Now that the World Cup is over and the Spaniards and everyone else who admired their elegant way of playing soccer is happy, and the few nations whose teams either exceeded expectations or did okay in the month-long tournament have returned to their normal lives, the fans in underachieving countries are still fuming, many of them destined to recall for the rest of their days how their side either disgraced themselves, or were the victims of gross injustice. For those of them that have been following their national team for years, they’ve most likely already suffered more than any holy martyr in the history of the church, and yet it’s doubtful that even one of them will go to heaven, because they cursed and swore till they were blue in the face each time their team lost.
The financial reregulation package just passed by Congress is far from a comprehensive reform of American finance. Despite the enormous threat to the world’s financial markets created by the failure of Lehman Brothers and the stunning excesses of insurance giant AIG and banking conglomerate Citigroup, the reforms are in truth modest. Neither the Obama administration nor Congress opted to cut banks down to size, and the bill is only placing mild limits on risky banking activities. The giant financial institutions, meanwhile, are as big—even bigger—than ever and bankers’ compensation is once again at stunning levels.
But the problem with the legislation is not merely its small scale. It is the way it is supposed to be implemented: to avoid controversy and get the bill passed, congressional reformers foisted the responsibility for setting most of the specific, sticky rules on federal regulators at the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and elsewhere, who are to make them over the next year or two. These are, for the most part, the same regulators who failed to stop the speculative excesses and ensuing credit crisis of 2008. While they now have a few more tools at their disposal, their already substantial tool box was barely touched in the years leading up to the housing and credit crash and severe recession. Will it be different next time?
For any practitioner of Zen who imagines he has achieved a state of detached equanimity, the ultimate test must be to watch his national side play at soccer’s World Cup. That England’s team is dull, I tell myself after the first game, I can handle; that they are truly dire, I reflect after the second and third, is perhaps only par for the course. When, in their first knockout match, England goes 2–0 down to a fluent and attractive Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for resignation and acceptance.
Then it happens. England scores. 2–1. And scores again! The ball strikes the bar behind the goalkeeper and goes a yard into the goal before bouncing out. We have all seen it, we are delighted. But the referee doesn’t blow his whistle! Neither he nor the linesman has seen it. Not that they have poor eyesight. They see a thousand tiny things. It is extraordinary, watching the replays of complex fouls and tussles, how rarely referees and linesmen are wrong. But in this case they blinked in synchrony precisely as Frank Lampard’s strike went into the goal.
The surprising and speedy crash of General Stanley McCrystal has been seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region as just one more sign of the mess that the US and its NATO allies face in what is looking increasingly like an unwinnable conflict.
The Afghan Taliban are describing the general’s sacking as a military victory—coming as it does at the height of their summer offensive; the most hurtful rumor going around Kabul and Islamabad is that McChrystal wanted to be removed because he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for a losing war. The Taliban claimed another victory when Britain announced a week later that its troops would withdraw from Sangin, a remote and ever more deadly region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan—although they will be replaced by US marines. Out of a deployment of 9,000 troops, Britain has lost 312 soldiers in Helmand since 2005—of which some 100 have been killed in Sangin alone.
All of which has heightened anxieties that the US commitment to Afghanistan is rapidly flagging.
Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czeslaw Milosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers.
My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Milosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviskiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis).
The arrest of ten Russian spies in America on June 27, and the exchange of them last week for four Russians accused of spying for the West, has brought inevitable comparisons with the Cold War. But really, it has little to do with war or peace. Russia simply cannot help itself.
For most governments, espionage is a tool, used for gathering intelligence abroad. In post-Cold War Russia it is a passion, even an organizing principle, and it begins at home. The Tsars had the Third Department and the Okhrana as their eyes and ears. The Communists had the KGB.
Russia is generally freer now than it was under communism, but its spy-chiefs are, if anything, even more entrenched. No longer is it the government that is running the spies. The spies are running the government.
The Cuban government has announced it will release fifty-two political prisoners who have been locked up since 2003—a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro. The announcement is certainly good news for the prisoners and their families, who have been through a very difficult seven-year ordeal. One might hope it also signals a new willingness by the Castro government to tolerate dissent—or at least to stop locking up dissenters—which would be very good news for the entire country.
But we’ve seen such negotiated releases before. Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson secured the release of three in 1996, and Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released in 2002. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. The most successful was Pope John Paul II, who obtained the release of more than eighty jailed dissidents in 1998.
Why the enormous interest in the final thoughts of men and women who were often guilty of committing horrific crimes? It must be the same morbid curiosity that brought huge crowds of Americans to public executions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Many considered these grim occasions so much fun they brought their families along. The spectators didn’t mind if the hanging they were watching was botched and the condemned struggled choking for a long while at the end of the rope, or if his body dropped headless to the ground, and greeted such horrors with “rude jests” and “rabid laughter.” They expected, as part of the program, to hear a public admission of guilt, expression of remorse, appeal for forgiveness from God and the assembled, and a warning about the evils of booze and company of loose women. They were rarely disappointed.
For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent years the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?