Tag Archives: excerpts

Living Differently: How the Feminist Utopia Is Something You Have to Be Doing Now

Cover of program for the National American Women's Suffrage Association procession. (Getty Images)

Lynne Segal | Verso | November 2017 | 32 minutes (8,100 words)

The following is an excerpt from Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, by Lynne Segal (Verso, November 2017). This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.

It is sometimes said that the twentieth century began with utopian dreaming and ended with nostalgia, as those alternative futures once envisioned seemed by then almost entirely discredited. However, it was never quite so straightforward. The challenge to envisage how to live differently, in ways that seem better than the present, never entirely disappears.

The most prominent American utopian studies scholar, Lyman Tower Sargent, notes that dystopian scenarios increasingly dominated the speculative literary form as the twentieth century progressed. In the UK, the equally eminent utopian studies scholar Ruth Levitas concurs, pointing out, for instance, that as sociology became institutionalized in the academy, it became ‘consistently hostile’ to any utopian content.

What stands out in speculative fantasies of the future arising towards the end of the twentieth century are their darkly dystopic leanings, whether in books, cinema, comics or elsewhere. The best known would include the mass surveillance depicted in the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical novel We (1921).

Set in the future, it describes a scientifically managed totalitarian state, known as One State, governed by logic and reason, where people live in glass buildings, march in step, and are known by their numbers. England’s Aldous Huxley called his dystopic science fiction Brave New World (1932), where again all individuality has been conditioned out in the pursuit of happiness. Bleaker still was George Orwell’s terrifyingly totalitarian 1984 (1945): ‘If you want a picture of the future,’ Orwell wrote in 1984, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’

These imaginings serve primarily as warnings against futures that are often read, as with Zamyatin and Orwell, as condemnations of Soviet society. The happiness expressed in Huxley’s ‘utopic’ universe depicts a deformed or sinister version of the route where all utopias end up, as totalitarian regimes, in which free will is crushed. As the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman later noted: ‘From a means of winning people over to the ideal of socialism, the utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.’

Post-1945, public intellectuals for the most part broadcast the view that democracy and utopic thinking were opposed, the latter declared both impossible and dangerous. The influential émigré and British philosopher of science Karl Popper argued in his classic essay ‘Utopia and Violence’ (1947) that while ‘Utopia’ may look desirable, all too desirable, it was in practice a ‘dangerous and pernicious’ idea, one that is ‘self‐defeating’ and ‘leads to violence’. There is no way of deciding rationally between competing utopian ideals, he suggested, since we cannot (contra Marxism) scientifically predict the future, which means our statements are not open to falsification and hence fail his test for any sort of reliability.

Indeed, accusations of ‘totalitarian’ thinking were the chief weapon of the Cold War, used by Western propaganda to see off any talk of communism. In the USA it was employed to undermine any left or labour movement affiliations, as through the fear and financial ruin inflicted upon hundreds of Americans hauled before Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – over half of them Jewish Americans. Read more…

The RNC, Revisited

Photo: Getty Images

Jared Yates Sexton 

The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage | Counterpoint | August 2017 | 19 minutes (5,081 words) 

Below is an excerpt from The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, by Jared Yates Sexton. A version of this story originally appeared in The Atticus Review in July of last year, when it wasn’t yet clear that the ugliness Sexton Yates saw in Cleveland was a harbinger of much to come. Or, perhaps it was clear—to anyone who was really looking. Here is that essay, revisited. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Because I can.

The news broke over the radio.

Another ambush.

Another murder in a long line of murders.

Another gaping wound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a reeling community that hadn’t the chance to heal from Alton Sterling’s tragic death twelve days earlier. Three officers killed, another three wounded. The gunman a veteran named Gavin Long who celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday by targeting cops in the streets.

The cable networks breathlessly speculated in the fashion that’d become so commonplace in our era of panic. How many gunmen? Who’s responsible? We’re just getting video—what is this exactly? What type of weapon are we talking about? What’s the feeling out there? All the same whether it’s Baton Rouge or Dallas or France.

