The Breakfast Table

Easy To Be God, Easy To Be the Devil

Rise and shine, Maud! (I don’t know why the sun’s morning behavior is the only kind to imitate. Shouldn’t we be encouraging one another to “sink and smolder” in the evening too?) Apropos of your question, the urban photographer I mentioned yesterday is Camilo José Vergara and, yes, he has photographed Chicago public housing projects, and his work is in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. It’s also on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Did you see today’s New York Times piece on Iraq (not the A1 report on the fracas over the no-flight zone in the north, but the story on A4)? Barbara Crossette reports that Hussein is being snide to the French, that his Arab League brothers are distancing themselves, and that his trade minister seems once again in favor of the “oil for food” program (though another official apparently wants to squelch it). Could Saddam’s power be unbuckling?

Not that signs of a loosening grip would translate into greater comfort for his people. The Times also reports “mixed signals” from the Iraqis about maintaining ties with the UN. If they block relief efforts, more children will die. The view from the ground, which reporters like Kinzer supply, is harrowing. You’re right. We need to see the effect of American policies, case by case, blow by blow. And then we need to consider alternative scenarios: What stories would we read about the Kurds, for instance, if sanctions were lifted and Iraqi planes allowed to fly freely?

What strikes me about Kinzer’s piece is the amount of misery a people will absorb before they organize opposition, or simply go berserk. Today’s Wall Street Journal tells the story of a 65-year-old Russian man who grew up on a collective farm and served in the Soviet army. When the country unraveled, he loaded a beloved car with explosives and detonated it in Red Square, injuring three Kremlin guards. According to the Journal, nearly a third of Russia’s population is below the poverty line–$30 a month. And yet the country “shows scant signs of mass unrest.” This man was part of the fringe. On his wall, near a picture of Stalin, was a carving with the words “Easy to be God, Easy to be the Devil.” All it takes is some dynamite and courage and an audience that will applaud grand gestures, or denounce them.

Do you suppose our president fits this description?