Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

Good Soldier Michals

Martin Filler

Duane Michals/Antinous Press

There is an intangible quality about Duane Michals’s photographs that is readily identifiable, regardless of their subject matter. Whether they ponder questions as speculative as the existence of an afterlife or as basic as the nature of sexual desire all of them encompass a shared spiritual terrain, a timeless realm of pellucid light and preternatural calm, palpably present but also eerily elusive, like a waking dream. Yet Michals’s most significant contribution may be his championing of an elevated homoerotic alternative to the predominant heterosexual viewpoint of western art. Thus the publication of this quiet crusader’s photo-memoir—which recounts Michals’ own repressed sexuality while serving in the army from 1953 to 1955—seems particularly timely following the recent revocation of the US Army’s preposterous “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy.

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?”