Roving thoughts and provocations

Train of Thought: On the ‘Subway’ Photographs

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and onto the darkened station platform, a sinking sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist—or a deranged person.

Translating in the Dark

Tim Parks

Félix Vallotton

Let us remember our most intense experiences of poetry in our mother tongue, reading Eliot and Pound as adolescents perhaps, Frost and Wallace Stevens, Auden and Geoffrey Hill, then coming back to them after many years, discovering how much more was there than we had imagined, picking up echoes of other literature we have read since, seeing how the poet shifted the sense of this or that word slightly, and how this alters the tone and feeling of the whole.

Now imagine that, having a poet friend who wishes to translate these authors, you offer a literal translation of their poems in your second language. Maybe you read The Four Quartets out loud, line by line, to give him the cadence. But does our translator friend, who doesn’t know our language well, hear what we hear when we read aloud?

Secrets of the Keeper of Secrets

Russell Baker

Keith Bernstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment

Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI. from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.

Someone Else’s Children

Christopher Benfey

R.B. Bontencou, Courtesy of Stanley B. Burns, MD

My wife and I have two sons, aged eighteen and twenty-two. Both have registered for the Selective Service, as the law requires. We don’t have a clear idea of Tommy’s or Nicholas’s views regarding military service; we hope that circumstances won’t force us to find out. None of us knows any men or women currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are someone else’s children. During the Civil War, in contrast, the mangling of young bodies was evident to all. Three million volunteers armed with advanced rifles, and firing at one another at point-blank range, fought on battlefields often not far from their own homes. American writers, many of whom had children in the war, were not insulated from the carnage.

The remarkable medical photographs of the Civil War surgeon-photographer Reed Bontecou—now published in their entirety for the first time and recently shown at The Robert Anderson gallery in New York—bring us closer still.

Immigrant Detainees: The New Sex Abuse Crisis

David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow

Tamela Kemp

The PBS show Frontline, documenting harsh conditions in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detention facilities, recently told the story of an immigrant whom it called “Mary.” During a routine traffic stop in Florida, police discovered that Mary’s visa had expired. They sent her to the Willacy Detention Center in southern Texas; there, over the course of three months, she was repeatedly raped by one of her guards. Finally, unable to endure further abuse and told by other detainees that she would face retaliation if she complained, she stopped fighting deportation and asked to be sent home to Canada, leaving behind four young children who were born in the US. It has now been two years since she has seen them.

Perhaps the worst part of this immensely distressing story is how unexceptional it is. There is abundant evidence that rape is a systemic problem in our immigration detention facilities—for women, for men, and, as the Women’s Refugee Commission has documented, for children.

Prisoners of the Fun Factory

Martin Filler

Eames Office

I first met the designer Ray Kaiser Eames in 1977, when she showed me, my wife, and our son around the renowned Pacific Palisades house she and Charles Eames built between 1947 and 1949 from off-the-shelf industrial components. As she moved slowly through the high-ceilinged living room of the light-flooded, modular-paneled structure at the edge of an arcadian meadow overlooking the ocean, she reacted to the myriad possessions that crowded every horizontal surface as if she had never seen them before. “Oh my God, look at this!” she cawed like an excited mynah bird as she grabbed some pretty trifle, peered at it intently, and extolled its ravishing beauty. One could not help but love her unbridled enthusiasm, but also quickly understood how trying she might be to live with.

Defining a Culture in Doha’s Desert

Hugh Eakin

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art

Over the past few years, the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar has created—from scratch—one of the most important museums of Islamic art in existence as well as a distinctive collection of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture by artists from all over the Arab Middle East. Now it is building a National Museum so large and complex that the structural engineering alone will cost some half billion dollars. How did the rulers of this parched and featureless desert peninsula—a place that until recently was peripheral even to the politics and culture of the Gulf itself—come to take such a far-reaching interest in the aesthetic traditions of the Arab and Muslim world?

Occupy Wall Street Turns a Corner

Michael Greenberg

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

At around 1 AM Tuesday morning, police arrived to evict the occupiers from Zuccotti Park. It was a surprise attack, planned with impressive secrecy, and launched from Peck Slip, a relatively desolate stretch of the city, under the FDR Drive between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. For more than a week, hundreds of blue-shirted police officers—the force’s proletariat rank and file—had been receiving training in crowd control. Monday night, they were told to report to lower Manhattan with “hats and bats”—riot helmets and batons—without being informed why. The action was so unexpected that, after lamps from dozens of Emergency Service Unit trucks flooded the encampment with light and officers swarmed into the park dragging occupants out of their tents, members of the protesters “self-defense team” didn’t have time to chain themselves to the locust trees, as planned.

America’s New Robber Barons

Jeff Madrick

Drawing by David Levine

With early Tuesday’s abrupt evacuation of Zuccotti Park, the City of New York has managed—for the moment—to dislodge protesters from Wall Street. But it will be much harder to turn attention away from the financial excesses of the very rich—the problems that have given Occupy Wall Street such traction. Data on who is in the top 1 percent of earners further reinforces their point. Here’s why.

Though the situation is often described as a problem of inequality, this is not quite the real concern. The issue is runaway incomes at the very top—people earning a million and a half dollars or more according to the most recent data. And much of that runaway income comes from financial investments, stock options, and other special financial benefits available to the exceptionally rich—much of which is taxed at very low capital gains rates. Meanwhile, there has been something closer to stagnation for almost everyone else—including even for many people in the top 20 percent of earners.