To outsiders, the loud, aggressive world of heavy metal might seems like an unlikely place to find progressive politics. But any metalhead worth their leather can attest that the genre has often commented on society’s ills. Black Sabbath railed against the Vietnam War, Nuclear Assault offered apocalyptic visions of Reagan’s ‘80s, Sepultura howled scathing condemnations of the treatment of indigenous tribes in their native Brazil, Napalm Death addressed government failures and corruption, and more recently, Cloud Rat roared about sexism and urban blight atop a grindcore soundtrack. Thrash metal, in particular, has a long-running habit of tackling sociopolitical subjects with its rough barked vocals, wailing solos, and frenetic shredding.
In both a geographical and cultural sense, Mumbai seems about as far as one can get from the California Bay Area where the thrash-metal movement reached its apex. But the Indian band Sceptre offers proof of just how widely this style has spread. Inspired by their American forebears in Exodus and DRI and the music of classic German thrash bands like Kreator and Sodom, Sceptre recently celebrated its 15 anniversary, and is distinguished as one of India’s longest-running metal bands. Their latest recording taps into their genre’s liberal-leaning ideological tradition in a way that’s refreshing and urgent in modern India.
Age of Calamity is a concept album that deals with the plight of women in Indian society, and all proceeds from its sales will go directly to benefit a girls’ orphanage in Mumbai. Its haunting cover artwork was created by Indian artist Saloni Sinha, and depicts a weeping woman cradling her head in her hands, surrounded on all sides by crumbling walls and grasping shadows. It’s a powerful image, and in keeping with the theme, the band chose to work with a female artist.
“We have always been involved in writing about social issues, but this is the first time we decided to deal with gender issues, as the gravity of the situation is too grim to be dismissed so easily,” Sceptre drummer Aniket Waghmode says. “Our country has been plagued by this new evil of rape, which has only grown in leaps and bounds over the years.”
Waghmode’s referring to India’s growing reputation for sexual violence. In late 2012, a New Delhi gang rape claimed the life of a young woman, and the aftermath of that horrific event and others like it has served as a wake up call for many inside the country and out. In an article on this website last year, Isobel Coleman summarized the situation:
Rape happens everywhere, but India is a particularly tough place to be female. Over 40 percent of the child marriages in the world take place in India. Sex selective abortions occur there at staggering rates. In 2011, the gender ratio was at its most imbalanced since India's 1947 independence: among children six years old or under, there were only 914 girls per every 1,000 boys. Increases in wealth and literacy have only exacerbated the problem of female feticide.
Sexual harassment of women—known in India by its euphemism, "eve-teasing"—is widespread and includes behaviors ranging from lewd remarks to physical assault. In a recent Hindustan Times survey of 356 New Delhi women who take public transport, 78 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed in the past year.
Citizens horrified by these developments have rallied, taking to the streets of New Delhi and across South Asia in thousand-strong protests to condemn those who commit rape and the government officials some believe look the other way. While most came with signs, Sceptre chose a different medium to voice their frustration: the distorted guitars and furious roars of thrash metal.
All four members of Sceptre are family men, and Waghmode credits the birth of his daughter for his deepened understanding of the dangers women face. “After my daughter's birth, I could actually foresee how difficult it will be for a girl to move around freely, given the situation we are in as a nation,” he says. “Everyone in the band has been extremely fortunate to get immense support from our respective spouses and parents. We even have other women thanking us for taking this stand.”
Metal’s own gender problem helps to make Sceptre’s album concept seem so unorthodox. Misogyny remains an issue within a genre that calls bands like Prostitute Disfigurement and Cemetery Rapist its own and continues to allow “Hottest Chicks in Metal” features to continue to exist in its biggest publications. While many musicians and fans advocate for equality, there is still much work to be done. Waghmode blames the “fixed mindsets” and metal’s tendency to objectify women as major obstacles against that goal—an observation that rings true both in India and in the U.S.
On the other hand, the heavy-metal community can often make for an accepting, secure space. Siddhi Shah is a Pune-based artist, musician, and music teacher, and has been a metal fan since her early teens. She says that while there isn’t an abundance of women at metal shows in India, the ones that do attend are usually treated respectfully.
“All the gigs I have attended so far have been safe,” she says. “In general, there are always advances from men, but I guess that happens everywhere. In a metal gig, you will find that most of the crowd [is too interested in] the music and the beer and the mosh pits to notice anything else.”
Metal’s “woman problem” is in itself symptomatic of the dangers faced by all women. No matter how much fun a girl can have headbanging up front at a metal gig, she’ll have to make her way home eventually, and there is no guarantee she’ll get there safely.
“The government is far from doing enough to protect women,” Waghmode says, adding that he thinks rapists should get the death penalty. While he points out that the situation for women in urban areas is quickly improving, he believes the roots of Indian society’s gender tensions comes from what Indian music journalist Ankit Sinha refers to as “a lack of basic moral and sex education.”
“A society cannot progress until and unless the individuals constituting it are educated about sexuality,” Sinha says. “The problem of misogyny and gender inequality has prevailed in India since time immemorial, and it is a shame that a nation which is touted as an upcoming economic superpower still doesn’t know how to treat its women with dignity and respect.”
Sinha maintains that awareness efforts and public backlash against things like the gang-rape scandal are starting to make a difference. “Nowadays the masses are becoming more aware of terms like ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’ and people are making a conscious effort for the same,” she says. “Things are changing, rapidly.”
Releasing a loud, raging thrash-metal record about the problems women face is part of that wider move towards raising public consciousness. The title track is fast and furious, and vocalist Samron Jude’s strained bark illustrate the feelings of hopelessness both men and women may feel about their country’s ills: “We cry for revenge, we pray for hope … cries of despair and engulfed in defeat, is there a road or will we all just go down?” Incensed songs like “Parasites (of the State)” and “Judgment Day (End – A New Beginning)” continue the narrative. It’s an intense listen, but Waghmode sums up Spectre’s goal simply: “We just wanted to do our bit for this great nation, in which we still have some hope.”
Culturally, we’re becoming well attuned to the pressure girls are under to achieve an idealized figure. But researchers say that lately, boys are increasingly feeling the heat.
A new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.
The trend toward weight obsession among boys is cause for worry, says Dr. Alison Field, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study. “You want people to be concerned enough about their weight to make healthy decisions,” she says, “but not so concerned that they’re willing to take whatever means it takes—healthy or unhealthy—to achieve their desired physique.”
Of the boys who were highly concerned with their weight, about half were worried only about gaining more muscle, and approximately a third were concerned with both thinness and muscularity simultaneously. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent were concerned only with thinness. Those statistics reflect a major difference between boys and girls when it comes to weight concerns: whereas girls typically want to be thinner, boys are as likely to feel pressure to gain weight as to lose it.
“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”
If boys are increasingly concerned about weight, changing representations of the male form in the media over the last decade or two are at least partly to blame. “We used to really discriminate—and we still do—against women” in terms of media portrayals, says Dr. Raymond Lemberg, a Prescott, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders. “If you look at the Miss America pageant winners or the Playboy centerfolds or the runway models over the years, there’s been more and more focus on thinness.”
But while the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”
Even toys contribute to the distorted messages youngsters receive about the ideal male form. Take action figures, for example, which Lemberg suggests are the male equivalent of Barbie dolls in terms of the unrealistic body images they set up for young boys. In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”
In the face of the ideals they’re bombarded with, it’s no surprise that adolescent boys, like waves of girls before them, are falling prey to a distorted image of themselves and their physical inadequacies: Previous research suggests that up to 25 percent of normal weight males nevertheless perceive themselves to be underweight.
And given their perception of themselves as too small, it’s also no surprise that boys are searching out means to bring their bodies into conformity with the muscular ideal. A 2012 study of adolescents revealed that muscle-enhancing behaviors are pervasive among both middle school and high school-age males: More than a third reported downing protein powders or shakes in an effort to boost their muscularity; in addition, almost 6 percent admitted to using steroids and 10.5 percent acknowledged using some other muscle-enhancing substance.
Pharmaceutical-grade injectable steroids are a definite concern, says Dr. Rebecka Peebles, co-director of the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, but they’re not the biggest worry, given that they’re difficult to obtain. Of more concern are the “natural” powders or shakes that teens can pick up at their local GNC. The problem, Peebles says, is that “natural” in this case simply means unregulated. “They actually can include all kinds of things in them,” says Peebles. In some cases powder or shake supplements “are actually anabolic androgens and just packaged as a natural supplement.”
The consequences can be severe: Long-term use of steroids is associated with depression, rage attacks, suicidal tendencies, and cardiomyopathies. And the negative effects can be particularly significant for adolescents, since their bodies are going through a period of major growth and development.
In many cases, of course, weight concerns among young males remain at relatively benign levels, and when teens attempt to control their weight, they often do so in comparatively innoccuous ways. But when adolescents demonstrate an extreme focus on physique and begin to engage in potentially dangerous behaviors, it can be a signal of an eating or weight-related disorder—in males just as much as in females.
“The misunderstanding has been the generalization that eating disorders are a woman’s issue,” says Lemberg. “What studies have shown is that, in the last 15 years or so, more men have eating disorders than ever before.” The oft-cited figure is that only about 1 in 10 eating disorders occur in males, but according to Lemberg, newer research suggests that the real ratio is probably closer to 1 in 4.
Although awareness of the risk of weight disorders among males is growing, there is still a problem with under-recognition, Field says, primarily because of the assumption that the disorders look the same in males as they do in females. Current assessments for eating disorders focus on the classical presentation typical of females, but since young men are often more concerned with gaining muscle than becoming thin, they typically don’t present as underweight, as girls often do. They’re also not as likely to starve themselves, use laxatives or induce vomiting; instead, they’re much more likely to engage in excessive amounts of exercise and steroid abuse. “Instead of wanting to do something unhealthy to get smaller, they’re using unhealthy means to become larger,” Field says.
But though the presentation might be different, excessive worries about weight, especially in combination with high-risk behaviors, are no less concerning in males than in females. According to Field, it’s time to sit up and take note of the boys. “Pediatricians and adolescent medicine docs and parents [need] to become aware that they should be listening as much to their sons’ conversations about weight as their daughters’.”
Ongoing efforts to make public a report on torture perpetrated by the CIA has the spy agency "nearly at war" with its Senate overseers, Eli Lake reports in The Daily Beast. In theory, that would mean that the CIA is in deep trouble. Congress has the power to destroy the CIA if it so desires. Congress could cut the CIA budget to zero! Yet the press is filled with stories about the CIA and its overseers written as if they are on equal footing, or even as if the CIA has the upper hand.
One reason is that so many members of Congress are disloyal to the legislature, or at least the legislative branch as James Madison envisioned it: a body jealously guarding its power while fulfilling its sacred responsibility to oversee the executive branch. Other legislators fulfilling their oversight responsibilities are undermined by these colleagues, who have been co-opted by the national security state.
This isn't to say that there aren't legitimate disagreements, within the legislature, about the CIA budget, whether or not various reforms ought to be implemented, or the overall performance of the agency, or many other questions besides. But the dispute unfolding right now concerns the degree to which the Senate intelligence committee can fulfill its oversight role, and their power vis-a-vis the CIA.
Every legislator who values the Constitutional role assigned to the branch they successfully joined ought to be rallying together as one against Langley intransigence, even if the version of events friendliest to the CIA turns out to be accurate.
The short version:
- While writing its torture report, Senators and their staffers were forced by the CIA to work in a secure room in Virginia, rather than a secure room at the Senate, which added significant time and expense to their oversight work.
- Senate staffers working in that CIA room, inside a database of documents provided by the CIA, discovered information about torture generated within the agency that contradicted its official statements to the U.S. Senate.
- Senate staffers took what they insist is proof of the discrepancy.
- The CIA maintains that they were not allowed to access or remove that information, and argued that an investigation of Senate staffers should be launched.
- And the Senate staffers say the CIA only knew that the documents were taken because the CIA spied on its overseers as they were drawing up the report.
Every U.S. Senator ought to be up in arms. Even the members of Congress most trusting of and deferential to the national security state, folks like Rep. Peter King and Rep. Mike Rogers, ought to have the backs of their legislative colleagues, if only to preserve the ability of the legislature to fulfill one of its vital roles.
Instead the chain of legislative solidarity has weak links everywhere.
For that reason, the CIA gambled that could can spy on, antagonize, and obstruct its overseers, denying them relevant documents and even trying to get them in legal trouble for doing their jobs. The fact that the CIA believes this might work is problematic. It shows how backward the relationship between agency and overseer has become. Not that this should surprise us. Give someone an inch and they take a mile. Let them get away with illegal torture and what did we expect?
Americans may get lucky. The Inspector General of the CIA has referred the spying allegations to DOJ to investigate. The legislative branch should conduct its own probe. And if they've been jerked around in any way, the CIA should be made to pay a price.
As Ed Morrissey writes, "This is among the worst possible accusations that could be levied against an intelligence service in a constitutional republic. For the CIA, it would be doubly worse, since the CIA’s charter forbids it to conduct any kind of domestic intelligence; that jurisdiction belongs to the FBI, and it’s significantly limited. The legislature oversees CIA, not the other way around, and if the CIA is snooping on their oversight work, that would undermine their authority."
Why doesn't every last member of Congress see that?
The Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club brought a vivid reminder of the harsh realities of what it was like to be a gay in the culturally conservative South of the mid-1980s. As someone born, churched, and educated in the South during that era, I remember that the idea of being gay or lesbian was simply dismissed, and the term “homosexuality” was reserved for hushed conversations about those sinful urban areas far north and west of the Mason-Dixon Line. While the film has been in theaters, however, the news has also been filled with contemporary coverage of a remarkable bevy of judicial decisions overturning bans on same-sex marriage in southern states such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas. While serving as the lead author of a recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute about attitudes about same-sex marriage, I was astounded at the shifts we found in southern attitudes over the past decade.
These changes are, of course, happening amid shifts in the country as a whole. Between 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and December 2013, support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry rose 21 percentage points nationwide, from 32 percent to 53 percent. As of the end of 2013, the number of states recognizing same-sex marriages increased to 17 plus the District of Columbia. And there has been enough judicial ferment at the state level that most court observers believe the issue will end up, in the not too distant future, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Our recent study confirms that these changes cannot be explained away as merely another example of federal judicial activism circumventing the will of the people in southern states. Rather, we are witnessing dramatic cultural transformations, which include changing minds even among culturally and religiously conservative Americans in the South.
Like remnants of Jim Crow-era racism, the hostility toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people depicted in Dallas Buyer’s Club can of course still be found in the contemporary South, but it’s no longer unquestioned. Contrary to what one might expect, today Texans and southerners are evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage. Forty-eight percent of Texans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 49 percent who oppose. Support for same-sex marriage among Texans has doubled during the last 10 years, up from 24 percent a decade ago according to a 2003 poll from Pew Research Center. And despite Texans’ pride in being “like a whole other country,” Texas is no outlier among southern states. In the South overall, support for same-sex marriage has similarly risen from 22 percent in 2003 to 48 percent in 2013.
Given recent history, these shifts are stunning. Just months after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down its ban on same-sex marriage, voters in many southern states reacted to this Yankee court action by overwhelmingly passing bans in their own states. In August 2004, Missouri was the first state after the Massachusetts ruling to vote on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. At the time, I was teaching at Missouri State University and remember vividly that, among my Springfield neighbors, community leaders, and even among my students at a large state university, few were willing to voice opposition to the ban. It passed with 71 percent of the vote. Three months later, the 2004 national elections saw a sweep of 11 states passing constitutional bans against same-sex marriage, and the following year the Texas constitutional ban passed with the approval of 76 percent of the voters.
