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Silent treatment

Mié, 22/10/2014 - 20:31

THE SUPREME COURT’S weirdly busy October brings to mind an old Cadillac commercial showing a sedan gliding silently down the highway, driver calm and confident in a hermetic, leather-appointed cabin, while the announcer intones, “quietly doing things very well.” Whether the justices are doing their jobs well depends on your point of view. But there is no disputing that they have been doing their most consequential work in uncharacteristic silence in recent weeks. The justices' moves on gay marriage, abortion and voting rights have been delivered all but wordlessly, as Dahlia Lithwick of Slate recounts. The notable exception to the rule is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the justice who refused to hold her tongue over the weekend, when six of her colleagues permitted Texas to enforce its new photo...Continue reading

Drama, drama

Mar, 21/10/2014 - 19:19

NEW YORK is a tough town. An unpredictable one, too. The city has hosted any number of musical dramas that brim with controversy, courtesy of John Adams, an American composer, and Peter Sellars, an American theatre director. One humanised Richard Nixon, a Republican President with a tarnished reputation; another considered the life of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb. Both of these operas and others earned polite applause from audiences and indifferent shrugs from nearly everyone else. On Monday night, however, the Metropolitan Opera in New York presented “The Death of Klinghoffer”, a new production of an opera first staged in 1991, with a score from Mr Adams, original direction from Mr Sellars and a libretto by Alice Goodman. The show is about a self-made man from Manhattan’s Lower East Side who makes a fateful voyage on an Italian cruise ship in 1985. Now everyone is up in arms.

The opera takes its name from one Leon Klinghoffer, a successful appliance manufacturer who took his ailing wife of 36 years on a Mediterranean cruise in 1985. The Klinghoffers had the misfortune of boarding the Achille Lauro, along with hundreds...Continue reading

Uneasy rider

Mar, 21/10/2014 - 05:25

THE most improbable bike path in the world is surely on the MacArthur causeway, a road connecting Miami Beach with the city of Miami proper. The road–more a motorway really–has six wide lanes of traffic and a maximum speed limit of 50mph. This being Florida, and speed limits apparently only loosely enforced, in light traffic people travel far faster. And yet driving across it today, your correspondent spotted a lonely cyclist working his way up the road against the traffic. Along the road’s right-hand side, unseparated from the traffic by any physical barriers, was a thin cycle path.

Your correspondent in his day-to-day life cycles everywhere. In Washington, DC, turning left on a main road can be dicey if drivers are not patient. In London, racing lorries at the Elephant and Castle roundabout and the Vauxhall interchange both provided daily adrenaline rushes. Yet he would no more cycle along the MacArthur causeway than he would take up bullfighting. It would be utterly insane.

In 2012 some 120 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents across Florida. That is as many as were killed in Britain in the same year–a country with three times as...Continue reading

Pageants faded

Lun, 20/10/2014 - 22:28

IT IS in my power | To o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour | To plant and o’erwhelm custom,” declares Time in “The Winter’s Tale”. Alas, such fortitude was missing from Georgia Shakespeare, a 29-year-old theatre company dedicated to the bard, which was forced to close its doors on October 8th.

Buckling under accumulated debt of $343,000, Georgia Shakespeare has been in dire need of a Duke Theseus. “We really needed a lead donor,” explains Jennifer Bauer-Lyons, the company’s managing director. A campaign to save the company in 2011 raised more than $500,000 from local arts patrons. But donors—who are regularly squeezed to compensate for the state’s pitiful cultural funding—failed to come up with enough ducats this time around. The Georgia Council for the Arts set aside just $750,000 in total grants for the 2015 fiscal year; at the height of its generosity in 2002 it gave $4.5m. The state ranks 50th in the nation for spending per capita on the arts.

Such stinginess seems amiss in one of the South’s richest cities—particularly one with such a long love affair with Shakespeare. As...Continue reading

Childish arguments

Vie, 17/10/2014 - 16:24

A FEW weeks ago I was talking with an advertising professional who had been discussing potential campaigns with Greenpeace, the environmental group. We both admitted that these days, our reactions to people scaling buildings and unveiling banners range from apathy to mild annoyance. Those tactics seem to belong to another era, before the mass institutionalisation of flash-mobs; they lack the hook needed to achieve virality. Over the past few months, however, Greenpeace has staged a wickedly clever campaign that feels entirely of this moment: a part-online, part-meatspace twist on memes from "The Lego Movie", aimed at convincing the Danish toymaker to cut its longstanding promotion deal with Shell, an Anglo-Dutch oil company, in protest against the company's drilling in arctic waters. On October 9th Lego gave in, announcing it...Continue reading

Seizing some control

Jue, 16/10/2014 - 18:55

ON JANUARY 1st 29-year-old Brittany Maynard (pictured) was diagnosed with brain cancer. On November 1st she plans to end her life by ingesting a lethal medication prescribed by her physician. Only five states (Vermont, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico) recognise the right to die, so Ms Maynard relocated from California to Oregon to secure this right. This is a move that many Americans are unable to make.

