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Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

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Live on TV: The Fall of Greece
Chris Heath • GQ

On the clip that captured a society falling apart.

Then, far to the moderator's left, an animated blonde woman says something that clearly riles a short-haired young man on the opposite end. This lurch -- from heated debate to something much crazier -- happens in a flash. The short-haired man picks up his glass of water and, rising to his feet, throws its contents in the blonde woman's face. It's a direct hit. She seems to freeze, but after that it's all so fast, so frantic. A dark-haired older woman, sitting between the water-thrower and the moderator, gets up from her chair and jabs the aggressor with her newspaper. The short-haired man lunges toward her, then swings violently at her. A right, a left, a right. Each time, he connects. You can't believe how fast he moves, how hard he hits. Then the screen goes blank. The clip is from a popular Greek morning TV show that was broadcast live on June 7, 2012, ten days before Greece's second election of the year amid the ongoing economic turmoil. The three key participants are all members of the Greek Parliament.

ANTENNA TV/AFP/GettyImages

Welcome to the Hotel of Doom
Simon Parry • Daily Mail

A visit to the hotel North Korea starved to build, still unfinished after breaking ground in 1987.

This is the behemoth I have come to see -- a colossal monument to the insanity of North Korea. The 1,082ft-high Ryugyong Hotel is due to open next summer, an astonishing 24 years behind schedule. I was determined to be the first foreign visitor to set foot inside. Work actually began in 1987 under the regime of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, and was meant to open two years later as a calculated snub to neighbouring South Korea. As Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, North Korea would open what would then have been the world’s tallest hotel. The structure of the mighty pyramid was quickly completed, but work came to a shuddering halt in 1992 after the collapse of Pyongyang’s benefactor, the Soviet Union. It was an economic disaster for North Korea and provoked a devastating famine that killed up to 3.5 million people.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

General Principles
Dexter Filkins • The New Yorker

How good was David Petraeus?

In recent years, the most esteemed officer in America -- the very model of the modern general -- was David Petraeus, whose public image combined the theorizing of the new school with a patina of old-fashioned toughness and rectitude. Before a sex scandal forced him to step down as the director of the C.I.A., a few weeks ago, he was widely regarded by politicians and journalists as a brilliant thinker and leader, the man who saved America in Iraq and might work a similar miracle in Afghanistan. Roger Ailes suggested, perhaps less than half in jest, that Petraeus run for President. Now many of the same people are calling into question not just his ethics but his basic ideas and achievements. History often forgives military leaders for small scandals, if they are successful enough. Eisenhower’s long-alleged affair with Kay Summersby has not much tarnished his reputation as an officer; even Hood, whose late campaigns were disastrous, is remembered as a paragon of bravery, if not of good planning. Will Petraeus be thought of, in time, as a hero guilty of no more than a distracting foible? Or as the general most responsible for two disastrous wars?

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls
Amal Hanano • Foreign Policy

An elegy for Aleppo.

Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. There is much to learn from it. Death is sudden; it is shorter than a short YouTube clip. Death is a man wrapped in his shroud, bloodied gauze strips tied around his head, cotton stuffed in his nostrils, and the bluish-gray tinge of his skin. Death is the camera panning over mass graves where children's bodies are arranged in long, perfect lines, then covered with rust-colored dirt. The death of Syrians accumulated so fast it seems impossible to comprehend over 40,000 lives lost in less than two years. But the death of a city is different. It is slow -- each neighborhood's death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people -- which arrives too late, always after the fact -- the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

Understanding Mohamed Morsi
Joshua Hammer • The New Republic

On the origin and motivations of the most powerful man in the Middle East.

Sometimes, Morsi can seem like the inspiring guardian of Egyptian democracy -- such as when he courageously dismissed the military junta that had claimed the right to rule post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt. At other times, he can seem like a mouthpiece for the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood -- declaring women unfit for high office and advocating for an international law to ban religious insults. (And sometimes he simply seems awkward, such as when he sat down for a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard in September at the United Nations and proceeded, for several excruciating seconds, to publicly adjust his genitals.) So far, the only certainty about Morsi is that his ultimate intentions remain unknown.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages

Feature

Insane Clown Posse

Television comedian-cum-populist Beppe Grillo is the hottest thing in Italian politics. But is his new opposition party funny or dangerous?

A friend of mine, the proud owner of three fancy restaurants in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has no doubt about which way he's going to vote in the upcoming elections. "Voto Grillo," he tells me. "I'll vote for Grillo." My cousin, a highbrow math teacher, will also vote for Grillo. "Basta ladri," he tells me. "I'm fed up with thieves." Ride a bus, catch a plane, or join a line at a soccer stadium anywhere in Italy these days, and you're likely to hear someone call out, "I'm for Grillo." In the general election ballot now scheduled for February, following the surprising call by Prime Minister Mario Monti that he will step down, at least 20 percent of voters are expected to cast their ballot for Beppe Grillo, making this former television comedian one of Italy's next kingmakers.

