Dissident rappers surface as powerful antagonists against Angola’s corrupt kleptocracy.
Longreads Member Exclusive: The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent
This week’s Longreads Member pick is “The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent,” a 1992 essay by Thomas Frank from The Baffler, the magazine he cofounded with Keith White in 1988.
“In republishing this bit of juvenilia from 1992—my very first exploration of an idea that I reworked and reconsidered a number of times over the years that followed—it is worth remembering some of the context. This was before the web, for the most part; it was right about when ‘alternative’ was beginning to hit the culture, and a lot of the stuff I describe here was new and surprising at the time. Today, of course, most of it seems utterly unremarkable, so far has what I used to call the commercialization of dissent advanced. It’s not something I really even think about anymore, except for the most outrageous iterations—like the ski helmet I bought last week, a model called ‘Mutiny’ by ‘R.E.D.’ And even then I’m too exhausted to bother belaboring the ironic contrast of this bragging rebelliousness with the millionairiest sport there is. I’m off to even more ironic fields. See you there.”
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How anonymity technology could save free speech on the Internet.
Under Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, drug dealers routinely get assassinated on Manila’s busy streets. Dead bodies get dumped in the bay and on city sidewalks, with signs reading, “I’m a pusher” hanging from the deceased’s necks. Those who resist, including clergy, have been shot in broad daylight. For Virginia Quarterly Review, Adam Willis examines the president’s brutal war on drugs, and how this Catholic nation seems torn between support and outrage. Many Filipinos applaud Duterte’s efforts to curtail the drug trade, while many Catholics have actively started resisting them and his violent, dictatorial rhetoric, risking their own lives in the process.
In the Philippines, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against a drug war that has claimed, by some estimates, more than twenty thousand lives. It is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. It is a familiar dilemma, exacerbated by deep historical fissures between conservative and liberal clerics, and it has heightened pressure on the church’s most prominent prelates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, who splits his time between duties on behalf of the Vatican and leading packed services in the cathedral of Intramuros—the Catholic heart of the Philippine capital—has been criticized by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to dealing with Duterte. Such soft-pedaling, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those responsible.
In a country where vigilante executions have become commonplace, this work is perilous at best; Catholic leaders who speak out are often inundated with death threats, sometimes from Duterte himself. In the last year and a half, three Filipino priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances. One was ambushed in his car after negotiating the release of a political prisoner; another, while saying blessings on a group of children, was shot dead by a motorcyclist; a third was murdered at the altar in front of parishioners just before Mass. In 2017 and 2018, such violence against clergymen prompted more than two hundred priests and religious leaders to petition for licenses to carry firearms.
Yuval Taylor | An excerpt from Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal | W. W. Norton & Company | March 2019 | 30 minutes (8,692 words)
Ornate and imposing, the century-old Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Passenger Terminal in downtown Mobile, Alabama, resembles a cross between a Venetian palace and a Spanish mission. Here, on St. Joseph Street, on July 23, 1927, one of the more fortuitous meetings in American literary history occurred, a chance incident that would seal the friendship of two of its most influential writers. “No sooner had I got off the train” from New Orleans, Langston wrote in The Big Sea, “than I ran into Zora Neale Hurston, walking intently down the main street. I didn’t know she was in the South [actually, he did, having received a letter from her in March, but he had no idea she was in Alabama], and she didn’t know I was either, so we were very glad to see each other.”
Zora was in town to interview Cudjo Lewis, purportedly the only person still living who had been born in Africa and enslaved in the United States. She then planned to drive back to New York, doing folklore research along the way. In late 1926, Franz Boas had recommended her to Carter Woodson, whose Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, together with Elsie Clews Parsons of the American Folklore Society, had decided to bankroll her to the tune of $1,400. With these funds, Zora had been gathering folklore in Florida all spring and summer. As the first Southern black to do this, her project was, even at this early stage, clearly of immense importance. It had, however, been frustrating. “I knew where the material was, all right,” she would later write. “But I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?’ The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores, looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around there. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn’t I try over there?”
Langston, meanwhile, had been touring the South for months, penniless as usual, making some public appearances and doing his own research. He read his poems at commencement for Nashville’s Fisk University in June; he visited refugees from the Mississippi flood in Baton Rouge; he strolled the streets alone in New Orleans, ducking into voodoo shops; he took a United Fruit boat to Havana and back; and his next stop was to be the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was his very first visit to the South.