What explains the rising swell of support for same-sex marriage in the South? There are at least three factors driving this rising tide across Dixieland.
First, it is difficult to overstate the effect of the generation gap. A decade ago, when most of these same-sex marriage bans were passed across the South, the vast majority of today’s Millennials were neither counted in public-opinion surveys of adults nor eligible to vote. Their attitudes strongly diverge from their parents and grandparents. Nationwide, nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans ages 18 to 33 favor same-sex marriage, compared to just 37 percent of Americans ages 68 and older. This generation gap is evident in virtually every subgroup in America, including among southerners. Today, nearly two thirds of southern Millennials (65 percent) support same-sex marriage, compared to just 28 percent of southerners in the Silent Generation.
Second, and perhaps not surprisingly given the value southerners place on hospitality, there is a growing “friends and family effect” at work in southerners’ changing attitudes. Despite the generally conservative cultural climate, more gay and lesbian southerners are coming out to those who are close to them. Nearly two thirds of southerners (64 percent) today say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, a factor that strongly influences support for same-sex marriage. Within that group, 56 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally; among southerners with no gay or lesbian close friends or family members, only 32 percent favor same-sex marriage. These more intimate social connections have moved the debate from the abstract to the personal, to one about the rightness of denying legal recognition for the relationships and commitments of close LGBT friends and family members. For many, if this has not come to seem unjust, it has at least come to feel impolite, a judgment that retains considerable power in the South.
Finally, there is some evidence in the recent survey that southerners may be rediscovering a value that is part of the historical DNA of groups such as Southern Baptists: the separation of church and state. Southerners are drawing a distinction between personal moral objections to same-gender sexual relationships and support for public policy that would legally recognize same-sex marriage. While 48 percent of southerners now favor same-sex marriage, only 37 percent of southerners say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable. To put it bluntly, support for the legality of same-sex marriage outpaces moral approval of same-gender sex by double-digit numbers.
The trend lines all point to a rising swell of support for same-sex marriage—even way down south in Dixie—powered by the coming of age of Millennial southerners, the coming out of LGBT southerners, and the comeback of the principle of separation of church and state. The sea change in southern attitudes signals that old times there may indeed be being forgotten.
Sullivan: Did Rust Cohle just get religion? Am I actually going to get my wish for a spinoff about odd couple housemates Rust and Marty play-bickering into their sunset years? Did we watch eight hours of a beautifully directed, superbly acted show with maddeningly inconsistent writing only to be reminded that all of human history boils down to a struggle between light and darkness?
The very last line of the finale pretty much summed up the experience of True Detective for me. There stand our heroes together, having survived a journey into something akin to hell—not to mention a hatchet to the chest and a knife to the gut. They’re discussing the age-old battle between good and evil, with Marty observing that “the dark has a lot more territory.” But before the camera pans up to a starry sky, Rust, the lovable nihilist, utters one final thought that indicates how much this whole case has shaken his core beliefs and changed him—perhaps for the better.
And if you caught that last line, you were way ahead of me and half my Twitter feed.
Is it too much to ask that you make the very last line of your show clear enough that it wouldn’t be rendered on a transcript as “[unintelligible]”? Yes, McConaughey’s drawling delivery presents a challenge but this is 2014—there are amazing post-production tools that would make it no trouble at all for audiences to hear: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
After rewinding several times and finally making out that line, I found it lovely. Despite my frustrations with the series, I was left with a warm, hopeful feeling for Rust. But the difficulty of hearing that last note was of a piece with the whole show, which too often made choices that unnecessarily muddied the story. Not for the sake of art, not because to do otherwise would have just been spoon-feeding the audience, but just because.
I flat-out adored the show’s first few episodes—and the two main performances have to be the best I’ve seen in years. (Dammit, McConaughey, stop making me cry with all that talk about your dead daughter!) But I was never excited about Pizzolatto’s declaration/boast that the series would subvert the clichés of detective shows. That sounded like a show that would just have a handy excuse whenever it did indulge in its own clichés, being able to accuse critical viewers of not being able to grasp its cleverness.
And that I’m sure will be the retort of those who loved the finale in the face of questions like:
- So all that stuff with Marty’s daughter Audrey was just … coincidence? Or a red herring? A way of suggesting that there’s capital-E Evil like whatever went down at Carcosa but also run-of-the-mill perversion that harms kids all the time? Then why have her set up those figurines in precisely that way?
- We’re supposed to believe that Dora Lange was not just one of Errol’s victims, but was taught about someone called the Yellow King and read passages from Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow? That’s some pretty involved mythology swirling around that ended up being essentially irrelevant to the case’s resolution.
- Was that tangent involving former CID colleague Steve Geraci important in any way to solving the case? Please tell me it wasn’t there just for the cynical purpose of having a character insist he was just doing his job, “chain of command,” blahedy-blah.
- So Rust was depressed and possibly prepared for suicide as he entered this final showdown. But now, despite the heartbreak of feeling he was denied a spiritual reunion with his daughter, despite the guilt of knowing he ran across the killer 17 years ago and that an untold number of victims died since then, now things are different and he can live with himself. Because…?
I vowed to watch the finale as a fan, not as someone trying to figure it all out. But even as a fan, I still found these dangling threads and implausibilities frustrating because the show practically begged us to get into the weeds, to wade into swampy waters. That’s okay if it winds up giving viewers some extra insight. But it’s another thing entirely if the show is just messing with us.
In the end, what I enjoyed most about True Detective was the pairing of Hart and Cohle that drew me into the show from the start. Did that end up being enough for you, Spencer? And am I the only one who thought that gorgeous reflected shot of Cohle in his hospital bed at night was set up to make him look like a certain Son of God? It would certainly put the last line of the finale in a whole different light…
Kornhaber: No, the starlight consummation of Rust and Marty’s long and tortured bromance was not enough to redeem this finale for me, though I’ll agree that bromance was the best part of this entire show. In fact, it was the best part of the episode. When Rust delivers one last passenger-seat philosophical treatise—about “sentient meat”—Marty grunts a perfectly, typically idiotic reply: “What’s scented meat?”
Generally, though, I feel as underwhelmed as Detective Hart usually does after one of Detective Colhe’s soliloquies. And not just because of the remaining plot questions that you mention, Amy. As I said last week, my suspense heading into the finale came less from the storyline and more from my continuing befuddlement at what True Detective really is. The answer is a letdown: a high-budget genre retread with the false veneer of profundity. (As opposed to what I’d hoped for: high-budget genre experiment with actual profundity).
The series sought to improve upon the buddy-cop/serial-killer formula in two ways. One was by providing a pure, gorgeous cinematic experience. That effort was a success. Cary Joji Fukunaga, Matthew McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson probably deserve Emmys for helping make us believe this was the Next Great Television Show. This episode showcased their extraordinary talents as well as any; the set design, camerawork, music, and performances during the entire Carcosa sequence in particular made for excellent nightmare fodder.
The show’s other “twist” on its genre came from how extensively it fleshed out its protagonists. As has been observed before, viewers spent more time with Marty’s family than we ever did with cultists or their victims—a fact that led plenty of people, reasonably, to conclude that the Harts were somehow connected to Carcosa. We also spent a ton of time hearing Cohle ramble deceptively to Papania and Gilbough—it seemed like there had to be more to his character than the show had let on.
But no: Turns out that was all in the service of pure character study. In retrospect, though, it all feels like the show and its viewers had been studying for a test that never came. After all, by the second or third episode, we knew who these two guys were: a square, rigid alpha male who’s hypocritical on the home front; and a deep, brooding, damaged lone wolf with a burning obsession over one unsolved case. Each scene didn’t so much complicate Marty and Rust as remind over and over again about their essential natures. Like men in cop fiction for decades, these guys fought over women, reunited out of duty, and were able to save the world only once they’d cut most ties to it.
As you mention, Amy, Nic Pizzolatto says that these finely shaded but basically recycled characters were supposed to allow him to subvert tropes. Certainly Marty’s violence and sexism isn’t appealing; certainly Rust deserves the eye rolls that other characters threw his way. But creating flawed heroes isn’t subversive—it’s doing exactly what any decent fiction writer is supposed to do. A subversion would have been to make those flaws figure into the main narrative in some unexpected but crucial way. Maybe the “good guys” botch the case. Or maybe, per the theories mentioned before, they’re connected to the murders in ways they don’t understand till it’s too late.
Instead, both main characters got a fair amount of vindication in the end. Marty’s family doesn’t seem to hate him quite as much anymore. Rust believes in the afterlife now. They both go backslapping into the night. All of this comes from them catching a killer of women and children. So for the zillionth time in Western pop culture, men (straight, white ones at that) get psychic rewards for valorously risking themselves on behalf of the weak.
I suppose that Pizzolatto and/or his defenders will argue for True Detective’s subtle profundity by pointing to the fact that Rust and Marty didn’t totally “win.” The wider suspected conspiracy involving the Tuttles and the government lives on. As Marty says, this isn’t a world where you get all the bad guys. OK. Fair enough. I truly wish that that observation really were mind-blowing. But the pervasiveness of evil shouldn’t come as a revelation to anyone, especially anyone who recognized Rust’s sniper-as-insurance trick from a certain other highly hyped TV drama.
A True Detective true believer might also argue that the show’s big, brave message is that men do terrible things to women—whether it’s Marty or whether it’s Errol. But that just feels like more stating of the obvious, in distinctly uncomfortable ways: This juicy, angst-filled thriller created a lot of its juicy angst through the portrayal of, yup, men doing terrible things to women.
Right now, the best defense of episode and the show I can come up with would have to do with the “get religion” ending that has you sputtering, Amy. That final scene, with Rust talking about sensing his daughter’s essence and Marty asking him to tell stories about the stars, was egregiously hokey—but maybe it was meant to feel that way. Rust scoffed at tent worshippers, and the Carcosa cult’s belief in the supernatural had terrible consequences, but Rust ends up joining all of them by buying into comforting, irrational mumbo jumbo.
So perhaps Rust’s nihilism over the course of the series was just the setup for one big, cosmic punch line about the human yearning for meaning. In which case the joke is as much on Rust as on the viewers who obsessed over the clues in the narrative like so many divine omens. Kind of rude, Pizzolatto.
Speaking of which, how’re you feeling, Chris, our resident obsessive omen reader?
Orr: Wait, so you guys didn’t get the coded message in that final shot of the stars? Really? If you connect the stars in sequence from brightest to least bright, you get an anagram that, when unscrambled, reveals that “Sheriff Tate is the Yellow King.”
I mean, seriously. Try to pay attention.
Okay, did I perhaps succumb to an unhealthy—if widely shared—case of obsessive over-reading? Yes, I suppose I did. (See here.)
And it’s true that Pizzolatto had been warning us, in increasingly strident (or perhaps nervous?) tones, not to expect some mid-blowing twist at the end. But maybe he could have offered at least a gentle puff on the cerebral cortex? Something? Anything? It’s as if he scrupulously combed through version after version of the finale script, carefully excising anything that might constitute even a moderate surprise or revelation. I have mixed feelings about the very end of the episode—maybe more mixed than you guys—but let me work my way up to them with a few more close-read observations.
There were several times during True Detective’s brief run, where I came out of an episode astonished by how much they’d crammed into less than an hour. Tonight? Pretty much the opposite. 1) Cohle and Hart brace Steve Geraci, who knows nothing. 2) Based on a clue so obscure that it eluded even the thousands of frame-grab obsessives watching the show (a house in Dora Lange’s neighborhood—not even her house, just one that was canvassed—was freshly painted green), they immediately find their way to Chez Errol. 3) They chase him, shoot him, and both get thisclose to being fatally stabbed/hatcheted. 4) He dies, they live. 5) Stars are pretty. 6) The end.
Now, yes, as you both note, there was still plenty to like here. McConaughey and Harrelson were customarily terrific. Likewise, Fukunaga’s direction. And the chase through Nightmare Backwoods Disneyland was genuinely creepy and tense. But at nearly 10 minutes, it was also twice as long as it needed to be, given all the questions the episode left unexplored or unanswered.
Begin with Errol and his half-sister (or whatever relation she may have been). There was a real opportunity to make these characters memorably unique or idiosyncratic, but instead they basically came across as your garden-variety redneck maniacs. The incest. The mangy dog. The grimy shacks deep in the overgrown woods, decorated according to the dictates of Better Psycho Homes and Gardens: peeling portraits, scuzzy washtubs, mildew thick as wallpaper, and—yes!—dolls. (If there weren’t dolls everywhere, we might have mistaken them for sane, responsible adults.) The one notable particularity ascribed to Errol basically comes out of nowhere and leads nowhere: his instantaneous mimicry of James Mason based on watching 10 seconds of North by Northwest. That was supposed to suggest what exactly?
But more important were the unexplained plot points. So: Errol is in the process of slowly killing his “daddy.” Actual father? Some kind of father figure? Why? Why now? (And, on a narrower note, why is Errol promising to bring the poor fellow water later, given that he’s already sewn his lips shut?)
Nor is it merely the questions raised in this episode that went unanswered. On a broader level, the finale basically just dropped the whole issue of the deeper conspiracy abetted by shadowy figures (among them, Tuttles) in the upper echelons of the Louisiana clergy and political aristocracy. For all practical purposes, it’s dismissed with an aside from a TV news reporter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine with the ultimate resolution. But as a friend noted to me, there’s an entire act missing between Carcosa and the chat under the stars, one in which Cohle and Hart push their larger theory but are shut down by the Powers That Be. Given how central the idea of Rich Men Doing Horrible Things was to the whole series, it needed to be resolved as more than a footnote.
Indeed, we were really never given any real sense at all of how those wealthy aristocrats were connected, in a practical (as opposed to genealogical) sense, with the inbred swamp folk we met in episode 5 and tonight. Errol and the Ledoux brothers don’t seem like the kind of fellows who’d be attending parties at the governor’s mansion and Tuttle Ministries, and their dingy, sodden backwoods abodes don’t really seem suited for entertaining the elite of Louisiana. I get the implicit idea: of generational decay, and moral degradation begetting physical degradation. But even some cursory stab at explaining the mechanics of these upscale/downscale, rape-and-murder get-togethers would have been nice. (Did they serve Oysters Rockefeller? Possum? Or was it a surf-and-turf situation?)
Which brings me to perhaps the episode’s (and, by extension, the show’s) largest oversight: We’ve got this secretive cult that’s quietly killed dozens of women and children over the course of generations without anyone noticing. And yet twice, in 1995 and 2012, at least one member of the cult has flamboyantly arranged a ritualistic crime scene in a manner clearly intended to attract attention. What gives? There are any number of explanations, from the super-clever (arguably too-clever)—i.e., this reading from Paste—to the relatively straightforward. It’s easy, for instance, to posit a narrative where all the omissions I’ve noted above could be explained simultaneously: a generational conflict between the genteel, under-the-radar child rapists of yesteryear and their low-class, high-shock-value country progeny; Errol torture-killing his father as a result of said conflict; and Errol developing a knack for upscale accents thanks to this inter-class interaction. But the show made no meaningful effort to connect any of these dots.
