Roving thoughts and provocations

The War We Aren’t Debating

Michael Massing

Marco Ugarte/AP

It’s a social policy that, many experts agree, has failed miserably since it was introduced more than forty years ago, tearing apart families and communities across the United States, consuming tens of thousands of lives abroad, and squandering huge sums of money. Yet hardly any national politician is willing to challenge it, and it’s been completely ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign. I’m speaking of the war on drugs.

Trick or Truth?

J. Hoberman

Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Every photograph is a fake from start to finish,” the photographer Edward Steichen asserted in the first issue of Camera Work in 1903. In what amounts to a backhanded defense of photography as art, Steichen explained that “a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph” was “practically impossible.” “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” an exhibition now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (later traveling to the National Gallery and Houston’s Museum of Fine Art), makes a vigorous case for understanding the medium as Steichen did.

After the Occupation

Zena el Khalil

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

My Grandpa Mohammad built our house in Hasbaya on top of a hill. It was a typical two-floor Lebanese-style village home. The façade was covered in cut limestone squares and the roof consisted of red shingles. The kitchen, dining room, and living room were on the lower floor. Talking to my father today, his fondest memories always take him back to the summers they spent in Hasbaya. He says that it was there that he learnt to become a man. It was during the long hot and dry days that his endurance and vigor were tested.

The Empty Chair That Keeps Me Awake at Night

Christopher Benfey

Corbis

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.

More Speech is Better

David Cole

“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.

Ryan Meets Reality

Elizabeth Drew

Charlie Neibergall/AP Images

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.

The Kill or Capture Presidency

Steve Coll

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Can Islam Be Criticized?

Malise Ruthven

Rehan Khan/epa/Corbis

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.

Russia: The New Struggle with Putin

Amy Knight

Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.