The only relief came when they would throw to their reporters stationed in Cleveland, preparing for the upcoming Republican National Convention and the possibility that the trend of violence could continue. Are people nervous? they asked. What type of security measures are being taken?

An hour or so later, Stephen Loomis, the president of Cleveland’s Patrolmen’s Association, begged Governor John Kasich to suspend open-carry regulations in the area outside the Quicken Loans Arena, a request Kasich said he couldn’t grant. Following his answer—a denial Loomis bemoaned on every available network—the media speculated again, this time what kind of tragedy Cleveland could see if tensions ran too hot.

“I think they’re gonna burn down the city,” a caller said on talk radio. “I really do.”

By Monday morning, the most sought-after picture in Cleveland was someone carrying a weapon in plain view of the entire world. The first I found was Jesse Gonzales, conspicuous because of the large halo of reporters surrounding him. Holding court in the heart of them, Gonzales stood with an AK-47 on his back.

By my count, there were at least four countries and three continents worth of cameras trained on him as he casually answered the most repeated question of why he would ever carry a weapon into a powder keg like this: “Because I can.”

Giving a similar answer was a group of Minutemen posting up on a corner outside Public Square. Decked out in body armor and combat boots, tactical communication sets snaking out of their ears, they pontificated on the police union’s “illegal request” and, when asked about the weapons, would only say three words: “It’s the Constitution.”

A few feet away were Ohio police officers in bulletproof vests. I asked one what he thought of the open-carriers and got a roll of the eyes. “No comment,” he said, “but it’s a pain in my ass.”

The scene was interrupted as a truck pulled slowly down the road with a digital screen in the back that sparked to life. Conspiracy mogul Alex Jones’s gruff voice avalanched out of the speakers and declared war on globalists and labeled Hillary Clinton a criminal who needed to be locked away.

Soon a black passerby invaded the space, leaving the Minutemen visibly uncomfortable. He carried a sign and ordered random members of the crowd to join him for a picture. “You,” he said to a passing girl. “I don’t know you from a sandwich, but come on over here.”

As the picture of the man and the Minutemen was snapped, the outfit’s leader shouted their two-minute warning. Not long after they were marching down the sidewalk, crossing the street, their rifles bouncing as they stepped out of rhythm. Read more…

How Does It Feel? An Alternative American History, Told With Folk Music

Daniel Wolff | Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 | Harper| June 2017 | 18 minutes (4,937 words) 

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

An alien way of life.

You could say the silence started in Calumet in 1913. Word spread that the doors opened inward, that no one was to blame. What followed was a great quiet, a hundred years of agreed-upon untruth.

Or you could say it began just afterward, during the patriotic rush of the First World War and the Palmer Raids that followed. The Wobblies were crushed, the call for a workers’ alternative stilled.

Or you could say it began after the Second World War. If you see the two global conflicts as a single long realignment of power, then after America emerged as a superpower, its century-long Red Scare kicked back in with a vengeance. That’s how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saw it. She traced the “hysterical and fear laden” atmosphere of the late 1940s back to when she was a union maid visiting Joe Hill in prison. “Now,” she said, “it is part of the American tradition.” In other words, once the nation of immigrants had defined itself, had determined an American Way, it also established the opposite: an Un-American Way.

In 1918, it was the U.S. Senate’s Overman Committee investigating Bolsheviks. In 1930, the Fish Committee looked into William Z. Foster and other communist influences. Eight years later, it was the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which continued to operate through the fifties. “The real issue,” as HUAC’s first chairman, Martin Dies, put it, was “between Americanism on the one hand and alienism on the other.”

No one did more to define the Un-American than J. Edgar Hoover. His career began in 1917 jailing “disloyal aliens” as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department. Soon Hoover was in charge of carrying out the Palmer Raids. By 1924, he was head of the nation’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he appeared before the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1948, he testified to “some thirty-five years of infiltration of an alien way of life in what we have been proud to call our constitutional republic.” That math put the beginning of the infiltration—and the silence—in 1913.