So who is this guy? Savior of the country or hapless populist? Robin Hood-cum-Garibaldi or cult leader? And just how did this tubby, gray-bearded ranter burst onto Italy's political scene?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Grillo rose to fame as a comedian on Italy's main TV networks, best known for hosting the show Festival di Sanremo -- a popular musical contest that was something of a grandfather of modern hits like The X Factor and The Voice. His off-color gags and rants against Bettino Craxi, then the country's prime minister, delighted audiences and critics. After accusing Rai (the public television network) of censoring his scripts, he quit and took his act to theaters and rallies and eventually attached himself to a variety of political causes. He has also gone digital with a blog that is consistently ranked among the 10 most popular in the world. In 2008, frustrated in his efforts to promote direct democracy, Grillo joined forces with Gianroberto Casaleggio, a businessman and new-media guru, to launch his own political party, 5 Stelle, or 5 Star, representing the movement's main five issues: "clean water supply, public transportation, development, broadband digital network access, and the environment." Grillo's knack for channeling the political zeitgeist and Casaleggio's mastery of modern data-driven campaign techniques were a perfect match, and a powerful couple was born.

Discounted at first by experts, 5 Star scored a big win in Sicily's local elections this October, coming out of nowhere. Nationwide polls now show it as the country's second-largest party, behind the ruling Democratic Party (PD). The liberal-leftist PD is now predicted to score 30 percent in the national elections, scheduled for February following last week's dramatic resignation of Prime Minister Monti. This may grant the party a majority in Parliament. The conservative Party of Liberty (PDL), led by the returning Silvio Berlusconi, likely won't garner more than 15 percent; smaller centrist parties could muster about 8 percent. This would leave Grillo and Casaleggio, the comedian and the low-key media geek, controlling somewhere between 100 and 120 congressmen out of a total 630. And thanks to a shoddy electoral law, concocted in 2005 by Berlusconi's cronies, Grillo and Casaleggio will be able to personally select the new representatives.

All of a sudden, Grillo and Casaleggio are political power brokers and media stars. Established columnists have started paying homage in their normally staid op eds. Intellectuals have flocked to gather under the 5 Star flag. Traditional newspapers and websites now host Grillo's blog, which has become the most popular in the country. International correspondents -- fed up with covering corruption, economic malaise, and bunga bunga -- swoon celebrating "Beppe." A 2008 profile in the New Yorker set the tone, praising the "distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert … [who] not only denounces political wrongdoing but runs something of a parallel government, complete with a cabinet of volunteer policy advisers, including the architect Renzo Piano, the actor and playwright Dario Fo, and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the preface to a book Grillo recently published online about Italian labor law." The article's author, Tom Mueller, seemed positively enraptured as Grillo "picked up a guitar and sang, in a sultry Ray Charles baritone, a song he called 'The Sardinia Blues.'"

And now, even U.S. President Barack Obama's political heavyweights are getting on the bandwagon. When Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign, toured Italy after this year's U.S. election, the only politician he met with personally was Casaleggio. After the meeting, Slaby, unsurprisingly, denied that it implied Obama was endorsing Grillo. "I was traveling as a private citizen," he said. But it's telling that he was even asked.

It's now conventional wisdom in the Italian media these days that come the Ides of March, Beppe Grillo will be a fixture in the Eternal City. But there's a populist dark side to Grillo's rising star.

Establishment political commentators are often shocked by the glowing public response to Grillo's most outrageous remarks. He has called for "public trials" for "guilty politicians" -- not in front of established judges under the law but in public squares. He has advocated arresting 10,000 politicians and corralling them in a soccer stadium until they repay "the booty they have looted from us taxpayers." He warned dissidents in his own party that if they don't like him or Casaleggio, they can get lost. He recently enforced this diktat against Federica Salsi, a councilwoman in Bologna, and Giovanni Favia, a state congressman in Emilia, who had complained about lack of political debate inside 5 Star. On Dec. 12, Grillo expelled them from the party with just a few lines on his blog: "Starting today you cannot use our logo anymore. Good luck."

"Grillo is a new Mussolini, a new Berlusconi," was one of the online reactions, but the leader did not flinch.

So far, Grillo has been protected by his reputation as a showman. While addressing the crowds, live or online, he mimics rage and channels outrage, rambles and cries, hurls insults, and threatens his rivals with the kind of passion and venom no other politician can offer. But he escapes wrath, coyly, covering his radical statements in a comedian's mask.

Media studies departments will be dissecting Grillo's style for years. He has translated old-media clout into social media "klout," blending together Rush Limbaugh's dyspeptic rants with Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's smart-aleck irony, plus a healthy dollop of the disheveled everyman persona (and physique) of Michael Moore. Better than anyone else, he has been able to channel the sheer disgust Italians feel for their politicians' corruption and moral decadence, widespread in the Berlusconi era and the economic malaise that has followed it.

Grillo calculated perfectly in choosing the issue to launch his career in politics 10 years ago: a campaign against genetically modified food, anathema in a country that worships fresh pasta, local tomatoes, and good wine. Distaste for genetically altered food is a common thread in Italy, linking both conservative parents and their progressive kids. The older generation mourns the fresh bread and fruit lost to American-style supermarkets; the younger crowd despises fast food and biotech companies. His second campaign challenged high-speed train construction, championing a slower lifestyle amid the incursion of Europe's brutal post-industrial world.

