Roving thoughts and provocations

Tomorrow, to Tahrir Again’

Yasmine El Rashidi

Yasmine El Rashidi

On Thursday evening, January 27, activists in Cairo were on Twitter discussing the second wave of protests, which were supposed to begin after Friday’s midday prayer. Two days earlier, tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets and, despite a violent response by police and thugs, succeeded in occupying Tahrir Square; this time, it was hoped, many more would join in the peaceful revolt.

Obama, Incorporated

David Bromwich

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was an organized sprawl of good intentions—a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there. And it did not fail to celebrate the American Dream. In short, it resembled most State of the Union addresses since Ronald Reagan’s first in 1982.

Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse?

Timothy Snyder

La Documentation Francaise

In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory.

Hosni Mubarak, the Plane Is Waiting’

Yasmine El Rashidi

Pierre Sioufi

Cairo on the morning of January 25 felt like something of a ghost town. Few civilians were to be found on the streets, most stores were shuttered, and the typically heaving downtown was deserted. It was a national holiday, and in the central town square, named Tahrir, or Liberation, even cars were scarce, and parking spaces—always sparse—were in abundance. The only conspicuous presence was that of Egypt’s police and state security. Rows of their box-shaped olive-green trucks lined thoroughfares and narrow side-streets, in some cases blocking them off for miles. Beside them were battered cobalt blue trucks—the ones used to whisk away prisoners and detainees. Throughout the downtown area and in neighboring districts, police and informants (easily identified by their loitering presence, darting eyes, and frequent two-second phone calls) were gathered around the otherwise empty major arteries of the city. Hundreds of them. Many wore black cargo pants, bush jackets and clunky army boots. Many more were in plain clothes—standing on street corners, at calculated intervals on sidewalks, in building entrances, on bridges, and in the few cafes open on a day when almost everything was closed.

Hollywood’s Royal Stammer

Martin Filler

There is nothing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves more than movies about people with physical or mental disabilities (or addictions). If the afflicted protagonist also happens to be royal, so much the better, for a suffering crowned head bestows an extra touch of class on Hollywood’s uplifting formula of brave triumph over cruel adversity. Not surprisingly, this year’s leading contender for Oscar glory is Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which was nominated Tuesday for a dozen Academy Awards.

The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman

Elizabeth Gumport

George and Betty Woodman

Given that her complete catalogue is composed almost entirely of work she produced as a student, the posthumous critical esteem for American photographer Francesca Woodman is astonishing. Unlike music or math, where precocious displays of talent are not uncommon, photography tends not to have prodigies. Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22, is considered a rare exception. That she has achieved such status is all the more remarkable considering only a quarter of the approximately 800 images she produced—many of them self-portraits—have ever been seen by the public.

When Modernism Entered the Kitchen

Martin Filler

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Cooking odors grow stronger as visitors approach the gallery where Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen—a stimulating show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on food preparation in the twentieth-century home—is installed. Although the aromas actually emanate from a café next to the second-floor exhibition, the pervasive food smells that can be so distracting throughout the restaurant-riddled MoMA are for once appropriate here.

Sarge Shriver (1915–2011)

Garry Wills

Paul Conklin/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

When I thought of writing a book about Bill Buckley, who first made his name as the chairman (editor in chief) of the Yale Daily News, I went to New Haven to interview Francis Donoghue, the longtime business manager of the paper. Buckley had worked hard to be elected chairman, but his aggressive politics made him feel he had no lock on the job. He asked his older brother, Jim, who had worked on the Daily News before him, if it was proper for him, as a member of the editorial board, to vote for himself. Jim said that the vote was anonymous, so no one would know how he voted. When the vote was unanimous, everyone knew.

I told that story to Donahue, and he said Bill should never have had any doubt, since he was the most respected as well as the most flamboyant editor the paper ever had. I asked whom he would consider the next most outstanding editor of the paper. Without hesitation he said “Sarge Shriver.” There have been many famous men (only men back then) who held that post, so this was an extraordinary tribute. I did not know Shriver then, though I knew of him of course, and that was in my mind when I met him.

What I Told Obama About Beijing’s Human Rights Problem

Li Xiaorong

STR/AFP/Getty Images

On January 13, President Obama invited me and four other activists and scholars—the writer Zha Jianying, whose brother is a former political prisoner in China; Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor; author Bette Bao Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, director of Yale’s China Law Center—to meet with him at the White House to discuss the current state of human rights and reform in China. The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, took place as the president prepares for this week’s meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao in Washington. He wanted to know whether we think his approach on these issues is working, and how that approach might be improved. For me, it was an opportunity to bring to the direct attention of the president some critical questions about China’s human rights record I hope he will take up in the summit. The following outlines some of the issues I raised with the president, including a series of specific recommendations concerning US policy toward China.