Hoover testified as the Popular Front was making one last national effort. Henry Wallace, former vice president under FDR, had mounted a third-party run for the presidency. Seeing little difference between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, Wallace vowed to establish “the century of the common man.” That included expanded health care, the nationalization of the energy industry, and cooperation with Russia instead of Cold War. Attacking what he called the Red Scare “witch hunt,” Wallace proclaimed, “those who fear communism lack faith in democracy.”

What was left of the Popular Front rallied around him. Alan Lomax headed up a “musical desk” and brought in Guthrie, Seeger, Hays, and others. People’s Songs churned out tunes, including a fiddle-and-guitar blues by Guthrie: “The road is rocky, but it won’t be rocky long / Gonna vote for Wallace: he can righten all our wrongs.” Read more…

We Should Be Talking About the Effect of Climate Change on Cities

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images.

Ashley Dawson | Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change | Verso | October 2017 | 17 minutes (4,461 words) 

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

An utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation.

Milestones on the road toward climate chaos are all too frequent these days: in 2015, the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time; each year Arctic sea ice levels grow lower and lower; permafrost in areas like Siberia and Alaska is melting, releasing dangerous quantities of methane into the atmosphere; and each year brings more violent storms and more severe droughts to different parts of the world. Indeed, news of apocalyptic climate-related events is so manifold that it can feel overwhelming, producing a kind of disaster fatigue. One recent announcement merits particular attention, however: in the summer of 2014, a team of NASA scientists announced conclusive evidence that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica had become unstoppable. This melting alone, they concluded, will drive global sea levels up by over 1 meter (3 feet). As the Pine Island, Thwaites, and other glaciers of the Amundsen Sea sector collapse into the ocean, the effect is expected to be like a cork removed from a bottle of champagne: the ice the glaciers held back will rush rapidly into the sea, and the entire West Antarctic ice sheet will collapse. Sea levels will consequently rise 3 to 5 meters (10–16 feet). In addition, it was recently discovered that the same process that is driving this collapse, the intrusion of warmer ocean water beneath the glaciers in West Antarctica, is also eroding key glaciers in East Antarctica. The East Antarctic ice sheet contains even more ice than the western sheet: the Totten glacier alone would account for 7 meters (23 feet) of sea level rise. As if this weren’t bad enough news, a similar process of melting is also taking place in Greenland, where fjords that penetrate far inland are carrying warm water deep underneath the ice sheet.

These reports overturn long-held assumptions about the stability of Greenland’s glaciers: until recently, scientists had predicted that Greenland’s ice sheet would stabilize once the glaciers close to the warming ocean had melted. The discovery of ice-bound fjords reaching almost sixty-five miles inland has major implications since the glacier melt will be much more substantial than anticipated. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets combined contain over 99 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice. If they were to melt completely, they would raise global sea levels a virtually inconceivable 65 meters (200 feet). Although it remains unclear exactly how long the disintegration of these ice sheets will take, the implications of such melting for the world’s coastal cities are stark, and still almost totally unacknowledged by the general public. As Robert DeConto, co-author of a recent study that predicts significantly faster melt rates in the world’s largest glaciers, points out, we’re already struggling with 3 millimeters per year of sea level rise, but if the polar ice sheets collapse, “We’re talking about centimeters per year. That’s really tough. At that point your engineering can’t keep up; you’re down to demolition and rebuilding.”

Shockingly, few orthodox scientific predictions of sea level rise have taken the disintegration of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets into consideration. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, projects a high of three feet of sea level rise by 2100, but this prediction does not include a significant contribution from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Like the IPCC’s projection for Arctic sea ice collapse, which has moved up from 2100 to 2050 in the latest report, this prediction is clearly far too low. What explains such gross miscalculations? The protocols of scientific verifiability provide a partial explanation. The general public has urgently wanted to know, after city-wrecking hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, whether the devastation was caused by climate change. But unfortunately scientists have until quite recently been unable to make direct links between particular extreme weather events and climate change in general. This, as environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it in Reason in a Dark Time, would be like saying that a specific home run is “caused” by a baseball player’s batting average. If scientists are becoming less reticent to make these links, as the science of attribution grows more sophisticated and able to track the causes of weather extremes, the change is still occurring slowly.

