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‘We Told You So’: Revisiting the Bleak, Pandemic-Filled World of 12 Monkeys, 25 Years Later

Bruce Willis as Cole, the time-traveling protagonist in 12 Monkeys. Universal Pictures.

Director Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science-fiction film, 12 Monkeys, presented a desolate future in which a virus exterminates most of the world’s population and forces survivors to live underground. James Cole, the movie’s protagonist and a prisoner in this subterranean civilization in 2035, is sent back in time — to the 1990s — to find the original virus and bring it back to scientists in the future to develop a cure.

In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people stuck at home during lockdown turned to movies about fictional pandemics, including Gilliam’s surreal, chilling vision, which was brought to life by its three big stars — Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. And 25 years on, as producer Charles Roven tells Eric Ducker in The Ringer, the movie “holds up really well.”

In this complete history of the making of 12 Monkeys, Ducker talks with Gilliam, its screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, and others who worked on the film.

The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”

In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind.

“We told you so,” Gilliam says.

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What Happened to Cruise Ship Workers Once the Passengers Were Gone?

Photo of the Carnival Breeze by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines via Getty Images

CW: suicide

Last year’s investigations into the COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships at the start of the pandemic, including Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess and Holland America’s MS Zaandam, revealed horrific vacations gone wrong for passengers from around the world. But what happened to the tens of thousands of crew members who remained trapped on ships even after all the guests had disembarked and found their way home?

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Austin Carr tells the devastating stories of cruise line employees found dead — in apparent suicides — aboard Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships, including Jozsef Szaller, a shore excursion manager from Hungary on the Carnival Breeze, and Mariah Jocson, a waitress from the Philippines on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.

Interviews with affected crew members and their families suggest that despite assurances from cruise operators that crew were well cared for, their mental health was at times an afterthought. An October 2019 study on the mental well-being of crew, commissioned by a group affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the big maritime trade union, found that even before the pandemic about a fifth of mariners surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts. High levels of depression stem from the jobs’ long contract lengths and stressful demands.

On April 29, an electrical engineer from Poland on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas disappeared while the ship was anchored in the Saronic Gulf, south of Athens. Ship security cameras captured him leaping into the water that morning, according to Greek authorities. Two weeks later, on May 10, Evgenia Pankrushyna, a waitress from Ukraine, died after jumping overboard from Carnival’s Regal Princess near Rotterdam. Around this time a Chinese contractor was found dead on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. A crew member aboard the ship says many believed it was another suicide, though the company said he’d died of natural causes. Next was a Filipino cook, Kennex Bundaon, who was found dead in his cabin on Carnival’s AIDAblu. Four days later, another worker from the Philippines died in an apparent suicide on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady.

The details of the deaths of Szaller and Jocson are still not clear, even to their families, who are “desperate for closure.” In Szaller’s case, Carnival has refused to discuss the specific circumstances of his death with his parents, while the father of Jocson, the Royal Caribbean employee, says that his daughter had never shown signs of depression and kept telling him that she wanted to go home. He just wants to know the truth about her death.

It wasn’t just the claustrophobic environment that was distressing. Workers say cruise companies constantly changed repatriation schedules, offering only vague guidance on when or how they’d return home. Without customers on board, Carnival moved many contractors off duty, meaning they could sort of enjoy the amenities of the ocean liners. But that also meant their salaries were eventually cut off—a scary situation for those supporting families on land. The weeks dragged on with limited entertainment options. Internet access was complimentary on some boats, but it could be painfully slow or strong enough only for social media and texting.

Vilmos says communications with Carnival broke down soon after. As the Szallers tried to organize the retrieval of their son’s body, including figuring out which jurisdiction would have to declare him legally deceased, they began to see the cruise company as having had a role in their son’s death. Its labyrinthine corporate structure—a web of international entities designed to lower Carnival’s tax liability—compounded their grief.

