Scandinavians have a dual reputation for tolerance and homogeneity: a population of pale, polite people who speak English perfectly. But that’s your grandfather’s Scandinavia. Over the last several decades, the region has become a great deal more diverse after a steady influx of immigrants from the east and south. And the tolerance has become considerably frayed with the more recent rise of several right-wing xenophobic parties.
In the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin walks into the office of underperforming salesmen and shakes them to their core. He’s the guy from the head office, and his motivational speech has a whiff of sulfur to it. The top prize for sales that month, he announces, will be a new Cadillac. The second prize: a set of steak knives. As for the third prize, he informs them with a certain twinkling malice, “You’re fired.” One of the salesmen in the audience, Ed Harris, leans back in his chair — he’s not buying it. Baldwin takes off his watch, puts it on Harris’s desk, and says that it costs more than the Hyundai that Harris drove to work. “I made $970,000 last year,” Baldwin practically spits at him. “That’s who I am. And you’re nothing.”
Lady Gaga and Alice Walker don’t have much in common. One dresses in red meat; the other doesn’t even eat the stuff. One writes lyrics like “I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your everything as long as it’s free.” The other writes The Color Purple. But they are both cultural celebrities, and the media gravitates to them for comments. And they both have used this celebrity status to weigh in on global issues.
In the vast exhibition hall of London’s Tate Modern, the installation looks from a distance like a huge patch of gravel. Perhaps it is the first stage of a construction site or the last stage of a demolition. Only when you come closer and crouch down can you identify the little objects. A discerning eye might determine that they are reproductions. The rest of us rely on an accompanying video about Ai Weiwei’s project, which explains that the Chinese artist had commissioned a village of artists to produce the porcelain objects and paint them to resemble the real thing. What from far away looks like a gravel parking lot is actually one hundred million artfully produced sunflower seeds.
Ten little Republicans, all in a line,
discussing foreign policy one at a time.
They lambaste Obama as socialist slime
inadvertently refuting intelligent design.
They all agree that the Islamic threat
is even more fearful than the national debt.
They couldn’t tell Shia from Sunni, I’ll bet.
But the sight of an imam sure makes them sweat.
To get elected to the Senate, you have to meet certain requirements. You have to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for nine years, and a resident of the state you represent. Based on Jim Webb’s recent performance, I would like to propose a fourth requirement: you have to be a novelist. If we had 100 novelists in the Senate, the body might finally be able, like Webb, to distinguish fact from fiction.
Scratch the surface of any story and you’ll find rumors, hoaxes, and conspiracies. The conspiracy theory is the most intriguing of them all, for it combines total skepticism with total credulity. The same person will challenge every assertion made by the government or the mass media about Roswell or the Kennedy assassination, and then proceed to embrace the most cockamamie theory without even doing a minimum of legwork to test it.
They were both responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in causes they believed were righteous. They both occupied top spots on the World’s Most Wanted list. They were both the subject of raids that were years in the making and required extensive intelligence work. But in all other respects — and particularly in the messages they sent to the international community — the operations against Ratko Mladic and Osama bin Laden couldn’t have been more different.
For some people, there’s nothing President Obama can do to prove his love for Israel. He could pull a Sammy Davis, Jr. and convert to Judaism. He could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a big kiss on the lips. He could personally expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem. And still Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin would kvetch. “Yes, but what have you done for us today?” the ultra-Zionist would say. “Did you call this morning? Where are the fresh flowers? What, you don’t love Israel anymore?”
It was a primitive form of surgery. Almost ten years ago, the United States and its allies stuck a knife deep into Afghanistan in an attempt to remove two malignancies, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. One of those, Osama bin Laden’s crew, is nearly gone. The Taliban, after going into remission for a brief period, has come back.
The knife remains in the patient. With bin Laden gone, the debate has intensified: what to do with the knife?