Nevertheless, the IPCC’s failure to account for the destruction of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can only add to skepticism toward their predictions, especially after they were widely attacked for their 2007 calculations about the speed of Himalayan glacial melting. Further fueled by the climate change denial industry, the IPCC’s own excessively rosy predictions for the future will only increase skepticism. In their 2000 report, for example, the body assumes that nearly 60 percent of hoped-for emissions reductions will occur independently of explicit mitigation measures. As the urban theorist Mike Davis has pointed out, the IPCC’s mitigation targets assume that profits from fossil capitalism will be recycled into green technology rather than penthouse suites in soaring skyscrapers. The IPCC projects a market-driven evolution toward a post-carbon economy, a set of assumptions that, as spiraling levels of greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 demonstrate all too clearly, are dead wrong. These projections concerning sea level rise and the vulnerability of coastal cities will have to be radically revised, especially after spectacular urban disasters hammer home the inadequacy of current projections. But these world-changing transformations will not take place in the distant future. Citing evidence drawn from the last major ice melt during the Eemian period, an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1ºC warmer than it is today, climatologist James Hansen predicts that, absent a sharp and enduring reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global sea levels are “likely to increase several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.” Should they prove accurate, Hansen’s forecasts spell an utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation. Read more…

Is the Internet Changing Time?

Photo: AP Images

Laurence Scott The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World | W. W. Norton & Company | August 2016 | 20 minutes (5,296 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from The Four-Dimensional Human, by Laurence Scott. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Power has been wielded through the pendulum.

‘Now all the petrol has stopped and we are immobilised, at least immobilised until we get new ideas about time.’ This was how the author Elizabeth Bowen described wartime life in Ireland to Virginia Woolf, in a letter from 1941. Bowen explored some of these new ideas in her London war fiction, which is full of stopped clocks and allusions to timelessness, the petrifaction of civilian life in a bombed city. Across the literary Channel, Jean-Paul Sartre’s war trilogy, The Paths to Freedom, is, like Bowen’s Blitz work, in part a study on how time itself becomes a casualty of war. In one scene Sartre describes German troops ordering a division of captured French soldiers to adjust their watches to their captors’ hour, setting them ticking to ‘true conquerors’ time, the same time as ticked away in Danzig and Berlin. Historically power has been wielded through the pendulum, and revolutionary change has been keenly felt through murmurs in the tick and the tock of one’s inner life. King Pompilius adjusted the haywire calendar of Romulus, which had only ten months and no fidelity to season, by adding January and February. Centuries later, the Roman Senate renamed the erstwhile fifth and sixth months of the Romulan calendar to honour Julius Caesar and Augustus, thus sparing them the derangement still suffered today by those once-diligent months September–December. For twelve years, French Revolutionaries claimed time for the Republic with their own calendar of pastorally themed months, such as misty Brumaire and blooming Floréal.

The digital revolution likewise inspired a raid on the temporal status quo. In 1998, the Swatch company launched its ill-fated ‘Internet Time’, a decimalised system in which a day consists of a thousand beats. In Swatch Time, the company’s Swiss home of Biel usurps Greenwich as the meridian marker, exchanging GMT for BMT. This is a purely ceremonial conceit, however, since in this system watches are globally synchronised to eradicate time zones. A main selling point of BMT was that it would make coordinating meetings in a networked world more efficient. This ethos severs time from space, giving dawn in London the same hour as dusk in Auckland, and binding every place on earth to the cycle of the same pallid blue sun. As it turns out, we didn’t have the stomach to abandon the old minutes and hours for beats, and the Swatch Time setting that persists on some networked devices is the vestige of a botched coup. Although this particular campaign was a failure, digitisation is nonetheless demanding that we find our own ‘new ideas about time’. For as the digital’s prodigious memory allows our personal histories to be more retrievable, if not more replicable, we are finding in the civic sphere a move towards remembrance that shadows the capacity of the network to retain the past. But while time is not lost in the ways it used to be, the tendency of digital technologies to incubate and circulate a doomsday mood is making the durability of the future less certain. As a result, the four-dimensional human is developing new strategies to navigate a timeline that seems to thicken behind us and evaporate before us. Read more…

A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick

Photo: Getty Images

Finn Murphy| The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road | W. W. Norton & Company | June 2017 | 22 minutes (5,883 words) 

The following is an excerpt from The Long Haul, by Finn Murphy. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs.

Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. That’s where I’m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.

At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say I’m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though it’s July. The road signs are clear enough, though— the first one says runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: all commercial vehicles are required to carry chains september 1—may 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Let’s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they won’t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rolling—maybe I’ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I won’t. I roll.

I can feel the sweat running down my arms, can feel my hands shaking, can taste the bile rising in my throat from the greasy burger I ate at the Idaho Springs Carl’s Jr. (It was the only place with truck parking.) I’ve got 8.6 miles of 6.7 percent downhill grade ahead of me that has taken more trucks and lives than I care to think about. The road surface is a mix of rain, slush, and (probably) ice. I’m one blown air hose away from oblivion, but I’m not ready to peg out in a ball of flame or take out a family in a four-wheeler coming to the Rocky Mountains to see the sights.

I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm I’m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and I’ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. It’s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.

It doesn’t happen, this time, but the weather’s getting worse. I hit 28 again, caress the brake back down to 23, and start the sequence again. Fondle the brake, watch the mirrors, feel the machine, check the tach, listen to the Jake, and watch the air pressure. The air gauge read 120 psi at the summit; now it reads 80. At 60 an alarm will go off, and at 40 the brakes will automatically lock or just give up. Never mind that now, just don’t go past 28 and keep coaxing her back down to 23. I’ll do this twenty or thirty times over the next half an hour, never knowing if the trailer will hit a bit of ice, the air compressor will give up, the Jake will disengage, or someone will slam on the brakes in front of me. My CB radio is on (I usually turn it off on mountain passes), and I can hear the commentary from the big-truck drivers behind me.

“Yo, Joyce Van Lines, first time in the mountains? Get the fuck off the road! I can’t make any money at fifteen miles an hour!” “Yo, Joyce, you from Connecticut? Is that in the Yewnited States? Pull into the fuckin’ runaway ramp, asshole, and let some
men drive.”

“Yo, Joyce, I can smell the mess in your pants from inside my cab.”

I’ve heard this patter many times on big-mountain roads. I’m not entirely impervious to the contempt of the freighthauling cowboys.

Toward the bottom, on the straightaway, they all pass me. There’s a Groendyke pulling gasoline, a tandem FedEx Ground, and a single Walmart. They’re all doing about 50 and sound their air horns as they pass, no doubt flipping me the bird. I’m guessing at that because I’m looking at the road. I’ll see them all later, when they’ll be completely blind to the irony that we’re all here at the same time drinking the same coffee. Somehow, I’ve cost them time and money going down the hill. It’s a macho thing. Drive the hills as fast as you can and be damn sure to humiliate any sonofabitch who’s got brains enough to respect the mountains.

My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact. My cargo consists of a dozen or so crated modern art canvases, eight 600-pound granite gravestones of Qing Dynasty emperors, half a dozen king-size pillow-top beds I’ll never figure out how to assemble, and an assortment of Edwardian antiques. The man I’m moving, known in the trade as the shipper, has purchased a $25 million starter castle in a hypersecure Aspen subdivision. He figures, no doubt accurately, he’ll be safe behind the security booth from the impecunious widows and mendacious foreign creditors he ripped off, but I digress.

I’m looking downhill for brake lights. I can probably slow down, but there’s no chance of coming to a quick stop. If I slam on the brakes I’ll either crash through the vehicle in front of me or go over the side. I want to smoke a cigarette, but I’m so wound up I could never light it, so I bite off what’s left of my fingernails. I’m fifty-eight years old, and I’ve been doing this off and on since the late 1970s. I’ve seen too many trucks mashed on the side of the road, too many accidents, and too many spaced out-drivers. On Interstate 80 in Wyoming I watched a truck in front of me get blown over onto its side in a windstorm. He must have been empty. On I-10 in Arizona I saw a state trooper open the driver door of a car and witnessed a river of blood pour out onto the road.