Which brings me to the ending. I would’ve very much liked to have found it uplifting. But I didn’t, because it felt unearned. Maybe it would have worked for me if the episode had devoted a little more time to the idea of persistent evil. But it’s hard to be too upset about the Big Bads in the Background, given that 1) the episode itself treats them as an afterthought; 2) every single demonstrable conspirator in the show winds up dead; and 3) the state-level string-pullers seem so utterly remote from the bayou abyss where the episode spent all its time.
Call me bloodthirsty, but I think the show would have ended more powerfully with either Cohle or Hart dying. The former might have been a little too obvious—you’re not the only one, Amy, who noticed his post-ponytail Jesus hair. But if Hart had died? His family gathered at the funeral, seeing the man’s ultimate worth for all his flaws? Cohle, realizing that the martyrdom he’d envisioned for himself belonged to someone else and he’d have to keep revolving through his own lonely, flat circle? It pains me even to think of it.
Instead, I’m reminded, against my will, of the ending to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film that Pizzolatto is no doubt familiar with (and the one, incidentally, that first put Michelle Monaghan on the map). The P.I.-buddy protagonists, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, have both been both shot, perhaps fatally—especially in the latter case. But Downey wakes up in the hospital, and not long after Kilmer rolls in in his wheelchair, prompting the Downey voiceover: “Yeah, boo hiss. I know. Look, I hate it too. In movies, where the studio gets all paranoid about a downer ending, so, like, the guy shows up and he’s magically alive, on crutches? I hate that. I mean, shit, why not bring them all back?” At which point everyone who was killed in the course of the movie shuffles into the hospital room, along with Abraham Lincoln and Elvis. Totally unfair? Maybe. But that was precisely how I felt about Rust’s miraculous recovery.
All that said—and with genuine apologies for those who thought the show ended exactly as it should—I’m not in your boat, Spencer. Yes, I agree that it’s a show that couldn’t decide what it was, that shifted radically in tone and structure from episode to episode. But its moments of greatness far outweighed its disappointments for me—even now, when I’m close to my depth of disappointment. Like Amy, I thought the first three episodes were sublime, and if the show never quite fulfilled their promise, it still did enough things right—often very, very right—to reward viewing (if perhaps not the kind of obsessive viewing that I ultimately fell prey to).
All told, I feel a little bad for Nic Pizzolatto, who in retrospect seems to have written a powerful, engaging serial-killer miniseries that was so good early on that it raised expectations that it would be considerably more—expectations that, again, he’s seemed to spend the last couple weeks trying hard to ratchet down. Do I think some of the scenarios invented by the shows’ many rabid fans were better than what wound up on screen? Yes, I do. (To cite a very minor example: having the “green ears” of the Spaghetti Monster be the noise-reducing earmuffs of a lawnmower operator makes a ton more sense than having them be the byproduct of a profoundly clumsy painter.) But what writer is going to do a better job at a mystery series—especially so early in his career—than the combined ingenuity of a horde of meticulous fans who don’t really need to make the pieces all fit?
So now Pizzolatto has something to aim for next season. And I’ll be right there watching, hoping for a bullseye.
Kornhaber: “You have an old idea of who I am.”
That’s Adam in the final moments of tonight’s Girls’ episode, telling off Hannah for a roleplaying ploy predicated on the notion that—Adam’s words, again—he’s “some angry fucking sociopath who wants to meet older women and intimidate them into having sex.”
Hannah’s shocked: “I was just doing sex the way you want to.” Adam then shocks her again, revealing he’s planning on moving out from their apartment for a while to focus on his career.
That scene shocked me as a viewer, too. But in a good way. One popular knock on Girls is that it’s a show about characters who are fundamentally hopeless—in every single episode, they prove yet again that they’re terrible, narcissistic, immature people with no chance of growth. Looking back at the season that’s almost finished, though, we can see that Girls really does want to explore the question of whether people can change—and in Adam's case, has done it in smart, subtle ways.
Adam “old idea” comment shows that he clearly believes he has changed. But really listen to what he tells Hannah. It’s not that he’s no longer into unusual, demeaning sex, per se—it’s just that at once point, it was a way to cope with his alcoholism. Falling in love means he doesn’t need that kind of thing anymore. So it’s not that he’s been cured of his kink; it’s that his life situation has shifted.
Similarly, when it comes to career he tries to have it both ways: saying he has changed, but also that he hasn’t. “It feels amazing to finally care about something”—finally, a.k.a. for the first time. But he also says he always cared. I hear that as meaning he always wanted to care about something.
A few weeks ago, Chris wrote that Girls’ “real message about adulthood” was that “a single revelation cannot generate maturity.” That’s absolutely right—as portrayed on this show, developing as person is a start-stop, forward-then-backward process. But it’s a process towards what? Perhaps not towards becoming someone different, but becoming, accepting, and embracing the person you always were deep down—whatever that means.
Marnie still isn’t sure who she is. But she, to her credit, is trying to figure it out. Of course, that means debasing herself by hanging out with ever-more-ridiculous people who, if nothing else, project strong, concrete identities: Ray, profound man of books; Desi, profound man of guitars; Soojin, successful woman of galleries and electronic music and froyo.
Jessa, though, has spent all season—really, all show—trying to ignore the question of what she’s going to do with her life. Jasper provides a distraction; the way she disparages him the second he leaves the room shows he’s nothing more than that. But at dinner Jessa learns about, and Jasper’s reminded of, the person beneath his druggy affect: hound trainer, muffin buyer, etc. “Fuuuck,” Jessa sighs, and you can tell that we might at last be at a turning point for her. Rehab in the season premiere was a joke. But when Shoshanna tells Jessa she looks like a junkie, and she replies “I am a junkie,” that feels serious.
As for Hannah: She generally seems pretty self-aware these days, even if she’s puking on herself at bars with coworkers. What she has misjudged, though, is Adam. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known,” she says during her bedroom Chipotle chowdown with Elijah. Two episodes ago, when she told Adam she wants the best for him because she loves him, Adam replied “ditto.” But again and again in this episode, Adam placed his own concerns over Hannah’s—asking questions about his costume instead of the night she spent with Joe, pretending like he hadn’t really invited her to rehearsal, and, eventually, using Hannah’s well-intentioned (if bizarre and momentarily dangerous) seduction plan as a chance to tell her that her career and feelings are less important than his. Whether he’s changed or whether he’s always been that way, in that moment, Adam’s unmistakably a bad guy.
Or am I being too harsh on him? With Adam moving out, will he and Hannah continue to grow apart from each other—or have they, in fact, not been growing at all? And should we start shipping for Joe and Hannah to happen?
Fetters: I’ve been an Adam skeptic for a long time. An Adam hater, even. For example: After he reunited with Hannah in last season’s finale, I wrote, “Adam and Hannah are a happy ending in the schadenfreude-y way—the way you feel happy when two awful people who are awful enough to deserve each other finally get together and start ruining each other's lives rather than everyone else's.”
So maybe if anyone’s guilty of having been too harsh on Adam, it’s me. Because this season, I’ve found myself rooting for him more than I ever have before; weird as he still is, Adam started to behave like someone who had a sister he cared about, a girlfriend he cared about, and a job he cared about, all of which are huge developments from the last two seasons. Sometimes I think back to the moment when I arguably hated Adam the most—the disturbing scene in “On All Fours” with Natalia—and it’s startling every time to realize this is the same character.
In this episode, though, I did start to see some old Adam resurface. As you mentioned, Spencer, the lack of concern over Hannah’s drunken whereabouts the night before smelled like first-season Adam. And his bizarre alternation between voraciously appreciating and totally disapproving of Hannah’s role-play idea did send some characteristically unfair mixed signals. (Though, let’s be honest, any message other than an emphatic “Take off that wig, I want you just the way you are” would have probably invited confusion of some sort.)
But his decision to move out didn’t strike me as “Ugh, typical selfish Adam.” It actually struck me as somewhat understandable.
Yes, certainly Adam’s abrupt way of telling Hannah he needed to move out for a while should have been handled better. The best possible version of Adam would have been honest with her while he was in the process of making that decision, rather than after he’d already made it and made arrangements to live elsewhere. And yes, the way he told her did suggest he’d put his needs ahead of hers.
But the show would never give us the best possible version of any of its characters. And in fairness, what it did give us was a peek at why he might feel like he can’t live with her and be in Major Barbara at the same time.
Right at the beginning of the episode, Adam’s on the couch trying to memorize lines, when suddenly Hannah’s trying to distract him with her freshly showered naked body. They both end up frustrated. Hannah’s frustrated by her boyfriend’s rejection of her, while Adam’s frustrated that he rejected his girlfriend and that he’s not getting work done. I get the sense that the show is about to touch on another very grown-up dilemma, this one being the tension between professional commitment and personal commitment: Adam is still the most important thing in Hannah’s life, whereas Hannah is no longer the most important thing in Adam’s.
Jim, what’s your read on this? What’s eating Adam Sackler? Is this the end for him and Hannah—and would that be a good thing, if it were?
Hamblin: Eleanor isn’t here right now, but when she and I talked about the end of this episode, she was certain that it meant Hannah and Adam were breaking up. Not like they’re bound to, but like Adam’s temporary move out is just a very thin veil, and we’re to understand as viewers that Hannah and Adam are done.
I didn’t get that. What I did get is that Hannah is not the most important thing in Adam’s life. But I guess unlike you, Ashley, I never thought she was. Adam is so the most important thing in his life. He just leans on Hannah as if she were when it’s convenient.
Hannah did a thoughtful, selfless thing in setting up this weird night for Adam, and he was ignorant and unappreciative and hostile. Maybe this is a good opportunity to say again that Adam is just a real sleazy dude. He sometimes endears himself to us as viewers when he does things like bang on the car radio to make it turn off even though everyone else is enjoying the song, which is funny, or when he tells Elijah how he hates the idea of the Broadway scene Elijah clearly adores, or when he’s just never pleasant unless he needs to be. If a guy did that in real life, I don’t see why people would ever choose to be around him. Do they, even, in this case? Has anyone besides Hannah ever chosen to be around Adam, or is it just one of those conveniences of TV that you can put the grouchy weirdo, who would actually never leave his apartment, in lots of scenes?
I think we’re to expect from Hannah and Adam a relationship of fits and starts. Not just because it makes for good TV, or maybe just because it makes for good TV, but it’s true to the idea Spencer’s talking about. These characters can change somewhat. They can get jobs and sort of mature in a traditional outward sense, but they aren’t going to change fundamentally. They’re still going to be intensely self-oriented and see the world always only through their own eyes, just looking toward slightly different things. It’s not necessarily a cynical view of things. When I was little I thought all adults had this innate sense of decency and self-possession that I’d somehow grow into, but now I feel like they really don’t. We’re all kids in bigger bodies who now like spicy food and dress up and go to work. We’ve got a particularly abhorrent group of characters here, but they’re telling this universal story about the intractability of humans’ natures. Or whatever, it’s a comedy.
My father, Omar Rabbat, passed away in November 2013, before the revolution that became a civil war in Syria had completed its third year. He died outside his beloved country and was buried in a small village in Lebanon, less than 20 miles from the Syrian border. Toward the end of his life, his anguish had become more poignant, and he expressed it in ever more desperate ways. The stroke that finally killed him paralyzed half his body and slurred his speech. “What is hurting you most?” a visiting cardiologist asked him at one point. “The crisis in Syria,” he replied, in a faint voice.
My father, who was almost 90 years old, was one of the last survivors of a Syrian generation that witnessed independence but never managed to complete the project of state-building. He was born to a mercantile family in Damascus in 1924, four years after the French occupied the country, and grew up under colonial rule.
In his teens, as a tall, well-built, and exceedingly daring young man, he often participated in demonstrations against the French and sometimes did more than protest. In our attic back home, there used to be an old, rusty helmet with a hole on its side. When I asked him about it, he told me that he had taken it from a French soldier in a demonstration in the late 1930s, when he wasn’t yet 15 years old. But he never elaborated on how he grabbed it and what happened to its owner. He always spoke about the struggle against colonial rule as the harbinger of national aspirations for those who inherited a truncated Syria after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. He also recalled the enthusiasm with which he and his friends at al-Tajhiz, his high school in Damascus, shared in and worked toward these national goals.
Independence came in 1946, when my father was about to enter the University of Damascus. The new government began building the administration and the army as the two bastions of national sovereignty. But the 1948 war in Palestine, which Syria participated in, interrupted the project and uncovered its structural and ideological weaknesses.
The university students nonetheless rushed to defend Palestine. My father and his comrades, who were known for their crew cuts, which earned them the sobriquet al-mahaliq (“the crew-cut men”), joined the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the Lebanese military organizer and Arab nationalist. They ultimately witnessed the stunning defeat of the combined Arab armies in Palestine against the so-called “Zionist gangs” and their humiliating retreat beyond the borders of the United Nations partition map. The mahaliq returned to Syria as transformed young men, convinced that Arab regimes had to change after their shameful failure to defend Palestine. What they and countless other young Arabs concluded is that salvation would only come from the unification of the great Arab nation, fragmented as it was into small and powerless states by the colonial scheming of Britain and France.
The fifties were the decade of political activism for my father’s generation. Many of the young and educated joined the parties teeming on the national stage: established and bourgeois parties such as the People’s Party and the National Bloc, along with new and ideological parties such as the Baath Party, the Communist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The mahaliq chose not to belong to any of these parties, even though their pan-Arab beliefs made them lean toward the budding Arab Nationalist Movement. But they practiced politics on the ground by, for instance, rejecting attempts by the country’s military rulers to threaten the autonomy of their college. They once closed the University of Damascus by blocking its access routes in protest over the arrest of Baathist students, chief among them Nureddin al-Atassi, a future mediocre Syrian president, even though the mahaliq were not particularly fond of the Baathists. They did not lift their blockade until the president of the university, the great thinker Constantin Zureiq, promised to pressure the government to release the detainees.
At the end of 1953, the mahaliq attended a graduation ceremony presided over by the president of the republic, the newly minted dictator Adib al-Shishakli, and stood in front of him on the podium with their hands clasped behind their backs, declaring, “I refuse to accept a degree in law in a country that does not respect the rule of law.” They managed to embarrass the Syrian leader before the august audience—an audacious act that landed some of them in prison, though my father escaped by hiding in an acquaintance’s office. In any event, his friends were released after only a few days. Arab dictators at that time still had some political wisdom, and some sense of humor.
These two traits distinguished the handsome and charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was then enchanting the despondent Arab street with his pan-Arab vision. My father and his mahaliq joined the throngs of Syrians who demanded immediate unity with Egypt under Nasser’s leadership, and worked openly and underground to achieve it (my parents even named me after the Egyptian leader when I was born in 1956). Finally, in 1958, the Syrian government yielded to the pressure. Shukri al-Quwatli, Syria’s aging and astute president, offered the presidency of the United Arab Republic to an eager Nasser. Syria became the little “northern province” to a larger and domineering “southern province.” In the beginning, the euphoria of political union obscured this reality; millions of Syrians joined Abdel Halim Hafez in singing, Watani habibi, al-watan al-akbar (“My beloved country, the great country”).
But Nasser’s acquisitive tendencies soon became apparent. Within three years, disgruntled Syrian officers led a coup that scuttled the union. The new regime, backed by the bourgeois class to which the mahaliq belonged, attempted to establish an independent, Arab, and democratic Syria with a whiff of liberalism. But the government did not last long. It crumbled after failing to pacify various ideological factions within the military and insulate itself from the regional convulsions brought about by the Cold War and the collapse of the colonial order.