Even now, the Szallers have been unable to have Jozsef declared legally deceased. Vilmos says the coroner’s report should move things forward, but it’s been frustrating enough coordinating with U.K. authorities on behalf of his son, a Hungarian citizen. And that’s not even half the headache. As Vilmos frames it, how do you officially process a death that occurred in international waters, on a ship registered in Panama, that’s owned by a company operating in the U.S.?

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‘Almost Home’: On Place, Legacy, Growing Up in Atlanta, and Symbols of White Supremacy

The largest confederate memorial in America is carved out of rock in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The site is linked to many Klu Klux Klan gatherings and the state of Georgia's resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the '50s and '60s. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In “Almost Home,” an essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pete Candler reflects on growing up in Atlanta, and the symbols of white supremacy in his hometown.

It certainly never occurred to me then that the Ku Klux Klan — during its second wind from 1915 to the mid-1920s — was reborn not in the hinterlands of Atlanta but at its posh and manicured heart: not in Stone Mountain but in Buckhead. My neighborhood.

Even if I had become aware at a younger age of Stone Mountain’s entanglements with the Klan, it would still have been easy to think of white supremacy at a comfortable distance. Stone Mountain was way the hell out there, in another county, not yet absorbed into the amnesic Atlanta that was swallowing us all.

The piece nicely complements Candler’s March 2019 essay, “A Deeper South,” in which he revisits monuments in the South with a new perspective and uncovers truths about his ancestry. Like this previous essay, “Almost Home” is moving and meditative, and Candler writes beautifully on place, memory, and legacy.

I listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on cassette tapes countless times in my adolescence, and felt myself moved by the idealism of King’s vision — but moved in an abstract way, perhaps, since I never made the connection then between the lofty Christian nobility of King’s soul-jarring calls for justice and the material realities of where I lived. Unaware then of the resonances of Stone Mountain as a holy site for white supremacists and Lost Causers, I didn’t think to notice the deliberate power of King’s decision to mention it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, didn’t consider how the power of that moment connected to a specific place I was probably then blithely enjoying seeing lit up with laser beams. But being moved by King’s speeches and sermons is no great achievement; anyone can do it. King’s greatest moments in the pulpit or on the dais had the power to effect in me a movement of the heart, maybe, but not yet a personal turning of memory. That would come later.

Black Atlantans probably are far more likely to know this history than I am. White privilege means there are stories you do not have to be burdened by, neighborhoods of the imagination you think you can casually avoid without damage to your soul. My life as a white person could have turned out differently if I had learned to inhabit a different narrative geography, to be shaped by the practice of alienating mental spaces. But I didn’t have to.

Later in the piece, Candler describes a trip he takes with one of his sons from Asheville, where he now lives, to Atlanta; he introduces Charlie to some of the places he loves, in the hope that he will love them, and — perhaps — sow a connection to them, too.

It is worth asking why any of this stuff matters, if at all. Maybe I am interested in family history; maybe I am seeking some place to anchor my own memories, some small plot of earth to which to bind my own wayfaring self. It could be that I am simply trying to manufacture a history I do not really possess, a surrogate past that I might lean on, that might hold steady for just a while longer. The house I grew up in is all gone now, and I have little to return to in the way of a site that still holds a memory of self should I forget. Maybe that’s what I am looking for on Ponce. I don’t know.

There is something nonsensical in all this, in my desire to give my children a sense of connection to a place where they have never lived, to cultivate in them an attachment to a space inhabited by their forebears they would never have heard about were it not for a random set of coincidences in my own life. It risks being an artificial, enforced attachment and not a real, organic one. But at bottom I just want them to be less naïve than I was, less ignorant than I am. To have a history we can grow up with together. To give them some sign that boundless curiosity will always be met with an ever-greater mystery, that as much as you think you know there is always an infinitely greater knowledge that you do not possess. That as long as you search the grounds of the world for some hint of yourself, you will never fully find it. That you will ever remain a mystery to yourself. That every seeking and finding only prompts more seeking; and that you may often find what you did not seek, and that may be the thing you needed the most.