The blood soaking into the pavement could be mine at any moment. All it takes is an instant of bad luck, inattention, a poor decision, equipment failure—or, most likely, someone else’s mistake.

If any of those things happen, I’m a dead man. Read more…

How a Journalist Uncovered the True Identity of Jihadi John

British daily newspapers photographed in London on February 27, 2015 shows the front-page headlines and stories on the identification of the masked Islamic State group militant dubbed "Jihadi John". (Photo: DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

Souad Mekhennet I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad | Henry Holt & Company | June 2017 | 19 minutes (5,112 words) 

Below is an excerpt from I Was Told to Come Alone, by Souad Mekhennet. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

The same masked man always spoke first in the beheading videos.

He was known as Jihadi John, a name given to him by former hostages who reported that he and three other ISIS guards came from the United Kingdom.

The hostages called them “the Beatles,” and Jihadi John was their most prominent member.

Jihadi_John

Jihadi John. Via Wikimedia.

*

I tell you, Souad, this man’s story is different.

About a week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, while I was still in Paris, I got a call from Peter Finn. He wanted me to talk to another Post reporter, Adam Goldman, who was trying to identify the “the Beatles.”

Adam’s booming voice and thick New York accent reminded me of a character from a detective movie. He told me he’d heard that Jihadi John was of Yemeni descent, that his first name was Mohammed, and that he came from East London. He asked if I had good contacts in the Yemeni community in London. Not exactly, I told him, but I did have sources among radical Muslims there. I had reported in London and its suburbs after the transit attacks of 2005, and I’d interviewed Omar Bakri, a prominent British Islamist cleric, and some others who didn’t often talk to reporters. I told Adam I’d ask around.

I made some calls, but no one wanted to talk on the phone, so I flew to London. Once there, I reached out to ISIS and Al Qaeda supporters, jihadi recruiters, and a handful of Bakri’s former students. The identities of “the Beatles” was a hot topic around London, I learned. Some of my sources told me that even if they knew who the men were, they wouldn’t tell me for fear of being punished as collaborators or supporters, since they hadn’t shared their information with the police.

One of my sources was a bit older and lived outside the city. He had been involved with a couple of high-level Al Qaeda operatives and was seen as a sort of godfather by many radical young men in and around London. The man said he’d heard rumors about Jihadi John, and he thought he might have met him before he left to join ISIS. Read more…

The War on Drugs Is a War on Women of Color

Andrea Ritchie | Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color | Beacon Press | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,744 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Invisible No More, by Andrea Ritchie. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.

Drug laws and their enforcement in the United States have always been a deeply racialized project. In 1875, San Francisco passed the country’s first drug law criminalizing “opium dens” associated with Chinese immigrants, though opium was otherwise widely available and was used by white Americans in a variety of forms. Cocaine regulation at the turn of the twentieth century was colored by racial insecurities manifesting in myths that cocaine made Black people shoot better, rendered them impervious to bullets, and increased the likelihood that Black men would attack white women. Increasing criminalization of marijuana use during the early twentieth century was similarly premised on racialized stereotypes targeting Mexican immigrants, fears of racial mixing, and suppression of political dissent.

The “war on drugs,” officially declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, has come to refer to police practices that involve stopping and searching people who fit the “profile” of drug users or couriers on the nation’s highways, buses, trains, and planes; saturation of particular neighborhoods (almost entirely low-income communities of color) with law enforcement officers charged with finding drugs in any quantity through widespread “stop and frisk” activities; no-knock warrants, surveillance, undercover operations, and highly militarized drug raids conducted by SWAT teams. It also includes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, which contribute to mass incarceration, and a range of punitive measures aimed at individuals with drug convictions.

