Yoko Ono takes The Economist’s questions

(K. Brent Tomer),

YOKO ONO has been making art for the better part of six decades, never failing to startle, provoke and sometimes get under the skin. The Musee d’art contemporain (MAC) in Lyon will open a retrospective of her work, “YOKO ONO Lumière de l’aube” (“light of dawn”) on March 9th. Ms Ono answered The Economist‘s questions by e-mail.

Whereas transcripts like this are often published with a note saying that they have been edited down for length and clarity, it should be noted that these are Ms Ono’s replies in their entirety.

Your retrospective at the MAC Lyon opens with a new installation called “Light.” Can you tell us more about this new artwork? What is the meaning of “light” in today’s world?

We are coming out of the darkness we were in for centuries and embracing light.  

Your peace activism and instructional artworks help inspire a path to peace. I’ve heard you say before it all starts with a smile. But how does the message get beyond like-minded activists to reach those…Continue reading

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Music and memory

(K. Brent Tomer),

The temptations of hindsight

The Noise of Time. By Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape; 180 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Knopf in May.

ON THE surface, Julian Barnes seems an unlikely author of historical novels, a genre which often offers a fixed interpretation of a period in history, or characters within that period, albeit one conjured by the writer’s imagination. Yet he returns to them again and again. “Talking It Over”, which came out in 1991, sets its characters’ memories against each other, showing how they overlap and contradict. “Arthur & George”—his recreation of a real-life mystery taken on by Arthur Conan Doyle that was published in 2005—is as much an excavation of biography and identity as it is a detective yarn. “The Sense of an Ending”, which won the Man Booker prize for fiction in 2011, offers a dramatic reassessment of one man’s past.

The epigraph of “Talking It Over”, “He lies like an eyewitness”, is described simply as a “Russian saying”. It reappears in “The Noise of Time”, Mr Barnes’s brief, compelling inhabiting of…Continue reading

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The avengers

(K. Brent Tomer),

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. By Jane Mayer. Doubleday; 449 pages; $29.95

IN 1972 W. Clement Stone, a wealthy businessman, gave $2m to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. The cheque, worth $11.4m today, provoked outrage and led to calls for campaign-finance reform. How quaint history seems when compared with the momentous present. In 2016 a group of rich conservative donors will spend nearly $900m to influence the presidential and congressional elections. They avoid public scrutiny by funnelling money into a labyrinthine collection of foundations and anonymous political groups.

This secret system is the subject of “Dark Money”, an ambitious new book by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. David and Charles Koch (pronounced “coke”), who inherited an industrial conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas, which is the second-largest private company in America, are at the heart of the book. Although the company is diverse, with interests in energy, chemicals, commodities and consumer goods, its owners focus on advancing their conservative…Continue reading

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Reds under the bed

(K. Brent Tomer),

Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists. By David Aaronovitch. Jonathan Cape; 309 pages; £17.99.

WERE those post-war Britons who kept faith in communism, despite the horrors of Stalinism, simply “useful idiots”? In this engaging, witty and beautifully written book, the epithet, usually attributed to Lenin, never occurs. Yet David Aaronovitch must surely have been tempted to apply it to his parents, Sam and Lavender, and their friends, almost all of them fellow-members of the Communist Party.

Mr Aaronovitch, who ditched the gospel of Marxism years ago and is now a columnist for the Times, obviously has first-hand experience of the cultlike loyalty of the “party animals” in the 1950s and 1960s: “The facts of existence, the assumptions about how the globe turned that we imbibed were not the same as—and often the opposite of—what everyone else deemed normal…There were things that other people did that we didn’t do. We didn’t believe in God, pray, go to church, stand up for the queen in the cinema when they played the national anthem (which in any case, wasn’t our anthem, our anthem being the ‘Internationale’).” Is there a parallel today? “Perhaps there are children of very devout Muslims or evangelicals who will read this and nod along.”

But Mr Aaronovitch’s memoir…Continue reading

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What would the doctor prescribe?

(K. Brent Tomer),

“A HARMLESS drudge.” Of the definitions in Samuel Johnson’s great English dictionary of 1755, that of “lexicographer”, his own calling, is the most famous, an example of the same wit that led him to define “oats” as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

Why name a language column after a harmless drudge? Because Johnson, despite the drudgery, knew that language was not harmless. Its power to inform and to lead astray, to entertain and to annoy, to build co-operation or destroy a reputation, makes language serious stuff. The Economist’s “Johnson” column began in 1992 and was later revived online. This week it returns to the print edition, and henceforth will appear fortnightly.