Assisted suicide has been legal in a few European countries for years. But progress in America has been halting: in 1997 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the constitution does not include the right to suicide. Aid-in-dying has ideological affinities with other issues where personal autonomy and liberty are at stake—same-sex marriage, for instance, or a woman’s right to an abortion. Yet many Americans have long been uncomfortable with sanctioning suicide. This seems to be changing. Now more than two-thirds of Americans support aid-in-dying laws for the terminally ill and mentally competent. Death with dignity legislation is now pending in seven states.

But why have Americans held out for so long? And what...Continue reading

A shifting power balance

Jue, 16/10/2014 - 14:53

OUR correspondents discuss what might happen if Republicans win the Senate in November’s mid-term elections.  Will America find common ground or succumb to political paralysis?

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Do unto others

Mié, 15/10/2014 - 16:39

IN THE 1930s Father Charles Coughlin was among the most popular figures in America. Roughly 30m listeners, at his peak, tuned in to hear his weekly radio broadcasts, which were carried by CBS—then among the biggest American radio networks. Though he began by broadcasting his weekly sermons, he quickly moved into politics. I suppose you would call him an economic populist: he advocated, among other things, unionisation, shrinking government and reducing taxes, abolishing the Federal Reserve, nationalising resources and seizing private wealth during wartime. Yet as war drew nearer, he returned to one subject again and again: Jews. He held them responsible for communism and the war; he reprinted "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a classic anti-Semitic text; and he warned: "When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing." Eventually, his broadcasters grew tired of him, the Church warned him away from politics...Continue reading

Wake us up when it's over

Lun, 13/10/2014 - 19:30

IOWA’S Senate race is a knife-edge contest between two sharply differing candidates that could well decide which party controls the United States Senate after November. As a key swing state in presidential elections, Iowa also plays host to aspiring candidates in trip after trip. Local voters ultimately have the power to affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and indeed billions of people worldwide.

That is the view from Washington anyway. In Iowa, the importance of the imminent Senate race is not so obvious. Of a dozen or so people quizzed by your correspondent in a park in Davenport, on the western banks of the Mississippi river, just a couple could name both of the candidates. A couple more had formed an opinion from the attack ads that air continuously on every local television station. A few expressed the (arguably reasonable) view that Washington is broken, and politicians never represent their constituents, so why bother. Across Iowa, as across most of the United States, the reaction to these elections seems to be an enormous collective shrug.

After watching both Democrat and Republican candidates debate...Continue reading

So far, so fast

Jue, 09/10/2014 - 20:08

AS MORE and more states allow gay marriage, Jonathan Rauch explains how the revolution in America's attitudes to homosexuality came about and how it affected him

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How this week's cover came about

Jue, 09/10/2014 - 18:08

GROWING up in Arizona in the 1970s, Jonathan Rauch was so desperate to be "normal" that he convinced himself he wasn't gay. His obsession with muscular men, he told himself, sprang from envy of their good looks. He tried and tried to find women attractive, which was "like searching through a tank of octopuses in hopes of finding one to marry". He did not admit the obvious truth to himself—let alone other people—until he was 25. 

Fast-forward to 1996: Jon was in London thinking up cover stories for The Economist. One of his most outlandish was "Let them wed"—an editorial urging governments everywhere to allow same-sex marriage. At the time, it never occurred to Jon that his wish might come true in his own lifetime. Yet now he is married to the man he loves and living in Virginia, where gay marriage was legalised once and for all this week. 

We invited Jon to write an account of how America came to embrace gay marriage, weaving his own...Continue reading

Beards behind bars

Mié, 08/10/2014 - 18:37

ON OCTOBER 7th the Supreme Court heard its first religious-liberty case since recognising, in June, the right of some pious employers not to pay for some types of birth control for their staff. This time, in Holt v Hobbs, the aggrieved party is Gregory Holt, a Muslim inmate in Arkansas who says his faith requires him to wear a half-inch beard. Arkansas forbids this, arguing that a beard could be used to hide drugs, blades or telephone SIM cards.

Mr Holt, who was jailed for breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house and slitting her throat, says he is in a “state of war” with the prison barber. He argues that the ban on beards violates his rights under a law that says prisons may only impinge on inmates’ religious lives if there is a “compelling governmental interest” at stake and they use the “least restrictive means” of pursuing it. He notes that Arkansas allows quarter-inch beards for inmates with skin conditions, and that 43 other states allow them for all...Continue reading

An interactive guide

Mar, 07/10/2014 - 17:06

THE big prize in America’s mid-term elections, which will be held on November 4th, is control of the US Senate. The Republicans are expected to hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives without difficulty, but the Senate is very much in play. All pollsters expect Democrats to lose seats, and most expect the Republicans to capture a narrow majority. Check out our interactive map for a handy guide to what is happening in each of the 33 states where Senate seats are up for grabs.

Why did they take a pass?

