During a recent month-long stay in China, my wife and I toured the southwestern province of Guangxi with a jovial guide from Guilin. James (his professional name) was very knowledgeable, but a little too eager to give us our money’s worth. For five days he talked non-stop. But one night, in a remote mountain village set atop terraced rice paddies, he fell silent. As we were sitting down to dinner he got a call and asked to be excused; when he returned half an hour later the smile was gone and his eyes wouldn’t meet ours. At first grateful for the silence, we became worried when he remained withdrawn the next day. With a little prodding, he eventually told us what the call was about. It involved his son, his only child.
Because of its strategic location on the Persian Gulf, the Iranian city of Bushehr has been an important seaport for centuries. In the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had a trading post at what they called Bushire, and until 1913 the British agent for the Persian Gulf was stationed there. It is only in recent decades, however, that Bushehr has become known for its nuclear industry. Now, Iran has announced that it has completed—with Russian help—its long planned Bushehr reactor, an event it has marked by an elaborate dedication ceremony and claims of victory against its western enemies. But questions remain about Bushehr’s strategic importance—and whether the West should be worried about it.
The poet Paul Celan said of his native Czernowitz that it was a place where people and books used to live. Tony Judt was a man for whom books lived, as well as people. His mind, like his apartment on Washington Square, was full of books—and they walked with him, arguing, to the very end.
Critical though he was of French intellectuals, he shared with them a conviction that ideas matter. Being English, he thought facts matter too. As a historian, one of his most distinctive achievements was to integrate the intellectual and political history of twentieth-century Europe—revealing the multiple, sometimes unintended interactions over time of ideas and realities, thoughts and deeds, books and people.
While people in the US and elsewhere have been reacting to the release by WikiLeaks of classified US documents on the Afghan War, Chinese bloggers have been discussing the event in parallel with another in their own country. On July 21 in Beijing, four days before WikiLeaks published its documents, Chinese President Hu Jintao convened a high-level meeting to discuss ways to prevent leaks from the archives of the Communist Party of China.
On a recent trip to Brazil, I struck up a conversation with Lilia Schwarcz, one of Brazil’s finest historians and anthropologists. The talk turned to the two subjects she has studied most—racism and national identity.
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.
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.
“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.
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?