Roving thoughts and provocations

The Roberts Court vs. Voting Rights

David Cole

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Voting Rights Act is the most successful anti-discrimination law in US history. It has transformed a nation in which minority voters were routinely and systematically denied access to the ballot box, through literacy tests and the like, into one where registration and voter restrictions are the exception. And the Act has also defeated many attempts by states and local jurisdictions to gerrymander minority voters into districts designed to minimize or negate their influence. But conservatives in some of the southern states have long complained that the law gives the federal government too much power, and now, Shelby County—a largely white suburb of Birmingham, Alabama found guilty of racial discrimination in voting as recently as 2008—has sued the US government to get it annulled.

Obama: Failing the African Spring?

Helen Epstein

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

For years, observers have wondered what the US administration’s policy toward Africa really is. Then, three years into Obama’s first term, the White House finally released its first Africa strategy document. It states that the US will “promote strong democratic norms” and “support civil society actors who are creating vibrant democratic models….” But as the situations in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda make clear, little has been done to further these aims. While continuing most of the development and public health initiatives of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has given priority to US military aims.

The Sweet Troubles of Proust

Colm Tóibín

Proust’s handwriting is bad; it is the handwriting of a novelist rather than a dandy, and visitors to the Morgan Library who can read French will have much fun making out the words and the many untidy emendations on the pages of the manuscript. In a letter to a publisher, as Proust seeks to explain what his novel is about, one word, however, stands alone and is written with a rare exactitude. In a letter to Alfred Vallette, editor of Le Mecure de France, in 1909 Proust described his work-in-progress: it “is a genuine novel and an indecent one in places. One of the principal characters is a homosexual.”

We Couldn’t Stop Looking

Charles Simic

Courtesy George Peet

I worked for Aperture magazine between 1967 and 1970 and played a small part in the production of eleven issues of the magazine and a few books. I recall rainy afternoons with nothing to occupy me in the office but some photograph by Dorothea Lange, Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, or by a complete unknown that I couldn’t stop looking at, because it seemed to grow more beautiful and more mysterious the longer I kept looking. Then, abruptly, a phone would ring with some irate subscriber shouting that his issue arrived damaged in the mail, and the spell would be broken.

Scrapbook Nation

Christopher Benfey

Everyone seems to have kept scrapbooks during the nineteenth century. Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers. During the Civil War, one Northern scrapbooker was “struck by the vast amount of information, on all points and of every grade of quality, which flowed in a continuous stream” from the telegraph-aided daily papers. Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life. Emily Dickinson, a hyperactive cutter and paster, also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work.

In My Lady’s Crowded Chamber

Geoffrey O’Brien

Pavel Antonov

Even horrible people are tragic.” With this widely quoted phrase Thomas Adès summed up the gist of his 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The horrible person in question is Ethel Margaret Whigham, the fashionable debutante who became the Duchess of Argyll by her second marriage in 1951, and was divorced twelve years later following a trial that evidently handed the London tabloids almost more material than they knew what do with—a variety of sometimes well-documented affairs with some eighty-eight lovers of high and low degree—and more than the opera in its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time can do much beyond hint at.

Dancing in Empty Beijing

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This made it all the more enjoyable for those who stuck around, who were rewarded with a record number of temple fairs and their performers: scores of folk artists who gave daily performances of traditional arts, acrobatics, and martial arts—the sort of local cultural scene that this town of restaurants and staid museums rarely offers.

On the Stovetop of Sleep

Nicholson Baker

Lise Sarfati/Magnum Photos

You can’t fight it. It happens. The dreams come on. They’re part of what we do. I had a theory once, which I also put in a novel, that many nightmares were caused by a common physical need: the need to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Out of the stochastic stew that sits cooling on the stovetop of our sleep-softened consciousness, a couple of images would be ladled out in a bowl and sprinkled with a special neural Pickapeppa Sauce that made them seem frightening, so as to wake us up. All our subconscious was trying to do, I thought, was to help us by saying, Friend, your bladder is overfull and you should get up and relieve it.

Mingus: The Chaos and the Magic

Christopher Carroll

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

Charles Mingus’s audiences never knew quite what they were going to get, and this kept them coming. Mingus, the bassist, composer, and bandleader who reached the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, was notoriously mercurial. He was known to fire and rehire band members over the course of a set, and was once fired himself for chasing a trombonist across the stage with an axe. His reactions to noisy crowds ranged from announcing, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit,” to ordering his band to read books onstage. His music, which drew omnivorously on the blues, gospel, Dixieland, Duke Ellington, bebop, and classical music, among much else, was similarly unpredictable. It blurred the boundaries between improvisation and composition, often ignoring standard form, and was famous for its rapid shifts in mood and tempo.

Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?

Elizabeth Drew

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican Party is having its own form of PTSD. According to one of the most respected party elders the Republicans firmly believed that the voters would reject Barack Obama for a second term and deliver the Senate back into their hands. Wishful thinking combined with erroneous polling assumptions left them totally unprepared for the thumping loss they sustained and they are still in something of a state of shock. “They’re still close in time to that event,” the party elder said. “You need to keep that in mind. Right now they’re groping around in a dark room.”