Roving thoughts and provocations

Edmund Burke Against Grover Norquist

Garry Wills

David Levine

Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Taxpayer Protection Pledges—a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax—and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider it. The idea of committing candidates to a rigid position as a condition of their being elected seems to be catching on.

Why Fannie and Freddie Are Not to Blame for the Crisis

Jeff Madrick and Frank Partnoy

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

A debate has erupted anew in Washington over whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the credit crisis of 2007 and 2008. Their critics claim that these two Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) deserve a lot of the blame because they encouraged mortgage lending to low-to-middle-income Americans, a goal that Congress required and Bill Clinton advocated. The debate, which faded after a brief fluorescence in 2008, has been revived by a new book, Reckless Endangerment, by the respected New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson and the dogged financial analyst Josh Rosner.

Two Marches, Two Futures for Jerusalem

David Shulman

Haley/SIPA/AP Images

On one side, we have a violent, mystically charged racism with its vision of brute domination of one people by another, and of an endgame of perpetual disenfranchisement and dispossession. On the other side, we have the prospect of a free Palestine, with its capital in East Jerusalem, the end of the Occupation, and the realistic hope of an agreement based on compromise and mutuality.

How FDR Did It

Ronald Dworkin

David Levine

We now have a President we can admire and respect. But he seems unaware that his opponents are not patriots anxious to help govern through a decent consensus but fanatics who would destroy the country if that would lead to his defeat. We think he should understand that this is a time for confrontation not compromise. He should therefore remember the words of another president running for reelection in the middle of an even graver economic catastrophe, words that seem eerily relevant now.

Memories of Chekhov

Peter Sekirin

Chekhov Museum, Badenweiler

Memories of Chekhov, from which this excerpt is drawn, is the first documentary biography of Anton Chekhov to be based on primary sources: the letters, diaries, essays, and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and contemporaries that I collected from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow, as well as the New York Public Library, the Russian State Library, and the Library of Congress. All of this material appears in English translation for the first time. My favorite discovery was a rare editorial by Chekhov dedicated to the life of Nikolai Przhevalsky, a famous Russian geographer. At the very end of the nineteenth century Chekhov wrote, “Reading this biography, we do not ask: ‘Why did he do this?’ or ‘What did he accomplish?’ but we say, ‘He was right!’” These words also describe Chekhov’s own life.

A States’ Rights Advocate Upholds Obamacare

David Cole

John Springs

On June 29, 2011, the first federal court of appeals to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” upheld the law by a vote of 2-1. Two more appellate court decisions are expected soon, and ultimately the Supreme Court will have the final say. But more significant than the judges’ reasoning is the judge who cast the deciding vote – Judge Jeffrey Sutton. Had those challenging the law been asked to name their “dream judge” for this appeal, they would almost certainly have named Sutton. It’s not only that he is a Republican, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and an active member of the Federalist Society. Sutton made his name litigating for states’ rights.

Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor”: A New Translation

Mark Harman

Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos

Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor” made its first appearance in the Prague Zionist journal Die Selbstwehr (“Self-defense”) in September 1919, the year the thirty-six-year-old Kafka composed his famous letter to his father. Hauntingly oblique, the story weaves together child-like hopefulness and stoical resignation, metaphysical yearning and psychological insight, a seemingly Chinese tale and covert Jewish themes.

China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

Jonathan Mirsky

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-one days later, he reappeared at home. Not freed: reappeared, which can mean something closer house arrest. A lifeguard at my local pool in London announced to me that Ai had been freed, and I fear that is what the “Sinologists”—as the China specialists in the Foreign Office like to be called—may have told Prime Minister David Cameron before his meeting on June 27 in London with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. They may also have mentioned that, according to the government’s official press agency, Ai “confessed his crimes”—though it should be noted no formal charge was ever brought against him.

The Venice Biennale: The Good, the Bad, and the American

Eric Banks

Marco Secchi/Getty Images

In addition to the usual gaggle of curators and museum directors, vulpine collectors, slithery yacht-borne oligarchs, and pop celebrities a decade or more removed from their last hit record, this year’s Venice Biennale drew in a handful of politicians as well. But if Venice is still the premier international contemporary-art bonanza, it may have become a victim of its own success.

Will Syria’s Revolt Disrupt the Turkish Borderlands?

Hugh Eakin

Burhan Ozbilici/AP Photo

Over the past ten days, the alarming flight of more than 11,000 Syrians to Turkey—and the prospect of thousands more to come—has brought the international press to Hatay, the dusty Turkish border province with a large Syrian minority where most of the refugees have been put in camps. With impressive speed, Turkey’s Red Crescent has launched a large-scale humanitarian effort to provide a safe haven for victims of Assad’s horrific crackdown. But while journalists seek to interview those who have fled, they have also had to confront a surprisingly recalcitrant Turkish government: for more than a week after the refugees arrived, access to the camps where they are being housed was denied; and Turkey has until now refused support from international humanitarian agencies to deal with the crisis. What is Ankara so nervous about?