Roving thoughts and provocations

The Troubled Life of Nim Chimpsky

Peter Singer

Project Nim

Project Nim, a new documentary by James Marsh, tells the sad story of a scientist’s irresponsible treatment of Nim, the chimp he tamed—or more strictly, whose upbringing in a human family he organized—and it raises important issues about the distinction between humans and animals, about our attitudes toward animals, and about scientific objectivity (or the lack thereof) in behavioral research.

As Ohio Goes: A Letter from Tea-Party Country

Timothy Snyder

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

The notion that the federal government ought to be starved of resources is not patriotism: it is right-wing anarchism, which corrodes not only the American state but the American nation. America is defined by its middle classes, and these are ceasing to exist. Belonging to the middle classes means that, without enormous wealth, you do not need to be concerned about the security of your pension, the quality of your children’s education, and the reliability of your family’s health care. At this point few people in Clinton County, Ohio can say (despite some good public schools) that they are worried about none of these.

I’m not interested in them; I wish they weren’t interested in me’: An Interview with Liao Yiwu

Ian Johnson

Larry Roibal

The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this: You can’t do anything meaningful in China.”

Here’s What I Hate About Writers’ Houses

April Bernard

writershouses.com

On the subject of Writers’ Houses, that dark genius Robert Frost would have understood the paradox I find myself inhabiting: that I hate them in general, but soften to something like affection in the face of particular places. Frost enjoyed mocking his own, and others’, ambivalences, especially when personal feeling interfered with principle. Whether or not he also would have enjoyed hearing my footsteps in his old parlor and study is another matter; I would guess not.

Toleration and the Future of Europe

Timothy Snyder

Historisches Museum, Vienna

In Anders Breivik’s manifesto, the ostensibly Christian defeat of the Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 is the central historical event. He imagines a European rebirth in 2083, four hundred years later, and names the Polish king Jan Sobieski, whose troops were crucial to raising the Ottoman siege, as one of his heroes. Breivik thinks Europe today is again under siege from Muslims, and that Europeans must resort to “atrocious, but necessary” violence to defend it. It is unsurprising that what Breivik has to say about European history is trivial. But since the reference to Vienna has largely passed without criticism, it is worth recalling for a moment what actually happened in 1683.

The New European Far-Right

Malise Ruthven

Rex Features/AP Photo

In the flurry of commentaries about the July 22 Norway killings, certain features stand out. Commentators on the right are more inclined to dismiss Anders Behring Breivik as a deranged lunatic. By contrast, writers and bloggers on the left are more likely to take the view that there is some linkage between his monstrous crimes and new versions of far right ideologies that have been leaching into mainstream European politics. These divergent interpretations have brought fresh urgency to the question of whether highly charged political rhetoric can play a part in motivating extreme forms of violence.

A Revolution Stalled? Scenes from Mubarak’s Trial

Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi

We all watched the proceedings mesmerized, shaken by the irony that on the very same podium where Mubarak once was applauded now sat Ahmed Rifaat, head of the Cairo Appeals Court and the judge appointed to try him. For the first time that day, State TV dropped “former,” and referred to Mubarak as the “deposed” President. He was now a man officially behind bars.

The Human Face of Type

Edward Mendelson

I was always interested in typefaces, but I became obsessed with them only when my wife got pregnant. The psychological mechanism seems to have been something like this: For five centuries, printers’ type was made of lead; the form into which the molten metal was poured and which gave the letter its shape was called a matrix—the Latin word for womb. At a time when something that mattered a great deal to me was taking shape in a real womb, I could not stop thinking about letters and symbols that had taken shape in metaphoric ones.

For me, as for many other people who care about type, a typeface should be personal and expressive, like a human face. For others, type should be an impersonal machine for transmitting data. Each group favors different styles of type. When the documentary film Helvetica appeared a few years ago, I didn’t rush to see it, because, as someone says in the film, Helvetica is “the most neutral typeface,” the one with the least appeal to those whose feelings about type are tangled up with their feelings about people.

A New Direction for Turkey’s Democracy?

Stephen Kinzer

AP Photo

My report from Turkey in the current New York Review of Books asserts that civilian power in that country has “emerged from the shadow of military power, a breakthrough of historic proportions.” The July 29 resignation of Turkey’s four top military commanders was a capitulation to that reality. It is likely to lead to something Turkey has never known: civilian control of the military.

The Lost Art of Postcard Writing

Charles Simic

Until a few years ago, hardly a day would go by in the summer without the mailman bringing a postcard from a vacationing friend or acquaintance. Nowadays, you’re bound to get an email enclosing a photograph, or, if your grandchildren are the ones doing the traveling, a brief message telling you that their flight has been delayed or that they have arrived. The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety. It wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, or some other famous tourist attraction you were likely to receive in the mail, but also a card with a picture of a roadside diner in Iowa, the biggest hog at some state fair in the South, and even a funeral parlor touting the professional excellence that their customers have come to expect over a hundred years.