Roving thoughts and provocations

The Hidden Stakes of the Election

Cass R. Sunstein

Daumier

Many of the biggest battles of the day—over health care reform, financial reform, environmental protection, workplace safety, civil rights—will ultimately be settled in court by lower-court judges in rulings that will get little public attention. The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, but some of the rules that are necessary to implement it may turn out to be vulnerable. Unlike presidents, judges often stay in their jobs for decades, and any president is in a position to shift the judiciary in major ways. Of course it is true that the 2012 presidential election will help to establish the meaning of the Constitution. Perhaps equally important, it will help to establish the fate of numerous rules designed to protect public safety, health, and the environment.

My Novel, Their Culture

Tim Parks

NDR/Thorsten Jander

How should a novelist feel on seeing his work translated, completely, not just into another medium, but also another culture? Last night I opened a DVD package with the title Stille (Silence), put it into my computer, and sat down to watch. Actually, I received this DVD a month ago. It is an Austrian film production of my novel Cleaver. I did not look at it at once because I was in denial. I have been generously paid for the rights to film, I am delighted it has been made and grateful to the producer for pushing it through, but Cleaver was written in English and had an English hero from a specific milieu—a journalist and documentary film maker who, as the book opens, has carried out, for the BBC, a destructive interview of an American president easily recognizable as Bush.

Our Crisis of Bad Jobs

Jeff Madrick

Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

With domestic policy as the theme of Wednesday’s presidential debate, the Obama campaign is facing a weakening economy. The Commerce Department just reported that GDP grew at an annual rate of only 1.3 percent in the second quarter. Job growth has been tepid, with continued high unemployment and underemployment. When one counts all those looking for full-time jobs and unable to get them, the true unemployment rate is close to 17 percent. Meanwhile, the US faces looming threats of a new European recession and a slowdown in China and other parts of the developing world.

Han Han: ‘Why Aren’t You Grateful?’

Ian Johnson

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

When looking for Chinese reactions to the anti-Japanese riots that took place in late September, it was probably not much of a surprise that the Western press turned to Han Han, the widely read Shanghai-based blogger. In characteristic form, Han gave a riff on the protests that obliquely criticized the government, while at the same time insulated himself from making a direct accusation: “As far as looting and destroying things, this must be punished by law, or else I might suspect that there was some official backing behind all this.”

What Do Swing-State Voters Think? Why We Don’t Know

Michael Massing

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Even when venturing into the field, most reporters stay inside the bubble. They follow the candidates, speak with their handlers, interview consultants, quote think-tank analysts, pore over polling data. Looking over a recent week of coverage in the Times (September 19-26), for instance, I found plenty of stories on PACs, campaign strategy, political operatives, Romney’s tax returns, and the polling data in Ohio and other battleground states. Only one featured extensive interviews with ordinary Americans, and, while helpful, it provided little more than a snapshot.

The Roberts Court Takes on Racial Justice

David Cole

The often staid Supreme Court closed its last term in late June with a nail-biting final day decision on the Affordable Care Act. The opinion surprised almost everyone, including four of the Court’s five conservative justices, as Chief Justice John Roberts, for the first time ever in a 5-4 decision, joined the liberal wing of the Court to uphold the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. Three days earlier, the Court struck down most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, again surprising many observers and disappointing many conservatives.

This term, which opens Monday, October 1, promises to be almost as controversial. Where the Court’s biggest cases last term dealt with the relative powers of the federal and state governments, this term they focus on equality. The Court has already agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’s affirmative action program. It is also very likely to hear a constitutional challenge to a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At stake in these cases is the meaning of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, a right that the nation has struggled over since its inception and that still means radically different things to different people.

Trapped in the Total Cinema

J. Hoberman

Walt Disney Pictures

Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? And if so, on what basis? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the French film critic André Bazin characterized cinema as an idealistic phenomenon and cinema-making as an intrinsically irrational enterprise. “There was not a single inventor who did not try to combine sound and relief with animation of the image,” Bazin maintained in “The Myth of Total Cinema.”

Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

Ian Johnson

Howard French

This is a story that sounds familiar, that we think we know or can imagine: old houses torn down for luxury malls, ordinary people poorly compensated, an intimate way of life replaced by highways and high-rises. All of this is happening in Shanghai—and dozens of cities across China and around the world—but it’s not how Howard French and Qiu Xiaolong tell it in their unusual new book of photographs, poems, and essays, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

‘An Intimate Epic of Irrational Need’

Geoffrey O’Brien

The Weinstein Company

Lancaster Dodd—the character played with such mesmerizing assurance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—is not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard. That much should be said at the outset, given that the Scientology connection has served as a convenient tag for what Anderson’s new film is about. The notion was certainly intriguing, but anyone familiar with Anderson’s work might have guessed that some kind of straightforward docudrama was not in the offing. Perhaps one day there will indeed be a biopic that grapples with the convoluted and much-contested details of Hubbard’s scarcely credible career as spiritual entrepreneur—one might imagine a mode anywhere from satiric grotesque to Machiavellian analysis to impassioned polemic—but The Master is not that film, full though it is of hints in such directions.