Tightening Up the First Amendment

A few weeks ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded its offer of tenure to a professor of English then working at Virginia Tech. Steven Salaita was offered a post as professor of American Indian studies, subject to the formality of confirmation by the university’s board of trustees. Before the board met, the university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise, wrote to Salaita revoking the appointment: the board was, she said, unlikely to approve tenure, so the proposal to appoint would not be put to them. Since then, a large number of academics have signed petitions condemning UIUC’s decision and undertaking to boycott the university. More »

Isis raises the stakes

The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley’s very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America’s reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated. More »

Sabotage

The trio known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) are thought to be responsible for ten murders, two bomb attacks and a number of bank raids. The Thuringia legislature has just published the findings of a committee that examined the reasons for the many failures in the official search for the NSU, from the time they went underground in 1998 until their last bank raid in Eisenach in November 2011. More »

Turkey’s New Left

Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the leaders of Turkey’s left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is tall, self-confident, strong and soft-spoken. When he ran for president earlier this month, some of his supporters tried to convince undecided friends to vote for him by asking them to choose the ‘most handsome candidate on the ballot paper’. A friend’s grandmother said Demirtaş may be handsome but she would ‘never vote for a Kurd’. He came in third, with just under 10 per cent of the vote (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent). More »

Healthy Words

In 1902 Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was ‘as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time’. Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called ‘three generals’ of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song. More »

Happy New Year

We’re behaving as if we had 1.5 earths available to us, and our behaviour is getting worse. Every year the Global Footprint Network calculates the date on which people use up one year’s worth of the planet’s biocapacity. In 2013 we achieved this on 20 August. This year we’ve done it a day earlier. In the 1960s there was no overshoot; we were only using around three-quarters of the earth’s capacity. Britain uses the biocapacity of a land area more than three times its size, making it worse than the United States, which behaves as if it were merely twice as big.

Among the Alconauts

Over a drink, an English investment fund manager working in Moscow told a friend of mine that the war in Ukraine meant everyone in his office had had to ‘downgrade their own futures’. They had been calculating that Putin would eventually calm down and things would get back to normal. He hasn’t, and it looks like nothing will ever be normal again. At the fund manager’s office, they’re talking about the possibility of 30 per cent inflation and GDP contracting by 10 per cent. Some of them have decided to relax and enjoy the apocalypse. Since the Kremlin banned food imports from the EU and US earlier this month, there’s a sense of needing to party before the good things run out. They start drinking on Tuesdays now. More »

Boris Johnson, Agent of Chaos

Agent of ChaosPoliticians’ fictional namesakes aren’t hard to come by: as well as George Osborne in Vanity Fair, there’s a one-legged vagabond called Tony Blair in Uncle Rutherford’s Nieces: A Story for Girls (1869), and in David Cameron’s Adventures (1950), the eponymous hero is kidnapped in Aberdeen and sent to work on a plantation in Virginia. In Agent of Chaos by Norman Spinrad (1967), Boris Johnson is the unlikely leader of the Democratic League, an interplanetary resistance movement fighting against the totalitarian regime of the Hegemony, which has turned the entire solar system into a surveillance state. Their political efforts are hampered by his bumbling nature. ‘Boris Johnson was quite willing to babble on – and did so at every opportunity – but the man was a fool.’ More »

At the Soane Museum

Les Anglais à Paris

Les Anglais à Paris

Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition’s curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks. More »

In Brighton Beach

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s I was tempted to see it as an expression of her late-life immigration from the USSR to the USA, leaving one civilisation and never arriving at the other. (I was a teenager.) One of her daughters had cut off her past and been reborn as an American; the other returned over and over to Russia, making documentaries, unearthing graves and exploring gulags so she was all ‘memory’. But my grandmother had neither future nor past. As her illness got worse she would be found walking dazed along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America. More »

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