In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. In over forty years of writing about China, I have been subjected to many forms of pressure. But this has never happened. Surely everything in my article is well known in Beijing, especially to the tiny number of English-reading urban people who buy Newsweek. What had I said that attracted the attention of the official shredder?
Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.
The European Union has become a vicious circle of burgeoning debt leading to radical austerity measures, which in turn further weaken economic conditions and result in calls for still more damaging cuts in government spending and higher taxes. Rarely do we get so stark an example of bad—arguably even perverse—economic thinking in action. How could the EU so misread history and treat with contempt the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, who showed that during recessions governments must expand economies through spending and tax cuts, not the opposite? By ignoring this, European policy makers will deepen, not solve, the financial crisis and millions of people will suffer needlessly.
It is not entirely the fault of the recent movie My Week with Marilyn—about Monroe’s disastrous attempt to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier—that it is devoid of sex, which is something like depicting the life of Napoleon without mentioning that he was French. Monroe might have been one of the most sexual beings who ever lived, but the portrayals of her, even by disillusioned observers, sooner or later descend into a sanitized ideal. The sex is overtaken by sentimental treacle, or heroic fantasy, or defensive over-analysis.
From their position as the apparent protectors of last year’s revolution, Egypt’s military rulers have been pushed into increasingly brutal confrontations with civilians—at Maspero in October, during the run-up to elections in November, and most recently, during a week of mayhem in mid December. Peaceful protesters are arbitrarily being arrested and thrown in jail; and the army’s estrangement from the activists who led the revolution is visible in the newly-erected concrete walls that sever downtown streets to separate its forces from the people. These spasms of violence, as important to the future of Egypt as the outcome of elections, often seem to have a logic of their own; December’s episode was set off by a chain of events few could have predicted.
With campaign spending likely to exceed $6 billion, the 2012 elections will be the most expensive in history. Why do the candidates need all that money? Because electoral success requires them to buy endless hours of television time for commercials that advertise their virtues—and, more often, roundly assail their opponents. And we all know that those sordid slanders work unless they are instantly answered with equally facile and equally expensive rebuttals.There are no easy ways to repair our election system. But a large degree of fairness could be restored to our campaigns if we level the TV playing field. Here’s how to do it.
Those of us who were privileged to study with Merce Cunningham at whatever point in his long career will cherish forever the physical challenges he posed for a dancer. Followers like myself also loved his senseless determination to make every piece new, even if it meant losing audience members unwilling to work that hard for the payoff. We loved Merce’s courage: he showed up for work when he was exhausted, when he was injured, when he was suffering, and he always danced full-out. But in an extraordinary act of artistic self-immolation, the creator of some of the twentieth century’s most moving dance works decided in his final years that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company should have a last world tour after his death—and then shut down. Whether he should have been allowed by his board to torch everything he worked so killingly hard to create will be debated for a long time, along with the question of why he did it.
A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.
On November 23, the government of Bahrain was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. The occasion was the release of a report about its handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on. Things didn’t go according to plan. The room fell quiet as Cherif Bassiouni, the report’s chief author, said words like “rape” and “torture” to King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Persian Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.
Hanukkah commemorates persistence against overwhelming odds, when Jewish rebels in Judea defeated their Greek overlords and oil lamps meant to last a single day miraculously burned eight times as long. Five years ago I heard of what seemed another miracle. Despite having been nearly stamped out by the Nazis six decades earlier, the spirit of Jewish life in Poland had been kindled again in Kraków, near the farmlands where my family had lived for perhaps nine centuries.
Cafés, I was told, served jellied carp with raisins. Klezmer tunes bounced down the cobbled streets. Prewar shop signs had reappeared, flanking a bustling square as if its Jews had never left. The cooks and klezmorim, I later learned, were nearly all non-Jews, the crowds made up of tourists, the façades only that. Auschwitz, a mere hour away, remained a brutal warning against rosy nostalgia or frivolity. Still, I needed to see all this for myself. I went.