Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor.
You often hear the Putin era described as one of exhaustion and resignation on the part of the Russian electorate. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika, about the fall of the Soviet Empire as recalled by three men and two women now in their forties, fairly pulses with depressed resignation—pulses weakly, of course, resignation not being much of a stimulant. The film, which follows the five Muscovites as they go to work, feed their children, watch TV, and mull over their memories of the late eighties and early nineties, culminates on the day of a presidential election: it is May 2008 and Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, is about to be elected president. None of the interviewees is in suspense about who will win, none of them believes it is a fair election, none of them, as far as we can tell, votes for Medvedev, and at least two of them don’t vote at all.
I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime.
On a recent afternoon this month, in a busy downtown Cairo street, armed men exchanged gunfire, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and freely wielded knives in broad daylight. The two-hour fight, which began as an attempt by some shop-owners to extort the customers of others, left eighty-nine wounded and many stores destroyed. In the new Egypt, incidents like this are becoming commonplace. On many nights I go to bed to the sound of gunfire, and each morning I leaf through newspapers anticipating more stories of crime.
Caravaggio novels, as a knowledgeable friend has observed, are not only unrelentingly bad, but bad in the same way (this friend remains nameless in order to avoid the remonstrances of outraged Caravaggio novelists and Derek Jarman). A related case of badness afflicts The Borgias, the new Showtime TV series that bears the name of director Neil Jordan and improbably stars Jeremy Irons as the patriarch of the powerful fifteenth- and sixteenth-century clan. In forty-five-minute doses, The Borgias presents viewers with a veritable banquet of badnesses: the by-definition badness of bodice-ripping costume drama, the badness of the directorial ego-trip, the badness of Low Budget/High Pretensions, the badness of gratuitous violence, and that sovereign badness of not knowing where you want to go because you don’t know where you are in the first place.
Strictly English nationalism comes with a sense of diminishment. It is like a falling back to a defensive position, a withdrawal to the last redoubt. The Empire has long gone. Ireland has mostly gone. Scotland and Wales keep threatening to be next. England is what we will be left with, more of a consolation prize than “England’s green and pleasant land.” William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its vision of building the Eternal City in the squalor of the “dark Satanic mills,” is sung by a young girl in a fairy costume at the opening of Jez Butterworth’s play—named for Blake’s poem—in front of what the play text stipulates: a “faded cross of St. George.”
Some commentators have optimistically pronounced the killing of Osama bin Laden the beginning of the end of our conflict with al-Qaeda. But having eliminated al-Qaeda’s most inspiring symbol, we persist in offering the group an alternative source of inspiration: the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. If there is to be an end to the “war on terror,” Obama will have to be equally resolute about that challenge, as several influential conservative members of Congress are now trying to keep the prison going indefinitely. Obama’s national security credentials have never been higher; but will he use that newfound authority to oppose this ill-advised legislation?
Jonathan Franzen could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after Peter Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American. While Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on, all described with a mixture of irony and disdain, an assumption of superiority and distance.
In The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot, who understood the irrational, atavistic mystique of the British monarchy better than any commentator before or since, wrote that a royal wedding is “the brilliant edition of a universal fact.” Thus the marriage ceremonial of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey on April 29 captured the attention of hundreds of millions of adepts of electronic media worldwide, who followed the proceedings to a lesser degree than expected on television but availed themselves of live streaming, Twitter, and other social networking sites to an unprecedented extent. Emblematic of that shift in viewing habits was the wedding’s instant Web star, the so-called Frowning Flower Girl. Following the church service, a three-year-old attendant stole the royal show on the Buckingham Palace balcony during the happy couple’s long-awaited kiss.
News cameras may zoom lustily into Middle Eastern crowds that vow vengeance. Pundits can cleverly parse the praise for a fallen warrior voiced by the usual Islamist hotheads. Cooler analysts will fret over the uses of assassination as a tool of policy, or over the finer points of Muslim doctrine regarding burial at sea. Yet for the most part the demise of the world’s most wanted man has been met, across the Arab and Muslim worlds, with a very untelegenic shrug of indifference.