My father became a lawyer during this period because he believed that politics required a commitment to the rule of law. He joined a group comprised mostly of lawyers that met every Wednesday evening to discuss current events. They still hoped to build a democratic Arab republic in Syria despite the failure of the United Arab Republic, and they continued their weekly meetings even after the Baath Party came to power in 1963 through a military coup. For the rest of the 1960s, Syria was rocked by a series of violent coups and counter-coups led by military officers belonging to the various factions of the Baath Party. The constant jockeying for power, the suppression of liberties, and the chaotic pseudo-socialist economic policies adopted by the regime ruined the country, culminating in the disastrous war of 1967 with Israel, which destroyed the aspirations of generations of Arabs. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad mounted his so-called “Corrective Movement,” which in reality was a military coup against his old comrades, and ruled Syria with an iron fist until his death in 2000, at which point power passed to his son, Bashar.
As Assad concentrated his power, making disappearances, extrajudicial imprisonment, and interference with all aspects of public life hallmarks of his regime, my father and his mahaliq withdrew from politics. But my dad had already turned to another form of public engagement, becoming an active secretary of the Damascus Lawyers Order, a professional association for the city’s attorneys. In this role, he defended many colleagues who were jailed for their political activities or critical stances toward the regime.
Once, in 1966, long before Assad’s ascent, my father came home disgusted and exhausted from a meeting with Abdul-Karim al-Jundi, the feared head of the National Security Office, where he had pleaded unsuccessfully for the release of a dear colleague. But he was not deterred. In fact, he detected in al-Jundi’s apparent toughness a willingness to negotiate, and vowed to continue his effort. The friend was ultimately released, and I went with my father to visit him at home as he lay in bed with a double fracture of his spine caused by torture. It was during this period that I began to grasp my father’s anguish at what was happening to Syria. On the frequent occasions when the family would drive to neighboring Lebanon, my father would roll down his window and ask us to do the same. “Breathe the air of freedom!” he would exclaim.
My father’s advocacy work abruptly came to an end in 1980, when Assad put the country’s professional organizations under the direct supervision of the Baath Party. My father quit public life and retreated to his private law practice and family. His decision coincided with Assad’s increasingly violent reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood’s open military challenge to his rule. In 1982, Assad massacred as many as 30,000 people in the city of Hama, plunging the country into total dictatorship. Syria became Suriya al-Assad: a fiefdom ruled by members of Assad’s family and clan.
Meanwhile, my father and his generation became relics of an earlier Syria—an aspiring republic with a project of nation-building that, while weak, romantic, and hurried, was nonetheless still achievable throughout my father’s adulthood. That project was ultimately dismantled by Hafez al-Assad’s security regime, as Syrians became prisoners in their own country. The Assads’ slogans have changed over the years—first “Unity, Freedom, and Socialism,” then “Resistance” against Israel, now the “Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism”—but the stark reality of their tyranny has not.
In late 2012, my father finally left Damascus at the insistence of my mother and sister, who could no longer bear the continuous thud of bombs flying over their neighborhood to land in the poor districts south of the capital. Crushed and chronically ill, he spent his last days in my mother’s native village in Lebanon dreaming of returning home and openly, though halfheartedly, scheming to do just that. To him, it was unimaginable to die and be buried away from the city he loved and lived in his entire life. But that was exactly what happened.
That pioneering Syrians who grew up with their nation die outside their country is a tragedy. That they die without hope of a real nation-state rising from the detritus of a savage civil war is an even greater tragedy. Their consolation is that they were sincere in their pursuits even if, in hindsight, they failed. Our consolation? I don’t know if we have any.
In January, I visited the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a public residential high school in Greenville. Artistically talented students from around the state spend two or three of their high school years in dedicated pursuit of their art—dance, drama, music, visual arts, or creative writing – along with their academic curriculum. I wrote about it here.
I asked Scott Gould, a creative writing teacher at the school, if he would ask his students to write me a short essay about their school. This was a wide-open request; I wanted to hear whatever perspective the students wanted to offer about their experience at the school. Among the essays the students submitted, here are three of my favorites, unedited and untouched. I’d like to share them with you.
The first is by Cameron Messinides, a junior from Camden, SC:
My mother called on Sunday to tell me our herd of goats, previously twenty-one strong, had been reduced to three. Two feral dogs squeezed through a hole in the pasture fence and killed anything they could catch. My parents and brother arrived during the massacre. My father jumped the fence to chase the dogs and shot the slower one with a pistol. On his way back, he heard a few scattered bleats and followed the sounds. In a gully, he found two billies and the last nanny. They had survived by shoving themselves into an abandoned chicken coop.
Afterwards, my family walked among the carcasses--once white, now bloodstained and caked with rain-softened clay. We wanted to find life, my mother said. They gave up at four in the afternoon, and my father and brother made a pile of the bodies in the woods, to be buried later.
Phone calls like this are common now. I've been in a boarding school since August, and every weekend my mother seems to find something new to break to me. It's not always bad. The weekend before, she called to tell me my brother enrolled in a birding retreat on the South Carolina coastline. And before that, she told me about the new color she picked for the living room walls. I'm still not used to this kind of communication. I miss immediacy. A year ago, when I still lived with them, I would know all this. She wouldn't have to tell me two or three days later. I'd like to say I've adjusted, but I haven't.
The Wednesday after the goats died, she called again. She told me she couldn't shake what she had seen. She worried. Would the dogs' owner show up? How about the surviving dog? What if he came back? She hadn't been sleeping, and when she did, she dreamt of the bloody bodies, the torn sides of a billy, the kids crushed into the mud.
I told her I knew how she felt, but I don't. I don't think it's possible. She sent me only one picture of the scene, a close-up of the surviving nanny's nose, ripped open by the dog's teeth. The rest I have to imagine. I imagine the dogs—Brown? Black?—chasing the herd across a winter field, hooves and paws tearing up dead grass. I imagine stumbling kids. I imagine the deputy who arrived a few hours later, gray-haired and perhaps a slow talker. None of it is certain. I still sleep easily. That's the cost of our separation: her anxieties don't travel the phone lines, and I can't make myself care.
But I want to care. Some days I only want to be home, in the ranch-style with green siding and the stump in the front yard, which is the only remnant of the rotting oak my family cut down without me. I'd walk to the pasture with my father, take the shovel he offers me, and dig with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, a hole big enough to put all eighteen dead goats under three or four feet of orange clay. Then, we return home, and I sit in the living room next to my mother, tell her she can sleep now. Even hours into the night, after she has gone to bed, I sit, surrounded by lamplight and the color of the freshly-painted walls, three coats of Townhouse Tan, and listen to my brothers. They lie side-by-side on the hearth, birder's guidebook open before them, and take turns whispering names to each other: bobwhite, cardinal, tufted titmouse.
Next, by Shelley Hucks, a senior from Florence, SC:
In the heart of South Carolina, the railroad tracks converge over swampland, and fields are laced with cotton in the Dog Days of early August. The summer heat rolls in, unstoppable and rests between cypress knees and Spanish moss. The place can’t decide what to be: it’s one-third urban, one-third rural, and one-third swamp. The people seem to fall victim to a cycle of poverty, of being at sixteen what their parents were at eighteen, what their own children will be at fourteen. It’s not easy to get out. The place is called Florence, and I lived there for sixteen years before moving three hours away to study creative writing at a boarding school.
In upstate South Carolina is the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. It’s situated just off Greenville’s downtown area, with Reedy River Falls Park in the school’s backyard. Downtown Greenville is an arts community, with performing centers and theaters, galleries, art festivals and craft fairs, and restaurants willing to provide venues for writing club readings or jazz band performances. Not only is the atmosphere different, but the entire landscape: from my dorm room, I can see the hazy silhouette of mountains.
At the Governor’s School, I’ve studied under excellent teachers. I’ve been exposed to new authors and genres, learned to be curious, analytical, to believe in the deliberation of every line of poetry and each line of dialogue in a short story. I’ve learned to put my personal life into artistic context with the help of professionals. I’ve learned to become aware. To make something strange, beautiful, something important. And, something particularly valuable to me because of my immense pride in my hometown, I’ve learned to appreciate a strong sense of setting, the way characters can function in so many complex ways. I’ve learned how to convey Florence in words.
Governor’s School has provided me with the training to write about the content that I grew up with, the material I naturally have to offer. Every story I write takes place in some type of Florence, with its tangible sensation of heat trapped in the swamp, the perpetual presence of desperation. All of my characters are based on Florentines: single mothers I’ve met at work, the mysterious neighbor who passed out already-opened Halloween candy, or the woman who showed up to church drinking hairspray.
Going home on breaks, or for the summer, has altered my perspective of Florence. Instead of seeing tragic figures living in a never-changing place, I see characters full of complexities living in a place as undecided as they are. Once, the chain-link fence covered in hubcaps was ugly. But now I see it as armor, protecting the women on the porch, who sip sweet tea and watch another fistfight unfold in the street, those men who wordlessly understand the ritual required to live here.
Finally, by Jackson Trice, a senior from Simpsonville, SC:
Outside the Lines
I forget how strange my school sounds to the rest of the world until I leave it. On a card at the front desk inside a college admissions building, I am told to write the name of my high school. The full name, South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, does not fit on the dotted line, and I have to draw an arrow to the back of the card, and write the rest there. When I say my school’s name out loud to family members, it sounds prestigious, almost regal. But on the first day of school here it is made clear that I was chosen based on potential, and not necessarily talent. It’s this ego smashing that happens throughout junior year that creates the atmosphere of Governor’s School. You don’t get “good,” you just make progress. You are not special, you’ve just been given an excellent opportunity.
I don’t know how much Governor’s School has changed me until I meet up with friends from my old school at a football game during fall break. I live in Simpsonville, South Carolina only a fifteen minute drive from downtown Greenville. Still, all these kids know about my school are rumors. “I’ve heard the dancers are super catty,” one says. “I’ve heard there’s, like, crazy amounts of sex.”
I answer, “Sometimes,” and “That’s a good joke,” respectively. I try to explain to them that yes, I have real school work on top of art work. No, I can’t have a boy in my dorm room—I can’t even have Advil. Hey, hey, there are a few republicans. Like, two, maybe? I quickly realize that the magic of this school is lost as soon as I try and pin words to it. I stop coming home for Friday night football games. I choose, instead, to stay on campus.
There are two creative writing classrooms that make up our department. Each is packed with books and long desks and computers. Only creative writers are allowed in these rooms, and there’s a giddiness in the seclusion of it. Monday through Thursday, we stay in the rooms after hours to get work done, but on Fridays, we kick our shoes off and run around to celebrate the weekend. We lay on the desks and talk to each other and laugh until our sides ache. We share secrets and stories and we belong to these rooms, to the spines of our favorite books on the bookshelves. We belong to each other.
There are, of course, the nights when AP Chemistry keeps me up until four in the morning. There are the days where workshop is brutal, and I never want to write another word again. There are those scary moments where I feel that the pressure is too much and I fantasize about going to regular school. Maybe then, I could learn to drive, go to real high school parties, eat my mother’s delicious food anytime I wanted.
But then there’s a drama student playing guitar in the academic stairwell. The sound of his voice spins up the flights of stairs, bouncing off walls in wistful echoes. It calms me. There’s hot chocolate at the Starbucks across the street, and there’s the beauty of that street, which is lined with small trees dressed up in white Christmas lights, illuminating the sidewalk. There’s my friend who sits with me inside Starbucks and talks about Rilke and Miley Cyrus with equal insight and tenacity. When I return, there’s a group of students outside the residential life building, blocking the doors. They’re all dancing, and singing to the beat of their clapping hands, stomping feet: “You have to dance to pass. Dance, dance, to pass.” And because I can sense that there is something wonderfully magical about this place, I feel that I must obey them. It is only necessary. I am a terrible dancer, but in this moment, I dance shamelessly. When the crowd is satisfied with my moves, they cheer, and finally part, letting me into the building, welcoming me home.
Every person who writes online or otherwise about public officials, every hack or poet who criticizes the work of government, every distinguished journalist or pajama-ed blogger who speaks truth to power, ought to bow his or her head today in a silent moment of gratitude for a single United States Supreme Court decision issued 50 years ago today. It means simply that you can make an honest mistake when writing about a public figure and won't likely get sued.*
New York Times v. Sullivan, decided unanimously by the Court on March 9, 1964, in a decision written by Justice William Brennan, finally gave national force to the lofty words of the First Amendment, that there should be "no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Without that ruling, and the precedent it has generated since (despite the efforts of Justice Antonin Scalia), investigative and opinion journalism as we know it today would not exist.
Much of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the ruling, such as there has been, has focused logically upon its impact upon modern First Amendment law. But it is important to remember today that the case arose in the heat of the civil rights movement and that state libel laws, like the Alabama statute that the Court struck down, were routinely used as weapons by local officials to scare journalists away from covering the worst government excesses of that period.
It's also important to remember that until Sullivan, the First Amendment had traditionally been interpreted very narrowly. So narrowly, in fact, that the concept of libel was widely thought to be beyond constitutional purview. Let me put it this way (and I'm not the first to suggest this): If there were no Sullivan, there likely would not have been a release of the Pentagon Papers or a rigorous investigation into Watergate or much of any withering criticism of government that appears today in any medium.
The story began in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 29, 1960, when a political advertisement appeared in The Times titled "Heed Their Rising Voices" criticizing Southern officials for their aggressive response to civil rights protests. The advertisement, signed at the bottom by civil rights leaders and others, was inaccurate in a few minor respects but it incriminated no Southern official by name. It appeared only once in the paper and it cost less than $5,000 to publish.
This did not deter L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner at the time of the ad. First he asked the Times to make a public retraction to him. The paper did not. Then he sued the Times (and four black ministers who had undersigned it) under Alabama's broad libel law, arguing that they had defamed him and could not, because of the errors in the advertisement, successfully assert "truth" as a defense to the charge.
The state trial judge in the case was an unreconstructed Confederate and a Southern jury quickly came back with a $500,000 judgment against the defendants—a significant amount today that was even more significant then. The paper appealed the ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court, which in affirming the trial court ruling made the state's libel law, and thus the media's potential exposure, even broader still.
The trial judge had told jurors that the advertisement was libelous per se—that it was presumed to be libelous in other words. And both the trial judge and the state supreme court justices expanded the definition of the "malice" required in libel law to include, for example, "irresponsibility." The Alabama courts even implied that most any government official could sue for libel even if the public criticism was only directed at his or her office: "libel on government," it is called.
The Supreme Court grabbed the case. The Alabama courts had quickly dispatched with the First Amendment defense The Times had asserted by declaring that it did not apply to libel cases. The justices in turn quickly dispatched with that position, which they declared would unlawfully "shackle the First Amendment in its attempt to secure 'the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources.'"
Justice Brennan wrote the ruling on behalf of a unanimous Court (there were two concurrences but no dissents). First he cited Judge Learned Hand, probably the most influential judge in American history never to have served on the Court. The First Amendment, Judge Hand had written decades earlier:
presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative section. To many, this is, and always will be, folly, but we have upon it our all.
Then Justice Brennan cited the language of Justice Louis Brandeis, another colossal figure in the history of the Court, in Whitney v. California. Justice Brandeis had written:
Those who won our independence believed . . . that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.
Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.
Applying this analysis, the Court in Sullivan then framed the conflict this way:
Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. The present advertisement, as an expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time, would seem clearly to qualify for the constitutional protection. The question is whether it forfeits that protection by the falsity of some of its factual statements and by its alleged defamation of respondent (citations omitted by me).
Applying this standard, the Court declared that Alabama's libel law created a form of "self-censorship" by reporters (and also, notably, the "citizen-critic") that was inconsistent with First Amendment principles. A public official alleging libel would have to show "actual malice" on the part of the publishing defendant with "convincing clarity." To establish this, Justice Brennan wrote, a plaintiff would have to show either that the person publishing the material knew it to be false or published it after exercising a "reckless disregard" for its truth.
And as to the sweeping notion that Sullivan had been injured and was entitled to money damages because of the general criticism of "the police" in Montgomery, the justices held that: "no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence." This is why all of us can blast the Obama Administration, or the Bush Administration, without fear that some bureaucrat within those administrations will consider himself aggrieved enough to sue.
Even though the ruling was unanimous, there was drama behind the scenes at the Supreme Court—the last-minute decision by Justice John Marshal Harlan, for example, to join the majority decision, Justice Hugo Black, meanwhile, a First Amendment absolutist, wrote: "I vote to reverse [the Alabama judgment] exclusively on the ground that the Times and the individual defendants had an absolute, unconditional constitutional right to publish in the Times advertisement their criticisms of Montgomery agencies and officials."
The best work on the Sullivan decision is Make No Law, a book written in 1991 by the late, great Anthony Lewis, who was covering the Supreme Court in 1963 and 1964 for The Times. (Just think, for a moment, that those two terms alone would allow Lewis to produce his book on Sullivan as well as "Gideon's Trumpet," his masterpiece on Gideon v. Wainwright, the seminal right to counsel case decided almost exactly one year before Sullivan).
If you don't have time to read Make No Law, then go ahead and spend an hour now to listen and to watch Tony Lewis talk about it, and the Supreme Court, and the First Amendment, with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN. This is a conversation that tells us so much about each man, and about the case, and about the law and the Court 50 years ago. Every professor who teaches the first amendment, either in law school or to undergraduates, ought to play this video to students.
And if after listening to Lewis and Lamb talk about the case you want to get a true feel for the issues in play at the time—six weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964— go ahead and listen to the oral argument in the case from January 6-7, 1964, one of the more intense or passionate arguments you ever will hear (or see).
Finally, if you want to take a broader look at the context of the Sullivan case take the time to read The Race Beat, published, like Make No Law, in 1991. This book, written by revered journalists Gene Robert and Hank Klibanoff, helps us remember today all that was at stake in 1964 and how likely history would have been different had journalists back then been chilled from reporting the truth about the Southern response to the civil rights movement.
* But that doesn't mean you still won't get in big trouble if you make a mistake reporting about a public figure. On Friday, for example, a state trial judge in New York permitted a libel lawsuit brought by Michael Skakel to proceed (at least a little further) against television personalities Nancy Grace and Beth Karas and show producers at Time Warner and the Turner Broadcasting System.
The show rebounded this week with an episode in which Lena Dunham sang, danced, got naked, and took on roles ranging from Liza Minnelli to herself as Girls's Hannah. Liam Neeson, Jon Hamm, and Fred Armisen made cameos. Musical guest The National performed "Graceless" and "I Need My Girl."
In the vein of Noah and Son of God ... coming soon: Girl, starring Lena Dunham and Adam Driver (Taran Killam) as Adam and Eve. ("Can you please not apple-shame me? I know I committed original sin, but at least it's original. I think I deserve some credit for that—or at least a publishing deal...")
Ooh Child—a carpool-singalong/vigilante murder sketch.
Scandal's Olivia Pope (Sasheer Zamata) has a new, confused employee. (With Taran Killam as Fitz, Jay Pharoah as Harrison, Beck Bennett as Huck, Cecily Strong as Quinn, Kate McKinnon as Abby, and Lena Dunham as befuddled newcomer Kelsey.)
Cold open—Obama teams up with Liam Neeson for a special message to Vladimir Putin. ("Recently I had a very disturbing call. Crimea had been taken...")
Katt Williams (a spot-on Jay Pharoah) talks Oscars with Jared Leto (Brooks Whelan), Liza Minnelli (Lena Dunham), an addled Harrison Ford (Taran Killam), and Lena Dunham (Noël Wells).
Also: An incoherently pseudo-profound Matthew McConaughey (Taran Killam) drops by Weekend Update to discuss his Oscar win.
NEXT, on March 29: Louis C.K. (Musical guest as yet unannounced).
Updated, 6:24 p.m.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—From the moment Rand Paul took the stage at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, the senator from Kentucky had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
"Imagine a time when liberty is again spread from coast to coast," Paul began. "Imagine a time when our great country is again governed by the Constitution. Imagine a time when the White House is once again occupied by a friend of liberty."
The annual conservative gathering and carnival tends to have a different cast depending on where it comes in the presidential cycle, and for that purpose, this year's edition is potentially momentous. By next year, presidential contenders will be declared or nearly so and openly jockeying for favor; this year represents a softer tryout, a testing of messages, an open casting call. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and Paul were among the "potentials" who came to test the waters.
Though CPAC draws right-wingers of all stripes, from Oliver North to Santorum to a guy on stilts in a Ronald Reagan costume, it is increasingly dominated by libertarians, a combined result of their passionate engagement in movement politics and the discount rates the conference offers to college students. That makes it, for Paul, something of a hometown crowd. On Saturday, he won the conference's straw poll in a landslide (see below for full results). The enormous ballroom at the convention center in the Washington suburbs was crammed with an audience of thousands for his speech on Friday, which Paul devoted exclusively to civil-liberties issues.
"We will not trade our liberty for security—not now, not ever," he said, decrying the National Security Agency's "surveillance" of Americans' cell-phone use.
Paul's speech was vigorous and rousing, but his decision to focus on his signature issue was an interesting one. For the past year or so, Paul has been touring the country talking about expanding the appeal of the Republican Party (and, coincidentally, ending up in places like Iowa and New Hampshire). At the same time, he has worked to raise his own profile on a number of issues, from immigration to abortion to the budget, so as not to get pigeonholed as merely a civil libertarian. Given the current international crises in Ukraine and Venezuela, many of the CPAC speakers addressed foreign policy, an area where Paul has sought to separate himself from the pure anti-interventionist views of his father, former Representative Ron Paul. Rand Paul's speech seemed to signal—both to his own passionate supporters and to political watchers sizing up the field—that even as he broadens his portfolio, he remains, at his core, devoted to the libertarian creed.
If you think the Republican Party is confusing, imagine how the politicians considering seeking its presidential nomination must feel. Their CPAC addresses were a window into their various guesses for where the party's heart lies and where they think it ought to be. So what did they talk about, and how were they received? A brief rundown:
* Cruz drew an unfortunate time slot, opening the conference at 9 a.m. on Thursday when many audience members and reporters were still lined up outside. He urged the crowd not to be swayed by establishmentarians urging moderation—not a tough sell here—and got a cheer when he demanded Republicans "repeal every word of Obamacare." Considering the audience's natural sympathy with him and the rhetorical feats of which he's capable, Cruz's speech seemed rather boilerplate. Indeed, Cruz later made more interesting remarks at a counter-CPAC convention across the street (the product of a long-running feud between anti-Islamists and CPAC organizers), where he called for a foreign policy that splits the difference between Paulian isolationism and John McCain-style hawkishness.
* Ryan's strength has never been his scintillating public speaking. He focused his speech on defending the idea that it is conservative policies and principles that truly empower the poor: "People don't want a life of comfort," he said, "they want a life of dignity." He also made a can't-we-all-get-along plea to his fellow Republicans, saying of the party's "infighting, conflict, backbiting, discord," "Look, I'm Irish. That's my idea of a family reunion." If Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, is to seek national office again in 2016, this speech seemed to confirm he'd do so with a pitch to the GOP establishment on his economic-policy bona fides.
*Christie's speech was hotly anticipated as a pitch for redemption on both ideological and personal grounds. National conservatives view him warily since his 2012 buddy act with President Obama, and he did not attend CPAC as he sought reelection last year. (This year, the blue-state GOP governors running for reelection who are sometimes mentioned as presidential timbre, Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, similarly absented themselves.) Meanwhile, Christie's image has been dented nationally by the scandal surrounding George Washington Bridge lane closures. None of that came up, naturally, in Christie's perfectly adequate speech. He added some red-meat lines to his usual spiel about bipartisanship and pragmatism, taking shots at the media and calling Democrats "the party of intolerance." Nobody booed, the laugh lines got laughs, the applause lines got applause. He did what he came to do.
* Jindal, once regarded as an affable combination of Southern-accented Bubba and Rhodes Scholar policy wonk, seems lately to be itching for a more confrontational image, recently getting into a near-brawl with Democratic colleagues at a National Governors Association press conference. Events abroad, he said, have convinced him Obama may even be a worse president than Jimmy Carter. Jindal focused his policy pitch on school choice and "standing up to defend the Duck Dynasty family when they got in trouble."
* Rubio focused on foreign policy. He accused the Obama Administration of naively ignoring the mounting danger posed by Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, al-Qaeda, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and drew on his family's experience escaping Cuban communism. "There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying to stand up to totalitarians," Rubio said. "The United Nations cannot do this—in fact, they cannot do anything." Rubio has been speaking on foreign policy for some time now, establishing himself as a counterpoint to Paul and a serious conservative voice on international issues. His recent Senate floor speech on Venezuela lit up the conservative commentariat. If this tack helps conservatives forgive Rubio for his work on bipartisan immigration reform, so much the better—though Donald Trump was there to remind them, calling out Rubio by name in his own CPAC speech.
* Perry was one of the conference's big surprises. The ridicule from his disastrous 2012 presidential bid still trails him like a bad odor, but those who have watched him longer believe his performance then was not truly reflective of his political abilities, and tend to believe he's telling the truth when he says pain medication from a recent back surgery had him off his game. Despite drawing a 9 a.m. slot, Perry gave a rip-roaring speech calling for "a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas." The themes were familiar to anyone who watched him in 2012: jobs created in Texas, low taxes and less regulation, restricting the federal government to a narrow interpretation of its constitutional mandates—"and what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays." It is testament to Perry's abilities that this silly, if not hypocritical, line had the crowd on its feet, clapping and cheering.
* Huckabee is contemplating another presidential run—"It's not a decision I've made," he told reporters after his speech Friday—and there are plenty of social-conservative activists in Iowa to whom he remains a hero, and who would welcome such a development. His main competition for their affections would be Santorum, who won them over in 2012, and the contrast between the men's speeches was instructive. Huckabee combined overt religious appeals ("I know there’s a God, and I know that this nation would not exist if He had not been the midwife of its birth") with a random selection of policy punch lines ("The only time Vladimir Putin shivers is when he takes his shirt off in the cold Russian winter"). Santorum ripped GOP elites for wanting the party to moderate on social issues while failing to offer appealing economic policies to working people. The men have similar policy profiles—both are willing to deviate from strict fiscal conservatism in support of "values"—but Huckabee's appeal is his ministerial background and personal charisma, while Santorum has an earnestness and fury that perpetually teeter on the edge of aggrieved hectoring. Based on CPAC, it's not at all clear which profile social conservatives prefer.
Update: Straw poll results:
Paul: 31 percent
Cruz: 11 percent
Dr. Ben Carson: 9 percent
Christie: 8 percent
Walker: 7 percent
Santorum: 7 percent
Rubio: 6 percent
Ryan: 3 percent
Perry: 3 percent
Jindal: 2 percent
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: 2 percent
Huckabee: 2 percent
Former Alaska Govenor Sarah Palin: 2 percent
Click the links in the article titles to read the full pieces, and let us know what we've missed.
The New York Times
Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade
Roy’s political turn angered many in her upper-caste, urban, English-speaking audience, even as it attracted another. Most of her new fans had never heard of her novel; they often spoke languages other than English and felt marginalized because of their religion, caste or ethnicity, left behind by India’s economic rise. They devoured the essays Roy began writing, which were distributed in unauthorized translations, and flocked to rallies to hear her speak. “There was all this resentment, quite understandable, about ‘The God of Small Things,’ that here was this person writing in English winning all this money,” Roy said. “So when ‘The End of Imagination’ came out, there was a reversal, an anger among the English-speaking people, but also an embrace from everyone else.”
The vehemence of the response surprised her. “There is nothing in ‘The God of Small Things’ that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years,” Roy said. “It’s instinctive territory.” It is true that her novel also explored questions of social justice. But without the armature of character and plot, her essays seemed didactic—or just plain wrong—to her detractors, easy stabs at an India full of energy and purpose. Even those who sympathized with her views were often suspicious of her celebrity, regarding her as a dilettante. But for Roy, remaining on the sidelines was never an option. “If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy said. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”
When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar
Stacia L. Brown
Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it. […]
Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more—all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?
We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.
Let's Talk About Kim Novak
So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.
So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, “Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras.”
And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter’s hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.
Where Did All the Female Rappers Go?
With the emergence of several new artists—including Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, and Azealia Banks—things are certainly looking up, but the long-term prospects for women artists are still precarious. Recently, I spoke with hip-hop pioneer MC Lyte, who in 1988 was the first woman to release a solo rap album with a major label, and she expressed genuine concern with the state of women in hip-hop today. […]
She offered a number of explanations for the shift, but one of her points in particular caught my attention. According to Lyte, it's far more risky to sign women artists today because of the costs associated with their physical appearance. Hair, make-up and wardrobe all add up, she said, and therefore women—who already face an uphill battle when it comes to selling records—become an even more questionable business proposition.
It's an argument I've heard before, not only from other well-known artists, but from industry executives who cast themselves as the victims of unfortunate circumstances. It's a shame that we don't have more women recording, these executives lament, but they are just too expensive. While I have doubts about this to begin with—are we really supposed to believe that the crushing cost of hair and make-up has pushed a multibillion dollar hip-hop industry away from women?—it does reveal a disturbing assumption about women in hip-hop: that what they look like is at least as important as their musical talent.
The Style Con
Normcore Is Bullsh*t
So who exactly can embody the normcore aesthetic? Duncan suggests that it’s all about being nondescript and blending in with others, but isn’t it easy to differentiate between who is normcore and who is, well… normal? She mentions the “cool kids” and “downtown chicks” she spots in their fleece bodywarmers, which suggests to me that there is at least something which marks them as part of this trend. In the same way that a middle-class mum can turn up at parent-teacher evening at her kid’s school in sweatpants but a working-class parent can’t for fear of being judged “sloppy,” normcore is for the privileged few who can be identified as cool regardless of what they’re wearing. As Kristen Iversen points out: “The truth is that some people don’t need to worry about their identities because their status is secure.”
In a way, normcore reminds me of the whole “natural beauty” thing in that, just as there’s nothing really natural about that, there’s nothing really normal about normcore. Both privilege a certain look, a sort of cultivated invisibility. A whole lot of work can go into a fresh faced makeup-less look, and the normcore look is deliberately stylized. It is this self-awareness that makes it ultimately another way of excluding people. It’s loaded with the same bullshit presumptions as the phrases “growing old gracefully” or “real women.” Nothing exists in a vacuum, and when we think of these buzz words, we think of a certain type of person, one that adheres to certain standards—of beauty, age, race, gender, ability and social standing.
