Roving thoughts and provocations

Beijing’s Dangerous Game

Perry Link

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Over the past few days, angry crowds in more than thirty Chinese cities have trashed Japanese stores, overturned Japanese cars, shouted “Down with Japan,” and carried banners that demand Chinese sovereignty over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan also claims ownership of these islands, which it calls the Senkakyus. Chinese protests have reached some peculiar extents. A Chinese clothing store called Pattad offers a 15 percent discount to anyone who enters and yells, “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” (You get 20 percent off if you yell “Japan belongs to China!”) A boy interviewed on the street says, “When I grow up I want to build tanks to annihilate Japan.” Many have ascribed the vehemence of the protests to deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment linked to injustices committed by Japan eighty years ago. But there is little evidence to support this. Rather the protests appear to have everything to do with the interests of China’s current rulers, at a moment when the top leadership in Beijing is in turmoil.

When Satire Conquered Iran

Slavs and Tatars

Published between 1906 and 1930, the satirical Azeri magazine Molla Nasreddin attacked the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the colonial policies of the US and European nations, and the venal corruption of the local elite, while arguing repeatedly for Westernization, educational reform, and equal rights for women. Managing to speak to the intelligentsia as well as the masses, the magazine was the first publication of its kind to be read across the Muslim world. Iran was arguably the country where it had its greatest impact: its essays and illustrations acted as a preamble of sorts to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1910, which resulted in the establishment of the first parliament in all of Asia.

Turkey’s Towering Ambition

Hugh Eakin

In March 1548, having brought the Ottoman Empire to the height of its power, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to build a mosque in Istanbul. “At that time,” an anonymous chronicler explains, “His Highness the world-ruling sultan realized the necessity to leave behind a monument so as to be commemorated till the end of time” and “ordered the construction of a matchless mosque complex for his own noble self.” In late May of this year, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister, a devout Muslim, and the self-styled leader of the new Middle East—announced that he would be erecting his own grand mosque above the Bosphorus. It will be more prominent than Suleiman’s.

Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979

Christian Caryl

Amine Landoulsi/Demotix/Corbis

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.

Two Visions for Chicago’s Schools

Diane Ravitch

M. Spencer Green/AP Images

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.

Art That Stays Home

Tim Parks

Bute Collection/National Galleries of Scotland

“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.

The Crying Game

Charles Simic

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“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.

Palace of Abandoned Dreams

Mariam & Ashraf Ghani

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

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.

When Art Makes Us Cry

Francine Prose

Scrovegni Chapel

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.

Obama’s Evil Twin

J. Hoberman

Rocky Mountain Pictures

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.