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Dana Snitzky
Dana lives in Brooklyn.

Is This the Most Crowded Island in the World? (And Why That Question Matters)

(Alex MacGregor)

Alex MacGregor | Longreads | February 2017| 19 minutes (5,053 words)

Geographers have an affinity for superlatives. Among the millions of named features on Earth, if something can claim to be the biggest, tallest, deepest, longest, or otherwise most extreme, it gets a lot of attention.

Asserting any superlative involves a degree of hubris. Our world has been picked over for superlatives, but how sure can we really be about any one claim? Any elementary school class will recite in unison that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world — that is, unless the class happens to contain an Ecuadorian student. Ecuadorians correctly learn that the highest mountain in the world could be measured by distance from the center of the earth, rather than of from mean sea level. By this measure, Ecuador’s Chimborazo is taller than Everest. (An asterisk is warranted for even this basic claim.)

Of much less prominence on the globe, but also a tricky superlative to nail down, is the most densely populated island in the world. A handful of the perhaps 100,000 islands on Earth have stratospheric population densities: Ultra-crowded islands exist in places as disparate as Kenya, Hong Kong, France, and the Maldives, but it’s regularly cited that, by the numbers, the densest of all is Santa Cruz del Islote, a 3-acre islet of about 1,200 people off the coast of Colombia. This claim has been repeated in numerous publications, most recently by The New York Times, and it’s even the subject of a short documentary. Journalists usually emphasize the bonds of family and community in a place so radically removed from western consumerism.

All of which makes for an uplifting read about a fascinating place. But what if the premise is wrong? I can’t comment on the experience of life on the island. But we’ve already learned to be wary of superlative claims, especially when westerners are the ones keeping score; what about this one? What if this is merely a very crowded island, and not the most crowded island?
Read more…

What Happens Between What Seems Like All the Facts: On Interviewing Artists

(Photo courtesy the Auping family)

Jonny Auping| Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (4,011 words)

Michael Auping recently retired after 25 years as the chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His 40-year curatorial career, which focused on the international development of postwar art, has resulted in numerous, critically-acclaimed exhibitions featuring many of the 20th century’s most prominent visual artists.

Before becoming a curator, Auping spent his post-graduate years in mid-70s Southern California trying to figure out how to break into the art world. Around 1975, he came across the book Workingby Studs Terkel, in which the author interviews various working people — from parking valets and cab drivers to gravediggers and pharmacists — about the meaning they find in their jobs. Auping began going to the studios of Los Angeles-based artists like Robert Irwin, Tony Delap, and Craig Kauffman to record conversations about their work, their background, and most importantly, their process.

His new book, Forty Years: Just Talking About Art, is a compilation of interviews ranging from 1977 to 2017 featuring artists such as Frank Stella, Lucian Freud, Susan Rothenberg, Bruce Nauman. Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, and many others. Read more…

The Ban, the Wall: Bearing Witness

Rose Marie Ascencio-Escobar's husband was detained when he went to check in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb 22. Her husband has been in the United States since 2001 when he came from San Salvador without documents. (Marie D. De Jesus /Houston Chronicle via AP)

Reports say there is going to be another travel ban soon, perhaps even today. And so, standing on the precipice of our next great catastrophe, I have decided to take stock, as far as I can, of this thing we have wrought, which I can only describe as the new American carnage. Moreover (sorry about this) I would like to put forth my own obnoxious “all else is a distraction” theory:

In my opinion, this is the greatest story of the moment, and all else is a distraction. Think-piece-ologists have recently argued that the “real story” is the dismantling of our administrative state, or the lock-out of the free press from the halls of power, or the Russian oligarchy’s new influence on the Republican party, or so on. But, when the people of the future look back at us now, it seems to me that they will “little note, nor long remember” the exact form of our bureaucracy, or whether we took seriously our own promises to ourselves about freedom of the press, or whether Michael Flynn was actually colluding with the Russian ambassador rather than just wishing him a very very merry Christmas. These things will all be seen as incidental: goings-on as curious and inconsequential as Rudolf Hess in a biplane or Marat in a bathtub. I submit that, for the people of the future, all these stories will be incidental to the story of why we allowed our neighbors to be terrorized and rounded up.

So, I am making a small attempt to bear witness.

I am asking six questions.

Who has been detained?
Who has been denied entry?
Who has been rounded up?
Who has been deported?
Who has fled as a refugee from my country?
Who has been killed here? Read more…

You’re Fired! The Unemployable Trump Administration

Wikimedia Commona

UPDATE: There are firings, and then there are firings, and former FBI Director James Comey was informed of his by Donald Trump’s favorite messenger: television. Comey saw the news flash on screen as he as giving a speech to FBI employees in Los Angeles, and he thought it was a prank, at first. But a letter was hand-delivered by Trump’s personal bodyguard to FBI headquarters informing Comey that he was indeed out. It was a classic Trump firing, and also a deeply disconcerting one, as a third offense should be added to our list: investigating Russian connections to Donald Trump. 

At the one-month mark, we now have a working theory of what makes an employee fireable (or not even hireable) in the Trump administration. There are two main types.