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‘No Single Machine Should Be Able to Control So Many People’

Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Adrienne LaFrance has come to realize that Facebook is not a media company — it’s a doomsday machine, one operating above ground, in plain sight, just east of Highway 101 in Menlo Park, California. At the Atlantic, LaFrance traces the history and growth of the web giant, whose early mission was focused on making the world more open and connected. In its quest, it built “community” at an unprecedented global scale, but along the way stripped away all the good. As we’ve seen, Facebook is a government propaganda machine; a place for hate and terrorist groups to organize; a space for harassment, manipulation, and social experiments; and so much more. Today, its highly personalized, algorithmically powered informational environment is increasingly challenging to moderate — thus incredibly dangerous — and “no one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made,” La France writes.

I recalled Clinton’s warning a few weeks ago, when Zuckerberg defended the decision not to suspend Steve Bannon from Facebook after he argued, in essence, for the beheading of two senior U.S. officials, the infectious-disease doctor Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The episode got me thinking about a question that’s unanswerable but that I keep asking people anyway: How much real-world violence would never have happened if Facebook didn’t exist? One of the people I’ve asked is Joshua Geltzer, a former White House counterterrorism official who is now teaching at Georgetown Law. In counterterrorism circles, he told me, people are fond of pointing out how good the United States has been at keeping terrorists out since 9/11. That’s wrong, he said. In fact, “terrorists are entering every single day, every single hour, every single minute” through Facebook.

In previous eras, U.S. officials could at least study, say, Nazi propaganda during World War II, and fully grasp what the Nazis wanted people to believe. Today, “it’s not a filter bubble; it’s a filter shroud,” Geltzer said. “I don’t even know what others with personalized experiences are seeing.” Another expert in this realm, Mary McCord, the legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, told me that she thinks 8kun may be more blatant in terms of promoting violence but that Facebook is “in some ways way worse” because of its reach. “There’s no barrier to entry with Facebook,” she said. “In every situation of extremist violence we’ve looked into, we’ve found Facebook postings. And that reaches tons of people. The broad reach is what brings people into the fold and normalizes extremism and makes it mainstream.” In other words, it’s the megascale that makes Facebook so dangerous.

In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Zuckerberg authorized a tweak to the Facebook algorithm so that high-accuracy news sources such as NPR would receive preferential visibility in people’s feeds, and hyper-partisan pages such as Breitbart News’s and Occupy Democrats’ would be buried, according to The New York Times, offering proof that Facebook could, if it wanted to, turn a dial to reduce disinformation—and offering a reminder that Facebook has the power to flip a switch and change what billions of people see online.

The decision to touch the dial was highly unusual for Facebook. Think about it this way: The Doomsday Machine’s sensors detected something harmful in the environment and chose not to let its algorithms automatically blow it up across the web as usual. This time a human intervened to mitigate harm. The only problem is that reducing the prevalence of content that Facebook calls “bad for the world” also reduces people’s engagement with the site. In its experiments with human intervention, the Times reported, Facebook calibrated the dial so that just enough harmful content stayed in users’ news feeds to keep them coming back for more.

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The Case of the Disappearing Bucatini

Bucatini pasta photographed by Amy Brothers/The Denver Post/Getty Images.

The year that was 2020 is officially over, and even though we already shared our picks for the year’s best investigative reporting, Rachel Handler’s absolutely delightful dive into the mysterious shortage of bucatini squeaked through last week and deserves a special, honorary slot on that list.

Handler’s Grub Street investigation into the disappearance of this thicker, luxurious noodle with a hole from shelves in New York and beyond is the end-of-year/new year read you didn’t know you needed.

Being educated noodle consumers, we knew that there was, more generally, a pasta shortage due to the pandemic, but we were still able to find spaghetti and penne and orecchiette — shapes which, again, insult me even in concept. The missing bucatini felt different. It was specific. Frightening. Why bucatini? Why now? Why us?

I’d like to go a step further and praise its innate bounciness and personality. If you boil bucatini for 50 percent of the time the box tells you to, cooking it perfectly al dente, you will experience a textural experience like nothing else you have encountered in your natural life. When cooked correctly, bucatini bites back. It is a responsive noodle. It is a self-aware noodle. In these times, when human social interaction carries with it the possible price of illness, bucatini offers an alternative: a social interaction with a pasta.

