Roving thoughts and provocations

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Martin Filler

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The latest refurbishment of the White House Oval Office would be just another before-and-after decorating story were it not for the fact that stylistic aspects of the chief executive’s workplace are closely watched for possible insights into the personality of the occupant. As revealed to the nation in the president’s televised address about Iraq on August 31, the new décor indicates that however much vision Barack Obama may possess, he doesn’t have much of an eye.

Obama’s Jobs Crisis

Jeff Madrick

With the unemployment rate stuck at 9.6 percent, President Obama used his Labor Day speech in Milwaukee to announce a new initiative to address America’s jobs crisis. The $50 billion in new government spending on transportation and public works that he is now proposing is badly needed, and would eventually create jobs. But even in the unlikely event that the plan wins Congressional support, it will not be sufficient to stimulate enough growth to create the millions of new jobs the nation needs. Why has there been so little urgency in the White House to confront the issue that will most directly affect the outcome of the November elections?

Discovering the Art of Boscoe Holder, Trinidadian Master

Hilton Als, Peter Doig, and Angus Cook

Last spring in Berlin, Peter Doig and Hilton Als co-curated an exhibition of portraits—mostly by young, unrecognized or forgotten artists—a show that included a rare look at the work of the remarkable but little known 20th-century Trinidadian painter Boscoe Holder (1921–2007). Here is a selection of his work, along with excerpts of a conversation between Doig, Als, and Angus Cook about the artist and his Caribbean milieu.

Moscow and the ‘Merchant of Death’

Amy Knight

Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo

Over the past couple of weeks, the case of the infamous Russian arms trader Victor Bout—who has supplied guns, ammunition, and material to groups ranging from the FARC in Colombia to the Afghan Taliban—has generated enormous attention and raised many questions. Considered one of the world’s most prolific weapons traffickers, Bout has become the object of a high-level tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over US efforts to extradite him from Thailand, where he is being held. Yet amid all the speculation about Russia’s interest in the case, one of the more revealing clues about Bout’s Kremlin connections has gone largely unnoticed.

Save the Warburg Library!

Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger

mediaartnet.org

Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. The conditions that have made this possible included, in the past, a loose, egalitarian organization, substantial autonomy for scholars and teachers, and a generous esprit de corps. Yet instead of preserving this distinguished and successful sector of British life, both Labour and Tory governments seem bent on rearing hierarchies, crushing autonomy, and destroying morale.

Tony Judt: An Intellectual Journey

Timothy Snyder

René Burri/Magnum Photos

Tony Judt was, in effect, two historians: first, a Marxist from a working-class English-Jewish background educated at Cambridge and at the École Normale in Paris who wrote four excellent books on the French left, and then a grand New York scholar who wrote an unimaginably good history of postwar Europe as well as strikingly clear studies of leading European intellectuals, such as Albert Camus and Leszek Kołakowski. The hinge was Past Imperfect, Tony’s eloquent critique of Parisian intellectual politics after World War II, published in 1992. On the surface, this was a close study of Jean-Paul Sartre’s communism and the political narcissism of Left Bank intellectuals who celebrated Stalinism while ignoring its consequences in Eastern Europe. At another level, it was the repudiation by a French Marxist of his own tradition.

Prison Rape: Eric Holder’s Unfinished Business

David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow

James Stenson

A new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides grim reaffirmation of something we already knew: sexual violence is epidemic within our country’s prisons and jails. According to the report, 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.

In fact, as we’ve explained before, the true national total is much higher. The BJS numbers don’t include thousands who we know are sexually abused in juvenile detention and other kinds of corrections facilities every year, nor do they account for the constant turnover among jailed detainees. Stays in jail are typically short, and several times as many people pass through jail in a year as are held there on any given day. Overall, we can confidently say that well over 100,000 people are sexually abused in American detention facilities every year.

One Set of Shoulders: China’s Hidden Revolution

Mark Lilla

STR/AFP/Getty Images

During a recent month-long stay in China, my wife and I toured the southwestern province of Guangxi with a jovial guide from Guilin. James (his professional name) was very knowledgeable, but a little too eager to give us our money’s worth. For five days he talked non-stop. But one night, in a remote mountain village set atop terraced rice paddies, he fell silent. As we were sitting down to dinner he got a call and asked to be excused; when he returned half an hour later the smile was gone and his eyes wouldn’t meet ours. At first grateful for the silence, we became worried when he remained withdrawn the next day. With a little prodding, he eventually told us what the call was about. It involved his son, his only child.

Iran’s New Reactor: Why We Shouldn’t Worry

Jeremy Bernstein

Sandafayre

Because of its strategic location on the Persian Gulf, the Iranian city of Bushehr has been an important seaport for centuries. In the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had a trading post at what they called Bushire, and until 1913 the British agent for the Persian Gulf was stationed there. It is only in recent decades, however, that Bushehr has become known for its nuclear industry. Now, Iran has announced that it has completed—with Russian help—its long planned Bushehr reactor, an event it has marked by an elaborate dedication ceremony and claims of victory against its western enemies. But questions remain about Bushehr’s strategic importance—and whether the West should be worried about it.