Blending in is a privilege only available to a few. Not being judged for your appearance is reserved for fewer yet. The “look of nothing” is never going to be available to those who are marked as “other” because the world has already placed identifiable markers on us. Controlling the way we look, even embracing the fact that we stand out, is a way of challenging this.
The New Yorker
The Sadness of T-Pain
T-Pain was never very good at being a rapper. He tried to be, when he was just starting out. But, as he told me in a recent interview, he ultimately decided to break into hip-hop as a singer instead. The move worked: T-Pain’s first album, the aptly named “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” released in 2005, made the chubby twenty-year-old from Tallahassee a star. Before long, he was generating one hit single after another, both on his own and as a featured guest alongside heavyweights like Kanye West, R. Kelly, and E-40. Even at the height of his celebrity, he never acted tough or particularly cool; his trademark accessories were a giant top hat and Oakley sunglasses that made him look like a snowboarder. Lately, T-Pain has been doing something even more unorthodox in hip-hop: telling sad stories, in public, about what it felt like when everyone, including some of his fellow-artists, started treating him like a joke.
The songs that made T-Pain a household name in the mid-aughts were mostly about having fun at night clubs and hanging out with pretty girls, but the most important thing they shared was a signature studio effect called Auto-Tune. Traditionally seen as nothing more than a pitch-correcting technology used in secret to patch up flawed vocal takes, Auto-Tune became something else in T-Pain’s hands, turning the human voice into a new and bewitching instrument, and giving his in particular a vaguely alien and a computerized quality that sounded at once triumphant and melancholy.
Take a Tour of Wes Anderson's World
More than one review of The Grand Budapest Hotel likens Wes Anderson’s new movie to a Russian nesting doll—a tale within a tale within a tale. It is 1985 and an old writer (Tom Wilkinson), famous throughout the fictional central European country of Zubrowka, recounts a story of 20 years before, when as a younger man (played by Jude Law) he stayed at the titular hotel. He strikes up a conversation with its owner (F Murray Abraham) who proceeds to tell another story, about his time working as a lobby boy there apprenticed to the hotel’s famous head concierge, Monsieur Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes). In this story, the year is 1932, a time of European anxiety and cosmopolitan sophistication between the wars. The nesting-doll imagery is apt because the intricately built plot opens up in layers. And the analogy suits the film’s visual aesthetic too, right down to the filmmaker’s fondness for hand-painted flourishes and the sense that the players are employed as movable puppets.
But to fully understand The Grand Budapest Hotel you need to look right inside the dollhouse and a viewer would do well to pack a small kit of handmade precision tools. My suggested checklist includes a scrapbook, a pair of tweezers, a magnifying glass, a telescope and a stethoscope.
Why do we care about sports to begin with? Why do we watch? Maybe this: to connect. In the arena, or in a sports bar, or maybe just alone on your couch, you watch your favorite team and you plug into something bigger than yourself. It's a hedge against the coldness of the world. Heaven is other people.
For 36 years as the Tar Heels' head coach, Dean Smith built a family. He created a shared identity for the legions of UNC fans who still buy the tickets and wear the T-shirts and paint their dens Carolina blue. His teams won 20 or more games for 27 years in a row. But more than that, they won with a selfless style. Dean's most lasting invention was his simplest: When you make a basket, you point to the player who threw the pass. He taught his team, and those who watched, that everyone is connected.
Inside the big Carolina family, he built a smaller family—the players and coaches and staffers who came to see him as a teacher, a guru, a role model, a surrogate dad. They asked his advice on everything from sneaker contracts to marriages. He called on their birthdays and got tickets for their in-laws. He built lifelong bonds.
But for the past seven years, maybe more, dementia has drawn the curtains closed on Dean Smith's mind. Now he is 83 and almost no light gets out. He has gone from forgetting names to not recognizing faces to often looking at his friends and loved ones with empty stares.
Higher Education: How Basketball Coach Tommy Amaker Has Transformed Harvard
Yet Amaker and his players have won over a substantial swath of the Harvard community. Seven of its 12 home games this year were sell-outs; students across campus sport Harvard basketball T-shirts, which the team distributes to the student section; and on the team's website are pictures of Harvard basketball players with some of the most prominent leaders on campus and in Boston, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (recently a visiting fellow at Harvard); President Faust; and Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president. The once-discouraged practice is now a form of cachet.
Amaker insists it is not a response to him or his actions (he describes himself as a "peon" of a basketball coach.) But many suggest otherwise, including President Faust, who says Amaker is a "very special kind of individual"; and as he continues to receive commitments from star-studded recruits, he appears positioned to contend for conference championships for as long he wants. "Unless the other Ivy League schools decide they're going to try and change," says Jarvis, "Harvard should remain atop forever."
In January, Rand Paul was invited to give a foreign-policy address to a distinguished Washington crowd that included Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. Paul didn't embarrass himself, but for a fairly sophisticated audience expecting to hear the views of a possible Republican presidential contender, it was underwhelming stuff. The senator from Kentucky delivered what could only be described as a basic primer on his ideological journey from extreme libertarianism to balanced realism, an effort at playing to the largely traditionalist GOP audience at the Center for the National Interest (or what used to be known as the Nixon Center). "It was simplistic," said one former senior member of the Reagan administration who attended the event. "He didn't connect it up with anything actually happening in the world." Paul's speech was stocked with fairly obvious observations, such as "diplomacy only is successful when both parties feel that they have won." And in the end he appeared slightly apologetic, saying, "I hope I haven't insulted anyone—or too many of you—with a physician's thoughts on diplomacy."
For other senior GOP foreign-policy experts, Paul's speech was evidence of a more worrisome issue, one that no one is talking about now but that is brought into relief by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, with its Cold War overtones. Whether you include embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the group or not, the leading Republican Party names in the presidential sweepstakes possess precious little foreign-policy experience. As in, virtually none. And they may be going up against a Democratic opponent whose last job was secretary of state and who has been traveling the world and giving speeches on foreign policy for the past 20 years, ever since, as first lady, she delivered a famous address on global women's rights in Beijing. Republicans may like to go on about Benghazi, but, according to a new Pew poll, 67 percent of Americans approve of Hillary Clinton's performance as secretary of state, and 69 percent view her as "tough." Another leading potential Democratic contender, Vice President Joe Biden, the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has a reputation as a foreign-policy expert.
It's an odd state of affairs for the party that has traditionally seen foreign policy as its strength, and which once produced widely admired foreign-affairs giants such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, who is often credited with winning the Cold War and who began developing fairly sophisticated views about the Soviet Union in the early '60s. Today, only Senator Marco Rubio of Florida appears to be making an effort to get well grounded, with frequent trips abroad. Most others are homebound, and even some of the more impressive potential presidential contenders—such as Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz, or governors such as Mike Pence of Indiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio—have made their reputations largely on domestic issues. Even 2012 nominee Mitt Romney had somewhat more foreign-policy experience, as an international businessman, and he's begun to look fairly prescient with his harsh views of Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
GOP strategists, of course, are still hoping that if she runs, Clinton will be tarred by the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. Although her critics failed to prove any kind of cover-up of information about the terrorist groups responsible for Stevens's death, an official report concluded that State was remiss, and Clinton was the first secretary of state to lose an ambassador in the field since Jimmy Carter's secretary, Cyrus Vance. And the GOP is already mustering its rhetorical guns to make the case that Clinton was, at best, a fair secretary of state who left behind no great diplomatic triumphs.
Depending on how the ongoing Ukraine crisis plays out, Republicans can also be expected to paint Clinton as naive for her 2009 attempt to launch a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations, and to replay again and again the video of the then-secretary of state handing a symbolic red "reset button" to her smiling but wily counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Already the GOP is on the attack against President Obama and, by implication, his entire administration, including Clinton and Biden, claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was a direct response to what Senator John McCain called "a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength any more." Senator Lindsey Graham, who, like McCain, is never at a loss for words when it comes to criticizing Obama's foreign policy, told CNN, "We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression."
But Clinton's supporters are even now rolling out her defense, noting that she successfully oversaw the START arms-reduction pact with Moscow and enlisted Putin's help in putting pressure on Iran. In recent days, Clinton has also positioned herself as tough on Russia, harshly criticizing Putin as someone who has illegitimately seized power in a way "quite reminiscent of the kind of authority exercised in the past by Russian leaders, by the czars and their successor Communist leaders." She also said it was imperative for the U.S. to back a "unified Ukraine."
If Clinton and Biden don't run, of course, the field will look far more equalized, since leading potential Democratic contenders such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren, are also lacking in foreign-policy experience. And it's fair to point out that Obama himself had little foreign-policy experience in 2008 after just two years in the Senate. But if Clinton and Biden do jump in, both are likely to be formidable indeed on a topic that is almost certain to play big in the 2016 campaign.
It’s among the most patriarchal domestic arrangements you can sign up for. In polygamy, husbands are king.
But one polygamist family is insisting that it's the exception. The Williams clan, which lives outside Salt Lake City, comprises wives Paulie, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda. There are 24 children. And, one other person … oh, right, husband Brady. He’s a construction manager and philosophy major who’s currently enrolled in a feminist theory course at a local college and who refuses to accept the title “head of the household.” He doesn’t like the sexist connotation.
A one-hour special about the Williamses aired on TLC last fall, and the family’s new 9-part series, My Five Wives, is set to debut on Sunday. Earlier this week, the six parents sat down for an interview.
When asked who among them identified as a "feminist," six hands shot up as if propelled by jack-in-the-box springs. For the wives, this brand of feminism involves sleeping with their spouse only every fifth night, consulting their husband’s other wives if they want to adopt a child, and—as Rosemary puts it—fighting their own psyches to keep jealousy locked in a cage like the wild animal it is.
Brady insists that he's about equality in his relationships. “And that can exist with more than a man and a wife. That can exist with a man and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife.”
Only, in TLC’s edit, Brady comes across as the center of everyone’s everything. In Sunday’s episode, he must pull an unexpected all-nighter to finish a school paper. The problem? It’s Robyn’s night with him. She was looking forward to her one-on-one time, had circled it on her calendar, and is devastated when she learns she’ll have to curl up alone yet again.
“When something likes this happens, we don’t change nights,” Brady tells the camera. “The wife I’m with just has to deal with it.”
As he leaves Robyn in the bedroom to go work at the kitchen table, he lamely tells her, “You can come see me any time you want.” Translation: She’s free to come watch him type. Dejected, she tells the camera in her soft, timid-sounding, polygamist-wife voice that she and Brady now have to go 10 days without spending time as a couple.
Is this scenario anti-feminist, or is it simply what happens when one partner's time must be split to accommodate the needs of several others?
It helps to consider the family’s baseline. Eight years ago, the Williamses were members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that presents plural marriage as the ticket to heaven. The church’s male-dominated doctrines didn’t sit right with the evolving Williams parents who, over time, concluded they didn’t want their kids to feel compelled to rack up spouses to please God. They saw how men in the church ruled their families, favoring certain wives over others—so they ditched their fundamentalist ways and went indie largely for the sake of the kids.
“I think we kind of went from an exclusive viewpoint to an inclusive one,” Robyn said. “Instead of thinking, ‘Only these people are accepted by God and can be accepted by us and loved by us,’ we went to where it’s like, ‘there’s good people everywhere.’ We wanted that whole world opened up to our kids.”
The Williamses teach their children that gender doesn’t determine a person’s value, that girls can be anything boys can be, and that it’s okay to be gay — or even have “multiple husbands,” Nonie noted — if that’s your jam.
“Whatever form marriage and family comes in, as long as it’s about love and commitment, that’s okay,” Brady said. “Where no one’s a victim. Where no one’s being compelled to be in it. Consenting adults who love each other should be able to express that in a family setting.”
For monogamists who were raised in mainstream America, these are hardly breakthrough ideas. But to the church they grew up with, the Williamses are radicals. Either way, having left the Brethren, they're now left to carve out their adult lives within a family structure they adopted years ago. Polygamy, they all seem to agree, is often lonely, jealousy-fueling, and downright maddening, but it’s the lifestyle they choose. It’s not ideal, but they’re working with what they’ve got.
“We’ve had people ask us, ‘If you don’t believe you have to live this way, why would you choose it?’” Robyn said. “But we’ve spent years building this family, and every person in it makes it what it is, and why would we throw that away just because we don’t believe we have to do it to go to heaven? If you’re happy and you’re in love, why do something to destroy that just because society thinks you’re crazy?”
As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.
The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.
[Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.]
It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.
The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.
12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.
On September 16, 2010, a miracle happened in Peoria. Or at least, a seven-member panel of medical advisors at the Vatican says so: On Thursday, the group reported that it couldn't find a scientific explanation for the survival of James Fulton Engstrom, a stillborn baby who suddenly started breathing after doctors spent more than an hour trying to revive him. While they watched their silent son get CPR, Bonnie and Travis Engstrom prayed to Fulton John Sheen, a deceased priest who lived and worked in Illinois, D.C., and New York before his death in 1979. The parents think this prayer is what helped the baby live. “I believe it was Sheen’s intercession that played a key role in it, but it was Jesus who healed my son," the mother said in 2012.
The baby is now three years old and in good health.
How exactly does a resuscitation become a miracle in the eyes of the Church? There are a few steps. Potential miracles are first examined by local Church investigators, who decide whether to submit evidence to the Vatican. This is reviewed by a panel of medical advisors, who are picked from a large pool of doctors with various specialities, said Monsignor Stanley Deptula, the executive director of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. Contrary to what one might expect, "many of them wouldn't be Catholic or even Christian—they're really looking for medical experts," he explained over the phone.
Now this case will be reviewed by a team of theologians and Vatican advisors, who will decide whether to present it to the Pope. He will make the final decision about whether this is a full-fledged miracle.
Three other possible miracles tied to Sheen have been formally investigated by the local team in Peoria, Deptula said. "We had to select one of the three to move forward to the Vatican, and a canon lawyer helped us to discern that this was the best. It was so clear: The baby was dead, then the baby was alive." A campaign for Sheen's beatification and canonization was started in 2002, and Deptula sees James Engstrom's birth as "part of the way God manifests his will through the discernment of canonization." In other words, by reviving the baby, God was offering evidence that Sheen should be beatified, Deptula says.
Sheen was born outside of Peoria in 1895 and ordained in the town in 1919. He taught philosophy and religion at the Catholic University of America, hosted his own radio show, and later won an Emmy award for a television show he hosted in the 1950s, Life Is Worth Living. He served as the Bishop of Rochester from the mid 1960s until his retirement, and after he died, he was named an honorary Archbishop by Pope Paul VI. In the summer of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Sheen lived a life of "heroic virtue," earning him the title of "Venerable."
If this miracle is fully confirmed by the Vatican and the Pope, it would take one more miracle for Sheen to be considered for canonization, which would earn him the title of "Saint."
It doesn't have to happen in Peoria, Deptula said, but who knows—it might. "How appropriate that Fulton Sheen works a miracle so close to his birthplace, not far from his hometown," he said. "I like to think that there is a special connection between the miracle and Peoria."
BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.
“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.
The Wanquan is one of thousands of rivers in China that have dried and disappeared after decades of declining rainfall, prolonged droughts, exploding population growth, industrial expansion, and a series of disastrous reservoirs built during the early days of the Communist Republic. The problem is most obvious in Beijing, which was chosen to be China’s capital in part because of its abundance of streams and freshwater springs. Beijing consumed 3.6 billion cubic meters (127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons) of water in 2012, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters per year the city has at its disposal in nearby rivers and in the ground. The city’s water resources, about 120 cubic meters per person a year, are well below the 500 cubic meters the UN deems a situation of “absolute water scarcity.” Beijing has been supplementing the shortfall by diverting water from the nearby province of Hebei and trying to lower water usage in the city.
