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n+1 n+1 is a twice-yearly print journal. tag:nplusonemag.com,2005:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5 Textpattern 2014-04-18T20:22:58Z n+1 magazine http://nplusonemag.com/ n+1 magazine 2014-04-18T20:20:24Z 2014-04-18T20:22:58Z The Trouble is the Banks Letters in Theater, April 17-20 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-18:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/2ca35773ca2f7c4df29d4d11b508dc44 by

The New School's annual student production includes letters to Wall Street from n+1's book
Tonight through Sunday
Four Peformances of Marathon Dancing: Letters to Wall Street in the Era of Wonderful Nonsense

The Eugene Lang College of the New School and the theater director Zishan Ugurlu have integrated letters and our authors from our book The Trouble is the Banks into a theatrical play. Based on the classic book and movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, it takes marathon dance contests as an image of struggles in the Great Depression and today. 

Thurs., Fri., & Sat., April 17, 18, 19 at 7:30 pm 
Sun. April 20 at 2:30 pm 

La Mama Ellen Stewart Theater
66 East 4th Street, NYC
(Between 2nd Ave and Bowery)

Cost: Free

Purchase print issue »

]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-04-17T18:51:15Z 2014-04-17T18:51:15Z Chat Wars tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-14:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/3844d0ecd97bc5118a91aff36ff16571 by David Auerbach

Image: Adam Ferris. Detail from CA1. 2013.

This article appears in Issue 19: Real Estate, available now. Subscribe to read it in print.

In the summer of 1998 I graduated from college and went to work as a programmer at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. I was put on the group that was building MSN Messenger Service, Microsoft’s instant messaging app. The terrible name came from Marketing, which had become something of a joke for always picking the clunkiest and least imaginative product names. Buddy List? C U C Me? MSN Messenger? No, MSN Messenger Service. I’ll call it Messenger for short.

At the time the big players in instant messaging were AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo, and ICQ. AIM had tens of millions of users; AOL had become the country’s biggest dial-up provider in the mid-’90s by blitzing everyone’s mailboxes with CD-ROMs, and all AOL users instantly became AIM users. Yahoo and ICQ each had millions of users. Those were big numbers for the 1990s.

It was a large project: on the desktop program (“client”), we had to create a sleek user interface to let people see their buddies when they came online, allow them to change the color of the font in a cool way, and so on. That is, we had to create a program that would do everything the other chat programs could, then add a few wrinkles of our own. The server-side team had to notify users about the comings and goings of other users, so that if your buddy Gordon logged on, the server would tell your client that he was there (we, on the client side, had to take the notification and display it to the user properly). The server side also had to integrate our functionality with Hotmail, which had tens of millions of users and which Microsoft had acquired in 1997.It was imperative that every Hotmail user be able to log on to Messenger with a Hotmail address and password as seamlessly as possible. This was not simple.

The initial team consisted of about ten people, though it gradually expanded to several times that size. On the client side we’d meet to discuss what needed to be done, what kinds of features we wanted, what we could do and couldn’t do. Then we’d go and do it. I was 20 years old, the youngest person on the team, and very green. I was given little chunks of the project to work on at first, then bigger ones. I worked on the instant messaging windows: the “type your message here” window and the “transcript” window above it. I added better font control and helped make the client work with non-Latin character sets like Chinese/ Japanese/Korean, Indic, Hebrew/Arabic (right-to-left, a particular pain). I managed when the windows would pop up, how they could be moved around, and how scrolling worked in them (scroll bars were very buggy in Windows!). Handling shutdown was a pain, making sure the windows closed down neatly and all the program’s resources were cleaned up properly without the program crashing.

After we finished the user part of the program, we had some down- time while waiting for the server team to finish the Hotmail integration. We fixed every bug we could find, and then I added another little feature just for fun. One of the problems Microsoft foresaw was getting new users to join Messenger when so many people already used the other chat programs. The trouble was that the programs, then as now, didn’t talk to one another; AOL didn’t talk to Yahoo, which didn’t talk to ICQ, and none of them, of course, would talk to Messenger. AOL had the largest user base, so we discussed the possibility of adding code to allow Messenger to log in to two servers simultaneously, Microsoft’s and AOL’s, so that you could see your Messenger and AIM buddies on a single list and talk to AIM buddies via Messenger. We called it “interop.”

This wasn’t elegant, but it wasn’t that complicated, either. A program talks to a server using a well-defined protocol, which is a set of coded instructions sent to and from the server. HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), used to request and transmit web pages, is one of the most common protocols in existence. It is built on top of TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol), the underlying protocol of the internet itself. Internet companies run servers that speak these and other protocols. Some protocols, like HTTP and TCP/IP, are public, documented, and spoken by everyone, but some are private/ proprietary and undocumented. AIM’s protocol, known as OSCAR (for Open System for CommunicAtion in Realtime), was in the latter group. I didn’t have the “key” to decode it. But what I could do was sign up for an AIM account and then watch the communications between the AIM client and the server using a network monitor, a development tool used to track network communications in and out of a computer. That way I could see the protocol that AIM was using. A sample message looked like this, with the hexadecimal representation of the binary on the left and the ASCII character translation of the binary on the right:

  2A 02 EE FA 00 B0 00 0E 00 06 00 00 9B 7D BD 28  *............}.(

  33 41 35 36 35 43 38 37 00 03 00 03 00 28 0D 52  3A565C87.....(.R

  45 41 4C 52 65 67 72 65 73 73 6F 72 00 00 00 03  EALRegressor....

  00 01 00 02 00 10 00 0F 00 04 00 00 00 18 00 03  ................

  00 04 3E 4C BE 8C 00 01 00 00 00 05 00 68 00 02  ..>L.........h..

  00 08 75 73 2D 61 73 63 69 69 00 03 00 02 65 6E  ..us-ascii....en

  00 01 00 48 69 2E 2E 20 41 6E 79 62 6F 64 79 3F  ...Hi.. Anybody?

I didn’t understand what it meant, but I could see when it was surrounding one of my text messages. “Hi... Anybody?” I would write into my AIM chat box and press return, and then on my network trace I would see my “Hi... Anybody?” Some of the protocol was always changing, but some was always the same. Our client took the surrounding boilerplate and packaged up text messages in it, then sent it to the AOL servers. Did AOL notice that there were some odd messages heading their way from Redmond? Probably not. They had a hundred million users, and after all I was using their own protocol. I didn’t even send that many messages. My program manager and I thought this little stunt would be deemed too dubious by management and taken out of the product before it shipped. But management liked the feature. On July 22, 1999, Microsoft entered the chat markets with MSN Messenger Service. Our AOL “interop” was in it.

As people downloaded the client to try it out, they thought it was cool: everything worked, it had more font functions than AOL, it was seamless with Hotmail (which a lot of people had), and, look at this, you could use two services with one program and still talk to your AOL chat buddies! Our lark was paying off.

Of course no one had warned AOL, and they weren’t happy. They pretty quickly started blocking Messenger from connecting to their servers; they’d disconnect the user and pop up an instant message saying, “Use an authorized AOL client at this link: [web URL].” But AOL could only block Messenger if they could figure out that the user was using Messenger and not AIM. As long as Messenger sent exactly the same protocol messages to the AOL servers, AOL wouldn’t be able to detect that Messenger was an impostor. So I took the AIM client and checked for differences in what it was sending, then changed our client to mimic it once again. They’d switch it up again; they knew their client, and they knew what it was coded to do and what obscure messages it would respond to in what ways. Every day it’d be something new. At one point they threw in a new protocol wrinkle but cleverly excepted users logging on from Microsoft headquarters, so that while all other Messenger users were getting an error message, we were sitting at Microsoft and not getting it. After an hour or two of scratching our heads, we figured it out.

Microsoft and AOL were both, obviously, giant companies, and soon the press got hold of the story. On July 24, the New York Times put it on the front page: “In Cyberspace, Rivals Skirmish Over Messaging.” It was like reading about a boxing match that you yourself were in. AOL kept blocking us, wrote the paper of record. “But Microsoft refused to roll over. Late Friday, the software giant said it had revised its MSN Messenger program to circumvent America Online’s roadblock. Within hours, America Online answered that challenge with a new block.”

I framed the article. My name wasn’t in it, but it didn’t matter. That was me!

+ + +

This was, as I say, 1999. Just two decades after launching MS-DOS, its first operating system, Microsoft was one of the biggest companies in the world. We had 30,000 employees worldwide, about 10,000 of them in Redmond. The campus was about the same size as Yale.

What was Microsoft’s secret? They were, and are, essentially a software company. While hobbyists in the 1970s were trying to figure out how to build a computer small enough to fit in your home, Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen were figuring out how to write software for when the hobbyists finally figured it out. In 1980, they partnered with IBM to make an operating system, MS-DOS (for Microsoft Disk Operating System), for the first mass-manufactured personal computer. A few years later they partnered with Apple to give early Apple PC users functioning programs, including Microsoft Word. Gates and Allen’s insight was simply that PCs were going to be a big deal, and people would want software for the new machines.

By licensing Microsoft to provide the operating system for PCs, IBM essentially handed them a license to print money. The margins on software were far greater than on hardware, because the physical manufacturing process was negligible—producing disks was cheap and trivial next to microprocessors and peripherals. And since Microsoft was the only company producing the operating system needed to run, ultimately, all software on PCs in the 1980s, it had a lock on guaranteed sales of the ballooning PC industry. IBM wasn’t the only hardware maker in town—far from it—but Microsoft was the only MS-DOS maker.

Microsoft’s rise did not go unnoticed or uncontested. In 1984, Apple debuted the Macintosh. After the Lisa, which came out the year before and cost $10,000, the Mac was the first PC to use an operating system with a graphical user interface (GUI), building on research done at Xerox PARC and elsewhere. The company bought ad time during the Super Bowl to trumpet this revolution in computing, and in truth they weren’t exaggerating. Until the Macintosh, everything had been text; now you could see a visual representation of the inside of the computer— a “metaphorical desktop,” as it was called. When I saw it at age 7, I found it dazzling, but at the time computers weren’t quite powerful enough to make the GUI necessary. I used PCs myself back then and was perfectly fine with typing at the MS-DOS command prompt. But toward the end of the ’80s, home computers became fast enough to make multitasking (running more than one program simultaneously) increasingly valuable, and it was clear that GUIs promised far more user-friendliness than text command lines.

Microsoft thought so too, and in 1985 they released the first iteration of Windows (with, importantly, some elements licensed from Apple). It was basically a clickable list version of the files on the computer, resembling today’s Windows Explorer, plus some other “windows” displaying executable files (a calculator, for example). It was an improvement over the MS-DOS command prompt, but a far cry from the different folders displayed so elegantly on the Macintosh. In 1987, Microsoft released Windows 2.0. This was still clunky, but already better, with overlapping windows and some other useful functions. Apple could see which way things were headed, and in 1988 they sued Microsoft for copyright infringement.

The suit failed. Windows was similar to the Mac operating system, but hardly identical. The appeals court wrote, “Almost all the similarities spring either from the license [for the initial Windows] or from basic ideas and their obvious expression. . . . Illicit copying could occur only if the works as a whole are virtually identical.”

The initial decision came down in 1992 and was affirmed on appeal in 1994. It was a serious blow to Apple during its Steve Jobs–less slump. Hampered by poor management, overpriced computers, and a protectionist attitude toward the Macintosh brand, maintaining that only Apple could make Macintosh hardware, the company saw its market share decline throughout the decade, eventually prompting the return of the exiled Jobs and setting the stage for Apple’s resurgence. Windows, of course, conquered the world, never attaining the elegance or unification of Mac OS, but working well enough that the Macintosh premium was more than most wanted to pay. In Windows 95, the first post-lawsuit release of the operating system, Microsoft went ahead and incorporated Apple’s famous trash can, impishly refashioned as a “recycle bin.” For a good long while, Windows could not be stopped.

Gates and Allen were skilled coders, but the history of software is littered with people just as smart or smarter who did not end up as billionaires. Their strength was on the business side. For years they remained a small company, but you didn’t need to be big to make soft- ware back then. The programs were simple, and they were all that was available, so you could charge a premium for them. The amount of person-hours that goes into a $50 piece of software today dwarfs that of a $50 item of software thirty years ago. In 1983, a word processor so primitive it advised users to put little stickers on their keyboards so they'd know which functions correlated to which keys retailed for $289. For this price it offered a tiny fraction of what most freeware can do today. It was a different world.

In this world, Microsoft stood out. They worked fast, they were aggressive, and they were very cagey. Their strength was never in innovation per se, but in appropriation, improvement, and integration. One slogan that you would hear at the company was that Microsoft made “best-in-class” products. A less charitable way to put this would be to say that upon entering a market, Microsoft would make a product that was better enough than the best out there, and then take over the market. So the quality of Microsoft’s offerings closely tracked the quality of existing offerings.

Lotus’s spreadsheet software 1-2-3 was a good product in the 1980s and early 1990s; consequently Microsoft Excel, which debuted in 1985, became the standout of Microsoft’s nascent Office suite. Word processors like WordPerfect and WordStar were less formidable; as a result, Microsoft Word was considerably less stellar than Excel. And in the absence of any dominant email programs, Microsoft Outlook was buggy and slow, and remained that way well into the early 2000s. Microsoft was far too efficient to waste time improving a project beyond what was needed to defeat their competitors. In the late ’90s I got a chance to tour the legendary Massachusetts computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC, later bought by Compaq), and the difference in culture was remarkable. There were people at DEC who had been working on threading (the manner in which operating systems manage concurrent sets of linear processor instructions) for twenty years. Half the people had PhDs in their areas of specialty. Corners were never cut to release something earlier.

Ah, I thought. This is why Microsoft won.

Microsoft certainly tried to innovate with new products from time to time. Clippy, the little paper clip that popped up occasionally in Microsoft Word, was an innovation. Microsoft Bob, a yellow dog in dark glasses who showed up in Windows 95 to see if you needed help, was an innovation. Cairo, the “revolutionary” new operating system from the 1990s, would have been an innovation had it ever shipped. But as a whole the company was more comfortable entering existing markets and besting competitors. And in the absence of a clear target, planning could become fuzzy and tentative. You see this in the reticence to engage wholeheartedly with the internet in the 1990s: no one was making gobs of money yet, so who was Microsoft to follow? It wasn’t as if Microsoft (and everyone else) didn’t see that there was money to be made; Microsoft just wasn’t about to create the mechanism to do so on its own.[1]

By 1999, Microsoft was poised between financial security and an obscure future. The Windows and Office behemoths ensured the company’s dominance of the desktop operating system and business applications markets for as long as the PC remained a going concern. Even when the US v. Microsoft antitrust trial was at its peak, in 1999–2000, it was hard to see how a feasible antitrust remedy could actually address the problems. Sure enough, the plan to split Microsoft into two monopolies, one for Windows and one for Office, wouldn’t have helped a bit, even if it made it past the appellate court that overturned the initial judge’s ruling and attacked him for trashing Microsoft to the press. The whole case ended up a bizarre and political sideshow, which I’m not sure had more than a negligible impact on the state of the tech industry— other than ensuring that future tech companies kept a far larger battery of lawyers and lobbyists close by.

One interesting thing did emerge (at least for me, as an employee of the company) in the antitrust discovery process: I learned that before I arrived, a war over the future took place at the highest levels of Microsoft, between the “doves” and the “hawks.” The “doves” wanted to embrace other internet companies, like Netscape (which had the best early browser) and even AOL to an extent, and share power with them; the “hawks” wanted to clamp down and try to make Microsoft the provider of internet services. The real bone of contention was Windows: here was the most profitable thing in the history of computers. But a truly aggressive internet strategy would have meant thinking about a world without Windows. This was too difficult. “I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who destroyed one of the most amazing businesses in history,” one senior executive wrote of Windows during this argument. In the end the hawks won and most of the doves left Microsoft. Then the hawks lost.

+ + +

To understand what happened next in the Messenger war it may be helpful to have some sense of how computers and computer programs work.

Computers are best seen as a series of abstraction layers, one on top of the other. Each layer is more complicated than the next down, and assembles the previous layer’s pieces into more complex, high-level structures. At the bottom you have the hardware itself: the central processing unit (CPU). The CPU consists of more than a billion transistors arranged to execute a particular “assembly” code that is native to that CPU. Assembly is the lowest layer of coding, where you are telling the CPU exactly what to do. And what you can tell it to do is often pretty limited: store this number here, retrieve this number from there, add or subtract these two numbers, and branch to different bits of code depending on some condition or other. In different contexts, these operations can take on different meanings, such as printing text onto a screen or sending something across a network, but the overall level of structure is very primitive. Analyzing and manipulating data is extremely tedious in Assembler.

In the early days of PCs, many programmers did code directly in Assembler. Programs were small enough and performance was critical enough that one needed to micromanage everything at that level. But as computers got larger and more complex, it became unfeasible to code in assembly. And needing to learn a different assembly language for every computer (Apple II, Macintosh, PC) was horrendously inefficient. Better to use a higher-level, CPU-independent language. All the languages you read about today, from C++ to Java to Ruby to Perl, are higher-level languages. They have far more instructional “primitives” that allow you to designate pieces of code as “functions” and abstract over them through “interfaces.” A program called a compiler then takes the code written in these languages and translates it into the assembly code for a particular specified processor, so you can have C++ code that compiles for the PC, or for Linux, or for the Macintosh.

Here’s some assembly for a “Hello world!” program (one that just displays “Hello world!” and exits) in MS-DOS PC assembly, which I’ve borrowed from Wikipedia:

.model small
.stack 100h

.data
msg   db    'Hello world!$'

.code
start:
      mov   ah, 09h   ; Display the message
      lea   dx, msg
      int   21h
      mov   ax, 4C00h  ; Terminate the executable
      int   21h

end start

And here it is in C:

int main() {

      printf(“Hello world!\n”);
      return 0
}

Having a compiler turn the C into assembly, as you might expect, saves a programmer a vast amount of time. It also allows for far greater levels of code reuse, since you can parameterize functions to take different inputs and handle them accordingly. But you lose some control with a higher-level language. Assembly lets you know exactly where every bit of information is going. As you go up the great chain of languages, you lose more and more control over the management of the guts of the computer, which is taken over by compilers, interpreters, and virtual machines. These programs are exceedingly good at managing things automatically, and they don’t make mistakes (unlike humans), but they have their limits. They do not know the overall intent of a program. If you pile on too many abstraction layers, performance can suffer. The downfall of Microsoft’s Vista operating system, which needed to be restarted almost from scratch in order to ship three years late, came because it was written in a new language of Microsoft’s own design, called C#, that did not offer sufficient micromanagement to make Vista run quickly enough. Like Java, C# was considerably higher level than C db ‘Hello world!$’ or C++, and the code responsible for taking care of the lower-level nastiness just couldn’t perform optimally. So they scrapped the C# code and started over in C++. Lesson learned.

A “language” like C++, Java, or Python consists of a certain number of commands, not more than a few hundred, and a certain number of numerical and logical operators, like + and && (for logical AND). Many languages offer the same basic functionality sets; where they differ is in the methods they provide for structuring programs, as well as the amount of abstraction they provide from the underlying computer fundamentals.

So what was Messenger? It was about a hundred thousand lines of code, in C++, implementing everything from pop-up notifications when a buddy logged in, to uninstallation code to remove the program if people hated it, to code to allow you to save IM windows as text files for later, to code to talk to the Messenger servers (and, for a while, the AOL servers). In its early years, it was a small, efficient, lean little program.

I no longer have access to the Messenger code, which remains the private intellectual property of Microsoft. So instead, here is a piece of the open-source C code for the chat program Pidgin. This function, update_typing_icon, is called when the program needs to update the “typing indicator” that tells you whether your buddy is currently typing a message or not.

static void
update_typing_icon(PidginConversation *gtkconv)
{
   
     PurpleConvIm *im = NULL;
  
     PurpleConversation *conv = gtkconv->active_conv;
  
     char *message = NULL;
 
 
     if (purple_conversation_get_type(conv) PURPLE_CONV_TYPE_IM)
         im = PURPLE_CONV_IM(conv);
   
     if (im NULL)
         return;
   
     if (purple_conv_im_get_typing_state(im) PURPLE_NOT_TYPING) {  
         update_typing_message(gtkconv, NULL);
         return;
     }
     if (purple_conv_im_get_typing_state(im) PURPLE_TYPING) {
         message = g_strdup_printf(_(“\n%s is typing…”),
             purple_conversation_get_title(conv));
     } else {
         assert(purple_conv_im_get_typing_state(im_ ==PURPLE_
             TYPED);
         message = g_strdup_printf(_(“\n%s has stopped typing”),
             purple_conversation_get_title(conv));
     }
   
     update_typing_message(gtkconv, message);
     g_free(message);
}

The function takes a parameter called gtkconv that contains information about the chat session (PidginConversation) being updated. The italicized portion of the code is the most important. It calls a function called purple_conv_im_get_typing_state, passing it to the chat session in question. That function then returns one of three possible values: PURPLE_NOT_TYPING, PURPLE_TYPING, or PURPLE_TYPED. A user interface function, update_typing_message, is then called to change what message is displayed on the screen. In the case of PUR- PLE_TYPING, a message with “[Buddy name] is typing” is shown. If PURPLE_TYPED, meaning that text has been entered but your buddy hasn’t typed anything for a bit, “[Buddy name] has stopped typing” is shown. And if no text has been entered and the buddy isn’t typing (PURPLE_NOT_TYPING), then no message is shown at all.

Most of the other functions that this function calls are also part of the Pidgin program, separated into modular chunks so that each can be isolated, tested, and perhaps reused. One exception is the g_strdup_ printf function, which creates the string containing the message to be displayed. g_strdup_printf is part of the open-source GNOME user interface library; because what it does is sufficiently generic, it was considered helpful to include in a popular package of generic user interface code.

All this C code is compiled into assembly by a C compiler, which can then run natively on the processor for which the compiler was designed.

+ + +

The messenger war was a rush. Coming in each morning to see whether the client still worked with AOL was thrilling. I’d look through reams of protocol messages to figure out what had changed, fix the client, and try to get an update out the same day. I felt that I was in an Olympic showdown with some unnamed developers over at AOL. I had no idea who my adversaries were, but I had been challenged and I wanted to win.

AOL tried different tactics. At one point they seemed to be identifying the Microsoft client because it wasn’t downloading a huge chunk of advertising that the AOL client downloaded. So I changed our client to download it all (and then throw it away). They put in mysterious messages that didn’t seem to affect their client but broke ours because we weren’t expecting them. One day, I came in to see this embedded in a message from the AOL server: “HI. –MARK.” It was a little communication from engineer to engineer, underneath the corporate, media, and PR worlds that were arguing over us. I felt some solidarity with him even though we were on opposing sides.

AOL was putting out absurd propaganda about how Microsoft was behaving like an evil hacker by asking for your AOL password. This wasn’t true, but we weren’t allowed to respond except through our PR department. My team was completely sealed off from the outside world—except for our code, of course.

And then AOL stopped blocking us. It was strange to encounter sudden silence, and while I wanted to believe we’d won, AOL had been too loud and obstreperous to give up without a word.

Maybe a week after the blocks had stopped, I came in to work to find that Messenger had been blocked again, but this time it was different. The AOL server was sending a huge chunk of new gobbledygook that I could not understand. It looked approximately like this:

:

00000040 2A 02 77 9C 01 28 00 01 ........*.w..(..
00000050  00 13 00 00 80 0E A6 1B 00 FF 00 0B 01 18 83 C4 ................
00000060  10 4F 8D 94 24 E4 FE FF FF 8B EC 03 AA F8 00 00 .O..$...........
00000070  00 90 90 90 90 8B 82 F0 00 00 00 8B 00 89 82 4E ...............N
00000080  00 00 00 8B 4D 04 03 8A F4 00 00 00 8D 82 42 00 ....M.........B.
00000090  00 00 89 45 10 B8 10 00 00 00 89 45 0C C9 FF E1 ...E.......E....
000000A0  00 01 00 20 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00 ................
000000B0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
000000C0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
000000D0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
000000E0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
000000F0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
00000100  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
00000110  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
00000120  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
00000130  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................
00000140  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 19 10 ................
00000150  08 11 29 EC FF FF 44 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 FF 00 ..)...D.........
00000160  00 00 08 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 90 47 40 00 F8 E9 ...........G@...
00000170  EA FE FF FF 00 00

The first couple of lines here are the standard AOL instant message protocol header, but starting with that “90 90 90 90” bit, it became incomprehensible, bearing no relation to anything the AOL servers had ever sent their client or our client. The vast expanse of double zeros in the middle was also very mysterious, since a bunch of zeros couldn’t contain much meaning.

Our client just ignored it, but the AOL client responded to this gobbledygook with a shorter version of the same gobbledygook. I didn’t know what it was. It was maddening. After staring at it for half a day, I went over to Jonathan, a brilliant server engineer on our team, and asked what he thought. He looked at it for a few minutes and said, “This is code.” As in, actual x86 assembly code. The repeated zeros were what tipped him off. (They signify an empty instruction in x86 Assembler.) The code was telling the server to ignore it. The server was saying, OK.

The pieces then came together. Normally, these protocol messages sent from the server to the client are read and understood as data, not as code. But AOL’s client had a security bug in it, called a buffer overflow. The buffer is a place in a program where you temporarily store data while running some operation, so that the data doesn’t get erased. How- ever, if the buffer doesn’t have adequate protection, very large protocol messages can flood it, overwriting the client code and arbitrarily controlling the functioning of the client program—this is why it’s called a buffer overflow, and it’s a huge security hole, since it gives the server control of the client PC. In the wrong hands, the server can choose to shut down or corrupt or do other terrible things to your computer. AOL knew about this bug in their program and now they were exploiting it! That was what all those double zeros were for—they were just filling up space in the program’s buffer until they hit the end of the AOL client’s buffer and started overwriting executable code with the remainder of the protocol message. AOL was causing the client to look up a particular address in memory and send it back to the server. This was tricky, vastly trickier than anything they’d done so far. It was also a bit outside the realm of fair play: exploiting a security hole in their own client that our client didn’t have!

+ + +

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have given up, but I was out of my depth, and I told the team that I wasn’t sure how to get around this, at least not without a fair bit more time and resources.

Someone had the bright idea of telling the press about the buffer overflow, figuring that if people knew that AOL’s client could and in fact was executing whatever a server sent to it, AOL would be forced to patch their client and could no longer use it to determine that Messenger was an impostor.

Here I only know what happened from the outside, since this wasn’t my department. According to security expert Richard M. Smith, a certain “Phil Bucking” of “Bucking Consulting” sent him a message, alertng him to the buffer overflow in the AOL client:

Mr. Smith,

I am a developer who has been working on a revolutionary new instant messaging client that should be released later this year. Because of that, I have followed with interest the battle between AOL and Microsoft and have been trying to understand exactly what AOL is doing to block MS and how MS is getting around the blocks, etc. Up until very recently, it’s been pretty standard stuff, but now I fear AOL has gone too far. It appears that the AIM client has a buffer overflow bug. By itself this might not be the end of the world, as MS surely has had its share. But AOL is now *exploiting their own buffer overflow bug* to help in its efforts to block MS Instant Messenger.

And so on. Getting the name of MSN Messenger Service wrong was a nice touch, but the rest of it is embarrassingly inept. This developer of a revolutionary new app takes time out from his coding not to promote his app but to take sides in the Microsoft-AOL war? Really? The email also includes a trace of the buffer overflow message itself, which I still remember vividly from the hours I spent staring at it, but the recipient paid more attention to the human language than the protocol messages. And if Phil Bucking’s text wasn’t suspicious enough, he’d also sent the message (via a Yahoo account, ha ha) from one of Microsoft’s computers at a Microsoft IP address, and the IP address showed up in the email headers. In geekspeak, this is what’s called a face-palm.

Smith immediately accused Microsoft of sending the email. Microsoft fessed up. So the news story didn’t become the buffer overflow (a tough sell, probably), but Microsoft’s attempt to bad-mouth AOL under a fake identity (an easier sell). People on various security forums ascertained that the buffer overflow was real and inveighed further against AOL, but the press wasn’t paying attention. The buffer overflow persisted into several later versions of AOL’s client.

So we gave up. I licked my wounds and proceeded on to far more dreary years on MSN Messenger Service, eventually getting buried so deeply in internal company politics that I was no longer able to do anything resembling useful work. The writing was on the wall when I heard one team manager scream, “I have the worst morale scores in the company and I don’t give a shit, because they can only go up!”

Those were the years of Microsoft’s long, slow decline, which continues to this day. The number of things wrong with the company was extraordinary, but they can be summed up by the word bureaucracy. Early on at Microsoft—and even later, when we first started Messenger—you could just do things. You had a good idea, you ran it by your boss, you tried it, and if it worked, in it went. After a while, you had to run everything by a hundred people, and at some point the ball would get dropped—and you’d never hear back. There was the infamous internal review system called “stack rank” that pitted teams against one another and people within each team against one another, too. There was an incredible thirst for “headcount” within a department, so managers would lobby aggressively for independent groups to come under their control. Thus the burgeoning NetDocs, which was intended to be an internet-based document-editing suite, gobbled up a number of small groups in the late ’90s. But NetDocs got eaten by Office, which then proceeded to kill it, thus leaving the door open for Google to debut Google Docs in the mid-2000s. And on it went. Multiyear projects with hundreds of engineers died without the public ever hearing a word. It continues.

I left for Google, but not without making one last mistake. I told my boss at Microsoft I was leaving to work for our direct competitor, and he threatened to sue me. I packed up my things in a box and quit the same day, without saying goodbye to my coworkers. At least Steve Ballmer didn’t throw a chair across the room, as he did when Windows architect Mark Lucovsky told Ballmer that he was leaving for Google. Microsoft was hemorrhaging hundreds of top engineers to Google at the time, and the combination of the talent loss plus the insult to the executives’ egos made for very bad blood. Still, they didn’t sue me.

