After my internship, my first assignment for National Geographic was a story about the Zinacenteco Indians in the highlands of Chiapas. The subject was interesting but very challenging. As a woman, my access was mostly limited to other women who only spoke the Maya language I was struggling to learn. Once I traversed the language barrier, it was still very difficult to gain permission to photograph because it was a culture that traditionally believed that taking one’s pictures meant taking one’s soul. Each photograph was the result of a protracted pre-negotiation. While I was struggling to make pictures there, I started dreaming of photographing in a place where people actually liked being photographed. I started to think about the prospect of documenting a culture that I understood, where my perspective and understanding could actually make a difference in my seeing.
I found an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a groundbreaking novel about the jaded alienation of the young and rich in Los Angeles, on the bookshelf of our rented house in Chiapas. As I reread it, I thought about how people around the world were fascinated by the depiction of Los Angeles kids in the popular TV show Beverly Hills 90210. I realized that the world I grew up in, Los Angeles, was worthy of the same kind of sociological and anthropological study, that as photographers, anthropologists and documentarians, we customarily turn on the other rather than on ourselves.
So I came back to my hometown and started documenting kids in Los Angeles, the place that fabricates the popular culture that is exported around the world.
—Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield writing in Time. Greenfield studied film and anthropology in college and had initially planned to spend her career “documenting the exotic [and] the other”; instead she returned home to Los Angeles and turned the lens on the world she’d grown up in. Those photographs ended up becoming Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, her acclaimed first book. That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, Greenfield has become a renowned chronicler of youth culture, gender and consumerism, and is perhaps best known for her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles.
Jacob Silverman | Longreads | February 2019 | 22 minutes (6,069 words)
Mark Doten is a deranged seer, a mad scribe mapping the end of the world. In The Infernal, his wonderfully strange first novel, he tackled a host of twenty-first century horrors: Osama Bin Laden and his followers, the moral disaster of the War on Terror, the gravitational pull of the networked world on our minds, and a seemingly inevitable post-human future in which one of the few survivors is Mark Zuckerberg. Now, in Trump Sky Alpha, Doten’s produced a fierce, unexpectedly moving, and surprisingly quickly conceived book about the Trump presidency. The new novel begins with a nuclear conflagration that wipes out 90 percent of the global population. The protagonist, Rachel, a journalist steeped in the folkways of the internet, is one of the few survivors. In an effort to reboot American journalism, the New York Times Magazine, risen from the ashes, assigns her to write an article about internet humor at the end of the world. What were people tweeting as the bombs fell?
It may sound like a deliberately obscure assignment, but it soon takes Rachel into some of the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic American landscape. Mourning her dead wife and child, Rachel is also searching for their final resting place; along the way she finds a new lover, encounters an American security state that seems just as malevolent as its pre-apocalyptic forebears, tangles with a frightful hacktivist-turned-cyber-villain, and meets a novelist dying of radiation exposure who may be the key to it all. Trump Sky Alpha begins as an elaborate farce and ends as something much more grim and compelling, covering issues of politics, resistance, identity, and what, after all these years of mindless info-consumption, the internet actually means to our society. Read more…
Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”
“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.
A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in. Read more…
Peter C. Baker | Longreads and The Point | February 2019 | 35 minutes (8,900 words)
“What do you know about Jon Burge?”
Barely seven minutes into her black-history elective on the morning of April 16th, Juanita Douglas was asking her students a question she’d never asked in a classroom before, not in 24 years of teaching in Chicago’s public schools. She’d been preparing to ask the question for over a year, and she knew that for many of her students the conversation that followed would be painful. Disorienting. She didn’t like the idea of causing them pain. She didn’t want to make them feel overwhelmed or lost. But she thought, or at least hoped, that in the end the difficulty would be worth the trouble.
It was only second period. Several of Douglas’s students — a mix of juniors and seniors — were visibly tired. A few slumped forward, heads on their desks. I was sitting in the back row, so I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought one or two might be fully asleep. Some were stealthily texting or scrolling through Snapchat. Others were openly texting or scrolling through Snapchat.
After a few seconds, Douglas repeated the question: “Do you know Jon Burge?”
A ragged chorus of noes and nopes and nahs.
“Tell me again what year you were born in,” said Douglas, who is 54 and likes to playfully remind her students that they don’t know everything about the world.
