Roving thoughts and provocations

Booming China, Migrant Misery

Richard Bernstein

Zeitgeist Films

At the beginning of September, a Beijing criminal court announced a decision that called attention to the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances of millions of migrant workers in China who have left their countryside homes to work for low wages under deplorable circumstances in the cities. The court gave a three-year jail sentence to a man who ran an unlicensed, low-cost kindergarten for the children of these migrant workers. He was found to have left a group of such children without supervision in a locked room. A fire started. Eight of the children were saved by the owner of the building who, providentially, happened by at just that moment to collect unpaid rent, but one died.

There are an estimated 130 million nung-gong, or peasant workers, in China, making up what Lixin Fan, in his powerful documentary Last Train Home calls “the world’s largest human migration.”

Iraq’s Ignored Victims

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick

B. Heger/UNHCR

President Obama announced on August 31 that the main force of US troops has left Iraq, leaving about 50,000 Americans to help maintain the peace and support the Iraqi army and police. This was good news for American servicemen, their families, and the nation. But this departure should not be accompanied by a withdrawal of our support for the Iraqi people, particularly the millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes and who continue to live in limbo both inside Iraq and in other countries. During a recent mission to observe the situation of these displaced Iraqis, this reality became painfully clear to me.

Berlusconi’s Machiavellian Moment

Ingrid D. Rowland

AP/Pier Paolo Cito

Several remarkable things have happened here in Italy in the past week. One: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, that self-styled man for all seasons—tycoon, soccer team owner, politician, crooner, swain—the perennial fixer who not too long ago said, in Milanese dialect, ghe pensi mi, “I’ll take care of it”—“il premier,” il Cavaliere (that is, Sir Silvio), has apparently been driven by the present political situation to say, “I don’t know what to do.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Martin Filler

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The latest refurbishment of the White House Oval Office would be just another before-and-after decorating story were it not for the fact that stylistic aspects of the chief executive’s workplace are closely watched for possible insights into the personality of the occupant. As revealed to the nation in the president’s televised address about Iraq on August 31, the new décor indicates that however much vision Barack Obama may possess, he doesn’t have much of an eye.

Obama’s Jobs Crisis

Jeff Madrick

With the unemployment rate stuck at 9.6 percent, President Obama used his Labor Day speech in Milwaukee to announce a new initiative to address America’s jobs crisis. The $50 billion in new government spending on transportation and public works that he is now proposing is badly needed, and would eventually create jobs. But even in the unlikely event that the plan wins Congressional support, it will not be sufficient to stimulate enough growth to create the millions of new jobs the nation needs. Why has there been so little urgency in the White House to confront the issue that will most directly affect the outcome of the November elections?

Discovering the Art of Boscoe Holder, Trinidadian Master

Hilton Als, Peter Doig, and Angus Cook

Last spring in Berlin, Peter Doig and Hilton Als co-curated an exhibition of portraits—mostly by young, unrecognized or forgotten artists—a show that included a rare look at the work of the remarkable but little known 20th-century Trinidadian painter Boscoe Holder (1921–2007). Here is a selection of his work, along with excerpts of a conversation between Doig, Als, and Angus Cook about the artist and his Caribbean milieu.

Moscow and the ‘Merchant of Death’

Amy Knight

Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo

Over the past couple of weeks, the case of the infamous Russian arms trader Victor Bout—who has supplied guns, ammunition, and material to groups ranging from the FARC in Colombia to the Afghan Taliban—has generated enormous attention and raised many questions. Considered one of the world’s most prolific weapons traffickers, Bout has become the object of a high-level tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over US efforts to extradite him from Thailand, where he is being held. Yet amid all the speculation about Russia’s interest in the case, one of the more revealing clues about Bout’s Kremlin connections has gone largely unnoticed.

Save the Warburg Library!

Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger

Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. The conditions that have made this possible included, in the past, a loose, egalitarian organization, substantial autonomy for scholars and teachers, and a generous esprit de corps. Yet instead of preserving this distinguished and successful sector of British life, both Labour and Tory governments seem bent on rearing hierarchies, crushing autonomy, and destroying morale.

Tony Judt: An Intellectual Journey

Timothy Snyder

René Burri/Magnum Photos

Tony Judt was, in effect, two historians: first, a Marxist from a working-class English-Jewish background educated at Cambridge and at the École Normale in Paris who wrote four excellent books on the French left, and then a grand New York scholar who wrote an unimaginably good history of postwar Europe as well as strikingly clear studies of leading European intellectuals, such as Albert Camus and Leszek Kołakowski. The hinge was Past Imperfect, Tony’s eloquent critique of Parisian intellectual politics after World War II, published in 1992. On the surface, this was a close study of Jean-Paul Sartre’s communism and the political narcissism of Left Bank intellectuals who celebrated Stalinism while ignoring its consequences in Eastern Europe. At another level, it was the repudiation by a French Marxist of his own tradition.