Ironically for a new-media superstar, much of Grillo's shtick is built on a mistrust of technology. Before he joined hands with Casaleggio, Grillo's best-known stage gig involved smashing computers with gusto, like an aging rock star splintering his Fender guitar. Another classic gag, still popular on YouTube, sees Grillo complaining about the old gadgets in the house, displaced by menacing electronic devices.

Grillo appeals to a deep nostalgia Italians feel for their recent past, when the country's economy was booming in the postwar period and when a sense of community and identity was not yet lost to globalization, immigration, and the euro. This feeling transcends right and left. Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's best political analysts, recently traced ballots for 5 Star in local elections to members of all the Italian parties. Disgruntled voters from Berlusconi's coalition, former communists and radicals, and even centrist Catholics have flocked to Grillo's populist message. But despite the agrarian nostalgia, his acolytes aren't laid-back flower children. Their main slogan is vaffanculo (which translates as "fuck off"), and "Vaffa Day" events have been organized all over the country. Vaff the polical leaders, vaff business people, vaff journalists, vaff everybody but the grillini -- 5 Star's most ardent militants.

But if Grillo has acutely tapped a particular nerve among the Italian electorate, he's also a master of media manipulation. One reporter for a major newspaper was recently caught red-handed covering Grillo's speeches that he himself had ghostwritten. (He gave himself a nice review.) And since enjoying his run in the polls, Grillo has elected to talk only to friendly media. His cadres and supporters are prohibited from giving interviews. Break the diktat and you're out of the party.

And there's a dark side as well to the Grillo base. Supporters often point out that 5 Star eschews the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric common to European populist parties like Hungary's Jobbik or Greece's Golden Dawn. But there are some worrying signs in the leader's rhetoric. Grillo claims all 5 Star candidates for office must be "Italian citizens" -- with no criminal records. But as all candidates must already be Italian citizens by law, the fact that he bothered to specify this can be seen as a wink to the racist right. He also opposes a U.S.-style law proposed by the Italian left that would grant citizenship to any baby born in the country.

As for the clean criminal record pledge, that would disqualify Grillo himself. In 1983, he was convicted for manslaughter after the Chevrolet Blazer he was driving slipped off an icy road on the Col de Tende mountain pass, killing two of his close friends and their 9-year-old child, as well as maiming a fourth passenger. The verdict stated Grillo should not have used the road, which was closed to the public, at any speed.

It's also surprising that Grillo's foreign-policy views haven't raised more eyebrows in the international press. In an interview with Menachem Gantz, correspondent for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Grillo, whose wife and father-in-law are Iranian, praised the Islamic Republic as being progressive on women's rights and argued that its judicial system is fairer than America's. He also claimed that Osama bin Laden had been the victim of "poor translations" and blamed the war in Syria on anti-Assad "infiltrators."

Enrico Sassoon, a respected businessman and Casaleggio's former partner, wrote a letter to Corriere della Sera, the Italian daily last September, formally breaking all business and personal links with Casaleggio and Grillo after reading anti-Semitic posts on 5 Star blogs. Supporters had linked Sassoon, who is Jewish, to the Mossad and various other conspiracies, and no one from the party leadership spoke up on his behalf.

Is Grillo a racist or a founder of some sort of nasty cult? No. He might have a naive view of global affairs and certainly lets too many crazies post unmonitored on his website, but 5 Star is no Golden Dawn. He has become a catchall for protest against the state, and if he's to be faulted for anything at this point, it's for being more of a showman than a politician. Nobody pays attention to 5 Star's ugly underbelly because the vast majority of the voters flocking to Grillo are motivated only by their hatred of corruption, political patronage, fat cats, and bureaucrats enjoying perks -- while 36 percent of young Italians are looking for a job. Meanwhile, Grillo's colorful publicity stunts (like swimming from the mainland to Sicily to promote his campaign) are a pleasant diversion from the moribund economy.

In the end, 5 Star will be a vote of protest. The party's official platform is a boilerplate of platitudes like "ending the cozy links in Italian capitalism," "creating jobs with a digital green economy," "reducing expenses and taxes," and "curbing the big corporations." When confronted with the poverty of analysis or the erratic behavior of its leaders, 5 Star militants shrug: "Vogliamo mandare a casa tutti, capisci." ("We just want to send the crooks home; then we will see.")

It's an experiment the whole of Europe will soon get to see. German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed Monti early in December and asked Berlusconi, who recently pulled his party's support from the coalition that backed the government, not to join "populist forces" -- read: Grillo. So far, it's not working. Protest is one thing, but 5 Star's dangerous platform should have European leaders worried. Grillo's shock troops in Parliament will call for Italy's exit from the euro and will try to block the budget agreements and economic reforms passed by Monti. And while praising the power of the web, 5 Star may oppose international investment to bridge the digital divide between Italy's rich and poor and projects needed to modernize the country's decrepit infrastructure.

After the last decade, it's understandable that Italians are looking for a way to throw the bums out. But they might want to take a closer look at whom they're voting in.