Hawa Allan| Longreads | September 2017 | 3580 words (15 minutes)
“Big Brother” has become shorthand for the inescapable gaze of governmental authority, first defined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Everywhere yet nowhere, Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing, surveilling not just every person’s movement, but every thought. Where Orwell referred to illicit states of mind as “thoughtcrimes,” Philip K. Dick called them “precrimes” in his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” in which a futuristic police force arrests subjects for crimes long before they are committed. While Big Brother has become common parlance, the precrime unit illustrated by Dick is a more apt portrayal of the tools authorities have at hand to enforce the law, and commercial entities use to market their goods, in our digital age.
I reached out to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for a sober assessment of how the current state of governmental surveillance compares to the dystopian futures imagined by Orwell and Dick. When Target can determine if teenager is pregnant before her parents know, does the end of our anonymity as consumers mean the end of our rights to privacy as citizens?
Now these activities are fun and good for countries that like to spend money, but what about countries that like to make money? Which will be the first nation to break the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of capitalism? The answer, as it turns out, could be Luxembourg,
By crafting innovative rules, laws and regulations that only it could (or would) put on offer, Luxembourg has attracted banks, telecommunications companies and consulting firms before any of these industries came to dominate the global economy. Now, by courting asteroid miners before anyone else takes them seriously, it may very well end up doing the same thing for the commercialization of space…
The only catch was the ambiguity of space law: companies wanted assurances that the fruits of their extraterrestrial labour would be recognized here on Earth. This is not a given. Unlike on Earth, where a country can grant a company a mining concession, or a person can sell the right to exploit their land, no one has an obvious legal claim to what’s outside our atmosphere. In fact, the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 107 countries at the UN in 1967, explicitly prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. The question now is: if nobody owns or governs the great unknown, who is to say who gets to own a little piece of it?
In the spring of 1963, James Baldwin was interviewed for the documentary, Take this Hammer, which followed the local African-American community in San Francisco. Seated, wearing a crisp collared shirt, an ascot tie, and smoking a cigarette, the author spoke about the creation of a class of pariahs in America.
Well, I know this. Anyone’s who’s tried to live knows this: That what you say about anyone else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now, here in this country, we’ve got something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to know by the time I was 17 years old, what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me, it has to be… Something you were afraid of, you invested me with…
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.
The house in eastern Queens where Donald Trump spent his first four years of life is now an Airbnb, but a night costs more than a bed at the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel, and the $816 doesn’t get you a fraction of that lavish experience. For Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan spent a night at the house, exploring the land of Trump’s birth and searching the environment for insights into what shaped him. He finds decor that’s the “raison d’être of Donald Trump, which is the endless veneration of Donald Trump.” Nazaryan shows how Trump likes to frame himself as an outsider from Queens who made his money in Manhattan — but how he is in fact a provincial creature with daddy’s money, born into the genteel suburbs of Long Island.
Something you might not know about Edie Windsor, the 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound woman whose landmark lawsuit brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, is that she was completely charming and lovable in person — rare of people we deify. You wouldn’t have to spend very long with her, just a few minutes at a press conference would have been enough. It’s said about a lot of people, but true of only a few: There was something eminently special about Edie.
When the Supreme Court ruled on United States v. Windsor in 2013, I was a local news reporter for Metro New York. I went to the LGBT Center in the West Village to see Windsor and her lawyers speak on their win. The organizers were very skittish about promising anyone face time with Windsor. She was elderly, 83 years old, they kept telling us. How could we be so demanding as to expect time with her? A cub reporter, I huffed showily, like a small, useless bird puffing out its chest to impress a murder of large crows who could not care less.
When I finally saw Windsor, I felt sheepish. She was elderly, and so petite. She wore a fuchsia silk shirt, her hair had a perfect Golden Girls bounce, and she had a huge smile. Despite her age and size, she didn’t seem frail; she had the air of a woman whose bones are shot through with iron. When her handlers tried to end the press conference, Edie insisted on reading the speech she prepared and then took questions. Her lawyers praised her tenacity, her courage, her determination. They said she made the country more American that day. She just smiled and turned right around and heaped praise back on them. “They made this old lady flourish,” she said.
Despite the bloodshed in Charleston and Charlottesville, and the national embarrassment of President Trump’s not-so-subtle exoneration of white supremacist terrorism, the fight over the removal of Confederate monuments continues.
Statues of Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest stand in visible spots near downtown Memphis. The city has long had a majority black population. Earlier this month, the City Council voted for the removal of the monuments, but the state legislature, a body of mostly white Republican men from the middle and eastern parts of the state, invoked the Heritage Protection Act, which prevents the removal, rededication, or renaming of monuments to any “military conflict” without a waiver. The state refused the city’s request for a waiver last year and will vote again this October. The Memphis Flyercalls this reckoning the “Battle of Memphis.”
At the Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura details the crimes of General Forrest, who traded in slaves before the Civil War, and led a massacre of mostly black Union troops that led to his censure after the war. The state needs to ask itself serious questions about why Forrest was ever honored. Segura shows the agency of the Tennessee’s black citizens, and reveals the state’s disdain for the citizens of Memphis.
Every time they picked up one flood victim, another appeared: A man with oxygen tanks, along with his nightgown-wearing wife and their three lapdogs. A family of eight as the flood closed in on a high point in the street.