Despite my ignominious defeat at the hands of AOL’s diabolical mastermind of chat, Messenger did pretty well. We acquired tens of millions of users, millions online at any one time. At some point we put ads into the client, which made some money. I don’t think we turned a profit, but we weren’t a big group, so we weren’t costing Microsoft much either. I added emoticons to the client in 2000—it was the first American chat program to turn a colon and a close-parenthesis into an actual smiley face (I say first American because the South Koreans, who loved chat more than anyone, may have preceded us)—and people loved it. We added internet phone calls to the client, which was cool and raised a bit of revenue on international calls. After I went over to the server side, I helped redesign the server architecture with a very sharp development lead who taught me a lot, as had my original mentor on the client.

Messenger puttered along for many years in limbo. It was unusual in being unkillable (because of all its users) and unassimilable by Windows or Office (because it was part of Microsoft’s internet strategy), which led, I believe, to it never amounting to anything. Taken on its own, it was a success, but a success on which Microsoft was unable to capitalize. Attempts to integrate it with other projects either fell prey to internecine executive warfare or else collapsed into consumer indifference. Despite Microsoft’s purchase of Skype, Messenger is still going today, a little Methuselah wandering in the Microsoft product mausoleum.

Years later at a party I met one of the AOL engineers who’d worked against me. We had a huge laugh over it. He’d left AOL just as I’d left Microsoft, and I complimented him on the genius of the buffer-overrun exploit, even as I bemoaned my loss. It had been a great game, I said. He agreed.

1. Of note is the single major product success of late Microsoft: the Xbox gaming console. While the Xbox has yet to turn more than a tiny overall profit since its introduction in 2001, it has established itself as a stalwart of the gaming world. This could occur for two reasons: first, unlike anything having to do with the internet, it was completely isolated from the Windows and Office empires, and so did not run afoul of those groups; and second, there were clear, existing, profitable models to copy—Nintendo’s and Sony’s—and Microsoft was willing to lose billions of dollars in re-creating that model. For the last time, they caught up to their competitors in short order and equaled them, at the cost of turning no profit themselves.

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]]> n+1 magazine 2014-04-15T16:59:39Z 2014-04-16T15:54:07Z The Seventh Day tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-15:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/010172aa82ce234d68efaecdacc64d5f by Claire Harlan Orsi

You die the way you live; you divorce the way you live. When, in 1990, my parents filed for joint custody of me, they thought they were doing something without clear precedent. They didn’t know any other divorced couples who split time with their kids equally; they hadn’t read any books on the phenomenon. They saw themselves as charting new territory, distributing their child (me) in a manner that enacted their deep commitments to feminism and shared labor—and in many ways, they were. Thousands of other couples like them, though, had been doing the same since the early ’80s, also without a blueprint or a sense of their place in the particular historical moment that made their decisions possible.  

The method of my parents’ separation and subsequent allocation of me was as culturally fated as their marriage: two urban scholarship kids, freshman orientation at Trinity College in Connecticut. There, a decade younger than I am now, they began to build a world together, a world shaped by the conditions of their divorce. If they had stayed in or returned to their places of origin—the south side of Chicago in my mother’s case, the Bronx in my father’s—things might not have turned out the way they did. Instead, my father pursued a graduate degree at Yale and eventually became a professor of religious studies. He grew his hair shaggy and fixed lentil dishes from the Moosewood cookbook. My mother worked for arts nonprofits, listened to Laura Nyro, and sewed her own peasant blouses. In retrospect, it’s clear that they were perfect joint custody pioneers. 

Joint custody has two principle meanings. The strictly legal sense defines the relationship as one in which “both parents retain legal responsibility and authority for the care and control of the child.” Then there’s the more extreme physical sense my own parents practiced: the manifestation the courts deem “residential joint custody.” This is a highly managed system—one that tends to be requested by parents rather than mandated by courts—in which the child is shuttled between parents in order to spend equal time with each. 

Though there have always been kinship networks of childcare resembling joint custody, typically among those far less well off financially than the early “official” joint custody adherents, the institution as we know it today emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s. No fewer than thirty states passed statutes in the relatively narrow time frame of 1979–1984.  In 1984, the year I was born, Jay Folberg deemed it a “hot topic” in his introduction to an edited collection exploring the issue. Joint custody “can no longer be dismissed as a passing fad,” he writes. 

The few times the subject of joint custody came up in any legal context before the 1970s, it was dismissed with profound suspicion. The judge in a 1934 Maryland case deemed joint custody in any form “an evil fruitful in the destruction of discipline, in the creation of distrust, and the production of mental distress in the child.” The basic rationale behind this decision was similar to the one expressed more calmly decades later in the influential 1973 psychology book Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, which argues that a child attaches to a primary “psychological parent” (usually, though not necessarily, the same as the biological one), and that to let the non-psychological parent have even visitation rights would be to irreparably confuse and traumatize the child.

Beyond the Best Interests of the Child represented an anxious rearguard action against an advancing social movement that was building steam precisely around the time of its publication. By the late ’70s, the idea of joint custody wouldn’t have been alien to the reading public, yet it remained tantalizingly unnatural, perfect fodder for gossipy reports. “Six-year-old Tommy Mastin leads something of a double life,” a 1976 New York Times article begins. The article is on the cold side of lukewarm regarding the trend, quoting two lawyers who concluded that the effect of joint custody is “to mock Solomon by cutting the child down the middle.” Even an equitable study published in 1980 agreed that, though there was growing evidence that residential joint custody was a viable option for many divorcing couples, “the child may continue to feel a sense of uncertainty and anxiety as he or she moves back and forth between two homes.”

Of course, this last remains true. It’s impossible to spend your childhood in constant transition, no matter how stable the points you are transitioning to and from, without feeling at least a small “sense of uncertainty and anxiety.” This might be one reason why today joint residential custody is much more common in theory than in practice. As of 2011, mothers receive primary custody in 68 to 88 percent of cases and fathers in 8 to 14 percent. Equal residential custody is awarded only 2 to 6 percent of divorce cases. I know of only one other person who grew up with equal residential joint custody, and I know a lot of children-now-adults of divorce. 

Any speculation on the reasons behind the relatively low level of equal residential custody should take into account sheer inconvenience. At the very least, residential joint custody involves managing a minimum of three different schedules, arranging transportation from home to home, and collating or duplicating belongings. Plus, you have to decide how to divide the time. “But there are seven days in a week,” one of the children of Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney observes in The Squid and the Whale, the primary filmic treatment of residential joint custody (the movie’s tagline is “Joint Custody Blows”). The parents have thought of this: they will solve the odd numbered days problem by alternating Thursdays. My own parents solved the Seventh Day problem thusly: Mondays with my mother, Tuesdays and Wednesdays with my father, Thursdays with my mother and alternating Fridays and weekends. This schedule continued with precisely no variations from first grade to age 16, at which point my father left town to take a professorship elsewhere. I broke it only once, in early teenagerdom, to escape a particularly vicious fight my father was having with his girlfriend. I called my mother to come over and get me. It was a significant call: to change the schedule was to change the very ordering mechanism that made my family intelligible. 

My family isn’t half as dysfunctional as Noah Baumbach’s Berkmans, but there are some striking similarities between us. Like the Berkmans, we occupied a Park Slope brownstone in 1986, as the neighborhood began its slide toward unaffordability. In fact, it is because the neighborhood is newly too expensive that post-divorce Jeff Daniels moves himself several stops down the F train, making joint custody less convenient for his beleaguered sons, who grudgingly take the subway. My parents made a more radical choice, moving from Brooklyn to what is surely one of the few possible US locations where regimented residential joint custody is feasible: the pleasant college town of Bloomington, Indiana. I was 3 when we arrived; a year or so afterward they split up. 

I don’t remember the divorce being particularly traumatic. There is, however, an artifact. On a plane trip back to New York to visit family my father gave me a progressive coloring book, a relic of the early ’90s called The Anti-Coloring Book that featured general prompts rather than putatively confining outlines. Draw the thing that makes you saddest, it said. I drew two houses separated by a winding brick road. At first glance, the image is a poignant reminder of the emotional trauma divorce can inflict on a child. But the drawing, like my experience of divorce, was not that simple. Recently I learned that psychologists view the presence of doors and windows in children’s house drawings as a sign of mental health. I emailed my father to ask if he remembered my houses having windows. “Both houses were, in my memory, very complete, with doors, windows and smoking chimneys,” he wrote back. 

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The legal history of divorce custody is the history of the rise and fall and rise again of fathers. When the Protestant Reformation first made divorce possible, children were allocated to their fathers along with the other family property. In the 19th century, as the status of children shifted from property to humanity, two major social and legal forces worked to change the paternal presumption. The first was feminist reform, specifically the efforts of Caroline Norton, a British socialite whose divorce led her to campaign for access to her children and, eventually, for passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839. Known as the “Tender Years Doctrine,” this legislation permitted the mother to petition the courts for custody of her children and was legal confirmation of the Victorian cultural belief that mothers are innately suited to raising children. The second force that mitigated in favor of maternal custody was the efforts of child labor reformers later in the century to uphold children as autonomous beings with rights and interests of their own—interests that were best served by their mothers. 

Both movements made their way from Europe to the United States, where several states immediately adopted versions of the Custody of Infants Act that required children under age 7 to stay with their mother. As the century progressed this age limit shifted upwards to encompass all of childhood. By 1916, the Washington State Supreme Court was writing in its custody ruling that “Mother love is a dominant trait in even the weakest of women, and as a general thing surpasses the paternal affection for the common offspring, and moreover, a child needs a mother’s care even more than a father’s. For these reasons courts are loathe to deprive the mother of the custody of her children.”

To some degree maternal presumption is the custody model we still have. However, by the late 1960s and early ’70s, state courts were more frequently invoking a standard called “Best Interests of the Child.” Best Interests replaced the Tender Years doctrine’s focus on maternal instinct with a complex of factors that might constitute the child’s “best interest,” such as the identity of its primary caregiver and the geographical location, income, and relative stability of its parents. Although in most cases, the best interest of the child is still determined to be maternal custody, the law no longer enshrines mothers as default custodians. By moving away from Tender Years’ explicit presumption that a child’s interests are best served by a single guardian, this shift paved the way for joint custody. 

Even though the majority of custody decisions favor the mother, concerted arguments for father’s rights have led to increasing numbers of fathers winning joint custody, or in rare cases sole custody, of their children. Zummo v. Zummo, a key 1990 decision in favor of joint custody, cited in its justification the “demise of gender stereotypes, and a wide and growing body of research indicating the importance of both parents to healthy child development.” Two decades of activism by father’s rights groups lie behind such statements. Even though the majority of custody decisions still favor the mother, concerted efforts to popularize the concept of father’s rights—like that of children’s rights before—have led to increasing numbers of fathers winning joint, or more rarely, sole custody of their own.

The 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer is a formative text in the cultural canon of divorced father’s rights. In this movie, Meryl Streep’s character takes Dustin Hoffman’s character to court over custody of their son. Preceding their divorce Streep’s character has discovered women’s lib. This discovery seems to be what leads her to abandon her child for a few months, at which point Dustin Hoffman’s character learns to make French toast, thereby proving himself a worthy dad. In court, the problem seems intractable. Who will get the child, the newly self-actualized and therefore maternally suspect mother or the newly emasculated and therefore fitter-to-mother father? In a symbolic triumph for divorced fathers everywhere, Dustin Hoffman ends up with sole custody. 

Kramer vs. Kramer may have been on the cutting edge of father’s rights, but it fails to recognize joint custody as their logical corollary. Shortly after the film premiered, the New York Times convened a panel of experts to discuss its representation of family law. The lawyers assembled agreed the film didn’t reflect the latest, more “enlightened” custody practices. One, tasked with hypothetically representing Meryl Streep, “would rewrite the script and advise her to seek joint custody rather than sole custody.”

“Father’s rights” don’t necessarily have to oppose those of mothers, though the name of the movement suggests an antagonistic relationship between the two. Why can't Meryl Streep explore her individuality and raise a child? This is the promise of joint custody, a promise visible from its early history. In The Disposable Parent: The Case for Joint Custody (1978), Mel Roman and William Haddad interviewed twenty-five divorced Connecticut families, most academics or otherwise affiliated with Yale, who practiced what the families themselves dubbed “the New Haven Plan”: an intentional collective of parents practicing residential joint custody. The authors present this arrangement as a radical restructuring of traditional nuclear kinship networks, “a small tribal community. Whereas couples might separate, the family or community would remain.”   

This “tribal community” mindset, presenting as it does a challenge to the nuclear family structure, is another reason why residential joint custody still lies outside the cultural mainstream. There’s a paradox at play here: couples who choose residential joint custody tend to possess a high degree of financial stability (I had two separate rooms, with separate sets of toys and clothes) yet they also, wittingly or not, disturb the system that privileged them. As a deliberate sharing of resources and obligations between family units, a child divided in custody troubles the logic of the market, which dictates the concentration of resources on a single “winning” side.

Not only does joint custody run counter to economic imperatives, it opposes the assumption that in every custody arrangement there is a parent who is naturally equipped, whether by biology or psychology, to play the role of primary caregiver. In Aftermath, her 2012 memoir of divorce, British novelist Rachel Cusk describes making the decision to go with residential joint custody. It’s not what she wants, which is full custody under the assumption that her children “belong to me,” and that to say otherwise puts her “flesh history with [her] daughters” into “a kind of banishment.”

Justifications for primary care by the mother are often couched in the language of natural rights. “It wasn’t natural to give up your child,” a character complains in Maile Meloy’s story “Demeter,” published in the New Yorker late in 2012. Like Rachel Cusk, Demeter would have rather had sole custody of her child. Like Cusk, she contrasts equal rights with biological rightness: “She had no interest in being fair to Hank [the father],” since “she had carried that child inside her body.” In the far less common cultural narrative in which the father gets sole custody, the father merely replaces, and in a sense co-opts, the mother’s position (often, as in Kramer vs. Kramer, because she has somehow forfeited her maternal role). Equal joint custody is the only form of post-divorce child distribution that sets aside the idea that a child “belongs” to a single parent invested with unquestionable authority in favor of the simple calculus of parental time invested. 

No wonder lesbians, pioneers in both redefining biological relationships and gentrifying Park Slope, like it so much. Fully 71 percent of separated lesbian couples choose joint custody, a number so much higher than that of the general divorcing population that I don’t think it remiss to suggest a correlation between the two. Having no claim to the logic that links marital eligibility to reproductive capability, gays must make their appeals in the language of citizenship, equality, and rights. Similarly, joint custody families must justify their decision without recourse to the language of natural parental rights. Whatever discomfort persists in the public imagination around gay marriage seems linked to the relatively low rates of joint custody adoption.

After all, what could be more troubling to traditional romantic notions of the nuclear family the scheduling software developed to manage families in equal residential custody? Sometimes use of these sites is court-mandated, as in the case of “OPTIMAL,” a program that “allows you to easily schedule and track parenting time as well as monitor compliance with your custody arrangement.” Other websites like sharekids.org, jointparents.com, and Custody Toolbox advertise organizing services for harassed parents trying to remember whose turn it is to take Fiona to her cello lesson. Like a shared Google calendar for a high-achieving set of polyamours, programs like these are helpful but also disconcerting. Should parenting really be this explicitly intentional? Should we need so much technology to manage the consequences of what was once a matter of the heart? 

It seems that we do. Joint custody might be an inherently radical institution, but there are many ways for it to fail. In this respect, The Squid and the Whale is a cautionary tale. “I’m not going back to Mom’s,” Jesse Eisenberg tells his fictional younger brother. “You have to,” his brother replies, “Joint custody.” The punch line’s humor comes from the absurdity of having to submit to the dictates of an external institution when the will suggests otherwise. But it is precisely when the brothers and their parents actually start to do what they want, disregarding the agreed-upon custody structure, that the family falls apart entirely. It’s a shorter trip than the elder Berkman brother might have thought from choosing your own custody nights to trying to sleep with your father’s girlfriend. Custody boundaries are artificial, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Joint custody only works when it acknowledges its own artifice. Once you disregard one boundary it’s easy for the architecture of the rest of the family to crumble.  

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My parents did it right. “I married your mother because of her boundaries,” said my father, whose own mother had such deep-seated boundary issues she removed the doors in his childhood apartments. When they got divorced, he claimed, boundary maintenance remained her strength. He recently explained to me that even if “the Queen of England had come to town” to meet him, my mother wouldn’t have countenanced changing their custody nights. 

So we kept to the schedule. For much of my childhood my parents lived within walking distance of each other, my father in a ramshackle Dutch Colonial with crumbling stone steps that led down to a backyard shaded by a black walnut tree, my mother in a smaller vinyl-sided number she painted periwinkle. My friends had the schedule memorized; in that pre-cellular era, they knew when to call which parent’s place. I had everything I needed in both houses: separate toothbrushes and unguents, separate stuffed animals and books, separate beds in which to dream myself older. At the time I didn’t think about the amount of capital necessary to sustain this double life. In my better moments, I was proud of my family’s distinctiveness, and despite my coloring book drawing I don’t remember wanting them to get back together. In my less savory moments, I wanted a T-shirt from the other parent’s house and had frustrated meltdowns. 

My double life wasn’t always easy. As one might expect from two people who couldn’t reconcile, my parents are profoundly different. My mother assigned me chores; my father had nebulous expectations for helping around the house that I never seemed to meet. My mother clipped coupons; my father would buy me as many books as I wanted. They had different work schedules, different interests and intellectual lives, different policies about introducing me to new dates. Married mothers and fathers are different people too, of course, but living apart magnified what separated my parents, and I had to readjust to a new world three times a week.

One of the most counterintuitive aspects of joint custody is that that even after divorce, the family maintains its structure, just in a distinct form. “We must separate marriage from family,” Constance Ahrons writes in The Good Divorce. No matter the new arrangement of the parents, joint custody entails a continuous recognition of a family structure outside the nuclear. Ahrons recommends a “common courtyard” in both the metaphorical and literal sense, so that decisions about the child are made in a public space unconnected with either parent’s house. If marriages occur in private domestic space, family happens in the excess between, outside and around them. In Bloomington, which is centrally dense enough to support pedestrian life, I often walked between my parents’ houses. But I was the only one who could cross into both of them. Again, boundaries were key. When my parents did the dropping off or picking up, they met at each others’ doors and made small talk while I got my stuff. They maintained the symbolic divide of the doorway, the sacred threshold.

Once a year, on January 6, we broke it. The ritual lasted most of my childhood, likely much longer than my maturity should have allowed, but then again I was a bit coddled. On the feast day known as La Befana (my father’s side of the family is Italian), one of my parents would appear at the other’s house wearing a witch hat, cloak, and nose. Deliriously happy, I’d open the door to let them in. For an hour my witch mother would sit on my father’s couch, or my witch father would sit on my mother’s couch. The witch would be offered a glass of wine, which she would remove her nose to drink. We’d talk. The ritual was glorious, transgressive yet ultimately safe, like a wealthy noble who goes slumming at a carnival, knowing he can return to the palace in the morning. If we broke the threshold it was only to affirm its power. Wine drained, my parents would go their separate ways. 

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n+1 magazine 2014-04-14T18:16:31Z 2014-04-15T14:43:57Z Nikil Saval's Cubed Book Party, April 29 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-14:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/e1c0c5a4c97e6b106539fcac60dcc7f7 by

Nikil Saval reads from his new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, and speaks about it with Chad Harbach. Party to follow! 

7 PM, Tuesday, April 29
Powerhouse Books
37 Main St., Brooklyn 

 

 

 

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Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, and speaks about it with Chad Harbach. Party to follow!]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-04-14T18:09:08Z 2014-04-15T14:42:22Z Benjamin Kunkel's Buzz Staged Reading, April 23 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-14:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/91e502cf81566e7b28942acd3e8bade9 by

A staged reading of Benjamin Kunkel's new play Buzz, the sixth installment in the n+1 small book series. $10 tickets come with an advance copy of the book. Readers TBA. Party to follow. 

7 PM, Wednesday, April 23
The Invisible Dog Arts Center
51 Bergen St., Brooklyn

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Buzz, the sixth installment in the n+1 small book series. $10 tickets come with an advance copy of the book.]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-04-14T17:54:26Z 2014-04-15T14:40:50Z Issue 19 Launch Party, April 18 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-14:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/344967cbc212fa6aca520e496626501a by

The Issue 19: Real Estate launch party! Free for subscribers, $10 at the door buys the new issue and admission. Come early, stay late. 

8 PM, Friday, April 18 Interstate Projects
66 Knickerbocker Ave., Brooklyn 

RSVP on Facebook 

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n+1 magazine 2014-04-10T19:02:38Z 2014-04-12T22:50:00Z On Robert Ashley tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-10:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/b6d5180769fed30f7a365d90eb726270 by Paul Grimstad

Image: Still from Perfect Lives. Image via vidasperfectas.org.

In 1981, promotional ads for something called “Music Television” started hitting in the US with the tagline: “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” Around the same time appeared a pilot video for Perfect Lives: A Television Opera by American composer Robert Ashley. Ashley was light-years from the video hit parade of MTV, but he too wanted to make music television. “I put my pieces in television format,” he told his biographer Kyle Gann, “because I believe that’s really the only possibility for music.”

Ashley, who died last month at age 83, was born in Ann Arbor in 1930. He got into music by teaching himself to play jazz on the piano, and studied music theory at the University of Michigan, going on to get a masters at the Manhattan School of Music. What Ashley called “the glorious chaos of the ’60s” didn’t refer to student revolt or LSD or Stonewall or Woodstock but the electronic music festival he founded upon his return to Ann Arbor, ONCE (not an acronym). It was at ONCE that Ashley began to hone the techniques and ideas that would lead to his radical reconception of opera. One of his own ONCE pieces—an anarchic assault of feedback and amplified vocals called The Wolfman (1964)—came ten years ahead of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and makes the latter sound almost sweet by comparison. Ashley’s links to art rock are many: among the most famous was a Detroit teenager named James Osterberg, later known as Iggy Pop, who was an enthusiastic and regular attendee at the ONCE festivals. Toward the end of the ’60s Ashley taught music at Mills college in Oakland and put together the Sonic Arts Union, a collective of composers with whom he toured the US and Europe throughout the ’70s (though his primary source of income at the time came from writing film scores). In 1976 he directed and produced Music With Roots in the Aether, a fourteen-hour documentary/video portrait of contemporary composers, among them Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Ashley himself. 

In 1980 a nonprofit performance space in New York City, the Kitchen, commissioned Ashley’s “television-opera” Perfect Lives, which aired for the first time in 1984 on Channel 4 in Great Britain. It is exemplary of the mixture of spoken word, narrative, song, and electronics that was a constant in Ashley’s work. The opera is arranged into six twenty-four-minute and fifty-second episodes (structured to fit the legal time slot of an American television show; it was later modified to fit the British format), and its plot revolves a botched bank heist. Much of the work’s tone comes from the sound of Ashley’s voice: a gentle half-sung Midwestern patter that is both soothing and sinister. There is something of Robert Frost’s “sound of sense” in Ashley’s cadences, as of speech overheard through motel room walls (the delivery sometimes became slurred, since Ashley liked to sip vodka over the course of a performance, which only heightened the effect). Behind the voice is an ongoing piano performance by his main collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny. The piano-playing is often virtuosic, jumping from ornate romantic extravagance to minimalist pulse; to atonal clusters, boogie-woogie and blues, whirling “Flight of the Bumble Bee” riffs; to Elton John-style hamming it up at the end of “Bennie and the Jets”—all in the course of a slow pan across a motel room or a corn field, often across the keyboard itself. Ashley layers the sound of the acoustic piano (beautifully recorded, it ought to be said) with his own spoken narration, splashes of electronics, and the occasional found artifact: old radio ads, clattering percussion, stray location noise.

The musical designs fuse somehow with the opera’s imagery: Ashley as “R,” the narrator, with glitter sprinkled in his gray hair, pancake make-up, big specs, continually making what appear to be Masonic hand gestures, and generally looking like a cross between Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet and a college professor (he also plays a scary character called the “supermarket manager” later in the opera); Tyranny (listed in the liner notes as “Buddy, The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), fluttering his fleshy hands across the piano keyboard; John Deere tractors rolling over a corn field; white text popping up to double something in the libretto; and visual effects that recall the split-screen psychedelia of the last twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with the vector-graphics sheen of early video art. It's like stumbling onto an afternoon network TV show, perhaps a soap opera, where all the visual and sonic semaphores seem familiarly packaged, which then slowly turns before your eye into a pirate cable station broadcasting something “defiantly weird” (Gann’s phrase). Ashley’s own vocal performances—what he called “purposeful rhetorical structures based on musical templates”—are themselves disorienting. He regularly accents syllables other than those heard in everyday speech; an off-scan style of recitation (“move along the EDge conTAINed caged nostalgic we are remembering”) arising in part from the elaborate metrical constraints that lie behind all of Ashley’s libretti. There are no chance procedures here; Ashley was such a rigorous planner that he liked to joke that he was some kind of serialist.  

Ashley also has a striking way of appropriating audio engineering devices—reverb, stereo panning, EQ, delay, pitch shifting—not as postproduction polish or tricks for simulating acoustics but as an integral part of compositional decision making. In some of his work, like the songs on Now Eleanor’s Idea (1992)—a libretto based on the low-rider car culture of Chimayo in New Mexico, which Ashley believed to be a subcategory of Catholic iconography—the vocal parts run the gamut from expository prose to cryptic fragments to audio transcripts of interviews to Ashley reciting what sounds like oracular wisdom writing. His voice, often out front and unadorned, can abruptly lock into sync with a vocoded chorus, appear hard right or left, now dry or wet, hot or buried in the mix. Much of the prerecorded background music that accompanies the voice in the operas is made up of sounds one might hear on the pop charts of the time (such as the patches and pads of a ubiquitous early ’80s synth, the Yamaha DX-7), and the libretti can be surprisingly quotable: “My heart is so full in the back seat with Dwayne” (Perfect Lives, 1983); “Gimme another peanut, man!” (Dust, 2000); “A group of so-called fictitious characters is just as bad as a group of so-called real ones” (Celestial Excursions, 2005). In the opening pages of the libretto for Improvement: Don Leaves Linda (1985), Ashley included a thematic key: Linda=The Jews; Don=Spanishness; The airline Ticket Counter=the Inquisition; prosperity=America 1952, and on to twenty-five further fanciful (and no doubt tongue-in-cheek) allegoric equivalences.  

Even within a multimedia avant-garde scene that included La Monte Young, Cage, happenings, the Velvet Underground, and minimalism, Ashley stood out as a rebel.  His genuine aesthetic radicalism invites the inevitable questions about outsider art and institutions. Though the university was, for a time, a place for Ashley to perform, record, and form the touring collectives by which he disseminated his music, he left Mills college for good in 1981 and ended up embracing television as his primary means of distribution, along with the independent record label Lovely Music Ltd. founded by his widow Mimi Johnson. Ashley thus remained outside most musical directions of the second half of the 20th century (with the exception, perhaps, of MTV). While the operas for television might seem yet another way in which the calculatedly outrageous became a commonplace of 20th-century art, Ashley’s work looks more like an ingenious trick of defamiliarization whereby that quaint banality “television” is transformed into a medium for opera. In the end, I think, Ashley was mostly interested in the sound of Americans talking to each other, or talking to themselves: insistent, often indistinct, never meaningless, demotic. In these voices can be heard something revelatory and strange, as if someone took the lid off life and let us see the works. 

Ashley's final opera Crash will premiere at the Whitney Biennial. 

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Perfect Lives: A Television Opera by American composer Robert Ashley. Ashley was light-years from the video hit parade of MTV, but he too wanted to make music television.]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-04-07T17:30:25Z 2014-04-08T15:59:29Z What Happened to Canada? tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-07:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/5220b9949297f8e2cfc65679d959757b by Marianne LeNabat

The left has long admired Canada as an enclave of social democracy in North America: for its openly socialist electoral parties, its robust welfare state, and its more moderate policy profile. Recent developments, however, have thrown that reputation into question. The country is helmed by a prime minister, Stephen Harper, known for his brazenly right-wing views and executive unilateralism. Both federal and provincial governments have embraced austerity and eroded public services. And Canada’s newly aggressive exploitation of its natural resources has it trampling on civil liberties and reneging on its international obligations like, as Foreign Policy put it, a “rogue, reckless petrostate.”

These are not changes born in the hearts and minds of the Canadian people, but an agenda designed and implemented from above, articulated in an imported conservative ideology, to abet the interests of private industry. Some of that agenda, like the shocking attack on Canada’s environmental research community, has been implemented so swiftly and unilaterally that the public is just now catching up. Other aspects, like the undermining of the country’s universal health care system, have been imposed more gradually, a death by a thousand cuts combined with a relentless propaganda campaign. 

What is happening in Canada is part of a much larger trend: the formidable disciplinary forces of late capitalism are exerting themselves everywhere, including in other western democracies, where governments are scaling back social programs while lavishing tax concessions and subsidies on industry. The European Union and the United States are similarly absorbing market shocks on behalf of business while allowing downturns to undermine the poor and working class. If Canada is becoming indulgent of, even slavish toward, its resource industry (the biggest contributor to GDP), it is arguably no more so than the United States in relation to its banking sector, which was never brought to heel despite causing the 2008 collapse. 

Still, the drastic turn in Canadian politics and policy raises some urgent questions. Why hasn’t the population stopped the attack on its public services? Why have left-leaning parties lost ground at the polls while Harper and his ilk continue getting reelected? Why, in a society with a more collectively oriented spirit, has the political discourse taken a sharp turn to the right? 

