Roving thoughts and provocations

Tea Party à la française

Mark Lilla

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

It’s strike season in France. Nearly every year around this time you begin to hear the whistles and drums and the loudspeakers bleating out the chants: “On va gagner, on va gagner! OUAAI!!! OUAAI!!!” In a country obsessed with the loss of national memory and shared experience, the annual strikes are, along with the Tour de France, one remaining public ritual reminding the French that they are French—not “European,” not workers of the world united, but French.

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson Weibing

Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting didn’t exactly crush this hope, but it did put things in a much more sober perspective.

The excitement began in late August, when Premier Wen Jiabao toured the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen. The one-time fishing village was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its transformation into a Special Economic Zone, where Chinese officials have tested out economic reforms. Mr. Wen used the chance to advocate “political reforms” as well. Most of the time, political reform is a fairly empty phrase in China, almost always meaning a push to make the current system more efficient and slightly more responsive to ordinary citizens’ wishes, for example by opening complaint hotlines or neighborhood centers to make it easier to apply for government services. It never means what some hopeful westerners assume: transformation of China’s authoritarian system.

A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link

STR/AFP/Getty Images

It would be hard to overstate how much the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on October 8 has meant to China’s community of dissidents, bloggers, and activists. Not only has it lifted their spirits tremendously; many also view it as a possible turning point in the long struggle to bring democracy and human rights to their country. Their ebullience seems unaffected by the hostile reaction of the Chinese government, which has called the Nobel Committee’s decision “obscene” and an “insult to China.” Chinese authorities have spread the message in China’s state-run media that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal serving time in prison, but without quoting even a small sample of the words or ideas that have caused him to be there; and they have escalated their harassment of Liu’s friends and colleagues.

On Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize: An Open Letter

Chicago’s Magnificent Macbeth

Garry Wills

Lyric Opera of Chicago

This month at the Lyric Opera of Chicago there is a production of Verdi’s Macbeth to knock your socks off. Barbara Gaines, the director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, has done spectacular productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but this is her first opera work, and she has thought deeply and creatively about the text, both verbal and musical. Take the scene where the murdered Banquo’s ghost shows up at the castle banquet. Macbeth, out of guilt, sees the ghost, but no one else does. How do you stage that?

Buildings on the Big Screen

Martin Filler

Todd Sheridan

The static art of architecture and the kinetic art of motion pictures might seem antithetical mediums, but films can be enormously helpful in explaining buildings to laymen and professionals alike. Certain architectural works—the photo-resistant designs of Alvar Aalto come to mind—are difficult if not impossible to understand in still imagery, and are made fully comprehensible only through films that move around and inside them. The first Architecture and Design Film Festival, being held in New York today through Sunday, offers a rare opportunity to see in close succession more than forty examples of the genre.

Politically Incorrect: Brazil’s Clown-Elect

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Brazil is a country given to extremes. It’s a nation that combines rapid technological development with the continuity of popular traditions, urban growth and modernization with long-established rural culture. Such contrasts also come through in politics. On the one hand, the country is known for its huge voting population of 135 million and its secure and very fast electronic vote-counting system. On the other hand, the candidates get more bizarre by the year. This year’s novelty act was Tiririca, the stage name of Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva—a singer, composer, comedian, and clown. Tiririca recently joined the somewhat obscure Partido da República [PR] and was promptly elected federal deputy with the largest number of votes ever recorded in the state of São Paulo.

Two Views on Mideast Peace

Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

Amos Oz: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragic struggle between two victims of Europe—the Arabs were the victims of imperialism, colonialism, repression, and humiliation. The Jews were the victims of discrimination, persecution, and finally of a genocide without parallel in history. On the face of it, two victims, especially two victims of the same oppressor, should become brothers. But the truth, both when it comes to individuals and when it comes to countries, is that some of the worst fights break out between two victims of the same oppressor.

Sari Nusseibeh: In a way, Israel has fallen victim to its own power, forcing it to be alone at this juncture in being able to identify and to seek solutions for its predicament. Most likely, it will seek half-way measures, necessarily therefore with “half-way” Palestinian representation or leadership, with the hope that somehow, sometime in the more distant future, this “containment” of the problem will somehow make it, or help it disappear. On the Palestinian side, on the other hand, it is the power of their own rhetoric to which Palestinians have traditionally fallen victim.

All the President’s Men? Inside the Kremlin’s Moscow Problem

Amy Knight

Poor Yuri Luzhkov. He can’t keep his mouth shut. Just when it seemed that the fall-out from his abrupt dismissal in late September as Moscow’s mayor had begun to dissipate, Luzhkov gave an interview on CNN in which he once more attacked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the man who fired him: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a whole set of circumstances happening in the country on Medvedev’s watch—calamities, terrorist acts, bad harvest and so on. These kinds of things don’t contribute to the tangible results of his work as the President.”

Of course, Luzhkov has a right to be bitter. After 18 years in office he was fired, according to the official version, because of “loss of confidence by the president of Russia.” (In the Russian Federation, provincial governors, including the mayor of Moscow, are appointed directly by and answer to the Russian president.) Luzhkov’s dismissal was apparently provoked by his outspoken criticism of the Kremlin; but as Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats pointed out, “There was not a word of explanation, either from the president’s side or the side of Prime Minister Putin, as to what he did to lose confidence.”

Jailed for Words: Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Jonathan Mirsky


On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize because he was a “criminal,” serving eleven years for “subversion of state power.” After Oslo made its announcement, Beijing labeled the award an “obscenity.” By Beijing’s standards it certainly is.

Clanking, Ponderous Rheingold: The Met’s New Valhalla Machine

Martin Filler

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

What is it about the works of Richard Wagner that consistently inspire some of the most bizarre productions in all of opera? No doubt it is because Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848–1874) poses the nearly impossible challenge of making this monumental four-part music drama accord with ever-shifting notions of the mythic, which change as much as any other fashions. Therefore it should not be surprising that the first installment of the Metropolitan Opera’s latest Ring cycle—which began this fall with Das Rheingold, the tetralogy’s one-act Vorabend (preliminary evening)—adds yet another contorted realization to the long list of stunt-like Wagner productions over the past half century.