Roving thoughts and provocations

The Roberts Court Takes on Racial Justice

David Cole

The often staid Supreme Court closed its last term in late June with a nail-biting final day decision on the Affordable Care Act. The opinion surprised almost everyone, including four of the Court’s five conservative justices, as Chief Justice John Roberts, for the first time ever in a 5-4 decision, joined the liberal wing of the Court to uphold the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. Three days earlier, the Court struck down most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, again surprising many observers and disappointing many conservatives.

This term, which opens Monday, October 1, promises to be almost as controversial. Where the Court’s biggest cases last term dealt with the relative powers of the federal and state governments, this term they focus on equality. The Court has already agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’s affirmative action program. It is also very likely to hear a constitutional challenge to a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At stake in these cases is the meaning of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, a right that the nation has struggled over since its inception and that still means radically different things to different people.

Trapped in the Total Cinema

J. Hoberman

Walt Disney Pictures

Can we speak of a twenty-first-century cinema? And if so, on what basis? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the French film critic André Bazin characterized cinema as an idealistic phenomenon and cinema-making as an intrinsically irrational enterprise. “There was not a single inventor who did not try to combine sound and relief with animation of the image,” Bazin maintained in “The Myth of Total Cinema.”

Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

Ian Johnson

Howard French

This is a story that sounds familiar, that we think we know or can imagine: old houses torn down for luxury malls, ordinary people poorly compensated, an intimate way of life replaced by highways and high-rises. All of this is happening in Shanghai—and dozens of cities across China and around the world—but it’s not how Howard French and Qiu Xiaolong tell it in their unusual new book of photographs, poems, and essays, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

‘An Intimate Epic of Irrational Need’

Geoffrey O’Brien

The Weinstein Company

Lancaster Dodd—the character played with such mesmerizing assurance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—is not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard. That much should be said at the outset, given that the Scientology connection has served as a convenient tag for what Anderson’s new film is about. The notion was certainly intriguing, but anyone familiar with Anderson’s work might have guessed that some kind of straightforward docudrama was not in the offing. Perhaps one day there will indeed be a biopic that grapples with the convoluted and much-contested details of Hubbard’s scarcely credible career as spiritual entrepreneur—one might imagine a mode anywhere from satiric grotesque to Machiavellian analysis to impassioned polemic—but The Master is not that film, full though it is of hints in such directions.

Voting Wrongs

Elizabeth Drew

Jamie-Andrea Yanak/AP

The Republicans’ plan is that if they can’t buy the 2012 election they will steal it. The plan, long in the making and now well into its execution, is to raise great gobs of money—in newly limitless amounts—so that they and their allies could outspend the president’s forces; and they would also place obstacles in the way of large swaths of citizens who traditionally support the Democrats and want to exercise their right to vote. The plan would disproportionately affect blacks and could lead to turbulence on election day and possibly an extended period of lawsuits contesting the outcome in various states.

Beijing’s Dangerous Game

Perry Link

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Over the past few days, angry crowds in more than thirty Chinese cities have trashed Japanese stores, overturned Japanese cars, shouted “Down with Japan,” and carried banners that demand Chinese sovereignty over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan also claims ownership of these islands, which it calls the Senkakyus. Chinese protests have reached some peculiar extents. A Chinese clothing store called Pattad offers a 15 percent discount to anyone who enters and yells, “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” (You get 20 percent off if you yell “Japan belongs to China!”) A boy interviewed on the street says, “When I grow up I want to build tanks to annihilate Japan.” Many have ascribed the vehemence of the protests to deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment linked to injustices committed by Japan eighty years ago. But there is little evidence to support this. Rather the protests appear to have everything to do with the interests of China’s current rulers, at a moment when the top leadership in Beijing is in turmoil.

When Satire Conquered Iran

Slavs and Tatars

Published between 1906 and 1930, the satirical Azeri magazine Molla Nasreddin attacked the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the colonial policies of the US and European nations, and the venal corruption of the local elite, while arguing repeatedly for Westernization, educational reform, and equal rights for women. Managing to speak to the intelligentsia as well as the masses, the magazine was the first publication of its kind to be read across the Muslim world. Iran was arguably the country where it had its greatest impact: its essays and illustrations acted as a preamble of sorts to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1910, which resulted in the establishment of the first parliament in all of Asia.

Turkey’s Towering Ambition

Hugh Eakin

In March 1548, having brought the Ottoman Empire to the height of its power, Suleiman the Magnificent decided to build a mosque in Istanbul. “At that time,” an anonymous chronicler explains, “His Highness the world-ruling sultan realized the necessity to leave behind a monument so as to be commemorated till the end of time” and “ordered the construction of a matchless mosque complex for his own noble self.” In late May of this year, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister, a devout Muslim, and the self-styled leader of the new Middle East—announced that he would be erecting his own grand mosque above the Bosphorus. It will be more prominent than Suleiman’s.

Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979

Christian Caryl

Amine Landoulsi/Demotix/Corbis

The year 1979—when Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, brazenly laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca—marked the debut of a new political phenomenon known as “Islamism.” Perhaps it’s helpful to recall those events as we contemplate the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and the storming of American diplomatic buildings in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Once again, a growing political force from within the Islamic world—one of which Westerners were only dimly aware—has dramatically and violently demonstrated its capacity to shape global politics.