But the problem, I would learn, was not limited to New York. In the fall, I was speaking with my mother, a longtime resident of suburban Chicago, and, as it often does, the conversation quickly turned to pasta. “Rachel,” my mother said gravely. “I haven’t been able to find bucatini anywhere at home. Do you have any in New York?”

My heart stopped.

When Handler discovers the bucatini shortage is a much wider problem, she becomes determined to solve the mystery, first reaching out to De Cecco — her mother’s favorite bucatini brand — then going down a rabbit hole of email inquiries and phone calls with organizations like the FDA (which, as you can imagine, was a bit busy with vaccine- and pandemic-related issues), the National Pasta Association (yes, this indeed exists), and other noodle manufacturers, like Barilla. While digging deep into the history and inner workings of Big Pasta, Handler does find some answers, but she’s ultimately left with more questions.

But I sensed something more sinister was afoot, specifically regarding De Cecco–brand bucatini and its alleged skirmish with the FDA. Rosario expressed surprise at this, telling me he hadn’t heard anything about any kind of situazione with the FDA. “Maybe we’ll find some conspiracy, some worldwide thing,” he said, delighted. “That would be phenomenal. You would be remembered as the whistle-blower of the bucatini world crisis.” When I told him that De Cecco’s rep had been ignoring me, he gasped. “Maybe he’s been silenced!” he said. Rosario said he’d get back to me when he’d done his own internal investigating — and he did, mere moments later.

Carl didn’t say it, but I was pretty sure he thought about calling me “the Bernstein of Bucatini” and that my work will now help to fix the standards-of-identity issue that has long plagued our fair continents. I had confirmed that the bucatini shortage was real and understood that the bucatini shortage was a combination of factors: the pandemic’s pasta demand, how hard it is to make bucatini because of its hole, De Cecco’s strange and untimely barring from the U.S. border. But these victories felt lacking.

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Quarantine Brain: How ‘the Internet Became More Internet’ in 2020

Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

I spent most of December buried in this year’s editors’ picks, working with the team to compile our Best of 2020 lists. As you can imagine, most of that reading was heavy, emotional, and mentally exhausting. The first essay I read after wrapping up my final list on investigative reporting was Alexandra Tanner’s hilarious deep-dive into the bizarre world of Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram which, somehow and strangely, was a breath of fresh air. But what is fresh air in 2020, in a year of masks and poorly ventilated spaces and smoky skies and air filters?

While lighter than most anything I’d read in weeks, Tanner’s Jewish Currents essay on mad Mommy bloggers is still dark, yet it encapsulates 2020 in one entertaining dose, just like E. Alex Jung‘s Vulture piece on quarantine culture, published earlier this month. For those of us who have had the privilege of isolating and staying home with Wi-Fi, we’ve been online all the time: “hotboxing off bad weed,” writes Jung, “our brains smoothed into little pearls.” At first, there were attempts to return to normal, Jung explains, but in the end, nothing has made sense. Driven by a new and exciting generation of content creators on TikTok and the spirit of the Dadaists, the most memorable moments of the year were the most spontaneous, and the most resonant art “channeled the hive mind of the internet”: created, shaped, and owned by everyone and no one.

It was TikTok, the app Cooper made her name on, that became the most fertile storytelling medium of the pandemic — accomplishing what Quibi could not, which was to create bite-size entertainment people actually watched. In place of top-down decision-making, a more horizontal body — collaborative in an accidental and serendipitous way — appeared.

Formally, the Dadaists embraced chaos and nonsense. They favored collage and montage, whether through photography, typography, or sculpture; the collision of dissonant ideas and images was a way to jolt viewers out of their stupor. A common refrain was “Everybody can Dada.” In many ways, the internet has allowed for a realization of Dada without a centralized authority (which is so Dada). Just as it emerged from the bowels of World War I (and the 1918 influenza pandemic), you could see glimmers of a similarly absurdist sensibility reflecting the times — a Gen-Z/millennial cusp brand of disillusionment and anger. The coronavirus is the accelerant thrown on a fire that has long been burning: a for-profit news media, the erosion of our public institutions, a two-party political system made up of a white-supremacist death cult and corporate nostalgists.

