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.
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?
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.
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.
A documentary film is often part stunt, part lab experiment, and the way a documentary filmmaker pursues his or her story will always involve a bit of amateur sleuthing, as well as improv. That such scriptless adventures have attracted a great director like Werner Herzog is curious but not alarming. Good documentary films can be made cheaply and we seem to be living in an abundantly golden—or at least copper (penny-wise)—era of them. Herzogʼs latest film, Into the Abyss, much like his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, uses the camera as a geiger counter to locate some of the more toxic elements of the American cultural psyche as seen through the questing mind of a pseudo-squeamish European: here the setting is small town Texas’s well-traveled road to death row.
Ukraine has long been a borderland between greater powers. What is different about the present moment is that it is now an independent state, and that it has become a borderland between two authentically different approaches to foreign relations. The European Union has no interest in admitting Ukraine as it is today, but might be interested in admitting the orderly, lawful eastern neighbor it might one day become. Russia has no interest in the rule of law in Ukraine, but is happy to exert influence upon its territory as part of its efforts to control the distribution of natural resources and reassert its power in the post-Soviet space.
China’s activist lawyers and non-professional advocates have long been under a widespread, systematic official assault, which intensified earlier this year and silenced many formerly outspoken voices. A large number of lawyers have been attacked for representing not only those clients who oppose government suppression of religion, speech and association but also those who seek to challenge arbitrary residential evictions, environmental pollution, food and drug contamination, official corruption, discrimination against the sick or disabled or, as in Chen Guangcheng’s last efforts, forced abortion and sterilization.
Witnessing the endless daylight of Scandinavian Midsummer this past summer in Vardø, a picturesque Barents Sea island village built around the northernmost fortress on earth, I was led to wonder what life must be like there during the opposite extreme of the winter solstice. As it happens, this year’s Midsummer celebration gave some idea of that very different experience, or at least of the possible dire effects of prolonged climatic stress on the collective psyche. On June 23, Queen Sonja of Norway came to open the Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials in Vardø, a new monument by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois that eerily evokes the dark night of the soul that it also attempts to expiate.
“Nothing ever changes” may be one of the truest things ever said. Certainly, life was different when our grandparents were young, in many ways far worse and in other ways far better—as they never failed to inform us every time some new, faddish invention came along. But despite all the predictions of social reformers and utopian thinkers, human behavior seems to have remained pretty much the same throughout recorded history. The four-thousand-year old admonition in the Code of Hammurabi that the strong be prevented from oppressing the weak, or Thomas Moore’s observation in the sixteenth century that society was a conspiracy of the rich to defraud the poor, are not only perfectly understandable today, but are aimed at the same problem that has brought demonstrators to the streets from Wall Street to Oakland.