Roving thoughts and provocations

In Praise of the Language Police

Tim Parks

It is essential for the creative writer that there be, or be perceived to be, a usual way of saying things, if a new or unusual way is to stand out and to provoke some excitement. Naturally, anyone writing with the level of creativity of a D. H. Lawrence needs a copy editor willing to accept that rules can be bent and broken. But that doesn’t mean such editors have no role. It is important that the “special effect” stand out from a background of more conventional prose, and that a deliberate departure not be mistaken as something merely regional, British perhaps, or simply that there not be so much clutter around it of one kind or other that it is hardly noticed.

The Lost Wolves of New England

Christopher Benfey

Edward Krumanaker/National Geographic Society/Corbis

The lost wolves of New England have been on my mind lately, as winter settles into the woods below our house and the lives of the local predators—the hawks and owls and the raucous coyotes—are increasingly exposed among the bare-leafed trees. Wolves have not been welcome in our woods for a very long time. Among the first laws instituted by the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 was a bounty on wolves, which Roger Williams, who fled the colony for its religious intolerance, referred to as “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor.” By the mid-nineteenth century, our New England sages were already lamenting the loss of wildness in both landscape and society, and invoking wolves rather than eagles as a sort of national icon.

Dumb America

Garry Wills

Chris O'Meara/AP Images

Both sides of my family are from the South: my mother’s from Georgia, my father’s from Virginia. Though my parents left Atlanta soon after I was born there, we often visited southern relatives in Atlanta, Louisville, and Birmingham. I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family. But even apart from the contrast in grandmothers, I always liked the South, though my northern accent made me an outsider there as a child (the family “Yankee”). But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government.

Filming the Many Afghanistans

Mariam Ghani

Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Collection/Afghanistan Center at Kabul University

Like an Eagle (1967), the first Afghan feature film shot entirely in Afghanistan, takes as its subject the jeshn—the country’s annual national celebration, analogous to an “independence day” like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. The Afghan jeshn would continue to be a major reference point for Afghan films, as it would for Afghan society itself, right up to the present day. Significantly, the jeshn is anchored neither to a single historical event, nor to a fixed date on the calendar. Instead, it has been a shifting set of commemorations that reflect the continually changing identity of the twentieth-century Afghan nation-state.

Librarians of the Twitterverse

James Gleick

The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth. As of December, the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where. Effectively searching this mass of unstructured data, this barnyard of straw, will be more difficult than people may think.

A New Conflict in Kashmir?

Ahmed Rashid

Xinhua Press/Corbis

For nearly a decade, despite constant tensions—and even large-scale terrorist violence—between Pakistan and India, there is one thing the two nuclear-armed states have kept largely intact: their 2003 cease-fire agreement in Kashmir. Over the past week, however, that agreement has suddenly seemed in danger of unraveling, with alarming killings along the defacto border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and threats of further escalation by senior officials on both sides. Though it has until now received little attention in the international press, this new confrontation poses a grave threat to the entire region. We ignore it at our peril.

Twelve Questions for John Brennan

David Cole

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President Obama’s nomination of his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, to head the Central Intelligence Agency poses a genuine conundrum. On the one hand, he is associated with some of the most troubling aspects of US counterterrorism policies. He is the architect of President Obama’s expanded “targeted killing” policy. He was deputy executive director of the CIA when the agency was engaged in “rendering” terror suspects to secret prisons, where they were “disappeared,” often for years, and subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse. On the other hand, he has reportedly fought for greater transparency on the drone program, and has argued forcefully for trying terrorists in civilian courts and for closing Guantanamo. Who is the real John Brennan?

Jordan’s Syria Problem

Nicolas Pelham

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

As the uprising in Syria takes on an increasingly sectarian cast, Jordan has become a crucial center for the Islamist opposition—fighters, regime defectors, and their supporters, who speak of replacing the secular-Alawite regime with a new government that brings a Sunni majority to power. More extremist groups, like Jabhat al-Nasra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate based in and around Aleppo that wants to establish a caliphate, have strengthened their numbers with Jordanian recruits in the south, and are fighting to take the capital first. And while Jordan’s own secular monarchy contends with hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Syrian refugees, it is fearful that the conflict is also creating a powerful cause for its own restless Islamists.

The Old Fears of China’s New Leaders

Jonathan Mirsky

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the disciplining in April 1989 of another Chinese paper, The World Economic Herald in Shanghai, and its editor, Qin Benli—events that played an important part in the gathering unrest in Tiananmen Square.