With the election of a new pope, the press will repeat old myths—that Christ made Peter the first pope, and that there has been an “apostolic succession” of popes from his time. Scholars have long known that Peter was no pope. He was not even a priest or a bishop—offices that did not exist in the first century. And there is no apostolic succession, just the twists and tangles of interrupted, multiple, and contested office holders. It is a rope of sand.
Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life. Kafka never tells us what Gregor Samsa was dreaming when he awakens as a giant insect, except that the dreams were “uneasy.” Likely they were not as uneasy as the morning he wakes into. By the end of the first paragraph of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor has noticed his arched, dome-like brown belly, his numerous waving legs. “What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.”
Just north of Naples, a smoldering ruin is all that remains of the museum called the City of Science. It was deliberately set on fire during the night between March 4 and 5, and it is not hard to read the message behind its destruction.
Hugo Chávez was not the first president to fail, or to remain popular while failing. But it was his Peronist brand of popularity that so many found disturbing; the passion with which his name was roared at enormous public gatherings, the hatred he brought forth in his followers when he denounced the imperialists, the sharks, the would-be assassins of Venezuela, the traitors, the sneaking cowards who dared to disagree with him. And now we see the desperate weeping of millions of Venezuelans who feel that they have lost not a president or a politician or a great leader but something else: a father, a savior, a protector and soother of the orphan who lives in fright inside us all.
The sequester is dangerous, but not for the reasons we think. Contrary to what some alarmists predicted, there is little evidence that the automatic, across-the-board cuts to the US budget that went into effect on Friday are causing cataclysmic harm. The stock market has risen slightly to near record heights, and most economists agree that the $85 billion down payment this year on about $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten will not trip the economy into recession. Recent polls, meanwhile, indicate that a large part of the electorate has no opinion on the sequester. But the real danger lies in the misguided deficit-cutting mania that created it in the first place. It is exactly the opposite of what the economy needs both in the short run and the long term.