Tag Archives: longreads

Treating Drug Epidemics Requires More Than Changes in Law

AP Photo/David Goldman

For a small country, Portugal has a lot of scientific and anecdotal data to offer the world about protecting people from substance abuse. At The Guardian, Susana Ferreira spends time in Portugal’s north and south, examining the sweeping shift from a standard punitive approach to drug use to one focused on harm-reduction. Since decriminalizing drug possession and consumption in 2001, the country has staved off a massive drug epidemic and its associated issues, from HIV to overflowing prisons. Ferreira examines the subtle cultural shifts that underpin Portugal’s success: no longer thinking of soft versus hard drugs, no longer looking at drug users as ‘junkies,’ but as ‘people with addiction disorders.’ Success requires social services and as well as new ways of thinking, which are things the U.S. has long struggled with, but should strongly reconsider as we suffer our own opioid epidemic.

“These social movements take time,” Goulão told me. “The fact that this happened across the board in a conservative society such as ours had some impact.” If the heroin epidemic had affected only Portugal’s lower classes or racialised minorities, and not the middle or upper classes, he doubts the conversation around drugs, addiction and harm reduction would have taken shape in the same way. “There was a point whenyou could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

“The national policy is to treat each individual differently,” Goulão told me. “The secret is for us to be present.”

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Longreads Best of 2017: Sports Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.

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Mary Pilon
Contributor to The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vice. Previously on staff at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Author of The Monopolists and The Kevin Show (March 2018)

Is This the NFL’s First Female Player? (Lars Anderson, B/R Mag)

I’m a sucker for high school sports stories, but Anderson’s examination of Becca Longo isn’t just a showcase of a plucky talent, it also challenges long-held assumptions about the league’s recruitment pipeline. Longo is the first woman to earn a football scholarship to a Division I or Division II school, and Anderson offers a fascinating window into the training and psyche required to become be an ace-level kicker. In lesser hands, the story could have been mawkish or puffy, but Anderson’s prose is sharp, layered, and will likely be reread when we see Longo in the Super Bowl one day.

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Longreads Best of 2017: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2017. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

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Portland, Oregon, Where the Law Protects Car Thieves Instead of Peoples’ Cars

AP Photo/The Telegraph, John Badman

In my first six months living in Portland, Oregon in 2000, someone smashed my passenger window. They stole a jacket I left on the front passenger seat, and some irreplaceable audio recordings I was transporting between work and home. I was pissed. I quickly learned a hard Portland truth: you can never, ever, leave anything visible on your car seats around here. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paper bag full of old burger wrappers or an empty box; if thieves see potential, they’ll break in to get it. The problem has persisted. Shards of broken glass still sparkle on our sidewalks, and people drive with plastic bags taped to their cars to keep out the rain until they can get their windows replaced.

Things have gotten worse. Now thieves just steal your car. Despite its small size, Portland has the third highest car theft rate in America, right after Baltimore and Detroit. By October 2017, more cars had been stolen here than in all of 2016. At Willamette Week, staff writer Katie Shepherd figures out why. It turns out, it’s because of a culture of crime and intravenous drug use, and because lax laws make car theft difficult to prosecute. Cops arrest the same people over and over. That’s how easy stealing cars here is. Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Lufkin is working to change that by closing a loophole. Until then, hide your stuff. Don’t let your car idle to heat up on winter mornings. Use The Club. Not that it matters; parking here is a roll of the dice. So how did this start?

The case involved Jerrol Edwin Shipe, a 49-year-old former retirement home worker who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in a stolen truck in Washington County. He was convicted but appealed the verdict, claiming he didn’t know it was stolen and that he had gotten the truck from “a friend named Richey.”

Evidence at the scene suggested Shipe knew he was driving a stolen truck. He had bolt cutters, multiple sets of keys, and a locked case labeled—amazingly—”Crime Committing Kit.” The truck had other stolen property inside. The key Shipe had been using to start the engine did not belong to the truck.

Shipe’s appeal claimed that prosecutors could not prove he had “knowingly” taken possession of a stolen vehicle. Prosecutors argued that the evidence should have made it obvious to any reasonable person that the truck had been stolen.