2000. 2001. 1999.
“Okay,” she said. “Well… Welcome to Chicago.”
Like so many new curriculum units in so many high schools across America, this one began with the teacher switching off the lights and playing a video. Who was Jon Burge? The video supplied the answer. Burge was a former Chicago Police Department detective and area commander. Between 1972 and 1991 he either directly participated in or implicitly approved the torture of at least — and this is an extremely conservative estimate — 118 Chicagoans. Burge and his subordinates — known variously as the Midnight Crew, Burge’s Ass Kickers, and the A-Team — beat their suspects, suffocated them, subjected them to mock executions at gunpoint, raped them with sex toys, and hooked electroshock machines up to their genitals, their gums, their fingers, their earlobes, overwhelming their bodies with live voltage until they agreed: yes, they’d done it, whatever they’d been accused of, they’d sign the confession. The members of the Midnight Crew were predominately white men. Almost all of their victims were black men from Chicago’s South and West Sides. Some had committed the crimes to which they were forced to confess; many had not. The cops in question called the electroshock machines “nigger boxes.”
The video cut to Darrell Cannon, one of the Midnight Crew’s victims. He spoke about getting hauled by cops into a basement:
I wasn’t a human being to them. I was just simply another subject of theirs. They had did this to many others. But to them it was fun and games. You know, I was just, quote, a nigger to them, that’s it. They kept using that word like that was my name… They had no respect for me being a human being. I never expected, quote, police officers to do anything that barbaric, you know… You don’t continue to call me “nigger” throughout the day unless you are a racist. And the way that they said it, they said it so downright nasty. So there’s no doubt in my mind that, in my case, racism played a huge role in what happened to me. Because they enjoyed this. This wasn’t something that was sickening to them. None of them had looks on their faces like, ugh, you know, maybe we shouldn’t do this much. Nuh-huh. They enjoyed it, they laughed, they smiled. And that is why my anger has been so high. Because I continuously see how they smile.
Text on the screen explained that Burge was fired in 1993, following a lawsuit that forced the Chicago Police Department to produce a report on his involvement in “systematic torture,” written by its own Office of Professional Standards. After his firing Burge moved to Apollo Beach, Florida, where he ran a fishing business. In 2006 another internally commissioned report concluded that he’d been a torture ringleader, but still no charges were brought; the Illinois five-year statute of limitations for police brutality charges had by then expired. In 2008 FBI agents arrested Burge at his home, and creative federal prosecutors charged him — not with torture, but with perjury. In a 2003 civil case, Burge had submitted a sworn statement in which he denied ever taking part in torture. In 2010 a jury found him guilty. After the trial, jurors pointed out that the name of Burge’s boat — Vigilante — hadn’t helped his case.
As soon as the video ended and Douglas flipped the lights back on, her students — most of whom were, like her, black — started talking. Their confusion ricocheted around the room.
“How long did he get?”
“He only got four-and-a-half years?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“I really feel some type of way about this.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I’ve got it on my phone.”
“He didn’t torture them alone. Why didn’t anyone else get charged?”
“I’ve got it on my phone. He’s still alive.”
“I’m just… angry.”
“He lives in Florida!”
“Didn’t no one hear the screams?” Read more…
Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)
At the end of An Open Secret, the 2015 documentary by Amy J. Berg about child sex abuse in Hollywood, a card reads: “The filmmakers emphasize that this is not a gender based issue. We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.” It was an odd thing to read after watching a 99-minute film — one that could not secure a distributor and was self-released on Vimeo — in which no girls were mentioned. Whether or not it was intentional, the statement had the effect of equating the two genders, erasing any nuance that might exist in a male victim versus a female victim. It leaves the impression that the abuse we predominantly talk about — which, in our current climate, targets girls and women — is the standard. So the way girls and women are mistreated and how they react to this mistreatment is how all of us do. The fallout from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is the fallout from Michael Jackson and Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and Gary Goddard. Read more…
Denis Diderot’s incarceration at Vincennes took place exactly halfway through his seventy years on earth. Prison became the dramatic pause that gave shape and meaning to both sides of his life. Before prison, Diderot had been a journeyman translator, the editor of an unpublished encyclopedia, and a relatively unknown author of clandestine works of heterodoxy; on the day that he walked out of Vincennes, he was forever branded as one of the most dangerous evangelists of freethinking and atheism in the country.
