I have no idea what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he dragged an empty chair up to the stage at the Republican Convention in Tampa last August. But I was thinking of that empty chair in Tampa as I watched Tuesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. Who do we want in the president’s chair, making decisions when the next crisis—and we know there will be a next crisis, and a next—erupts? An Oval Office occupied by Romney would suffer from a different kind of vacancy, a void of ideas or convictions, a sketchy foreign policy based on China-bashing and pandering to his old pal Bibi. That’s the empty chair that keeps me awake at night.
“Free speech” is not free. It can have serious, even deadly consequences. When a Californian recently uploaded a primitive YouTube video depicting Mohammed engaging in oral sex, it sparked violence and riots throughout the Muslim world. And according to Malise Ruthven in his recent NYRblog post, at least sixty people are believed to have been killed in the 1988-1989 riots in Pakistan and India prompted by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which satirized Mohammed and depicted his wives as prostitutes. But if we were to start prohibiting speech on the ground that some listeners, somewhere in the world, might be offended and react violently to it, we would be enforcing the worst kind of international “heckler’s veto,” and sanctioning the violence, which is surely more reprehensible than the speech itself.
Like Banquo’s ghost, the president’s sub-par performance in the first presidential debate only eight days before hovered over the vice presidential one, and had been all the talk. Before the first presidential debate it looked as though President Obama was on the way to winning a smashing reelection victory, and Mitt Romney’s campaign was almost given up for dead by his own party. But as a result of last week’s debate (and something of an overreaction to it), polls were suddenly indicating a shift in Romney’s direction; and—most dangerous to Obama—the Republicans were at last showing enthusiasm for their candidate.
You’d like your government to tell you the truth, and the government dissembled repeatedly after the raid about what the rules of engagement were. They dissembled because the truth was uncomfortable and because the rules are secret, and they have this deep culture of secrecy in this administration, as in the last couple, about rules of engagement. What it highlights is that the United States does not have a detention regime that works anymore. Anytime it brings terrorists suspects into custody it generated political controversy. And so what you can see is a bias is built up in the system, in which the Obama Administration judges it’s just easier to kill people. That doesn’t create any political controversy.
It may be ironic, but it is not entirely surprising that the YouTube clip of what appears to be a badly made film satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, causing mayhem and destruction—coinciding with the death of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens—in the same week of September that the novelist Salman Rushdie published Joseph Anton. The memoir recounts Rushdie’s life as a “celebrity victim” after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his death for offending Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. Not to be outgunned by the late Ayatollah, the Pakistani railroad minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has now personally offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who murders the maker of Innocence of Muslims, the crude new film.
Although they have gotten little attention in the Western press, the regional elections taking place throughout Russia on October 14 may be Vladimir Putin’s greatest test since his return to the presidency last spring. With voters in seventy-three of Russia’s eighty-three regions going to the polls less than a year after the Kremlin faced allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, the looming question for Putin is whether he can ensure a favorable outcome without overt manipulation. For the opposition, a primary concern is whether their candidates will even be on the ballot.
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.
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.
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.
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.”