Roving thoughts and provocations

Should Afghanistan Exist?

Christopher de Bellaigue

Mike King

Here is a map of Afghanistan. Versions of it adorn conference rooms in military bases, ministry buildings and NGO headquarters. The first question it raises is: “Why does Afghanistan exist?” The country contains about a dozen ethnic groups, whose distribution is shown here in simplified form. There is no coast to attract people and trade. One should also bear in mind Afghanistan’s tribal divisions, particularly within the Pashtun ethnic group, which is split into numerous clans and smaller descent groups. These are too complex for a cartographer to suggest.

Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

Richard Bernstein

David Rowley

Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding US relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust public confrontation. This approach, recommended by most influential experts on China, has been followed in political and economic dealings, and even when the human rights of American citizens are at stake. But how effective is quiet diplomacy in practice? Two cases have made this question urgent.

Notorious Couture

Martin Filler

Marty Lederhandler/AP Photo

The most notable change in female fashion during the past three decades has had nothing to do with such age-old preoccupations as hemline length, neckline depth, or silhouette width. Rather, it has been the inexorable transformation of the high-end women’s garment trade from the province of a tiny elite to an all-pervasive marketing tool for international luxury-goods conglomerates, which have masterminded such paradoxical concepts as mass luxury and global exclusivity, more through the sale of designer-label cosmetics and accessories than through clothing itself.

Today, red-carpet celebrities serve as living billboards to promote big-name dressmakers, shoemakers, and jewelers in borrowed finery at entertainment award ceremonies, only to have it all vanish after midnight like Cinderella back from the ball.Thus not least of the pleasures afforded by Notorious and Notable: 20th Century Women of Style—a comparatively small but thoroughly entertaining and subtly instructive exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York—is to be reminded that once upon a time, and not so long ago, the most influential style-setters actually owned their haute couture and bijoux.

A Library Without Walls

Robert Darnton

Can we create a National Digital Library? That is, a comprehensive library of digitized books that will be easily accessible to the general public. Simple as it sounds, the question is extraordinarily complex. It involves issues that concern the nature of the library to be built, the technological difficulties of designing it, the legal obstacles to getting it off the ground, the financial costs of constructing and maintaining it, and the political problems of mobilizing support for it.

Despite the complexities, the fundamental idea of a National Digital Library (or NDL) is, at its core, straightforward. The NDL would make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens. It would be the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet.

North Korea’s New Prince

Christian Caryl

KCNA

So now it’s official. North Korea’s ruling party has given its blessing to Kim Jong Il’s choice of a successor. The lucky man is Kim’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un. On September 28 a special conference of the Korean Workers’ Party named the heir to the party’s Central Committee and also appointed him to a position as vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Just for good measure Kim Jong Un also earned a promotion to four-star general (pretty impressive for someone who’s never actually served in the military).

Messerschmidt’s Mad Faces

Willibald Sauerländer

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the enlightenment. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not only a madman but also a mad artist. At the same time that he began to withdraw from society, he started to work on the project that would isolate him artistically as well, the Kopfstücke, or “character heads,” in which he concentrated his efforts to depict the passions and emotions of humanity.

The Serbian Surprise

Charles Simic

Ron Haviv/AP Photo

An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo. Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Serbian government has maintained that it will never recognize the right of its former province to secede, but will fight through diplomacy and through the United Nations to get it back. And it continued to maintain that position even after the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in July that there is nothing in international law that prohibits Kosovo from declaring independence. Now, to the surprise of everyone—including me—the Serbian government has agreed to hold compromise talks with Kosovo.

Iran’s Interrupted Lives

Haleh Esfandiari

In late September, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York asserting his government’s respect for human rights, several young students in Iran were receiving lengthy prison sentences for their efforts to speak out in defense of those rights. Indeed—as a small photography exhibition about student repression in Iran at Georgetown Law School this month powerfully reminded us—hundreds of Iranian students, journalists, and bloggers have been jailed, many of them in deplorable conditions, since the disputed elections of June 2009. And though the matter has received little attention in the press, many more continue to be arrested and sentenced.

From Chamonix to Islamabad: A Road Trip

Jeremy Bernstein

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

When still in my early teens I decided that over the course of time I would see the ten highest mountains in the world. It did not occur to me that I would climb any of them, but I thought I could surely see them and even get to their bases. In 1967, I went to Nepal and managed to see seven of them; I even made it to the base of a couple, including Everest. But I missed Kanchenjunga, the third highest, which is in the far east of the country on the border with the Indian state of Sikkim. I also hadn’t seen K2, the second highest, which is on the border of Pakistan and China; or Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest, which is in the Pakistani Himalayas. To see these two I would have to get to Pakistan.