Roving thoughts and provocations

Haiti’s Hidden Hope

Marc L. Schneider

The colossal earthquake that struck Haiti last week raises a profound and recurring question for this fragile nation. As they bury over 100,000 dead—some of them in mass graves—and more than a million survivors seek water, food, shelter and medicines, can Haitians ever move beyond mere survival to build a more viable state? For a nation battered by two centuries of misrule, divided by garish contrasts between rich and poor, stripped of its forests, victimized annually by vicious hurricanes, built astride a ghastly seismic fault-line and situated on a favored route for cocaine traffickers, one may well conclude that misery here is endemic.

After Massachusetts: His Hopes Did Him In

Garry Wills

During the 2008 primary campaigns, there was a constant muted roar telling Barack Obama to become more aggressive, to answer wild allegations against him, to “stand up to” Hillary Clinton or his other rivals. He rightly saw that would boomerang against him. The last thing he could appear was an angry black man. Harry Reid, with his derided comments in the book Game Change, was basically right. It was helpful that Obama, the first black man with a realistic chance at the presidency, was lighter skinned and better spoken than, say, an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. He was the anti-Sharpton, not railing against American racism. He was more a Sidney Poitier than a Shirley Chisholm.

The Persistent Pleasures of Eric Rohmer

Geoffrey O’Brien

My immediate response to the news of Eric Rohmer’s death was the keen regret that there would be no more Rohmer films, and thus no more of those surprises he was still, at nearly 90, thoroughly capable of eliciting. Indeed, his last three films (The Lady and the Duke, Triple Agent, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) were among his most surprising, period films that ventured into political tragedy and pastoral comedy in ways that opened up new dimensions in his earlier work. Few filmmakers have been able to develop a body of utterly personal work so deliberately and methodically, and he managed it only with the most extreme budgetary discipline.

Kibbutz

Tony Judt

My Sixties were a little different from those of my contemporaries. Of course, I joined in the enthusiasm for the Beatles, mild drugs, political dissent, and sex (the latter imagined rather than practiced, but in this too I think I reflected majority experience, retrospective mythology notwithstanding). But so far as political activism was concerned, I was diverted from the mainstream in the years between 1963 and 1969 by an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism. I spent the summers of 1963, 1965, and 1967 working on Israeli kibbutzim and much of the time in between was actively engaged in proselytizing Labour Zionism as an unpaid official of one of its youth movements. During the summer of 1964 I was being “prepared” for leadership at a training camp in southwest France; and from February through July of 1966 I worked full time at Machanayim, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee.

My President

Robert Gottlieb

I was jolted the other day when The New York Times science section splashed three big close-up head-shots of FDR across the top of its front page. (The story: his death of a cerebral hemorrhage may have been linked to a melanoma.) Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was the face of my president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, more or less a year after I was born, and by the time I became conscious of the great world out there, he had become the family hero: as resourceful as he was wise, as charming as he was brilliant. Everyone we knew loved his handsome, distinguished face, was moved by his beautiful voice—the famous fireside chats!—and, most important of all in those frightening times, took comfort from the confidence he radiated. We knew instinctively that with him leading us, all would be well.

Iran’s Women of War

Haleh Esfandiari

It is entirely appropriate that two women have become the iconic symbols of Iran’s protest movement. Thanks to cell phones and the Internet, millions of people around the world saw footage of the blood-soaked face of the young Neda Agha Soltan, as she lay dying on a Tehran street, shot by security forces during a peaceful demonstration. But even before last June’s rigged presidential election, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, had gained international renown as the first woman in Iranian history to campaign alongside her husband—making speeches of her own and taking a strong stand on controversial social issues.

Revealing the Real Iran

Claire Messud

When I landed at boarding school in Boston in the fall of 1980—from a public school in Toronto, another world—I assumed the Iranian girls knew the ropes better than I did. Posh New England culture was utterly alien to me; but how much more so must it have been to my fellow boarders lately of Tehran? Aware of the recent revolution—even at fourteen, one couldn’t not be—I nevertheless was unable to relate the girl brushing her teeth beside me in the dorm bathroom to mass demonstrations or the then ongoing hostage crisis half a world away. I never asked the Iranians a single question about their histories: it was tacitly accepted that it was too delicate a subject and, by force of silence, too remote from our placid world of emerald lawns and peeling white columns. What, I now wonder, must the Iranian girls have thought?

Isaiah Berlin’s Civilized Malice

Charles Rosen

The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him unfavorably with his close contemporary, the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse. Neither were truly major historians but Berlin was not really a historian at all, in the full sense of that word, nor was he exactly a philosopher. His field, largely untrodden and little understood, was the intersection of philosophy, aesthetics and history: in this, his achievement was very great, above all in his profound elucidation of the way that ideas like freedom, enlightenment and nationalism could appear, develop and be challenged in the politics and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Paul Samuelson and the Obscure Origins of the Financial Crisis

Jeremy Bernstein

Some time in the early 1950’s the late Paul Samuelson received a post card from L.J. “Jimmie” Savage, a noted mathematical statistician. It was one of several he had sent out at about the same time. Savage’s post card to Samuelson, and probably the others, said that it was essential that Samuelson read Théorie de la Spéculation, the Ph.D. thesis of the French mathematician Louis Jean Baptiste Alphonse Bachelier. Samuelson had never heard of Bachelier so he did not know that the thesis had first been published in 1900. Reading the thesis changed the course of Samuelson’s work. He improved Bachelier’s mathematics and used it to study the prices of warrants—options to buy, at a future date, stock issued by a company. These methods were passed on to his students. But for some of them, Bachelier’s ideas provided inspiration for a theory of financial engineering—the use of complex mathematical models to make risky investments that, taken to extremes (which Samuelson himself never did), nearly caused the collapse of our financial system in the fall of 2008.

On David Levine (1926–2009)

Garry Wills

It is a charming little dog, meticulously drawn, that faces us, all its curlicue hairs traced, its cantilevered thin legs ending in little paws (1971). Only on a second look do we see that the tiny face staring out at us from this fluff ball is that of Richard Nixon. Then, in a double-take (click!), we realize that this is Checkers, the dog Nixon used in his maudlin television address to stay on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. A less adventurous artist might have done the obvious—made Nixon cower behind the dog he was using as protection. Levine did the unexpected. He made Nixon the dog. And as usual, there was a deeper purpose. He was saying that Nixon would not only do anything to get what he wanted, he would become anything. Later, when abortion was the issue, Nixon would become a fetus (1971). How does one give a fetus identity? With the nose, of course, the Nixon nose that Levine celebrated so relentlessly.