Not long ago, I found myself having a Twitter conversation with a rotating skull. Its picture shows a skull turning around and around against a black background. Its handle is simply @rotatingskull. Its self-description is cryptic: “I am a skull that rotates.” When I asked it how I might make my own head rotate in this attractive manner—something I have always longed to do, as it would be a visual description of my state of mind in the mornings before caffeine—it told me I should view The Exorcist backwards while sprinkling holy water. Then it sent me a YouTube of itself in younger days, when it still had a skeleton, featuring as the prima ballerina—or ballerino—in the 1929 Disney Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance.
The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world. The loser’s worst—that is to say, most important—problems are with women. His relationships are either unrequited or, at best, doomed. He is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.
It came as little surprise that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia’s March 4 presidential election, but the fact that he received over 63 percent of the vote was unexpected. To be sure, the Kremlin had launched a huge propaganda effort on Putin’s behalf, and the four other candidates on the ballot, including billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (who represented no party and had no clear platform), hardly offered viable alternatives. But Putin’s popularity had been eroded following December’s disputed parliamentary elections, and recent large-scale protests had called into question the continued strength of his support. In fact, there are multiple indications that the Kremlin has again manipulated the outcome. If these reports are correct, they suggest Putin is playing a dangerous game, since the widespread perception that December’s elections were fraudulent was what brought tens of thousands of Russians into the streets in the first place.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves evaluation. He insists that everyone should willingly submit to public grading of the work they do. The Race to the Top program he created for the Obama Administration requires states to evaluate all teachers based in large part on the test scores of their students. When the Los Angeles Times released public rankings that the newspaper devised for thousands of teachers, Duncan applauded and asked, “What’s there to hide?” Given Duncan’s enthusiasm for grading educators, it seems high time to evaluate his own performance as Secretary of Education. Here are his grades.
The President of the United States can order the killing of US citizens, far from any battlefield, without charges, a trial, or any form of advance judicial approval. That’s what Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of students at Northwestern Law School yesterday, in a much anticipated speech. The Constitution requires the government to obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause before it can search your backpack or attach a GPS tracking device to your car, but not, according to Holder, before it kills you. If you are inclined to trust Obama with such power, what about the next administration? Or the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Russia, or China? In international law, what the United States does is often a precedent (or pretext) for others, and we will not have a monopoly on drone killing for long.
Republican leaders, strategists, presidential candidates, and sympathetic columnists have been dismayed that their party got into a big controversy over the issue of insurance coverage of contraceptives—when the economy and Obama’s presidency were supposed to be the defining issues of the 2012 election. Along comes Rush Limbaugh, before whom most Republican politicians quaver, to make matters worse with his vile and curiously salacious statements about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student and leading figure making the case for such coverage for students. But Limbaugh’s attack was so far out of bounds as to mask the fact that in substance he probably spoke for a great number of his listeners by asking why taxpayers should pay for insurance to cover the consequences of unlimited sexual activity by students?
One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.
Rick Santorum, who nearly defeated Mitt Romney in yesterday’s Michigan primary and remains close to him in national polls, says that President Obama wants to force colleges on everyone because “he wants to remake you in his image.” He worries that people who go to college lose their “faith commitment” there. But Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.
Since when did being a writer become a career choice, with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? In the last thirty or forty years, the writer has become someone who works on a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional, not, however, to become a craftsman serving the community, but to project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed. In short, the next big new thing. Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?
Conceived by the British Museum with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, Hajj is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works. And while Saudi Arabian officials had no role in the choice or presentation of objects loaned from other collections, the organizers have clearly gone to some lengths to accommodate their Saudi partners. The exhibition’s unskeptical approach seems also to reflect the fact that it is dedicated to a living religion; it lays out Muslim beliefs without exploring the archaeological and anthropological matrices from which they issue.The question this raises is: should a scholarly and secular institution refrain from such exploration in order to accommodate religious sensitivities?