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On Tuesday, May 31, Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online and a contributor to this magazine, was found murdered and apparently tortured. Shahzad had just published an article on al Qaeda infiltration of the Pakistani navy and had reported threats made against him by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, to Human Rights Watch. We are deeply saddened by his loss, and alarmed by the brazen attacks on the press in Pakistan—now, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the world’s most dangerous country for reporters.
Given the critical place of the free press in any democracy, the hazards in Pakistan are particularly troubling and worsen that country’s prospects for positive political change.
This issue’s New Democracy Forum focuses on another country’s democratic prospects. The Forum begins with the current crackdown on Chinese dissidents, which may reflect the government’s reaction to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. In the lead article, Edward Steinfeld, Professor of Political Science at MIT, condemns the crackdown, but is hopeful about the future. Tremendous openings in China’s economy and society have brought—however haphazardly and incrementally—less visible political changes that suggest a path to broader liberalization.
The respondents to Steinfeld’s article are not so sure about China’s political fluidity. They see little loosening of the Communist Party’s grip and suggest that creative authoritarians will find new ways to suppress dissent. And some think change, when it comes, will be less incremental and less tied to existing power structures—perhaps driven by Internet-based activism, or political mobilization among the vast population that has been marginalized by the economic boom.
How political change happens—driven by leaders or movements, for better or worse—is a question that arises throughout this issue in essays on the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Having ridden to victory on the expectation of change, President Obama has disappointed many loyal supporters. Why? Former American Prospect Editor Mark Schmitt, locates the problem in Obama’s pragmatism. Is it possible to lead without a larger vision—an integrated set of guiding principles and ideals—that mobilizes supporters? Schmitt doesn’t think so.
In “When That Becomes This,” David Greenberg offers a meditation on uses of comparison in politics and literature. One kind of comparison—often suggested by the larger political vision that Schmitt finds worryingly absent—encourages new ways of thinking; another forecloses them. Greenberg urges that we pursue the former and develop a “critical vocabulary” that can “expose suffering and make it seem possible to act against it.”
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Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
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