Mar, 07/10/2014 - 03:40

NEVER has a US Supreme Court decision not to hear a case had such a quick and profound impact on the rights of so many Americans. By refusing today to grant any of the seven petitions challenging three pro-gay marriage decisions by federal appellate courts, the justices cleared the way for same-sex nuptials in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Utah, bringing the number of states waving a rainbow flag to 24, plus the District of Columbia. As Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog calculates, that number will likely balloon to 35 once the circuit rulings are implemented in other states within their districts and the Ninth Circuit, the country’s most liberal federal-appeals court, decides on the constitutionality of Nevada’s same-sex marriage ban. 

Why did the justices refuse to weigh in? Few predicted this decision, and Mr Denniston offers a list of reasons why: lawyers on both sides wanted the court to step in; the justices signalled a willingness to debate the matter both last...Continue reading

What ever happened to Wendy Davis?

Lun, 06/10/2014 - 23:03

LAST week Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, the major party candidates to replace Rick Perry as Texas governor, met for their second and final televised debate before the general election next month. The stakes were high for Ms Davis, a Democratic state senator from Fort Worth, and her spirited performance suggested that she knew as much. She attacked Mr Abbott, the attorney general, as one of a handful of longtime Republican incumbents who have prioritised insiders over ordinary Texans. (This critique was well-timed, coming just after the State Auditor’s Office announced that the state had distributed some $222m in incentives to companies that had failed to fill out the necessary paperwork.) Ms Davis also held her own in an exchange over standardised testing, although she dodged several questions about how she proposed to pay for her own education proposals, such as...Continue reading

A good choice?

Lun, 06/10/2014 - 18:06

SCHOOL vouchers are a divisive subject in America. Proponents claim that vouchers not only grant parents the opportunity to send their children to a private school, but also raise the quality of all education by creating more competition between schools. Critics complain that these subsidies divert necessary resources from public schools, and rarely cover the full cost of a private education. To settle this debate, many have looked to Sweden, where vouchers were introduced in 1992. The results there have been cited as both a case for and against vouchers. So, what has been the actual effect of this Swedish...Continue reading

Will they or won’t they?

Jue, 02/10/2014 - 22:14

PLENTY of weighty cases await the justices on October 6th when the Supreme Court opens its 2014 term (as we cover here). But no one yet knows if this is the year the court will determine whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

As John Roberts begins his tenth year as Chief Justice, the court has no lack of opportunities to tackle the lightning-rod matter of gay nuptials. Three federal appeals courts have struck down same-sex marriage bans in five states over the past 15 months. The Supreme Court has received seven petitions challenging these rulings. But as we explain, the justices have thus far been mum on whether they will grant any of them.

Throwing another odd number into the mix, this morning the Court accepted 11 new...Continue reading

A black eye

Jue, 02/10/2014 - 18:19

IN APRIL a parent at East Wake High School in North Carolina was distressed to discover Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” on the school’s advanced English reading list. She submitted a complaint to Wake County, arguing that the book was inappropriate for teenagers. It includes depictions of sexual violence and child rape as well as poverty and racism. In July the review committee decided to remove “The Bluest Eye” from the school’s curriculum; it also made “The Colour Purple”, another classic novel about racial injustice in America, accessible only to students who have received parental consent. (Both novels are still available in the school’s library.)

For Banned Books Week in late September the American Library Association released a list of the top ten most challenged books of 2013. A book is challenged when a formal complaint is made to a library or school requesting the removal of “inappropriate” material. “The Bluest Eye”...Continue reading

Salvation through digestion

Mié, 01/10/2014 - 19:44

GLOBALISATION is usually taken to be a bad thing for the environment: as more people around the world consume more goods that have travelled greater distances to their shopping baskets, pressure on resources increases and the planet suffers. Sometimes, though, globalisation has the opposite effect. The creation of the world’s largest marine reserve, done with a squiggle of Barack Obama’s pen on September 25th, is one such example.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is roughly the size of Texas, California and Florida combined. Its importance lies not just in its vastness. “It is as close to a pristine ecosystem as it is possible to get on this planet,” says Jane Lubchenko of Oregon State University. The sea mountains that lie below the surface of its waters throw up all sorts of delicious things for sharks, manta rays and turtles to feast on. Though the reserve’s distance from heavily populated land means its fish are not currently threatened by trawlers’ nets, that might not have been the case for long.

The tale of how the reserve came about involves the unlikely intersection of George W. Bush, a...Continue reading

Motoring forward

Mar, 30/09/2014 - 22:03

ON SUNDAY the Tigers, Detroit’s baseball team, qualified for the World Series playoffs (pictured). Fans hope this could be the Tigers’ year. Some see this as yet another sign that things are taking a turn for the better in this otherwise beleaguered, bankrupt city.

On September 25th the city council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected officials—ie the city council and Mike Duggan, Detroit’s mayor. Police and fire departments are now back under mayoral control. In a promising move, the mayor and the council agreed that Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager for the past 18 months, should stay put until a federal judge approves the city’s restructuring plan.

When Mr Orr took office, the city was on its knees. Detroit lacked the money to pay its bills, much less to cover pension liabilities or healthcare obligations for retirees. In July 2013 Mr Orr filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history....Continue reading

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