When Zora invited him to join her expedition in her little old Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie,” Langston happily accepted. (The car looked a lot like a Model T Ford, and could only seat two.) Langston adored the company of entertainers, and Zora was as entertaining as they came. Langston did not know how to drive, but Zora loved driving and didn’t mind a whit. They decided to make a real trip of it, “stopping on the way to pick up folk-songs, conjur [sic], and big old lies,” as Langston wrote. “Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts. I knew it would be fun traveling with her. It was.” Read more…
This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about pasts and futures, and how lineages stretch across time. Reviewer Thea Prieto writes about how Sophia Shalmiyev, in her memoir Mother Winter, constructs a pantheon of women artists to fill the void left by her mother’s absence, calling them “the motherless future, the auxiliary mothers future.” She needs these women, Prieto says, not only to fill a hole in the past, but to prepare her to become a mother in (and of) the future; they are not so much models of parenthood as they are models of the act of influencing.
Speaking to Zan Romanoff about her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie talks about how women artists have been so consistently and thoroughly erased from the canon that every new woman writer lacks a sense of “writer ancestors” and “feels like she’s starting over without any guides.” Leckie says she now tries to be conscientious of her writer ancestors; she considers it an act of dissent and criticizes the privilege inherent to “the anxiety of influence.”
Who was it who talked about the anxiety of influence, how you feel like you couldn’t be better than anyone else if you couldn’t be original? Well, there’s also the anxiety of not having any past … I think that whole ‘anxiety of influence’ thing is such a privileged way of thinking. ‘Oh poor me, I have to try so hard to be original because I have all of these supporting ancestors.’
In his review of two new books by economists who hope to ‘save’ capitalism with even more capitalism, reviewer Aaron Timms points out that capitalism’s future, if it has a viable one, will almost certainly require the same things it needed to survive in the past — a big dose of socialism and a huge effort of political will — rather than some of the more dystopian-sounding market solutions proposed by the economists. There is nothing wrong, Timms is saying, with turning to our ancestors for guidance.
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Sometimes, though, we have to adapt to new realities, and recognize that the future is going to be different than what we have come to anticipate based on what our forebears faced. Speaking with Laura Barcella about her new book Handbook for a Post-Roe America, Robin Marty says she thinks it’s extremely likely that Roe will be overturned soon, and that we need to prepare — but not in the ways we think. The danger of outlawed abortion in the future will not be one of health, or of life and death, as much as a carceral one. Women who have abortions outside of the increasingly narrow window allowed by the legal system will face arrest and imprisonment. The future could very likely be one in which people who have abortions become political prisoners, and that unimaginable world is the one we need to prepare for. (Of course, the future is already here for the many women who have been sent to jail for self-inducing abortions because they lacked access to care.)
In her review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, Ankita Chakraborty writes that the past is something bloody and dangerous that Erpenbeck’s characters try to protect each other from, but this desire to protect transforms into an act of harm when we refuse to listen to refugees’ stories, to the history of the violence perpetrated against them. Erpenbeck’s main character engages in acts of radical listening, because he seeks out stories that his government would rather he didn’t hear. In his book Notes on a Shipwreck about how his home island of Lampedusa is at the epicenter of refugee arrivals — and refugee deaths — Davide Enia writes that “History is sending people ahead, in flesh and blood, people of every age.” Listening to those refugees’ stories, writes Chakraborty, is every citizen’s obligation. Listening to other people’s difficult histories is sometimes the most important thing we can do for the future.
Zoe Valery | Longreads | February 2019 | 18 minutes (5,011 words)
— Orocual tar pit, northeastern Venezuela, 2007 C.E.
Ascanio Rincón was standing on a veritable fossil paradise when one of his students brought to his attention a tooth that was sticking out through the dirt. The site presented innumerable shards of prehistoric bones that had been fortuitously unearthed by a steamroller digging a trench for a pipeline. After assessing the value of the site, the young paleontologist stood his ground to protect the tar pit where millions of fossils have been preserved by the asphalt, eventually forcing the workers to redraw the course of the oil duct. When he cleaned around the tooth that was embedded in the trench wall, he found that it was attached to the skull of a creature that the steamroller had missed only by inches. He looked at the eye socket in disbelief: “A saber-toothed tiger was looking at me in the eye,” he recalls. This specimen would constitute a groundbreaking discovery for Rincón and a landmark for the field of paleontology in Venezuela and at large.
