Roving thoughts and provocations

Kushinagar

Joe Sacco

The extraordinarily successful French magazine XXI is the publishing industry’s greatest champion of comics reportage. It has regularly sent cartoonists out into the world and given them a good deal of magazine space. Editor Patrick de Saint-Exupery, a seasoned journalist himself, was open to any idea I had and supportive at every step of the way. The author Pankaj Mishra passed me along to Indian journalist Piyush Srivastava, who suggested I visit Kushinagar and who graciously agreed to be my guide. We met in Lucknow, where he is based, and drove for a day to reach the district, where many of the dalits—“untouchables”—are experiencing not just abject poverty but real hunger. After three visits to the same hamlet, Piyush and I were essentially chased out of the area by higher caste individuals who did not like us snooping around. We decided to visit other villages, but briefly, for no more than a couple hours each, to avoid the same result.

Why Is This Man Laughing?

Garry Wills

AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Everyone has noticed by now the non-laugh laugh of Mitt Romney, a kind of half-stifled barking. But what does it mean? It is blurted out as abruptly as it is broken off. Is it a kind of punctuation, part comma, part full stop, part interrogatory mark? What, if anything, is it trying to convey? Why does it seem more like coughing or burping than laughter?

The Eurozone Crisis: An End to Austerity?

Jeff Madrick

CNBC

The announcement Wednesday by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, that her nation is ready to discuss economic stimulus to keep Greece in the eurozone is—if serious—a hugely important development. But the critical test will be what policies emerge from this announcement. After more than three years of unsuccessful efforts to tackle the problems in Greece and other countries through imposed austerity measures in return for bailout funds, observers might be forgiven for thinking there are no solutions to the continuing eurozone crisis. Yet the eurozone is not stuck between a rock and a hard place. The tragedy is that effective solutions are available, but the stronger European nations, led by Germany and the European Central Bank, seem incapable of adopting them, or perhaps even thinking clearly about them. The crisis is not purely a consequence of Greek intransigence, by any means.

Why I Still Write Poetry

Charles Simic

When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.

Fear and Literature

Tim Parks

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values. Not that they are necessarily more fearful than others, but that a sense of themselves as fearful or courageous is crucial for them and will be decisive in the structuring of both the content and style of their work.

The Myth About Marriage

Garry Wills

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.

Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?

Joost Hiltermann

Getty Images

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But as I witnessed during a recent five day visit, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

No Accountability for Torture

David Cole

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Sometimes I think being American means never having to say you’re sorry. On Wednesday, May 2, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a federal appeals court in San Francisco, unanimously dismissed a lawsuit against former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo by Jose Padilla, the US citizen picked up at O’Hare Airport and held in military custody as an “enemy combatant” for three and a half years, during which he says he was subject to physical and psychological abuse.

Talking Smack About Junk: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

J. Hoberman

Milestone Films

Re-released in a lovingly restored print on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, Shirley Clarke’s debut film The Connection is an excavated relic of an earlier New York. The movie adapts an off-Broadway blockbuster—Jack Gelber’s “jazz play” of the same name—and concerns a filmmaker’s foredoomed attempt to document a gaggle of heroin addicts while they hang around a cold-water loft waiting for the salvation of their daily dose of the drug they call “junk,” “smack,” or most often “shit.”

Debacle in Beijing

Ian Johnson

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders have little leverage to shape China’s future. This isn’t to say that China is permanently stuck in an authoritarian quagmire and outsiders can only watch. On the contrary, people like Chen Guangcheng show how China is changing: from the grassroots up, by ordinary citizens willing to assert their rights and push change.