Roving thoughts and provocations

E-books Can’t Burn

Tim Parks

It is all too easy to defend the e-book. We can buy a text instantly wherever we are in the world. We pay less. We use no paper, occupy no space. Kindle’s wireless system keeps our page, even when we open the book on a different reader than the one we left off. But I want to go beyond practicality to the reading experience itself, our engagement with the text. What is it that literary men and women are afraid of losing should the paper novel really go into decline?

Contraception’s Con Men

Garry Wills

drawing by David Levine

Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves have long rejected the idea, saying instead it is a matter of “natural law,” that the natural purpose of sex is procreation, and any use of it for other purposes is “unnatural.” But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence “unnatural.” Some Republicans are using the bishops’ stupidity to hurt the supposed “moderate” candidate Mitt Romney, giving a temporary leg up to the faux naïf Rick Santorum; others are attacking Barack Obama as an “enemy of religion.” What we are seeing is not a defense of undying principle but a stampede toward a temporarily exploitable lunacy.

Security vs. Reconciliation: The Afghan Conundrum

Ahmed Rashid

Massoud Hossaini/Getty Images

Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai are both entangled in a series of strategic conundrums, which so far have not been addressed. Karzai is determined to secure an agreement with the US allowing for the presence of US trainers and special forces in the country well beyond 2014. Washington would like to do the same, while also pursuing reconciliation talks with the Taliban. But the Taliban are vehemently opposed to any such US-Kabul agreement and will only agree to a deal with Kabul when all foreign troops have left. Thus Karzai will find it impossible to conclude both a security agreement with the US and a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban. The two aims are mutually exclusive.

A New Obama Cinema?

J. Hoberman

A lone lean figure strides purposefully through a dark tunnel, maybe a highway underpass. There’s no fear. A familiar husky voice whispers that “it’s half time—both teams are in their locker rooms, discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.” One needn’t be a genius like Karl Rove to catch the drift of the two-minute Clint Eastwood-narrated Chrysler spot shown mid-Super Bowl last Sunday and everywhere else ever since. But get it Rove did.

First thing Monday morning, America’s preeminent propagandist was on Fox & Friends to whine that “the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” What he meant was that a grateful automobile industry was engaging in some sneaky subliminal payback, hiring no less than Clint Eastwood as the mouthpiece for Barack Obama’s reelection bid. Well before the Giants edged out the Patriots, Obama adviser David Axelrod had wiped his boss’s fingerprints off the spot. “Powerful spot,” he slyly tweeted to his followers. “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”

My Secret

Charles Simic

All writers have some secret about the way they work. Mine is that I write in bed. Big deal!, you are probably thinking. Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Truman Capote, and plenty of other writers did too. Vladimir Nabokov even kept index cards under his pillow in case he couldn’t sleep some night and felt like working. However, I haven’t heard of other poets composing in bed—although what could be more natural than scribbling a love poem with a ballpoint pen on the back of one’s beloved?

Gambling With Gay Marriage

David Cole

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On February 7, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, unconstitutional. For many gay rights activists, however, the sounds of celebration have been decidedly muted. While time and momentum are undoubtedly on the side of recognizing gay marriage, there is still widespread hostility, with a majority of state constitutions now explicitly rejecting recognition of gay marriage. The next stop in the Proposition 8 case could well be the US Supreme Court, and there is no guarantee that the decision will be upheld there. A loss in the Supreme Court could set the gay rights movement back for decades.

Aschinger

Robert Walser

Another lager please! At Aschinger, you quickly adopt a familiar food-and-drink tone of voice; after a certain amount of time there, a person can’t help talking just like Wassmann at the Deutsches Theater. Once you have your fist around your second or third glass of beer, you’re generally driven to engage in all manner of observations. It is imperative to note with precision how the Berliners eat. They stand up as they do so, but take their own sweet time about it. It’s a myth that in Berlin people only bustle, whizz, and trot about. People here have a nearly comical understanding of how to let time flow by; after all, they’re only human. It’s a sincere pleasure to watch people fishing for sausage-laden rolls and Italian salads. The payment is extracted mostly from vest pockets, almost always just a matter of small change.

How Democracy Can Save Europe

Timothy Snyder

Carl De Keyzer/Magnum Photos

The European crisis, which we process from headline to headline as a matter of currencies and bailouts, is really a test of large-scale democratic capitalism. The hope was that a debt crisis, when it came, would by necessity produce a unified fiscal policy. But fiscal policy is at the very core of a democratic system, and the EU is not yet democratic. Instead, the German government has indulged its population in the dangerous fantasy that European imitation of German austerity would solve the problem. As a result, domestic politics in Germany and on the European periphery threatens to undo the European system. To resolve the crisis German leaders must persuade Germans and other Europeans to take the bold step of supporting a functioning European democracy. Here is how to do it.

In the Electric Tram

Robert Walser

Riding the “electric” is an inexpensive pleasure. When the car arrives, you climb aboard, possibly after first politely ceding the right of way to an imposing gentlewoman, and then the car continues on. At once you notice that you have a rather musical disposition. The most delicate melodies are parading through your head. In no time you’ve elevated yourself to the position of a leading conductor or even composer. Yes, it’s really true: the human brain involuntarily starts composing songs in the electric tram, songs that in their involuntary nature and their rhythmic regularity are so very striking that it’s hard to resist thinking oneself a second Mozart.

Berlin and the Artist

Robert Walser

Madrid, Fundacíon Collecíon Thyssen-Bornemisza

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage.