Amos Barshad | Longreads | January 2020 | 20 minutes (4,985 words)
In the spring of 2019 I start getting emails from a guy in Poland named Grzegorz Kwiatkowski. He’s a poet and a musician from Gdansk, a midsize town on the north coast of Poland, on the Baltic Sea. His band is called Trupa Trupa. Read more…
Tim Requarth| Longreads | October 2019 | 27 minutes (6,723 words)
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
When the motorcycle accident dealt my brother’s brain an irreversible blow, he and his wife were living in their newly purchased farmhouse on the fringes of suburban Chicago. Conway* had been waiting to move out of the city’s inner-ring suburbs for years, and each morning on the forested property he woke up exuberant. Shortly after moving in, he built an extraordinary tree house some 60 feet in the air, spanning two trees, with sliding joists under the floor to accommodate sway and a hammock to lie in during sunsets. He loved riding his motorcycle, and before work he’d sometimes take his bike out for a spin on the open roads just a few miles away. His wife, Caroline, loved antiques, and the area was full of shops. They were in their 50s and living in a house they planned to grow old in together. Then, after dinner on a fall day in 2007, Conway hopped on his Harley Softail Classic to go buy ice cream and cigarettes. A drunk driver barreled into him. Conway’s left femur snapped and his skull struck the traffic-warmed asphalt, splattering blood all the way to the road’s shoulder.
Conway’s body was battered, but the real threat, the injury warranting a helicopter ride to the closest hospital with a neurosurgeon on call, was a hemorrhage beneath the subarachnoid membrane, a thin sheath of triple-helixed collagen fibers intertwined with blood vessels that protects the brain’s private chemical harbor of cerebrospinal fluid from the open waters of the body’s blood. The sons of a doctor ourselves, my brother and I had heard stories about neurosurgeons called in at midnight, and those stories didn’t have happy endings.
In the weeks after the accident, I watched Conway wake, recognize familiar faces, and begin to walk. Some signs of progress were cause for celebration; other developments were more worrisome. He’d rarely ever raised his voice at Caroline, but now he called her a “worthless cunt” and a “bitch.” He was lewd to the nurses, exposing himself and laughing. When a speech therapist gently reminded him that she would return for another session later that afternoon, Conway retorted, “No you won’t, because I’ll be fucking you in my van outside!”
At first, the doctors assured us that this inappropriate behavior was a passing recovery phase of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The lewd remarks eventually subsided, but his behavior took another ominous turn. “He always had a wild streak,” Caroline told me. It’s true that before the accident, Conway had loved flouting the rules. He’d cut across an empty park on his motorcycle to avoid traffic, or build a towering bonfire in his backyard for kicks. “But there was no violence,” she said. After the accident, Conway flew into rages so vicious the hospital staff put a cage over his bed to contain him. When he finally left the hospital, Conway attempted to return to his former life, but he struggled to run his business and pay the bills. He and Caroline’s marriage began to fray. Hopes for a full recovery waned, and eventually Conway’s neuropsychologist confirmed our fears that the personality change might be permanent. “He’s recovered 95 percent brain function,” she said, “But the final 5 percent, it might never return.” Read more…
Maija Liuhto | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4149 words)
It’s 7 a.m. in Kabul. As usual, hundreds of thousands of cars are stuck in traffic jams around the city, where police checkpoints, Humvees, and blast walls congest the perilous streets. Taxi drivers in faded yellow Corollas roll up their windows and try to shoo off street children blowing heady incense — meant to ward off evil spirits — inside their cars. Policemen yell “boro, boro” (move) through the loudspeakers of their dark-green pickups. Fruit sellers calmly navigate the madness, pushing heavy carts laden with dark-red pomegranates, juicy grapes, and Pakistani mangoes while dust lingers in the air behind them.
Here, nothing is ever certain: Any minute, a bomb could go off, destroying families, livelihoods, and hopes.
Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)
For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.
A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.
Amos Barshad | An excerpt adapted from No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World | Harry N. Abrams | 17 minutes (4,490 words)
In the lobby of a heavy-stone building in central Moscow, I’m greeted by a friendly young woman in a pantsuit who, she explains, is working “in the field of geopolitics.” She takes me to the security desk, where my passport is carefully, minutely inspected before I’m granted access. As we head upstairs the woman slowly whispers a joke: “This is what will save us from the terrorists.”
We walk down a long, high hallway that looks or bare or unfinished or forgotten, like maybe someone was planning on shutting down this wing of the office but never got around to it. There are linoleum floors, cracking and peeling, and bits of mismatched tile in the style of sixties Americana. Rank-and-file office clerks shuffle through, and no one pays attention to a faint buzzing emanating from somewhere near.
We stop in front of a heavy wooden door. Inside is Aleksandr Dugin.
The man is an ideologue with a convoluted, bizarre, unsettling worldview. He believes the world is divided into two spheres of influence — sea powers, which he calls Eternal Carthage, and land powers, which he calls Eternal Rome. He believes it has always been so. Today, those spheres are represented by America, the Carthage, and Russia, the Rome. He believes that Carthage and Rome are locked in a forever war that will only end with the destruction of one or the other. Read more…
Alice Driver | Longreads | Junio 2019 | 17 minutos (4,470 palabras)
“Yo con un mapa ya” anunció con firmeza Milexi, de 16 años. Me contó que su amor por los mapas le dieron la seguridad para recorrer ella sola los cerca de 2,300 kilómetros que hay entre El Portillo, Honduras y McAllen, Texas. Cuando la entrevisté en agosto de 2018, se encontraba en el Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos, CAMEF; su postura estaba algo rígida y su mirada fija en el luminoso patio del lugar. Llevaba partidura en medio y su cabello brillaba bajo el sol. “Mi sueño siempre fue viajar en “La Bestia””; como se le conoce al tren que atraviesa México de norte a sur, al cual los migrantes suben y bajan continuamente para conseguir trabajo y así poder costear su viaje en suelo mexicano. A veces corren el riesgo de perder uno o dos miembros de su cuerpo si calculan mal el salto, ya sea para bajar o para subir. Por su parte, Milexi logró llegar hasta Reynosa vestida de hombre; ahí la detuvieron y la llevaron al centro en el que llevaba ya 57 días detenida, y donde tuvo la oportunidad de hacer su solicitud de asilo en México.
Milexi se fue de Honduras porque su padrastro golpeaba a su madre y a uno de sus hermanos.
Me contó que él llevaba años golpeando a su madre, y que incluso llegó a fracturarle la rodilla a su hermanito de 11 años. Me dijo que ella empezó a cortarse desde los 7, pero que también estaba orgullosa de sí misma, porque a pesar de la ansiedad que sentía no se había cortado ni una sola vez desde el año pasado.
Después agregó un detalle: una noche en que su padrastro golpeó a su madre, ella esperó hasta que él estuviera dormido; fue a la cocina, tomó un cuchillo y lo apuñaló. “De mala suerte clavé el cuchillo en el lugar equivocado”, explicó sin pestañear. Su padrastro sobrevivió y ella decidió abandonar Honduras.
Milexi esperaba pedir asilo en Estados Unidos por motivos de violencia doméstica, quizá sin saber que las políticas de E.E.U.U. habían cambiado. En junio de 2018, Jeff Sessions, el entonces fiscal general de Estados Unidos, en una decisión titulada “Matter of A-B-” anuló un fallo de la corte migratoria que daba asilo a mujeres que huían de sus países por motivos de violencia doméstica. Un juez federal bloqueó la medida establecida por la administración de Trump, la cual ponía fin al otorgamiento de asilo por motivos de violencia doméstica. Sin embargo, la situación de los migrantes que ya lo habían solicitado por esos motivos aún sigue en el limbo y abierta a interpretación. Ashkan Yekrangi, abogado especialista en migración radicado en Orange County, dijo que las acciones de Sessions han creado un área gris en la que los jueces no están seguros de cómo manejar las solicitudes de asilo basadas en alegatos de violencia doméstica. Según Yekrangi, actualmente ” la mayor parte de los casos son rechazados, porque tanto los jueces como el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional se están basando en la medida “Matter of A-B-”. Read more…
Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 8 minutes (2,228 words)
“Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate.” While Naomi Wolf’s intellectual side failed her last week, her public side did not. That first line was her measured response when a BBC interviewer pointed out — on live radio — that cursory research had disproven a major thesis in her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (she misinterpreted a Victorian legal term, “death recorded,” to mean execution — the term actually meant the person was pardoned). Hearing this go down, journalists like me theorized how we would react in similar circumstances (defenestration) and decried the lack of fact-checkers in publishing (fact: Authors often have to pay for their own). The mistake did, however, ironically, offer one corrective: It turned Wolf from cerebral superhero into mere mortal. No longer was she an otherworldly intellect who could suddenly complete her Ph.D. — abandoned at Oxford when she was a Rhodes Scholar in the mid-’80s, Outrages is a reworking of her second, successful, attempt — while juggling columns for outlets like The Guardian, a speaking circuit, an institute for ethical leadership, and her own site, DailyClout, not to mention a new marriage. Something had to give, and it was the Victorians.