The answers to those questions tell a story to which the left should pay heed, for the hijacking of Canada’s social democracy was made possible in part by the utter failure of its left parties, and the prospects for wresting the country from the current conservative agenda depend on the success of grassroots movements of resistance.

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Canada’s public services, including health care and post-secondary education, the post office and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are generally quite beloved. Unlike in the United States, where the government is viewed with some suspicion, in Canada government-administered and -funded institutions are understood to play an important nation-building role by servicing a population dispersed across a vast terrain. And the fact that all Canadians’ needs are provided for has become a point of pride.

Over the past few decades, however, private business interests and their neoliberal allies in government have led a concerted push to expand the role of the market and shift government expenditure away from social need. The assault on public services hasn’t been conducted by criticizing them on principle, but by manufacturing crises and then suggesting that the only solution is to expand the role of the private sector.

Such is the strategy playing out right now at the post office. Last December, it was announced that Canada Post would have to phase out home delivery within five years, requiring residential customers to retrieve their mail from nearby community boxes. The change would come along with a significant increase in the cost of postage (from 63 cents to one dollar for a single stamp) and the layoff of 8,000 postal workers.

The announcement was shocking, but calculatedly so. The recommendations were prepared by a think tank arguing for privatization. It claimed that the post office is unsustainable and uncompetitive, a burden to taxpayers, and poor at meeting consumers’ needs. In reality, Canada Post has netted a profit for sixteen of the last seventeen years, and, despite occasionally suffering losses, has yet to receive a single dollar in taxpayer bailout. All of the report’s recommendations were part of a larger and often-used strategy to “restructure” services so that user costs increase while services deteriorate, and then, in response to public frustration, suggest market-based solutions. 

The same strategy has been exercised repeatedly in health care: crises are brought on by underfunding, and the alleged only solution is to expand the role of private profit. Services are “delisted,” i.e. taken out of universal medicare coverage, but private supplemental insurance becomes available to cover them. Public hospitals are closed but private clinics allowed to open. Wait times for services increase due to budget cuts, but patients are permitted to “jump the queue” and pay out of pocket for their own MRI. The public is thus softened for market-based solutions, although on an ideological level it remains staunchly committed to medicare and vocally resistant to efforts to introduce parallel private health insurance and private hospitals. The CBC, itself constantly menaced with cuts, recently held a months-long contest to select “The Greatest Canadian.” The population chose Tommy Douglas, the architect of Canada’s medicare system, ahead of Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Graham Bell, and Pierre Trudeau. 

That underfunding services often has less to do with economic necessity than with reshaping institutions to benefit private industry was demonstrated last year when the government of oil-wealthy Alberta announced $147 million in cuts to post-secondary education, a process it described as “collaborative” with colleges and universities but “not negotiable.” Quickly, entire faculties, especially the arts, found themselves on the chopping block. The province warned universities that raising tuition to avoid the cuts was not an option, instead encouraging them to commercialize academic research and redirect resources towards short-term deliverables. Only after significant damage was done to staff and enrollment levels did the province restore $50 million to the education budget. After all, the province’s revenues from oil sands exploration had been steadily increasing.

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Just how has this agenda secured such a hold on government? And why haven’t Canadians voted it out at the polls?

The answer has to do with a deliberate attempt, by a handful of media outlets and political strategists, to push the entire Canadian political spectrum to the right, importing rhetoric that bears little relationship to the country’s own intellectual history. Thirty years ago, conservatism in the country generally meant “Red Toryism,” a collectively oriented if somewhat paternalistic belief in “peace, order and good government.” Unlike American conservatism, it was less concerned with rugged individualism or Christian fundamentalist moralism than with noblesse oblige and social harmony. In the last few decades, however, a number of institutions have worked aggressively to introduce radical new conservative views to the Canadian public discourse. There is the Fraser Institute, a right-libertarian think tank based in Vancouver, originally funded by the forestry industry to counter the reigning left-leaning New Democratic Party in British Columbia. There is the National Post, a newspaper that has basically run at a loss since its inception in 1998 for the sake of giving a national media platform to neoliberalism. And there is the “Calgary School,” a cabal of neoconservative academics, policy analysts, and pundits centered around the University of Calgary and so nicknamed after the Milton Friedman–era Chicago School of Economics. The Calgary School’s consolidation of influence over Canadian politics is much storied at this point—they count Harper’s election among their achievements.

Through a series of power moves, including forming splinter political parties and then reabsorbing their conservative electoral competitors, this new Canadian conservatism has all but supplanted the Red Tories, who now express shock at their radical policy agenda, not to mention how they conduct government. Harper’s policy excesses include axing funding for women’s and minority advocacy groups and cutting foreign aid, making good on his brag upon entering office, “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it.” He and his party have also made explicit moves to consolidate their hold on executive power. Harper has “prorogued” parliament—a seldom-used maneuver to suspend legislative activity—four times, sometimes to avoid investigations into his party’s activity. In 2011, Conservative Party affiliates were involved in a voting suppression scandal, in which automated phone calls were placed to other parties’ supporters providing false information about polling locations. Now the Harper government has introduced legislation to overhaul the elections act, reducing independent oversight and removing barriers to campaign contributions.

Perhaps the main reason Harper’s government has been able to maintain its hold on power has to do with the worldwide economic crisis. Canada weathered that storm much more successfully than the US, primarily because of greater regulation of its banking industry. Harper, an economist, happily takes credit for Canada’s stability (even though he previously was an advocate for deregulation), positioning himself as the even hand piloting the country through the storm. In fact, for decades, the Conservatives have branded themselves as fiscally responsible and pro-growth, a strategy that is likely to succeed during times of economic duress. 

But the Conservatives’ triumph also derives from their electoral rivals behaving little differently. Since the 1990s, the centrist Liberal Party has embraced a hysteria about balanced budgets and debt repayment to justify cuts to social welfare programs and taxation—all while polls consistently show Canadians would be willing to pay more in taxes in return for better services and a more equitable society. This understandably frustrates voters, who have been abandoning the party in droves. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party, the explicitly social democratic alternative, has been shifting to the center in an attempt to capture votes lost by the Liberals. At its convention in 2011, the NDP removed the word “socialism” from the party’s constitution; the NDP later came out against taxation of the wealthy, which party leader Thomas Mulcair called “confiscation.” The party has even been willing to directly attack its own base, which historically has been organized labor, by forcing the renegotiation of public sector contracts in Ontario and legislating striking workers back to work in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Finally, even Canada’s Green Party members have come out in support of pipeline projects and oil refineries. In short, like their counterparts in Europe, Canada’s left parties are increasingly willing to act as capital’s executives.

When that happens, voters are driven into the arms of any party that appears to offer an alternative. In Europe this means a growing support for parochialism and fascism. In Canada, it feeds populism, that slippery, neither-left-nor-right strategy meant to capitalize on a general sense of injustice. Populist parties promise to represent the interests of the people against the elitism and favoritism of government, and to root out the sources of social and economic stagnation, but they invariably redirect political energy toward scapegoats. They insist that they alone have the courage to stand up for the common man, but the common man they identify always resembles the dominant social group: natural-born citizens as opposed to immigrants; entrepreneurs rather than workers; able-bodied and ethnically majoritarian individuals as opposed to those “special interests” always clamouring for accommodation; the socially and financially self-sufficient but tax-burdened “average Joe” who serves as a cipher for private business.

Populism secures its foothold in Canada by exploiting regional divides, in a country in which each province feels itself uniquely put upon—Quebec for being a linguistic and cultural minority in a hegemonically “anglo” country and region; the prairie provinces for being neglected by the federal government in Ontario; the Atlantic provinces for facing decades of severe economic hardship (the result of closing coal mines and depleting fisheries stocks). Whatever legitimacy these concerns have had historically, they too have been hijacked to serve a neoliberal agenda. For example, populist politicians in wealthier provinces speak of “regional autonomy” in order to argue against the equalizing “transfer payments” those provinces are required to make to poorer counterparts (the purpose of these payments is to ensure a uniform quality of social programs across the country). Essentially, this stands in for an argument against taxing the wealthy and corporations. Or resource-intensive provinces talk of “job-killing” environmental policies imposed by an obtuse do-gooder federal government, which is really an argument made on behalf of extraction companies. 

Regionalist populism is a chauvinism of local industry and wealthier “taxpayers” with a uselessly divisive element of “culture war” tacked on for good measure, or perhaps for the sake of the working class. Take the recent developments in Quebec. In 2012, the Liberal government of Jean Charest was effectively deposed in the wake of massive protests against its neoliberal agenda. Most notably, Charest had attempted to dramatically raise tuition for post-secondary education by 75 percent over five years. Students in the province organized a wide-reaching strike, which galvanized broader segments of Quebec society when they saw students being criminalized and arrested. At stake, in people’s imaginations, was the entire social compromise that had been struck in the 1960s between the wealthy Anglophone minority and blue-collar Francophone society. Eventually, the government felt compelled to call an election in which the Liberals lost their majority to the populist Parti Québécois, whose leader, Pauline Marois, promised to repeal the tuition hike. But what has the PQ done with this mandate? It has senselessly mired the population in a debate about a proposed “Charter of Values” for the province to address such urgent questions as whether public servants should be allowed to wear the hijab. It is a shockingly divisive undertaking in a province that depends upon heavy immigration to maintain its francophone population, and it has succeeded in completely displacing the questions raised by the strike.

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If there is a battle over the future of Canada, its frontline is the issue of resource extraction. This is where the most frightening stories are emerging and the most dynamic forms of resistance as well. 

For years now, at both the federal and a provincial level, the Canadian government has chosen to shape policy and institutions around maximizing the extraction of wealth from the country’s natural resources—around forestry in British Columbia, mining in the northern territories, the oil sands projects in Alberta, fishing (and now oil as well) in the maritime provinces. To prosecute its G8 status as one of the world’s largest economies, Canada seems willing to play the short-term strategy of reaping resource-based profits instead of developing sustainable growth or economic diversity. And to do so, it appears willing to comprise civil liberties, democratic integrity, and environmental safety no less than other, less developed countries that rely on resource extraction.

The evidence is chilling. The government has required Environment Canada scientists to obtain permission before speaking to the media, sent government escorts to accompany researchers participating in international conferences, and reclassified entire swaths of research findings as “confidential.” Meanwhile, as protests have arisen to the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, the government has sent spies to intimidate community organizers, and reclassified Greenpeace and aboriginal groups as “extremist threats.” Documents obtained through freedom of information requests reveal that the Canadian government has even shared intelligence information with resource companies about admittedly peaceful groups and individuals posing “challenges to projects.” 

In addition, the government has shuttered dozens of libraries and environmental research centers, and in December literally burned or landfilled centuries’ worth of materials on Canadian natural resources such as forests and waterways under the mendacious pretext of digitizing records, and at significant cost. Provincial governments are looking at partnerships with oilsands companies to develop school curriculum from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Environmental legislation has been rewritten to remove barriers to exploration, and oversight of environmentally sensitive projects has been deliberately limited. Protections for endangered species have been scaled back, and millions of dollars in funding has been cut from environmental research and climate change initiatives, while environmental charities are being subjected to tax audits. Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol (Harper called it a “socialist scheme”) and the country now ranks last among OECD countries for environmental protection.

That this will have tragic consequences is easy to predict. Already, the environment is showing signs of irreparable compromise, especially around the tar sands projects in Alberta, where the clear-cutting rate is second only to the Amazon’s, and where the extraction process produces enormous amounts of contaminated water (by 2010, more than a billion cubic meters). Nearby populations are reporting alarming rates of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases, and some physicians have refused to treat individuals who suggest their symptoms are related to tar sands emissions for fear of government reprisals.

The justification for prioritizing resource development is the benefit to the Canadian economy, but as Martin Lukacs argued in the Guardian, these pipeline projects “do not build a nation, but swindle it.” Contrary to corporate and government claims, the employment they generate is minimal and short-term. The profits generated are mostly foreign and private, while the government’s taxation and royalty rates remain incredibly low—undoubtedly too low to cover the costs, in terms of health and environment, that are “externalized” by resource companies and become the public’s burden to bear. And an undiversified economy—recall Alberta’s redesign of its post-secondary institutions—is vulnerable to collapse.

In addition to these material consequences, it’s worth considering the effect of resource-focused policy on Canadian society and democracy. What of the perceived legitimacy of government institutions that are supposed to act in the public interest? What of the consequences for Canadian society, when economic livelihood is pitted against health and environment? What of the country’s international reputation or that of its scientific community?

Many have sounded the alarm about Canada’s future—scientists, journalists, environmental and community groups—but among the most interesting efforts was a grassroots movement last winter among the country’s First Nations (aboriginal) population. The Idle No More movement arose in November 2012 when four women organized teach-ins to inform the community about the federal government’s proposed budget, which included provisions to weaken environmental protections and barriers to development on reserve (treaty) lands. The movement deliberately sidestepped First Nations leadership and instead quickly gained momentum through a series of peaceful protests—flash mobs at shopping malls, blockades of highways and railroads—and on social media. 

Idle No More was interesting not just because of how rapidly it galvanized attention and support both within and outside the country, but because it articulated the threat the government’s plans pose to every Canadian. The movement was partly about the government’s ongoing abrogation of treaty rights, but even more significantly it emphasized that if Canada continues to prioritize resource development over every other concern, it will destroy itself as a country and as a society. INM served as a reminder that while the First Nations people living on reserves may be at the literal forefront of resource exploration, they represent the Canadian population as a whole: they face a choice between short-term infrastructure growth and employment, and long-term safety and sustainability, and that choice is being made on their behalf, without their consent. 

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n+1 magazine 2014-04-04T19:14:57Z 2014-04-09T22:07:32Z What Happened tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-04:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/37645894cbc7136ea9e3e167662e65bd by Bernadette Van-Huy

He was different than the people I generally knew, and so I couldn’t help thinking about him as an x factor—that all-important unforeseeable thing that, when introduced into a system, revolutionizes everything.

I carried a used scanner in one of those large, blue nylon Ikea bags, slung on my shoulder. I’d just picked it up in a Craigslist transaction and was walking now through the evening dark of the calm, quaint Carroll Gardens streets to where the party was. 

I walked without knowing the area and I felt how one feels going toward a party, and unsure of oneself. In those days, I was in pieces. Had been already for too long. Consequently, I had shut down, tried not to look, tried not to see. Emergency autopilot took over, maneuvering me through the motions of existence, because I was no longer there to drive. 

There was a canal. I walked alongside a raised highway. And then uphill. 

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A bar in Park Slope — A local bar, really nice. The birthday party was set up in the back room—helium balloons, a karaoke machine, birthday cake . . . nice people. 

I arrived at the beginning, around nine, when there was only the birthday person and his closest friends, promising myself that I would not drink and would leave early. But the real outcome was that I started drinking at nine and just had more time to get wasted. 

Hours later, the party was full of people. The front room with the bar was fairly empty, with three or four locals. Anna and I ended up in there and soon were dancing with the locals. Around this point, my memory blacks out. 

I will use his account of what happened next. He saw me sitting alone at the bar in front of a full glass of whiskey, so he came up and asked me how things were, and we talked and even danced some. At the end of the night, when almost everyone had gone, as he was about to get into a cab with his roommate, he saw me come out of the bar, carrying the scanner and a lot of balloons. He recalled that Anna had gone, so with his good sense asked after me, what I was doing. I was wasted and said I didn’t know. Then I said I would go back in for another drink. But everyone’s gone. / Oh. / We’re taking a cab, which direction do you live? / I don’t know. I followed them into the cab. Pulling away, I kept complaining I was about to throw up. The driver wanted me out of the cab, but he and his roommate promised that I’d be fine. When we got to his place, I was supposed to continue on, but the driver refused to take me. 

He and his roommate continued to drink and hang out, and I, begrudgingly there, not understanding why I was there, isolated myself in protest, going outside to sit on the stoop, flopping violently about from the waist, everything spinning nauseatingly, consciousness passing in and out. I stayed out on the stoop like that for a long time, until at some point I retreated into the apartment and crashed on his bed. 

(Many years ago, a friend of mine, Rita, was married to Dave, who is in the same band as he is. So I’d known of him for many years, but hardly ever saw him around and didn’t have any contact with him. But in the last two years before this night, because he and I were hanging around the same gallery, I would see him somewhat often and say a few words to him now and then. He seemed like a guy with a lot of complexes and issues, someone difficult to get along with, not very enjoyable.) 

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One or two hours later he wakes me up. He’s sitting cross-legged on the far corner of the bed, drinking a large can of beer, a Coors. He’s oscillating with drunkenness.

We are both amused by the bizarre occurrence of winding up in each other’s company, at six in the morning, on his bed. 

He plays at being surly with me—looking off to the side with squinted eyes, a smirk—like a local hood leaning in a doorway when talking to an unknown girl. A put-on toughness as first-meet tactic. (This I would have expected from him. To not be exactly nice.) 

And so drunkenly, playfully, we perform a little fencing—trying to show off our personalities and bring out the other’s. There’s a little round pocket mirror between us to ash our cigarettes on. 

He has that thing that makes a big impression on me. Previously I mostly noticed it in one other person, my friend Katja. A disposition to the world of people, and to giving them this extra significance. As if the world were a fable or fairytale, where the characters are always drawn large. 

He has an unrestrained, go for it, fast, and instinctive enthusiasm. He rushes forth, a body on trajectories of enthusiasm, and going distances out of sheer health—like the Road Runner character, where you don’t see any efforts of motion, just a blur or line, nor any signs after of energy spent. 

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He shows me where the bathroom is--We walk out of his makeshift bedroom area—enclosed by one real wall, one partial one made of drywall, one large piece of cardboard, and one green bed sheet attached to a laundry line with band pins (atop which is perched a plastic hospital demo baby)—cut through the rest of the small storefront, which is used as a “studio,” turn a corner. He takes a step down and then holds out a hand for me and we descend a short but steep staircase into a pitch-black basement. His roommates are sleeping in a bed encased in black garbage bags fixed with packing tape. There’s a wheelchair for a chair. He points to the bathroom across the room and shines a small pocket light in its direction to light my way. The bathroom’s tiny and poor—a pool of water on the linoleum flooring, the saddest array of no-name toothbrushes and shampoo bottles, trimmed hair in the sink. 

When I come out of the bathroom he’s half-reclined on the stairs and flashes the pocketlight at me. 

He makes us some coffee and I sit waiting in the wheelchair. 

We go back upstairs and continue our banter, drunkenly talking about some of the books lying around. I make a futile attempt to read the back cover of one. After a few sentences, my mind simply hollows out and I end up staring at it. 

As I finish up my coffee, he senses I’m about to go. He cries in protest, You’re going to leave, aren’t you? Why don’t you save yourself half an hour and take a nap? (Marijuana.) 

He slides close to me, takes the coffee cup from me, and puts it down. He places his hand on my knee and the atmosphere suddenly becomes heavy, drowsy, slowed. 

We kiss for a while, during which he says to me, Do you want to be my girlfriend? We’d be good together. We’re both old and don’t fit in. And other funny things. 

Then we fall asleep. Some hours later I wake up and go into the studio space to smoke a cigarette. He is fast asleep. 

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The Bohemian—In the bed area there are macabre kitsch objects on the bookshelf and trunk, and B&W xeroxes, a crumpled napkin, and other ephemera pinned to the drywall. An ancient black cat with extrusions of clumped, discolored fur sleeps on the bed. Shadowy Stars of David are projected onto the walls from the wrought-iron grating outside. 

The studio space is trashed, wildly. Like a lazy wind blew trash over the rough bareness of the room. Old takeout plates of food, a heavy-duty garbage bag full up with garbage, beer cans, a bottle of Chinese hot sauce, nothing upright. A lot of albums, turntables, a television, a macabre mechanical black cat resembling the live one, a ceramic raccoon. More xeroxes and ephemera pinned to the walls. 

Things are untreated, allowed to overgrow. The no-attention to aesthetics—of the bathroom, of the bed encased in black garbage bags taped together—shocks me. Nothing is animal or body or matter anymore. Everything is meant to signify and therefore to function. To have a value. And then the sign discards the material dimension. I felt myself in some wonderland of exorcised shapes and life forms, forgotten textures, formations, extremities, all quietly existing here, piling up, as though this were the only safe haven, a secret cubby hole, magically outside time. I had fallen asleep and awoken to someone and someplace from times lost, to a something that I had almost forgotten about. Something only recently so familiar to my milieu in NY, by now forcibly erased. 

I sleep some more. Another hour or two pass by and I get up. He is still sound asleep. So I leave him a note and collect my scanner and walk out into the sunlight to figure out where I was and get home, not feeling strongly about this encounter, just sort of amused. 

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It was funny for me to crash into someone foreign. That was the benefit of that night for me. My life had been proceeding at a pitch of shrill desperation, and then it crashed, for a second. 

It was like opening my eyes and finding myself in another dimension, how I woke up in this strange apartment, with this strange person sitting there, with a can of beer, looking at me. And I proceeded to have this small adventure in another dimension before returning to my own. By the J train.

Otherwise, it wasn’t important to me. But for the next day or two I carried the pleasure of the shock—the shock of the crash, the shock of the absurdly unexpected, and the shock of having touched a world so extreme. 

He communicated with me often in the following days. First, out of politeness, we agreed to hang out in some days, just as friends, to smooth over any awkwardness, but then he wrote me to just say hello. There was something remarkable about it. His texts had so much atmosphere. It seemed like if he cared about someone, or he thought he might care about someone (my case), that person was so much in his thoughts that he never allowed distance to become distance, absence to become absence. His notes were full of his attention, surrounding you with warmth, like in a time of need. 

And with that the number of things about him that had left a strange effect on me hit critical mass. I started to wonder about his sudden entrance into my life. Would he (the last person I would’ve expected) be that friend to me (the kind I’d failed to make since moving back to New York two years prior, the kind to have adventures with, to laugh uncontrollably with, the kind that makes your life into a world)? He was different than the people I generally knew, and so I couldn’t help thinking about him as an x factor—that all-important unforeseeable thing that, when introduced into a system, revolutionizes everything. 

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The night before our appointment I decide to research him online. I look at some photos of his band performing. I find a few video clips. I watch them. Him. I like them. And he’s good. Really good. I’m drawn to certain videos, and watch them again. And then again. 

At ATP he’s on stage holding a contraption out in front of him, which looks like a small pole with a lamp head dangling from the top. He plays it like a dangling drum, hitting, swatting it with a mallet with his other hand. He keeps his eyes fixed on it, on hitting it, while staying in a crouch, lowering to the floor and back up, darting forward and backward, around in circles. Wearing a long piece of green lace tied over his eyes like a blindfold and a baseball cap. After a while he lets up, loosely twirling the contraption above his head nonchalantly, roars into a microphone a few times in a beastly way, and then straightens up twirling the contraption disinterestedly . . .

Then he tosses it to the left off the stage, lets it drop from his hands like it was something gross or distasteful, picks up a wooden box from the floor, holds it, indecision, then makes an arc with his left arm, pointing it out to the left and then sweeping it around to the front, to rest on top of the mic. Emits some noises into the mic, then in slow motion releases his arm back out to the left . . .

And looks to his right, into the stage, like he’s just seeing what’s happening there, like nothing. Still holding the wooden box at his side, he shifts from one foot to the other, taking on the slack posture of just another spectator. After a moment, he slowly goes down onto one knee and with his left hand reaches for and adjusts his baseball cap. . .

He’s a primordial swamp of pre-social bodies, sounds. You’re looking through veils, prisms of time, and see there somnolent hypnotic other bodies dancing playing gliding one into another, a-signifying, mesmerizing, magical, poignant. When he slows down, it’s the opposite of slowing down. It’s a building of intensity. When he stops one thing, becomes idle, before doing some other thing, like when he casually stopped and looked into the stage, to see what his bandmates were doing, just stood there slackly, and then slowly went down on one knee, and then his hand slowly reaching for his baseball cap and pulling it down a little more… his hand, as it moves toward his cap, has the “drag” of centuries, it moves through eons of time absorbing all the light, becoming a surreal, celestial hand floating across the heavens.

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n+1 magazine 2014-04-01T16:58:30Z 2014-04-13T18:18:13Z Issue Number 19 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-04-09:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/4473afb3a2b78272ebe6a9d7eae3a1a2 Real Estate

 

THE INTELLECTUAL SITUATION

Ukraine, Putin, and the West
The Editors

Since Putin reassigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. 

The Concert Hall
The Editors

In the concert hall, one must not clap in between movements; everyone knows those pauses are for coughing. By coughing, listeners reassure each other: Don’t worry, we weren’t feeling or thinking anything about what we heard—we were only sitting here, trying not to cough.

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POLITICS

The Accidental Neoliberal
Jedediah Purdy

Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not a doctrine but a limit on the vitality of the practical imagination.

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FICTION & DRAMA

The Summer Before The
Benjamin Kunkel

One night Diana finds herself thinking: One night while her husband was sleeping . . . The easiness of the thought surprises her, as if you could just start writing a novel, no permission or even decision required. 

All the Sad Young Literary Women; The Reading
Nell Zink

Could I correct something? It’s boarding writer, not boring writer. It’s like writer-in-residence, but I don’t get room and board. Just board. Three meals a day.

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ESSAYS

Chat Wars
David Auerbach

My program manager and I thought this little stunt would be deemed too dubious by management. But management liked the feature. On July 22, 1999, Microsoft entered the chat markets with MSN Messenger Service. Our AOL “interop” was in it.

Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai
Srinath Perur

If visitors from the developed world are “quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor,” the developing world indulges them readily through slum tourism — pay money to go and look at the living conditions of those less fortunate than yourself.

The Help Desk
Kristin Dombek

And so what I would say to your patrons is yes, absolutely, it’s cool to try harder now, but what you choose to try harder at matters, and you should always also not give a fuck.

Endangered Speakers
Ross Perlin

I’d long been committed, as a matter of earnest principle, to understanding and upholding difference in the world. My cultural politics were simply: Let differences live. Yet I’d had no premonition of differences so deep and so various, that all these languages could exist.

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REVIEWS

On Office Furniture
Nikil Saval

Jim is a fortunate guy. In the new office of his pharmaceutical company, he’s always running into people. “Serendipitous encounters,” they’re called. But it wasn’t always like that.

On Net Neutrality
Andrew Jacobs

Although the decision was a major defeat for the FCC, you wouldn’t gather that from reading the first two thirds of the opinion, in which the court repeatedly rejects Verizon’s arguments and sides with the FCC.

On Morningside Park
Sophie Pinkham

We knew people who changed their identities—their clothes, their hair, their music, their slang, their accents—every year. Over summer vacation, a Nike-loving Jeru the Damaja fan could become a conceptual art–making Morrissey impersonator in tight jeans.


 

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digital and/or print subscriber now to read the issue. Putin vs. Ukraine, Microsoft vs. AOL. Jedediah Purdy regrets, Kristin Dombek solves your problems, Nikil Saval redesigns your office. New fiction by Benjamin Kunkel and two scenes by Nell Zink.]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-03-30T21:38:27Z 2014-03-31T04:22:18Z The Brother and I tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-30:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/4c8169a1fca9eb48f3ace07487b9ed83 by Brandon Harris

Image: Still from Let the Fire Burn, dir. Jason Osder, 2013.

New Voices in Black Cinema, BAMCinématek, March 27–30, 2014.

The sudden revelation that an object of familiarity has reached a milestone age shouldn’t be startling to me, but the other day this phenomenon snuck up on me yet again and there I was, staring into the internet, gawking at the age of yet another cultural product I half remembered, wondering if anyone cared in 1976 when The Honeymooners had been off the air for twenty years or if trivial information all the time dooms us to inescapable cycles of nostalgia and dread. It’s all about my own mortality, surely, because one day you look up and The Brother from Another Planet has turned 30 and so have you. Well, almost—released in the fall of 1984 by long defunct art house distributor Cinecom Pictures, John Sayles’s fourth feature, about an escaped alien slave hiding out in Harlem among the descendants of slaves who still very much live under siege, gets a thirtieth anniversary fete at BAMCinématek tonight, halfway through its twenty-ninth year, as the curious pick to close out the theater’s annual New Voices in Black Cinema mini-festival. Neither of us are so young anymore, The Brother or I. 

Watching it again, it feels even older perhaps; its vision of 125th street and of Harlem as a majority Negro space has been rendered quaint and nostalgic by the passage of time. The prices posted on the front of Harlem grocery stores are certainly reason for a hearty sigh, too, as are the many instances of class division and assumed white privilege in the film: The more things change, the more they stay the same could be the tagline for a reissue of Sayles’s picture. But I’ll settle for it being 30. I was born just nine months before its September 7 release date, and The Brother from Another Planet ages right along with me, in ways more intimate than Ghostbusters or The Hunger, and the cultural memory that it’s a party to is no small thing, fragile and easily lost in the era of voracious nostalgia.

It’s the type of picture you’d find watching TV on a Saturday afternoon in the early ’90s and catch half of, freaked out surely by the three giant, clawlike toes that Joe Morton’s Brother sports; it’s the only recognizably nonhuman thing about him. Otherness wasn’t something I thought about back then, at least not with a capital O. The Brother can’t speak English, and Joe Morton, in a performance that maintains the childlike slapstick innocence that folks started calling “Chaplinesque” at least eighty years ago, spends a significant amount of time bewildered at the simply astonishing, hard-to-fathom behavior of the humans. Most of his communication, most of his learning—about race, about femininity, about cultural mores—comes from watching and listening. A foreigner among a dispossessed people in the uptown environs he swims to after a series of humorous misunderstandings on Manhattan Island (where he first comes ashore after his busted space ship crash lands), he immediately observes the hostility with which black men are treated by the police. The very first use of point-of-view editing rhetoric in the film is Morton’s Brother staring out as a cop pats down a detained black man’s pants. 

