Roving thoughts and provocations

The Senate’s Energy Failure

Michael Tomasky

Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

Many reasons have been served up to explain the Democrats’ dismal withdrawal of the energy bill last week: the President was too reticent about fighting climate change; they failed to drum up sufficient public support; they let too many other things take precedence on the legislative agenda. But one reason towers above all others—the dysfunctionality of the Senate.

The Hague’s Balkan Confusion

Charles Simic

Laura Boushnak/AFP/Getty Images

There is nothing very surprising about the ruling by the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal. As one would expect, the Serbian government—which had challenged the declaration before the court and remained to the end optimistic of winning—was stunned by the answer, while the Albanians in Kosovo cheered. But the ruling simply upholds the largely uncontroversial assertion that international law does not include any “prohibition of declarations of independence”; anyone can, if she so wishes, make such a declaration. In contrast, the court was notably silent about what happens afterwards—whether the new state is recognized or not by the international community—carefully avoiding any mention of the legality of Kosovo as a state.

Deconstructing Prince Charles

Martin Filler

London Evening Standard

Like Mount Vesuvius but at briefer intervals, Prince Charles erupts in high dudgeon over various and sundry affronts to his very particular and sometimes very peculiar notions of how life should be lived. The ghastliness of modern architecture and the superiority of homeopathic medicine—in 2004 he endorsed an alternative cancer treatment that prescribes, among other things, daily coffee enemas—are but the foremost of his many contrarian beliefs. Perhaps because mental illness runs in both sides of his highly inbred family, his state of mind has been questioned more than once.

Still, the latest urban planning flap stirred up by Charles—who at age 61 has been heir to the British throne longer than any of his predecessors—may raise the most serious questions yet about his fitness to reign.

The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

Edmund White

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.

As Ginsberg said:

If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.

Emily Dickinson in the Bronx

Christopher Benfey

Houghton Library, Harvard University

It would be difficult to describe the sheer strangeness, for me, of driving down from Amherst last month to pay tribute to Emily Dickinson in the Bronx. I had been invited, along with the novelist Jerome Charyn, to give a talk at “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” a ravishingly colorful and informative exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibition at the garden’s Mertz Library—which includes, along with a selection of Dickinson manuscripts and artifacts, a reproduction of the poet’s famous white dress and a digital version of her teenage collection of more than 400 wildflowers, each of them carefully classified and labeled—remains on view until August 1.  (The garden portion of the show closed on June 13.) Wittily etched on the elevator leading to the library are her forbidding lines: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then—shuts the door.”

Slide Show: Otto Dix

Sanford Schwartz

This summer, the Neue Galerie in New York is offering the first large-scale American exhibition of the gleefully provocative German painter Otto Dix (1891–1969)—providing a rare opportunity, as New York Review contributor Sanford Schwartz says, “to appreciate an artist who could almost be our contemporary.” Here are a selection of images from the show, together with comments taken from Schwartz’s piece on Dix, which will appear in the Review‘s August 19 issue. The exhibition closes August 30. (Images provided by Neue Galerie New York.)

On Losing

Charles Simic

Getty Images/Popperfoto

Now that the World Cup is over and the Spaniards and everyone else who admired their elegant way of playing soccer is happy, and the few nations whose teams either exceeded expectations or did okay in the month-long tournament have returned to their normal lives, the fans in underachieving countries are still fuming, many of them destined to recall for the rest of their days how their side either disgraced themselves, or were the victims of gross injustice. For those of them that have been following their national team for years, they’ve most likely already suffered more than any holy martyr in the history of the church, and yet it’s doubtful that even one of them will go to heaven, because they cursed and swore till they were blue in the face each time their team lost.

Obama’s Risky Business

Jeff Madrick

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

The financial reregulation package just passed by Congress is far from a comprehensive reform of American finance. Despite the enormous threat to the world’s financial markets created by the failure of Lehman Brothers and the stunning excesses of insurance giant AIG and banking conglomerate Citigroup, the reforms are in truth modest. Neither the Obama administration nor Congress opted to cut banks down to size, and the bill is only placing mild limits on risky banking activities. The giant financial institutions, meanwhile, are as big—even bigger—than ever and bankers’ compensation is once again at stunning levels.

But the problem with the legislation is not merely its small scale. It is the way it is supposed to be implemented: to avoid controversy and get the bill passed, congressional reformers foisted the responsibility for setting most of the specific, sticky rules on federal regulators at the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and elsewhere, who are to make them over the next year or two. These are, for the most part, the same regulators who failed to stop the speculative excesses and ensuing credit crisis of 2008. While they now have a few more tools at their disposal, their already substantial tool box was barely touched in the years leading up to the housing and credit crash and severe recession. Will it be different next time?

FIFA’s Foul Play

Tim Parks

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP Photo

For any practitioner of Zen who imagines he has achieved a state of detached equanimity, the ultimate test must be to watch his national side play at soccer’s World Cup. That England’s team is dull, I tell myself after the first game, I can handle; that they are truly dire, I reflect after the second and third, is perhaps only par for the course. When, in their first knockout match, England goes 2–0 down to a fluent and attractive Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for resignation and acceptance.

Then it happens. England scores. 2–1. And scores again! The ball strikes the bar behind the goalkeeper and goes a yard into the goal before bouncing out. We have all seen it, we are delighted. But the referee doesn’t blow his whistle! Neither he nor the linesman has seen it. Not that they have poor eyesight. They see a thousand tiny things. It is extraordinary, watching the replays of complex fouls and tussles, how rarely referees and linesmen are wrong. But in this case they blinked in synchrony precisely as Frank Lampard’s strike went into the goal.

Petraeus’s Baby

Ahmed Rashid

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

The surprising and speedy crash of General Stanley McCrystal has been seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region as just one more sign of the mess that the US and its NATO allies face in what is looking increasingly like an unwinnable conflict.

The Afghan Taliban are describing the general’s sacking as a military victory—coming as it does at the height of their summer offensive; the most hurtful rumor going around Kabul and Islamabad is that McChrystal wanted to be removed because he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for a losing war. The Taliban claimed another victory when Britain announced a week later that its troops would withdraw from Sangin, a remote and ever more deadly region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan—although they will be replaced by US marines. Out of a deployment of 9,000 troops, Britain has lost 312 soldiers in Helmand since 2005—of which some 100 have been killed in Sangin alone.

All of which has heightened anxieties that the US commitment to Afghanistan is rapidly flagging.