Once, the public intellectual had the deserved reputation of a scholarly individual who steered the public discourse: I always think of Oscar Wilde, the perfect dinner wit who could riff on any subject on command and always had the presence of mind to come up with an immortal line like, “One can survive everything nowadays except death.” The public intellectual now has no time for dinner. Wolf, for instance, parlayed the success of her 1991 book The Beauty Myth into an intellectual career that has spanned three decades, multiple books, and a couple of political advisory jobs, in which time her supposed expertise has spread far beyond third-wave feminism. She has become a symbol of intellectual rigor that spans everything from vaginas to dictatorships — a sort of lifestyle brand for the brain. Other thought leaders like her include Jordan Peterson, Fareed Zakaria, and Jill Abramson. Their minds have hijacked the public trust, each one acting as the pinnacle of intellect, an individual example of brilliance to cut through all the dullness, before sacrificing the very rigor that put them there in order to maintain the illusion floated by the media, by them, even by us. The public intellectual once meant public action, a voice from the outside shifting the inside, but then it became personal, populated by self-serving insiders. The public intellectual thus became an extension — rather than an indictment — of the American Dream, the idea that one person, on their own, can achieve anything, including being the smartest person in the room as well as the richest.
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I accuse the Age of Enlightenment of being indirectly responsible for 12 Rules for Life. The increasingly literate population of the 18th century was primed to live up to the era’s ultimate aspiration: an increasingly informed public. This was a time of debates, public lectures, and publications and fame for the academics behind them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one. In his celebrated “The American Scholar” speech from 1837, Emerson provided a framework for an American cultural identity — distinct from Europe’s — which was composed of a multifaceted intellect (the One Man theory). “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future,” he said. “In yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” While Emerson argued that the intellectual was bound to action, the “public intellectual” really arrived at the end of the 19th century, when French novelist Émile Zola publicly accused the French military of antisemitism over the Dreyfus Affair in an open letter published in L’Aurore newspaper in 1898. With “J’Accuse…!,” the social commentary Zola spread through his naturalist novels was transformed into a direct appeal to the public: Observational wisdom became intellectual action. “I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness,” he wrote. “My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.”
The public intellectual thenceforth became the individual who used scholarship for social justice. But only briefly. After the Second World War, universities opened up to serve those who had served America, which lead to a boost in educated citizens and a captive audience for philosophers and other scholars. By the end of the ’60s, television commanded our attention further with learned debates on The Dick Cavett Show — where autodidact James Baldwin famously dressed down Yale philosopher Paul Weiss — and Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. (also famously destroyed by Baldwin), which would go on to host academics like Camille Paglia in the ’90s. But Culture Trip editor Michael Barron dates the “splintering of televised American intellectualism” to a 1968 debate between Gore Vidal — “I want to make 200 million people change their minds,” the “writer-hero” once said — and Buckley, which devolved into playground insults. A decade later, the public intellectual reached its celebrity peak, with Susan Sontag introducing the branded brain in People magazine (“I’m a book junkie. … I buy special editions like other women shop for designer originals at Saks.”)
