Roving thoughts and provocations

Tibet’s Quiet Revolution

Pico Iyer

AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

It’s been startling to witness mass demonstrations in countries across the Middle East for freedom from autocracy, while, in the Tibetan community, a die-hard champion of “people power” tries to dethrone himself and his people keep asking him to stay on. Again and again the Dalai Lama (who tends to be more radical and less romantic than most of his followers) has sought to find ways to give up power, and his community has sought to find ways to ensure he can’t. It could be said that almost the only time Tibetans don’t listen to the Dalai Lama is when he tells them they shouldn’t listen to him. Now, on the eve of an important election for Tibet’s government-in-exile, he has announced he is relinquishing formal political authority entirely—and the Tibetan government has accepted his decision, even as the move has alarmed many around the world and struck some as the end of an era.

Embattled Public Radio

Bill McKibben

NPR

National Public Radio has taken a beating over the last two weeks: first its chief executive was forced to resign amid a scandal caused by a right-wing frame-up, and then, on Thursday, the GOP-dominated House voted to cut off all federal funding to NPR. For the moment, that bill seems unlikely to get far in the Senate, but it suggests just how much public radio has been undermined in recent weeks and months. What’s almost as disturbing as the persistent right-wing attacks on an institution respected and relied upon by the broad public is NPR’s seeming unwillingness to stand up for itself.

Holland’s Magic Mountain

Martin Filler

Sybolt Voeten

The life and death of buildings are more than just metaphors when it comes to one category of structure closely identified with modern architecture: the sanatorium. These facilities for the treatment of tuberculosis are as emblematic of changing attitudes toward architecture as they are toward shifting views on contagion.

Tsunamis: A Primer

Jeremy Bernstein

NOAA

For those who saw video footage of it, the tsunami that hit Japan’s north coast on Friday and then moved inland with overpowering force was a terrifying sight. Three days later, this wall of water, generated by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake offshore, is blamed for thousands of deaths and untold destruction in Japan. I am neither an oceanographer nor a hydrodynamicist, but I have learned a little about the physics of tsunamis that I would like to share.

The New American Pessimism

Charles Simic

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I can’t remember when I last heard someone genuinely optimistic about the future of this country. I discount politicians, investment bankers and generals since their line of work requires that they offer upbeat assessments of everything from our deteriorating economy to our suicidal wars, and assorted narcissists accustomed to shutting their eyes to the plight of their fellow Americans. The outright prophets of doom and gloom among our friends and acquaintances tended to be a rare breed until recently.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art

William Benton

Collection of Loren MacIver

This year is the centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most celebrated figures in American poetry, and several new collections of her prose, poems, and correspondence have been published to commemorate it. Her work is a widely recognized force in American poetry. Far less known is that Bishop was also an accomplished artist.

Zero Hour in Benghazi

Nicolas Pelham

Josef Koudelka

Two and a half weeks after shrugging off Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, the rebels are continuing their carnival outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the city on Libya’s east coast where they have made their headquarters. Roaring crowds taunt Qaddafi to send his planes and tanks, and promise to brave them as they did his anti-aircraft guns. Mannequins with military boots swing from lampposts, enacting the colonel’s hanging. Cartoon graffiti of him as Abu Shafshufa—literally “father of the fuzzy hair”—cover the surrounding walls. And in cafes broadcasting Arabic news, Qaddafi’s appearance triggers cries of zanga, zanga, or dead-end.

Geoffrey Rush’s Antic, Gibbering, Flailing ‘Madman’

Giles Harvey

Stephanie Berger/BAM

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was literature’s great confidence man. Like a Ponzi scheme or a magic trick, his best work is founded on the cornerstone of deceit. In The Inspector-General a young rake inadvertently gulls an entire town into thinking he is an influential government official, then gleefully accepts the bribes and favors that flow his way. In Dead Souls the diabolic anti-hero buys up the names of serfs who have died since the last census in order to pass himself off as a landed gentleman. In the famous short story “The Diary of a Madman,” by contrast, the protagonist seems to play a kind of confidence trick on himself.

Washington’s Budget Battle: Where Is Obama?

Elizabeth Drew

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

In the struggle over government spending for the current fiscal year, the Republicans have forced the White House and the Senate Democrats into a series of retreats, and the outcome is likely to reflect more what the Republicans want than the objective situation seemed to warrant at the outset. Both sides are feeling their way along in a situation with more uncertainties than usual, but this is a most unusual time in Washington. Both sides have already made miscalculations, but thus far, the House Republicans, who were not expected to play such an important role, have held the upper hand.