The Oregon Court of Appeals judges ruled in Shipe’s favor. Chief Appellate Judge Erika Hadlock wrote in the July 23, 2014, decision that the state was asking the court “to accept too great an inferential leap” in determining that Shipe knew the truck was stolen when he took possession of it. (Hadlock declined comment to WW on her ruling.)

It set a precedent: Carrying tools associated with car break-ins or even operating a car with the wrong key was not enough evidence to prove that someone sitting in a stolen car knew that it was hot.

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Climate Change and Social Disorder in Central Africa

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Incorrectly named by Europeans as Lake Lake, Central Africa’s Lake Chad once sprawled across the region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Camaroon and Chad meet. This massive lake district was once home to 100 million people, where numerous tribes utilized the lake’s bountiful fish and reed islands, grew crops and grazed cattle. In the 1970s, the lake and its tributaries started drying up. Drought descended, followed by tsetse files, famine and disease. Now the tribes and the jihadist extremist group Boko Harama battle over territory and scrarce resources.

In The New Yorker, Ben Taub reports from Lake Chad, where roads are rare and the desert is spreading, to examine how natural disaster and colonialism led to humanitarian disaster and jihadism. Boko Haram is a reaction to poverty and colonialism, and here on the front lines of climate change, shifting ecology contributes to social decay as much as homegrown greed and Western interference.

On the morning of July 22nd, we set off by boat in the direction of Médi Kouta. The chief of the island, a seventy-two-year-old Boudouma named Hassan Mbomi, met us at the shoreline and guided us uphill, through a grove of charred palm trees. He had returned to the island twenty days earlier, to try to grow millet, because he was starving on the mainland. About two hundred people had followed him. “When we got back, everything was burned,” he said. “We have to build our village from scratch.” A large group of men were waiting for us in a dusty clearing, but Mbomi said I couldn’t speak to them. He said that they had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and forcibly conscripted into the jihad before escaping.

To comply with U.N. safety rules, we were accompanied into the islands by a Chadian soldier named Suliman. He seemed ill at ease on Médi Kouta, and the people there eyed him with suspicion. When we left the island, Suliman told me that he didn’t accept the chief’s explanation. “Sometimes they go away, sometimes they come back,” he said. “But they are all complicit.” Some jihadis have a branding on their back—a circle with a diagonal line through it—but, in most cases, “we can’t distinguish who is Boko Haram and who isn’t,” Suliman said.

For two years, Suliman had been fighting in the islands. The Army had no boats. Sometimes his group commandeered fishermen’s pirogues, and he had come to believe that many fishermen worked as spies, alerting Boko Haram to the military’s movements. Like most soldiers, he grew up speaking Chadian Arabic, and cannot communicate with people in the Lake Region. We passed another island lined with burned palm trees. “The jihadis used to come to these islands at night, and we couldn’t see them,” Suliman said. “So we would light the trees on fire, so they wouldn’t come back.” He had torched the trees on Médi Kouta.

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The New Face of Military Recruitment

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Recruitment rates are down, and while the Army works to increase the number of enlistments, it’s simultaneously working to eliminate past unethical recruiting practices. At Task & Purpose, Adam Linehan accompanies recruiters in New Jersey to see how the process works, and to meet the people who might one day form the next generation of American soldiers — if they can qualify.

Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.

“The problem is that the Army didn’t just increase the mission, they increased the demand for quality recruits,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So a lot of guys are cutting corners. Usually it’s just to keep their bosses off their backs — to avoid an ass chewing. It’s hard to flat-out lie when everyone has access to Google in their pockets, so they tell half-truths, which are still lies. Like, if a kid wants to join the reserve for college money, the recruiter will neglect to mention that the education benefits don’t kick in until a year after they sign their contract. That kind of stuff.”

However, among the East Orange recruiters, honesty isn’t just expected; it’s the foundation of their entire approach. In 2015, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, a Special Forces officer who commanded the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion until about five months ago, laid the groundwork for an ambitious strategy to reverse recruiting trends in the Northeast, which is the most challenging environment for recruiters in the country. Croot believed history was to blame: Over decades of dwindling participation in the armed forces, Northeasterners had grown vastly disconnected from the military. To mend the gap — to reacquaint people in the region with the organization fighting wars on their behalf — Croot opted for aggressive transparency. Recruiters would need to spend as much time as possible “outside the wire,” educating the masses about military service. In other words, they’d need to make the Army familiar.

