Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

Our Moloch

Garry Wills

Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images
The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Learning to Speak American

Tim Parks

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos.

Does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? And does making these relatively small changes really make the text 100 percent American anyway? One thinks of how thoroughly the Harry Potter novels were Americanized for their US editions: would they really have sold fewer copies had the Anglicisms been kept? Wasn’t half the charm of the series its rather fey Englishness (occasionally Scottish Englishness)? Would we Americanize the Irish Joyce? Or again, if we want to have language conform to local usage, what about considering chronology as well as geography? Shouldn’t we bring Dickens, Austen, Fielding, and Shakespeare up to date? Make it easier? Forget that language is constantly changing and different everywhere?

Why Are Poor Kids Paying for School Security?

Francine Prose

Tina Fineberg/AP Images

Cell phones are officially banned from public schools in New York City, and students at low income schools, many of whom are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program, pay a dollar a day to leave their phones in the privately owned trucks parked outside. Why, they ask, are the students in more prosperous neighborhoods unofficially allowed to ignore the ban, as long as they aren’t caught? And why are the poor kids in the eighty-eight New York schools that have been equipped with metal detectors forced to spend five dollars a week—an expense that, for some, means going without food?

After the Storm

Michael Greenberg

Julie Dermansky/Corbis

I made my way to New York’s Rockaway peninsula in early November, a week after Hurricane Sandy, and it was immediately clear that the entire eleven-mile strip had sustained a mortal, earthen wound. In the neighborhoods of Edgemere and Arverne, residents wandered the streets, dazed and broken, in mismatched boots, donated woolen overcoats, and hats with dangling ear-flaps. Some pushed what appeared to be all their belongings in shopping baskets and carts, followed by children and derelict dogs.

In the People’s Liberation Army

Mo Yan

Inge Morath/Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

Getting into the People’s Liberation Army was hard, but not as hard as getting into college. So, starting in 1973, I sent in my application and took a physical exam at the commune every year, and every year I was rejected. But then, in February 1976, with the help of some important people, my persistence paid off—I received my enlistment notice. Soon after that, on a cold, snowy day, I walked some fifteen miles to the county town. There I put on an army uniform and climbed into the back of a military truck for the trip to Huang County, where I moved into the famous “Ding Family Compound” barracks and began basic training.

Laws Not Fit to be Defended

David Cole

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to take on two challenges to anti-gay marriage laws has attracted widespread attention. But equally remarkable is the fact that neither the federal government nor the state of California are even willing to stand behind those laws. In both cases—United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry—surrogates are standing in to defend the laws in their stead. We have moved from “the crime not fit to be named” to the laws not fit to be defended. It once was considered shameful to be a homosexual; today it is shameful to be anti-gay. In an important sense, the gay rights advocates have already won.

Manhattan’s Forgotten Film Studio

Charles Simic

mptv images

Here, briefly, is the story. In March, 1917, while walking on Broadway, Buster Keaton bumped into a friend from vaudeville who happened to know Fatty Arbuckle, the famous silent movie comedian and Chaplin’s rival. Asked if he had ever acted in motion pictures, Keaton said no, and was invited to drop by Arbuckle’s studio on 48th Street the following Monday. Keaton first declined, because Arbuckle had stolen one of his vaudeville routines in the past, but then changed his mind because his curiosity was piqued by the opportunity to see how movies are made and especially how the gags are filmed.