His character, as many black men are to other members of society who often don’t care to listen to or know them in any real sense, is a tabula rasa on which they can project their assumptions, anxieties, and fears. The Brother doesn’t want to trouble anyone, and is simply trying to make sense of the strange land he’s found himself in, but the movie finds great comedic fodder in various big-haired New Yorkers’ instinctive responses to The Brother’s ineffable alien cool. They all just know what he must be thinking, and for the most part The Brother goes right along with the action. In doing so, he holds a mirror to the city’s faces as he listens to the travails and kvetching of hookers and Indiana tourists, small-time crooks and city administration workers, barkeeps and Bible thumpers. Fisher Stevens shows up at one point as a weirdo with a penchant for card tricks and more than one scheme up his sleeve. It’s a vision of a scrappier New York, alluringly nostalgic from our late point in history that doesn’t want to embrace the horror show the nightly news made of such spaces as the ’80s wore on.

Sayles presents a neighborly vision of Harlem. No hint of crime epidemics or crack. Black professionals are everywhere. Men who do little but loiter in bars and barbershops are not seen as a menace, as a blight, somehow lacking in morality or industriousness. The central plot, in which The Brother is pursued by a pair of alien slavehunters dressed in the black suits and glasses of secret government agents (played by the director and the character actor David Strathairn), is far less engaging than the meandering scenes of contemporaneous life in this black space. 

Some might see all these niceties as whitewashing, this positive evocation of an early to mid-’80s black community not defined by poverty and degradation as bleaching the stains of systemic injustice, but Sayles’s film, funded in part by a MacArthur grant he was awarded after the release of his third film Lianna, is doing a quietly revolutionary thing for a popular movie. Although Richard Pryor was just about ceding his place to Eddie Murphy as America’s favorite black movie star around the time of The Brother from Another Planet’s release, neither of them got to make movies for the masses that gave voice to the communities of the black working class that their comedy rose out of. 

The Brother from Another Planet opened two weeks before NBC launched The Cosby Show, in the midst of Hollywood’s embrace of identifiably bourgeois black stars if not sophisticated black subject matter, and it was a modest hit, earning $4 million at the box office on a budget of $350,000. Unlike so much of what one could refer to as “black cinema” from that era, be it the work of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers such as Charles Burnett or Haile Gerima or late-career efforts of Michael Schultz and Gordon Parks, it entered the popular imagination, the mainstream lexicon. It’s among the earliest so-called independent films I recall my parents watching and referencing in my youth. 

Of course, The Brother from Another Planet is a fantasy. The reality of the complex challenges black Americans would be inundated with and judged for over the intervening years is kept at arm’s length in favor of allegory and fable. To say that the very streets upon which Sayles’s film was shot were bludgeoned by the drug war, devalued by redlining, and policed by folks without the best interest of the community at heart, is the stuff of historical record, but narrative films, even ones made by conscientious artists like Sayles, are rarely the best way to encounter a nuanced revision of established histories. His film is more soothing than it has any right to be.

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Eight months after the release of The Brother from Another Planet, the row house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the predominantly black enclave of Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia, was tear gassed, fired upon several thousand times, and eventually firebombed after the occupants of the building, members of a black separatist organization known as MOVE, refused to clear out. Tension between MOVE and the police dated all the way back to the late ’70s, when officer James Ramp was shot in the head during a shootout with MOVE members, although it remains a point of debate whether he was shot by someone from the organization or struck down by friendly fire. Regardless, hostilities continued, the community that housed MOVE eventually turned against the group, and half a black neighborhood went up in flames in a racially charged city under the stewardship of its first black mayor.

Jason Osder’s documentary Let the Fire Burn, also screening as part of New Voices in Black Cinema, takes us right into the belly of the beast, sparing no indignity, allowing no one the assurance of moral sanctity or outright victimhood as it tells this story. The fire that consumed several blocks of the predominantly black West Philadelphia community is a reminder, just as potent as Katrina, of how little municipal governments, no matter who is running them, prioritize communities of color when the shit hits the fan. The movie doesn’t rely on recent interviews or odd zoom-ins on still photographs to tell this story of a vindictive police department, an unhinged Black separatist group and the community caught between them. It lets the footage do all the talking. 

Relying neither on narration or title cards, Let the Fire Burn recreates the Philadelphia police’s foolhardy raid in what feels like real time, using archival news footage to great effect, contextualizing the events with deposition video of the one surviving child from the MOVE house (the late Michael Ward, who passed away in a cruise ship hot tub less than a year ago) and testimony from a biracial community panel put together in the wake of the destruction to piece together what had happened and why. We learn amazing things from this panel testimony, beyond glimpsing the sheer volume of people’s hair back them. For instance, before he was a scumbag governor, Ed Rendell was a scumbag district attorney. Politicians are motivated by fear and loathing, perhaps more so than most of us, but Rendell, making the case for the raid and suggesting it was ultimately the right thing to do, is operating under the premise that white men know best and that the paternal hand of the law was needed to protect these negroes from themselves.

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Both The Brother from Another Planet and Let the Fire Burn are the products of white men. One of them is over 60 years old and has made eighteen feature films. Does this complicate their inclusion in a festival called New Voices in Black Cinema? What is black cinema anyway? It’s a question that the two handfuls of people that care to debate such things have been doing, ad infinitum, since around the time that the Black Arts Movement began its slow fade into irrelevance and the nascent texts of academic film criticism by prominent African and African American film scholars began to trickle into publication, a decade or so later. 

This year’s New Voices in Black Cinema program doesn’t get us any closer to an answer, although given its name, I’d forgive you for assuming they have. That’s not to say that the mini-festival, which is put on in conjunction with the Act Now Foundation, a production company and advocacy group that seeks to foster works that explore “African American and Latino experiences across the globe,” isn’t a handsome selection. Most of the work is by black authors, including the local premiere of Tommy Oliver’s 1982, an intermittently well acted look at a black working class family in Philadelphia family torn apart by the early days of the crack epidemic, and Unsound, Darious Britt’s narrative, which had its world premiere at the festival, about a documentary filmmaker on the brink on finishing his breakthrough film when his mother is diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness, throwing his own priorities into flux. 

These films will bounce between regional fests and the niche black film fests that are now an established part of the ever-growing world of Film Festivals (3,000 nationwide and counting, up from several dozen just a few decades ago). Whether in West Hollywood or Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago or San Francisco, events are held every year that highlight work the work of African American actors, directors, and screenwriters. The question hovers around these events frequently. The director of one such event, in the historically black Boston enclave of Roxbury, told me very candidly a year ago, when your author screened a motion picture I had made that predominantly focuses on white characters in a tale of grief and revenge during the aftermath of the untimely death of their black friend, “We debated a lot whether your film was in keeping with our mission.” I got the sense not everyone agreed with her desire to include Redlegs, whether I was black or not. Whether my work or my own blackness was being called into question I know not, but it left me pondering my place in such an ecosystem.

Some insist on some level of purity, if such a thing is possible; black cinema can’t include movies that are about white protagonists or directed by non-black filmmakers. Others may eschew the former qualification, but not the latter, or vice versa. This is absurd perhaps, and beside the point for most audiences, who normally have no idea what race the director is when watching a film. Still, in a year in which films like Fruitvale Station, The ButlerNewlyweeds and of course Oscar winner Twelve Years a Slave reignited claims that a new wave of black directors was poised to make a big impact on a medium that is largely dominated by upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class whites, the American negro’s place in the world of American Cinema is a precarious thing. It comes as no surprise that blacks are galvanized by seeing images of themselves onscreen after a century of racism heaped at us from the Hollywood dream machine. But it’d be more than a little encouraging if they were just as galvanized to hear of the successes of blacks behind the camera, if not more so. It’s the only antidote to the status quo, and the only way terms like “black cinema” will ever have any meaning.

In truth, the questions one has to ask to define such a thing are those that few people feel comfortable asking, let alone answering: Is the money that financed the film in black hands from the beginning? Will the rewards find their way to black hands in the end? In the meantime, will black audiences have the film marketed to them, have places where they can easily see it? Will they identify with its themes and aesthetics? It’s all just posturing until those questions are answered. Your black cinema might not end up being my Negro cinema or her African American Cinema. I imagine Colored Cinema might have been what the white cinema owners in the deep South of my grandparents’ era might have called the Midnight Rambles they’d host in order to capitalize on the hungry black audiences they couldn’t allow to patronize their establishments during polite hours. They might have been the most honest of all of us.

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-27T18:45:53Z 2014-03-28T13:43:48Z 324: Dispatch from Taipei tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-27:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/99a2bae9f5a916397e35cf0abca87b58 by Moira Weigel, Yu-Yun Hsieh

Image: In Taipei, Police use water canons to disperse protesters on March 24. Photo by Ahuei Zhang.

This account of the situation in Taipei was written by Yu-Yun Hsieh, based on sources involved in the protests, Taiwanese media coverage, and online postings. Moira Weigel helped edit and translate.

On Tuesday, March 18, a group of students took over the Legislative Yuan, the national legislature in downtown Taipei. Their purpose was to protest the passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Following up on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that President Ma Ying-jeoh signed into law in 2010, the CSSTA is the next in a series of measures that the KMT has taken to deepen ties between Taiwan and China. President Ma argues that these are the only way to keep the Taiwanese economy vital—despite the threats they pose to the country’s independent identity and to its democratic institutions.

The protest swelled to include over 3,000 people from all walks of life; it was supposed to be peaceful. But on the night of March 23, a group of protesters snuck into the Executive Yuan, the highest administrative building, to occupy the chamber. They posted information on Facebook inviting supporters join, and hundreds did. A few hours later, Premier Jiang Yi-Huah, who had consulted President Ma, ordered hundreds of police to use violence to evict the protesters. In the early hours of March 24, over 100 people were injured. 

The political events that inspired the protests—and the stream of bloody images now flooding social media—suggest that democracy in Taiwan is under threat, and that the mainstream media is part of the problem. Many newspapers and TV stations have failed to provide full and accurate information about the events that have taken place. They have downplayed or dismissed the activities of the protesters as a “carnival” or a “circus.” To get an idea of what happened the night coming to be known as “324,” we have to look at the narratives and images proliferating online.

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The origins of the current controversy go back to last June, when the CSSTA was signed in Shanghai by representatives of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF)—a bureaucratic appendage that the Taiwanese government created in 1991 to handle technical and business matters with China—and its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits. This treaty was meant as a follow up to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a huge bilateral trade agreement that the same organizations signed in June 2010 in Chongqing. The ECFA was hailed as the most important agreement between the countries since their split in 1949. Before signing the CSSTA, the leaders of the SEF arranged for academics and NGOs to carry out eight hearings on its possible impact in a single week, but these were not open to the public.

Because very little of the CSSTA has been made public—only six of its 170-some pages have been circulated to the press—its specific provisions remain poorly understood. The CSSTA aims to facilitate cross-strait investment in dozens of service-related sectors such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films, and telecommunications. It will make it easier for Chinese businessmen and their family members to apply for short-term visas to Taiwan, to set up offices and branches of Chinese businesses on the island, and to purchase large stakes in Taiwanese industries. While lawyers have asked whether the CSSTA does not constitute a new immigration law in disguise, the protesters insist that it will severely damage the Taiwanese service sector—which employs nearly 6 million people, over a quarter of the island’s population. A provision that allows Chinese publishing houses to retail and distribute in Taiwan has also raised worries over the freedom of the Taiwanese press.

But most importantly, critics are fearful that by buying up enough of the Taiwanese economy, China will gradually reduce the island to the status of a specially administered region like Hong Kong or Macau. (When the ECFA passed in 2010, many noted that it resembled agreements that China has concluded with those regions.) A Canadian journalist from the Diplomat, J. Michael Cole, speculated that the CSSTA was a first step toward China’s “buying reunification” with “no missiles required.”

The storm of protest escalated when its ratification drew near. But the KMT wanted to ratify the agreement as soon as possible. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wanted to make sure they had time to review the CSSTA carefully. But their attempts to delay its ratification failed. On March 17, 2014, KMT legislator Chang Ching-Chung claimed that the ninety-day limit for parliament to review the treaty had passed. He disappeared briefly from the legislative chamber and returned declaring that the CSSTA was now law. While it had been debated as a “prospective treaty,” Chang argued that in fact it was as an “executive order,” which the signature of the President sufficed to make law. The process had only taken thirty seconds.

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The protests began at midnight, on March 18, when 200 people gathered outside the Legislative Yuan. Student protesters in the crowd climbed the fence, broke a window, and—determined to break the record time in which Chang had passed the CSSTA—managed to occupy the chamber within half a minute. The guards on duty were taken by surprise and failed to stop them. Once the occupiers had taken control of the building, they piled up chairs at the entrances and exits to block the police from coming in.

Soon additional supporters were gathering outside the building. Legislators from the DPP joined them shortly afterward, sitting outside the legislature to express their solidarity with the student movement. (The student occupiers politely asked the DPP members to leave, saying that they had not come to represent any political party, but to demand a better future for themselves and their country.) That first night, the police tried to enter three times, but in vain. Having no way to retake the Legislative Yuan, the police blocked the exits. They would prevent the students in the inner chamber from using the restroom for the next few days.

On Tuesday morning, the protesters woke up to find a box of sunflowers outside the gate; they learned that the Legislative Yuan orders these daily. Each person took a sunflower and used it to decorate the barbed-wire gates and barricades police had set up around the building. From this point, the media began to call the occupation the “Sunflower Student Movement” (taiyanghua xue yun)—a nickname that deliberately recalled the Wild Lily Student Movement (ye baihe xue yun) in March 1990 that helped transform Taiwan into a multiparty democracy. 

Taiwan has a robust tradition of student protest, and the two graduate students who have emerged as the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement are experienced activists. Lin Fei-Fan joined the Wild Strawberries Movement in 2008, and in 2012 he launched the Campaign Against Pro-China Media Monopoly, --protesting the recent concentration of the ownership of media media ownership in the hands of a small number of pro-China businessmen. Meanwhile Chen Wei-Ting became famous across Taiwan last September, when he scolded Liu Cheng-hung, a KMT member and the mayor of Miaoli County, for his part in a corrupt building project: Chen threw a shoe at him, which struck him in the head. The mainstream media dismissed Chen’s act as a case of “bad manners.” But the owner of a Miaoli cafe displayed the shoe as a trophy. Chen went on to organize a new group called the Black Island Nation Youth Front.

The protesters' motives for occupying parliament were straightforward: if the representatives could no longer represent the people, it was the responsibility of the people to stand up and speak for themselves. Their demand was simple: withdraw the treaty, and start the negotiation with China over from the beginning. The occupiers gradually realized how difficult their situation was. For several days, they had no access to a restroom; police also shut down the air conditioner in the building. Mainstream media outlets made light of the conditions, joking about whether the protesters were stooping to defecate in public. Others lifted video clips of the students doing exercises or singing in the chamber and asked dismissively whether they took revolution to be carnival.

Still, the group remained well organized. Every time someone occupying the Legislative Yuan grew tired, a replacement would come in. Many professors in sociology and humanities not only encouraged their students to “do the right thing,” but began giving scheduled lectures on democracy in the streets. Volunteer medical teams, reporters, and lawyers soon came to the legislature to look after the occupiers, reminding them to take care of themselves. People donated food, paper towels, and bottled water. Professionals gathered after work to cheer on the occupiers. More and more people joined the sit-in outside. When it started to rain, they put on yellow slickers.

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Since March 18, the occupiers have spread news, shared thoughts, and made appeals to supporters on Facebook and other social media. One student used a pair of house slippers to attach his iPad to a podium and broadcast a livestream of what was going on inside the chamber: occupiers ate, sleep, sang songs, and dutifully recycled the plastic bottles they drank water from. The artist Chen Ching-Yuan drew a caricature of the president with antlers on his head.

After five days, Premier Jiang responded to the protesters, saying he wanted to have a conversation with student leader Lin Fei-fan on Saturday, March 22. After changing the meeting time three times, Premier Jiang arrived at 4 PM. Lin insisted that Jiang had to recognize the protester’s appeals—to withdraw the treaty and restart negotiations—as a condition of conversation. Jiang refused, and belittled the occupiers, who then demanded that he leave. The conversation lasted thirteen minutes. Student protesters uploaded the complete footage to YouTube; the clips that TV stations showed were dramatically edited.

On Sunday, March 23, President Ma finally showed up for an international press conference. However, he used this as an occasion not to address the demands of the occupiers but to reaffirm the importance of the CSSTA. Although more than 100 journalists were present, Ma only took five questions—three of them from representatives of the corporate media. One journalist asked, “President Ma, what do you feel when seeing students hanging our national flag upside down?” “My heart is aching,” Ma said, “and I am sad.”

+ + +

For the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement, this perfunctory press conference was the last straw. At 7:35 PM, around 200 protesters snuck into the Executive Yuan. The news was quickly circulated on Facebook and attracted thousand of supporters: doctors, lawyers, legislators, and other members of the public all joined a sit-in outside the cabinet. At 10:30 PM, Premier Jiang mobilized the police. Hundreds of riot police and ordinary law-enforcement officers stood by with batons and shields. Then, at midnight, Jiang gave the order for the first eviction.

It started at the back door. Police asked the sitters to leave; if they refused, they grabbed them by their necks and dragged them out. Several TV reporters were on the scene but turned away. The footage that professional cameramen captured shows supporters, seated in the back rows, chanting against their tolerance of police violence. 

At 1:20 AM, the Black Island Nation Youth Front held a press conference. Student leader Lin Fei-fan spoke out against the violent eviction outside the Executive Yuan. Less than twenty minutes later, police asked press reporters and cameramen to leave. The repression then turned violent: police at the back door of the Executive Yuan began to beat unarmed protesters with batons, aiming directly at their heads. Some of them were immediately struck unconscious; those who managed to walk were bleeding badly. The second eviction began at 2:20 AM. Before running at the protesters, the riot force took off their badges so that their names would be hidden. Hundreds of police kettled the occupiers. 

President Ma and Premier Jiang had made up their mind to clear up the streets. For the next few hours, doctors and lawyers were unable to get through the barricades. The media were blocked off too. At 4:24 AM the final eviction began. Water trucks arrived at Zhongxiao E. Road and Zhongshan S. Road, and the police used water cannons to blast the occupiers. By 5:30 AM, they had driven the 200 students out of the cabinet. Wei Yang, a member of the Black Island Nation Youth Front, claimed full responsibility for their illegal entry and was arrested, but the police soon released him. The last clash between the protesters and the police subsided around 6 AM, just as most people were waking up. 

+ + +

On Monday morning, mainstream newspapers and TV stations hardly referred to the violence of the previous night. In a press conference, Premier Jiang claimed that the occupiers had caused damage to the building; he accordingly had permitted the police to evict the protesters by carrying them away and using water cannons. The beatings, of course, were never mentioned. Many stations ran footage of Deputy Secretary General Hsiao Chia-chi coming back to the Executive Yuan in the morning, complaining that the occupiers had eaten cakes in the building that belonged to him.

Social media tells a different story. Hong Shenhan, the vice secretary of Green Citizen’s Action Alliance, recalled the violence:

While I was being dragged out, one of the riot police grabbed my hair and pulled me into a circle of five or six other policemen. Inside, there were three or four people who had fallen down and were on the ground; as soon as they fell, the police started kicking them. One of them was an aunty, fifty or sixty years old. She was weeping, and cried out: “I have not come to fight, I am looking for my child; do not hit me, please, I am begging you.” Immediately, the policeman standing behind her jabbed her a few times in the back with his elbow. He finished off by kicking her, and saying to her in an ice-cold whisper: “I own you. I’m in charge.”

Xie Mengting, a young woman who was protesting for the first time, described her shock when the police beat her up—she had never imagined that they would touch protesters, much less women. An activist who uses the Facebook avatar Zeus Chimera posted from the hospital to describe how he was treated by the police:

When the cops began attacking us, I grabbed my cell phone and shoved it in my back pocket. I joined hands with those around me, as a sign of “nonviolent non-cooperation” (heping bu hezuo kangzheng). I was in the third or fourth row.

The riot police don’t care whether you’re male or female, they push everyone around the same. They might give you a warning. They might not. There was a guy in the row right in front of me who had two police strike him in the back of the head with their batons, he sat down on the ground as if he was dying, and they immediately started trampling him, and tugging his hair. A girl was right in front of me who did not follow the policemen’s warning, and they immediately started slapping her and boxing her ears.

In the midst of all this, many of the people, starting from the back, began shouting “Peace, peace!” But the police did not listen. They just kept beating us up. When my turn came, I refused to obey their orders, and so they dragged me down. I was resisting, so the policeman hit me in the forehead, near my left temple, six times, but I still didn’t obey. One cop grabbed my shoulders, another one grabbed me and held me around the collarbone, and dragged me forcefully over onto the heap of the policemen.

The riot police have formed two lines. Outside, we cannot see anything. We could not see the inside either. They were kicking the whole group of us, I was pulled to the front of the group, then I was immediately kicked back into the middle by three or four feet. I kicked back at the legs, but then immediately I was kicked in the back of the skull, again and again.

After they had finished throwing me out [of the circle], the riot police were groping me, and groping my butt trying to find my cell phone. They tossed it to the back and I could not find it no matter how hard I looked.

Wei Liulin, a doctor who showed his support for the people occupying the legislature since the beginning, recalls how the police actively interfered with medical workers who had come to help: 

Early this morning, the police broke up the temporary medical station that had been set up across the road from the Executive Yuan, and ordered all of the health care workers stationed there to leave. We resisted, saying that we wanted to keep working, because more people might be injured at any time, but the cops said that we had to leave at once, or else they would make us leave.

Because we were worried for the safety of our colleagues, we left, humiliated. The cops burst into applause, and congratulated themselves on their victory.

I thought of yesterday, how just after we had entered the Executive Yuan, a policeman fell and was injured on the second floor. Immediately, I grabbed the four meter ladder, climbed up, and told people that it was time to go, and people immediately cleared the way to the policeman and allowed me to bring him to a doctor. I cannot understand why on earth the police are so much more cold-blooded toward the people than the people are to them.

At first, I thought that the police attack only represented the frenzied behavior of certain individuals. But when I heard their applause, I realized, that they have all lost their minds. I guess that this is what people mean when they talk about turning bloodthirsty from killing.

“I do not intend to place all the blame on the policemen themselves, because they are just following the orders that they get from this corrupt system,” Wei concludes. “But today, my heart is broken.” 

Over 100 people were injured during the attack; fifty of them were occupiers, the others were policemen who were accidentally injured by their peers. Witness narratives about what is being called “324” or “The 324 Event” have continued to proliferate online. They are driven not only by anger at the government, but with frustration at the monopoly media, who have constantly ignored and distorted existing footage. 

The movement supporters initiated a new campaign, asking memebrs of the public to contribute a small sum to collectively buy an advertisement in Apple Daily, a major Taiwanese newspaper, and the New York Times. They raised 1,500,000 NT dollars ($50,000) in thirty-five minutes to buy an advertisement on the front page of Apple Daily, and 6,330,000 NT dollars (221,000 US dollars) in three hours for the New York Times. More than 3,000 people had contributed to the campaign and most of them didn’t know each other in real life. Apple Daily published the advertisement on March 25. 

Those standing in solidarity also include prominent public figures. Before we published this essay, we received a poem from the filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang dedicated to the protesters on March 24. We would like to conclude with it: 

Truly, it is a dark thing to see students being shoved by the batons and shields of the police,

To hear the shrill cries of their helpless struggle, is piercing. 

Children never beat adult, adults never listen to the voices of children.

Much less the hearts of children, which are so innocent. 

Adults want fame. They want power. In the name of the state and the happiness of the people,

What they satisfy is their own selfishness,

but the happiness that children long for and strive for is not like this,

So they jump on the grown up table,

Shouting, We don’t want to be like you

When we grow up. We don’t want to be like you. How could we?

These are the brave children of Taiwan I see,

Whom I weep for, and feel for, and who make me proud.

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-26T17:32:45Z 2014-03-26T20:53:13Z What Seems To Be the Problem Here? tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-25:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/0e2a9504cc5ec4e6c18124cad5a32c75 by Ruth Curry

This piece is part of our ongoing investigation into Amazon. To read the previous installment in the series, click here.

I’ve worked in book publishing for most of my adult life; currently I run an online bookstore called Emily Books[1] specializing in the kind of women’s writing that’s typically labeled “difficult.” My business partner is my best friend. Most of my other friends and coworkers are also involved, directly or otherwise, in the writing, publication, and sale of books. When we talk about Amazon an uneasy pall falls over the room, as if we’ve invoked a monstrous, evil entity—Pol Pot or Exxon Mobil or King Joffrey Baratheon, the Ill-Born Usurper of Westeros (lifetime Amazon rank of A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin: 14). Amazon’s cutthroat pricing schemes, commanding control of the book marketplace, and experiments with bundling and the publication of original material directly threaten our livelihoods, such as they are. 

If you already think this, there’s not much in The Everything Store, the new business bio on Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, that will surprise or dissuade you. A comprehensive history of Amazon from domain registration to the present, it reports the following: despite extremely selective recruiting standards, working at Amazon sucks; Jeff Bezos is a Horrible Boss; the company’s vision of itself has always been that of a retailer and only more recently a tech company; its association with books is only incidental; and Bezos’s—and by extension Amazon’s—ultimate goal is total market domination in all categories of products around the world. With the advent of 3-D printing, Bezos’s August 2013 acquisition of the Washington Post, and the rollout of a mobile grocery service (Amazon Fresh), Bezos’s achievement of this goal is starting to seem not just possible, but inevitable. 

As an independent bookseller, and as a reader, and as a person, this worries me. On the other hand, I realize that a consumer without a dog—and by “dog” I mean “an unnaturally strong and cherished connection to the written word”—in this particular fight might have no stronger response than a shrug at the prospect of Amazon.com: Total Domination. Most of us, understandably, are more concerned with economics on the personal scale of budgets and paychecks and debt and less interested in economics on the corporate scale of interstate commerce or monopolies or taxable presences. Amazon’s violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of American tax and anti-monopoly laws is abstract; one’s rent, phone bill, spending money, student loan payments, a lot less so. And Amazon is very good at addressing economics on a personal scale: their stuff is cheap and there’s a lot of it. One-click purchasing (which Amazon pioneered), low prices, endless inventory, and incredibly fast shipping have made it a company that reported $61 billion in sales last year and a 60 percent increase in stock value over the first half of 2013. The frequently cited fact that Amazon rarely turns a profit in a given quarter is mostly beside the point: if they didn’t spend so much money on building infrastructure for their future new world order, the company would be plenty profitable. And, as The Everything Store makes clear, Amazon doesn’t have to be profitable to become the only significant retailer doing business in many major product categories. Once it’s done that, prices will go up.  Why would they not? Where one falls on this question, I think, depends on whether or not you think the check for the actual cost of merchandise we've grown accustomed to purchasing at artificially low prices is ever going to be dropped on the metaphorical table, and who's going to have to pony up their Visa.

+ + +

As you may know by now, the world’s largest bookstore did not begin as the twinkle in the eye of a bespectacled book aficionado but as a business plan conceived in the conference rooms of D. E. Shaw, a Wall Street hedge fund, in 1994. The eerily far-sighted package—assembled as a series of potential investment opportunities for D. E. Shaw clients—proposed early versions of services that others went on to launch, including ad-supported email (Gmail!) and online stock and bond trading (E-trade!). The third idea in the business plan was for an online company serving as a middleman between customers and manufacturers worldwide, selling every product in existence—“the everything store,” the hedge fund guys called it. Jeff Bezos, then a 29-year-old VP at Shaw, realized that an actual “everything store” wasn’t possible, not in 1994, at least. Instead, he decided he would have to focus on a single product. Out of a shortlist of potential merchandise including software, office supplies, and CDs, Bezos settled on books. A book was the same whether it was borrowed from the library or purchased from a bookstore or snagged off someone’s front stoop; there were no physical variations demanding an in-person shopping decision. And the vast number of books in print allowed Bezos to sell, not everything, but a lot of one particular kind of thing, which was close enough.

Bezos left D. E. Shaw that year to pursue opening an online bookstore.

Amazon.com went live in July of 1995 and went public in May 1997. One of its early mottos, Stone writes, was “Get Big Fast:”

The bigger the company got, Bezos explained, the lower prices it could exact from [the book wholesalers], and the more distribution capacity it could afford. And the quicker the company grew, the more territory it could capture in what was becoming the race to establish new brands on the digital frontier. 

There’s a fundamental problem with bookselling as a business: put bluntly, it’s that people aren’t really into buying books. Bezos discovered this via a 1998 survey that found most shoppers didn’t use Amazon.com and probably never would, because—well—Americans buy very few books. This is the part of the story where some booksellers, like me and my partner, might begin wishing we had done something else with our lives, but Bezos was unfazed. Instead he turned his attention to other products easily sold via mail, and shortly thereafter Amazon expanded into music and DVDs. 

Through the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Bezos courted investors again and again, and then plowed their money into other startups, like IMDB and Drugstore.com. Most of them failed, but a few didn’t, and Amazon emerged from the dot-com bust chastened but still in business. Those down years forced a retrenchment that resulted in the company’s redesigning its unwieldy distribution network, which allowed it to begin acting as an ecommerce provider for other smaller or less adventurous companies. It continued to expand its product categories, targeting toys and jewelry next. The necessity of developing better search capabilities within the Amazon product catalog and technological bottlenecks within the company led to the development of Amazon Web Services, which sells basic computer infrastructure to third parties. You may know it as “the cloud.” And all the while, Amazon still expanded its physical product categories, into clothes, software, housewares, automotive parts—everything. 

