On November 23, the government of Bahrain was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. The occasion was the release of a report about its handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on. Things didn’t go according to plan. The room fell quiet as Cherif Bassiouni, the report’s chief author, said words like “rape” and “torture” to King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Persian Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.
Hanukkah commemorates persistence against overwhelming odds, when Jewish rebels in Judea defeated their Greek overlords and oil lamps meant to last a single day miraculously burned eight times as long. Five years ago I heard of what seemed another miracle. Despite having been nearly stamped out by the Nazis six decades earlier, the spirit of Jewish life in Poland had been kindled again in Kraków, near the farmlands where my family had lived for perhaps nine centuries.
Cafés, I was told, served jellied carp with raisins. Klezmer tunes bounced down the cobbled streets. Prewar shop signs had reappeared, flanking a bustling square as if its Jews had never left. The cooks and klezmorim, I later learned, were nearly all non-Jews, the crowds made up of tourists, the façades only that. Auschwitz, a mere hour away, remained a brutal warning against rosy nostalgia or frivolity. Still, I needed to see all this for myself. I went.
Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public land and villagers get nothing. Anger builds and protests erupt. Inept local officials negotiate and then turn to violence, in this case encircling the town with police in hopes of starving the population into submission.
What to make of all this? The overall sense in Western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding. And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up.
The world has changed a great deal since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003–thanks in part to that invasion and to the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. And yet, watching President Barack Obama welcome home the troops at Fort Bragg on December 14, and the media coverage of that event, it struck me that one thing has not changed. Despite the vast expenses incurred by news organizations following the occupation, and the considerable time that politicians in Washington spent debating its merits, many Americans continue to see in Iraq a reflection of their own country’s ideals and contradictions. They will remember Iraq as an American trauma. But it was, above all, an Iraqi trauma.
Nabokov described a fictional play in one of his stories as “essentially idiotic, even ideally idiotic, or, putting it another way, ideally constructed on the solid conventions of traditional dramaturgy.” We all know the kind of thing he is talking about. The lengthy, character-revealing speeches, the unannounced guests who throw everything into confusion, the “dramatic irony,” the “rising action,” the over-neat ordering of life into three brisk acts—these are the solid conventions that keep us away from the theater or that make us wish we’d stayed away when we do end up there. Chekhov, whose plays hardly seem to coerce life at all, boldly broke ranks with this wearying regimentation.
The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim. That, at least, is the story you’ll get from most of the initial takes on the death of Kim Jong Il, whose death was announced Monday around noon, Korean time. His designated political heir, his son Kim Jong Un, is now set to take the reins. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to happen according to the peculiar rules of the world’s only communist monarchy. After all, isn’t the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a staunchly totalitarian state where nothing ever changes? Actually, no. You could have gotten away with writing that just a few years ago. But too much has happened in North Korea in the interim.
For a moment, it seemed that President Obama would actually stand up to Congress on Guantanamo and military detention. But on Wednesday, the White House announced that the president will not veto the National Defense Authorization Act, despite the extraordinarily dangerous principles the legislation endorses. It creates a presumption in favor of indefinite military detention for foreign terrorism suspects, and it provides that indefinite detention without charge may be imposed on anyone who has provided “substantial support” to groups that are “associated forces” of al-Qaeda, though it leaves undefined what constitutes “substantial support” and which groups might qualify as “associated forces.” Most disturbingly, the law still effectively prevents President Obama from closing Guantanamo.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC looks like heroic sculpture from the China of Chairman Mao. In The Mountaintop, a play by Katori Hall now on Broadway, Dr. King is offered yet another tribute his memory could maybe have done without. In Hall’s well-meaning, but naive play about an imagined conversation between King and a maid at the motel where he stayed on the night before he was killed, King’s last hours on earth become an occasion for tribal laughter and warm black feelings. The Mountaintop is so focused on reconciling us—and him—to his death, that Hall seems uninterested in how she might be exploiting King’s legacy.
Pakistan’s decision to close down US and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan has forced Washington to rely on Central Asian countries that are hardly known for democracy and rule of law. Tajikistan is a base for Islamic extremists, while Uzbekistan, which controls the main northern supply route to Afghanistan, has only deepened its reputation for large-scale human rights abuses. And yet there is some exceptionally good news from the fledgling republic of Kyrgyzstan, which has shown itself determined to establish a working democracy. Will the US, with ever fewer options in Afghanistan and Pakistan, be able to capitalize on the all-too-overlooked Kyrgyz example?
There was reason to expect some personal revelations when the musician and writer Patti Smith took the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday evening in early December. She was there to talk about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and indefatigable promoter of modern art whom O’Keeffe married in 1924. An exhibition upstairs in the Tisch Galleries—showcasing the works of art that O’Keeffe had selected from Stieglitz’s private collection and given to the Met in 1949, including some of his erotic photographic portraits of O’Keeffe herself—was the immediate occasion for Smith’s appearance, along with the publication of the first volume of letters by O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, which Smith carried onto the stage like a bible, festooned with yellow Post-it notes.