Fireable Offense Type #1: Be Drop Dead Scandalous

1. In December, Jason Miller, who was tapped to be the White House communications director, quit after another transition official, A.J. Delgado, tweeted her jilted love at him. Miller and his wife were expecting a new baby, so, via Twitter, “Delgado congratulated ‘the baby-daddy’ on his promotion,” ominously adding: “The 2016 version of John Edwards.”

“When people need to resign graciously and refuse to, it’s a bit … spooky,” Delgado then wrote. When an old law school friend asked on Twitter to whom she was referring, Delgado replied: “Jason Miller. Who needed to resign … yesterday.”

Delgado then deleted her Twitter account and, after Politico reported on the rumored affair, privately disclosed the details of the relationship to the transition team.

If you reach back into the deep part of yourself where you catalog other people’s misbehavior, you may even recall that Page Six reported back in October that, the night before the last presidential debate, Delgado and Miller, along with several journalists, were spotted together at the world’s largest strip club. Read more…

Exxon, Rex, and Russia: A Deep Drilling

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship, has become our new Secretary of State. I took a deep dive into the archives, and, like all the amateur Kremlinologists and power-hungry oilmen who’ve tread this ground before me, I’ve learned that the deeper you drill, the bigger the risk. Stop somewhere around point #10 if you start to feel like you’re on shaky ground, or like you’re one nesting matryoshka doll short of a shell company. Read more…

The Month That Killed the Sixties

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

 

You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

*

December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?” Read more…

How the Brontës Came Out As Women

The Brontë Sisters, by their brother Branwell. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical recep­tion of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventu­ally, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”

Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement. Read more…

The Secret Nazi Attempt to Breed the Perfect Horse

Commemorative stamp for the Olympic summer games in Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Letts | The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis | Ballantine Books | August 2016 | 19 minutes (4,567 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts. The book describes an American colonel’s quixotic mission in the waning days of World War II: to rescue Europe’s purebred horses from a secret Nazi stud farm mere hours before the starving Soviet army arrived and likely slaughtered the animals for food. In this excerpt, Letts explains the origins of the Nazis’ secret horse breeding project. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

A herd of mares left Austria in October 1942. The herd made the 350-mile trip northwest from Piber to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, without incident, and were settled into the Third Reich’s most sheltered stud farm, located in Bohemia, just a few miles from the Bavarian border. Beyond the farm’s serene green pastures, golden valleys stretched toward distant mountains crested by dark waves of evergreens. The Böhmerwald, or Bohemian Forest, served as more than a beautiful backdrop for the farm; it formed a natural barrier between Germany to the west and Austria to the south and had withstood invasion and attack for centuries. During the Nazi era, this locale was known as “the Bohemian bastion.” Among Germans, it was thought to be the safest place to ride out the war, least likely to be invaded from east or west. It was here that Gustav Rau had secreted the Lipizzaner, as well as the finest Arabians from Janów, including Witez. Even in the middle of a war, here, all was deceptively tranquil.

Quiet villages dotted this part of Bohemia, each graced by a Catholic church with an onion-domed spire. Flanking each cluster of tidy whitewashed houses were well-kept farms growing crops that thrived in the region’s rich agricultural soil. But in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the area following the Munich Agreement of 1938, its bucolic appearance was deceiving. Once a multicultural region where Czechs, Germans, and Jews lived side by side in peace, Bohemia, now called the Sudetenland, had turned into a firm cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. When the Nazis annexed the area in September 1939, the local German-speaking population had lined the streets cheering to welcome Hitler’s forces. Local Czechs and Jews had either fled or been forcibly evicted. Those who remained had been transported to concentration camps. By 1942, when the first Lipizzaner arrived in Hostau, the local Nazi apparatus held a firm grip on the region, but Czech partisans also operated in the area, finding refuge in the hideaways offered by the Bohemian Forest. Though the border with Bavaria, Germany, was less than fifteen miles to the west, the mountainous barrier made it seem much more remote.

The stud farm at Hostau, located next to the village of the same name, had been known for breeding cavalry horses long before Hitler’s time. The most prominent local landowners, the Trauttsmansdorff family, had historically served as imperial equerries for the Habsburg Crown. In addition to the main complex of stables adjacent to the village, there were pastures in three neighboring villages—the entire establishment covered fifteen hundred acres and could accommodate more than a thousand stallions, mares, and foals. All in all, it was more than twice as big as Alfred Vanderbilt’s showplace, Sagamore Farms, which Rau had visited in 1938.

Rau had selected this expansive facility to put into motion the most exalted part of his grand plan. Throughout 1942, he had systematically transported all of the purebred Lipizzaner from the stud farms of Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia to this sheltered location for safekeeping. He had also sent a personal emissary on a mission to purchase purebred Lipizzaner from wealthy noblemen who raised smaller strings of purebreds for private use. By the end of 1942, Rau had gathered almost every Lipizzaner in the world into a single location.

