On Thursday, my students and I walked along from the Colosseum to the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Two nights later, those same Roman streets became a battleground, as a group of about 1500 black-clad, hooded incognito street fighters succeeded in derailing one of the largest economic protests that has yet been staged in any western country. It had been planned as a huge non-violent demonstration by some 150,000 “Indignati”—outraged Italian citizens—to decry the Berlusconi government’s failure to face the global economic crisis, and it was meant to chime in with similar protests taking place in many other countries. But as the demonstration moved peacefully down toward the Roman Forum, the masked street fighters, both male and female, jumped into action, smashing shop windows, uprooting signs, burning cars, throwing bottles, cobblestones, fire extinguishers and petards, and brutally beating anyone in their way: journalists, peaceful demonstrators, and police.
On the West Bank, the Palestinian September has come and gone in an eerie quiet. Abu Mazen returned from the UN to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah, and there were low-key celebrations in other cities as well; but the mass demonstrations that many predicted, and that the Israelis feared, have not materialized. The Palestinian security forces were given strict orders to keep demonstrators away from potential places of friction such as roadblocks, checkpoints, and of course Israeli settlements. Expecting the worst, the Israeli army invested considerable resources in the latest crowd-control technology, including the infamous “Skunk” spray, which disperses an unbearable malodorous mist, and which some of us have experienced in Bil’in and al-Nabi Saleh; but so far they haven’t needed these methods. In the meantime, has anything changed on the ground?
On the morning of Sunday, October 9, members of Cairo’s large Coptic community went to the Abbasiya Cathedral, the papal headquarters of the Coptic Church. They prayed, as a Coptic youth leader told me, “for the day to begin and end peacefully, and for a million people to turn up” at the protest march to the State TV Building planned for that afternoon. But the day would be far from peaceful: by its end, more than two dozen civilians, many of them Copts, and several soldiers, would be dead; and in the days since, many Egyptians have come to regard the events surrounding the march as a dark turning point in the country’s bid to build an inclusive democratic society.
The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry has remained constant during his fifty-five-year career: the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters, is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. Sometimes referred to as a “buzzard poet,” Tranströmer seems to hang over this landscape with a gimlet eye that sees the world with an almost mystical precision. A view that first appeared open and featureless now holds an anxiety of detail; the voice that first sounded spare and simple now seems subtle, shrewd, and thrillingly intimate. There is a profoundly spiritual element in Tranströmer’s vision, though not a conventionally religious one. He is interested in polarities and how we respond, as humans, to finding ourselves at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment.
Writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is becoming an infrequent activity, even for those who were once taught the rigorous rules of penmanship in grade school and hardly saw a day go by without jotting down a telephone number or a list of food items to buy at the market on the way home, and for that purpose carried with them something to write with and something to write on. In an emergency, lacking pen or notebook, they might even approach a complete stranger to ask for assistance.
At 7:30 PM, near the people’s library, the General Assembly convened. There were about five hundred of us and, as far as I could tell, we were all members for as long as we hung around. From their perch atop the wall on the northeast section of the park, two young women moderated the meeting. “Mike check!” one of the women cried, and with a unison roar the crowd repeated her words. This was “the people’s mike,” used in lieu of bullhorns, megaphones, or other amplification devices that were prohibited because the protesters had no permit. When the crowd has to repeat every word, it shows; for example, during a speech by the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, things slowed down. But in the large crowd the repetition created a kind of euphoria of camaraderie. It also put you in the oddly disturbing position at times of shouting at full voice something you neither agreed with nor would ever have thought on your own.
Since the beginning of last week, the shift in the attitude of the press toward Occupy Wall Street—and the support across the country the movement is suddenly drawing—is remarkable. The occupation started on September 17 and grew from the beginning. But since two Sundays ago, unions have joined a large and boisterous march and few if any hesitate any longer to visit Zuccotti Park. Friends now bring their children. The press, almost uniformly derisive during the initial weeks, shows signs of understanding that the group touches a deep-seated anger and confusion in America. President Obama had to respond to a question about it last week, and said he understood the concerns. Occupy Wall Street is truly national—indeed international.
Sunday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has produced a fifty-page legal memo that purportedly authorized President Obama to order the killing of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial. Last month, the US carried out that order with a drone strike in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki and another US citizen traveling with him. The strike was front-page news, and apparently was undertaken with the approval of Yemen authorities, yet as it was a “covert operation,” the Obama administration has declined even to acknowledge that it ordered the killing.
So now we know that there is a secret memo that authorized a secret killing of a US citizen—and both the memo and the killing remain officially “secret” despite having been reported on the front page of The New York Times. Whatever one thinks about the merits of presidents ordering that citizens be killed by remote-controlled missiles, surely there is something fundamentally wrong with a democracy that allows its leader to do so in “secret,” without even demanding that he defend his actions in public.
On October 7, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin celebrates his birthday, which this year—his 59th—is probably an especially happy occasion for him. Two weeks earlier, on September 24, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would step aside so that Putin instead of him could represent the United Russia Party in the March 2012 presidential elections. This means that Putin—who after years of dominating the political scene is unlikely to face a credible challenger—could serve as leader of the Kremlin until 2024, when he will turn 72, in the age group of his predecessors in the Soviet era. But perhaps Putin should not celebrate too soon.
Let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them.