One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more months, on the ominous charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Now, his case has been sent from the police to the state prosecutor’s office, and from there to a court, where his trial is expected to begin on Wednesday. The Chinese government has done what it can to keep the case out of sight, both at home and abroad. But thanks to the Internet, there are ways to be in touch with Liu’s friends and colleagues. In the past few days I have been talking with several of them.
For whatever reason—global warming seems to be one—Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier, whose runoff provided water for the contiguous cities of La Paz and El Alto for centuries, is now gone. Glaciers reconstitute themselves, if at all, outside the span of human time: we will not see so much ice shimmer again above the harsh brown altiplano, the highland plateau where two thirds of all Bolivians live. Other glaciers in the Bolivian Andes—like the Illimani, so beautiful to look at—are also melting, and in all likelihood will disappear before 2040.
Recent reports on my activities in Kurdistan call for a response. I have been both a writer on Iraq and an active participant in events there. After being an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s, I came to the view that the Iraqi Kurdish aspiration for independence was morally justified and the only sure means of protecting the Kurdish people. In late 2003 and early 2004, I helped Kurdistan’s leaders draft a proposal for a self-governing Kurdistan that was submitted to the Coalition Provisional Authority on February 11, 2004, for inclusion in Iraq’s interim constitution. Under the proposal, Kurdistan had its own government and military, Kurdistan law prevailed over Iraqi law, and Kurdistan controlled its own natural resources, including oil.
In reading the reports on President Obama’s Nobel speech in Oslo, one gets the impression that the President was offering a dose of realism to a gathering of fjord-loving well-meaning village idiots. He reminded them that an imperfect world should be governed not only by a pacifist vision of non-violence, but also by a theory of just war that tells us under what conditions a war is morally justified. This invocation of just wars was praised by both conservatives and liberals, who have applauded what they call Obama’s “Niebuhrian realism” and his drawing on a “venerable moral tradition” to give legitimacy to military engagement with “hostile regimes and networks in the world.” But having a realistic view of what a war can accomplish is part and parcel of just war doctrine, and it is precisely Obama’s realism about the war in Afghanistan that we should question.
What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea? An old book you feel you ought to have read? Or is it more casually serendipitous: An old book you have rediscovered and want to share with the world? And what does a “classicist” (in the Greek-and-Latin sense of the word) have to contribute to the debate?
In 1999, the German photographer Olaf Otto Becker took a picture of a glacier in Iceland for his first book, Under the Nordic Light. When he returned to photograph the same glacier three years later, it was gone.
As a rule, I read and write poetry in bed; philosophy and serious essays sitting down at my desk; newspapers and magazines while I eat breakfast or lunch, and novels while lying on the couch. It’s toughest to find a good place to read history, since what one is reading usually is a story of injustices and atrocities and wherever one does that, be it in the garden on a fine summer day or riding a bus in a city, one feels embarrassed to be so lucky. Perhaps the waiting room in a city morgue is the only suitable place to read about Stalin and Pol Pot?
“The French photographer André Zucca was not a Nazi,” Ian Buruma writes in his recent article on Paris during the German occupation, “but he felt no particular hostility to Germany either…. Zucca simply wanted to continue his pre-war life, publishing pictures in the best glossy magazines. And the one with the glossiest pictures, in fine German Agfacolor, happened to beSignal, the German propaganda magazine.” Born in Paris in 1897, Zucca worked for both French and foreign publications in the 1930s, and covered the Russian–Finnish War in the winter of 1939–1940 for Paris-Soir, before becoming a photographer for Signal from 1941 to 1944. After the liberation he was arrested but never prosecuted, and spent the remainder of his career as a wedding and portrait photographer in a small town west of Paris. He died in 1973. Recently, a volume of Zucca’s controversial wartime pictures of Paris was published in France. Here is a selection from it with comments by Buruma. —The Editors
One of the defining features of social media, if not the defining feature, is its participatory nature. Anyone, everyone, is a content producer. Anyone, everyone, is a critic. And, for the most part, everyone’s voice registers at the same volume. Your take on the new Michael Jackson movie, and my take, and the take of the fifteen-year-old boy down the street are given equal weight. True, there are some sites, like The New York Times and Amazon that let readers rate or recommend other people’s musings, rants and insights, but even so, all the comments are put “out there” with little or no intercession. This works really well for consumer products, where the average user, whose experience is actual and authentic, is typically a more reliable guide than that of professional testers, though manufacturers have figured out how to game the system by mobilizing armies of average-joe posters to shill their products. Still, if 328 people have something to say about a piece of software or a robotic vacuum cleaner you’re interested in, you are going to get a very good sense whether these products will meet your needs.
“How Google Can Help Newspapers,” ran the benign-sounding headline atop an Op-Ed column by Google CEO Eric Schmidt in the December 1 Wall Street Journal. In it, Schmidt sought to rebut claims that, as Les Hinton, the CEO of Dow Jones, has put it, Google is a “digital vampire” that is “sucking the blood” out of the news business. Quite to the contrary, Schmidt argued, Google wants to turn that business around. He wasn’t very convincing. In fact, his article shows how inept Google has been in responding to its critics. I’d like to suggest a better way.