Roving thoughts and provocations

The Middle East Conflict Comes to France

William Pfaff

Marek Peters/www.marek-peters.com

The terrorist shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in France last week were, among other things, another episode in the war that for nearly a half century has been going on between Zionism and the Palestinians, in which Western Europe and the United States have suffered much collateral damage. Sensational headlines about al-Qaeda and the “global jihad” striking France have followed Mohammed Merah’s death. But the night before he was killed in a police raid, Merah told police that he felt justified for killing three children and a teacher at a Jewish school as revenge for the killing of Palestine children in Gaza.

China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Jonathan Mirsky

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.

Do We Need Stories?

Tim Parks

Costa Manos/Magnum Photos

Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” “There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” But what is the nature of this need? What would happen if it wasn’t met?

The Inner Light of Terence Davies

J. Hoberman

The Film Desk

A nation must have its culture heroes, and current wisdom among Anglo-American movie critics and programmers has advanced Terence Davies to the position of Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Beginning this week, viewers in New York will have an unusual chance to assess his work afresh, with the US release of The Deep Blue Sea, his new version of the 1952 Terence Rattigan adultery drama of the same name, coinciding with a retrospective of his work at BAM and a revival of The Long Day Closes at Film Forum.

A Kennedy for Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid

AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

In Pakistan there is much talk of democratic ideals, but little love for the country’s current crop of politicians, and so there seems to be a yearning for a new kind of leader able to break the cycle of weakness and mediocrity. Into this situation has surged the former cricket superstar Imran Khan, who in recent months has suddenly become the country’s most popular political figure.

Making Up Edith Wharton

Francine Prose

Edith Wharton Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University

When Edith Wharton—then Edith Jones—was a little girl, her favorite game was called “making up.” “Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. At ten, Edith was writing in blank verse. By eighteen, she had begun to publish poems—mostly on the subject of failed love, renunciation and longing, themes that would continue to resonate in her work throughout the decades. We can be glad, I suppose, that she discovered passion at all, but regretful that it should have taken her until the age of forty-six.

Age of Ignorance

Charles Simic

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

China’s Falling Star

Ian Johnson

AP Photo/Andy Wong

Just a few months ago, commentators were saying that Bo Xilai, the leader of the Chinese city-state of Chongqinq, was a serious candidate for the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the apogee of Chinese power. Suddenly, he has vanished from the heavens. How did this happen and what does it mean? After arriving in Chongqing, Bo had tried to turn it into a base for his triumphant return to Beijing this year at this fall’s Party Congress. To do this, he launched a sweeping package of reforms—and, departing from usual practice for mid-level party leaders, organized a large-scale media campaign to tout his program. But it was above all the fact that he was offering these measures as a kind of systemic reform that was a rebuke to the central leadership.

Against Monuments

Eric Banks

New Museum

As an exhibition, the New Museum Triennial is still so young that it seems almost premature to call it a New York institution. Yet in just its second iteration, “The Ungovernables,” which runs through April 22, the show has already established the very thing that even veteran surveys of contemporary art would envy: a clear identity, and one that doesn’t seem redundant with either the concurrently running Whitney Biennial or the various other museum-sponsored roundups like PS 1/MoMA’s “Greater New York.” Focusing especially on work made by very young artists many of whom are based outside the US and Europe, the current show also tries to make a case for reading the work on view amid the political upheaval and messy, unfinished pursuit of democracy that has marked much of the developing world, but the artists don’t fit into this frame as snugly as the curators want to suggest.

Israel: The Knesset vs. Democracy

Dimi Reider

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

This should be a year in which Israeli democracy is much on display. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been reconfirmed as head of the right-leaning Likud Party, seems to be pushing for early national elections; while candidates to lead the centrist Kadima Party, the main opposition party, are now campaigning for their March 27 primary. But even as the country prepares for its most important democratic exercise, a far-reaching series of laws now pending or already passed by the Knesset suggests Israel is moving in an alarmingly anti-democratic direction.