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The Mormon Mommy Bloggers of Instagram

One of Alexandra Tanner‘s internet activities this year, during lockdown? Obsessively following Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram. Spending her quarantine days closely observing these women’s lives, perhaps she’d learn something about America, she thought. In an essay at Jewish Currents that’s at once hilarious and terrifying, Tanner explores this bizarre, mad world: one of mass delusion and conspiracy theories.

The mommies started wearing t-shirts sunnily screen-printed with the phrase FREEDOM KEEPER and attending anti-mask rallies. They posted videos implying they were foregoing chickenpox vaccines in favor of exposing their children to the virus via mysterious, black-market-looking envelopes labeled VARICELLA. They posted that they were approaching new vibrational energies, that they were moving into a fourth dimension of consciousness, that they were becoming a part of the Great Awakening.

NOW IT’S JUNE. There’s an amazing new steam mop out and all the mommies have it. Cops are beating protesters unconscious with their riot shields and the mommies are all posting the same graphic, which reads i understand that i will never understand above a line of fist emojis: one black, one brown, one white. The steam mop is made by Bissell. Soros is paying Antifa to usher in the New World Order, which will persecute Christians and Republicans so Jews and socialists can finally rule the globe. The infrared thermometers that now take our temperatures outside grocery stores or doctors’ offices are acclimating us to the idea of having guns aimed at our heads. Marina Abramovic has taught Jay-Z and Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton and Rihanna to cook and eat the spirits of small white children. The Bissell steam mop is only $79.99 on Amazon and I have to try it. The West Coast wildfires were started by left-wing arsonists. Yoga is Satanic. Tarot is Satanic. When a celebrity wears a Band-Aid on their left hand they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears a flower crown they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears dark eye makeup they’re telling you they eat children. If I swipe up the Bissell steam mop will be automatically added to my Amazon cart.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Investigative Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our team picked and featured hundreds of in-depth investigations published across the web. Here are our top picks.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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The Last Patrol (Nathaniel Penn, The California Sunday Magazine)

In July 2012, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance gave an order that killed two Afghan civilians on a motorcycle near an operating base outside of Kandahar, in a volatile region in Afghanistan. Lorance was convicted of murder. The narrative weaved by Sean Hannity and others at Fox News framed Lorance as a war hero; he was pardoned by Donald Trump in November 2019 and served six years of a 20-year sentence. The former Army officer, who had been advised to take interviews only from conservative media outlets, agreed to talk with Nathaniel Penn, and the result is an incredibly riveting and comprehensive piece on his case.

Arriving on the dirt road that led into the village, the patrol discovered two of the three Afghan men lying beside a ditch. They were dead. Their companion had run away. Near them, the motorcycle leaned on its kickstand.

It wasn’t at all the scene Lorance had imagined. “If I would have been up there,” he told me, “and would have known that they were stopped and off their motorcycle, I would never in a million years have said, ‘Fire at them.’ I would want to go talk to them and get intel out of them. I’d be like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I would want to know everything about them.”

A woman and two children stood near the bodies, weeping.

Holy shit, Lorance thought. Did we just kill good people?

The way to find out was to do a Battle Damage Assessment. Skelton was the intelligence specialist who carried the SEEK. But Lorance wanted Skelton to follow him into the village to carry out the mission and get the biometric enrollments. The engagement with the motorcycle had been necessary and unfortunate, but it wasn’t important. He ordered two of his men to conduct the Battle Damage Assessment while he proceeded into the village. They had the necessary training, even if they didn’t have the SEEK. They knelt by the bodies.

Captain Swanson, who had been alerted to the situation, was radioing Lorance from headquarters. What was happening? he asked. Were the dead men combatants or civilians? Had Lorance done the Battle Damage Assessment?

No, Lieutenant Lorance replied, they hadn’t been able to do the Battle Damage Assessment. The villagers had taken away the bodies.