Austrian-born Hitler’s goal, expressed in Mein Kampf, was to bring all of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe, including Austria, into the fold of the Third Reich. Just as Hitler aimed to eliminate “impure strains” and combine the different Germanic groups into a single “Aryan race” of people, so Rau planned to use the science of selective breeding to erase the individual differences characterizing the several strains of purebred Lipizzaner that had emerged since the end of World War I and replace them with a single mold: pure white, imperial, identical, and ideally suited for military use. Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp. Read more…

Mass Extinction: The Early Years

American bison skulls, mid-1870s. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashley Dawson | Extinction: A Radical History | OR Books | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3,487 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Extinction: A Radical History, by Ashley Dawson, who argues that contemporary mass extinction is a result of the excesses of the capitalist system. In this chapter, Dawson gives a brief history of the ecocidal societies that came before ours. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

“Gilgamesh listened to the word of his companion, he took the axe in his hand, he drew the sword from his belt, and he struck Humbaba with a thrust of the sword to the neck, and Enkidu his comrade struck the second blow. At the third blow Humbaba fell. Then there followed a confusion for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground. For as far as two leagues the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest, he at whose voice Hermon and Lebanon used to tremble. Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh (2500–1500 BCE)

When did the sixth extinction begin, and who is responsible for it? One way to tackle these questions is to consider the increasingly influential notion of the Anthropocene. The term, first put into broad use by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, refers to the transformative impact of humanity on the Earth’s atmosphere, an impact so decisive as to mark a new geological epoch. The idea of an Anthropocene Age in which humanity has fundamentally shaped the planet’s environment, making nonsense of traditional ideas about a neat divide between human beings and nature, has crossed over from the relatively rarified world of chemists and geologists to influence humanities scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, who proposes it as a new lens through which to view history. Despite its increasing currency, there is considerable debate about the inaugural moment of the Anthropocene. Crutzen dates it to the late eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution kicked off large-scale emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This dating has become widely accepted despite the fact that it refers to an effect rather than a cause, and thereby obscures key questions of violence and inequality in humanity’s relation to nature. Read more…

Women Were Included in the Civil Rights Act as a Joke

Airline advertisements give a general idea of women's role in the workplace in the 1960s. Via Flickr.

Gillian Thomas | Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work | St. Martin’s Press | March 2016 | 20 minutes (5,287 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from Because of Sex, by Gillian Thomas. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

If there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex, the laughter would have proved it.

On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives and changed the lives of America’s working women forever.

It was the eighth and last day of debate on a bill that would become the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Smith had a proposed amendment to Title VII, the section dealing with equal employment opportunity. The current draft already prohibited discrimination because of race, color, religion, and national origin, but Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, wanted to add one more category. The clerk read Smith’s proposal aloud. “After the word ‘religion’ insert ‘sex’ on pages 68, 69, 70 and 71 of the bill.”

Smith played his “little amendment” for laughs, claiming to have been inspired by a letter he had received from a female constituent. She asked the government to “protect our spinster friends,” who were suffering from a shortage of eligible bachelors. Over guffaws from his virtually all-male audience, Smith concluded, “I read that letter just to illustrate that women have some real grievances and some real rights to be protected. I am serious about this thing.” Emanuel Celler of New York, the bill’s floor manager in the House, joined in the fun. “I can say as a result of forty-nine years of experience—and I celebrate my fiftieth wedding anniversary next year—that women, indeed, are not in the minority in my house,” he said. “I usually have the last two words, and those words are, ‘Yes, dear.’”

Several of the House’s twelve women representatives rose to try to silence the laughter and advocate seriously for the amendment. Martha Griffiths, Democrat of Michigan, was the one who finally succeeded. “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex,” she said, “the laughter would have proved it.” Griffiths (who supported the bill) made a shrewd appeal to the Civil Rights Act’s opponents, mainly Southern Democrats like Smith. By then, it looked inevitable that the law they hated had enough votes to pass. So she warned that without the sex provision, Title VII would afford more rights to black women than to white women. “A vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter, or his sister.”

The session eventually dubbed “Ladies Day in the House” had the hallmarks of an impromptu stunt by Smith to try to sink the Civil Rights Act. Civil rights for African Americans might have been palatable to many white legislators now that the horrors of Bull Connor and Birmingham had become national news, but civil rights for women were, literally, a joke.

Though it might have seemed incongruous for an avowed enemy of civil rights, Howard Smith had a long history of supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. Under pressure from the ERA’s supporters, he actually had been dropping hints for weeks that he intended to offer a “sex” amendment. (Most of the ERA’s supporters were white, and many kept alive a legacy of not-so-subtly racist activism dating back a century that decried expanded legal protections for African American men, such as the right to vote, that were denied to women.) As a friend to southern manufacturing interests, Smith also might have understood the human capital that would be freed up by a federal law nullifying widespread state law restrictions on women’s ability to work as many hours as men.

When Smith’s amendment was put to a vote a few hours later, it passed 168 to 133, with the most votes in favor cast by Republicans and Southern Democrats. From the gallery came a woman’s shout, “We’ve won! We’ve won!” and then another’s cry, “We made it! God bless America!” After the bill moved to the Senate for consideration, Smith’s amendment remained intact. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, among its provisions was a ban on discrimination in employment “because of sex.” Read more…