Roving thoughts and provocations

Our War Against the Pashtuns

Anatol Lieven

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

The war in Afghanistan has always been an Afghan civil war, as well as a war between the Taliban and Western forces. The fact is that a plurality of Afghans are rural Pashtuns. By tipping the military balance in favor of the non-Pashtun nationalities, the US and NATO intervention has motivated Pashtuns to fight against the western forces. The tragic reality is that the presence and actions of the US forces themselves have contributed to Taliban support. If there was any doubt about that before the burning of the Korans and the massacre by Sergeant Robert Bales in Kandahar, there can be no doubt now.

Why the Health Care Challenge Is Wrong

Ronald Dworkin

Franz Jantzen

The Supreme Court’s hearings in the health care case, Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, over a nearly unprecedented three days of oral argument, generated all the attention, passion, theater, and constant media and editorial coverage of a national election or a Super Bowl. The legal issues, most analysts think, are not really controversial: the Constitution’s text, the Supreme Court’s own precedents, and basic constitutional principle seem obviously to require upholding the Affordable Health Care Act. But the questions of the ultra-conservative justices in the oral argument have now convinced most commentators that on the contrary, in spite of text, precedent, and principle, the Court will declare the Act unconstitutional in June, by a 5-4 vote.

Jane Jacobs & the Republican Radicals

Jason Epstein

AP Photo

A team of filmmakers planning a documentary on Jane Jacobs asked me recently about the original reviews of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her famous critique of city planners and their destruction of vital city neighborhoods. I told the filmmakers that writers like Jane are usually attacked by beneficiaries of entrenched institutions and that she was no exception. But I also said that I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response to Jane’s book from New York’s so-called Upper West Side intellectuals, most of whom had previously supported and hoped to strengthen the moderate social welfare state but were now fiercely opposed to it. Had these proto-neocons misread The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a generalized assault on government as such rather than a critique of a particular case of government excess?

The Unbearable Truth of War

Christopher Carroll


Simone Weil once wrote that “nothing of all that the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem to have appeared among them.” She was referring to the Iliad, and, judging by the recent raft of translations, adaptations, and novelizations of the poem, we would seem to agree. Four new English versions, all published within a few months of each other, enter a market already glutted with Iliads, many of them—like Richmond Lattimore’s recently reissued classic 1951 translation and Robert Fagles’s widely used 1991 rendering—still vital. Now, the New York Theatre Workshop has staged An Iliad (up through April 1), a play that compresses the entire epic into a one-man, hundred-minute performance.

The Middle East Conflict Comes to France

William Pfaff

Marek Peters/

The terrorist shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in France last week were, among other things, another episode in the war that for nearly a half century has been going on between Zionism and the Palestinians, in which Western Europe and the United States have suffered much collateral damage. Sensational headlines about al-Qaeda and the “global jihad” striking France have followed Mohammed Merah’s death. But the night before he was killed in a police raid, Merah told police that he felt justified for killing three children and a teacher at a Jewish school as revenge for the killing of Palestine children in Gaza.

China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Jonathan Mirsky

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.

Do We Need Stories?

Tim Parks

Costa Manos/Magnum Photos

Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” “There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” But what is the nature of this need? What would happen if it wasn’t met?

The Inner Light of Terence Davies

J. Hoberman

The Film Desk

A nation must have its culture heroes, and current wisdom among Anglo-American movie critics and programmers has advanced Terence Davies to the position of Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Beginning this week, viewers in New York will have an unusual chance to assess his work afresh, with the US release of The Deep Blue Sea, his new version of the 1952 Terence Rattigan adultery drama of the same name, coinciding with a retrospective of his work at BAM and a revival of The Long Day Closes at Film Forum.

A Kennedy for Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid

AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

In Pakistan there is much talk of democratic ideals, but little love for the country’s current crop of politicians, and so there seems to be a yearning for a new kind of leader able to break the cycle of weakness and mediocrity. Into this situation has surged the former cricket superstar Imran Khan, who in recent months has suddenly become the country’s most popular political figure.

Making Up Edith Wharton

Francine Prose

Edith Wharton Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University

When Edith Wharton—then Edith Jones—was a little girl, her favorite game was called “making up.” “Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. At ten, Edith was writing in blank verse. By eighteen, she had begun to publish poems—mostly on the subject of failed love, renunciation and longing, themes that would continue to resonate in her work throughout the decades. We can be glad, I suppose, that she discovered passion at all, but regretful that it should have taken her until the age of forty-six.