Roving thoughts and provocations

When the Army Was Democratic

William Pfaff

Interim Archives/Getty Images

The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it.

How Syria Divided the World

Michael Ignatieff

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Syrian conflict has triggered something more fundamental than a difference of opinion over intervention, something more than an argument about whether the Security Council should authorize the use of force. Syria is the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two. A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies now finds itself face to face with two authoritarian despotisms—Russia and China—something new in the annals of political science: kleptocracies that mix the market economy and the police state. These regimes will support tyrannies like Syria wherever it is in their interest to do so.

Why Can’t We Celebrate When the Court Gets It Right?

David Cole

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Why can’t we recognize a win when it is handed to us on a silver platter? In both the health care and immigration law cases, the overall outcomes were broad victories for liberals. The Arizona and health care cases in particular may best be understood as instances in which the Court was simply unwilling to go as far as the radical conservative political movements that have taken hold in the country at large wanted it to go.

Why Did Roberts Change His Mind?

Ronald Dworkin

AP Photo/Nick Ut

There is persuasive internal evidence in the various opinions the justices filed that he intended to vote with the other conservatives to strike the Act down and changed his mind only at the very last minute. Commentators on all sides have speculated furiously about why he did so. One popular opinion among conservative talk-show hosts suggests that Roberts has been a closet liberal all along; another that he has suffered a mental decline. Almost no one seems willing to accept Roberts’ own explanation: that unelected judges should be extremely reluctant to overrule an elected legislature’s decision. His own judicial history thoroughly contradicts that explanation. In case after case he has voted, over the dissenting votes of the liberal justices, to overrule state or congressional legislation, as well as past settled Supreme Court precedents, to reach a result the right-wing in American politics favored.

The Big Higgs Question

Steven Weinberg

Maximilien Brice/CERN

By the 1980s we had a good comprehensive theory of all observed elementary particles and the forces (other than gravitation) that they exert on one another. One of the essential elements of this theory is a symmetry, like a family relationship, between two of these forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. Electromagnetism is responsible for light; the weak nuclear force allows particles inside atomic nuclei to change their identity through processes of radioactive decay. The symmetry between the two forces brings them together in a single “electroweak” structure. The general features of the electroweak theory have been well tested; their validity is not what has been at stake in the recent experiments at CERN and Fermilab, and would not be seriously in doubt even if no Higgs particle had been discovered.

But one of the consequences of the electroweak symmetry is that, if nothing new is added to the theory, all elementary particles, including electrons and quarks, would be massless, which of course they are not. So, something has to be added to the electroweak theory, some new kind of matter or field, not yet observed in nature or in our laboratories. The search for the Higgs particle has been a search for the answer to the question: What is this new stuff we need?

Flannery O’Connor, Cartoonist

Barry Moser

The writer Flannery O’Connor kept a pet chicken when she was a small child and trained it to walk backward—it was the subject of a 1931 Pathé film “short,” a brief human interest story that came between the Pathé news and the feature picture show. The five-year old Flannery was in the picture “to assist the chicken,” but later said that it was “the high point” in her life, adding, “Everything since has been anticlimax.”

When I began studying her linoleum cuts that short film came back to me. It came back for the simple reason that linoleum cuts are drawn and cut backwards. Her prints are naïve in their craftsmanship. But so what? One does not really expect accomplished, sophisticated art from a college student, much less in a college newspaper, and in this O’Connor is not an exception.

How Morocco Dodged the Arab Spring

Nicolas Pelham

AP Photo/Azzouz Boukallouch

Since the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the Arab world aflame in December 2010, young men all over the Middle East have tried to imitate him. In no country have they done so more often than in Morocco, where some twenty men, with many of the same economic grievances, are reported to have self-immolated. Five succeeded in killing themselves, but none in sparking a revolution. It is not for want of causes. Morocco’s vital statistics are worse than Tunisia’s. One of every two youth are unemployed, and the number is rising. But whereas Ben Ali, Tunisia’s policeman, pigheadedly sought to keep power when the streets erupted in late 2010, Morocco’s po-faced but retiring King has kept one step ahead by offering to share it.

My Fourth of July

Charles Simic

© Bettmann/Corbis

Summer is the time when memories of other summers flood back. You lie on the beach, take a swim in the sea, or toss and turn at night unable to sleep because of the heat, and recall yourself doing the same in years past, or surprise yourself by remembering a half-forgotten, entirely different summer experience. The year is 1963. I’m on an army ship playing poker for high stakes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. None of us has any money, but once we arrive in Brooklyn, get discharged and receive our pay, we’ll settle what we owe and collect what we have coming to us. I don’t believe this will happen, but I pretend I do and win and lose fortunes with the composure of a dissolute prince in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

Death, Time, Soup: A Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison

Margaret K. Koerner

Hatje Cantz

Earlier this month, the South African artist William Kentridge and the American historian of science Peter Galison were on hand in Kassel, Germany to install and introduce The Refusal of Time, the work Kentridge created for the international exhibition dOCUMENTA (13). The work is, in part, the result of an extended series of discussions between Kentridge and Galison about the history of the control of world time, relativity, black holes, and string theory. A few days before the opening, I met with Galison and Kentridge at the Mercure hotel in Kassel to talk about the ideas and themes that inspired the work.