In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory.
Cairo on the morning of January 25 felt like something of a ghost town. Few civilians were to be found on the streets, most stores were shuttered, and the typically heaving downtown was deserted. It was a national holiday, and in the central town square, named Tahrir, or Liberation, even cars were scarce, and parking spaces—always sparse—were in abundance. The only conspicuous presence was that of Egypt’s police and state security. Rows of their box-shaped olive-green trucks lined thoroughfares and narrow side-streets, in some cases blocking them off for miles. Beside them were battered cobalt blue trucks—the ones used to whisk away prisoners and detainees. Throughout the downtown area and in neighboring districts, police and informants (easily identified by their loitering presence, darting eyes, and frequent two-second phone calls) were gathered around the otherwise empty major arteries of the city. Hundreds of them. Many wore black cargo pants, bush jackets and clunky army boots. Many more were in plain clothes—standing on street corners, at calculated intervals on sidewalks, in building entrances, on bridges, and in the few cafes open on a day when almost everything was closed.
There is nothing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves more than movies about people with physical or mental disabilities (or addictions). If the afflicted protagonist also happens to be royal, so much the better, for a suffering crowned head bestows an extra touch of class on Hollywood’s uplifting formula of brave triumph over cruel adversity. Not surprisingly, this year’s leading contender for Oscar glory is Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which was nominated Tuesday for a dozen Academy Awards.
Given that her complete catalogue is composed almost entirely of work she produced as a student, the posthumous critical esteem for American photographer Francesca Woodman is astonishing. Unlike music or math, where precocious displays of talent are not uncommon, photography tends not to have prodigies. Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22, is considered a rare exception. That she has achieved such status is all the more remarkable considering only a quarter of the approximately 800 images she produced—many of them self-portraits—have ever been seen by the public.
Cooking odors grow stronger as visitors approach the gallery where Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen—a stimulating show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on food preparation in the twentieth-century home—is installed. Although the aromas actually emanate from a café next to the second-floor exhibition, the pervasive food smells that can be so distracting throughout the restaurant-riddled MoMA are for once appropriate here.
When I thought of writing a book about Bill Buckley, who first made his name as the chairman (editor in chief) of the Yale Daily News, I went to New Haven to interview Francis Donoghue, the longtime business manager of the paper. Buckley had worked hard to be elected chairman, but his aggressive politics made him feel he had no lock on the job. He asked his older brother, Jim, who had worked on the Daily News before him, if it was proper for him, as a member of the editorial board, to vote for himself. Jim said that the vote was anonymous, so no one would know how he voted. When the vote was unanimous, everyone knew.
I told that story to Donahue, and he said Bill should never have had any doubt, since he was the most respected as well as the most flamboyant editor the paper ever had. I asked whom he would consider the next most outstanding editor of the paper. Without hesitation he said “Sarge Shriver.” There have been many famous men (only men back then) who held that post, so this was an extraordinary tribute. I did not know Shriver then, though I knew of him of course, and that was in my mind when I met him.
On January 13, President Obama invited me and four other activists and scholars—the writer Zha Jianying, whose brother is a former political prisoner in China; Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor; author Bette Bao Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, director of Yale’s China Law Center—to meet with him at the White House to discuss the current state of human rights and reform in China. The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, took place as the president prepares for this week’s meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao in Washington. He wanted to know whether we think his approach on these issues is working, and how that approach might be improved. For me, it was an opportunity to bring to the direct attention of the president some critical questions about China’s human rights record I hope he will take up in the summit. The following outlines some of the issues I raised with the president, including a series of specific recommendations concerning US policy toward China.
The phrase “Renaissance man” tends to conjure up images of Italians in tights, like Leonardo da Vinci, or that tireless fifteenth-century self-promoter Leon Battista Alberti. Yet the real early modern masters of a thousand arts seem to have come from parts farther north. Peter Paul Rubens was famously both a student of philosophy and a diplomat as well as painter, but no artist may have diversified his talents as widely as the elder Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), mayor of Wittenberg, tavern keeper, and, more than incidentally, court painter for more than half a century to the Electors of Saxony. Cranach is best known now, as he was in his own day, for his paintings of women—impossibly long-legged coquettes with catlike eyes and purring expressions, one of whom, a Venus clad in nothing but a red velvet hat and a gossamer veil, is the centerpiece of a special exhibition being staged this winter within the permanent collection of Rome’s Borghese Gallery.
Robert Draper, who did the extensive interview-cum-article about Sarah Palin in The New York Times Magazine, still has good sources in her camp. On that basis, he told the Daily Rundown show on MSNBC that Palin timed her morning statement on the Tucson tragedy to play against the president’s anticipated speech later that day. The setting and solemnity of her presentation were manipulated to show who could be more “presidential,” she or Obama. That is a measure of her aspirations and arrogance.