Roving thoughts and provocations

Single Women and the Sitcom

Elaine Blair

Because of the conditions of their production, sitcoms tend to have something in common with life itself: no one knows in advance when they’re going to end. The full arc of a TV series is not usually mapped out in advance, the show is subject to abrupt cancellation, and there is no artistic consensus on how to handle its conclusion even when writers know that the end is coming; a television series might have an elaborate finale or simply finish out a given season without fanfare. All this gives most sitcoms a certain sense of indeterminacy—we’re bound for no obvious destination—that also applies to the characters’ relationships. As long as each episode has its own tidy, reassuring little ending, audiences tolerate a great deal of open-endedness when it comes to the hero or heroine’s romantic life.

Egypt: Whose Constitution?

Yasmine El Rashidi

Patrick Baz/Getty Images

One measure of how complicated Egyptian politics has become is that hardly anyone was surprised by the outcome of the constitutional referendum in late December. Amid the largest anti-government protests since the 2011 revolution, and following defections from his own cabinet and supporters, President Mohamed Morsi orchestrated a 64 percent approval vote for a new constitution. It had been hastily drawn up by his political allies and subjected to withering criticism; and there was low voter turnout and widespread indications of tampering. Nonetheless, the result seemed to show that, for all the millions of Egyptians who have lost patience with the new leadership, there are many others who continue to crave stability, even if the price is another authoritarian government.

A Year in Fragments

Charles Simic

Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

On my walk this afternoon, I saw a store window full of manicurists at work, a green grocer on a sidewalk watering his tomatoes and peppers with a hose, and a pharmacist sell with a wink something to an old man.

The Preemptive War on Hagel

Elizabeth Drew

Israel Policy Forum

Far more is at stake in Barack Obama’s decision on whether to nominate Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense than whether Chuck Hagel is nominated. What the president decides will bear on: his effectiveness in his second term; any president’s ability to form a government; whether an independent voice can be raised on a highly sensitive issue in opposition to the views of a powerful lobby and still be named to a significant government position; whether there is actually a proper nominating system; whether McCarthyite tactics can still be effective more than half a century after they were rejected by a fed-up nation. And, by the way, what will be the direction of American policy in the Middle East? In particular, how adventurous will we be toward Iran? Have we learned anything from the calamitous foreign policy blunders of the past decade?

Why We Should Criticize Mo Yan

Perry Link

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

There is a problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?

The Wrong Way to Fight Polio

Helen Epstein

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

The killings in Pakistan this week of nine members of a Polio vaccination team were heinous. But they also point to some serious problems with a UN-led campaign to eradicate Polio. For one thing, in conflict areas where the US is trying to route out insurgents with drone strikes, the UN is often not seen as neutral. But more fundamentally, the lavishly funded, multiple immunizations that the program requires don’t always make sense to ordinary poor people who are struggling just to keep their children alive. In order to avoid further tragedies, donors should work more closely with local people to improve the health of children in general, rather than strive for some romantic victory over a single virus alone.

Beijing’s Doomsday Problem

Ian Johnson

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past ten days, China has been riveted by accounts of what authorities say are its very own doomsday cult: the church of Almighty God, which has prophesized that the world will end today. Authorities claim the group has basically spun out of control, forcing them to arrest 1,000 members in the biggest crackdown on a spiritual movement since the Falun Gong sect was banned in 1999. It would be easy to see this as just a Chinese version of the global Mayan craze. But following decades of suppression, religious movements have become a potent force in China, making groups like Almighty God a growing challenge for the new government. Above all, Beijing is struggling with the question of social control—how much it can continue to wield over an increasingly wealthy, educated, and assertive population.

Either Way We’re Going Over the Cliff

Jeff Madrick

Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

The frantic negotiations in Washington to avoid the fiscal cliff in January may appear to be mostly a battle over higher taxes on the rich. At the moment, negotiations seem to have hit a temporary impasse. But the strenuous debate between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner over how to stave off the $700 billion or so of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled for 2013 is obscuring a larger and far more disturbing issue: whichever way the negotiations go, the result will be slow economic growth next year at best, and possibly outright recession.

Tolkien vs. Technology

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Entertainment

There is a good deal to be said about Peter Jackson’s long-awaited and exceedingly long adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, most of it bad. I speak as a former, if long-lapsed, member of the Tolkien cult—one who vividly recalls a 12-year-old’s impassioned assertion that he had the right to borrow books, namely The Lord of the Rings, from the library’s Adult Section, who searched in vain for anything even remotely comparable, who, a few years later, saved up and sent away to a London bookstore to purchase his own hardbound copies of the trilogy, and who was soon after shocked to see the books appear here as garish, unauthorized Ace paperbacks.

Tunisia: ‘Did We Make the Revolution For This?’

Christopher de Bellaigue

Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix/Corbis

Less sensationally than in Egypt, a matter of seeming indifference to the international press, the revolution in Tunisia is starting to unravel. Exactly two years have passed since the self-immolation of a fruit-seller in a depressed provincial town spurred Tunisians to topple their authoritarian president, Zeyn al-Abedine Ben Ali-and Arabs in several other dictatorships to launch uprisings of their own. But the mood on the anniversary of that richly symbolic martyrdom is somber, even defeatist. To many Tunisians, the goals that animated the revolution no longer seem within reach.