As he spoke, he knew he had just made a critical mistake. He should have said that his men would get to the Battle Damage Assessment eventually, that they didn’t have time to do that shit right now. Because when you speak over the radio, “you might as well be putting your hand on the Bible,” as one member of the platoon told me.

In the years to come, Lorance’s decision not to use the SEEK device for the Battle Damage Assessment would prove to be crucial and polarizing. It would contribute both to his imprisonment and his pardon.

The weeping woman was screaming now. Lorance told himself that her tears didn’t necessarily mean he’d done anything wrong. The men whose bodies she was crying over could be insurgents. That shocked him — the idea that the Taliban had families, too. It had never occurred to him before.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Essays

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors picked and featured hundreds of beautifully written and poignant essays published on the web. Because of the wide range of writing across many topics and themes, it was a challenge to sift through them all over the past several weeks to compile a definitive Best of Essays list. As I shortlisted stories, I realized there could be many different versions of this list, but, in the end, these eight reads really spoke to me.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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Mississippi: A Poem, in Days (Kiese Makeba Laymon, Vanity Fair)

Kiese Makeba Laymon was on a book tour when the pandemic hit in the U.S. In this stunner of a piece that unfolds over 14 days, the author writes on fear, racism, death, and home amid a moment of awakening. We follow along on the journey, from event to event in Ohio and West Virginia, with Laymon’s observations and thoughts interspersed with daily COVID-19 death counts and the latest words or orders from Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. It’s a powerful meditation, one that will stop you in your tracks.

We are awakened, I want to believe.

75 miles from the armed confederate statue in Oxford, Emmett Till’s childish body was destroyed. 70 miles from that armed confederate statue, Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death. 160 miles from that armed confederate statue, Medgar Evers was murdered as he enters his home. 80 miles from that armed confederate statue, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis.

It took way too much Black death to get here.

I am wandering around the spiritual consequences of materially progressing at the expense of Black death. I want to be courageous. I wonder, though, when courage becomes contagious—when courage is credentialized, subsidized, and incentivized—if it is still courage at all.

Today, as I prepare to push send, and I lather my hands in sanitizer, it feels a bit too much like cowardice.

Maybe I’ll wait to send tomorrow. Maybe I won’t send at all.

The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, a group of white men, unanimously vote to keep the armed confederate monument in the middle of Oxford, the town where I live, teach, and write.

Humiliation, agony, and death, are what I feel.

It could all be so much worse, is what the worst of white folks want us to recite.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Arts and Culture

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. In an unprecedented, strange, and chaotic year, we’ve leaned on writers’ reflections and commentaries on the world around us to help us make sense of moments, of our lives. We revisited a wide range of arts and culture stories featured by the team this year and selected eight favorites that resonated with us.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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I’ve always loved how Teju Cole observes and moves through our world: a flâneur of modern life, always with a notebook or a camera in hand. Here, we follow Cole on a pilgrimage to Italy as he chases the life of Caravaggio, an artist (and fugitive and murderer) whose emotionally charged, often violent scenes and chiaroscuro technique I studied closely in my AP Art History class. In Rome and Milan, Cole revisits Caravaggio’s paintings “to learn the truth about doom” — to sit with unease, and to experience the artist’s pain and turmoil (“I would find in him the reprieve certain artists can offer us in dark times”).

Cole then travels south, to Naples and along the coast of Sicily, and later to Malta, to the places where the painter spent his exile; he captures both the mundanity and intimacy of encounters with guides and strangers, like his meeting in Syracuse with D., a young migrant who arrived by boat from Libya eight months earlier. (They share a silent, beautiful moment with “The Burial of St. Lucy.”) Part-travelogue, part-profile, part-art criticism, and part-commentary on the ills and horrors of our world, it’s a stunning piece with masterful scope, but also turns inward — a read you’ll likely sit with quietly long after you’ve finished.

I sat on a bench in the middle of the room, the two paintings set at a right angle to each other. I was awe-struck, out of breath, caught between these two immensities. The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange. It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration. It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors. It can also often be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight. But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you — to call you — to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

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