Many of the topics tackled are fun: swearing and slang, preferences and peeves. Some are more fundamental. Language reveals a lot about human nature: how people reason differently in a foreign language, or to what extent different languages encode a world view, are some of the most exciting and controversial topics in linguistic…Continue reading

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Beyond the glitter

(K. Brent Tomer),

This Is London: Life and Death in the World City. By Ben Judah. Picador; 426 pages; £18.99.

LONDON, a city famous for Hyde Park, Harrods and giddy house prices, has undergone a quiet revolution. So says Ben Judah, a young foreign correspondent now turning his eyes towards his home town. He begins his new book with a confession: “I was born in London but I no longer recognise this city…I don’t know if I love the new London or if it frightens me: a city where at least 55% of people are not white British, nearly 40% were born abroad and 5% are living illegally in the shadows.” “This Is London” is Mr Judah’s journey to rediscover his city.

The author throws himself in at the deep end, spending anxious nights huddled in an underpass not far from the unimaginable wealth of Mayfair, in the company of homeless Roma beggars. Many of these men, and they are almost all men, are indentured slaves. Having lost their jobs at home, they borrowed money to travel to London and are now forced to beg to pay off their debts.

From here, Mr Judah grabs hold of London and shakes out its secrets. He has a gift for ingratiating himself into very foreign surroundings and teasing out stories. He meets a bored Middle Eastern princess, who passes her days in a haze of skunk, an Afghan shopkeeper who entered Britain hidden in a lorry, and…Continue reading

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Stocking filler

(K. Brent Tomer),

The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. By Lisa McGirr. W.W. Norton; 330 pages; $27.95 and £18.99.

NEARLY a century after America fleetingly banned alcohol, Prohibition seems like a charming absurdity. The rise of moonshine and speakeasies before the Great Depression seems more like Hollywood than history. But Prohibition was no joke for the working classes, writes Lisa McGirr in “The War on Alcohol”, a focused and thought-provoking book.

When the 18th Amendment banning the sale of alcohol was passed in 1919, it was targeted at the saloons where men gathered after work for beer and conversation. “I believe that alcoholism threatens the destruction of the white race,” said Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University. Such sentiments were common among the reformers.

Thus began what Ms McGirr, a professor at Harvard, describes as the “boldest effort to remake private behaviour in the nation’s history”. Neighbourhood saloons closed, home distilleries opened and drinking moved underground, to homes and speakeasies and even athletic clubs. The protests of the…Continue reading

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Ireland’s Easter uprising in pictures

(K. Brent Tomer),

“AFTER I am hanged my portrait will be interesting but not before,” wrote Patrick Pearse, a leader of Ireland’s Easter Rising, in a letter to Seamus Doyle, a fellow rebel, as Pearse awaited execution at the hands of the British in 1916. Pearse was one of fifteen men executed for the armed uprising against the British, after decades of fractious relations between the colonial power and the Irish people. The rebels had hoped that the Irish would rise with them, and that the British might be forced to relinquish control of Ireland, distracted as they were by the first world war. Instead the rebels failed to attract the support that they had counted on, and were brutally suppressed, with Dublin shelled by gunboat, and troops sent from Liverpool to fight with rebels in the streets. The insurgents surrendered after six days. Thousands of Irish were arrested and imprisoned, and the subsequent executions followed hasty military trials, a story commemorated in pictures at a new exhibit at The Photographer’s Gallery in London. 

Pearse was right. After his death a pre-uprising…Continue reading

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Who’s afraid of insider trading?

(K. Brent Tomer),

NEARLY a decade has passed since the long-whispered rumours about an epidemic of match-fixing in tennis burst into the public eye. In August 2007 bettors wagered a whopping $7m on Martín Vassallo Argüello, a good-not-great Argentine player, to upset Nikolay Davydenko, who was then ranked fourth in the world for men’s singles. Mr Davydenko won the first set, but wound up retiring from the match. Although the Association of Tennis Professionals later said its investigation had uncovered “no evidence of a violation of its rules”, the uproar over the event led to the establishment of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), an institution dedicated to fighting corruption in the sport. Concerns about match-fixing have steadily <a…Continue reading

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