In his great book of reportage on the revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the Shah’s security forces and refuses to listen when the once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken. I was reminded of that episode by the tragic January 4 murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, by a member of his own security detail, in a public shooting just a mile from the presidential palace in Islamabad. As with Kapuscinski’s demonstrator, the killing seemed to mark an epochal shift in the political landscape—though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink.
Since a Russian judge sentenced former Yukos oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to thirteen and a half years in prison on December 30, many commentators have viewed the outcome—after a 22-month trial that openly flouted judicial standards—as a major setback for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. After all, a little more than a year ago, Medvedev gained international attention for vowing to institute the rule of law in Russia and make foreign investment in Russia a top priority, and there had been growing speculation that he might begin to take on the entrenched interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the moment, those hopes seem dashed. In the long run, however, the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev may hurt Putin more than Medvedev as the two rivals position themselves for the 2012 presidential contest.
“Everyone who thinks is unhappy,” says Sergei Dovlatov in one of his stories. Some crows caw all day, some have nothing to say. I see one of them pace back and forth on my lawn the way I’ve seen Hamlet do on stage. Whatever is bothering him seems insoluble, too much for one crow to figure out on his own. Still, no harm trying, I suppose, even with the racket his relatives are making as they fly to and fro, as if the road they oversee is not covered only with fallen leaves and patches of ice, but also with fresh road kill.
Not so long ago, whenever Brazilian professors were invited to give a lecture at a foreign university, they would be expected to say something about their country’s famously exotic national culture. There was no escaping Brazil’s reputation for samba, football, and beautiful mulatto girls, not to mention capoeira (a martial art), candomblé (a syncretic African religion) and feijoada (a traditional bean stew that has been considered, since the 1930s, the national dish). Today, the old cliché of laid-back, exotic Brazil is increasingly being supplanted by a less naive image, one dominated by violence, favelas, and drug-trafficking. But what is the meaning of this image, and how much grounding does it have in reality?
In the schoolbooks I read as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe was a rosy land of legend. While forging his new republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, which had been crushed and fragmented in World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk fought against the Greek army, but with the support of his own army he later introduced a slew of social and cultural modernization reforms that were not anti- but pro-Western. It was to legitimize these reforms, which helped to strengthen the new Turkish state’s new elites (and were the subject of continuous debate in Turkey over the next eighty years), that we were called upon to embrace and even imitate a rosy-pink—occidentalist—European dream.
Lately, Barack Obama doesn’t look like such a bad poker player. Roundly criticized for “negotiating with himself” before the Republicans even got to the table on the tax compromise—and for the Democrats’ abysmal showing in the midterm elections—the president can now claim a head-turning sequence of out-of-nowhere legislative victories: the long-sought repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the approval of the New Start treaty with Russia, and, on Wednesday afternoon, a bill extending health coverage benefits for rescue workers and others who got sick in the 9/11 aftermath. Republicans had invested much time and energy in blocking all of them, and very few Democrats in Washington would have been willing to predict two weeks ago that any of these measures would pass.
Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus’s sad capital, is one of the most terrifying public spaces in Europe. It is nothing but concrete, steel, glass and fearsome horizons—no benches, shelter, or anything for people who might wish to do something so normal as to assemble and speak together. Where anything vertical rises from the ground, it bears a video camera, ensuring that any gathering can be observed by the Belarusian KGB. And yet, when Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory by an improbably large absolute majority in the presidential elections on December 19, people came, in the tens of thousands, to protest the official results.
“Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. But there are many unofficial historians like me.”
In “The Last Irascible,” my new essay in the The New York Review, I write about the idiosyncratic life of the hundred-year-old artist Hedda Sterne, drawing on an interview I recorded with her in 2003. Born in Romania in 1910, Sterne fled German-occupied Bucharest and eventually settled in New York, where she became one of the few women in a circle of Abstract Expressionist painters that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. But Sterne thought of herself as an anti-Abstract Expressionist, someone with no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture. Rarely did she paint a pure abstraction. In the 1960s she drew lettuce heads as crazy mazes, as if she were a worm inside, investigating. She pointed out that even her webby white-on-white drawings—made in the 1990s, when she was practically blind—represented the “floaters and flashers” across her field of vision. Although major museums acquired her work, and despite having one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. Here is a selection of her work.
On November 29, a conservative website posted an 11-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix from a 4-minute video made by David Wojnarowicz, an artist who died of AIDS in 1992. The video, Fire in My Belly, was part of a show at the National Portrait Gallery called “Hide/Seek,” said to be the country’s first national exhibition devoted to gay and lesbian themes. Wojnarowicz made the video in 1986 and 1987, as his lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS, and as David himself learned that he was HIV-positive; it is an eerie meditation on life, death, violence, and nature, featuring imagery from the Day of the Dead. David later explained that he saw Jesus as a symbol of someone who willingly took on the suffering of the world. A self-appointed conservative guardian of public morality, William Donohue of the Catholic League, saw it differently, and attacked the video clip as blasphemous and demanded that the piece be taken down. The Smithsonian—which runs the National Portrait Gallery and which is funded by the US Government—promptly removed the video from the exhibition, effectively granting Donohue a “heckler’s veto.”