What would it mean for a country to change, profoundly? What real news would we get of that and how would it feel to its citizens? Would it necessarily be a good thing? A few months ago, when the Greek crisis made it clear that being a member of the Eurozone did not mean having access to unlimited credit on equal terms with countries like Germany and France, Italy was suddenly in trouble. Snoozing for years in a debt-funded decadence, all at once the country found lenders demanding unsustainable interest rates, as if this were some shaky third-world economy trying borrow in a foreign currency. Very soon something would have to give.
Chang Ping is one of China’s best-known commentators on contemporary affairs. Chang, whose real name is Zhang Ping, first established himself in the late 1990s in Guangzhou, where his hard-hitting stories exposed scandals and championed freedom of expression. As censorship has tightened in recent years, Chang’s pleas for openness and accountability have put him under pressure. I recently met him in Germany, where he is currently living with his wife and daughter at the former country home of the Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, which has been converted into a refuge for persecuted writers. What follows are highlights of our conversation, in which Chang talked about the Wukan protests, his new political magazine, and prospects for democracy in China.
For much of the past decade, Putin’s Kremlin was able to consolidate its power by marginalizing the democratic opposition and providing enough economic benefits for middle-class Russians to keep them quiet. As recently as late November, Putin’s smooth return to the presidency for six and perhaps twelve more years seemed virtually assured. But then there were the December 4 Duma elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, and everything changed. Now, with presidential elections less than six weeks away, the old formula may no longer work. Which leaves two possibilities: a vigorous reform effort, or more drastic steps to insure the election outcome.
Surprisingly little is known about the legal apparatus that has enabled and structured Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its forty-fifth year. Filmed in nine days but based on years of archival research, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, a new Israeli documentary now being shown at Sundance, aims to expose it. Even before the 1967 Six-Day War, the film reveals, officers in the army’s legal corps drew up guidelines for a separate system of laws that could be applied to territory under IDF control, rules they were convinced could strike a balance between order and justice. Focusing on these handful of Israeli legal officials who worked largely in the shadows, Alexandrowicz’s unsparing inquiry is targeted at Israelis and foreign observers, who trumpet the achievements of Israel’s democracy and the High Court’s willingness to restrain abuses even at the occasional expense of security.
Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was a suitably enlightened autocrat whose success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of squalor-prone India. Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. In fact, all along, there was little about Anna Hazare and his conspicuously middle class followers that suggested support for greater democracy.
There seems to be a nearly universal agreement that the Costa Concordia, the gigantic cruise ship that lies wrecked at an 80 degree angle just off the Tuscan island of Giglio, somehow embodies the very essence of Italy, despite the fact that Aristotle would have recognized its story as a perfect Greek tragedy: a man, no better or worse than most of us, makes a mistake and thereby unleashes a cataclysm, and we look on the resultant disaster with a cathartic mix of pity and fear. But the hubris of captain Francesco Schettino (now under house arrest) has struck many Italians as a distinctively home-grown kind of hubris, and catharsis is not a sensation that anyone can feel when so many souls are still unaccounted for.
On January 11, an Iranian nuclear scientist named Mostafa Ahmdi Roshan was assassinated by the detonation of a magnetized bomb attached to his car in Tehran. The Iranian government has blamed the Israelis and the United States and there has been a call for revenge. But even more important than this disturbing attack may be what we are now learning about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians are now able to produce their own scientists and engineers rather than having them trained elsewhere. They also claim they have enough enrichment capacity themselves to produce what they need. Where does that leave us?
If there is a problem with the novel, and I’m agreed that there is, it is not because it doesn’t participate in modern technology, can’t talk about it or isn’t involved with it; I can download in seconds on my Kindle a novel made up entirely of emails or text messages. Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.
A number of years ago I bought Halliwell’s Film Guide to inform myself about old movies shown on TV and available in video stores. Occasionally, however, when I found it lying around, I’d open the Guide at random and start reading, usually attracted by the name of the film, something irresistible like Calling Doctor Death, Isle of Forgotten Sins, Naked Alibi, or Prudence and the Pill, about a girl who “borrows her mother’s contraceptives pills and replaces them with aspirin, causing no end of complication.” One day it dawned on me that out of the twelve to fifteen movies listed on every page of the Guide, there was at least one I had seen and more often several. Like millions of others who grew up in 1940s, I had spent a good part of my life seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies, everything from genuine masterpieces of the cinema to worthless trash.
Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late—too late—realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain.