In an NYRblog post on February 17, I discussed Chinese government efforts to block news of the democracy uprisings spreading across the Middle East and speculated how China’s rulers might view those uprisings. I have now received news that resolves much of that speculation and that may also help explain the unusual show of force by Chinese security officials this weekend in response to a call for street protests to support a “Jasmine Revolution” in several Chinese cities.
President Obama’s budget proposal this week shows just how thoroughly austerity economics now dominates the policy debate for both Democrats and Republicans. This emphasis is not new: Obama had already signaled he was giving special priority to cutting the deficit well before the November elections, when he named a bipartisan panel to make recommendations on how to deal with future deficits. It was hardly an objective panel, headed by two deficit hawks, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and retired Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson.
Not so very long ago, some economists feared Obama’s stimulus plan was not doing enough, quickly enough to rescue the economy. With US government spending now surpassing revenues by about 10 percent of GDP, those voices have been muffled.
Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the People’s Daily informed readers that “the Egyptian government is continuing to carry out its various measures to support restoration of social order.” But on the Chinese Internet, which despite vigorous policing is hard to stifle, Mubarak has received a drubbing: “autocrat,” “corrupt thug,” and so on. Thus, while Chinese censors have declared the word “Mubarak” (along with “Egypt” and others) to be “sensitive” and have set up filters to delete any message that contains it, Chinese Web users, in their usual cat-and-mouse game, have invented witty substitutes. These include “Mu Xiaoping” and “Mu Jintao”—which, by playing on the names of China’s own autocrats, get around the censors and up the ante at the same time.
As the story of the horrific January 24 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport continues to unfold, the parallels with past major terrorist attacks in Russia are striking. It is not just the high number of casualties (36 dead and 160 wounded) and that the perpetrators appear to have come from the volatile North Caucasus. As with earlier such violence, there were also serious warning signs in advance that were ignored, and the immediate handling of the attack by the authorities was botched. Above all, the confusing and contradictory response of both the security agencies and Russia’s leadership has once again raised troubling questions about the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism policies.
It’s not easy to make sense of the remarkable Lod Mosaic, a large, ancient floor newly discovered in Israel and now on display in the United States for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the very difficulty of interpretation, together with the excellent state of preservation, is what makes it so fascinating. We simply don’t know whether it was part of a residence or an official building, and we can’t even say whether the owner or owners were Jewish, Christian, or pagan. The date is not secure either, although the excavator proposes about AD 300 because late third-and-fourth-century coins and ceramic scraps were found immediately above it. Miraculously, what is on display at the Met survived intact apart from one large gash near the bottom that the excavator considers ancient damage, although not everyone agrees.
The mosaic at the Met is the main part of an ensemble of floor mosaics that the Israeli Antiquities Authority uncovered in 1996 at Lod (ancient Lydda) during the construction of a road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Measuring some twenty-three and a half feet by thirteen feet, the mosaic consists of a large square containing a central octagonal medallion, with narrow rectangular panels above and below the square.
It was around 3 PM on Friday that we began to feel it might be over. Earlier, there had been fears of a new government crackdown, as protesters, still seething from Mubarak’s defiant speech and Suleiman’s call for people to go home the night before, had promised to make the eighteenth day of revolution the largest yet. By early afternoon, those worries had faded. The streets had filled with marching, chanting people, and in Tahrir Square the growing crowd seemed to surge with positive energy. Again there was possibility. Mubarak’s speech had been a point of no return, and everyone I knew—even those who hadn’t taken part in the protests until now—said that they would be out calling for his departure after the Friday prayer.
On Thursday evening, sixteen days after thousands of Egyptians converged on Cairo’s central square to bring an end to a thirty-year-old dictatorship, it seemed that the moment we had been waiting for had finally come. Around 6 PM, rumors began circulating that Mubarak was preparing to step down, and later, Egyptian State TV confirmed he would be making an announcement—his second since the protests began. People started to pour into the streets near Tahrir Square shouting “Yay, yay, yay, Hosni is leaving today,” and cars were honking as if in victory.
As the evening went on and the speech was delayed, however, the crowd became quieter, many murmuring fears that perhaps the resignation wouldn’t happen. Some people sat on the pavement of Tahrir, others stood, waiting and anxious. Standing near me, Shahira Amin—the news anchor who resigned from her State television post last week to protest the government’s propaganda—said her stomach was in knots. When the speech began at last, a little after 11 PM—broadcast on loudspeakers across the square—it was quickly apparent that Mubarak was not going to concede much of anything. At first, people listened in stunned silence as he rambled on about “those” who were responsible for the violence being held to account. When he spoke of “foreign interference” some minutes into the speech, the crowd booed. People began to shout when he mentioned handing powers to longtime regime insider and now Vice President Omar Suleiman. And they erupted in anger when it became clear that he had no plans to step down.
More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost and—if we are to believe the police and intelligence agencies of dozens of countries—assassinations are still being attempted and plotted because Muslims have been angered by the display of such images. In December, a suicide bomber inspired by other insulting drawings of Muhammad attacked a busy shopping street in Stockholm; on Friday, a court in Copenhagen sentenced a Somali man to nine years in prison for attempting to kill Westergaard.
Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for this violent response. There is no explicit ban on figurative art in the Quran, and representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent. There are numerous such depictions—faceless or veiled as an indication of his holiness, or even depicted with facial features—in manuscript collections. It is only quite recently that Muslims living in the west have begun lodging objections to the reproduction of these images in books.
When invited by The New York Review to write about the very successful western (if it is a western; about which more follows) and Coen brothers movie adaptation of Charles Portis’s twice-filmed novel True Grit, we watched Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, Joel’s and Ethan’s version, and also read Portis’s much-praised novel, on top of which we breezed through quite a few reviews, as well as portions of the production notes.
This is a question poets get asked often. The quick answer is nowhere. This can’t be right, you are thinking. You’ve read plenty of poems about poets walking in the woods, rolling in the hay and even taking a sightseeing trip through hell. True enough. Nevertheless, poets, even when they are fighting in a war, rarely take off their slippers. Doesn’t Homer’s blindness prove my thesis? I bet every one of those eyewitness accounts of Greeks and Trojan slaughtering each other, and the wonderful adventures Odysseus had cruising the Mediterranean, were dreamed up by Homer while waiting for his wife to serve lunch.
Sure, many poets would deny this. Here in the United States, we speak with reverence of authentic experience. We write poems about our daddies taking us fishing and breaking our hearts by making us throw the little fish back into the river. We even tell the reader the kind of car we were driving, the year and the model, to give the impression that it’s all true. It’s because we think of ourselves as journalists of a kind. Like them, we’ll go anywhere for a story. Don’t believe a word of it. As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes wide open.