Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

The Writer’s Job

Tim Parks

Byron: National Portrait Gallery, London; Sophocles: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Pamuk: Erzade Ertem

Since when did being a writer become a career choice, with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? In the last thirty or forty years, the writer has become someone who works on a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional, not, however, to become a craftsman serving the community, but to project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed. In short, the next big new thing. Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?

Bringing Mecca to the British Museum

Malise Ruthven

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Conceived by the British Museum with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, Hajj is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works. And while Saudi Arabian officials had no role in the choice or presentation of objects loaned from other collections, the organizers have clearly gone to some lengths to accommodate their Saudi partners. The exhibition’s unskeptical approach seems also to reflect the fact that it is dedicated to a living religion; it lays out Muslim beliefs without exploring the archaeological and anthropological matrices from which they issue.The question this raises is: should a scholarly and secular institution refrain from such exploration in order to accommodate religious sensitivities?

Women and Islam: A Debate with Human Rights Watch

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

To Kenneth Roth: In your Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” you urge support for the newly elected governments that have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In your desire to “constructively engage” with the new governments, you ask states to stop supporting autocrats. But you are not a state; you are the head of an international human rights organization whose role is to report on human rights violations, an honorable and necessary task which your essay largely neglects.

A Tenacious Refusal to Surrender

Anthony Shadid

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Baghdad—a city that always chooses memory over the curse of its reality—passed before me once more. The elegant statues of Mohammed Ghani, artifacts of an ageless city, still graced their pedestals. Ghani’s Hying carpet fluttered into the boundless sky. Down the street was Shehrazad, with her flowing hair and dress, still perched over the Tigris like a lonesome sentry. A walk away was Kahramana, confidently pouring oil on the forty thieves in Ali Baba Square. Yet these reminders of the past paled against the sights of the present: the barbed wire and concrete barricades of the siege; other statues, once heroic, now dismantled; the buildings damaged in the looting that had gripped the city during those first anarchic days of freedom.