Roving thoughts and provocations

Aschinger

Robert Walser

Another lager please! At Aschinger, you quickly adopt a familiar food-and-drink tone of voice; after a certain amount of time there, a person can’t help talking just like Wassmann at the Deutsches Theater. Once you have your fist around your second or third glass of beer, you’re generally driven to engage in all manner of observations. It is imperative to note with precision how the Berliners eat. They stand up as they do so, but take their own sweet time about it. It’s a myth that in Berlin people only bustle, whizz, and trot about. People here have a nearly comical understanding of how to let time flow by; after all, they’re only human. It’s a sincere pleasure to watch people fishing for sausage-laden rolls and Italian salads. The payment is extracted mostly from vest pockets, almost always just a matter of small change.

How Democracy Can Save Europe

Timothy Snyder

Carl De Keyzer/Magnum Photos

The European crisis, which we process from headline to headline as a matter of currencies and bailouts, is really a test of large-scale democratic capitalism. The hope was that a debt crisis, when it came, would by necessity produce a unified fiscal policy. But fiscal policy is at the very core of a democratic system, and the EU is not yet democratic. Instead, the German government has indulged its population in the dangerous fantasy that European imitation of German austerity would solve the problem. As a result, domestic politics in Germany and on the European periphery threatens to undo the European system. To resolve the crisis German leaders must persuade Germans and other Europeans to take the bold step of supporting a functioning European democracy. Here is how to do it.

In the Electric Tram

Robert Walser

Riding the “electric” is an inexpensive pleasure. When the car arrives, you climb aboard, possibly after first politely ceding the right of way to an imposing gentlewoman, and then the car continues on. At once you notice that you have a rather musical disposition. The most delicate melodies are parading through your head. In no time you’ve elevated yourself to the position of a leading conductor or even composer. Yes, it’s really true: the human brain involuntarily starts composing songs in the electric tram, songs that in their involuntary nature and their rhythmic regularity are so very striking that it’s hard to resist thinking oneself a second Mozart.

Berlin and the Artist

Robert Walser

Madrid, Fundacíon Collecíon Thyssen-Bornemisza

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage.

Sherlock Lives!

Michael Dirda

It’s been a particularly busy season for admirers of the world’s first and greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. The BBC Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Holmes and Watson, brilliantly translates the stories into the present. while in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law continue their transformation of the Victorian duo into gritty, steampunk action heroes. And then there is the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, that mysterious literary and dining club, whose members believe that Sherlock Holmes actually lived; his friend Dr. John H. Watson recorded actual historical events; and Arthur Conan Doyle merely served as Watson’s literary agent.

Can Italy Change?

Tim Parks

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

What would it mean for a country to change, profoundly? What real news would we get of that and how would it feel to its citizens? Would it necessarily be a good thing? A few months ago, when the Greek crisis made it clear that being a member of the Eurozone did not mean having access to unlimited credit on equal terms with countries like Germany and France, Italy was suddenly in trouble. Snoozing for years in a debt-funded decadence, all at once the country found lenders demanding unsustainable interest rates, as if this were some shaky third-world economy trying borrow in a foreign currency. Very soon something would have to give.

Is Democracy Chinese? An Interview with Journalist Chang Ping

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Some people said that democracy wasn’t part of Chinese culture, and then Taiwan became democratic. Then they said that Taiwan was a special case. Now look at [the village of] Wukan. They had their own elections. People say it’s special, but in fact Wukan is really typically Chinese. It’s a Chinese town but they organized everything. So what argument are you left with?”

The Kremlin Strikes Back

Amy Knight

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

For much of the past decade, Putin’s Kremlin was able to consolidate its power by marginalizing the democratic opposition and providing enough economic benefits for middle-class Russians to keep them quiet. As recently as late November, Putin’s smooth return to the presidency for six and perhaps twelve more years seemed virtually assured. But then there were the December 4 Duma elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, and everything changed. Now, with presidential elections less than six weeks away, the old formula may no longer work. Which leaves two possibilities: a vigorous reform effort, or more drastic steps to insure the election outcome.

How the Occupation Became Legal

Eyal Press

Shark de Mayo/thelawfilm.com

Surprisingly little is known about the legal apparatus that has enabled and structured Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its forty-fifth year. Filmed in nine days but based on years of archival research, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, a new Israeli documentary now being shown at Sundance, aims to expose it. Even before the 1967 Six-Day War, the film reveals, officers in the army’s legal corps drew up guidelines for a separate system of laws that could be applied to territory under IDF control, rules they were convinced could strike a balance between order and justice. Focusing on these handful of Israeli legal officials who worked largely in the shadows, Alexandrowicz’s unsparing inquiry is targeted at Israelis and foreign observers, who trumpet the achievements of Israel’s democracy and the High Court’s willingness to restrain abuses even at the occasional expense of security.

Indians Against Democracy

Pankaj Mishra

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was a suitably enlightened autocrat whose success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of squalor-prone India. Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. In fact, all along, there was little about Anna Hazare and his conspicuously middle class followers that suggested support for greater democracy.