To this day, Richard Parker — named after the tiger in Life of Pi — remains one of the most remarkable findings in the country and one of Rincón’s dearest fossils. The sabre-toothed tiger has shed light on a migratory wave during the Ice Age that the scientific community previously had not been aware of. Due to the current mass migration of people from Venezuela, Rincón is one of the only scientists left in the country tapping into the overwhelming wealth of fossils yet to be uncovered at the Orocual tar pit. Like most of his colleagues, the eight students he had trained have all left the country, joining 3 million other Venezuelans fleeing the rampant economic crisis, creating what has been described by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as the most dire refugee crisis on the continent. Rincón is an endling — the only extant individual of a species — in his field: the last vertebrate paleontologist in Venezuela.* Read more…
Jonny Auping | Longreads | February 2019 | 20 minutes (5,266 words)
Hanif Abdurraqib claims that he “wasn’t interested in writing the definitive book on A Tribe Called Quest.” What he produced instead was much more powerful. Abdurraqib’s recently released book, Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest, does provide a history of the revolutionary rap group, but more importantly it’s a memoir of listening and feeling, a deeply personal book unafraid to pair music criticism with intimate reflections.
A Tribe Called Quest debuted in 1990 with the album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, an eclectic layering of samples produced by the group’s de facto leader, Q-Tip, and rhymed over with quirky stories and confident punch lines. Their first three albums, all released by 1993, are considered hip-hop canon and three of the most influential albums of the past 30 years across any genre.
A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 comeback album seemed destined to debut amidst doomed circumstances. Phife Dawg, the group’s swaggering and quick-witted lyricist, had died of diabetes between the making of the album and it’s release. Three days before the album came out Donald Trump won a shocking presidential election. No singles had been released prior to We’ve Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, but it turned out to be powerful response to the politics of the time, a prophetic pushback against inequality, as well as a statement of the group’s place in popular culture. Pitchfork called the album, “the first time in their career that the entire group was at their peak.”
You could argue that Go Ahead In the Rain is the type of dream project that anyone who has ever felt immense fandom — or even love — for a particular music would want to write. It’s a tribute to a group, and who doesn’t enjoy explaining why their favorite should also be your favorite? But Abdurraqib earns the authority to actually pull it off, not just through his elegant writing but also by having the courage to use Tribe’s music to examine his own place in the world and reckon with what he discovered. Read more…
Zan Romanoff | Longreads | February 2019 | 11 minutes (2,920 words)
“Stories can be risky for someone like me,” the narrator observes early in The Raven Tower, which marks highly decorated science fiction author Ann Leckie’s first novel-length foray into fantasy. The speaker is an ancient god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who goes on to explain a cardinal rule for gods in the world of The Raven Tower: “what I say must be true, and if it cannot safely be made true — if I don’t have the power, or if what I have said is an impossibility — then I will pay the price.” That price is the god’s own life.
It makes sense that four novels, two Locus Awards, one Hugo, one Nebula, and an Arthur C. Clarke Award in, Leckie is grappling with the power and potential of narrative and language; after all, one of the hallmarks of her writing has been the way she interrogates social and political power structures. Her first three books, which comprised the Imperial Radch trilogy, are narrated by an artificial intelligence system, Breq, designed to oversee a warship and the human bodies — called ancillaries — that have been retrofitted to serve it. Breq is therefore a single consciousness who has lived a multiplicitous existence; her native language has no words for gender, and she herself (Leckie chose to use “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun in the series) has no experience of it. The reader is thus immersed into a speculative critique of gendered language and storytelling; as is often the case with Leckie’s work, the trilogy is so thoroughly and thoughtfully original that it feels one step ahead of most of the rest of the genre (or the rest of the world).
The Raven Tower’s narrator also falls somewhere complicated on the continuum between single and multiple consciousness: The Strength and Patience of the Hill is a god, whose experience of self is markedly different than the humans its second-person narration is addressed towards. This set of unusual choices around perspective and point-of-view give the narrative a kaleidoscopic, sometimes almost hallucinatory quality that is uniquely and addictively immersive. Read more…