Amazon was only incidentally a bookseller: Bezos liked books because online shoppers didn’t have to try them on or smell or measure them.  In the online world, books were the ultimate widget, nothing more. And yet books somehow remained at the heart of the Amazon enterprise. It was books that showed the company the value of customer reviews, when reviews, from one to five stars, became a kind of alternate center for literary judgment, and a hugely popular aspect of the site. It was books, too, that allowed the company to perfect its recommendation algorithms, as curious customers inadvertently provided huge reams of data by following or not following the “customers who bought this item also bought…” links—data that could be mined, analyzed, and further monetized. It was books that forced Amazon to create its own distribution mechanism, with its famous robotized warehouses (and, soon, distribution drones), because it was clear that outsourcing this work was costly and ineffective. 

But back to that black leatherette envelope, and the possibility of Amazon basically peeing in the nice warm pool they've welcomed us all into, there's Amazon's historic dealings with book publishers to consider. “Back in its earliest days,” Stone writes, “Amazon’s relationship with book publishers was uncomplicated and largely symbiotic… [M]any publishers viewed Amazon as a savior, a desperately needed counterbalance to Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Waterstones in the United Kingdom, all of which were churning out new superstores and using their size and growth to press for steeper discounts on wholesale prices.” The honeymoon period couldn't—and didn't—last. If when Bezos started the company he wanted merely to “Get Big Fast,” by 2004 he was thinking that like Walmart, he’d like to offer “everyday low prices.” This meant, as it does for Walmart, squeezing the suppliers—in this case, publishers. Already selling “a large percentage” of all books in the US, Amazon began to demand more favorable terms from publishers on discounting, billing cycles, and shipping. When a publisher refused the new terms, Amazon removed their books from its personalization and recommendation engines, rendering the books effectively invisible on the site. 

When sales fell by as much as 40 percent on these ‘invisible’ books, most publishers were eager to reopen negotiations. But Amazon’s demands continued to escalate. Publishers didn’t feel like they could refuse. The ultimate kicker was that for every concession to Amazon that resulted in a lower customer price, whether it was on free shipping or a deep discount on the new Harry Potter, there was a physical bookstore somewhere that couldn’t match it and lost a sale. With every lost sale Amazon's market power grew, and the cycle could begin again. 

Now, this was not exactly unprecedented: if you go to your local independent bookstore and ask them to sell your book on terms they can’t accept, they’ll just say ‘no.’ But Amazon is much bigger than your local bookstore, and they were creating the terms as they went along. Finally, there’s something fundamentally different about the online world and the physical one. We all understand the limitations of physical space at the Word bookstore in Greenpoint. But there are no space limitations online, not in the same way. In its quest to sell “everything” (books edition), Amazon had become, in effect, an archival resource, a database of record, a research application. And so its deliberate “disappearing” of books from their site seemed–and was–incredibly sinister.

Then, in 2007, Amazon released the Kindle. The new device was made possible by the relatively recent advent of widespread wireless technology; the development of magnetic e-ink, which made the screen readable without a backlight, and the fact that in the years before, Amazon had leveraged its market power to convince publishers to digitize their back catalogs. When the Kindle launched, publishers didn’t see why an ebook should cost any less than a physical book, and set the price at the same as the hardcover—typically, around $26. With the standard 50 percent discount, this meant the publishers would charge sellers $13. Bezos set the sticker price of most ebooks at $9.99, meaning that every time Amazon sold an ebook, he lost $3. For a while, publishers chuckled, but then they grew frightened. What did Bezos have up his sleeve? Amazon could afford to sell ebooks at a loss, but the availability of a cheaper ebook edition meant publishers lost money on their most profitable format (the hardcover) and small booksellers could not compete at all. Amazon no longer adheres to the $9.99 ebook price point as a rule, but the standard had been set, and the company only grew more powerful as the popularity of the ebook format increased. Holiday 2013 sales of the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle, fell 60.5 percent compared to 2012 holiday sales. Borders—initially one of the Big Bad, along with Waterstones and Barnes & Noble—went out of business in 2011, and Barnes & Noble is expected to follow any day now.

+ + +

You might think that in the face of what is essentially a monopsony, the biggest New York City publishers would be killing themselves trying to find a viable alternative. That is not the case. 

Emily Books, the online feminist bookstore I run with my best friend, was started as an attempt to create a tiny, but serious, competitor to Amazon. To our surprise, the publishers who will talk in private about how much they hate Amazon did not want to do business with us. When I approached the VP of what I'll generously call the "Digital Development" department of one of these publishers about selling one of her books via Emily Books, she was dismissive. She won't do business with retailers who can't offer digital rights protection (DRM), she explained. OK, I said, that software is far too expensive for most independent booksellers, and for Kindle devices, it’s proprietary to Amazon. What sort of non-Amazon branded digital protection would they require? Was there a viable workaround, an alternative? What if we were able to come up with something? As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how stupid they were. Surely such a thing—an Amazon workaround!—would be incredibly, obviously valuable.  Surely many people far smarter and wealthier than me were working day and night on it. Well, the Digital Developer reiterated, acknowledging my gaffe by speaking as if to a very slow child, they would need the software required for a Kindle. Never mind that these arbitrary criteria exclude basically all retailers who are not Amazon, never mind that DRM does little to prevent a determined book pirate, never mind that a real-life retailer was literally asking for her business, money on the table. It’s rare to witness someone line up such a perfect shot to their own foot, unless you work in publishing, I guess.

That was two years ago.  Meanwhile I’ve waited to see what these well-resourced and well-connected publishing insiders were working on to challenge Amazon. Large publishers have websites, of course, but they generally don’t use them to sell books. In 2010, several of the major publishers banded together with Apple (illegally, as the Justice Department later determined) to forge a better pricing arrangement on ebooks; they agreed to settle the resulting lawsuit (Apple went to trial). In 2011, a few of the top publishers got together (legally this time) to fund a website, Bookish.com, that was supposed to offer a “recommendation engine,” feature reviews, and sell books directly to consumers. After two years and several million dollars, the site finally launched to general apathy and was soon sold, for an undisclosed but apparently small sum, to a startup called Zola. 

+ + +

I had a strange feeling when I reached the end of The Everything Store. It’s an impressive piece of investigative reporting, but it also fits the conventions of a corporate biography, like those of Steve Jobs, Lee Iaccoca, and Sam Walton: poor, immigrant, wacky, or otherwise “different” (straight, white) guy rises from humble beginnings through hard work and natural genius to create or dominate the industry of his choice. It’s the American Dream turned up to 11. The difference between this genre and self-help is a fine one: people read them both in order to figure out how to be like “that.” What was the secret, the turning point, the key moment?  As a small business owner and de facto Amazon competitor, I, too, wanted those answers. 

But it turns out the way to build the world’s most successful bookstore has nothing to do with knowing your customers or recommending the “best” books or even making money, and everything to do with developing software, recruiting investors, and hiring a bunch of people who used to work at Walmart. This is not news I can use, but it explains the odd mixture of relief and nihilism I felt. Jeff Bezos both created and dominated the industry of his choice, online retail. His success has all but ensured the failure of anyone else who wants to sell not just books but consumer goods of any kind, and I wonder how many corporate biographies will be possible after this one.

I do not think it is a coincidence that Amazon’s success has corresponded with a significant contraction in the book publishing industry, one marked by mass layoffs, the merger of two major companies, drastically reduced royalties for writers, and a remarkably embarrassing price-fixing lawsuit. What remains to be seen is how Amazon will behave in the other product categories it sells, and eventually in the “everything” that Jeff Bezos has always promised.

1. www.emilybooks.com

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]]> n+1 magazine 2014-03-24T18:46:35Z 2014-03-24T19:08:12Z In Spite of All tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-20:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/1064047a881582bd7d1f7a26f595fa42 by Gil Lawson

Image: Mariel Kon, 2013

László Krasznahorkai. Seiobo There Below. New Directions, 2013.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's new novel, Seiobo There Below, begins with a rush of detail:

Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles, and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; . . . 

That sentence continues for another two pages. But amid the onslaught of description is an echo of another novel's quieter beginning. Beckett's Malone Dies opens with its narrator pronouncing, “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.” Both Krasznahorkai and Beckett begin with a warning: time is moving forward, in spite of all. There is nothing but “this one time and one time only,” and there will be no second chances.

The term “novel” applies only loosely to Krasznahorkai’s recent effort. Seiobo does not have a continuous plot; it is instead comprised of shorter, seemingly unrelated stories. The first of these takes place in Kyoto. A heron stands in a river. It watches the water below, waiting to catch a glimpse of a fish. That’s all. The prey never comes, the heron never moves. But the writing maintains the momentum with which it began. In Krasznahorkai’s long, adjective-dense sentences, the narrator speaks of “unbearable beauty” and “perfect nothingness,” provides context about Kyoto, and describes the history of the river in which the bird stands. Twenty pages are spent on this perfectly still heron. The chapter ends, and the heron still has not moved.

In the following chapter, a Jewish family hires a boy to create illustrated panels depicting the story of the Book of Esther. The boy, an underling of the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, is preternaturally talented. The description of the boy's work is intercut with a retelling of the Book of Esther itself. This chapter ends as suddenly as the first: there is a death, and no further mention is made of the family or their commission. The next chapter opens back in Japan, in the Zengen-Ji temple. The monks are preparing for a ritual that will allow for conservationists to remove a wooden Buddha to Kyoto. The conservationists do so, and the monks perform another ritual. That chapter ends. We are returned to Italy—this time, to Venice. A tourist in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is transfixed by a painting of the Dead Christ with closed eyes. The image so obsesses him that he returns eleven years later to see the painting again. He does so, is stricken with terror, and becomes convinced that he will never leave the Scuola Grande. Once again the chapter ends, and the reader is shunted into the next.

These synopses don't fully communicate the experience of reading Seiobo. For a reader accustomed to a different kind of novel, one in which an author invites his audience into a comfortable space of shared experience and mutual understanding, Krasznahorkai’s opacity can be frustrating. Chapters end abruptly, with no indication of where the next might begin, and the episodic narratives are suffused with a sense of impending cataclysm.Krasznahorkai will focus on one infinitesimal detail for pages on end, or abandon the story's events altogether for diatribes on faith, or time, or death. The effect is dizzying—especially given the writing's density.  In his earlier novels, Kraznahorkai’s style was always characterized by long, obsessive sentences, but in Seiobo they are taken to greater extremes. Nicole Krauss described those sentences as “shifting their center as if under the spell of some as-of-yet undiscovered grammatical physics.” One would certainly be hard-pressed to locate a single nucleus among Seiobo's sentences.

The momentum of Krasznahorkai’s prose forces readers to parse details at a full sprint—and there are a lot of details. Nearly every chapter is  well populated with proper nouns: a Japanese abbot does not simply “pray,”  but 

calls the Lord of the World, the Master Shakyāmuni Buddha, he supplicates the Lord of Faith of the Eastern Realm, Dainichi Nyorai, who is the Tathāgata of crystal light, he supplicates and calls the Lord of Faith of the Western Realm, Amida Buddha, and the Buddha of the World to Come, Maitreya, Miroku Bosatsu, and every Buddha who can penetrate the Realm of Dharma through the air . . . 

In theory, this specificity might aid a reader’s comprehension. In practice, the forward-sliding subjects of Krasznahorkai's attention blur together: it is hard to encounter phrasings like, “He began with Titian, because first of all Cavalcasalle had done so, then Fischel and Berenson decisively, then Suida with doubts, and finally in 1955, Coletti reached the definite conclusion that the creator of the painting was none other than Titian,” and feel entirely confident about what, exactly, is being described. The preponderance of historical figures, artworks, and divine figures is so dense as to produce a learned helplessness in Seiobo’s readers. The intractable complexity of the stories never reveals itself to have been an exercise or a game; it never relaxes into more conventional storytelling. The short-term effect of this is almost sedative: in the face of such furious force, maintained over so many pages, what can the reader do? Submit, or be overcome.

This is hardly the first time Krasznahorkai has spent a novel grinding his readers up against the limits of reality. His earlier works explore the same themes as Seiobo, although to markedly different ends. Satantango (1985) and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) are both set in post-communist Hungary, in modest towns beset by unexpected visitors. Both novels construct closed worlds in which entropy increases, all things tend downward, and any hope is shown to be futile. In Satantango, the characters are suckered out of their money; in Melancholy, the town erupts in disastrous rioting. Time plows onward, increasing rot, aging, rust, chaos, death. Here, Krasznahorkai's long sentences feel like attempts at slowing down the steady encroachment of time, as though that might help prevent any further deterioration.  Of course, there is no success. Everything crumbles eventually. There's something admirable about Krasznahorkai's willingness to write monstrous misery, and the relentless cataloguing of suffering in his earlier works makes for memorable stories. Nonetheless, it's that same intransigence that ultimately limits his early novels: their ceaseless darkness proves anesthetizing when stretched  across hundreds of pages. It’s a technique that is as likely to bore as to horrify.

But in Seiobo, Krasznahorkai's ability to capture the wretched is at its best. Some of the book’s success might be attributable to the novel's unusual form: the constraints of the one-off chapter structure free the author to do more captivating work, as he is relieved of the responsibility to take any plot particularly far. Whereas in Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, Krasznahorkai built towns and described their downfalls, Seiobo has the author beginning with nothing and building up to a hoped-for escape every few dozen pages. And whereas Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance drew moments out as long as possible, as if to arrest the continued movement of time, in Seiobo the author seems to be trying to restart it, and to produce a single moment that represents a break from everything that came before. As the eponymous goddess says:

I had to come from that world where form itself is resplendent; streaming forth it swells, and thus everything is filled by nothingness, I had to descend once more, and again, for I had to break away from the purity of the Heavens, and step into a moment; for nothing ever lasts longer, or even lasts as long as that, and thus so is my submerging below not lasting longer than a single moment, if, yet, so much of everything can fit into one single moment;

Although the goddess Seiobo comes from a paradise of constant, unwavering beauty, she has to “submerge below” to find something that she is lacking. The ephemerality that Krasznahorkai has spent so many books lamenting is here depicted as a positive force that enables the existence of transcendent beauty. The difficulty is in finding that ever-elusive instant.

Either way, time continues, and Seiobo along with it. Its established form is uninterrupted: each story brings its characters toward some enchanting beauty which they may not touch, then breaks off at the last possible moment, leaving us to imagine the result. In a way, Seiobo’s interruptions represent a stylistic pessimism, one that echoes the thematic pessimism of his earlier works: The writing’s long-winded breathlessness and the plots’ and repeated breaking away, make it clear that neither completion, resolution, nor realization are to be found here. But these disturbances provide a sort of coda to the rest of Krasznahorkai’s career, at once affirming and distilling that which came before. He has always dealt in dissatisfaction; here, that inclination is taken to its logical extreme. It is satisfying, though not necessarily in the way that one might hope to be satisfied. The end came, in spite of all.

 

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-21T15:57:14Z 2014-04-04T16:10:49Z "Is the War on Drugs Over?," April 4 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-21:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/8d1cea233dd6f04bccf7975be13d98ea

Is "war" an accurate (or desirable) analogy for shifting US drug policies? If President Reagan's "drug-free America" is unrealistic, where instead might we hope to end up?

A panel discussion with Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Kathleen Frydl, author of Drug Wars in America, 1940–73; Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy; and Hamilton Morris, a research chemist and expert on synthetic and psychedelic drugs. Moderated by journalist Mattathias Schwartz.

6:30 PM, Friday, April 4
Vanderbilt Hall, NYU School of Law
40 Washington Square South

Hosted by n+1 and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law.

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]]> n+1 magazine 2014-03-21T15:34:39Z 2014-03-21T15:35:16Z Everywhere and Nowhere tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-07:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/6e84adcf0fec5edc388b77dbc5d7ebf9 by Olga Tokarczuk

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Image: Josephine Livingstone

This is a newly translated excerpt from the 2008 book Bieguni (Runners).

Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly east, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once? Or to a different law that hasn’t been demonstrated and that we haven’t even thought of yet that says that you can doubly not exist in the same place?  

I think there are a lot of people like me. Who aren’t around, who’ve disappeared. They show up all of a sudden in the arrivals terminal and start to exist when the immigrations officers stamp their passport, or when the polite receptionist at whatever hotel hands over their key. By now they must have become aware of their own instability and dependence upon places, times of day, on language or on a city and its atmosphere. Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness—these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.  

This opinion is shared by the woman offering me herbal tea from a thermos while we both wait for the bus from the train station to the airport; her hands are hennaed in a complex design made less legible by each passing day. Once we’re on the bus, she sets out her theory of time. She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique; no moment can ever be repeated. This idea favors risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things. This is why you’ll never hear them utter words like “futile” or “empty.”  

“Futile effort, empty account,” laughs the woman, placing her painted hand on her head. She says the only way to survive in that sort of extended, linear time is to keep your distance, a kind of dance that consists in approaching and retreating, one step forward, one step back, one step to the left, one to the right—easy enough steps to remember. And the bigger the world gets, the more distance you can dance out this way, immigrating out across seven seas, two languages, an entire faith.  

But I take a different view of time. Every traveler’s time is a lot of times in one, the whole array. It is island time, archipelago of order in an ocean of chaos; it is the time produced by the clocks in train stations, everywhere varying; conventional time, mean time, which no one ought to take too seriously. Hours disappear on an airplane aloft, dawn ensues fast with afternoon and evening already on its heels. The hectic time of big cities you’re in for just a bit, wanting to fall into the clutches of its evening, and the lazy time of uninhabited prairies seen from the air.  

I also think that the world will fit within, into the sulci on the brain, into the pineal gland—it could well be just a lump in the throat, this globe. In fact, you could cough it right up and spit it out.  

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Travel Sizes

These days, any self-respecting drugstore offers its customers a special range of travel-sized toiletries. Some places even set aside whole aisles. Here, one can obtain anything and everything one might want on a trip: shampoo, a tube of liquid soap to wash your underwear in the sink at the hotel, toothbrushes you can fold in half, sunscreen, bugspray, shoe polish wipes (the whole gamut of colors is available), sets of feminine hygiene products, foot cream, hand cream. The defining characteristic of all of these items is their size—they are miniatures, tiny tubes and jarlets, itsy-bitsy bottles the size of one’s thumb: the smallest sewing kit fits three needles, five mini-skeins of different-colored thread, each three meters in length, and two white emergency buttons and a safety pin. Of particular usefulness is the travel-sized hairspray, whose miniature container measures no more than a woman’s palm.

It would appear that the cosmetics industry considers the phenomenon of travel to be a reduced copy of sedentary life, a cute little baby version of the same.

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Mano di Giovanni Baptisto

There is too much world. It would be wiser to reduce it, rather than expanding it, rather than enlarging it. We’d be better off stuffing it back into its little can—a portable panopticon we’d be allowed to peek inside of only on Saturday afternoons, once the work of every day had been done already, once we’d made sure there was clean underwear to wear, shirts ironed out taut over armrests, once the floors had been scrubbed and there was coffeecake cooling in the windowsill. We could peer inside it through a tiny little hole like at the Fotoplastikon in Warsaw, marveling over its every detail.

But I fear it may already be too late.  

We have no choice now but to learn how to endlessly select. How to be like a fellow traveler I once met on a night train who told me that every so often he goes back to the Louvre just to see the one painting he considers to be worthwhile, one of John the Baptist. He just stands there before it, beholding it, gazing up at the saint’s raised finger.

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The Original and the Copy

A guy in the cafeteria of this one museum said that nothing gives him such great satisfaction as being in the presence of an original artwork. He also insisted that the more copies there are in the world, the greater the power of the original becomes, this already originally being almost equivalent to the force of a holy relic. For what is singular is significant, what with the threat of destruction hanging over it as it does. Confirmation of these words came in the form of a nearby cluster of tourists who, with fervent focus, stood worshipping a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Just occasionally, when one of them couldn’t take it anymore, there came the clearly audible click of a camera, sounding like an “amen” spoken in a new, digital language.

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The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures—even the elevator buttons!—are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them—they are accessible to everyone and everything! I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.

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Drowning in Air

In Australia, everyone in the environs would come out onto the seashore when the news was circulated that yet another disoriented whale had run aground. In shifts, people would charitably ladle water over its delicate skin and try and convince it to go home.  Older ladies dressed like hippies would maintain that they knew what they were doing. Apparently all you had to do was say, “Go, go, my brother,” or, if need be, “sister.” And, with your eyes shut tight, transfer some of your energy to it.

All day, little tiny figures would mill about the beach, waiting for high tide: let the water take it back. Attempts would be made to fasten nets to boats and drag it out by force. Yet the great beast would become dead weight, become a body indifferent to living.  It’s no surprise people would begin to say “suicide.” A small group of activists would appear in order to argue that animals ought to be allowed to simply die, if they so wished. Why should the act of suicide be the dubious privilege of mankind?  Maybe the life of every living being has its own set limits, invisible to the eye, and once those have been crossed, that life just runs out, on its own. Let that be taken into consideration for the Declaration of Animal Rights being drafted in Sydney or in Brisbane at just that moment. Dear brothers, we give you the right to choose your death.

Suspicious shamans would come down to the dying whale and perform rituals over it, and amateur photographs would come down, and thrill seekers. A teacher from a village school brought her whole classroom, and then the children drew “The Whale’s Farewell.”

Usually it took several days to die. In that time, the people on the shore became accustomed to the tranquil, magisterial being with its impenetrable will. Someone would name it, usually a human name. The local television station would show up, and the whole country, and the whole world, would take part in the death, thanks to satellite TV. The problem of this individual on the beach would conclude every news broadcast on three continents. Then they’d take the opportunity to talk about global warming and ecology. Scholars would be brought into the studios for debates, and politicians would tack earth-related topics onto their election platforms. Why? The ichthyologists, and the ecologists all gave different answers.

A collapsed echolocation system. Water pollution. A thermonuclear bomb at the bottom of the sea that no country would admit to setting off. Could it not be a decision, à la elephants? Old age? Disenchantment? As was recently discovered, after all, little distinguishes the whale’s brain from the human’s; a whale’s brain even contains certain areas Homo sapiens lacks, in the best, the most developed portion of the frontal lobe.

In the end, the whale would finish dying, and the body would need to be removed from the beach. The crowds would have dispersed by this time—in fact, no one would be left now, except the service people in bright green jackets who would cut the corpse up and load it onto trailers to haul if off somewhere. If there was a cemetery for whales, it would definitely have been there that they took it.

Billy, an orca, drowned in air.

Everyone inconsolable in their grief.

Although sometimes they have actually saved them. In response to the great and dedicated efforts of dozens of volunteers, whales would take deep breaths and head back into the open sea. Their famous fountains could be seen springing joyfully up, and then they would dive down into the depths of the ocean. The crowd would break into applause.

A few weeks later they’d be caught off the coast of Japan, and their gentle, pretty bodies would be turned into dog food.

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Pilgrim’s Makeup

An old friend of mine once told me how he hated traveling alone. His gripe was, when he sees something out of the ordinary, something new and beautiful, he so wants to share it with someone that he becomes deeply unhappy if there’s no one around.

I doubt he would make a good pilgrim.

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Home Is My Hotel

I look around and take each thing in again. I look at it from scratch, like I’d never been here before. I discover details. I am particularly struck by the hotel owners’ attention to the flowers—they’re so big and pretty, with their luminous leaves, and their appropriately moist dirt, and that tetrastigma: impressive. 

What a big bedroom, although the sheets could be better quality, white and well starched linen. Instead they’re the color of faded bark, such that they require neither pressing nor ironing. The library downstairs, though, is actually terrific—it’s actually exactly the kind of stuff I like, and it has everything I would need if I ever had to live here. In fact, I may end up staying longer just because of those books.

And by some strange coincidence I find some clothes in the closet that fit me perfectly, mostly dark colors, which is what I like to wear. They fit me perfectly—that black hoodie, so soft and so comfortable. And—and this is now beginning to be truly incredible—there on the nightstand are my vitamins and the earplugs I always buy. This is really too much. I also like that you never see any of your hosts, that there is no housekeeping staff here in the mornings pounding down your door. That there isn’t anybody wandering around. There’s no reception. I even make my own coffee in the mornings myself, just the way I like it. On the espresso machine, with steamed milk.

Indeed, it is a good hotel with good rates, this one, perhaps a little bit in the middle of nowhere, and a ways away from the main road, which in the winter gets buried in snow, but if one is traveling by car, it doesn’t really matter. You have to get off the highway at the town of S. and go a few kilometers more along a regular road and then turn at G. onto a chestnut-lined avenue that leads to a gravel road. In the winter you have to leave your car by the last hydrant and walk the rest of the way.

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Sarira

A beautiful bald-headed nun in robes the color of bone bends over a tiny reliquary where, on a little satin cushion, there rests what is left of the burned body of an enlightened being. I stand beside her, both of us just at that speck. We are aided in this endeavor by the magnifying glass that is a permanent fixture of the room. 

That whole essence takes the form of this tiny crystal, a little bitty stone barely bigger than a grain of sand. The body of this nun, no doubt, will also be transformed into a grain of sand, in some years; mine—no, mine will be lost: I was never practicing. 

But none of this should make me sad, given the number of sandy deserts and beaches in the world. What if they’re entirely made up of the posthumous essences of the bodies of enlightened beings?

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Among the Maori

the heads of deceased family members are mummified and conserved as objects of mourning. Stages of mummification include steaming, smoking, and coating in oil. Through such treatments, the heads may be maintained in good condition, with their hair, skin, and teeth.

—translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-19T15:48:48Z 2014-03-21T15:48:47Z Cambridge, with Susanna Kaysen and Marco Roth, March 19 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-19:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/73bee2b989be897423011e959d16b397 by

Tonight at McNally Jackson

Best-selling author of Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen reads from her latest autobiographical novel, Cambridge. With Marco Roth, founding editor of +1 and author of The Scientists

Cambridge Reading with Susanna Kaysen and Marco Roth 
8 PM, Wednesday March 19
McNally Jackson, NY 

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Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen reads from her latest autobiographical novel, Cambridge. With Marco Roth.]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-03-18T18:20:44Z 2014-03-24T14:27:27Z N1BReading tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-18:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/1b798dc9b413ebd229a64c063ec05d66 Winter 2014

by The Editors

David Owen's The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning: And Other Adventures in American Enterprise should be way, way more famous than it is. Somebody reissue it. The collection of essays-- published in Harper's and the Atlantic in the 1980s-- is about advertising, market research, how to get people to do what you want them to do. Owen goes to Liverpool with a bunch of Beatles fanatics, attends a convention for convention planners, close-reads trade magazines, explains how divorce rates influence the toy industry. The conceit, in retrospect, is a little flimsy, but it doesn't matter: his essays are among the least tortured journalism I've ever read, and his choice of subject matter—novel, seemingly slight—epitomizes the kind of obsolete intellectual audacity that, for whatever reason, you only ever really come across in out of print books.

Rebecca Mead's new book is really great and I just finished it. Part biography, part memoir, part literary criticism, My Life in Middlemarch explains how a particular novel can forever alter a particular reader's self-perception. Her point is that reading can be a life event, one as memorable and trajectory-diverting as a family trauma or professional success. This is true and not often talked about. That Mead is able to do it without fetishizing "bookishness" or dwelling on her own precocious childhood is all the more impressive—and fun to read as a tacit filleting of so many writers who are unable to resist those bad impulses.

Alice Gregory 

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I finished Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman—her biography of Sylvia Plath—four weeks ago, and it gave me the best kind of vertigo. Malcolm approaches her subject with an almost monastic devotion: as a researcher, she demonstrates the necessary patience to muddle around in the minutiae of her sources, and she scrupulously balances both Hughes’s and Plath’s lives and their work as she reconsiders the art of the biography. For a book born of such single-minded enthusiasm, it is a huge credit to Malcolm that The Silent Woman manages to be brilliant without also being alienating. As I paged through the book, I felt alternately awed by and aligned with Malcolm, like the assistant to a capable and charming boss. And as is the case for a good boss, there’s a control and quiet power to Malcolm, which is best evidenced by the ease with which she parlays peripheral details into useful evidence for her argument. An example: as a way to mark the parallels between Plath’s own troubled self-perception and the grotesque elements of Ariel, Malcolm parses “an extraordinary passage” from Plath’s journals wherein Plath celebrates “the illicit sensuous delight [she] get[s] from picking [her] nose.”

I doubt that Malcolm enjoyed writing The Silent Woman—if nothing else, it’s no fun sifting through licensing agreements from the estate of such a famous poet—and I could guess that she might be frustrated by the way it turned out. For all its precision and diligence, Malcolm’s work is in some way about the inevitable failure that accompanies writers’ attempts to engage impartially with people and their work. “Writing,” Malcolm resolves, “can never be done in a state of desirelessness.” Throughout The Silent Woman, it feels like Malcolm acknowledges that it isn’t desirable to get what you want, that what is interesting is the way we frame our failures. This is why I love The Silent Woman: it encouraged me to not only be careful and thorough in my own work, but to also feel convinced of its worth when it seems most difficult to do so.

Emma Janaskie

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Since No Regrets came out last winter, I have been reading through the contributors' lists of books that changed their lives. Either by accident or unconscious design, I started with three diaristic books about how political and domestic life are bound by writing: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte, and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. All three have left me with a feeling best described as gratitude.

This is not to say they made me feel good. For the two and a half weeks I spent reading The Black Notebooks I found it difficult to get out of bed; the world both in and outside Derricote’s journals—describing her experiences of racism as a black woman who can "pass" for white—left me furious and sad. The most affecting and complex account of racial consciousness in America I have read, it's a powerful book I'm glad I came to late rather than not at all.

