“The essential American soul,” claimed D.H. Lawrence, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” While the rejection by five state governments of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion may not precisely illustrate Lawrence’s heated observation, it does suggest a contemporary vein of cruelty in America that is deeply disturbing.
By late May, more than ten million copies of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series about the sexual exploits of a domineering billionaire and an inexperienced coed, had been sold in the United States, all within six weeks of the books’ publication here. This apparently unprecedented achievement occurred without the benefit of a publicity campaign, formal reviews, or Oprah’s blessing, owing to a reputation established, as one industry analyst put it, “totally through word of mouth.” In fact, Leonard’s bestseller originated as fan fiction, an online genre that is inherently collaborative and by convention resolutely anti-commercial.
Once upon a time, antiquity was new. All of a sudden, in the decades around 1500, the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere and other now-celebrated monuments of the ancients began to come forth from the ground, dug up in the fields about Rome. To the artists, patrons, and humanists who beheld them for the first time, these sculptures were breathtaking: timeless yet fresh, canonical yet startling. As in few other moments in the history of art, the shock of the new and the shock of the old were one.
Among the first artists to respond to this surprising treasure trove was a goldsmith from northern Italy called Pier Jacopo Alari de Bonacolsi (c.1455-1528), better known as “Antico,” for his uncompromising passion for Pagan antiquity. Working for Isabella d’Este and her Gonzaga relatives in Mantua, he made as bronze statuettes some of the earliest copies of these and other masterworks of antiquity, including the Spinario, the Venus Felix, and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Today the imitation of classical models may seem like a stale and routine business, but five hundred years ago, it was an exciting and revelatory enterprise. The copies Antico made are surprising in many ways, so much so that although long cherished by collectors as possibly the most sumptuous statuettes in the history of art, the essence of their character still seems to elude full understanding.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been keen to go down in history as the man who brought the Pol Pot regime to justice. But Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge battalion commander, knows only too well that investigations down the Khmer Rouge chain of command could expose the shady pasts of important members of the current government. Now, the joint Cambodian-international tribunal set up to prosecute Khmer Rouge crimes finds itself in a quandry: even as the Cambodian government has supported a case against the surviving senior leaders of the regime it has blocked two other cases against five mid-level officials, each one thought to be responsible for 40,000 to 100,000 deaths.
Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E. H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled. So, given the decreasing income of writers over recent years—one thinks of the sharp drop in payments for freelance journalism and again in advances for most novelists, partly to do with a stagnant market for books, partly to do with the liveliness and piracy of the Internet—are we to expect a corresponding falling off in the quality of what we read?
When I first visited South Africa in 2000 to report on the AIDS epidemic there, one adult in five was HIV positive, and a million children had lost one or both parents to the disease. But what really amazed me was that no one was talking about this. Silence gripped the nation like a spell. People with obvious AIDS symptoms told me they were suffering from “ulcers” or “tuberculosis” or “pneumonia.” Orphans said their parents had “gone away” or had been “bewitched” by a jealous neighbor. Now, five courageous teenagers from a Cape Town slum have made a fifteen-minute film called Young Carers: Through Our Eyes about what it’s like to lose a parent to AIDS. It’s one of the most powerful films about the epidemic I’ve ever seen.
There has long been a tendency to see the most important innovations of Modernism as arising directly from progressive causes. But now the French architectural historian and architect Jean-Louis Cohen establishes one big, awful, inescapable truth: the full potential of twentieth-century architecture was realized not in the social-welfare and urban-improvement schemes beloved by the early proponents of the Modern Movement, but rather through technologies perfected during the two world wars to slaughter vast armies, destroy entire cities, decimate noncombatant populations, and industrialize genocide.
The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it.
“Over the past hundred years, China has studied a lot from the West: from France, the French Revolution, and from Germany, of course Marx and nationalism, which came to us via Japan. And from Russia we learned Leninism. But we haven’t learned much from this British-American tradition.”
The Syrian conflict has triggered something more fundamental than a difference of opinion over intervention, something more than an argument about whether the Security Council should authorize the use of force. Syria is the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two. A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies now finds itself face to face with two authoritarian despotisms—Russia and China—something new in the annals of political science: kleptocracies that mix the market economy and the police state. These regimes will support tyrannies like Syria wherever it is in their interest to do so.