Roving thoughts and provocations

What Romney Lost

Garry Wills

David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What public service do we expect from Mitt Romney? He will no doubt return to augmenting his vast and hidden wealth, with no more pesky questions about where around the world it is stashed, or what taxes (if any) he paid, carefully sheltered from the rules his fellow citizens follow.

A Game Without Rules

Tim Parks

Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos

In 1904, three years after the first Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme, the English Football Association chose not to participate in the formation of an International Football Federation (FIFA). They could not see the point. Nor in 1930, the year in which Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel, did England participate in the first World Cup: the English objected to the prospect of a ten-day ocean crossing to Uruguay to play teams that meant nothing to them. The first international football game, they pointed out, had been between England and Scotland, in 1872—a time when Alfred Nobel was still focused on improving his dynamite. Who needs Argentina or Brazil when you have Scotland to play?

The Next Four Years: Avoiding a Standoff

Paul Volcker

Library of Congress

Americans have long been eager consumers and home owners. But there is no doubt we collectively overdid it during the years leading up to the financial and economic crisis of 2008. The personal savings rate dropped close to zero. Mortgage indebtedness grew to new (and ultimately unsustainable) heights. All that occurred as real income for average American households rose little if at all. That’s not supposed to happen in a growing, productive economy. High consumption maintained at the expense of saving and increasing indebtedness simply could not be sustained in the face of the stalled income of the “99 percent.”

Design from Disasters

Martin Filler

ARO/dlandstudio/Museum of Modern Art

As we contemplate the horrific damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the world of design may seem remote from our most immediate concerns. Yet the urgent needs that follow large-scale catastrophes—the need for shelter, clean water, alternative sources of power—can be particularly conducive to creative solutions. I recently observed that breakthroughs in architecture and industrial design have emerged during wartime; now a remarkable new exhibition in Oslo shows that the same can hold true for natural disasters as well.

Virginia’s ‘Persuadables’

Nathaniel Rich

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

There are few acts more debasing than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking for his vote. Picture the scene: early afternoon, an empty residential street in Cleveland, Tampa, or, in my case this past week, Virginia Beach. The canvasser stands on the doorstep bedecked like a jester in colorful stickers. The stickers, which bear candidates’ names, are important; without them he might be confused for a bill collector or traveling salesman. He juggles clipboard, pen, voter information forms, and pamphlets (the “literature,” in campaign-speak) and forces a smile. Dogs growl as soon as the doorbell chimes. If the canvasser is lucky, the door opens. Small children and pets escape, attacking his legs. A wary figure appears: a woman on the phone, holding an infant; a dowager in a flowery housedress; a man in gym clothes who hasn’t shaved in a week.

Cloud Atlas’s Theory of Everything

Emily Eakin

Warner Brothers

Cloud Atlas, the unlikely new adaptation by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer of David Mitchell’s ingenious novel, should do well on DVD, a format whose capacity for endless replay will enable viewers to study at leisure the myriad concurrences binding the movie’s half dozen plots. Better yet, the directors should hire their friend the philosopher Ken Wilber to provide expert commentary. A sixty-three-year-old autodidact, Wilber is the author of an ambitious effort to reconcile empirical knowledge and mystical experience in an “Integral Theory” of existence. It’s easy to see how Mitchell’s novel, with its nested construction, mysterious connections, and perpetually recurring birthmark, could give off a Wilberite allure.

A Grim Warning from Science

Bill McKibben

Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

Days before Sandy came ashore we not only knew approximately where it would go, but that its barometric pressure would drop below previous records and hence that its gushing surge would set new marks. For science, it was a bravura performance. It should shame at least a little those people who argue against the computer modeling of climate change on the grounds that “they can’t even tell the weather three days ahead of time—how can they predict the climate?” They can tell the future too. And unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed, no serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century. Think about what that means—as one researcher put it this week, it means that any average storm will become an insidious threat.

How to Win the Election (Without Super PACs)

Mary Beard

HD Vision Studios/BBC/HBO

Roman elections were all a matter of personal connections, charisma, and favor, not of manifestos and paid-up party loyalty. No patron would have a houseful of clients if he only offered to help those whom he knew he really could. That’s a different claim from a modern political view that you promise anything you like to get elected. In fact, in other ways too, the twenty-first-century relationship between the political hopeful and his voters and “clients” is the mirror image of the ancient one. But the modern clients, in the shape of Super PACs and the like, call the political tune to an extent that most of the supporters of the ancient would-be consul could not.

Gaza: A Way Out?

Nicolas Pelham

Shawn Baldwin/Corbis

The arrival in Gaza of the Emir of Qatar was the latest step by Arab governments to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the Palestinian Authority to the Islamist movement Hamas and could signal a historic shift in Palestinian politics. But a reconciliation with Egypt remains elusive, and Gaza’s economic recovery, largely dependent on underground trade to the Sinai, is precarious. And as Hamas turns away from its Islamist social welfare policies while struggling to contain more radical movements, there are new questions about its longevity. “We can’t keep ourselves imprisoned much longer,” a Hamas commander tells me as he slouches bootless under a makeshift tent at the tunnel mouths.

The Taming of Wuthering Heights

Francine Prose

Oscilloscope Laboratories

During the many dull passages—lengthy shots of fluttering insects and of birds wheeling over the scenic British countryside—in the latest Wuthering Heights, directed by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and now being released in the United States, I found myself wondering how anyone could have been convinced that what the culture needed was yet another cinematic treatment of Emily Brontë’s novel. If one counts feature films, TV mini-series, Luis Buñuel’s Abismos de Pasión (1954), and Kiju Yoshida’s Arashi Ga Oka (1988), audiences have had more than twenty opportunities to watch Brontë’s doomed lovers race across the wind-swept moors.