Paley and Lessing, meanwhile, are great companions to women on the left; they're funny. More impressively, like Derricotte, they're honest—and not in that expressive, laxative way that contemporary critics have come to call "raw." Their honesty is diligent, but not obsessive; slowly, they confront the ugly feelings of their time, look them up and down, and react without lapsing into protective cynicism. This is difficult, and probably the best gift a writer can give her generation. Though cynicism is a kind of gift, too: there's one passage in The Golden Notebook I especially like in which Anna recalls the self-mocking comrades of her youth: "It is from that period of my life that I know how to watch the jokes people make," she writes. "The anomalies and cynicism of that time were only reflections of what were possible." This seems like a useful and generous way to read the left satire of Mary McCarthy, whom I've come to think of as Paley and Lessing's bitter cousin.

The net effect is that I've started keeping a notebook again. I also feel a renewed obligation to write the truth, and well.

Dayna Tortorici

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Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog, a book of film criticism, started out as a Tumblr, and was originally written publicly and in real time. Like a lot of good blogs, Tupitsyn’s entries sometimes veer into the diaristic, making reference to her life and personal history, and this may be why at their best, her observations about film crystalize into moments of disarming emotional lucidity. Writing about Johnny Depp’s decision to alter his “Winona Forever” tattoo to say “Wino Forever,” after his breakup with Winona Ryder, Tupitsyn says: “In order to break the promise of love—of forever—the addict steps in as the figure of unreliability. Just as melancholy is mourning in advance, the addict is the person whose promise is broken in advance.” Love Dog is filled with these sorts of insights and pronouncements that are unnervingly spot-on, but their intimacy never stops being surprising. Reading this kind of work can feel instructive and also a little bit incriminating, like seeing someone naked by accident. 

In that essay alone, Tupitsyn references Derrida, Freud, and Avital Ronell, all within the space of a paragraph. For her, this is about typical. There are writers for whom this density of influence would seem insecure, like they were loading up on authoritative thinkers in order to hide the weakness of their own ideas. But Tupitsyn is as frank and comfortable inhabiting an intellectual lineage as she is in harnessing it to analyze a teen heartthrob’s tattoos. In Love Dog, there is no self-conscious novelty in combining high and low culture, and no winking deviousness in the proposition that every cultural product is worthy of serious inquiry. Like all good criticism, Tupitsyn’s takes the esoteric or ineffable elements in art and renders them obvious, instinctive. What is so envy-making about her writing is that she does this with such graciousness that she makes it look easy. Love Dog reminded me of what the best critical writing can do for a reader, when she is willing to abandon her presumptions. It made me want to pay better attention. 

Moira Donegan 

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Giacomo Ungaretti was born in Alexandria in 1888. He was raised by a Tuscan mother and a Nubian nurse, and educated in a Swiss School. This cultural millefeuille set up the background for his first lines of poetry. Ungaretti's work is preoccupied with place, and reverberates with an urge to locate his roots. But it is also suffused with a broader feeling of restlessness, of being from everywhere and belonging nowhere. After World War I, Ungaretti's estrangement deepened into a wound; he christened himself “uomo di pena,” a man of pain. 

Ultimately, he was a hermetic poet. In the tradition of the Symbolists and poètes maudits, he chose basic units like syllables, words, and phrases as his tools. Much of his work is composed of short fragments that remind me of Sappho: they are tainted with yearning and anguish, yet are gentle, like murmuring water. As he was leaving Alexandria for Paris in 1912, Ungaretti wrote, “E il mare è cenerino/ trema dolce inquieto/come un piccione”—“and the ocean is ashen/trembles tender agitated/as a pigeon.” Selected Poems is a bilingual edition, and its form encourages readers to read the Italian texts on the left (out loud, if possible), even if they don’t speak the language. In the case of Ungaretti, that becomes an advantage. In an autobiographical note at the end of Selected Poems, Ungaretti quotes Racine, who said, “poetry seduces by means of the music of its words, by means of a secret.” The literal secret of an unknown language will bring the reader closer to Ungaretti’s own point of focus, which is a struggle to embrace the "intimacies of the unspeakable," to transform "the unknown into a sense of the infinite." In our terms, enigmatic declarations seem to translate into empathy. Ungaretti's interest is in the world at large, where everyone has a niche somewhere in-between the lines, and everything varies “by degrees into an endless delicacy of color.”

Katia Zoritch

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With the f-word so much in the air lately, I've returned to Robert Paxton's single-volume masterpiece, The Anatomy of Fascism. Defending a relatively delimited understanding of everyone's favorite political epithet, Paxton nevertheless stresses the collaborative and reactionary character of the 20th-century Italian and German regimes. Collaborative because for all the subsequent focus on charismatic leaders and mass spectacle, it was Hindenburg and King Emmanuel III that appointed de Fuhrer and il Duce respectively. Reactionary because neither decision is comprehensible without the perceived threat of imminent revolution from the left.  

The book is equally compelling for keeping the bar high about which histories qualify: Franco's regime in Spain, for example, is described as authoritarian Catholic rather than Fascist. As for the eternal question "Could it happen here?" Paxton claims that it already has, or almost: the earliest organization to fit his description is the Ku Klux Klan.  

Stephen Squibb 

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I began writing a book last June, and since then I have been progressively less and less able to read. I mean, less able to read books that have no direct bearing on my book. Research reading chugs instrumentally along: I underline, I type up notes, I quote, I cite. I write 500 words every weekday, no exceptions, is the rule. And meanwhile, I’ve read the first 100 pages of Wings of the Dove five times. They’re wonderful pages—I know them nearly by heart. I cannot bring myself to read page 101. I read a couple of books by friends, but they’re my friends. I also read everything by Elena Ferrante, but she’s Elena Ferrante.

What’s going on here? Sometimes I think I am getting stupid and narrow, or that since reading and writing are now, for the first time in my life, something like a job, I’ve developed an aversion to taking work home. But I have also come to believe that reading and writing are more similar experiences than I had previously thought, at least when done well. When reading, as when writing, I feel animated and happy, full of arguments and mental asides and humor, and the prospect of seeing my friends later on at a bar somehow becomes more and less exciting at the same time. When writing, as when reading, I also feel relaxed, easy, competent. “This is what my education was for!” I think to myself. I write for about four hours at a stretch, so what’s going on may just be simple arithmetic, there being only so much time in a day for the mind to inhabit these feelings. The other hours are for eating, doing a job, watching basketball, conversation—you don’t want to push yourself. Still, I’m walking around all the time like, “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably . . .” It’ll be nice to finally know where Henry James was going with that.

Richard Beck

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Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed examines two worlds: the oligopolistic Urras and its anarchist counterpart, Annares. Shevek, the protagonist, believes that Annares has lost its fervor for individual dissent and is failing its commitment to anarchism. In his own gesture of protest, Shevek abandons Annares for a university position in Urras. Once there, however, he discovers that the Urrasti plan to use his research for military purposes. He flees the university, colludes with an underground anarchist sect, and then, under threat of persecution from the Urrasti government, returns to Annares with his faith in anarchism restored. As the ending makes clear, The Dispossessed should read as a reprisal of the anarchist project. But, by tracking Shevek’s negotiations with anarchism and capitalism, The Dispossessed also suggests that anarchism’s practitioners remain ambivalent about its political prospects. Personally, I have never felt a strong attraction to anarchist culture. I see my own experience in co-ops as a tragicomic attempt at some sort of “communitarian” living and, like Shevek, I wonder if the anarchist mindset could ever take a step back and examine its foibles. Process can be beautiful, but it is mostly a drag: conversations degenerate into conversations about conversations and no one reaches any conclusions. The tension between the mess of cooperative decision-making, on the one hand, and the utopian allure of smoothly functioning libertarian ideals on the other, is something I rarely encounter in anarchist literature. It was refreshing to see Le Guin not only acknowledge that tension, but also negotiate it so thoughtfully.

Aaron Braun

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Norma Klein’s My Life as a Body is a book I’ve thought about a lot and have read and reread, at least once a year, since I was 13. And even if you're starting way later than in your teens, I'd recommend you do the same with almost any book by Klein, a writer who died in 1989, when she was only 50, and who, during the 1970s and ‘80s, wrote a slew of YA novels, all now unfortunately out of print (although a new edition of her saucy 1982 novel, Domestic Arrangements, is being reissued by the Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint this August). My Life as a Body tells the story of Augie Lloyd, a smart, awkward high-school senior, and her love affair with Sam Feldman, a rich, handsome wheelchair-bound new student in her Upper West Side private school. I realize this synopsis makes the book sound like real schlock, but trust me when I say it’s totally not. It’s complicated and ambiguous and smart, and it’s actually a good entree into Klein’s work because it includes many of the essential components that make her novels so amazing: a disdainful but self-reflective feminist protagonist; lots of unapologetic intellectual snobbery; pretty explicit, pretty realistic (and pretty hot) sex scenes; a mild hatred or, at the very least, a healthy suspicion of capitalism; and multiple NYC-Jew protagonists: In a word, everything I am currently interested in, have ever been interested in, and will most likely always be interested in.

Naomi Fry

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A few months ago I sat down and read a number of the biographies published in English and Russian about Vladimir Putin. They were all interesting in different ways, but the one that I find myself thinking about right now, as Russian troops occupy Crimea, is Angus Roxburgh's The Strongman: Putin and the Struggle for a New Russia from 2011. Despite the title, the book is not yet another installment in the Putin legend about how he is so big and bad. To the contrary: the book is primarily a diplomatic history of the Putin years, showing how badly Putin wanted to establish good relations with the US. There is a touching moment when he first meets George W. Bush and Bush proceeds to declare, at the press conference afterward, that he has looked into Putin's eyes and seen his soul. "Putin could hardly believe it," Roxburgh writes. "He turned to Bush and said in a quiet, boyish voice in English, 'Thank you, mister . . .'" On September 11, 2001, Putin immediately began thinking how he could help. He canceled military exercises in the Pacific, and it was Putin, against the advice of the hawks in his cabinet, who leaned on his allies in Central Asian states to allow the US to set up bases there for the invasion of Afghanistan.

From that high point, things deteriorated, primarily though not exclusively over the Iraq War--about which, as it turns out, Putin was right. This was followed by the twin traumas, for Putin and Russia, of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, in which Western NGOs played a small but, from the Russian perspective, outsized role. And relations reached their nadir (as of Roxburgh's writing) with the 2008 Russian war with Georgia.

The book is by no means an apologia for Putin: Roxburgh, who ended up working for a Western PR agency that was hired by the Kremlin to improve its image abroad, shows how alternately ignorant, closed-off, and aggressive Putin and his people were. And yet, especially now, when relations have reached a point lower than any since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the book reads as a tragedy. Was there, perhaps, an opportunity for things to have turned out differently? It's possible that the interests of the US and Russia were going to bring about this situation eventually anyway. But still it's strange and sad, now, to read about a time when things looked like they might have gone another way.

Keith Gessen 

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"How does it feel to be a problem?" W. E. B. Du Bois poses this question in the opening paragraph of his 1903 book Souls of Black Folk, a book that provides a personal and historical perspective on race and class. Known as the first black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, Du Bois wrote during a time of black disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and segregation in schools. Published only a few years after the Atlanta Compromise, the book advocated for racial integration and a black educated culture when the prospects for both seemed dim. We follow Du Bois as he travels along the valleys and hills of the Black Belt in the South, staying with families in dilapidated houses and offering lessons for solemn but eager children. Du Bois provides a lesson in history and a moving  portrait of the wretched life that American blacks inherited from slavery. It is a life cast under the “shadow of a Veil,” slipping into a reality as "other." Yet Du Bois is steadfast in his view that blacks are the most American of all, as they have known what it means to struggle for freedom. 

Elisa Wouk Almino

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Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams about a Midwestern literary scholar, is woven out of the disappointments that comprise its protagonist’s life: a failed marriage, emotional estrangement from his daughter, university infighting that hinders his career.

Yet embedded within the narrative is the story of a man who grows to discover a love of literature. Williams’ descriptions of the experience of reading both elucidate and evince the pleasures of literary language; the “minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words” in which Stoner finds joy are re-enacted in Williams’ own perfect fusion of words.

And sentences like this offer an alternative to the novel’s mundane model for human existence. Stoner’s clinical survey of his life is mitigated by Williams’ beautifully-crafted prose: “He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality.”

Stoner is often described as a “quiet” work, and this is true. The life it portrays is unremarkable—failed, even—preserved for posterity only in the pages of Williams’ novel. But its quietness is counterbalanced by the strength and sonority of its language. In Stoner the “assaulting diversion of triviality” becomes the means for writing as exquisite—and valuable—as you will find anywhere.

Rebecca Jacobs 

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Have you ever considered having sex with Jesus? Margery Kempe did, 560 years before "Like a Prayer." One ordinarily presumes that a medieval female mystic would be a quiet sort of virgin. Not Marge: born in the 1370s, she had fourteen children, saw Jesus in her visions regularly, brewed her own beer, and caused a lot of drama, in public, constantly. A literate friend finished copying down Margery’s oral record of her life in 1438, making The Book of Margery Kempe the first autobiography in English. In it, she describes how Christ not only didn’t mind how much sex she had (“oftyntymes have I telde the that I have clene forgove the alle thy synnes”) but in fact loved her so much that “Therfore most I nedys be homly wyth the and lyn in thi bed wyth the.” In the soul, mind you: “take me in the armys of thi sowle and kyssen my mowth, myn hed, and my fete as swetly as thow wylt.” 

Margery would have had a problem with the church if she had framed kissing Jesus as literal, pornographic Biblical fan-fic. But because these eroticized religious experiences took place in the “sowle,” they represented a form of Christian spirituality involving the believer's deepest emotional and physical responses; something that medievalists call "affective piety" (and I might call "shagging"). Rereading Margery’s book, I’m struck anew—both by how conversational her visions were but also how little she cared about irritating people. Margery would wail and flail in public, whenever and wherever the mood seized her. Her fellow pilgrims complained, but our plucky mystic carried on unperturbed. Small wonder: the lady dated the most popular guy in medieval Europe.

Josephine Livingstone 

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Seven years after first dipping in, I’ve swum the length of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (1969). The four hundred some page collection of poems is narrated, the author explains, by “an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry… who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.” Never mind the fractured perspective—“Bah,” as Beckett said, “any old pronoun will do, provided one sees through it”—Henry’s life corresponds in its outward features to Berryman’s, and any reader supposes, fairly or not, that Henry’s bad dreams are more or less Berryman’s. Even so, resort to an alter ego makes sense. How, except by speaking through a mask, could any halfway socialized person say things as frankly distraught as these often are, as aggressively self-pitying or -loathing, or simply as scared, sad, and sorry?

To claim that The Dream Songs form a single long poem, as Berryman did, was less justifiable. A series of semifictional diary entries, the book tells no story except the one common to all diaries, namely the passage of time. Like most volumes of poetry, it hangs together through a consistency of form, style, sensibility. The nature of Berryman’s preoccupations make Henry good company in bad times. Life, friends, is awful. We must not say so. In hours when it feels like that, The Dream Songs’  lurid frankness on the matter is some comfort. I was in the middle of what they call a rough patch when I first read them. Ordinarily I never write of myself in the third person— I swear!—but on the blank last page of my copy I wrote: “He was so unhappy that he could no longer read, except for poetry.” And: “On TV a woman giving an enema to a puppy, for God’s sake.” No John Berryman, he—but you see the need for a certain kind of company.

My devotion to The Dream Songs soon flagged, partly because I was feeling better and partly because many of the poems turn out to be so-so: rhythmical grumbles with one or two good lines, or zero. Then, four years ago, I started the book again, unprompted by any trouble and just wanting a lyrical fix. Inside The Dream Songs is a truly great book, but it does not consist of 385 poems—more like a third or a quarter that many. Maybe sometime, as a public service, I’ll make a list of the Greatest Hits of Henry Pussycat (to give the speaker’s full name). They would show a poet whose blendings of gorgeous Elizabethan diction and deliberate drunktastic solecism turn the gutter of “madness and booze” into a midcentury asylum for a high style that otherwise has no home. The best of The Dream Songs—in another sense, the worst—say nearly unspeakable things in a language nobody else has ever used, or could. Numbers 28, 36, and 384 in particular are inconsolable, and probably unimprovable.

Possession of his gift sometimes cheers Henry. He becomes “Industrious, affable, having brain on fire” (#58). His initiatives to buck himself up can hearten the reader, too: “He said: I’ll work on slow, O slow & fast, / if a letter comes I will answer that letter / & my whole year will be tense with love” (#279). More often, the consolation of these poems is to withhold any. Number 370: “Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I’ve turned / and I know nothing, Henry said aloud.”

Benjamin Kunkel

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The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning: And Other Adventures in American Enterprise should be way, way more famous than it is. Somebody reissue it. The collection of essays -- published in Harper's and the Atlantic in the 1980s-- is about advertising, market research, how to get people to do what you want them to do. Owen goes to Liverpool with a bunch of Beatles fanatics, attends a convention for convention planners, close-reads trade magazines, explains how divorce rates influence the toy industry.]]>
n+1 magazine 2014-03-18T12:00:00Z 2014-03-18T21:33:20Z Fear and Aggression in Florida tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-11:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/5a24f6a8e61226fd09af67c6dcadd9e0 by Elias Rodriques

All the unsubstantiated stories I heard in high school focused on violence. The time someone pulled a knife on BD at the eighth grade dance, and how his boys jumped him afterwards. The time someone pulled a knife on Jackson in the hallway; and how, grabbing the knife-holding-hand in one fist, Jackson punched with the other until blood splattered the ceiling. The time some kids jumped some other kid with a spiked bat outside the library. Were these stories true? I don’t know. But they charged every argument with violent potential and encouraged us to consider hurting one another in advance.

Few of us were native to Palm Coast, Florida. Most of the 75,000 people suspended in that suburban stretch alongside the Atlantic between Jacksonville and Orlando came from elsewhere. When I arrived from New York, the ambient climate of violence surprised me. The local teenage boys, ever the putative aggressors, seemed normal: we played sports, worked restaurants part-time, shamed any outbreak of feminine behavior and chased girls. When it was warm, we surfed. Still, the town had a violent reputation. 

In 2005, the year I started high school, Florida passed a law repealing a defender’s “duty to retreat.” Stand Your Ground sanctified deadly force in any situation where a person felt threatened, not just in their home or on their property. My mother worried about this law as she worried about its predecessor, the Castle Doctrine. A lot of people feel threatened by black males, she argued, even skinny, studious ones. She often warned me against going on another person’s property, assuming that “defenders” would target people like me. According to her, I could lose my life for stepping on the wrong lawn. I believed her.

+ + +

My response was a fear that has never left. I remember wearing my XXL black hoodie for the first time, in the late fall of my freshman year. As I walked to the bus stop in the early morning dark, I imagined my white neighbors peering through their blinds. If they thought this black man in a black hoodie was merely a thief, they might only call the cops. That would be bad, but it would be even more dangerous if they handled the situation themselves. I moved to the middle of the road, took my sweatshirt off, and braved the cold. A white friend later confessed that when I began riding the bus he did not speak to me because my hoodie scared him. In retrospect, I looked boyish, but fear has a way of making dark skin appear older than it is. 

I hated that walk to the bus. For a while I tried carpooling with a friend, but he dropped out of school. After my mom bought a used Dodge, I sometimes rode with her. When gas prices spiked, I didn’t think we could swing the extra trips and returned to my morning walk. Unable to afford another jacket, I again wore my hoodie when frost settled on my neighbors’ lawns.

As we got older, the paranoia sown by Stand Your Ground became a permanent fantasy of provocation. People often said, “I wish so and so would show up to my house.” Showing up would give us an excuse to use any weapon we could. Some days, when the brawny white guy in the back of our bus spouted slurs, I thought, “I wish you would.” Then I pictured him at my house and me unloading a pistol on him. My Florida daydreams featured a house filled with an endless supply of pistols. 

Fear isn’t only a reaction, and Stand Your Ground, like its predecessor the Castle Doctrine, made it rational to err on the side of aggression. This was especially true for my black friends, who encountered hostility the way other people encounter the sun. Worried about being hurt or killed, we endlessly prepared for defense. As teenagers, we bragged about our strength, about how nobody could hurt us, how we would win any fight. Even when we didn’t believe ourselves, we sometimes fooled each other. 

+ + +

On the track team I became friends with Johnson, a self-identified redneck, who helped me to the school bus when my leg cramped at our first practice. He explained the difference between niggers and black people: “See, there’s white trash and regular white folks,” said Johnson, “and there are niggers and black folks. Niggers are just the white trash of black folks.”

A few weeks later, a friend wore a Confederate flag t-shirt to practice. When someone confronted him about it, he said it had nothing to do with slavery. It just represented Southern Pride, but I saw lynching. He couldn’t see why it bothered anyone. The discussion went nowhere. In Flagler Beach and other nearby beaches, you see the Stars and Bars on bikinis.

If the shirts frustrated me, the actual flags terrified me. Occasionally my mother and I would drive through a neighborhood filled with trailers and farmhouses proudly flying Confederate flags. Scared, I always glanced around to see if any cars were tailing us. After all, we were in their neighborhood. Could they claim self-defense because they didn’t recognize us? If we don’t survive does it even matter whether or not our killers are acquitted?

Fears of violence struck most often at night, and especially when I walked home from Jerome’s house. Jerome was white and never worried about walking home from my house. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I stared straight ahead during that half-mile, while the world throbbed in the periphery. Everything looked dangerous. Countless specters smoked cigarettes in their yards, watching me. Every barking dog became a Doberman about to be unleashed. Eyes straight, pace steady, my calves awaited their teeth. 

I plotted escape routes and assured myself that I could outrun anything; I could dash into the nature preserve with the alligators and the snakes. If I needed to hide, I would jump into the gully and lay flat in the sickly yellow-brown gutter water. Worried about leading someone to my house and endangering my mother, I planned my routes in order to lose my pursuer. Unlike my other black friends, who always planned on hopping fences if things went down, I had a rule: never step on someone else’s property.

Sometimes, when I ran home from Jerome’s, my mom would ask why I was out of breath. Embarrassed, I told her I was trying to stay in shape. 

Two white policemen stopped me one night on my walk from Jerome’s. They stepped out of the car. I don’t know if I imagined it—I refused to look—but I thought one of them had his hand poised by the gun on his waist.

“What’re you doing around here?” one asked.

“Going home.”

“This late at night?” 

It was 10 PM on a Saturday.

“Yes sir.”

“Do you live around here?”

I remembered a black friend telling me about the time some cops stopped him on his way home, shoved his face in the ground, and handcuffed him. Maybe tonight was my night. I had been handcuffed without reason before. In Los Angeles in the 80's, the police beat a cousin of mine who was running to catch his school bus.

“Around the block,” I said.

“I’ve never seen you around here,” said the hand by the holster, “and I live just down that street. How long have you lived here?”

Should I just run? It didn’t seem like they were going to let me out of here without a few bruises. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shot in the back.

“About three years, but I don’t get outside much,” I said.

“Where are you coming from?”

I could definitely outrun them. 

“A friend’s house.”

The holster stepped forward and said, “Are you lying to us?”

“No sir.”

This went on for twenty minutes, as they waited for me to contradict myself. During that time, it never once seemed that this law enforcement was my law enforcement, paid for by my taxes, charged with protecting me from criminals. These were not my police. Eventually, they let me go. As they stepped into the car, the one with his hand by his holster said, “You shouldn’t be out this late at night anymore.”

That night, I listened to Tupac’s “Thugz Mansion” for solace. Then I recalled that scene from Boyz N The Hood where the crooked cops stop Tre, the protagonist, and one puts a gun to his neck for no reason. When Tre arrives at his girlfriend’s house, he says, “I’m tired of this shit. I’ll kill all these motherfuckers. ” Then he sobs and swings at nothing, repeating, “I’m sick and fucking tired of this shit. I’m sick of this shit.” After wearing himself out, he sits down, holding his girlfriend and crying.

I hadn’t cried in years, I never felt comfortable punching at people or shadows, and I had nobody to sob with. Callous and cold, I lay in bed, contemplating what would happen if I stayed in the South. 

+ + +

Junior year I fell hard for a thin white girl named Kelly. She’d call you a nigger if you upset her enough. When we became friends, I thought that the bad girl who smoked cigarettes and skipped one in three school days might make an exception for me. 

After she broke up with her boyfriend senior year, I visited her house to work on a school project, sure that a hookup was imminent. As we sat alone on her bed, I recalled Kelly calling a classmate nigger, and then her screaming matches with her ex-boyfriends over the phone. She did have a temper. Did her parents own a gun? I imagined Kelly standing in her driveway and firing at me as I zig-zagged down the street, searching for cover. Even If Kelly missed, her sister, who was in the garage, would not. Kelly said her sister was even more hotheaded than she was. I won’t lie: I found the danger erotic, thrilling even. I’d like to say that fear for my life or revulsion at her racism kept us from kissing, but the truth is I was nervous and wasn’t sure she had feelings for me.

+ + +

Senior year, Marco showed me the Magnum under his seat.

“Just in case anyone fucks with me.” He paused. “Check under your seat.”

 I found a pipe.

“That’s for you, or whoever’s in the seat, in case we get into some shit.”

We were driving to his house to play videogames. 

Marco’s aggression made sense, while my white friends untouched by fear baffled me. One night, a friend suggested ringing the large bell on an unsuspecting neighbor who would emerge and be greeted by a flaming bag of dog shit. As usual, the plan unnerved me more than my white friends. Assuming the cops would pursue me first, I tried to dissuade them; I did not want to get arrested.

“Have you been listening to the I Love Penis Soundtrack?” one friend asked.

When we arrived at the house, I felt short of breath and nauseous. Because I was the fastest runner and because I never stood up for myself, they made me shake the large bell until the ringing hurt my ears. As lights turned on in adjacent houses, we ran away. One friend hopped a fence into a neighbor’s yard while most of us sprinted down the street. If anyone came outside, I was going straight into the woods. 

Running, I was both vulnerable and invincible. At first: the rush of the wind as I outpace everyone; then the image of the police shooting. I would be hit in the back and crawl on hands and knees towards the woods. When we made it back to the car, my friends boast, laughing as if after a heist. I demand to be taken home.

+ + +

Years later, when George Zimmerman kills Trayvon Martin an hour from Palm Coast, I am not surprised. My white friends ask what I would have done. I’ve thought about it. If I was walking alone at night, being trailed by a white man would terrify me. Not wanting to be another victim of self-defense, I would probably run. Maybe I’m faster than Trayvon.

Yet my speed might have flinched before the old fear; a sprint ended by a bullet in my back. Better to carry on normally and let him interrogate me. Who cares if I’m humiliated for a few minutes or even a few hours? And if he beats me, clench my teeth and know that it can’t last forever.

That would be my response, but it isn’t the only one. Marco would have killed Zimmerman immediately and taken his chances in court. I, on the other hand, wait passively for the violence to end. During the trial of Trayvon’s killer, the prosecution attempted to cast Trayvon as a black kid like the one that I was, a studious teen, destined for a good school, just trying to make his way home. Nobody bothered to point out that if Trayvon had attacked his murderer, he would have had the law on his side, that he would have been doing exactly what the Florida legislature told him to, that he was standing his ground. How many other times had policemen or others stopped him for nothing? How much fear can we endure before aggression starts to promise relief? Sometimes I envy those whose first instinct is to attack. By hitting back, they take an active role in shaping their lives. I have chosen fear—or rather, fear chose me—and it has kept me alive, but every time a cop car comes slowly to a stop I wonder if maybe today is my day. 

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-17T12:00:00Z 2014-03-17T17:25:16Z Boise, Idaho tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-11:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/7f6e17c8d2fd43c43822486d6297c2f2 by Ryann Liebenthal

1408

The first thing I noticed was that somebody had finally managed to fill the hole. For more than ten years an empty square pit split open the center of downtown Boise, Idaho, at 8th and Main, just across from the indoor parking garage and the good sushi restaurant. 149 years earlier, the hole had been the Overland Hotel, a popular stop on the Oregon Trail, built the year after Fort Boise became a city. By 2001, when I graduated from Boise High School, the booms and busts of the 1990s had left us with just a mess of concrete and rebar and no structure to hold up. But now there was something going in. A bank or a condo suite or some other horrible thing—but at least it was something. 

It was late March of 2013 and I’d arrived from New York to spend four days at a new Boise music festival. I gazed out the plane window feeling, as I always do when returning to my hometown, as though I were preparing to watch a movie I’ve seen many times before. Getting closer, I could make out the LED glow of the suburbs, little thread-loop culs-de-sac, pools, tract houses. Out at the edges of sight are the foothills that bound the lights of the city; and beyond that is nothing. It always looks the same to me from up here, but I know there are these little changes, like 150,000 or so people who have moved into the area since I left for college twelve years ago. 

+ + +

Boise is in a valley north of the Snake River, stretching west from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which lumber up on the edges of the city, to the eastern border of Oregon. The basin in which the city sits is flat and low with long sight-lines. In the early 19th century, French fur trappers are said to have descended from the surrounding desert and, spotting the verdant banks of a river, shouted with glee: “Les bois! Les bois!” (The woods! The woods!) A Fort Boise was erected, but it soon ran into what its drab historical placard calls “Indian trouble” and was closed in 1854. Eight years later, cast-iron pans plunged into the river’s silty basin turned up little flecks of gold. To secure the ensuing flock of prospectors, the military revived the fort, placing it 40 miles downriver from its predecessor. By 1864 Boise was the capital of Abe Lincoln’s new Idaho Territory. Any remaining natives were eventually removed to Fort Hall, across the state, where their reservation now sits under skies thick with alfalfa and potato pollen, the horizon dotted with farmhouses of a single-level white-brick design I was taught as a girl to associate with Mormons. 