As television lost patience with Vidal’s verbose bravado, he was replaced with more telegenic — angrier, stupider, more right-wing — white men like Bill O’Reilly, who did not clarify nuance but blustered over the issues of the day; the public intellectual was now all public, no intellect. Which is to say, the celebrity pushed out the scholar, but it was on its way out anyway. By the ’80s, the communal philosophical and political conversations of the post-war era slunk back to the confines of academia, which became increasingly professionalized, specialized, and insular, producing experts with less general and public-facing knowledge. “Anyone who engages in public debate as a scholar is at risk of being labelled not a serious scholar, someone who is diverting their attention and resources away from research and publicly seeking personal aggrandizement,” one professor told University Affairs in 2014. “It discourages people from participating at a time when public issues are more complicated and ethically fraught, more requiring of diverse voices than ever before.” Diversity rarely got past the ivy, with the towering brilliance of trespassers like Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, among other marginalized writers, limited by their circumstances. “The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview,” wrote Mychal Denzel Smith in Harper’s last year, “instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance.”
Speaking of white audiences … here’s where I mention the intellectual dark web even though I would rather not. It’s the place — online, outside the academy, in pseudo-intellectual “free thought” mag Quillette — where reactionary “intellectuals” flash their advanced degrees while claiming their views are too edgy for the schools that graduated them. These are your Petersons, your Sam Harrises, your Ben Shapiros, the white (non)thinkers, usually men, tied in some vague way to academia, which they use to validate their anti-intellectualism while passing their feelings off as philosophy and, worse, as (mis)guides for the misguided. Last month, a hyped debate between psychology professor Peterson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek had the former spending his opening remarks stumbling around Marxism, having only just read The Communist Manifesto for the first time since high school. As Andray Domise wrote in Maclean’s, “The good professor hadn’t done his homework.” But neither have his fans.
But it’s not just the conservative public intellectuals who are slacking off. Earlier this year, Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, published Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. She was the foremost mind on journalism in the Trump era for roughly two seconds before being accused of plagiarizing parts of her book. Her response revealed that the authorship wasn’t exactly hers alone, a fact which only came to light in order for her to blame others for her mistakes. “I did have fact-checking, I did have assistants in research, and in some cases, the drafting of parts of the book,” she told NPR. “I certainly did spend money. But maybe it wasn’t enough.” Abramson’s explanation implied a tradition in which, if you are smart enough to be rich enough, you can pay to uphold your intellectual reputation, no matter how artificial it may be.
That certainly wasn’t the first time a public intellectual overrepresented their abilities. CNN host Fareed Zakaria, a specialist in foreign policy with a Ph.D. from Harvard — a marker of intelligence that can almost stand in for actual acumen these days — has been accused multiple times of plagiarism, despite “stripping down” his extensive workload (books, speeches, columns, tweets). Yet he continues to host his own show and to write a column for The Washington Post in the midst of a growing number of unemployed journalists and dwindling number of outlets. Which is part of the problem. “What happens in the media is the cult of personality,” said Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Livingston Awards and Knight-Wallace Fellowship, in the Times. “As long as it’s cheaper to brand individual personalities than to build staff and bolster their brand, they will do it.” Which is why Wolf, and even Abramson, are unlikely to be gone for good.
To be honest, we want them around. Media output hasn’t contracted along with the industry, so it’s easier to follow an individual than a sprawling media site, just like it’s easier to consult a YouTube beauty influencer than it is to browse an entire Sephora. With public intellectuals concealing the amount of work required of them, the pressure to live up to the myth we are all helping to maintain only increases, since the rest of us have given up on trying to keep pace with these superstars. They think better than we ever could, so why should we bother? Except that, like the human beings they are, they’re cutting corners and making errors and no longer have room to think the way they did when they first got noticed. It takes significant strength of character in this economy of nonstop (and precarious) work to bow out, but Ta-Nehisi Coates did when he stepped down last year from his columnist gig at The Atlantic, where he had worked long before he started writing books and comics. “I became the public face of the magazine in many ways and I don’t really want to be that,” he told The Washington Post. “I want to be a writer. I’m not a symbol of what The Atlantic wants to do or whatever.”
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Of course a public intellectual saw this coming. In a 1968 discussion between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan on identity in the technology age (which explains the rise in STEM-based public intellectuals), the latter said, “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition.” The individuals who have since become symbols of thought — from the right (Christina Hoff Sommers) to the left (Roxane Gay) — are overrepresented in the media, contravening the original definition of their role as outsiders who spur public action against the insiders. In a capitalist system that promotes branded individualism at the expense of collective action, the public intellectual becomes a myth of impossible aspiration that not even it can live up to, which is the point — to keep selling a dream that is easier to buy than to engage in reality. But an increasingly intelligent public is gaining ground.
