Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

No Student Left Untested

Diane Ravitch

New York’s education officials are obsessed with test scores. In order to secure $700 million of promised funding from Obama’s Race to the Top program, the state wants to find and fire the teachers who aren’t able to produce higher test scores year after year. But most testing experts believe that the methods for rating teachers are inaccurate, unstable, and unreliable. New York’s hurried and wrong-headed teacher evaluation plan will profoundly demoralize teachers, as they realize that they have lost their professional autonomy and will be measured according to precise behaviors and actions that have nothing to do with their own definition of good teaching.

The Pox Beneath the Powder

David Bromwich

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The title “Infinite Jest” gives a very partial impression of the survey of caricatures showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 4. Hamlet said those words about Yorick, but Yorick was a jester at the court of Elsinore. There may be something expansive about the very idea of jest, because it obeys no rules and draws hints from the humor of the audience. The art of caricature, by contrast, is finite, bounded and severe. A bad jest may redeem itself by having a better for its sequel. A flat or vapid or wrong-headed caricature cannot be pardoned. The province of satire is wit, and when wit goes wrong it signifies not a tactical error but a defect of mind.