As in many western towns, Boise’s gold rush led to more traditional means of civilization, the Boise River remade into an irrigating and waste-management canal which foamed with the mingled effluvia of potato shavings, beet waste, grease, the rumen of slaughtered cows, and human excrement. In 1890, the year Idaho became a state, the population was 4,000; in 1891 a streetcar traveled from downtown to outlying neighborhoods; the railway came in 1925. Then sprouted industry: Boise Cascade lumber; Albertson’s chain grocery stores; Ore-Ida frozen foods; and the potato-processing plant that paid for Jack “J. R.” Simplot’s flag-marked mansion on the hill, the house the frozen French fry built. Boise was always clean-cut, conservative, conventional. “The ‘beat generation,’ noted local historian Carol Lynn MacGregor in 2003, “did not happen in Boise.” The city is the only metropolis in Idaho, a state conceived of primarily as a growth medium for racist extremists; libertarian nutjobs; the nonironic-hat-wearing degenerates who drive pickups and semis across the flyover imagined cartography of blue-state secessionists; and potatoes. 

Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary, introduced potatoes to Idaho in the 1830s via a Nez Perce tribe in the northern part of the state whom he was trying to civilize with agriculture, and in spite of the high cost of distribution across the undeveloped West, farming cooperatives run by Mormon colonists soon made the tubers a cash crop. A combination of high-desert climate, volcanic soil, and mountain snow pack—which can be harnessed in reservoirs for irrigating—make Idaho an ideal potato clime, and annual revenue from potato farming in Idaho eventually grew to nearly $1 billion. In the early 1940s, the aforementioned J.R. Simplot, a prominent Idaho distributor who began his career as a farmer after dropping out of the eighth grade, patented the potato-freezing process that makes McDonald’s French fries, which his company supplies, possible. Today Idaho is still the United States’s largest producer of potatoes, at an annual output of about 12 billion pounds, which provides about one third of the national supply.

But since the 1970s, Boise has quietly become a Silicon-offshoot tech hub. In 1973, Hewlett-Packard opened a plant in the city, then assigned to that site—which now employs nearly 4,000 people—the development of its LaserJet printer, the company’s most successful product. After that came Micron Technology, the country’s largest manufacturer of computer memory chips, which was incorporated in 1978 in the basement of a Boise dentist’s office. J.R. Simplot fronted the company $1 million, and insisted that the board hold its weekly meetings over breakfast at Elmer’s, a local diner.  At the height of the memory-chip boom, in the early 2000s, Micron employed 10,000 people in Idaho and high tech has become one of the biggest industries in Idaho, a state with a population just over 1.5 million.

Meanwhile, by the late 1970s, Boise had grown from a hamlet of 35,000 to an almost-city of 75,000 existing increasingly in annexed suburbs. By then developers, under the guise of the Boise Redevelopment Agency, had begun eagerly tearing down crumbly old downtown buildings, aiming for the kind of “revitalization” only sophisticated new commercial structures can provide. “If things go on as they are,” wrote the Brooklyn-exiled Boisean L. J. Davis in Harper’s Magazine in 1974, “Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself.” That year the BRA, having already rid Boise of its Chinatown, was considering replacing the rest of downtown’s charming historic core with eight blocks of an 800,000-square-feet self-contained “megastructure” at which 2,444 future Boise families could park their station wagons and shop until the end of time. For reasons that included the fierce resistance of preservationists, the megastructure project was never realized, and in the late 1980s residents instead got the million-square-feet Boise Towne Square mall nine miles away, to which was attached a six-lane freeway. The remnants of its downtown survived, but Boise, like many of its American counterparts, became a sprawl city.

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When I was in high school, Boise had only one cool bar, the Neurolux. Built to Spill, Boise’s only cool band, would sometimes play next door at the Record Exchange—Boise’s only cool record store—for underage kids who couldn’t get into the Neurolux. Down the street were the old headquarters of the only cool radio station, which called itself “Pirate Radio” and aired a lot of grungy alternative music from towns farther north and west. In 1998 the station, renamed "The X," was sold to a national media conglomerate, and the original Pirate studio was taken over by a “gentlemen’s club.” This had happened before. In 1986, the president of Boise State University effectively sold the school’s student-run radio station to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by the early 2000s, Boise’s greater metro population, at about 450,000 and almost doubling every twenty years, had become the biggest in the country without a community radio station. To a certain set of young people, this absence communicated a larger message about culture and belonging: if we wanted anyone to hear what we were thinking, we’d have to go somewhere else. 

In 2001 I left Boise to attend college at a liberal arts school 400 miles west in much-cooler Portland, Oregon. After graduation I moved briefly to France, then returned to Oregon to start my professional life in the low-wage retail industry that butters Portland’s post-collegiate bread. Dismal job prospects aside, to be 23 in Portland, with its bookstores and coffee shops and thrift stores and beer theaters and naked bicycling and people-friendly city planning and cheap everything, meant believing the world was constructed just for you. There had been no making this mistake in Boise, where the hills are speckled with dot-com mansions and suburbs engulf each other in ever-widening circles. And yet, after a while in Portland, something about everything there had started to feel very predictable. So in the summer of 2008, I moved to New York, a city more or less indifferent to its residents, which I kind of liked. 

There I spent three years acquiring a master’s degree and touring the city’s internship circuit. Meanwhile I’d been hearing rumors about a Boise renaissance—new shops, clubs, arts projects. By July of 2011, I hadn't yet found a paying gig, so I flew back to Boise on a lark for my ten-year high-school reunion, expecting my geographic and academic superiority to nurture a sense of self-worth battered by student loan debt and self-inflicted unemployment. But many of the classmates I’d wanted to loathe were, I found myself noting, “doing legitimately cool stuff now.” They weren’t earning a whole lot of money, but they had time and space to make music and art and hang out. An all-ages coffee-house venue had opened downtown, along with a nearby dive bar, and several other new options beyond the few old standbys. And there was a real community radio station again, called Radio Boise, that played an exhilarating mix of music I’d never heard before. Blogs and online music magazines had started earnestly referring to Boise as “the next Portland.” The weather was beautiful—desert heat like an open-air oven. At night, talking to old friends against the burble of backyard irrigation canals, I heard myself utter the phrase “when I move back.” I fell in love. I swam in the river. Two weeks later I was hired to work as a fact-checker at a women’s fitness magazine in New York. I said yes immediately, but my first feeling was grief.

Back in New York I listened nostalgically to Radio Boise through headphones from my office. The station’s playlist has the feel of an astoundingly good public-access TV channel—indie-rock shows followed by programs dedicated to Idaho real estate and interspersed with promos featuring Wayne Coyne (of the Flaming Lips) alliterating Boise with Beyoncé. A Monday morning radio show, “Antler Crafts,” was hosted by Eric Gilbert, a charming young Boise guy who was the frontman for Finn Riggins, a popular Boise band, and had begun devoting his life to the revitalization of Boise’s music scene. Gilbert broadcast mostly indie rock and focused on bands that had been or were coming through town. That fall he also started talking about the “Treefort Music Fest,” which he was organizing. Gilbert was a good evangelist, and I was in a Boise reverie. One morning in early March he hosted Josh Gross, a Boise Weekly writer, in the studio. “People talk about Treefort as this barometer of how the scene is growing,” said Josh, who moved to Boise from Portland several years ago. “It’s like getting called up to the majors.” I decided to go.

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How does a town, a fairly square town, producer of printers and microchips, come to develop a "scene"? In Boise’s case, there has been an interplay of a few factors. In 1998, the city hired a public arts manager and in 2001 passed an ordinance requiring new municipal developments to set aside up to 1.4 percent of their investments to public arts projects. Until then, downtown Boise had precisely five public works of art—one of which was a statue of an assassinated Idaho governor. Now there are nearly 200 more: The revival began in 1999 with the Basque Block, which turned a dilapidated historic cultural site into a pedestrian restaurant hub dotted with artistic representations of the Old Country—Boise is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Basques, descendants of a diaspora of sheepherders who settled here at the turn of the 20th century. There are now also Idaho-historical works, abstract pieces, sound installations, a graffiti wall, and a whole proliferation of painted utility boxes. 

Starting in 2005, Boise also saw the creation of the Linen District, a six-square-block downtown area that was the vision of a then-32-year-old developer named David Hale, who’d arrived in Idaho several years earlier from Portland. He focused on "infill" (redevelopment of property within a radius already reached by municipal services) and conceived of the area as a sort of smaller-town version of Portland’s Pearl District, a downtown warehouse zone that had been converted from its My Own Private Idaho hobo-haunt into a gleaming array of sleek condos, shops, galleries, and breweries. The Linen District development soon added, along with its eponymous centerpiece—an old laundry remade into an arts gallery and events center—a “trailer-park cuisine” restaurant housed in an old tire shop; a visual arts collective (called the Visual Arts Collective); and a retro-chic renovated Travelodge hotel called the Modern, which was reminiscent of Portland’s Jupiter Hotel. In addition to successfully reviving an area of Boise I remember primarily for its parking lots, the Linen District also provided a welcome counterweight to a burgeoning development down the street called BoDo (Boise Downtown) that evidently aimed to cash in on the city’s momentum via a transparently cynical mix of hideous national retail chains and a multiplex cinema.

Finally, though I am somewhat loath to admit it, the Boise renaissance owes at least part of its instantiation to Richard Florida, theorist of the "Creative Class." In 2002 Jeff Abrams, a wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, listened to a radio interview with Florida while driving out on a fly-fishing trip to the Owyhee River. Before moving to Boise, Abrams had lived in Salt Lake City, where the local radio station KRCL was the only thing binding him and people like him to an alternative community. Hearing Florida encourage the local manufacture of a vibrant, creative environment and wondering what he should do with the rest of his life, Abrams had a thought: radio. Six years later, KRBX got its license, and in April 2011 Radio Boise went on the air. As his programming director Abrams hired Wayne Birt, a former producer at KBSU who had quit on-air when the administration co-opted the station and fired most of its student programmers in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, as a kind of protest, Birt (who once rented a room in my childhood home) moved for several years to Bratislava to teach English. “I figured if I was going to be in a cultural wasteland,” he explained to me, “I’d really go for it.” 

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In the fall of 2011, Lori Shandro, a local health-insurance agent, approached Eric Gilbert, the prodigal native, with an idea. For years Shandro and her husband had flown their private airplane to indie-rock shows across the northwest. He’d died in 2009 when his single-engine Cessna crashed into the Sawtooth Mountains. Shandro wanted to find a way to bring the music they’d enjoyed to Boise and suggested building a new local venue; Eric raised the idea to a whole festival.

And so it was that in March 2012, 140 bands from across the country filled out seven downtown venues and an outdoor main stage erected in a hotel overfill parking lot. Expectations were low. Others had tried similar things and nothing had caught, but Gilbert had been strategic. He’d chosen the week after SXSW to lure bands through Boise on their way from Austin to Portland or Seattle. The weather was unseasonably warm. I invited a friend over from Seattle and showed her around town on borrowed bicycles. It was absolutely delightful. Though the festival lost money, it drew about 3,000 people a day, and Shandro wanted to try again. In 2013, Eric and co. recruited 270 bands (the upcoming 2014 festival has booked more than 350), filled eleven venues, and doubled sales; 1,000 early-bird passes, released before the lineup was announced, sold out in seventeen minutes. At the last minute, after an upbeat invitation from the festival’s press coordinator, I decided to go again. 

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This year I’m alone and it’s incredibly cold. On my first day I’m shepherded about town by my mother—I sit in the sun-warm car watching people scurry about their business, and I drift into a sullen adolescent languor. “There’s a feeling, from Ada to Irene,” sings Doug Martsch (of Built to Spill) about the streets of Boise’s North End, a quiet downtown-adjacent neighborhood filled with old Victorian houses and European cars and giant trees lining wide empty boulevards. “There’s something, there’s nothing/ You haven’t seen.” When I was in elementary school, my mother and I lived at the center of this stretch, in a low-income duplex on 14th Street. The year I was born, my dad killed gophers and ran a postal route and made something like $5000. My mom had grown up in L.A.; they’d met in Yellowstone, where he was working for the park, a couple summers before I was born, then divorced a few winters later. My mom worked full-time as a housekeeper until I was fifteen. Now my dad’s a copy-writer, and my mom, a social-worker, finally has health insurance and a retirement account. But neither of them could likely afford to purchase a house in the neighborhood where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. Recently my mom moved to the Bench, an up-and-coming neighborhood a couple miles west of downtown, and my dad resettled in Seattle. But I can still recall the name of every street between Ada and Irene, can see every picket fence and wraparound porch and gravelly alleyway, even feel the shade of the giant old hardwoods—except that actually it’s been too long and now I can’t. 

I do a lot of aimless wandering. On the second morning I duck into Big City Coffee, a café in the Linen District, to warm up. A guy slides in to the table next to mine and knocks off my shoe. His name is Steve. He heard about the festival on KEXP, the Seattle community radio station, and immediately decided to come. He’s staying in the North End with this guy Matt he met via Couchsurfing.org. Originally from Alabama, Matt wound up in Boise at the end of a two-and-a-half-year journey the motivations for which I don’t entirely understand but definitely involve use of the word “fate.” Steve really likes Boise, too. Reminds him of Missoula. Or maybe Austin, another liberal, music-loving capital city. Steve’s tall, attractive, with short blonde hair and a kind of amphetaminized energy. As he gets up, he grabs my foot again, letting his hand trail the length of my calf. I get hit on here. I’d forgotten that.

The next day my mom drives past the new downtown Whole Foods, which looks like every Whole Foods everywhere, and the site of the Trader Joe’s going in next year. I’m reminded how dull this place can feel—pop-up low buildings all the same color, interiors lit by harsh fluorescents, the hills dead and brown, the people beautiful only by accident—ruddy, charming, the kind of beauty you make excuses for. I am entitled to this cruelty, I think, because I am one of them, no matter where I decide to live or for how long. In truth, I’m sad. The romance I’d cultivated the summer before last year’s festival had within months, via Gchat, predictably faded. He has a girlfriend now, and because this town is so small, with that goes the majority of my Boise social circle. The moment I’d failed to seize in 2011, the one in which I got to escape New York and cheaply idle in a new young-person's paradise where I fit in by default, has gone. And without friends, Boise is still—in spite of its supposed coolness—a relatively dreary place to be.

On the third night I run into a high school friend playing pool by himself. I complain to him about New York, how I need to make more money, get out more, date. Three years ago he moved back from Brooklyn—not just to save money and be closer to his family—but also to realize his dream of starting a hard-cider distillery. “Did I tell you I bought a house?” he asks. He just moved in with his girlfriend, who came here from Austin not long ago. “We should have you over for dinner.” 

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In high school, I used to bike home past the hissing, clanking old Meadow Gold dairy plant at the edge of downtown, maneuvering around a collection of semis clumsily T-boning into the street. It’s baffling to me that this thing is still in business. On Sunday morning I pass the plant three or four times on breaks between back-to-back music panels across the street. Attendance is low, no more than a dozen or so at any time. During the first panel, on “The Politics of Music,” a gleamingly handsome local councilman named Ben Quintana politely emits occasional platitudes about the city’s investment in culture, by which he seems to mean business, which doesn’t stop Brett Netson (frequent guitarist for Built to Spill and one-man Boise musical institution) from railing on corporations. “They should pay us just to exist. And in exchange, we display your logo one time and that’s it.” 

The first year’s Treefort festival had all local sponsors, but that year’s festival didn’t come close to breaking even, and this year they’ve taken a few thousand dollars from Whole Foods, a decision Eric Gilbert defends on the merits of the graciousness of the store’s implantation in town. “I talked to a good friend who’s a farmer in Boulder and has been very thankful for how Whole Foods works with her, in terms of buying local foods—and I know they’ve been reaching out to a lot of local folks in buying local produce,” he says. “So it was like, OK, cool, we don’t want it to be the Whole Foods–Treefort Music Fest, but if they want to partner with us in a smallish way, you know, I’m open to it.” 

That afternoon I stop at the festival’s mainstage-adjacent dining area, which is filled with carts offering local foods and craft beers—“the truck scene’s really peaked,” says a guy working an artisanal French-fry cart—and a clothing- and crafts-filled "Bricofort" run by a friend's sister, who moved back from Williamsburg several years ago and recently opened a modish downtown shop called Bricolage. As I continue to amble into the evening, I can hear the echoes of Youth Lagoon, the new up-and-coming Boise band, issuing from the main stage. Trevor Powers, a kid of 23 or 24, is wearing a psychedelic muumuu–like caftan, his vocals so reverbed and woozy that I can’t make out a single word. He became famous in 2011 after Pitchfork "discovered" a few songs he’d uploaded to Bandcamp. I run into my tenth-grade English teacher for the fourth time in four days. “My friend said this was like Beach House,” she says. “And I love Beach House. But that builds to something. This just doesn’t go anywhere.” I shrug my shoulders. I’ve never really listened to this band, not even after I saw a giant promotional banner go up outside the record store near my office in New York. A few of my teacher’s students are crowded around a fake, turret-like treefort at the side of the stage. Styles have changed—a boy wearing a dangly feather earring stands next to his girlfriend, her face covered in a multi-colored pattern of face-paint stripes. It vaguely hurts my feelings that all this exists and I didn’t know about it.

Perhaps Boise is catching the tailwind of whatever pushed people into Portland a decade ago. Or Austin. Or Asheville. Or Seattle in the '90s. Or some other town celebrated in a lifestyle magazine’s top-ten list for its authentic “local culture.” To counter the leveling influence of the Internet and the anonymizing vastness of the foretold mega-city, maybe it just makes sense to stake out physical ground and build manageable little anthills of aesthetic and cultural kinship. In Boise, where the process has been especially painstaking, this still feels pure and exciting and enlivening—like watching your favorite band start to become famous—but I’m afraid of the gold rush, which might as well go by the name Whole Foods, or Pitchfork, or BoDo. And while I had no qualms about participating in Portland’s metamorphosis ten years ago, here the prospect feels like a re-mapping of self. In New York I hold a tiny claim to a seven- by thirteen-foot bedroom and the view of the skyline I can access from my roof. But I still want to believe that in Boise everything belongs to me.

At midnight I head to the Red Room, for TEENS, another band from Boise—by way of Philadelphia, Calgary, and Athens, Georgia. There are two lines out the door. A pudgy blond kid tells a stringy-haired guy to my left about his plans to move either to New York, Philadelphia, or Portland, Maine—"but I’m sure I’ll have fun wherever I go.” We wait for half an hour. I glance down the street, toward a defunct old punk house called the Sotano, which looks perfectly respectable now. My adolescent home, another block up, has new owners too; they’ve sodded over my mom’s garden and staked decorative flags in the doorway. “You know, this place used to be called the Crazy Horse,” says a middle-aged man to a tall, husky boy who looks too young to drink. “Oh. Cool,” says the tall boy.  “And in the ‘80s,” the man continues, describing a place I’d been dragged to many times as a child but since forgotten, “this was Boise’s only punk-band venue.” “Yeah,” the kid says, nodding vacantly. “I’m just here for the weekend.”

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-14T18:49:37Z 2014-03-20T15:02:28Z Get Out, We Have No Customs tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-14:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/46e3bcbb45dd4bdff5fd2f4b23005bb2 On the controversy over Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus

by Nakul Krishna

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Image: Cover art from Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

There are never such things as the “bare facts” of a case, but here’s an attempt to state them. Wendy Doniger, a senior academic at the University of Chicago, wrote The Hindus: An Alternative History, an 800-page book published in the US and India in 2009 by Penguin. The Israeli American scholar David Shulman captured the general tone of qualified praise in both the US and the Indian English-language press when he wrote in his review of the book that “Experts on India and professional historians of South Asia will . . . find something to disagree with on every page.” Still, he found himself  “charmed by Doniger’s scintillating and irreverent prose,” and the historical narrative of “India as seen largely through the eyes of people on the margins of life— . . . women, low castes, tribals, and Dalits (who used to be called Untouchables).”

Many of the book’s early champions in the newspaper review pages were Indians, some practicing Hindus. Critics took up this or that historical claim, argued against this or that textual interpretation, but there was no suggestion that the book, for all the acknowledged irreverence of its style, was in any way offensive.

This soon changed. The Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group many of whose members are first- or second-generation Indian immigrants to the United States, wrote to the president of the Penguin Group to complain about “factual and historical inaccuracies” in the book, which they say had “the potential of being highly offensive to a religious minority in the US.” One Indian expatriate, a historical autodidact, compiled an impressively long—and sometimes tendentious—list of such putative errors, misinterpretations, and derogatory remarks. 

In India, in the meantime, Dinanath Batra, a retired schoolteacher who had spent the last several years in legal battles over the contents of school and university curriculums, sent Penguin India a legal notice declaring himself offended by Doniger’s book. The notice was not a felicitous piece of prose, but the source of Batra’s offense seemed to be Doniger’s treatments of sexual themes in the history of Hinduism and her claims about the lack of doctrinal unity in Hindu practice. Doniger’s book was, the notice said, “a shallow, distorted, and non-serious presentation of Hinduism . . . written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in a poor light. . . . The intent is clearly to ridicule, humiliate, and defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions.” 

The notice was evidently written with the wording of section 295A of the Indian Penal Code in mind, which deals with “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Last month, it emerged that Penguin India had agreed—after defending the book in court for four years—to an out-of-court settlement. The Hindus would cease to be sold in India, and the remaining inventory would be destroyed. 

The affair provoked a voluminous amount of editorializing, particularly in the country’s English-language media, raising broadly two sets of issues. The first took up the obvious liberal questions about freedom of speech; the second had to do with the contents of Doniger’s book and the academic study of Hinduism in the United States more generally. The two questions are logically distinct, but conversations about freedom of speech in India have rarely treated them as such.

These conversations have tended, virtually without exception, to devolve into predictable sessions of whatabouttery: Where were you when the Indian government banned the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in deference to Muslim sentiment? Or when the Bangladeshi feminist novelist Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of the city of Kolkata by threats to her life from an Islamic group? There have been a few dozen other such cases, covering the gamut of Indian ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian communities. Novelists in several languages, scholars, artists, and librarians have all been targets of attack.

The charges of hypocrisy frequently leveled in these conversations have been largely justified where politicians have been concerned. Indian politicians have taken a principled line on freedom of speech in inverse proportion to their dependence on the votes of the aggrieved minority in question. Self-identified liberals in the English-language media and academy have been less vulnerable to the charge, although few of their accusers stay to listen while they present their credentials. 

However consistent their public stance on these cases, they have been faced with a public discourse in which debates over free speech are never debates about free speech. As the political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, whose columns for the Indian Express are a reliable bellwether of liberal opinion, put it, neither the aggrieved Hindus nor Muslims “have an interest in delineating the justifiable contours of what counts as offensive speech. What they have, rather, is an interest in demonstrating their power.” This is right, as far as it goes, but the emphasis on principle over power risks occluding some important facts.

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In Doniger’s case, liberals were quick to denounce those they saw as ban-happy reactionaries. Penguin too stood accused of a craven capitulation to reactionaries and of failing to do their duty by their author in not defending the book all the way to the highest court of appeal. After all, the court had not delivered its verdict, and there was certainly a case to be made for Doniger’s having had no intention to offend. But the ambivalent jurisprudence on free speech in India, with its low bar on evidence for any actual intention to cause offence, cannot have given Penguin’s legal counsel much hope for a favorable verdict. 

Doniger herself joined Penguin in blaming the law. As Penguin’s statement had it, “We believe . . . that the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” Liberal editorializing has been followed by some attempt at addressing 295A itself, and a petition calling for reform to the relevant statutes to protect artists and scholars has been doing the rounds for the last few weeks. There are many reasons to welcome the petition, but just as many to be pessimistic about its potential to change anything. 

Liberalism of the I-disagree-but-defend-your-right-et-cetera kind has its articulate voices in India, but no party political platform. A significant part of India’s middle class, even those of weak religious commitment, have tended to prefer order to liberty, and tend to think the whole business of offense is best avoided by saying nothing that might offend. The preferences of India’s first prime minister, the agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru, for science and technology over the humanities created the conditions for the near-total absence of theology as an academic discipline in Indian universities today. There are still few settings for public debate about religion that are sufficiently sequestered from politics and the threat of violence for such conversations to be anything but risky.

It matters also that the opponents of such liberalism, once we go beyond this particular case, turn out to be not only revanchist Hindus but also a host of organizations claiming to represent Muslim, Christian, and Sikh interests, and also groups standing up for the rights of India’s Dalits, at least some of whom consider themselves Hindus, albeit Hindus with a history of being oppressed by other (“caste”) Hindus. Another Indian free speech martyr in recent memory, to put it loosely, is the sociologist Ashis Nandy—a signatory to the petition calling for reforms to 295A—who faced threats of prosecution under the “Prevention of Atrocities Act” after making remarks at a literary festival to the effect that venality was rife among people from the “backward castes” (Nandy’s point, clumsily made, was that corruption could act as a social leveler in a society in which things are stacked against those of low-caste backgrounds). 

What unites these forms of opposition to free speech is that they rely on a perception of liberty as a threat to something else—such as self-respect or power. The ability to take advantage of a right to free speech is inevitably tied up with existing relations of power, and a mere assertion of the liberal principle can, to those not already convinced of it, sound like an assertion of privilege.

It is a darkly comic fact about Indian politics that the most vocal voices in every community, and not just those in a minority, are convinced they are under siege. It is difficult to see how a principled commitment to liberty can coexist with a siege mentality. Liberals reasonably insist that everyone will be more empowered if free speech is upheld. But this requires everyone to play by the same rules, and history has left Indians disinclined to trust to the good faith of the other players in the game. They have, in consequence, preferred to play spot-the-hypocrite instead.

Critics of specifically Hindu objections to this or that book or artwork have tended to be puzzled about how Hindus—in an overwhelming numerical majority in India—came to see themselves as under siege. But that self-conception has its origins in a long history of real and perceived subjection, and even more in recent attempts by the “Hindu right” to put that history to electoral use. The broad outlines of this history have a Hindu India falling prey to a series of Islamic invaders from central Asia in the medieval period, when the political and cultural freedom of recusant Hindus is severely restricted. The succession of Muslim dynasties is eventually evicted by an equally foreign British colonial regime that is just as inimical to Hindu political interests. Successive postcolonial regimes, dominated by secular liberals beholden to the electoral support of non-Hindu minorities, do nothing to improve the situation.

Not all Hindus take this view of history, and not all who do deduce from it anything of importance for contemporary politics. Yet, this narrative of violence and subjection has played like an ominous throb under the mainstream narrative of Indian history, which has been much concerned to stress a long (and also real) history of peaceful coexistence between India’s religious communities.[1] This has left the study of India’s history, medieval and ancient, a tense business, every scholarly claim about the distant past having the potential to ramify violently in the present. But India suffers also from a more general suspicion about (historical) scholarship that goes back at least as far as the colonial era, when European scholars, many of them Christian missionaries, acquired a de facto authority to interpret Indian texts and practices, often in ways that showed little or no deference to Indian interpretative traditions. 

In the 20th century, the best known example of Indians bristling at a hostile ethnographer has been the case of Mother India, the American writer Katherine Mayo’s influential 1927 polemic against the Indian nationalist movement on the grounds that India—caste-ridden, patriarchal and smelly—was better off under the British. The book is little read today, except as the provocation for one of Gandhi’s most recycled lines: “it is the report of a drain inspector sent out . . . to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains.” 

The pioneering Indian anthropologist M N Srinivas recalls the immediate effect of the book on many Indians’ reception of scholarly attention to their traditions. His discipline was especially vulnerable—what greater insult than to be thought fit subject for anthropology. A late memoir has him being chased out of a middle-class club in Vijaywada in the 1940s “by a fat walking-stick-wielding lawyer who thought I was planning to do a Katherine Mayo on the august culture of the Telugus. I was asking questions about caste, kinship, festivals, fasts, and fairs when the angry lawyer lunged at me and said, ‘get out, we have no customs.’”

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More than enough has been written about the history of “Orientalism” and the relationship between scholarly authority and political power. The question is whether Doniger and other scholars in American academia writing on the history of Hinduism remain, for all their protestations to the contrary, crypto-Orientalists. To be sure, this has nothing at all to do with the objections of Indian liberals to either the wording of Indian statutes or their use against writers and publishers. But as a question of international academic ethics, if it turns out that a liberal interpretation of free speech stacks the decks even more severely against a vulnerable non-white people, then one is tempted to think it so much the worse for liberalism. 

One will encounter some version of this argument in criticism of Doniger from Hindus on the internet. In its most paranoid forms, this has Doniger part of a “cabal” of malicious American academics funded by the Vatican to represent Hinduism as a crazed cult of orgiastic phallus-worship interspersed with bouts of violence against women and “untouchables.” The discovery that Doniger is in fact a secular Jew does nothing to unsettle credence in this particular conspiracy theory.

The writings of Rajiv Malhotra, the Indian American entrepreneur-turned-writer who has been leading the charge against Doniger (and American academia more generally) for almost two decades now, have grown steadily more cautious, except when they exaggerate for rhetorical effect. To sum up a now extensive corpus of polemical writings, Malhotra charges Doniger with using her academic influence to perpetuate readings of Hindu texts based on psychoanalytic interpretative methods that disproportionately stress their sexual content, thus turning this tradition into “stereotyped exotica and erotica, trivializing its rationality and its spiritual truth-claims as fodder for psychoanalysis” to the point that “the tradition is seen as not having anything positive to offer to a serious and rational young person.” (The quotations are from Malhotra’s long, punchy, and uneven 1997 essay, “Wendy’s Child Syndrome.”) The picture of Hinduism a reader will get from Doniger’s books, he says, is simply unrecognizable to the practicing Hindu. 