Feminist criminologists assert, “The war on drugs has become a largely unannounced war on women, particularly women of color.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women.” Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women make up a grossly disproportionate share of women incarcerated for drug offenses, even though whites are nearly five times as likely as Blacks to use marijuana and three times as likely as Blacks to have used crack. According to sociologist Luana Ross, although Native Americans make up 6 percent of the total population of Montana, they are approximately 25 percent of the female prison population. These disparities are partially explained by incarceration for drug offenses. These statistics are not just products of targeting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; they are consequences of focusing on women of color in particular. From 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by 9 percent while men’s decreased by 7.5 percent. These disparities were even starker at the height of the drug war. Between 1986 and 1995, arrests of adult women for drug abuse violations increased by 91.1 percent compared to 53.8 percent for men.

However, there continues to be very little information about the everyday police encounters that lead to drug arrests and produce racial disparities in women’s prisons. For instance, less well known in Sandra Bland’s case is the fact that before her fateful July 2015 traffic stop, she was twice arrested and charged for possession of small amounts of marijuana. After her first arrest a $500 fine was imposed. After the second, she served thirty days in Harris County jail, a facility criticized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for its unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Read more…

Late in Life, Thoreau Became a Serious Darwinist

Randall Fuller | The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation | Viking | January 2017 | 25 minutes (6,840 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which explores the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species on American intellectual life. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

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“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Origin_of_Species_illustration_cropped

Detail from the single illustration that appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Via Wikimedia.

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537 plants!

With the possible exception of Asa Gray, no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes, which until recently had never been published, comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. In their attention to detail, they suggest someone who assiduously followed the gradual unfolding of Darwin’s ideas, the unspooling of his argument, as though the book of science were an adventure tale or a travel narrative.

He was drawn to Darwin’s compendium of facts, which illustrated the delicate interplay of causes leading to the survival or extinction of species. Darwin wrote, “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests.” Thoreau copied the sentence into his notebook, probably because he enjoyed the cause-and-effect relationship it implied. He had always been interested in the quirky, arcane detail. “Winged seeds are never found in fruits which do not open,” he read in the Origin, transcribing the sentence into his natural history book. He recorded the strange (if incorrect) statement that “cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf,” something Darwin had gleaned from a work on zoological anomalies by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire, who mistakenly assumed that all blue-eyed cats were deaf rather than the majority, as is actually the case.

He also admired Darwin’s genius for experimentation. Thoreau had described his own efforts in Walden to disprove the local myth that the pond was of unusual depth. With a stone tied to the end of a cod line, he “could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me”— a procedure that enabled him to chart the pond’s topography and discover its shallows and depths. He had even provided a map for interested readers. Now he discovered a similar impulse in Darwin. The British naturalist wanted to determine how far birds might transport seeds caught in their muddy feet; this would explain how identical plant species might be found thousands of miles apart. From the silty bottom of a pond near his home he procured some “three table-spoonfuls of mud,” which “when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces.” He kept the mud in his study for six months, “pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!” The charm of the experiment resided in its simple ingenuity; from common household items Darwin had made a marvelous discovery: 537 plants!

Thoreau was most urgently drawn to Darwin’s ideas. That the struggle among species was an engine of creation struck him with particular force. It undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations. While living on Walden Pond, he had tried to discover the “unbroken harmony” of the environment, the “celestial dews” and “depth and purity” of the ponds. “Lying between the earth and heavens,” he wrote, Walden “partakes of the color of both.” But sometimes a darker reality intruded upon this picture. “From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth lake but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake.” Something portentous and uneasy lurks about this sentence. The “simple fact” that animals must consume other animals to survive upsets Thoreau; it disturbs the equilibrium of one who wishes to find harmony and beauty in his surroundings. Thoreau tries to laugh it off, calling the dimpled lake the result of “piscine murder.” Yet Darwin provided an explanation for nature’s murderous subtext. Competition and struggle influenced “the whole economy of nature.” It drove species to change and adapt. It created. It was the cost of doing nature’s business. Read more…

A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

The U.S.-Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Via Wikimedia Commons.

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

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No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…