Ellis was motoring back to dry ground – they needed gas – when he looked into a stand of oak trees. He saw something floating, and almost ignored it. Then it moved. He swung the boat around.
A man, his nose and mouth barely above water, holding his wallet and cellphone overhead, bobbed in the current. He grabbed the bow, and hung on. Ellis’ cousin jumped out and helped him in.
“Have you rescued a lady with a white dog?” he asked. Ellis shook his head.
The man kept describing the woman, and the dog, their whole way back to dry ground.
As if, maybe, if he could only describe her better, it would change their answer.
Flood insurance suffers from actuarial issues that health insurance doesn’t. Whereas health insurance (theoretically) depends on people who need less care subsidizing those who need more, everyone who buys flood insurance needs it — and when catastrophic flooding happens, insurance has to pay out thousands of people at once. Efforts to revamp flood insurance programs move in fits and starts, securing payouts can be a challenge, and no one’s really sure if raising rates or privatizing the insurance programs to make them more financially feasible will actually help. Kate Aronoff walks us through all the policy implications at The Intercept.
The even bigger policy question is whether higher and more competitive rates will actually incentivize fewer people to live along high-risk coastlines, or just leave the shore open only to those wealthy homeowners and developers who can afford higher rates and round after round of rebuilding. President Donald Trump also repealed an Obama-era mandate for flood-prone construction, so there’s no guarantee that new shorefront structures will be able to withstand future damage. The result of higher rates, Elliot predicts, “is the socioeconomic transformation along with the physical transformation of the coastlines.”
Of course, the elephant wading through the flood is the fact that there are now millions of people living in areas that shouldn’t be inhabited at all, no matter the cost. “There’s the uncertainty of living at risk,” Elliot says, “and there’s the uncertainty of what it means to stay in your community when in the near to medium term, it’s going to become more expensive for you to do so — and in the long term, physically impossible.”
All we do know: as climate change continues, there are only going to be more floods. And while the words “insurance actuarial tables” might make your eyes glaze over, the need to rebuild or relocate from flood zones is going to become an issue for more and more people.
No one burns the elite quite like Vanity Fair, and Sarah Ellison’s recent profile of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump is a perfect example. The duo come off as bratty and inept, not just powerless to make an impact on their presidential patriarch, but fundamentally incompetent to do much at all. Ellison reveals that Ivanka’s big idea for how to save Planned Parenthood was to suggest the organization stop providing abortions. Another notable anecdote involves Reince Preibus asking Kushner what he and his best friend Reed Cordish, who Kushner employs at the White House seemingly just to keep him company, are up to work-wise. Kushner snaps, “Reince, we aren’t getting paid. What the fuck do you care?” (Honestly, did you ever expect you’d be Team Reince in any fight, ever?)
In January, 2017 — before Trump’s inauguration — physician Khaled Almilaji spent a week in Syria to check on his many humanitarian projects, leaving his pregnant wife Jehan behind in the United States. Expecting to return well before Trump’s inauguration, Khaled discovered that his visa — along with those of 40 other medical students, mostly from the Middle East — had been revoked in the month before Trump took office.
A month later, Trump announced his second travel ban, which paused any visas from Syria for 90 days. For weeks, I’d been telling Jehan that I’d be home soon. Suddenly we realized it would be at least three more months. She was alone when she saw our baby on the ultrasound for the first time, when she heard the heartbeat on the sonogram. One day while I was in the office, she sent me an image of a pair of pink shoes: a sign that we were having a girl. I was elated. For the next few months, whenever I went to the market in Gaziantep, I bought baby clothes, keeping tiny dresses and onesies in my apartment so I could have something to bring my new daughter when I returned.
Brown was doing everything they could to help me continue my studies. The dean called colleagues at schools outside of the U.S. to find me a new home, including the University of Toronto. I hated the idea of leaving my scholarship at Brown and the people I had met in Providence. And yet by that point, Jehan and I couldn’t waste any more time. When U of T offered me a scholarship, I accepted, and we applied for student visas in Canada. In June, my Canadian partners and I received the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General for our humanitarian work. A few days later, Jehan and I got our Canadian visas approved.
In early June, just days before my flight to Toronto, the U.S. Consulate called. Five and a half months after this all began, they told me I could come pick up my visa. For me, it was too late. I know the travel ban is all about politics, not security. It’s a game. But the people on Trump’s list have been suffering for many years, and the ban only increases that suffering. It’s a horrendous violation. It was done carelessly, by people who didn’t consider the consequences—the lives changed forever by their actions. I still think America’s a great country. I also know that if I went back, that violation would recur, over and over again. On June 16, I got on a plane in Turkey and flew to Toronto.
In Toronto, the notion that everyone should be accepted and respected, regardless of their nationality or background, is something that’s practised on a daily basis. I saw it on my first day. In the airport, I looked around and saw people with different faces, different skin tones, different ethnicities, but the same spirit. To see a stable, established country like Canada using diversity to make itself richer and stronger has inspired me. This was what we were fighting for in Syria in 2011. That’s what I want for the future of my country. That’s the spirit I hope to bring to Syria when I return one day.
A few years ago, I never would have imagined having a child in Canada. Now I’m honoured by the fact that my daughter will be a Canadian. Hopefully she can take that with her for the rest of her life.