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The Cost of Being a Regular Ol’ American Place

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Some places have easy-to-describe landscapes: Southeastern California is hot and dry. Southern Mississippi is swampy and green. Culture is something else, though — even though the Midwest’s flatness seems to define it, people mistakenly conflate its geography with its culture, which eludes easy description.

In The Hedgehog Review, Phil Christman recounts his struggle to make sense of his native Midwest after he moves back there with his wife. People call the Midwest “flyover country” and “the American breadbasket.” They comment on its orderly grid of roads and towns and its endless fields. But when locals tell Christman this is “the middle of nowhere” and “just like anywhere,” he not only realizes a place can’t be both anywhere and nowhere, but that viewing the region as average and normal works to the Midwest’s own detriment. As he wonders what normalcy in America even is, he questions what effect the Midwest’s sense of its own average American-ness has on people, including himself.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

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Joan Didion and the Nature of Narrative

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The title of the new Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, can apply to any writer’s body of work: under scrutiny, does it hold? Now that Didion has published her final book, critics have started assessing her extensive body of work. At The Point, Paul Gleason takes his own look at Didion’s legacy, connecting her biography with her writerly interests. What Gleason sees is the realization of Didion’s own literary maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Readers often expect journalists and cultural critics to help clarify the stories of our time, but as Didion tackled culture and politics through the decades, she was also examining the unsettling possibility that there was no grand narrative, only a human need to make sense of disorder. Didion told herself many stories in order to live, about her family’s place in the mythic West, about America and the 1960s, about her relationships, and she also tore those stories down. To me, as a longtime fan of Didion’s nonfiction, it seems she told stories that were not only about her subjects or her struggles — she told stories that were about stories, about the ways human beings construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, chaotic nature of existence. Didion might, as Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Bookforum, have been “out of her intellectual range” when it came to large subjects like Feminism, but as a storyteller, Didion’s legacy has much to do with narrative itself and why we want answers, through-lines and resolution, and how we delude ourselves.

In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.

Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”

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Albania’s Blood Feuds

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Our neighbor accidentally drove over our lawn, dislodging a decorative boulder that I put in, but he never mentioned it. We could see the tire tracks from his side of our shared driveway. He probably saw me digging another hole to put the giant rock back in. It was just a boulder, but his un-neighborly silence irritated me. We avoided a feud because I decided an apology didn’t matter as much as our peaceful relationship. So I forgave him, and he kept being his painfully shy anxious self, gentle and unable to deal with the challenges of sharing a driveway. Forgive and forget, I figured. Not in the Balkans.

For Virginia Quarterly Review, Amanda Petrusich traveled to mountainous northern Albania to examine its culture of vengeance. For some Albanians, forgiveness is shameful. Someone must die to right a wrong, and families go on and on for generations, murdering the murderers or the murderers’ relatives, only to get shot themselves and continue the feud. Many blood feuds start over trivial acts, like refusing an alcoholic beverage. Feuds have killed an estimated 12,000 Albanians in the last 25 years. Traveling the region’s rough roads, Petrusich spent time with a negotiator whose job is to facilitate a détente between various parties. Some negotiators get murdered, too.

Per ancient edicts, the avenging family should hunt only an able-bodied adult male (the elderly, women, or boys who are too young to carry arms are excluded), though in recent years those dictums have relaxed, and it is no longer unusual to hear about the retaliatory murder of a young boy or girl. Feuds can begin over most anything, though a high percentage seem to involve property disputes. Despite earnest intervention by the church and the government, reconciliation between feuding families is rarely (if ever) brokered without blood, and the object of a feud—and his family members—are forced to spend decades barricaded inside their homes, hiding. To venture beyond the property line could mean a forceful and immediate death: sudden bullets from on high. Children are pulled from school; jobs are lost. Untethered from the rhythms of a regular life, and unable to conceive of a peaceful future, people drift into depression. Life is at once terrifying and terrifically boring. Families rely on donations to survive. Maybe friends bring food, boxes of groceries. Everyone watches a lot of television. Suicide is not unheard of.

