Roving thoughts and provocations

Homeless on the Home Front

Charles Simic

Sometime in the fall of 1958, an old fellow came up to me late one night on MacDougal Street and said, “Mister, I’m writing the book of my life and I need a dime to complete it.” I gave him my last dollar and went off happy. This kind of inspired, seemingly spontaneous panhandling differs from what professional beggars do. They employ props: crutches, head-bandages, wooden legs, or have a skinny, sad-eyed dog accompanying them. They stage a theatrical performance for your benefit and hope for the best.

Georgia’s Shrunken Hopes

Michael Greenberg

More than fifteen months have passed since war broke out between Georgia and Russia. The war lasted five days, the amount of time it took for the Russian army to rout Georgia’s tiny, American-trained defense forces. It was the most serious military conflict in Europe since the Balkans. And yet, although tens of thousands of people are still displaced, and Russia is posing an increasing threat to Georgia’s oil pipelines, both the EU and the US may be powerless to prevent further threats to the country.

Glorious Ghosts

Colm Tóibín

Wexford is a small town on the sea in the south-east of Ireland and an unlikely place to host an opera festival. Yet since 1951 in late October the town has organized what has become for many opera-lovers an essential date in the calendar. The reason why it has remained important is not merely the intimacy of the setting, the general air of welcome and the strange sea-washed beauty of the old town, but the policy since the early 1970s to program three operas that have fallen beneath the radar, that are seldom or never performed.

China: The Fragile Superpower

Christian Caryl

Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s highly-scripted trip this week provided little to support that claim. As The Washington Post noted, in contrast to 1998, when Bill Clinton, standing in the Great Hall of the People, criticized the Tiananmen Square crackdown and “traded spirited jibes with President Jiang Zemin,” Obama and Hu Jintao held a “Chinese-style news conference of read statements, stares, and no questions.” Nor did the Chinese government make any concessions on the major issues—the valuation of China’s currency, pressure on Iran, action on climate change—that the White House was hoping to see addressed.

Rome: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Game

Stephen Greenblatt

An American archaeologist friend here in Rome, where I’m spending my sabbatical, was working for a time in Salerno, in the south of Italy, and found himself annoyed by the thugs who lounged near the main square and approached him, when he intended to park there, offering, for a small fee, to “protect” the car from anyone who might wish to damage it. It was bad enough when he thought it was only he, a foreigner, who was treated to this shake-down, but, as he idly watched one day, my friend realized that the louts were equal-opportunity predators: they made the same offer to local businessmen, little old ladies, factory workers. And worse still, they went about their business within sight of the uniformed carabinieri who stood chatting with each other in front of the police station. My friend expressed his outrage to a Salernitano acquaintance: the nuisance was not an unfamiliar one in America, he complained, but it seemed unaccountable to have it take place under the gaze of the authorities. Look, the acquaintance said to him, with the resignation of a native, everyone has to make a living.

Israel Without Illusions: What Goldstone Got Right

David Shulman

Questions of human rights abuses in Israel and the charges of war crimes put forward by the UN’s Goldstone report have produced little more than the usual disingenuous accusations of anti-Semitism. Even Moshe Halbertal, an unusually cogent Israeli participant-observer, takes the Goldstone commission to task in The New Republic for trying to link the Gaza campaign to the wider setting of the occupation and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. “Why,” he asks, “should a committee with a mandate to inquire into the operation in Gaza deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large?”

Copenhagen Crisis: Why the US Needs Cap and Trade

Tim Flannery

It is often argued that cap and trade legislation requires too many compromises with—and give-aways to—polluting corporations to pass the House and Senate, and that consequently it is ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While environmentalists are failing to support cap and trade, those opposing action on climate change are fiercely attacking it. Yet such a system is essential when it comes to getting global action on climate change—not least at the increasingly imperilled climate summit in Copenhagen in December—for it delivers a transparent benchmark by which nations can judge each other’s commitment.

The Tender Art of David Park

Sanford Schwartz

David Park (1911–1960) is one of those artists who isn’t widely known but whose work inspires a special loyalty and warmth of feeling among his admirers. The partisan flavor his very name can arouse is partly dependent, of course, on his not being a household name to begin with. But Park, who was based in Berkeley, California, and was, along with Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, one of the leading lights of what has been called “Bay Area” painting in the 1950s, makes some of us always eager to see more of his work and learn more about him because his best pictures have a particular tenderness and sense of gravity—a note that sets him apart from near-contemporaries of his such as Alice Neel, Fairfield Porter, or Alex Katz.

Why Health Care Reform is Going to the Dogs

Michael Tomasky

So what did the House Blue Dogs do on the health care vote last Saturday? They were more supportive than one might think: Of the fifty-two-member coalition, twenty-eight voted yea and twenty-four nay. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the Blue Dog whom I identified in my piece in The New York Review as being among the most knowledgeable legislators in the House on the issue, told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “This was one of the best votes I ever cast.”