Roving thoughts and provocations

The Truth About Murdoch

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Along with the other media he has mastered, from tabloids to satellite television, Rupert Murdoch has recently taken to Twitter. On February 15, he tweeted, “To hell with politicians! When are we going to find some to tell the truth in any country? Don’t hold your breath.” His words remind us yet again that Murdoch is a man of iron nerve, not say brass neck, though they might also suggest a degree of delusion. Throughout his career, every time he has come near calamity, that gambler’s strong nerve has always somehow managed to rescue him. But the concatenation of scandal and disaster that has now engulfed his News International group—which owns the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World as well as the London Times and other papers—is of a different order.

Why Finish Books?

Tim Parks

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent? That we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it? I ask the question because this is happening to me more and more often. Is it age, wisdom, senility? I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?

Deeper into the Twungle

Margaret Atwood

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.

Great American Losers

Elaine Blair

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.

Stealing Russia’s Future

Amy Knight

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Flunking Arne Duncan

Diane Ravitch

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.

An Executive Power to Kill?

David Cole

AP Photo/Hasbunullah

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.

The Politics of Safe Sex

Elizabeth Drew

AP Photo/CSPAN

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?

Santorum’s Arrested Development

Garry Wills

AP Photo/Eric Gay

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.