During Diderot’s three-month imprisonment, his jailer the Count d’Argenson and the count’s brother the marquis had looked on with amusement while this “insolent” philosophe had bowed and scraped before the authority of the state. In a diary entry from October 1749, the marquis related with glee how his brother the count had supposedly broken Diderot’s will. Solitary confinement and the prospect of a cold winter had succeeded where the police’s warnings had failed; in the end, the once-cheeky writer had not only begged for forgiveness, but his “weak mind,” “damaged imagination,” and “senseless brilliance” had been subdued. Diderot’s days as a writer of “entertaining but amoral books,” it seemed, were over. Read more…
As a result of Trump’s April 2017 “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, immigration policies have become more strict toward companies applying for H-1B visas, making it much harder for them to hire highly-skilled legal immigrants. And while the U.S. still attracts top talent from around the world, these more rigid policies make education and employment in other countries more feasible and attractive.
For Philadelphia magazine, Gina Tomaine describes the challenges her future brother-in-law, Akirt Sridharan, faced while looking for work in the U.S. Sridharan, a 26-year-old man from India, graduated from the University of Delaware with an MBA and a master’s in electrical engineering. He had spent $125,000 on tuition in the U.S., and after graduating in May 2017, had applied to 2,000 jobs — with no success.
After graduating, Akirt began an odyssey into the byzantine American job market. He had high hopes at first, with an early lead at a financial company in Delaware. But after a second interview, the company learned he needed visa sponsorship and stopped the conversation.
“I’ve been sleeping on so many couches, they’ve just become my bed,” says Akirt. “I obviously never wanted to burden anybody, and that feeling is always in the back of my head. When you’re at someone else’s place all the time, you don’t know where home is anymore.”
He applied to more jobs. Then more jobs. He moved to San Francisco, since that’s supposed to be where the tech jobs are centered. Many companies wanted to hire him. What they didn’t want? To sponsor a visa at a time when applications are often rejected and the lottery system is a gamble.
All of this has been happening, of course, as tech companies in particular are desperate for skilled workers.
With no prospects, Akirt began to look for work outside of the U.S., and after four years of living in the country, he left. And suddenly, he was getting job interviews.
Akirt landed on November 7th in Chennai, a burgeoning start-up hub — the city his parents are originally from and have retired to. Their white marble high-rise apartment, whose decor features Hindu gods and goddesses, African tribal artwork, and every Apple product imaginable, sits next to a huge technological park — one that’s currently hiring Americans. Now that he was looking beyond the United States, Akirt seemed to have opportunities everywhere.
“I was restricting myself to this one country all this time,” he said. “Now, I have hundreds of countries left to explore.”
Will Meyer | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (4,073 words)
“At the museum steps
Didn’t we establish
That all this blood is not a dream
This is progress
And we are not that high
We could almost be redeemed”
— unreleased song by The Lentils
For years, changes in butterfly populations and migrations have been considered an “early warning indicator” of global warming. In 2006, a British butterfly specialist told The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert that of 10 species living in Southern England at the time, “Every single one has moved northward since 1982.”
Now, several years and many missed early warning indicators later, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has received a letter from Customs and Border Protection announcing the government’s intent to build a border wall through critical habitat for 240 species of butterflies and 300 types of birds. The letter explains that the wall will be 36-feet tall and 20-feet wide, and that an additional 150 feet south of the border will be cleared of all vegetation to create an “enforcement zone.” Comparing the wall’s construction with a calamitous weather event, the National American Butterfly Association president told the San-Antonio Express News that: “For us to financially survive and weather this storm, we’re trying to create a fund that will be kind of like an endowment.” As of this writing, a GoFundMe created to protect the Center has raised just over $24,000.
Meanwhile, given that Mexico hasn’t “paid for it” and won’t, a GoFundMe to finance the wall’s construction raised $20.5 million dollars before GoFundMe decided to offer refunds. That’s nowhere near enough money to actually build the thing, but enough to make you pretty sure the butterflies don’t stand a chance. Indeed, the president and the Republican-controlled Senate have shut down large swaths of the government for over a month, demanding that the Democrats in the House vote to pay for the wall before the government can be reopened. Still, it’s hard to believe the wall is really going up.