That sounds like a horrible way to spend your life, and for what? Vengeance  seems to only bring more pain. Petrusich looks deeper to understand why this practice exists here and what retribution gets people. Albanian vengeance isn’t lawlessness. It’s an ancient code, so was there something in the exchange that made sense, something that connects back to humanity’s most basic collective unconscious? Most people don’t want to discuss resolution. They want revenge, and targets, as one told Petrusich, just wait for the bullets.

Despite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let. By any accounting, it was a cathartic reckoning, to avenge a crime properly. It surely facilitated a particular kind of healing. Besides, what did it mean to witness and absorb something wicked, but not to correct for it yourself? Intellectually, I understood it was a mark of maturation and empathy and civilization to defer justice to a court, to some impartial entity separate from the family. But I thought, too, of the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep,” Sandel writes. Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?

Vengeance is not merely prevalent in rural enclaves here; the notion of vigilante justice is threaded into Albanian culture. In 2015, Armando Prenga, a Socialist lawmaker and an elected member of Parliament, was arrested after getting into a barroom scrap with a sixty-six-year-old fisherman named Tom Cali. When members of Cali’s family went to local police to report the incident—Cali had been badly pistol-whipped—Prenga burst into the station with his brother and a cabal of associates, discharging several rounds of gunfire and hollering, “We will eradicate your tribe!”

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The Planet Is Pissed and Wants You Outta Here

(AP Photo/Diego Main/Aton Chile, File)

Lately, it seems like everything on Earth is aligned to kill us: hurricanes, fires, floods. That’s the short list. According to Howard Lee at Ars Technica, a host of scientists now believe that massive volcanic floods called Large Igneous Provinces, or LIPs, are the cause of most global mass extinctions. Scientists are trying to figure out how LIPs work and when — not if — another flood will destroy life on earth.

The article goes into fascinating geological detail about what science knows about this cataclysmic volcanism. Although the title, “When Will the Earth Try to Kill Us Again?” makes the process sound maliciously anthropomorphic, the idea of a hateful Earth, sick of humanity’s meddling, does add some welcome levity to a grave vision of our future.

Some scientists claim LIPs occur cyclically every 15 million years, and they think we’re overdue for one. Others admit we don’t understand them well enough to predict. Lee compares human activity on the earth’s surface to an LIP: We are filling the atmosphere with CO2, causing global warming and oceanic dead zones at a faster pace than LIPs. Although nobody can accurately predict when an LIP will destroy our species, we do know this: That vintage wine you’ve been saving in the basement for a rainy day? This is the rainy day. Pop the cork.

Even if LIPs are the “smoking gun” behind most mass extinctions, that still doesn’t tell us how they killed animals. It wasn’t the lava. Despite the moniker—flood basalts—these are not raging torrents. You could probably out-walk the lava from a Large Igneous Province. As vast as they were, they flowed in much the same way as lava in Iceland or Hawaii flows today, with glistening orange and grey lobes swelling, stretching, and spilling to make new lobes. An advancing front will typically move at about a kilometer or two in a day (the average person can walk that distance in 30 minutes).

Unfortunately, gas is deadlier than lava.

The 1783-4 Laki eruption in Iceland gave us a tiny taste of what to expect from a LIP. It bathed Europe in an acid haze for five months, strong enough to burn throats and eyes, scorch vegetation and tarnish metal, to kill insects and even fish. That may be a killer, but, as far as science can tell, the haze from a LIP on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to cause a mass extinction. The climate effects of volcanic gases are deadlier still. Stratospheric sulfur from Laki cooled the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius for three years, triggering one of the most severe winters on record in Europe, North America, Russia, and Japan. Famines ensued in many parts of the world, and that may have planted the seeds for the French Revolution five years later.

A decade-long LIP eruption could cool the planet by about 4.5 degrees Celsius, although the climate would recover in 50 years. This would no doubt cause geopolitical and financial chaos, but it’s unlikely by itself to eradicate a significant percentage of species from the sea, given the time it takes to mix the oceans (about a thousand years) and their huge thermal inertia.

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