Roving thoughts and provocations

Last Chance for Pakistan

Ahmed Rashid

Shakil Adil/AP Photo

Though it has received only moderate attention in the western press, the torrential flooding of large swaths of Pakistan since late July may be the most catastrophic natural disaster to strike the country in half a century. But even greater than the human cost of this devastating event are the security challenges it poses. Coming at a time of widespread unrest, growing Taliban extremism, and increasingly shaky civilian government, the floods could lead to the gravest security crisis the country—and the region—has faced. Unless the international community takes immediate action to provide major emergency aid and support, the country risks turning into what until now has remained only a grim, but remote possibility—a failed state with nuclear weapons.

A Quiet Shift in Mexico’s Drug War

Alma Guillermoprieto

Matias Recart/AFP/Getty Images

Without the rest of the world paying much attention, the tortured relations between drug traffickers and the rest of the Mexican population have taken a significant turn. Following a series of hair-raising events over the past few weeks, it appears that the government of Felipe Calderón may be preparing to replace its aggressive military campaign against the drug trade with a rather different policy—opening the door to a previously unthinkable debate about legalizing drugs. Either that, or the administration is losing its bearings at an even faster rate than we had supposed.

Leonardo’s Disquiet

Zbigniew Herbert

Writing,” wrote Zbigniew Herbert, “must teach men soberness: to be awake.” One of Poland’s greatest poets, Herbert (1924–1998) was also a prolific essayist, and with the publication of his Collected Prose this week we can take in the full range of his brisk, erudite work.

How Will Gay Marriage Fare in the Supreme Court?

David Cole

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On August 4, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker declared California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional, a denial of equal protection of the laws and of the due process right to marry. Gay rights groups applauded anxiously. If Perry v. Schwarzenegger is upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, it is almost certain to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. And the outcome there very likely turns on a single Justice’s vote—Anthony Kennedy’s. There are probably four votes to strike down Proposition 8—Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—but there are also almost certainly four votes to uphold it—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. As is so often the case on controversial matters before the Supreme Court these days, everything turns on Justice Kennedy. Which way will he rule?

Our Diminished Oceans

Bill McKibben

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

What may turn out to be the summer’s most important news story (and just possibly the millennium’s) didn’t make the pages of the Times. A study in Nature has concluded that as oceans warmed, phytoplankton—the tiny organisms that form the crucial first level of the entire marine food chain—were disappearing.

Monstres Sacrés in Love

Robert Gottlieb

Regine Abadia/Sony Pictures Classics

All bio-pix are by definition ridiculous since their subjects have to be manifestly unique people—why else would the movie be made?—while what makes them unique is exactly what’s so impossible to convey. (Creativity is invisible, hence unfilmable.)

How My Father Came to Meet Duke Ellington

Jeremy Bernstein

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

When I was in high school I decided that I wanted to be a radio announcer. I found out that if you went to Radio City there were studio tours and you could even watch some of the programs in process. I took the tour a couple of times and then decided that it might be possible simply to walk past the people at the entrance looking as if I knew where I was going and wander around the studios unescorted. Indeed this is what I did.

Designing ‘Mad Men’

Martin Filler

Frank Ockenfels 3

A major theme in literature is a wistful regard for life as it was lived some forty or fifty years earlier, typified by Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), which looked back at upper-class mores in 1870s New York. Similarly, the five-decade postmillennial perspective afforded through the rear-view mirror of Mad Men—the critically acclaimed and cultishly followed cable-television drama series that first aired on AMC in 2007 and began its fourth season on July 25—bridges an equivalent time span, long enough to feel historical yet still within living memory of many.

For those of us who came to cultural awareness during the Kennedy years—the purview of Mad Men during its first three seasons, with the present cycle beginning in 1964—Mad Men offers anything but a comforting wallow in nostalgia. The series, which focuses on the fictive Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper (later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce), derives its thrilling power from the dark and seamlessly unified vision of its creator, executive producer, and head writer, Matthew Weiner, an auteur with few peers in the history of his medium.