The “Public Intellectual” entry in Urban Dictionary defines it as, “A professor who spends too much time on Twitter,” citing Peterson as an example. Ha? The entry is by OrinKerr, who may or may not be (I am leaning toward the former) a legal scholar who writes for the conservative Volokh Conspiracy blog. His bad joke is facetious, but not entirely inaccurate — there’s a shift afoot, from the traditional individual public intellectual toward a collective model. That includes online activists and writers like Mikki Kendall, who regularly leads discussions about feminism and race on Twitter; Bill McKibben, who cofounded 360.org, an online community of climate change activists; and YouTubers like Natalie Wynn, whose ContraPoints video essays respond to real questions from alt-right men. In both models, complex thought does not reside solely with the individual, but engages the community. This is a reversion to one of the early definitions of public intellectualism by philosopher Antonio Gramsci. “The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist,” he wrote in his Prison Notebooks — first published in 1971. “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.” It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest person in the room, as long as you can make it move.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
Frances Dodds | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5636 words)
I’d responded to the Author’s anonymous posting on Craigslist, and when I showed up to the interview, I still didn’t know who I’d be speaking with. I was 23, in grad school in New York, piecing together my rent with odd jobs. The month before, I’d replied to an equally opaque Craigslist ad and found myself wobbling over cobblestones in stilettos, club promoting for a man known to the Meatpacking District only as “Doc.” Doc had informed me that I was an “8” among regular girls, but in club world I was only a “4,” given my 5-foot-3-inch stature. He wondered: Did I have many girlfriends over 5-foot-11 I could bring around? They didn’t need to be actual models, just tall enough to be mistaken for models by drunk men from across dark, strobe-lit rooms. I needed a new job.
The Author shuffled into our interview at his Upper East Side apartment, his velvet slippers whispering against the Oriental rugs. He was pushing 80, a small man with bushy white eyebrows and a bulbous nose that pressed flat against his face. He had a full, pouty lower lip and a thin upper lip that curled under when he smiled.
The Author had been a staff writer at an iconic American magazine for three decades and had written a remarkable number of books, mostly memoirs. He’d been blind since early childhood, and while his is surely a story of overcoming great odds, the Author was notorious for his poor treatment of assistants. He actually alluded to this in our interview, telling me there were some unsavory rumors out there and not to believe a word of them. I was dubious but desperate for money. And there was a small part of me that hoped he’d softened with age. Or maybe that he’d sense some unfulfilled potential in me. That he’d treat me with the care one gives to a rare find — plucked from the detritus at a yard sale, snubbed by foolish bygone handlers.
The Author, his wife, and their two adult daughters went to their house on an island off the New England coast every August, and I was expected to go along. The only way onto the island was a 20-minute ferry ride from the nearest seaside town. One road ran through most of the 14-mile island, a hamlet of spruce tree forests and rolling pastures. The island was a private sanctuary for the Northeast’s inconspicuous elite, and on the drive from the ferry station, mansions flickered through the trees. The Author’s house was at the end of a short, wooded drive. He’d built it in the ’80s, with the help of a Modernist architect who’d designed a few New York skyscrapers. By the island’s standards, the house wasn’t sprawling or flashy, but it was distinctively lovely, perched on an embankment above the frigid harbor. Down the hill toward the beach was a pool and a pool house, tucked into an alcove of trees. Past the pool, a pathway cut through high grass and down to the rocky beachfront. I stayed in a spare basement bedroom, with a window that looked out onto the harbor. Their cook, a Brazilian woman in her 80s, slept in a room adjacent to mine.
It didn’t take long to realize that my presence was more a thing to be tolerated than embraced by the family. I wasn’t asked many questions about my life aside from those necessitated by politeness. And to be fair, I can’t imagine what it would be like for your most intimate family memories to include a revolving cast of paid help, always on their way somewhere else. Anyway, it seemed like I was mainly there to enable the Author’s wife and daughters not to be there, so he and I were often alone. My job title was “editorial assistant,” though the only editorial skill required was basic literacy. I read the New York Times aloud to the Author every morning, then we perused headlines from The Guardian. Then we responded to his emails, of which there were generally few of note. Then there was lunch, his nap, a walk, and an afternoon activity. Aside from the nap, we did everything together.