China has a severe water problem overall. Its resources of freshwater, around 2,000 cubic meters per capita, are one-third of the global average. Coal production, which supplies about three-quarters of China’s energy, already accounts for one-sixth of total water withdrawals. Between now and 2040, China’s total energy demand is expected to more than double, and be twice that of the U.S. The World Bank has put the annual cost of China’s water problems—specifically, water scarcity and the direct impacts of water pollution—at 2.3 percent of GDP but says it is likely much higher. About 45 percent of the country’s GDP comes from water-scarce provinces, according to a 2012 report by HSBC and China Water Risk, a consultancy. About 300 million people in China, almost a quarter of its population, drink contaminated water every day. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t being dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation.”
But these shortages are unevenly spread. The North Plain, a region home to a quarter of the population, and which includes Beijing, is especially dry. Here, water tables are falling by two to three meters a year, according to the UN, and posing serious risks to agriculture and food security. Of China’s 22 provinces, 11 were considered “water-stressed,” meaning they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year, as of 2012. One of the north’s main water sources, the Yellow River, has been shrinking for the past three decades, drying up almost every year before reaching the sea. Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, has seen 969 of its 1,052 lakes dry up; some of its farmers water their crops with sewage water. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted that if groundwater extraction in the north continues at current rates, in 15 years there will be none left.
The solution, as Mao Zedong first said in 1952, is to “borrow a little water from the south.” Southern China is home to four-fifths of the country’s water sources, mostly around the Yangtze River Basin. It took another 50 years after Mao’s suggestion for China to start work on it. Finally, on December 10, the first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), or Nanshuibeidiao, began operating.
The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The U.S., Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.
It’s the kind of operation, observers of China say, that would never have a chance somewhere like America. The project requires the coordination of at least 15 provinces—several of them water-rich areas that will have to give up some of their own water. It involves building over hundreds of archeological sites and eventually through religious ones as well. Almost half a million people will have to be relocated. The cost is budgeted at some $60 billion and is likely to exceed that considerably. In the U.S., proposals for large-scale water transfers from the Great Lakes to the west or south of the country have been repeatedly put down. It would seem to be an example of the power of an autocratic central government to enact the kinds of far-reaching national transformations that, in a democracy, get bogged down.
But a closer look reveals that it’s far from certain whether the benefits will outweigh costs: Some describe the project as a “high-risk gamble.” And rather than showing off the power of China’s central government, in many ways the project merely highlights the limitations of the central government’s ability to manage China’s water needs.
The project creates a grid of water highways that criss-cross the country and can be adjusted to send water almost anywhere. That grid—the siheng sanzong, literally the “four horizontals, three verticals”—consists of the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, and Hai Rivers running west to east, and three routes that run from south to north, each longer than 1,500 kilometers (600 miles) through both natural and man-made canals.
The first branch, the eastern route, has just started transferring water from the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province. A second route will start carrying water from central China to Beijing and other northern cities at some point in 2014. The third, western route may link the Yangtze River to the Yellow River by crossing through the mountainous terrain of Sichuan and Qinghai, at elevation of between 3,000 and 5,000 meters.
Borrowing water from the south isn’t as simple as Mao suggested. The government has so far relocated at least 345,000 people to make way for construction, the largest resettlement for an infrastructure project since at least 1.4 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam. Officials say their relocation is a sacrifice for the good of the country, but others argue that the government is overlooking the extent and impact of the forced relocations that are taking place. The diversion project also risks long-term damage to two of China’s most important rivers, along with the communities that depend on them.
About 1,400 kilometers south of Beijing and its dried-up Wanquan River is the ancient town of Xiangyang, best known as the setting for epic battles over control of southern China over 700 years ago. Today, stretches of newly paved highways dotted with half-built high-rise apartment buildings lead to the city of 5 million. Locals brag that their strip of the Han River has some of the best water in the country. Of China’s six levels of water quality, theirs is of the second highest level, crisp and clean enough for drinking—a rarity in a country where as many as 20 percent of rivers are so polluted they’re unsafe to even touch. Over the summer, traffic near the river shore jams around 6 p.m. as people stream to the water for a quick bathe before dinner.
That may change once the central route of the water transfer system opens next year. About 30 percent of the Danjiangkou Reservoir will then go north instead of flowing south toward Xiangyang and into the Yangtze River—the river that supplies water to the diversion project’s eastern route, and eventually the western one as well. Officials say any impact will be minimal, but local environmentalists and researchers dispute that. Worse, some say, is that diverting this much water may permanently hurt two of China’s most important rivers: the Han, the main source of water for about 30 million people, and the Yangtze, which runs through 11 provinces and supports up to 400 million people.
“We’ve resolved a lot of issues and done a lot of research. The negative impacts are so small they almost don’t exist,” says Shen Fengsheng, head engineer of the water project, sitting at a broad wooden table at the SNWDP’s project office in Beijing. When all three routes are completed, he says, the Yangtze will lose only about 5 percent of the 29,400 cubic meters of water it dumps into the ocean every second.
Local governments are building passageways for fish whose routes are disrupted by the canals, supplementary dams to ensure consistent water flow, and wastewater-treatment plants to reduce pollution in water transferred or affected by the central or eastern routes. Officials in charge of managing the diversion from Danjiangkou say they’re making sure a minimum amount of water still flows downstream to cities like Xiangyang. “The water volume overall will be lower, but it will be enough to meet the daily needs of the people,” Zhou Jinhua, general office director at Danjiangkou SNWDP Water Resources Company, which is in charge of the dam for the Danjiangkou Reservoir, told Quartz.
Locals in Xiangyang, however, say their water will become not only more sparse but also more polluted. Water quality there will fall at least one level when the route begins, according to Yun Jianli, head of Green Hanjiang, a nonprofit environmental group based in Xiangyang. That’s because decreasing water volume weakens a river’s “environmental capacity”—its ability to clear out pollution. Provincial researchers say the quality will go down another level, to the fourth of six, once the central route is at full capacity.
A slower-flowing river is also slower at depositing the sediments along the riverbed needed to form wetlands, which help mitigate pollution and nurture the river’s ecosystem. According to estimates by the Xiangyang municipal government, average water levels in the city’s section of the Han River will fall between 0.51 meters and 0.82 meters once diversion begins. “That water quality level will be worse is a foregone conclusion. The situation for the water environment is grim,” says a provincial report on the impact of the project on the Han River near Xiangyang, which was seen by Quartz.
In part to prepare for the diversion, Xiangyang is transforming itself. Plots of land covered in brick and concrete rubble litter the city as officials tear down paper and chemical factories. These have long been a large part of Xiangyang’s economy; now local officials want to move the economy away from manufacturing to minimize pollution in the Han River, and build up a services sector based on things like tourism. But as part of doing so, they plan to expand the city to three or four times its current size. Given that city dwellers consume about three times as much water as rural residents, according to International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental group, a bigger Xiangyang will probably guzzle much more water.
To make things worse, both the Han and the Yangtze will end up with less water than even the diversion plan allowed for. The amount of water to be diverted for the central route, for instance, is based on calculations of the Han River’s water flow between the 1950s and the early 1990s. But since then the Han has become less consistent as rising temperatures have made droughts in the south more common. The amount to be diverted, however, hasn’t been adjusted. “It begs the question of why the Chinese government is going to spend all this money to alleviate drinking water shortages in Beijing. Are they more important?” says Kristen McDonald, China program director for Pacific Environment, a California-based nonprofit.
Water levels in the Yangtze have been falling too. In 2012, Chinese researchers found that the amount of water entering the Yangtze from glaciers on the Tibetan plateau had fallen 15 percent over the last four decades. And in 2009, total freshwater reserves in the Yangtze River Basin had fallen 17 percent from 2005 levels, according to the China Statistical Yearbook. So cutting 5 percent from the river’s annual runoff is not trivial. Parts of the Yangtze will see much lower flow during the dry months of the year, affecting navigation and the health of the river. Officials say shipping along the Yangtze, which has become something of a “second coastline” for China, won’t be affected—but even now, local governments dig at least once a year to make the riverbed deeper to give ships more room.
A lower water volume could also mean more saltwater from the sea filters into the Yangtze’s estuary. That will impose higher costs on factories along the shore to treat and use salt water. Polluted water in the Yangtze—which officials have called “cancerous”—may also be transferred northward, bringing with it diseases like schistosomiasis (bilharzia), which can damage internal organs and harm children’s brain development. The solutions include installing costly wastewater management systems and, according to officials in Shandong, simply cutting off the flow of dozens of streams that carry factory wastewater into two lakes that function as transfer points for the diverted water. “The project will be useless if these problems aren’t solved,” Chinese environmentalist Yang Yong told Quartz. "You haven’t even solved the old problem and you’ve already created new problems."
Perhaps the most alarming example of how the SNWDP creates new problems is that it has triggered a cascade of unforeseen extra engineering projects. This is because provincial officials, worried that their towns will lose water, are pushing for supplementary dams and water-transfer systems to protect them.
The rivers can ill afford this extra engineering burden. There are already almost 1,000 dams on the Han and its tributaries and hundreds of dams and other hydro-projects on the Yangtze. With China’s goal of tripling hydropower generation, says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, many Chinese rivers simply won’t be flowing in 10 years.
But the real problem is that this creates a circular web of hydro-projects that take water from one river to replenish another—robbing Peter to pay Paul.
For instance, about 17 kilometers south of Xiangyang on the Han River is the Cuijiaying Dam. A metal security fence guards it, with a sign that warns trespassers of intruding on “an area important for the work of national development.” The dam will maintain water levels for the city but slow the river’s flow downstream. “Usually NGOs are against dams, but this one is good for the local community,” Yun says.
Another diversion route, separate from the SNWDP, is being built to transfer water from the Yangtze to the Han, to help cities downstream of the Danjiangkou Reservoir. In turn, Shaanxi province—a parched region from which the central route will also take water—is building a project to take water out of the Han, to supplement its Wei River and the 13 cities along it that have serious water shortages. Officials are considering another proposal to bring water from the Three Gorges Reservoir, on the Yangtze River, to the Danjiangkou Reservoir. The Yangtze already has 353 dams, making it the world’s second-most engineered water basin, according to data from International Rivers. There are already 14 dams on the Han River, and another 18 on a main tributary, according to the group.
Officials say they can resolve any unforeseen environmental impacts after the system begins operating, in much the same way that problems caused by the Three Gorges Dam project are being addressed now. That’s not very comforting, given that the Three Gorges project has caused, in the words of China’s State Council, “urgent problems” including thousands of earthquakes and landslides, and tens of thousands of extra people needing relocation. Earlier this month, China’s anti-graft body accused officials who helped run the dam project of corruption, including taking bribes and influencing the bidding process for projects.
Dong Wenhu, former head of the water-resource department in Taizhou in Jiangsu province, near the beginning of the eastern route, tells Quartz, “Yes there are risks. But no, I’m not worried. Why? Because we can just build more.”
For all the social and environmental costs, not even the project’s leaders pretend that it solves China’s water problem. “For now, the transfer project is just compensating an amount. It can’t completely fix the problem,” says Shen, the head engineer of the project. There is dissent even among officials. In February, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development, Qiu Baoxing, in a rare public criticism, called the project “difficult to sustain” and unnecessary if cities would only conserve more.
The central route will supply 1.24 billion cubic meters of water a year to Beijing. That won’t cover the city’s annual shortfall of 1.5 billion cubic meters. As the city’s population expands, its water needs will also expand faster than the diversion project can keep up. Water demands in northern China overall—the river basins around the Hai, Yellow, and Huai rivers—will be beyond what the SNWDP can cover at full capacity. The Institute of Water and Hydroelectric Research estimates that total demand in northern China will reach 203 billion cubic meters by 2050, of which the SNWDP will only supply a little over a fourth.
This does bring an economic benefit. By alleviating water shortages, the SNWDP is supposed to add between 0.12 percent to 0.3 percent to annual GDP growth and create up to 600,000 jobs, according to government brochures and a state research center. “If you look at other countries in comparable stages of development and water scarcity, virtually all of them have employed some form or another of water transfer. At one level, I can’t blame China’s economic planners for thinking this is an essential thing to do,” says Scott Moore, a research fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Still, the SNWDP’s project’s costs are rising quickly. Construction material, labor, and added expenses like installing dozens of wastewater-treatment plants are pushing the total bill past the previously earmarked amount of 500 billion yuan (about $60 billion, according to exchange rates in 2002 when construction began).
That figure, for all three routes, was already almost twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam. And, Shen tells Quartz, “that number is meaningless now.… In the future, it will be far more than 500 billion.” Costs for the now-completed first phase have almost doubled to 300 billion yuan from the earlier budget of 124 billion yuan, according to Zhang Jiyao, in an interview with Southern Weekend in October.
These spiraling costs mean there’s a risk that the SNWDP could turn into China’s largest white elephant—an unused network of canals and structures across the country. Beijing residents currently pay 4 yuan ($0.66) per cubic meter of water. The diverted water could cost around 10 yuan a cubic meter for residents in Beijing, according to estimates. So far, water from the eastern route costs up to 2.24 yuan per cubic meter for cities, but the final price that residents pay will be higher, government academics say. Residents, factories, and some cities may be unwilling to pay this price, says Jia Shaofeng, a government researcher in water-resource management at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS).
If the SNWDP doesn’t pay back its own costs, that could be a catastrophe for government finances. About 45 percent of the project is financed by loans from banks. “There could be a great default,” says James Nickum, vice president of the International Water Resources Association, who visited areas slated to be the grounds for the eastern and central route in the 1980s, when officials were still debating the project. “I’m not convinced the project is a good deal economically.”
So why do it? The SNWDP seems to be another example of China’s penchant for massive projects that show off the power of the party. Large water projects are an especial favorite of China’s engineer-dominated leadership. (Eight of the nine members of the previous Politburo’s standing committee were engineers, including former President, Hu Jintao, who was a water engineer.) “It’s an approach that comes from both a Maoist impulse to subjugate nature in the pursuit of economic development, as well as what you’d expect from a government made up of engineers,” says Peter Martin, an analyst of Chinese politics at APCO Worldwide.
But this massive display of power—some might say hubris—is also a sign of weakness. One reason why China’s water crisis is so dire is that the central government hasn’t been able to coordinate national efforts to conserve water. Local environmental bureaus are often weak. Companies fined for breaking pollution rules often ignore the fines or renegotiate them with local officials. Local officials have been loath to raise water prices, despite Beijing’s requests, because of the backlash they might face from residents, or their relationships with local businesses. “Beijing can only get localities to do a certain number of things,” says Kenneth Pomeranz, an environmental historian at the University of Chicago. Water conservation hasn’t traditionally been one of them. “It shows both the strength of the center and its limitations.”
So, while China is pushing other forms of water conservation, from new provincial water usage quotas to initiatives to raise water prices as well as recycle rainwater, the SNWDP is China’s most ambitious effort perhaps because it is the most feasible. Formalized and promoted as a national initiative, the project requires officials to fall in line, at least to some extent. “We had other choices, but construction is easier. You pay. Companies build it,” says Jia, the researcher from CAS. By contrast, when it comes to things like conservation, “The upper leaders have their policy and the local officials have their countermeasures.”