Malhotra is a suave speaker and his writings range from blunt ad hominem broadsides to more discursive exercises in comparative theology, in which he is self-taught but formidably well read. The more thoughtful persona he displays in his most recent books, both of which have found a mainstream trade publisher, attempts a defense of the essential unity he argues underlies the appearance of irreconcilable diversity in Hindu philosophies and practices, and a robust attack on the notion that “Hinduism” was a 19th-century, part-colonial invention. He denies any direct involvement with political Hinduism in India (though many of his admirers on the internet are wedded to that project). That political project is, to his mind, “too political and reactionary” and committed to a Western-style historicism he rejects. He is not anxious, as some political Hindus are, to prove the historicity of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, and is left cold by the violent conflict over a 16th-century mosque believed to have been built on the ruins of a temple commemorating the birthplace of the epic’s divine hero Rama. 

Part of why his project seems to have few takers among liberals or the broader left is an old discomfort about religion that has its origins in the Kemalist strain in the early history of the Indian republic. This strain has allowed little space in public discourse for a conservative religious voice that is not automatically dismissed as militant. In his constructive moods, Malhotra promises to be a conservative Hindu voice of this sort.

Malhotra’s provocations have not endeared him to Indian liberals, but those that read him will have the unsettling experience of finding many of their cherished heroes—Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and the whole tradition of postcolonialism—ranged against them. Many of Malhotra’s ideas are corollaries of the principles that animated the “identity politics” of American campuses of the 1990s, giving us departments of African American Studies where a large number of faculty were black. But any straightforward attempt to replicate such principles in Hindu studies will run up against the same problems of internal diversity that other such programs face. 

+ + +

In principle, the idea that accounts of religious traditions should be recognizable to adherents of those traditions is a matter of plain decency. But the varieties of Hindu practice are legion, and there is always the question of which Hindus an account should be recognizable to. Doniger herself has not publicly engaged with her conservative critics on the scholarly nitty-gritties, and claims to be rescuing the diversity of Hindu practice, particularly the heterodoxies of Dalits and others, from reductive conservative accounts. This claim might be true, but it has more authority when it comes from members of the heterodox traditions themselves rather than an American academic. But communities of the heterodox are least likely to have English-speaking, middle-class spokespersons with internet connections. As a result, the debate has failed go beyond predictable exchanges between conservative Hindus and their liberal opponents, both camps too homogeneous to speak with authority about the diversity that is the crux of the debate. 

It hardly needs to be said that the debate between Doniger’s defenders and her critics is not a simple argument between Hindus and “anti-Hindus.” Doniger is not “doing a Katherine Mayo”—for one thing, she does not even set out to be a critic of Hinduism, only an opinionated chronicler with a certain (controversial) view of how best to describe its diversity. There are Hindus that see in her a pornographer motivated by malice and bad faith, and others who see in her an imaginative, provocative, and affectionate interlocutor. Her work, a veritable Rorschach blot, has become the site for different sorts of Hindus to contend over alternative visions of their traditions. The contrasting perceptions come from a more basic contrast in visions of what is basic to Hinduism: its apparent diversity or its unity, its narratives or its philosophy, its sensuousness or its intellectualism. This impasse—not the first in Hinduism’s long history of internecine dissension—will not be resolved with argument alone, and certainly not one artificially confined to questions of free speech.

The success of Doniger’s opponents in having her book withdrawn from the Indian market is not a simple triumph of bullying; at least in this case, their means were constitutional ones. Their success is, rather, the product of the slow accrual of power to an emigrant intelligentsia with its fact-checkers and open letters on the one hand, and an Indian vanguard with its legal notices and hurt sentiments on the other. Doniger’s liberal defenders need to confront the fact that her opponents too claim the moral and political high ground. Not for the first time, it looks like liberalism is awkward when confronted with the question of power, at a loss about what to say to those to whom liberty is not the highest value. 

1. There is a cruel irony to be noted in the structural parallels between claims by Dalits of a history of actual and cultural genocide at the hands of caste Hindus and claims by caste Hindus (who seldom self-identify in terms of their caste in these contexts) of a genocide at the hands of Muslims and the British. Both communities compare themselves to European Jews, and their rhetoric borrows a great deal from Zionism. The internet is rife with both kinds of polemical history, and the parallel—along with the recent history of Hindu mobilization on the internet—is one of the subjects of an illuminating monograph by the scholar Rohit Chopra, Technology and Nationalism in India: Cultural Negotiations from Colonialism to Cyberspace.

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]]> n+1 magazine 2014-03-14T15:18:23Z 2014-03-14T15:42:10Z Kunicki, Water (I) tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-07:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/4c1fb63307ef76d492d0d81a454feff1 by Olga Tokarczuk

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Image: Josephine Livingstone

It’s mid-morning, he doesn’t know exactly what the time is—he hasn’t looked at his watch—but he hasn’t been waiting, he doesn’t think, for longer than fifteen minutes. He leans back into his seat and shuts his eyes halfway; the silence is as piercing as a shrill relentless noise. He can’t collect his thoughts. He still hasn’t realized that what it sounds like is an alarm. He moves his seat back from the steering wheel and stretches out his legs. His head is heavy, and it drags his body down with it into the white hot air. He’s not going to move. He’ll just wait.

He must have smoked a cigarette, and maybe even two. After a few minutes he gets out of the car to go and pee into a ditch. He doesn’t think anybody else has gone by, although now he’s not sure. Then he gets back in and takes a big drink of water from a plastic bottle. He’s finally beginning to get impatient. He honks the horn, hard, and the deafening sound precipitates the flash of rage that draws him back down to earth. Deflated, he now sees everything much more clearly, and he gets back out of the car again and sets off after them, imagining absent-mindedly the words he’s about to pronounce: “What the hell have you been doing all this time? What are you thinking?”

It’s an olive grove, bone dry. The grass crunches under his feet. There are wild blackberry bushes in between the gnarled olive trees; new sprouts attempt to slip out onto the path and seize him by the leg. There is trash everywhere: Kleenexes, those disgusting pads, human excrement populated by flies. Other people also stop alongside the road to relieve themselves. They don’t bother to go any farther into the thicket; they’re in a hurry, even here.

There’s no wind. There’s no sun. The motionless white sky looks like the canopy of a tent. It’s muggy, and particles of water jostle up against one another in the air, and everywhere there is the smell of the sea—of electricity, of ozone, of fish. 

Something moves, but not over there amidst the spindly trees—right here, beneath his feet. An enormous black beetle emerges onto the path; palpating the air for a moment with its antennae, it pauses, evidently aware of a human presence. The white sky is reflected in the beetle’s flawless carapace in a milky blot, and for a moment Kunicki feels as though he’s being watched by an odd eye in the ground not belonging to any body, a detached and disinterested eye. Kunicki nudges the earth slightly with the tip of his sandal. The beetle scurries across the narrow path, rustling in the desiccated grass. It disappears into the blackberries. That’s it.

+ + +

 

She had said: “Stop the car.” When he’d stopped, she had gotten out and opened the back door. She’d unfastened their son from his car seat and then taken him by the hand and led him off. Kunicki had had no desire to get out—he’d felt sleepy, tired, although they had only come a couple of miles so far. He’d barely even glanced at them out of the corner of his eye; he hadn’t known he was supposed to be watching. Now he tries to call back up that blurred image, make it sharper, bring it up closer—keep it still. He watches them walk away from him, down the crackling path. He seems to think she’s wearing light-colored linen pants and a black t-shirt. Their son is wearing a tricot tee with an elephant on it, which he actually knows for sure because he was the one who put it on him that morning.

As they walk, they talk to each other, but he can’t hear them: he hadn’t known he was supposed to be listening. Then they vanish into the olive trees. He doesn’t know how long all of this takes, but it’s not long. A quarter of an hour, maybe a little more. He loses track of time. He hadn’t looked at his watch. He hadn’t known he was supposed to keep track of the time. 

He hated when she asked him what he was thinking about. He would always answer “nothing,” but she never believed him. She said you couldn’t not think. She’d grow indignant. But he can—and here Kunicki feels something like satisfaction—not think about anything. He knows how.

+ + +

But then suddenly he stops in the middle of the blackberry brush, stands still, as though his body, straining toward the blackberry rhizome, has inadvertently discovered a new equilibrium point. The quiet is accompanied by flies buzzing and by the roar of his thoughts. For a moment he can see himself from above: a man wearing ordinary cargo pants with a white T-shirt and a little bald spot on the back of his head, among the clumps of the thicket, an intruder, a guest in someone else’s home. A man under fire, dropped into the epicenter of a momentary ceasefire in a battle involving both the blazing sky and the chapped earth. He panics; he would like to hide now, run back to the car, but his body ignores him—he can’t move his foot, can’t force himself back into motion. Can’t force himself to take a step. The links have broken. His foot in its sandal is an anchor that keeps him stuck to the ground. Consciously, trying hard, surprised at himself, he does force it forward again. There is no other way out from that hot, boundless space.

+ + +

They came on August 14. The ferry from Split was full of people—lots of tourists, though mostly locals. The locals carried shopping bags; everything was cheaper on the mainland. Islands spawn parsimony. It was easy to tell the tourists apart, because when the sun began its inevitable descent into the sea, they crossed over to starboard and pointed their cameras at it. The ferry slowly passed by scattered islands, and then it was as though it had emerged into open sea. A disagreeable sensation, a fleeting, frivolous moment of panic.

They had no trouble finding the guesthouse where they were staying, called “Poseidon.” It was owned by a bearded man named Branko wearing a T-shirt with a shell on it. He insisted they be on a first-name basis and patted Kunicki familiarly on the back as he led them through the narrow stone house and up the stairs to their suite, which he showed them proudly. 

The guesthouse was right on the sea. Their suite had two bedrooms and a corner kitchenette with the traditional furnishings, pantries made of laminated fiberboard. Their windows looked out on the beach and then the high seas. There was an agave just blooming at one window—the flower, sitting atop its strong stem, rose triumphantly up above the water.

+ + +

He pulls out a map of the islands and considers the options. She might have gotten disoriented and simply rejoined the road in a different spot. She was probably just standing somewhere else now. Maybe she would even flag down a car and go—where? According to the map, the road drew a winding line across the whole of the island, so that you could travel all the way around without ever getting down to the sea. Which was how they had gone to the town of Vis a few days earlier. 

He puts the map on her seat, on her purse, and starts driving. He goes slowly, looking for them amongst the olive trees. But at some point the landscape changes: the olive grove makes way for rocky wastelands overgrown with dry grass and blackberries. White limestone is bared like giant teeth fallen from the mouth of some wild beast. He turns around after a few kilometers. Now to his right he sees stunningly green vineyards, and within them, every so often, little stone tool sheds, bleak and empty. The best-case scenario was for her to have gotten lost, but what if she had become unwell, her or their son—it’s so stuffy, so hot. Maybe they need urgent care, and instead of doing anything, he’s just driving up and down the road. What an idiot, he thinks—how had he not thought of this before? His heart starts striking sooner. What if she had sunstroke? What if she broke her leg?

He goes back and honks the horn a few times. Two German cars go by. He checks the time; it’s already been about an hour and a half, which means the ferry has gone. White, commanding, it had swallowed up the cars, shut the gate, and set off across the sea. Minute by minute, ever broader tracts of indifferent sea separate them. Kunicki has a sense of foreboding that dries his mouth out, a sense of something that has some connection to the trash by the road, the flies and the human waste. He gets it. They’re gone. They’re both gone. He knows they’re not among the olive trees, and yet he runs down the dry path and calls out for them, knowing they won’t respond.

+ + +

It is the hour of postprandial siestas on the island of Vis, and the little town is almost empty. On the beach, right by the road, there are three women flying a light blue kite. He takes a good look at them once he’s parked. One of them is wearing cream-colored pants stretched skin-tight over her big buttocks.

He finds Branko sitting at a little café, sharing a table with three other men. They’re drinking wormwood liqueur with ice, like whiskey. Branko smiles in surprise when he sees him.

“Did you forget something?” he asks.

They offer him a chair, but he doesn’t sit. He wants to tell them everything in an orderly manner, and he switches over into English while at the same time wondering in some other part of his brain, as though this were a film, what one does in a situation like this. He says they’re gone—Jagoda and his son. He says when, and where. He says he looked and couldn’t find them. Then Branko asks:

“Did you have a fight?”

He says no, which is true. The other two men toss back their liqueur. He wouldn’t mind some of that himself. He can taste it, sweet and sour, on his tongue. Branko slowly takes a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the table. The others get up, as well, reluctantly, as though preparing themselves for a battle—or maybe they’d just rather stay here, in the shade of this awning. They’re all going, but Kunicki insists that they have to let the police know first. Branko hesitates. His black beard is shot through with rays of gray hairs. On his yellow T-shirt, the drawing of the shell and the inscription “Shell” begin to redden.

“Maybe she went down to the water?”

Maybe she did. They come to an agreement: Branko and Kunicki will return to that spot on the road while the other two go to the police station to call down to the town of Vis; Branko explains that Komiža itself has only one policeman. Glasses holding melting ice still stand on the table.

+ + +

Kunicki has no trouble recognizing the place where they’d pulled off, where he had been parked before. It feels like ages ago. Time is passing differently, thick and acrid, sequenced. The sun appears from behind the white clouds, and suddenly it is hot.

“Honk,” says Branko, and Kunicki applies pressure to the horn.

The sound is long, mournful, like the voice of an animal. Then it stops, shattered into cicadas’ small echoes. 

They move through the olive brush, bellowing out from time to time. They don’t run into one another again until the vineyard, and then after a brief talk they decide to inspect that entire area. They scour rows half in shadow, calling out for the missing woman: “Jagoda, Jagoda!” It occurs to Kunicki that his wife’s name means “berry” in their native Polish. It is such a common name that he had forgotten about that until now. Suddenly it seems to him that he is taking part in some sort of ancient ritual, blurry, grotesque. From the bushes there hang grapes in swollen, deep violet bunches, perverse, multiplied nipples, and he wanders the leafy labyrinths, shouting, “Jagoda, Jagoda.” Who is he saying that to? Who is he looking for?

He has to stop for a second. He has a stitch in his side. He doubles over between the rows of plants. He buries his head in the shadowy cool, Branko’s voice muffled by the foliage till finally falling silent, and now Kunicki can hear the flies buzzing—quiet’s familiar warp.

Past the vineyard there’s another, separated from this one by just a narrow path. They stop, and Branko calls someone on his cell phone. He repeats the words “wife” and “child” in Croatian—those are the only words that sound enough like Polish for Kunicki to be able to understand. The sun grows orange; great, swollen, it weakens before their eyes. Soon they’ll be able to look at it directly. The vineyards, meanwhile, take on an intensely dark green color. Two small human figures stand helplessly in that green-striped sea.

+ + +

By dusk, there are already some cars and a small cluster of men on the road. Kunicki is sitting in a car that has “Police” written on it, and with Branko’s help, he responds to the haphazard—it seems to him—questions he is being asked by a big sweaty cop. He tries to speak simple English: “We stopped. She went out with child. They went right, here”—he points—“and then I waited, we can say, fifteen minutes. Then I decide go and look for them. I can’t find them. I don’t know what have happen.” He is given lukewarm mineral water, which he drinks in desperate gulps. “They are lost.” And then he adds again: “lost.” The officer dials somebody on his cell phone. “It is impossible to be lost here, my friend,” he tells him while he waits for them to pick up. Kunicki is struck by that “my friend.” The officer’s walkie-talkie says something. It is another hour before that uneven pedestrian brigade sets out for island’s heart.

In that time, the puffy sun sinks down around the vineyards, and by the time they’ve gotten all the way to the top, it’s already reached the sea. They are unwitting witnesses to the operatic drawing out of its setting. In the end, people switch on their flashlights. In the dark, now, they climb down the island’s steep shore, which is full of little inlets, two of which they check, each having little stone houses inhabited by the more eccentric tourists who don’t like hotels and prefer to pay more to not have running water or electricity. People use stone stoves to cook or bring gas tanks with them. They catch fish, which travel straight from the sea to the grill. No, no one has seen a woman with a child. They’re about to eat dinner—making their way to the table are bread, cheeses, olives, and the poor fish who only this afternoon had been fully absorbed in their mindless exercises in the sea. Every so often Branko calls the hotel in Komiža—at Kunicki’s request, since he figures perhaps she got lost but ended up getting back by a different route. But Branko just pats him on the back after each call.

Around midnight the pack of men disbands. Among them are the two Kunicki had seen at Branko’s table in Komiža. Now, as they take their leave, they introduce themselves: Drago and Roman. They walk together to the car. Kunicki is grateful to them for the help, he doesn’t know how to show it, he’s forgotten how to say “thank you” in Croatian; it must be similar to the Polish “dziękuję,” something like “dyakuyu” or “dyakuye,” but he doesn’t know. With just a little bit of effort they ought to actually be able to work up some sort of Slavic koiné, a set of similar Slavic words that would come in handy and that you could use on their own, without grammar, instead of falling back into that stiff, simplified English they always used instead.

That night a boat comes up by his house. They have to evacuate—there’s a flood. The water has already reached the second stories of some buildings. In the kitchen it forces its way in through the joints between the tiles on the floor, flowing out in warm streams from the electrical outlets. Books bulge with moisture. He opens up one and sees that the letters run off like makeup, leaving empty, blurry pages. Then he realizes that everyone else has gone already, taken by an earlier boat, and that he is the only one left.

In his sleep he hears drops of water trickling lazily down from the sky, about to become a violent, short-lived downpour.

—translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-13T17:55:13Z 2014-03-13T17:55:13Z Hartford, Connecticut tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-11:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/d9acbbfd01305ed8abf08726248b7fd0 by Freddie deBoer

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The polite description of Hartford, Connecticut, relies on statistics. It is one of the poorest places in the United States, the fourth poorest city in the country, with a population of more than 100,000. One out of every three residents lives below the poverty line. The median household income is less than half that of the national figure. Charting the historical immigration of Puerto Ricans and the emigration of white people—and their money—produces an obvious symmetry. But there are simpler, more accurate descriptions. In Hartford, black people live in the North End and Puerto Ricans live on Park Street. That’s Hartford. That’s what you hear from dedicated organizers. I first heard it from an old member of the Vets for Peace, a longtime resident and community fixture. It’s the truth, but like most things about most cities, you don’t feel like you have a right to it unless you’ve lived there forever. 

You can get from Park Street to the North End by heading north on Hartford’s Main Street. This is the in-between. Most of the time, it feels evacuated, and, after the clarity of its racial divide, this emptiness is the second most legible thing about Hartford. Walking up Main, you pass Barnaby Park—its official name—but everybody knows it as Crackhead Park. This part of town has a lot of residual charm. They redid the library, and the Wadsworth Athenaeum is the oldest public art museum in the United States. 

The shade of huge office buildings covers the street. Presumably there are people inside, but they never come out. It is difficult to articulate how empty the center of the city can feel even when the insurance buildings are stuffed with people. And when these employees leave, they vanish. People who work in Harford don’t so much commute as escape: there is no weekend on Main Street. Even the Dunkin’ Donuts closes early on Fridays. The little café on the ground floor of my old building, right on Main Street, was open 10 AM–3 PM, Monday through Thursday. The rent, for my two-bedroom in the heart of the city’s downtown, was $525 a month. Across the street was a greasy spoon run by an old Polish lady and nobody else. I got used to getting my own milk from the refrigerator.

So it’s not simply that the Puerto Ricans live on Pearl Street and the black people in the North End: it’s the corridor of nothing that stands between them, and five days out of seven, the white people ten stories up. But this is consistent with the spirit of the state. Aside from a few college towns—New Haven, New London, New Britain, “New” as in England, new as in no old money—where there’s some real diversity, Connecticut is a sea of comfortable whiteness with afflicted pockets of brown. Segregation has seeped into its spirit: the official line is that the Frog Hollow neighborhood of Hartford was named for a nearby swamp, but locally it signifies the French people who lived there, back when there were whites enough for this sort of distinction to scan. 

When you drive into town from I-91, you’re greeted by the scenic Colt Armory, built by Samuel Colt, one of the great arms merchants in American history. Not the functioning factory, of course—that’s a few miles away, though still in the city—but the old one, a big brown building with a blue dome on top sporting a cute little gold horse. It’s been subject to one of those endless reclamation projects that is an industry unto itself. When I was a kid I liked the horse; now I think it’s indicative of Yankee honesty, putting our arms-merchant reality front and center when you enter the capital. 

Maybe our most purely liberal state—in contrast to the pugnacious progressivism of Massachusetts and the unpasteurized ecosocialism of Vermont—Connecticut, which Obama won by 18 percent the second time—is home to a thriving defense industry. Submarines are built in Groton, Blackhawk helicopters in Stratford, jet engines in Middletown. Colt’s still got that factory in Hartford, although I’m told business isn’t great. It used to provide those solid blue-collar union jobs that get talked about like some sort of rare bird; nobody’s seen one lately, but everybody’s uncle had one or knew a guy who had one. People have an affinity for graveyards; my local library once organized a tour of old factories of Connecticut. The Colt factory was UAW, who went on strike for five years in the ’80s. When all was said and done, they took part ownership of the company, but they never got the wages they wanted. But it’s still open, people still go to work there, churning out guns for the insatiable American appetite. The AR-15 rifle was born in Hartford, and Hartford still makes them, though not, it’s true, the one that Adam Lanza used to kill twenty girls and boys and six teachers an hour to the southwest. 

When I lived in Hartford, the city had hung little green signs that called Hartford “New England’s Rising Star.” Things seemed like they might really be rising when we got Eddie—always just “Eddie”—a politician straight from central casting. He had a shameless, shit-eating charm: you knew he was a huckster and you didn’t care. He had the politician’s gift of speaking your language while also not appearing to understand it, which helps, later on, to make deniability plausible. I’d see Eddie at some random meeting, high on some idea two miles to the left of what American politics would permit, and everybody would let it go. It was Eddie. When a city is as hollowed out as Hartford, everybody loosens up a little bit. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops with copies of I, Rigoberta Menchú for sale on a card table, collecting dust alongside communist periodicals. It was in one such shop where a Puerto Rican separatist, ancient and intoxicated, taught me the words to the Internationale. It was permissible, in such a context, to believe in someone like Eddie.

One day you’d see him at collective action events with good food and bad music, places where FBI stood for “For Boricua Independence.” The next day, he’d be cutting ribbon at one of the terminally delayed redevelopment projects, surrounded by executives and glad-handers smiling beatific smiles. He sold himself as a real reformer, the first Hispanic mayor of a half-Hispanic city. He talked about ambitious projects; he embodied civic pride. People accepted the contradictions because they had nothing else. 

But then Eddie left in handcuffs. They said his palm wasn’t just open to nonprofits and developers, and that’s Hartford, too.

The advantage of being a broken city is that ambitious people are always trying to fix you. It helps to be the capital. Urban renewal types are shameable that way. The science museum was designed by César Pelli and runs off of fuel cells. The convention center is a weird spaceship landed in the middle of blight. People work there. They have events. I’d rather have these places than not have them; they just don’t form anything like a coherent narrative of renewal. Occasionally you’d hear smart, committed people talking about moving to the new economy, about getting a little Palo Alto going on the riverside, always the riverside. It’s such a comprehensively deluded idea, so poignant in its essential fantasy, that contradicting it feels cruel. But why, in a hundred years, would any tech company set up shop in Hartford, Connecticut? And what difference would it make, if they aren’t paying taxes and all the workers scramble to get to the suburbs at the end of every day?

Not that there isn’t an economy here. On the contrary: Hartford, for all of its abundant need, is annually near the top in “total economic activity,” whatever that means. A lot of money is made in insurance, that old Hartford staple. (The Boston Globe once called Hartford “America’s Filing Cabinet.”) More and more, though, it’s not merely insurance but finance, or “financials.” Every friend who stuck around after college works for one of the big companies with impressive buildings (Aetna’s headquarters is something of a classic) who offer a whole range of services that are increasingly difficult to parse. They move money, from one pile to another, and somehow there’s more, and it’s all for Greenwich and none for Hartford.

None of that money stays in town. When you’re a small city, you’re constantly handing out tax breaks to lure companies, for fear they’ll pick up and move, taking the taxes they don’t pay with them. ING, the $100 billion financial company, partially raised stakes when it moved from Hartford to the nearby Windsor area, which offers access to the airport, scenic tobacco farming, and white people. Many feared that other big companies would follow. But since nobody who worked for ING lived in the city or ate in the city or raised their kids in the city, nothing was lost. 

Most of the young professionals who now work in Hartford never lived there, so they can’t be accused of fleeing. There’s very little to recommend it, whether you’re young and hip or you’re looking for stability and childrearing. To live in Hartford you have to be something of a nostalgist, a romantic, or someone looking for unironic left-wing politics, not someone who’s going to worry about leaving your car on the street. You can’t be in search of restaurants that are open on a Sunday. There is no burgeoning art scene or burgeoning anything. The truth is that you can get the “authenticity” of poverty and blight in many other places while still getting a generation of young artists and dreamers looking to get published or recognized or stoned or fucked or each of these simultaneously. I wanted to believe, for a little while, in a Hartford scene, and maybe I just wasn’t cool enough. But even most of the activists left meetings and headed for the highway. For the yuppie types, this goes without saying. The narcissism of parenting is getting to abandon any pretense of caring for places “when it’s for my kid”—that sort of attitude was made for cities like Hartford. Better opportunities abound, for hipsters and yuppies and all types in between, and thanks to the geography of the northeastern United States, many of them are only a couple hours’ drive away. So far from God, so close to New York and Boston.

I love Hartford. I loved it in the abstract growing up twenty minutes to the south and loved it concretely in the four years or so I lived there. I miss Hartford now. I would love to tell you I believe in its resurrection. Hartford’s failings aren’t the fault of it or its people or even its government. They’re the product of our system, of our people. Hartford is the ugly little truth that stomps around in the brain of the American people, the perfect inversion of Silicon Valley, a place with almost 400 years of history and no future. It is ten years younger than Boston, but nobody takes guided tours of its cobblestone. Technically in the middle of a megalopolis, you can stand in Hartford’s center and feel utterly alone. 

I have tried, at times, to list its virtues in that cheap lyric way—Bushnell Park, and its lovely carousel; that one churrascaria; the Athenaeum, and its painting of the Lady of Shallot, red hair flying everywhere; those self-same coffee shops; chorizo and rice, plantains and parcha; the Half Door; the rose garden in Elizabeth Park; real racial diversity, in a state that has a tendency to carve out new towns and cities to keep its races separate. But Hartford doesn’t need the cheap romanticism of a carpetbagger. Hartford needs help.

The plight of the failing American city is not getting the money. Hartford has business in spades. The plight is how to get money to stay. Hartford may be a powerhouse of the financial sector, but on the street, there is nowhere to buy a cup of coffee. So much capitalism; such little capital. The last time the city really worked, Mark Twain lived there. Fixing all of it won’t come from building shops near the water nor giving another tax incentive to another company looking for a cheap place to stash a building. If that stuff worked, it would have worked a long time ago. 

When I was in high school, in Middletown, I rowed on the crew team. I liked the water, and the boathouse was a respite when I did not want to go home, which was often. We had visitors one day. Hartford Public High was considering making crew a varsity sport.They bussed students down to our boathouse to watch. This was when the district was most afraid of losing their accreditation, leaving a whole school full of kids unable to apply to college or join the military. The school had been in session for 140 years longer than America has been a country, but there was no comfort in that pedigree, no percentage in nostalgia. 

The thinking, I guess, was that Middletown, an “urban” school district with a percentage of black students proximate the national average, would feel more welcoming than the average white and affluent team. But crew was not a minority draw. No more than a couple of Hispanic kids and no black ones. But then, exposing the Hartford Public High School Crew Club to the realities of a sport dominated by private academies named after English churches made strategic sense. Not that they would have heard slurs: old New England money dislikes racism the way it dislikes loud house paint or flashy Japanese cars; not because it’s wrong, but because it’s gauche. Instead: those silent looks, that air of generous patience. 

So we rode our boat, as the other students watched us awkwardly from the embankment. Ours was a pure incomprehension. Hartford and its children were a lifetime away. I knew only that they were poor and that their school was poor and their city was poor, and that when that poverty came up, the grownups around me would clench in a defensive silence. People were never unkind. They were just as distant as our tiny little state allowed them to be.

One of the coaches suggested we could talk to them later, tell them how it was. You know. Connect. But when we got off the water, they were already boarding the bus, heading home

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n+1 magazine 2014-03-12T16:23:02Z 2014-03-21T16:02:31Z MFA vs. NYC panel discussion, March 19 tag:nplusonemag.com,2014-03-12:9e073a88e006c685df58a19bebef2af5/441eaadcfdd34c43d2ea32d1100331ab by

Panel discussion with contributors to MFA vs. NYC at the New School on March 19.

In a widely read essay entitled “MFA vs NYC,” bestselling novelist Chad Harbach argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. The book MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them. This panel discussion assembles a handful of contributors to discuss the book and the subject at large.

Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them was published in 2010. From 2010–2013, Elif was Writer in Residence at Koc University in Istanbul, where she taught a nonfiction writing workshop. She is currently a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

Eric Bennett's book on creative writing programs and the cold war is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space. He lives in Rhode Island and teaches at Providence College.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, which is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is currently the visiting writer at the University of Texas-Austin's New Writers' Project and is based in New York.

Chad Harbach is the author of The Art of Fielding and the editor of MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. He is also a cofounder and coeditor of n+1.

Moderated by Luis Jaramillo, Interim Director, School of Writing. 

Sponsored by the School of Writing and n+1.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 at 6:30 PM.

Klein Conference Room (Room A510), Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall

Cost: $5; free to all students and New School faculty, staff, and alumni with ID

 

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MFA vs. NYC at the New School on March 19.]]>