You can see some of those countermeasures on display in Jining, a city in the coastal province of Shandong, where the eastern diversion route passes through. Pharmaceutical company Cathay Biotech is one of dozens of polluting factories that officials promised to move out of the city to clean up a local lake through which the diverted water will flow. A People’s Daily article on the factory in April said that it had closed and moved to a nearby development area in Jin Xiang.
Quartz visited Cathay’s original location in Jining in late August. The complex of buildings was along a row of car manufacturers and other factories. Plumes were wafting upwards from a smokestack. In a half-full parking lot, workers were unloading a truck and one of the workers said the factory was still operating. (The company declined to respond to emailed questions.)
Meanwhile, in Jin Xiang, the plot of land belonging to Cathay Biotech’s new factory was little more than a mound of dirt. Nearby plots of land were similarly empty. Near Cathay’s Jining factory is a small village where the residents say local industry has long polluted their water supply. They don’t expect the SNWDP to change that. One man says, “You can build, but it won’t solve the core problem.”
Additional reporting by Ning Hui. Graphics by David Yanofsky. This project was funded through a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists.
I had barely finished my 2,000-word-plus deconstruction of how the finale of True Detective might play out—complete with freeze-frame screen captures and tons of what Marty Hart would rightly dismiss as "conjecture"—when it suddenly hit me. I was re-watching the series' penultimate episode, and there it was, right up on the screen. As Hart had promised more than once, the solution was right there under my nose—under all our noses.
Let's begin with what we already know about the elusive, mythical central villain of the show, the Yellow King. Well, there's the obvious: He's a king, and he's yellow, the latter possibly being a synonym for blond. An entire segment of True Detective interpretation has hinged on the idea that Marty Hart might himself be the Yellow King, because in the show's promotional image his blond hair is cut from the frame, forming a "crown."
But why should the blond hair and the crown have to be one and the same? What if there were a Yellow King candidate who had blond hair and a crown, whose yellow-ness could be distinct from his king-ness?
Are you with me yet? No, not Marty's daughter Audrey. Yes, she's blond and, yes, she stole her sister's crown in 1995. But series creator Nic Pizzolatto has been vocal about his aversion to misdirection, so we can safely conclude the Yellow King is not a Yellow Queen. (Besides, Audrey was way too young to commit those complicated 1990s murders.)
So what else do we know about the Yellow King? Well, he's a sadistic misogynist, obviously, with profound sexual issues that may arise from some early-life sense of inadequacy. Plus, he's a protected man, accustomed to getting whatever he wants without question. This innate sense of invulnerability, along with other clues dropped along the way, suggests he may be the heir of a powerful family.
Still not there? The reason, I think, that it's been so hard for us to see, is that the cast of suspects on True Detective is so narrow. Apart from Marty and Rust Cohle, there are hardly any characters—Green Spaghetti Monster and Billy Lee Tuttle notwithstanding—who are well-enough developed that they wouldn't seem to come from out of left field if they were revealed to be principal villains.
But what if—and this is the leap you have to make with me—the Yellow King could be under our noses without having actually appeared on True Detective? You see it now, don't you? It's a wicked bit of cross-marketing by HBO, a way to keep us watching even after True Detective has run its eight-episode course, on into April and beyond.
When we've tuned in to True Detective for the last few episodes, what has been the first thing we've seen, before even the title sequence? Yes, that's it: the promo for season four of Game of Thrones, featuring right there, in the opening frames, the Yellow King himself: Joffrey Baratheon.
Rust Cohle may be a Bayou Supercop, but I think this all could have been cleared up long ago if only he'd recognized those shallow abdominal lacerations on Dora Lange and Rianne Olivier were the result of a quarter-cranked custom crossbow. (I mean: Duh.)
That said, I can't wait to see the thrashing that Grandpa Tywin gives Joffrey when he learns what senseless trouble the boy has been creating for the Lannisters in contemporary Louisiana. Stark loyalists to the North, Martells to the south—the last thing the family needs as they scheme to retain the Iron Throne is a riled-up Tuttle clan, with its backwoods ways and corrupt investigative task forces. Something tells me though, that Bronn will make out all right.
April can't come soon enough.
True Detective is a compelling show. People love the acting and are thrilled by the mystery. No arguments there. But two recent interviews with people who worked on it highlight another reason the show works: the petrochemical landscape of Louisiana.
I think True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible, wheels powered by greed, perversity, and irrational belief systems, and these lost souls dwell on an exhausted frontier, a fractured coastline beleaguered by industrial pollution and detritus, slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sense here that the apocalypse already happened.
The apocalypse already happened here.
This is a sacrificial landscape: It must die so that Los Angeles and New York and Iowa City can live. Environmental historian Brian Black coined that term to describe the very first American oil fields in eastern Pennsylvania. Fossil fuel production and refinement does something to a place, usually something sinister.
Consider how creative director Patrick Clair pitched the show's (jaw dropping) opening credit sequence.
"I have great respect for the way the place and time of the events in the story echo and amplify the emotional lives of the characters that inhabit it. This link—the relationship between broken landscapes and broken people—has been central to all our thinking," he wrote.
"This isn't the zombie plague. This isn't vampires and warlocks. The phrase that has been echoing in my head since our first discussions on the project is that we are witnessing a 'personal apocalypse.'"
Then he presented this slide:
Two thoughts occur to me staring at this slide.
One, the internal division that Clair imagines for the human characters—that they are struggling to be good but failing—is equally true for the post-industrial ecosystems in the area.
They, too, want to be good and at times—as the camera pans up to follow a car down a highway—they are good. The trees and waterways are gorgeous, woven together by the light, topped with puffy clouds.
But just as often, the presence of life is constricting and scary, as in the roadside brothel canopied by dark trees. The landscape won't let anyone leave.
But it is not a barren, dusty post-apocalypse like The Road. The fear here is pollution, and mutation, fates without the clean lines of death. Recall Cohle seeing the portentous murmuration of birds:
My second thought is that most sacrificial landscapes don't have the grandeur of the Louisiana refinery terrain.
The Superfund sites of Silicon Valley sit below home improvement stores and strip clubs and rock climbing walls, near stucco-walled restaurants, along classic highways dotted with palm trees in a dry heat that doesn't make anyone sweat. But they are there.
A Whole Foods gleams in Brooklyn, atop a former warren of factories along a toxic canal. Valleys become lakes. Deserts become cities. Plains become waving fields of nitrogen-enriched corn plants taller than a man. A golf course becomes habitat. Turkeys run wild among the buildings of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
It can be easy to forget that, so far as the original plant and animal inhabitants are concerned, everywhere people live is a fallen place. And that no one escapes being shaped, however subtly, by where they spend their days. Cohle, Hart, you, me. What's seeping in from the plumes beneath us?
Our job, as I see it, is not to restore nature (whatever that might mean) to the places where we live, but to respect the sacrifice. We cannot make ecosystems whole, but we can offer refuge.
And if the thesis of True Detective is correct, that's good for people, too.
As a 95-year-old psychologist, Brenda Milner still remembers the “bad old days” of frontal lobotomies as a treatment for psychosis. In fact, her research provided some of the first evidence showing why such invasive brain operations could be harmful.
Milner, who teaches and conducts research at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Quebec, is perhaps most known for her work with Henry Molaison, a patient formerly known as H.M.
Molaison had epilepsy and was treated by having specific regions of both his temporal lobes—the parts of the brain we now know are responsible for memory—removed in 1953 by William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital. The operation helped Molaison’s epilepsy but gave him anterograde amnesia, meaning he could not form memories of new events, though his working memory was unaffected.
Through her studies on H.M., Milner found that he could learn new motor tasks, but he had no memory of having done so. For example, he was able to draw a reflected image of a star by looking in a mirror, but he couldn’t remember practicing the skill over the course of days.
This discovery, as well as Milner’s future work, led to a greater scientific understanding of different types of memory
I talked with Milner by phone last week. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How would you describe the field of neuropsychology?
I suppose it's the idea that as a psychologist, I'm a student of behavior, the scientific study of behavior. That’s my definition of experimental psychology. Where you make the leap into neuropsychology is by thinking that you should try to correlate these behavioral phenomena, such as memory or perception, with what is going on in the brain. And of course, before we knew so much about the brain, it was just speculation. But the more we found out about the brain, the more reasonable this approach seemed to be.
In World War II, you spent some time performing aptitude tests on fighter pilots and bomber pilots. What was that like?
In World War II, scientists in the U.K. were a reserved occupation; they couldn’t be drafted into the army. If I had gone into the arts, I would have been in uniform and maybe been in France. But scientists were considered brains that could be used at home, so I was in Cambridge. I had just completed my bachelor's degree in 1939 when war broke out. I had a scholarship from my college for two years research.
In Cambridge, we were very near a lot of airfields where planes were taking off and landing. It became very natural that our department was working on research that was relevant to the Airforce. What I had been interested to study, even before the war, was perception and what you do when you get conflicting information from different senses. Or what happens if you get sensations as you’re flying a plane that disagree with what your instruments are telling you. What we were doing in Cambridge—we were working with the Airforce to try to decide which of the incoming airmen who were going to be pilots, which of them should be directed to fly in bomber planes and which should be directed to fly in fighter planes.
Everybody had to trust their instruments, but there were many different tasks ... we were looking over the whole array of what these potential pilots had done on various tests. And of course it all depended on the needs of the moment. At the Battle of Britain, we needed fighter pilots, but later in the war, the emphasis was on bombing German cities. They were exciting years.
Did you face any sexism early in your career?
No, I’ve never seen any sexism. I didn't find it difficult. The Montreal Neurological Institute, when I went there, was a very authoritarian place. Dr. Penfield was a very dominant figure— when you were young and new there, you didn’t speak out of turn. It was hierarchical, but it was not sex discrimination.
The only gender discrimination I discovered was a structural one: When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to go to Cambridge University. There were very few women students at Oxford or Cambridge, and back then the women couldn’t go to the men’s colleges. In 1936, across the whole university and all three years it took to get your B.A., there couldn't be more than 400 women, and there were thousands of men. To get into one of these women’s colleges, there were very few places. And I had to get scholarships because I had no money. The situation that was competitive was structural in that there were so few women’s [places].
But [sexism] isn’t something I’m interested in as a topic. I enjoy men as companions. I work well with men.
How did you come to start working with H.M., the patient who suffered the memory loss?
I was working here with Dr. Wilder Penfield, who founded the Montreal Neurological Institute. In those days, we did not have MRIs. We had no way of looking into the brain, so the surgeon did not know what he was going to find until he opened up the brain.
We were undertaking planned removals of different parts of the brain for the treatment of epilepsy. The removal of part of one temporal lobe of the brain has now become a standard treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy worldwide. But the whole assumption is that the temporal lobe on the opposite side of the brain is functioning. You can get along with one kidney, one eye, one temporal lobe … but you can’t lose both sides because then you’ll have a handicap of some sort.
These patients with operations on the left hemisphere were having trouble remembering names or the gist of a story, which is a nuisance, but not a serious handicap. In patients that had operations on the right temporal lobe, they would be poor at remembering faces and places. This was the work I did for my PhD.
A year or two later, we encountered two patients who had a severe memory impairment after a unilateral removal—a type of removal that we thought was safe.
So we had these two unacceptable results. You have to understand that operating on someone to control epilepsy is intended to improve their quality of life; it's not acceptable to make the quality of life worse. We said, “how can we account for this?”
We speculated that these two patients had damage on the unoperated side. So when Dr. Penfield made his removal on the left side, he was depriving the patient of the function of those structures in both hemispheres. Twelve years later, one of these patients died and we got the brain and confirmed that hypothesis.
We reported that finding at the American Neurological Association meeting in 1953, and in the audience, there was the surgeon, Dr. William Scoville from Hartford, Conn. He read the abstracts, he called Dr. Penfield and said, "I think what you and Dr. Milner are describing is what I've seen in my patient who had a similar operation."
That patient was H.M. Dr. Scoville invited me down to Hartford to study that patient because Dr. Penfield and I had made so much of this memory disorder.
I started going down to MIT and studying H.M. down there. It was easier to bring him to Boston than to Montreal. We got H.M. to Montreal just once. It's tricky bringing an amnesic patient with seizures across the border.
So what was H.M.’s problem, specifically?
He had epilepsy, and it had been resistant to all medication. He did not have temporal lobe epilepsy. Dr. Scoville had been doing surgery on the brains of patients within the bad old days of frontal lobotomy for psychosis. He was disenchanted with it, he didn’t like the effects. But then he read that maybe if he did surgery on the temporal lobe, instead of the frontal lobe, maybe that would help. But the difference here was that he was deliberately operating on both hemispheres. We were doing unilateral procedures.
Then, H.M. was this patient who had had these seizures from an early age, he’d been treated with every kind of medication that was available in the day. Dr. Scoville thought maybe this operation [on both sides of the brain] would be useful in this desperate case of H.M. And he agreed to it, and the operation was carried out. And after that, though, there was this huge memory impairment.
You mentioned that he could learn how to do something perfectly, but he could never remember having done it.
He couldn’t learn a poem or something like that or the route to the bathroom, but he could improve a motor skill. In this case, it was trying to follow the outline of a star on a piece of paper when it’s reflected in a mirror. If you only see your hand in the mirror, you really make a mess of it at first. We all do. That’s normal. The beautiful thing was that H.M. showed this improvement toward the end. He was doing this drawing on the table, and he did this beautiful drawing, and he said, “that’s funny, it looks like it would be difficult, but it looks as though I’ve done it quite well.”
He was so amazed because he had absolutely no recollection of the 30 trials of this he’d done over three days. So the motor learning systems were still intact in him. When you have a patient who doesn’t remember anything, the challenge isn’t to show if he’s forgetful—that’s obvious. The challenge is to show if he can learn anything at all.
The most exciting moment in my research was that. I had not predicted this.
How did your peers react to that discovery?
This was the early 1950s, and people were doing research on animals or with graduate student volunteer subjects.
So some said, "Well this is one peculiar case, who knows what else is going on in this person's brain? You’re claiming that these structures are so important for memory, and we don’t have an animal model.”
The important thing was to get an animal model, from monkeys ideally, in whom these temporal lobe structures had been damaged and then you could show a comparable equivalent impairment.
And it took about 17 years before there was an animal model, and then once we had that, everyone was really excited about the human findings.
What do you think is your most enduring breakthrough?
In terms of what has attracted attention and continues to, I suppose this evidence of the importance of the hippocampus [a structure in the temporal lobe] in memory processes. And in terms of all the work it's generated all over the world, that’s the most important thing.
When I began this work, memory was not a fashionable topic in psychology. I didn't go into neuropsychology with the intention of working on memory. But when you have a patient in their 20s complaining of memory problems, you feel that this is something you have to investigate. It was a long time before these findings became accepted, and after that people became interested in memory.
Now, people are living to much older ages than they used to. As you live longer, your memory does get worse. It’s an older population, so people are now talking about these things as things they experience themselves.
What is your advice to other scientists or young academics?
Don't be afraid to change your field. It's very hard, you get enthusiasms growing up, and you think it's something you want to do. I really wanted to do mathematics, but I wasn’t a great mathematician. Don't be afraid to change fields, even very radically. I changed very radically. I think sometimes people feel very frightened and they get caught doing something they don’t enjoy or they’re not particularly good at. It's really important to be ready to make a bold change.